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Event Details Ptaszyńska: "Color and Order in my Music"

Ptaszyńska Bio


The Polish Music Center at the USC Thornton School of Music presents the 2005 Paderewski Lecture, given by the distinguished composer-percussionist, Marta Ptaszyńska on Friday, October 14, 2005 at 8PM in the Newman Recital Hall on the USC campus. Performers for this concert include Amy Dissanayake, piano, Juliana Gondek, soprano, and members of the USC Thornton School of Music Percussion Ensemble led by Professor Erik Forrester. The Annual Paderewski Lectures highlight Paderewski's special links to Southern California and USC, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1923. By presenting outstanding Polish musicians, the Paderewski Lectures also emphasize achievements of Polish contemporary music. Previous speakers in the series included Zygmunt Krauze (2002), Joanna Bruzdowicz (2003), and Stanis?aw Skrowaczewski (2004).

Ptaszyńska's latest composition, Pianophonia, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony and given a world premiere in Chicago on February 16, 2005 by pianist Amy Dissanayake, will be featured on the 2005 Paderewski Lecture program in its West Coast premiere. Pianophonia received outstanding praise and accolades from critics and audiences, with the Chicago Times critic John von Rhein calling it "an instant classic." The program will also feature the U.S. premiere of Elegia for John Paul II for solo viola, featuring USC's Lauren Chipman.

Marta Ptaszyńska, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor at the University of Chicago, is one of the most prominent Polish composers in the world. Her extensive catalogue includes numerous orchestral works (including three concertos), chamber pieces (several works for strings and percussion ensembles), compositions for choral and orchestral ensembles, and solo works. Born in Warsaw in 1943, Ms. Ptaszyńska received three Masters' of Arts Diplomas with distinction in music theory, composition and percussion performance. After working privately with Witold Lutos?awski she moved to Paris, where she studied with Nadia Boulanger and attended Olivier Messiaen's classes at the Paris Conservatory. She moved to the United States in 1972 to complete her studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Since then, Ms. Ptaszyńska has been on the faculty of Indiana University, Northwestern University, Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, the University of California in Berkley and Santa Barbara, and Bennington College in Vermont. In 1998 she was appointed professor in music and humanities at the University of Chicago.

In 1985 Ms. Ptaszyńska received a first prize from UNESCO in Paris at the International Rostrum of Composers for Winter's Tale. Her first opera, Oscar of Alva, was presented in Salzburg in 1989, and her children's opera, Mister Marimba, has been in the repertory of the National Opera in Warsaw since 1998. Ptaszyńska's Holocaust Memorial Cantata was performed in 1993 under the baton of Yehudi Menuhin, and her compositions were featured worldwide at the Schleswig-Holstein, Salzburg, Huddersfied, Heidelberg, ISCM, Warsaw Autumn, and Aspen music festivals. Also a highly sought after composer, Ptaszyńska has been commissioned by the BBC, Evelyn Glennie, Ewa Podleś, and the Cincinnati Symphony, among others.

2005 Paderewski Lecture featuring Marta Ptaszyńska
Friday, 14 October 2005, 8 PM
Newman Recital Hall, USC Campus
Admission: Free

For further information please contact:
Polish Music Center
Telephone: 213. 821. 1356
Fax: 213. 821. 4040

For directions and venue information:


In addition to giving the Paderewski Lecture, Ms. Ptaszyńska will also spend a week in residency at USC from October 10-14. She will hold several lectures and masterclasses for students in the composition and percussion departments. Also, the Music @ Noon concert series that week will feature students from Erik Forrester's percussion studio performing Ms. Ptaszyńska's challenging piece for percussion ensemble, Mobile. This concert is free and open to the public.

Event Details:
Music @ Noon
Wednesday, October 12 2005, 12:10pm
United University Church, USC Campus
Hoover Ave. & Jefferson Blvd.
Free Admission


"Color and Order in my Music"

Paderewski Lecture October 14, 2005
University of Southern California, Los Angeles

As an epigram to my lecture, I would choose a famous observation by Maurice Ravel, who said that “any music created by technique and brain alone is not worth the paper it is written on. A composer should feel intensely what he is composing.”

As appealing as Ravel’s anti-rationalist sentiment might be to us, we might stop to ponder if his statement is really true. Certainly many listeners subscribe to the old Romantic dictum that great music is “written from the heart” or perhaps “from the soul.”   In contrast, music “from the mind” is viewed suspiciously as cold, calculating, and incapable of moving our emotions. Yet is this dichotomy so clear cut?  Might music from the mind also have the capacity to move and delight? 

In an interview with Arthur Abel, Johannes Brahms gave what might be the best ever explanation of what exactly it means for music to “come from the soul.”  He said: “I have to be in a semi-trance condition to get such results—a condition when the conscious mind is in temporary abeyance and the subconscious is in control, for it is through the subconscious mind, which is a part of Omnipotence, that the inspiration comes. I have to be careful, however not to lose consciousness, otherwise the ideas fade away.”                                                                                                                         

The ideas Brahms speaks of, which seem to come to us in states of enlightenment or high inspiration, might be thought of as cells or other small structures, something like a fragment of a melody, a single chord, or perhaps even just sound texture. But in order to create a whole work out of these ideas, however derived, the composer needs more than intuition or inspiration; the ideas have to be connected or “glued together” in some rational way.  In short, the composer needs to think critically and rationally in order to order and organize musical material into a whole composition.

For me the secret of order and organization lies in mathematics of all sorts: mathematical successions, progressions, calculations, numerical constructions and transformations.  Geometric symmetries and structures like the famous Pythagorean theorem also play decisive roles in the organization of my musical material.

Since my early childhood I have been fascinated by the logic of the digital universe, by the elegance of mathematical progressions, and, above all, by the beauty of geometric symmetries.  Over time, I developed a deep passion for playing with numbers, and this interest can now be clearly seen in my music, which is often structured according to numerical and geometric ideas. 

Jacob Bronowski in his magnificent book The Ascent of Man pointed out that everything in our natural world and indeed in the whole universe is built upon numerical patterns and symmetries. We can only admire in awe the unbelievably beautiful symmetries of a flower or a snowflake, the intricate construction of a single pine cone or the engineering marvel of a spider web.

This same kind of mathematical order and rational organization can be found in music—but not just music from the 20th century as many critics might naively suppose. In fact, much of the “classical” music of the 18th and 19th century was organized by its composers based on mathematical principles. Whether it is symmetry in form and tonal organization, or the rational rotations and permutations of self-transposing motives, the same universal principles of order and control may be found in the music of  J.S. Bach and Mozart as in the music of Anton Webern or Pierre Boulez. And the same is true of my music.

How does this digital world operate in my music? I will offer several brief examples. In my work Spider Walk for percussion solo, I employ digital constellations and numerical progressions as both audible and visible cues in the score. Here I start with a simple arithmetic progression of 1:2:3:4:5:6. This order is present in both the instrumentation (from 1 cow-bell to 6 tom-toms) as well as the construction of rhythmic motives built out of sixteen-note groups: 1,2,3,4,5,6. In another composition of mine, the Letter to the Sun for narrator, solo frame drum and percussion quartet, a series of symmetrical rhythmic patterns continually reiterate and rotate among themselves, creating a mosaic of “kaleidoscopic” sound configurations. In my string quartet, Mosaics, the basic building material consists of a number of self-transposing symmetrical units. But these units are actually presented as a mosaic following the symmetries of the Pythagorean triangle. The result is a four-fold symmetry between the instrumental lines which rotate vertically and horizontally four times into new positions, creating similar, yet ever differing, results in sound. In traditional polyphonic music, such a technique is called quadruple counterpoint. The same idea of a symmetrical mosaic can be seen visually in art, as in the beautiful walls and floors of much Islamic architecture, such as the great mosque in Alhambra in Spain.

In another work of mine called Linear Constructions in Space for percussion sextet, each movement is based upon a specific geometric figure: the first movement represents a circle, the second movement represents a multitude of lines in spaces, and the third movement is constructed in the shape of a pyramid.                              

Yet another geometric principle evident in my music is the “Golden Mean” or the “Golden Section” based on the Fibonacci series. As did composers such as Bartok, I use it as a means of structuring form in my music, although not necessarily with mathematical precision. Artistic intuition and vision always remain a priority in building the form of each work. But proportionality is one of the qualities very important to me not only for the overall formal structure of a piece, but also within the smallest subdivisions of the smallest musical units.

Perhaps one of the most important goals in my music is the organization of pitch. I am unabashedly a “pitch composer.” Whether writing a children’s song, a percussion piece, or a symphonic work, the organization of pitch and harmonic language has always been a priority to me. For each work, I compose a separate set of pitches from which I may build a constellation of sounds using self-transposing or rotating motivic cells. These constellations of sounds are generated in the course of the piece through various pitch rotations, transpositions or symmetrical pairings. In more descriptive visual language, they may be compared to moving galaxies with their own internal gravities, centrifugal forces, points of rest, and so forth. Harmonic layers and chordal structures are often derived from the use of a particular pitch set or scale. For each composition a new, individual harmonic plan is created. This plan includes not only the structure of chords, but also the specific harmonic progressions which produce characteristic colors and timbres.

After this brief outline of a few aspects related to my compositional techniques, I would like now to say something about that part of the creative process which comes from one’s intuition or through inspiration—in Brahms’ words, “from the Omnipotent Power.” Specifically, I want to talk my use of color in music. I should begin by conceding that any such linking of color to music is quite obscure and open to suspicion and speculation. There is no rational explanation, for example, why I hear the colors I do in music, or how a musical idea can come to me while viewing a painting of, say, Paul Klee. Nevertheless, I would like to describe briefly my color vision and its realization in musical material.

Some sounds and harmonic structures seem to convey to my mind some characteristic colors. This means quite literally that while hearing a particular sound structure, I mentally “see” specific colors and shapes. Now I must add that my color vision is not based on any formal theory of synesthesia as it is with some other composers. (I’m thinking in particular of Skriabin.) It is more an intuition and almost spiritual feeling on my own part as a composer. Still, it is a palpable and important part of my vision as a composer. I take inspiration in the great Russian expressionist painter, Wassily Kandinsky, for whom colors were parallel to the timbres of specific instruments, e.g. the color blue was represented by a flute, green by a violin, violet by a bassoon, and red by a trumpet.

Color in my music is conveyed mainly by harmonic means. For me, a very strong sense of color corresponds to chord structures and their harmonic configurations. Looking at a painting of Wassily Kandinsky, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst or Paul Klee, I am able to hear music which I feel already exists in a painting in its “frozen state” or as an immobile form. I associate such painting with harmonic colors, with specific arrangements of sounds, structures, rhythmic designs, and overall musical form. Obviously, my compositions are not literal descriptions of the paintings, but rather, purely musical reactions inspired from viewing these paintings.

In a cycle of etudes entitled Pianophonia, I presented three musical visions of three paintings: the first was inspired by Wassily Kandinsky’s “Improvisation in Blue,” the second Ives Tanguy’s “Indefinite Divisibility,” and the third, Paul Klee’s “Ad Parnassum.” Kandinsky’s painting is dominated by a blue color, which musically I depicted using fourth-chord structures. The surreal painting of Yves Tanguy I “described” musically by harmonies built on tritones, seventh and seconds.  The joyful image of Paul Klee’s “Ad Parnassum,” however, is so musical that it seems as if music pours directly out of the painting. Similar to the pointalism of Paul Seurat, the painting “Ad Parnassum” is made of tiny dots of different colors with contrapuntally bold lines moving both upwards and downwards.  I tried to “repaint” this masterwork in my composition by equating the agitated dots of and swerving lines of Klee’s canvas with a series of continuously repeating notes similarly sweeping upwards and downwards. 

Let me speak of one final example. In my composition Liquid Light for mezzo-soprano, piano, and percussion, I tried to convey the warmth and luminous colors I heard in the poetry of Modene Duffy, colors that suggested to me the palette of Gauguin. His bright, fauvist gestures are conveyed in music by rich tertian harmonies derived from the thick vertical structures of massive sound blocks.

To summarize, I began with a dilemma whether the composer must rely upon one’s heart or one’s mind, upon inspiration or rationality.  I hope I have shown that in my own case, the answer must be both.  My music starts from inspiration and intuition; but it can only be realized and finished through technical procedures based on the use of logic and technique. Maybe Ravel truly did believe that technique and the brain were of little use to the composer, and inspiration was all that was needed. But for this composer, at least, there is no contradiction. I use both my heart and my mind when composing. That seems to me to be the path of true artistic creativity. 

Marta Ptaszyńska
Los Angeles, October 14, 2005


Marta Ptaszyńska, composer, percussionist and professor of music, was born in 1943 in Warsaw, Poland. She completed her musical studies at the Academy of Music in Warsaw and in Poznań, receiving three Master of Arts diplomas with distinction in music theory, composition, and percussion performance. As a French government grant recipient, she studied composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, attended Olivier Messiaen's classes at the Conservatoire National, and worked at Groupe des Recherches Musicales (GRM) at 1'ORTF. In 1972, Ptaszyńska came to the United States on the invitation of the Cleveland Institute of Music to finalize her studies in percussion performance and composition. She has remained in the United States, enjoying a multi-faceted career as a composer, percussionist and teacher. Professor in Music and Humanities at the University of Chicago since 1998, in June 2005 Ptaszyńska became the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor of Music. She was on the faculties of the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Northwestern University, Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, University of California in Berkeley and Santa Barbara, and Bennington College in Vermont.

Acclaimed as one of the best composition teachers in the United States, Ms. Ptaszyńska's international fame comes primarily through the widespread performances of her compositions. They were presented at such prestigious festivals as the ISCM World Music Days in Stockholm, Brussels, and Oslo, the International "Warsaw Autumn" Festival in Poland, the Gulbenkian Foundation Festival in Portugal, the International Percussion Forum in Paris, the New Music Forum in Mexico City, the Huddersfield New Music Festival in England, Prix Futura in Berlin, the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, the Heidelberg Contemporary Music Festival, the Salzburg Festival, the Aspen Music Festival, the International Conventions of Percussive Arts Society in the United States, and the Vratislavia Cantans Oratorio Festival in Poland.

Over the years Ms. Ptaszyńska received a number of commissions from outstanding musicians and major institutions, such as the BBC, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Südwestdeutsche Rundfunk Orchester, the Kosciuszko Foundation, the Polish Chamber Orchestra, Sinfonia Varsovia, the Pacifica String Quartet and International Caramoor Music Festival. She has worked with some of the greatest musicians of our time, including Lord Yehudi Menuhin, Evelyn Glennie, the renowned Japanese marimbist Keiko Abe, Poland's foremost contralto Ewa Podleś, American mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley, and Jerzy Maksymiuk, conductor of the Polish Chamber Orchestra.

In 1985, Ms. Ptaszyńska received a First Prize from UNESCO in Paris at the International Rostrum of Composers for her string orchestra piece, Winter's Tale. Her opera Oscar of Alva, which received awards from Polish Radio and Television, was presented in Salzburg at the International Festival of Television Operas organized by the International IMZ Congress and Salzburg Festival. Her opera for children, Pan Marimba [Mister Marimba], which has been in the repertory of the National Opera in Warsaw since 1998, has enjoyed phenomenal success with sold-out performances for four consecutive seasons.

Marta Ptaszyńska's long list of honors includes an award from the Polish government for outstanding contributions to Polish culture in 2000, the "Officer Cross of Merit" from the Republic of Poland in 1995, a medal from the Union of Polish Composers, and the 1997 Alfred Jurzykowski Award in New York for overall creative achievements. Ms. Ptaszyńska's interest and devotion to the young generation of musicians is very well known. She frequently serves as juror at such international competitions as the ASCAP Composers Contest in New York and the Krzysztof Penderecki Contests for Performance of Contemporary Music in Kraków.

Ms. Ptaszyńska is also known in the music world as an outstanding percussionist. For many years she has performed as soloist and chamber player, actively promoting contemporary music. She has premiered many works for percussion written especially for her by such well-known composers as Bogusław Schäffer, Krzysztof Meyer, Emma Lou Diemer, Vittorio Gelmetti, Brion Fennelly, Krystyna Moszumańska-Nazar, Bernadetta Matuszczak and Zbigniew Bargielski. From 1969 to 1972, Ms. Ptaszyńska performed with the famous French percussion ensemble Les Percussions de Strasbourg. Her music is recorded on the Polish Records MUZA, Polygram-CD Accord, Olympia, Chandos, Dux Records, Pro Viva, and Bayer labels. In December 2001, Polish Music Publications in Kraków released a book entitled Music-The Most Perfect Language: Conversations with Marta Ptaszyńska. Ms. Ptaszyńska's music is published in the United States by Theodore Presser Co., Fallen Leaf Press in Berkeley, and B. Willson Publishing in New York.



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