Szábolcs Esztényi (composer, pianist)

On his first contact with Sikorski

I met Sikorski for the first time in 1970s, but had had my emotional, artistic contact with him from the very beginning. I became fascinated with his music immediately when I heard the first [Warsaw Autumn] Festival recordings on the radio; he himself played these ‘crazy’ works of his, absolutely incredible, oozing a kind of minimalism, calm. I associated this a bit with the trend around Cage – playing with silence, with sound – and then I noticed it had little to do with Cage, that it was completely different, that it was his [Sikorski’s]. And I felt a deep resonance with him from the very beginning.

When I heard his Sonant for the first time  he must have been performing it himself – I really wanted to get the score, so I went to the Polish Composers’ Union and managed to borrow a facsimile of his autograph. I was amazed at how he built and arranged the material. As I was listening to the work and studying the score, I remembered all those moments of complete solitude and sadness I had felt in the Stalinist period. Those moments when I was throwing stones into the Danube and was staring at its waters, smelling water vapours and watching the sun and passing clouds. In those moments I felt I needed this to live, because this was like touching the essence of existence – the fact that I was throwing a stone into the water and was looking at the waves. Solitude, silence – I hear, feel, smell; it’s as if nature is entering me and I am part of nature. In those horrible days of Stalinism this must have been an incredible energy boost and motivating factor. When I met Tomek Sikorski through Sonant, as I was listening to a recording and looking at the score, I simply saw images from the bank of the Danube in my mind: sky, nature – the most important roots of art, all this was fascinating to me and I felt I had to get the scores of his successive works, and I went to every concert in which he performed.

On Sikorski’s personality and on performing his works

He [Sikorski] was even repulsive in his ‘manner’, treating everyone in a very strange, nonchalant fashion – he would cut people off mid-sentence, turn on his heel and leave; he wasn’t too nice or sociable. Then I learned from Zygmunt [Krauze] and from a few other people that he was well-known for his supposed short-temper, sudden mood swings and lack of restraint. All of a sudden a proposal came for me to play a work of his. I met him and was amazed, because this brusque ‘madman’ turned out to be a wonderful man, absolutely not forcing anyone to accept his conduct. He said: ‘Do as you feel.’ He got at the piano: 

there’s a chord here, it’s written here, why did I begin with this chord? I don’t know, but I do know it should be like this. It should sound like this, do you understand? And then do as the material tells you. Because we two are different, take advantage of this – play, begin the action, but remember that the number of seconds is approximate, just to keep you within the temporal framework.

I had this incredible pleasure of getting to know Tomek as a human being – getting to know his modesty and madness. I came to the conclusion that he was an incredibly sensitive man, a hypersensitive man, reminding me a bit of Tadeusz Baird. I once saw a television interview with him and he said that the biggest problem for us educating future artists was this ambivalent reality; on the one hand, all we could do was to educate these young people to make them more and more sensitive, and on the other they had to face brutal reality. I very often think about this when I remember Tomek, because Tomek may have been such an artist. He couldn’t bear this cruel reality that surrounded us; Tomek showed me an absolutely pure approach to art, to sound, to its essence, of which I say very often that it is the essence of reflection – inner calm, seeing through oneself. Of course the environment in which we live is dirty, full of noise, but there is a chance for purification, silence, stopping, breathing... There are so many breaths in Sikorski’s works, it’s incredible! Breathing out, breathing in, quickly catching one’s breath, a cut breath followed by a fracture or death – that’s something incredible. Plus there are all these subtleties. He was really like that. (...)

Our conversations [with Tomasz Sikorski] concerned only music, virtually no other context was present, perhaps with the exception... Once he muttered: ‘Well, I was in Paris once, I showed this, it’s not really important...’ When I asked: ‘Well, what did you play there?’ he replied: ‘I can’t remember, it’s not important.’ So our conversations (...) were only about the works he composed and I was to perform. Our conversations did not go like this: ‘How did you build it, Tomek? What was your idea?’ and so on. He was reluctant to talk about it – he must have believed I sensed it and was reaching the essence. Sometimes I asked him about the number of repetitions, because in his works there’s this obsessive method of repeating one structure, so I asked how I could model them – by means of volume or colour – and whether I could introduce changes. He said, ‘Listen, you’ll feel it, do as you think is best.’

Once he also said with regard to my performance of Hymnos

Do as you please, it’s very nice, I really like it, that’s it, just be careful, avoid sentimentalism, because I hate it. 

To this day I like playing this piece and whenever I approach the ending, when this whole thing has finally become anchored tonally, I keep hearing him saying: ‘Be careful, don’t be sentimental!’ Because at this point I can fall into the trap of cheap sentimentalism, present a tear-jerker and so on. An exceptionally apposite piece, showing his later paths and later events around him – that he cut himself off from the external world.

I sensed he did not feel like meeting anyone, me or anybody else. Leonia Piwkowska from the Polish Composers’ Union, who was like a mother to him, often called me and complained:

Mister Eczi, there’s something wrong with Tomek, the boy is simply absent, I call him and no one picks up the phone, then I go to him in despair and he is lying there raving, he has torn telephone cables from the wall and claims he is bugged, that he is under surveillance, I don’t know what to do, he needs to be transported somewhere, he cannot live like this! He doesn’t eat and just drinks water, he’s thin, behaves strangely, I don’t know what is happening. 

After that I decided to visit him, but he was out.

Shortly before the introduction of martial law, when riot police surrounded Plac Zamkowy, I was walking by. It was bitterly cold and I saw Tomek, wearing a flannel shirt, with his head shaved, shouting to me:

See, we’re all like that, like in prison, I look like a prisoner, because I’m not lying, look at those bastards, just you wait, they will start shooting! Perhaps they will shoot us, but remember that I don’t lie.

This is what he did during the martial law period. (...)

I think he was extraordinarily honest with regard to what he himself had unleashed in his art and in his life. In fact, all his art was his life. Once, when I was writing a posthumous tribute after his passing, I said that he had given his all in his lonely search for the almost lost mystery. I think that this may have been it, he was giving his all, was consumed by it completely, that is, he unleashed a maelstrom and was dragged into it. It’s like in Kafka’s Absent-Minded Window-Gazing – all his ‘trips’ towards this type of literature were not accidental, he was like that: a hypersensitive man who couldn’t become reconciled to what he saw around him. And there’s what Tadeusz Baird said about this sensitivity – that our greatest concern is about the fate of these sensitive people confronted with the brutal reality. I think that Sikorski personifies this situation.

On Sikorski’s attitude to reviewers of his oeuvre

He [Sikorski] used to refer to reviewers as ‘hacks’ and idiots who denigrated his works. (...) I think he may have been offended by the fact that they pigeonholed him. He knew he could not be put in that pigeonhole, he could not agree to that. Because all this grew around him – he still had some performances – there was a trauma, a grudge which may have caused some microrifts, as a result of which he suddenly got angry and took some of his works out [from PWM Edition]. Perhaps he thought they were following the right tract and he was worthless? I think that Sikorski could not come to terms with such a state of affairs; there was this circle of critics, reviewers – ‘hacks’, as he called them – who followed just one direction, who tried to turn him into a madman, an impostor or an impudent man, who uses two, three sounds, trying to persuade people he was a genius. (...)

Only now, after his death, do I think about it, about how he told me many times about the (...) concepts we created. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘we’re slaves, because it cannot be done with words.’ This reminds me a bit of Debussy in that music begins where words end. 



Tomasz Piotrowski,  Symbol i symbolizowanie w muzyce Tomasza Sikorskiego [The Symbol and Symbolising in Tomasz Sikorski’s Music], Warsaw 2008.