Music that inspired Zdzisław Beksiński 🎶🎨

This post was originally published as the 6th issue of the “Midweek Crisis”, my music newsletter, to which you can subscribe here: https://midweekcrisis.substack.com/welcome ✌️

Cover of the 6th issue of the “Midweek Crisis” biweekly music newsletter — country music edition https://midweekcrisis.substack.com/p/vol6

Hi there,

Today I come to you with something special ✨. Last weekend I visited Centrum Praskie Koneser in Warsaw to see the “Beksiński w Warszawie” exhibition, titled “OCZEKIWANIE… Postscriptum”(translates to: “EXPECTANCY… Postscriptum”. It contains a great collection of paintings and one sculpture by famous surrealist Zdzisław Beksiński. Displayed art came from different stages of artists’ life. His dark, dystopian visions very intensely resonated with me. It took me a lot of time to process my emotions triggered by the author’s work.

Beksiński didn’t name his works (he could name a series as an exception). He wanted his viewers to give in to the mood of his paintings without being influenced by titles. At first, I was overwhelmed by it, but then I started to get it. He didn’t want to limit his vision and put them in word frames. I really felt free to let my imagination run wild thanks to this. My friend who accompanied me to the exhibition had totally different thoughts on most of the art pieces. Comparing them was a great experience. I am pretty sure it would not have happened if we were both biased by the work’s title.

Selection of paintings from “Beksiński w Warszawie” exhibition

Since this visit, I’m spiraling and cannot break out of thinking about what I saw and heard about him. Searching through the Web, I found out that Beksiński was a serious melomaniac. As he said in the Music My Love interview from ’92 for Cracow TV — In principle, without music and Nescafe I somehow can’t paint” 🎶☕️🎨. He rarely consciously heard what he played. Usually, it was just a background, a soundtrack to creating his art. But yet it was one of the essentials in his art process. This interview, made by journalist Teresa de Laveaux, showed the melomaniac side of the artist. With such passion, he talked about his music journey! Beksiński described many different music recording mediums changing through time. From the crank gramophone to CDs. I found it fascinating and decided to write it down for you ✍️.

If you would prefer to jump right into the music, here’s this episodes’ playlist: Midweek Crisis #6 — Music that inspired Zdzisław Beksiński 🎧. And if you want to know what and why inspired the artist — buckle up, and take a ride with me 🚗🎶🖼.

Zdzisław Beksiński began his musical journey early in his life when he was a little boy. He had piano lessons which he didn’t love. He found them boring and later in his life was relieved when as the result of an unfortunate accident (he lost two fingertips while playing with post-war explosives) he didn’t have to play anymore. Before this happened, during WWII, in his hometown Sanok, on the border between German and Soviet occupied territories, there was a local community center with a collection of 78 rpm records. One day Beksiński’s childhood friend, who grazed cows nearby, decided to steal some and gave them to Zdzisław as a present 🎁. And that’s how he came into possession of his first opera music records. Some were broken, chipped, or uneven, so not all were listenable. Back then, listening to the whole symphony was quite a challenge. The gramophone had a hand crank. The record lasted up to 3 minutes, the whole symphony could take even 7 times longer. You had to change records many times. You also had to remember to sharpen the needle of the gramophone. Beksiński said he used an old fashioned glass-paper (an old type of sandpaper) to do so. As a child, he listened to many operas, like:

Eugene Onegin” opera in 3 acts by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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“Carmen” opera in 4 acts by Georges Bizet

Carmen, Act I: №5 Habanera by Georges Bizet

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Giacomo Puccini and possibly his unfinished opera “Turandot” in 3 acts

Turandot Act 3 — “Nessun dorma!” by Giacomo Puccini

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The Beksiński family kept their radio under the floor despite the german prohibition. They mainly listened to transmissions from London, muffled by the parquet floor. One day Zdzisław caught a german radio band and heard the “Tannhauseropera in 3 acts by Richard Wagner for the first time in his life. It truly struck him ⚡️. The saddest part of it was that he couldn’t replay it. At that time, the tape-recorders didn’t exist.

Tannhauser - Overture” by Richard Wagner

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After the liberation, during the beginning of communism in Poland, he listened to radio stations like “Rias Berlin” or “American Forces Network”. Then Beksiński fell in love with jazz because of “Music USA” broadcasts by Willis Conover 🎺. His affection for it lasted till he tasted rock music in the ’50s 🎸. He noticed his music path was different than usual. He got interested in rock music after jazz, and not the other way around.

When LP vinyl records were introduced it made the painter extremely happy. Finally, he could peacefully listen to his favorite symphonies all at once. He was free of needing to change the records many times to hear all of it. He didn’t have to set up the crank gramophone during the record changes.

The invention of the CD records made Beksiński even happier 💿. Finally, he could hear a clear sound during his favorite “great finales” of the longer symphonies. With LP records, the closer you were to the end, the sound quality was lowering down and sounded raspy.

“Like a pharaoh in pyramid” | Photo from a book “Beksińscy. Portret Podwójny” by Magdalena Grzebałkowska

Collecting music was a passion he shared with his son Tomasz, music journalist and radio presenter 📻. They gathered all sorts of records. Not only classical music. Tomek once mentioned his father vibing in his studio to “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple. Reportedly he was stamping so hard that the plaster stuff was falling off the ceiling 🔥.

Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple

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Another hard rock song, “Not Fragile” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive supposedly made him feel a pleasant shiver from the back of his head down the spine towards the lower back ✨. This experience confirmed his opinion that rock music should be listened to only at high volume.

Not Fragile” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive

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Often they brought records from all over Europe. When being short on cash, Zdzisław Beksiński exchanged heliotypy of his paintings for new additions to his music collection. For renting 3 foreign longplays he offered his drawings of the second sort. His studio in Sanok was cluttered with piles and piles of records. In the ’90s he sold part of his collection to get some space back.

Zdzisław Beksiński in his Sanok studio, ca 1976 | Photo from Daily Art Magazine article: https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/beksinski-music/

When making his art, Zdzisław Beksiński listened to classical music mostly. Supposedly pop music made him jiggle his body thereby intruding on his creative process. Creating a single painting lasted for hours. He usually painted for 12–14 hours a day. It was so long that he listened to multiple artists during the process. That’s why it’s impossible to tell which composers influenced which of his paintings.

Once he said that the way he thinks of the painting is the same as how he perceives the symphonic poem of the late 19th century. This kind of music resonated the most with Beksiński. He liked its perfection of form and emotional load ✨. The indescribable rapture that it was releasing in him, he tried to encapsulate in paintings. It didn’t matter what would appear on the canvas, but what he felt and couldn’t put into words.

Four Last Songs by German composer and conductor, pianist, and violinist Richard Strauss, who was considered to be one of the main composers of the late Romantic and early modern era

“Four Last Songs — September” by Richard Strauss

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Franz Schubert, Austrian composer who supposedly bridged the worlds of Classical and Romantic music

4 Impromptus, Op.90, D.899 — №4 in A Flat Major: Allegretto by Franz Schubert

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Alexander Scriabin, Russian composer and pianist, considered as one of the most innovative and most controversial of early modern composers

Etude Op.8 №12 by Alexander Scriabin

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Chorals and vocals were preferred by the artist, rather than the orchestral music alone. In interviews and letters, he mentioned many artists from the early 20th century and pointed out some records he enjoyed listening to:

Dmitri Schostakovich, Soviet composer and pianist, considered as the best composer of the 20th century

Jazz Suite №2: VI. Waltz 2 by Dmitri Schostakovich

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Benjamin Britten, English composer, conductor, and pianist of 20th century

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten

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Gyorgy Ligeti, Hungarian-Austrian composer, who’s said to be one of the most important avant-garde composers in the late 20th century and known worldwide by his music used in Stanley Kubrick’s movies

Musica ricercata: №7, Cantabile, molto legato by Gyorgy Ligeti

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Satyagraha” album by Philip Glass, American composer and pianist, known as one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century

Satyagraha: Act I: The Kuru Field of Justice by Philip Glass

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One of his all-time favorite artists — Alfred Schnittke, postmodernist Russian composer, and pianist

Suite im alten Stil — performed on Violin and Harp — 5. Pantomime by Alfred Schnittke

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Going to concerts and hearing live music was not a thing for Zdzisław Beksiński. He claimed that it was difficult for him to listen to music when not painting. As mentioned before, he couldn’t imagine working in silence 🎨🎶. Even though he often couldn’t focus on what record was playing, having a soundtrack for work was a must-have. The artist had his favorite versions and performances of songs and hasn’t enjoyed covers and changed concert ones. He felt best listening to the music while at home. Noises in concert halls, often bad sound engineering, and crowded spaces disturbed him. Beksiński liked pure sounds and cherished the high quality of the records. In his studio, equipped with a great sound system, he loved to play his music loud 🔊. So loud that he called himself a “disgrace of the block” he lived in. Fun fact! It was more likely that the neighbors would knock on his door when he played Gustav Mahler orchestral song cycles rather than Pink Floyd.

Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler, one of his all-time favorite composers

Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler

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“Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2” by Pink Floyd

“Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2” by Pink Floyd

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Jazz he liked in every variation, from traditional to modern and vaudeville. Louis Armstrong had a special place in his heart. When his music was most popular, Zdzisław Beksiński didn’t have a tape recorder yet. And after he bought one, there weren’t many available Armstrongs’ records left to get.

“What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong

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Folk was a kind of music genre the painter didn’t enjoy. Some sub-genres of pop music Beksiński described as “just unbearable”. If he found out that the album contains vocals in a polish language, he preferred not to buy it. Not knowing the words of the record was comforting for him. Understanding the lyrics was considered by him as a stumbling block in the perception of music. The artist fancied more foreign composers and languages that he didn’t speak. He found, Gustav Mahler and german vocals better than Henryk Górecki, or Karol Szymanowski with vocal in his mother tongue 👅🇵🇱. Nevertheless, Beksiński enjoyed listening to them both.

In “Beksińscy. Portret Podwójny” book by Magdalena Grzebałkowska I’ve found the information that even more than being the painter, he wanted to be the composer of musique concrète. In search of new experiences he even tried composing on his own. He enjoyed playing with sound, modifying recorded voices and their speed. Sadly, the recorded tapes weren’t good enough for him, and he destroyed them. But Beksiński didn’t wreck them all. You can hear one in the “Interview, which won’t take place by Wiesław Banach.

And that’s all I prepared for today. I hope you enjoyed this music-related part of Zdzisław Beksiński’s world. There’s of course much more to explore if it comes to his life story. Before he started to sell his paintings he did many different things. He was an architect, a husband to his wife Zofia, and a father to his son Tomasz. I encourage you to explore his story and his works on your own.

Have a great day and see you next time,

Stygi

Humble melomaniac on the mission to share good vibes ✨