„Pleograf. Kwartalnik Akademii Polskiego Filmu”, nr 5/2020

Only memories are left, so we sing them. Krzysztof Marciniak in conversation with Jaśmina Wójcik and Dominik Strycharski - pleograf.pl


Still form Symphony of the Ursus Factory, 2018, dir. Jaśmina Wójcik, courtesy of the director

Krzysztof Marciniak: The film is entitled Symphony of the Ursus Factory – is it really a symphony? Do you imagine a symphony like this being performed at a music festival?

Dominik Strycharski: Yes, it is a symphony and we can certainly say that we have found ourselves performing this music at two festivals. Kraków’s Unsound invited us to one of their final concerts, we played all this music there live, together with a brass band (the ex-brass-orchestra of the Ursus[1] factory). We are planning a tour for next year and have already received invitations to more festivals. This piece is totally suitable for live performance.

Jaśmina Wójcik: From my perspective, the film is a symphony, because at the factory everyone works and each individual is a small cog in a machine, but they also resemble a musician in an orchestra. Each individual plays their part, does what they have to do, and this allows it to work as a whole. If one element is missing, everything flounders.

So, actually the factory, film, music, and all that huge process with the former workers of Ursus which you have been pursuing for… how many years?

J.W.: I have been working at Ursus since 2011.

Dominik appeared in the project only when you started making the movie?

J.W.: Yes, I started these activities at Ursus on my own, but after a few years more people joined me and this work has always been group work, work with a community. Our artistic path at Ursus does not consist of hiring people for only a short time, but of more and more individuals joining the process. Dominik joined us in 2015 and this film was our very collective project I mean by this the team of creators, but also the participants who were in it together with us. It wasn’t that we were just coming up with something on our own we also took from them and learned from each other.

What kind of an adventure is it for a composer to join such a lengthy process? Something so strongly engaged in the local context and not necessarily musical?

D.S.: The social context is not completely foreign to me. I have been leading singing workshops for amateurs for over 10 years; they’re obviously focused on music, but they also have the social goal of building democracy and community on the local level. These topics are very important to me and this is also why, I believe, I was invited to take part in the making of the movie. I am not the kind of composer who shuts themselves away to have their musical visions. Just the opposite, I mix with people. For me, this was, in a way, the denouement of my 20 years of work in theatre. Of course, making music in such a complex, two-year-long process is not easy.

Because we’re talking about a piece that is tens of minutes long after all.

D.S.: These 40 minutes are about the same length as a long classical symphony. It is a huge thing to piece together with visuals; I am talking about the technology of creation itself. It took us a lot of time to make our final decisions, especially with the editor Aleksandra Gowin, about what the starting point of the film should be: the picture or the music. Eventually, we ended up with three episodes, created in completely different processes. For the parts of the edit that were already put together, I had to create the music as I went, and in order for that to all work together, I simply recorded some of it live. It was the opposite for the end of the film, where I had to create a kind of musical framework, and only after this was done could one begin to start fitting anything to it. And, finally, there’s the third part of the film, “the dream about a factory” – in fact a walk through the ASMET foundry – here the work was this total flow of thoughts between me and Jaśmina.

And can one find something like a score for this Ursus Symphony?

D.S.: The key aspect in working on the film turned out to be the fact that we were all present on the set together. Thanks to this, I knew what we were going to do, even if I wasn’t yet certain how it would look on the screen… At last, at one point I live recorded a kind of preliminary sketch of the idea of the film – and suddenly I felt all that. I am deeply immersed in industrial music, I like noise. This made the work easier for all of us, but also set me free, because I knew where to start.

Jaśmina Wójcik, photo by Witek Orski, from the director’s private archive

I get the impression that it would be difficult to find a film in which the creators of the music are more engaged in the creation of the whole work than here.

J.W.: First of all I can’t imagine myself inviting someone for only a short time, without letting them immerse themselves in the process. After all, all the activities in Ursus are deep processes, and in the case of the film we ultimately had three years to fully and exclusively focus on this one task alone. At the very beginning we invited all the workers in Ursus who wanted to take part to talk with us: that is, myself (director and co-writer), Igor Stokfiszewski (co-writer), Dominik (composer), and Rafał Urbacki (choreographer). Jakub Wróblewski and Kacper Czubak recorded these conversations, during which the individuals who came to the casting told us about their work at the factory and placed photographs they owned on a map of the factory from the 70s. After that, we looked through the material multiple times over several months, we found more and more stories, we interspersed them with each other.

And then this material from the interviews was used in the film?

J.W.: Yes, the entire oral history, all those stories, which then appear in the film, are what they told us during the casting.

Right! Because this is not just a symphony after all, but also an audio play!

J.W.: The film begins in a Karabasz-like[2] manner – like a classic documentary, which we gradually deconstruct and eventually the whole thing becomes more of an audio-visual essay. After the conversations, we selected sixteen subjects, we wrote a draft of the script with Igor Stokfiszewski, and then we began workshops with the choreographer Rafał Urbacki and the composer – that is, with Dominik. These workshops lasted for nine months, we consulted the script, we showed it to the subjects; if something emerged during the workshops we would add it to the script. The idea of the film was born during my first conversations with the people in 20112012, when I was recording a kind of audio play, as you called it. Back then, when the former workers of Ursus were telling me about their jobs, they often demonstrated their work: muscle memory, the sounds of the machines. Now Dominik was getting these sounds out of them, and Rafał helped them enliven their memories of the movements.

Let’s emphasise that the machines are no longer there. The factory has been razed to the ground, only shreds of the factory floors are left ruins. In order to reanimate this, you needed people whose memories would serve as ‘recordings’ of sound and movement. But getting this out of oneself is not easy either, not everyone is able to openly depict this.

D.S.: This is what the workshops were for. I conducted them with the primary idea of breaking this horrible fear that any sound made publicly, apart from speech, is encumbered with shame. Mimicking these tones was something as unexplored for the participants of the workshops as, perhaps, being a chef would be for me. Singing is not something natural in our culture; people are afraid of their voices, they think that they are singing off-key, that it’s something ugly, terrible. We had to figure out how to create a situation where this group of former workers of Ursus suddenly considers it normal to buzz, rumble, sough, and gurgle.

Dominik Strycharski, photo by Karolina Jóźwiak, from the artist’s private archive

What technique did you use?

D.S.: My workshops – just like those of Rafał too, by the way – primarily consisted of helping people enter the process of acting as a group. First, I explained the basics of voice projection. I also explained that what we’re doing has a long tradition in modern music, which built a kind of trust. Then we made various sounds as a group. All this work was, in essence, building a bridge between the memory and the voice, which at times is simply not there – the voice is cut off from any conscious manipulation.

J.W.: But the workshops were not just work. We would meet up, eat cakes we had brought together, drink homemade liqueurs, it was an entire web of conversations and relations. Rafał Urbacki worked with the bodies, and this also was difficult at times – for instance, when, in a workshop, a former boss and worker had to work as a pair, had to join hands, had to move, or even to throw each other. At the beginning this was very awkward, but we ourselves also took part in it.

D.S.: And a sense of humor was important. This could never be too serious.

J.W.: So that it is fun!

We are talking about this because it is a straightforwardly form-generative element: without these workshops, the opening of memories, bodies, and voices, there would be no film. I know that you searched for some authentic recordings of the sounds of Ursus, with no success.

J.W.: Unfortunately we could not find the sound of the huge hammer in the factory forge or the PA system jingle, which appeared in many accounts.

And so in order to recreate the sounds of the factory in the soundtrack, you had to extract this sound landscape from the memories of the former workers…

J.W.: Yes. The tractors and their sounds are also of great importance. The film tells a story about the workers returning to their old workplace, recreating their work, this wakes up the tractors, who both come to their rescue and to dance a thanksgiving dance together.

And so the only one “authentic” sound of the old Ursus that appears on the film soundtrack is the sound of the tractors themselves?

D.S.: The factory no longer exists, only memories are left, so we sing them. Of course, I enrich this musically, because without that it would be difficult to feel the immensity of Ursus, the noise which the workers kept on talking about. The kind of noise that made people deaf. Floors on which hundreds of people and machines worked simultaneously.

In the broadly-understood sound of the film, there are not just tones which the workers mimic using their bodies and their vocal apparatus, but also stories about sound.

D.S.: Of course. There were actually even more tales about sound told during the workshops – some of these sounds we were unable to sing. It was impossible to sing that monstrous factory hammer. It can be heard in the soundtrack, but this was made by me. Mr. Ryszard stomps it out in his scene while singing ‘boom, boom, boom’. I took great inspiration from these stories.

The story about the chandelier shaking in an apartment when the forge was in operation!

D.S.: Exactly, that’s not something you can sing.

J.W.: It is interesting, as we, like the viewers, aren’t acquainted with factories in operation. They tell us about it, our imagination works, and we try to pass this on through the film.

There is a scene in the film where you enter a part of the old factory that still operates…

D.S.: The ASMET foundry, which, today, does not exist anymore either!

J.W.: We call this “Mr. Jerzy’s dream” – he only opens the doors, the camera flies through the floor on its own, comes back to him, and he closes the door. We could not resist and we absolutely had to document this place. ASMET became the last piece of the old Ursus in which people worked as if in a Tibetan temple. Each one focused on their part, which they performed with great diligence – pouring liquid aluminium into the moulds, casting, etc. This did not at all resemble a factory as we would have imagined it, this was pure focus and individual work.

But the sounds of ASMET are not featured in the soundtrack!

D.S.: We recorded three hours of sounds from ASMET, but we didn’t use them. Interestingly, not all of the sounds collected ‘in fieldwork’ have the same musical power as sounds which demonstrate an idea. I have been using, let’s say, ‘industrial-ish’ sounds in my music for more than a decade. If I did not have this sensibility and experience, I would probably create some kind of musical environment from the sounds of ASMET. But the factory is incredibly inspiring when we hear it live, and on a recording it is practically just one big hum, interspersed with clatter, which does not include – surprisingly – any bass. And so I decided that I understood these sounds well enough, they sit so deep inside of me, that I would prefer to simulate them musically in the film. This is why there are no sounds of ASMET in “Mr Jerzy’s dream”. It is a dream after all, and the contents of dreams are always subject to some kind of transformation.

Still form Symphony of the Ursus Factory, 2018, dir. Jaśmina Wójcik, courtesy of the director

And so we have the sound of the factory in the form of the tones made by its products (tractors), historical sounds remembered and recreated by the subjects, and there are the tales about sound, and finally the sounds of today’s Ursus the film documents Ursus’s greatest sound-related trauma: the low flying airplanes.

J.W.: For me, working in Ursus is tainted by this horrific experience of planes which keep flying over your head. At first I would look up at the planes each time, while people around me would not notice them at all. People living in Ursus are used to it. The planes have their own special function in the film. On one hand, it is a wink to the people who live in Ursus, but for a regular viewer this is just a kind of a symbol. For me, personally, it was important for the planes to make an appearance.

When I was replaying the film for the nth time, I would actually only listen to it, I treated it as a musical composition. And in this “audio play” phase, it is striking how diligently the current musical landscape of Ursus was documented in the first twenty minutes.

D.S.: And this, apart from the work of Marcin Leonarczyk, who was our sound producer, was the great work of Marcin “Bary” Popławski and Anna Rok, who collected and secured the sounds, whenever possible, during the shoot.

J.W.: We were collecting absolutely everything and it was extremely important for us from the very beginning for the sounds to be very powerful.

D.S.: On the other hand, some of the sounds in this documentary are simply from the foley room or recordings made later on in a similar location in Ursus all beautifully made by Marcin Lenarczyk. Whereas, for me, the key sound-related idea in this film was the following: if in the subsequent part we are supposed to pack this musical punch, but also create this music in a dream-like manner, as some mental space that is not simply direct, we absolutely need to start from natural sounds and then move away from them. In fact, I heard how this would sound before the film was actually made. These first 20 minutes had to be as fleshy, as organic as possible. We directed Marcin such that this is tangible. We could have made a soundscape that is typical for a documentary: something buzzes, someone talks, and you don’t get too attached to it. But here every crackle, every breath was important.

… mixing the tea in a teacup!

J.W.: For me, the buzzing electricity poles are a special symbol of Ursus. It is the kind of sound that connects the entire area of Niedźwiadek[3], the worker’s district. I remember that I have loved sitting on a bench under these poles, listening to their humming, since I was a child. This hum also connects our subjects, it collates them.

I would like to ask you about another audio element of the film in more detail – we already mentioned the former brass orchestra of Ursus. It does not appear too often in the film, but its sound permeates the Symphony. Could you tell me more about it?

J.W.: It is the former factory orchestra; it can no longer practise in Ursus, so it moved to Targówek. It changed its name to Praska Orkiestra Dęta (Praga Brass Orchestra). These are elderly men and Dominik gave them a new lease of life during these few weeks of workshops.

Without their fanfares this film would definitely not have achieved this potent, monumental timbre!

D.S.: They usually perform various kinds of marches, but they also have a great knack for music and it is their great passion. I did open-form workshops with them and, when I conduct them, they simply improvise contemporary music. At first they reacted to this with laughter. They would call anything that went beyond what they deemed conventional a “Warsaw Autumn”[4]. So when, for instance, the task was to “play a long sound, but everyone pick a different pitch” and a kind of dissonance was created, they’d say: “Ah right, Warsaw Autumn!”.

The function of the orchestra later on in the film’s soundtrack is also very important. How did you imagine its role in the composition?

D.S.: Let’s imagine this: in the background there is a functioning tractor factory, and then suddenly you have an orchestra which plays during various events. And, in the heads of these people, it still functions as a kind of a two-stroke engine: that is, on one hand hammers, the starting of engines, tar, metal and on the day off there is the rhythmic parp parp… I imagine this as a collision between a brass orchestra and extreme noise, and this is very intriguing. We did the workshops and, at the end, for a few days we went into the studio where we recorded a whole lot of samples. Later, I used these recorded phrases and sounds in the soundtrack, working on these samples.

Still form Symphony of the Ursus Factory, 2018, dir. Jaśmina Wójcik, courtesy of the director

I would risk posing the thesis that Symphony of the Ursus Factory – from the perspective of sound – is the most politically engaged composition of this closing decade in Poland: made in close collaboration with a community of former workers of a factory that closed after the Transformation, it preserves the memories of the workers.

J.W.: Our experience is such that we work with people who have been thrown onto the landfill of history together with the uncomfortable Polish People’s Republic. They are marginalised, while what I saw in Ursus from the very beginning of our activities was a beautiful ethos of collaboration, community, a job well-done and there this ethos has prevailed until today. All of the bonds and the heritage of the entire district are tightly connected to the factory. Meanwhile this heritage is swept aside. And this is the reality that I’ve been met with everywhere I’ve gone in Poland where there used to be industry: the same sense of solitude and rejection, but also a good work ethic! Our film is obviously very politically engaged. It returns pride and dignity to people who were robbed of it under the current political system.

To conclude, could you point us to some other musical undertakings happening in Poland which would be similar to the process you were leading in Ursus? For me, this film is also a perfect example of how you can compose music in a politically engaged way.

D.S.: I don’t think like that at all. I always think from the perspective of music and meeting other people. And so the political engagement is of tertiary importance here, because everything political is simply human, and thus I know I will touch on it anyway. There are such projects in Poland that may use a different aesthetic, but in which the idea remains similar. Marta Górnicka and the Women’s Choir (Chór Kobiet) work with amateurs of both genders, tackling important issues. There is the brilliant percussion ensemble, Remont Pomp, which engages people with intellectual disabilities. And, finally, there is Teatr 21, under the directorship of Justyna Sobczyk, where the actors are people with Down’s Syndrome and autism, and which tackles a whole spectrum of prickly topics associated with disability. These are some initiatives that definitely touch on politics.

Translated by Monika Folkierska-Żukowska

[1] Translator’s note: Ursus is the name of the district in Warsaw where the factory was located. [back]
[2] Translator’s note: Kazimierz Karabasz was an influential Polish documentarian and documentary film theoretician. [back]
[3] Translator’s note: Literally “Little Bear”. A subdistrict of Ursus. [back]
[4] Translator’s note: International contemporary music festival in Warsaw, Poland. For many, especially longtime residents of Warsaw, it represents music that is avant-garde, weird, posh, and inaccessible. [back]

Keywords: Symfonia fabryki Ursus, sound workshops, politically engaged art, documentary

Krzysztof Marciniak – a musicologist based in Warsaw, critic, and acoustic ecologist. Member of the editorial collective “Glissando”, a magazine about contemporary music. Actively dreams about tuning the world.

Jaśmina Wójcik – artivist, visual artist, film director, academic and kindergarten teacher. Author and initiator of the multidisciplinary project with the former workers of the Ursus tractor factory, in operation since 2011. She works to include and return subjectivity to communities that lack visibility and the opportunity to speak out. Engaged in alternative education through developing original practices for the development of artistic expression in children. In her artistic practice, she tries to open cultural and art institutions to interactions with visitors (treating them as co-creators and partners in dialogue).

Dominik Strycharski – composer, flute player, vocalist, improviser, performer, and publicist. As composer, he creates contemporary electro-acoustic music using unorthodox techniques and stylistic combinations. He enthusiastically develops the contemporary language of the English flute and human voice combined with electronics. He plays and composes contemporary jazz in many flavours, contemporary music, electronica, post hip-hop, noise, and also various genres of improvised music. As a theater creator, he has composed stylistically varied music for over eighty plays, performed both in Poland and abroad.

14 marca 2021