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Reviving Poland’s experimental radio archives

Reviving Poland’s experimental radio archives
Astigmatic Records' Zbliżenie (The Close-Up) by Henryk Debich

14 December 2021
Text: Michał Wieczorek

Inside Poland’s radio archives, stacks of tapes lie in dusty rooms. Shelves are crammed with recordings dating back more than seven decades, hard drives slowly replacing analogue copies as the files are painstakingly digitised. Each contains a voice from the past waiting to be heard. hopes to answer their call.

SEPR – or Studio Eksperymentalne Polskiego Radia — was one of the first experimental radio studios in the Eastern Bloc. Founded just after the fall of Stalinism in 1957, the studio provided sound effects and music for films, and radio and TV programmes. Here, in the studio’s famous “black room”, composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and Eugeniusz Rudnik, a true legend of Polish experimental and electroacoustic music, could bring their avant-gardist, sonorist ideas to life.

The newly-founded hopes to continue that legacy, by bringing carefully-selected SEPR archival material together with young, experimental composers like duo an-hoer, Adam Wika, or the Krakow-based ehh hahah. They take SEPR samples and seamlessly weave them into their own compositions. The project is not only collaborative, but also 100 per cent remote — recorded during the first Covid-related lockdowns between London and several Polish cities: Warsaw, Krakow, Gdańsk, and Łódź.

The resulting tracks have been released as a album — and they are as diverse as one can imagine. The seven-track release moves from the noisy electroacoustic “Profeto”, to the spoken-word based “Radiocall”. Some artists sample certain SEPR recordings intensively, while others focus on recreating the “atmosphere” of the studio.

The project hints at just how influential SEPR — and radio stations in communist Poland more generally — has been for contemporary experimental music in Poland today.

Read more From cassette cinemas to home-made joysticks: how new media revolutionised Poland behind the Iron Curtain

During the socialist era, almost every regional Polish Radio station had its own recording studio and a working band or orchestra. Artists hired by a radio station had to record a defined quota of music every month to get paid and stay on payroll. But what did they do when that quota had been filled? Many recorded music of their own, usually instrumental music. Some of these recordings were issued in small quantities, while others were available for sale as library music in the West. Many more were stacked in Poland’s radio archives — where they remain to this day.

Yet after the fall of communism, radio orchestras and their music almost fell into oblivion, only recently resurfacing to offer a wealth of untapped potential. is just one part of a new generation of labels sampling, reworking, and rereleasing classic radio archive collections.

The two most popular (and arguably the best) radio and TV orchestras were based in Łódź and Katowice, conducted by Henryk Debich and Jerzy Milian respectively. While Jerzy Milian divided his time between orchestra work and his jazz career (he also penned “Bazaar”, almost unanimously considered as a masterpiece of Polish jazz), the Łodź Orchestra was so attached to its conductor that it was often simply called “Debich’s orchestra”. During Debich’s lifetime, the group released a handful of LPs, one cassette and one single. Their cult classic “String Beat” was recorded in 1975. It’s still considered a collector’s dream with its funky interpretations of film music, Beatles hits and original compositions.

Over the last couple of years, two labels — GAD Records and Astigmatic Records — have been digging deep into the Polish Radio Łódź’s archives to uncover long-forgotten gems from Debich’s orchestra. They knew they would find some interesting pieces: the group recorded between 100 and 120 minutes of music each month.

Getting access to the archives wasn’t easy. “The Debich orchestra project took about two years. Radio bureaucracy is quite slow,” says Łukasz Wojciechowski, co-founder of Astigmatic Records. But when they entered the archives, he was surprised: “I thought we would have to listen to the old tapes, but fortunately almost all archives are digitised. The only analogue thing we used was a book documenting each session with all the credits.”

GAD Records focused their work on Debich’s recordings from 1978. Two albums are dedicated to that year’s sessions: City and Horyzonty. The first comprises tracks found on their “Szerokiej Drogi” cassette and several incidental and library music records available in West Germany. They’re perfect easy-listening records, full of grandiose arrangements, swinging strings, catchy synths, and danceable grooves.

Meanwhile, Astigmatic Records chose to explore an earlier era. Their collection Zbliżenie (The Close-Up) is a collection of strictly instrumental music, written by young Polish composers such as Jacek Malinowski, Mirosław Jacewicz, and Jacek Delong, and performed by Debich’s orchestra. Even behind the Iron Curtain, Polish musicians tried to grab the coolest, newest trends — funk, disco, soul — from the West, and it’s impossible to listen to the album’s lead single, “Puma” without wanting to stand up and dance. “This is what we wanted to show, the more jazz-funk face of the orchestra”, Wojciechowski says.

Just as Astigmatic’s interest in Debich was triggered with “Puma”, their other project pulled straight from the radio archives — Dotyk (Touch) — was sparked after stumbling on a mysterious single by an almost anonymous singer, Renata Lewandowska.

Lewandowska sang in the vein of Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Janis Joplin, but appeared to have only recorded just one EP before disappearing. Astigmatic teamed up with The Very Polish Cut Outs to track her down. They were lucky. Lewandowska now lives in the US where she enjoyed a prolific second career — this time as an interior designer. She remembers perfectly why she didn’t make it in music. ”I never wanted to sing hits; things created with a goal to be easy, light and nice”, she told Polish outlet Dwutygodnik. Lewandowska refused to change her style to be more appealing for conservative record label heads, and her almost-ready debut album was shelved for almost 40 years. Dotyk finally saw the light of day last year. Although clearly a product of its time, the music hasn’t aged a day. Lewandowska sings about love, but also women’s rights, climate change, and ecocide.

“The music we find in the archives is of great quality, but it couldn’t see the light of day when it was recorded for many reasons. Some artists were way ahead of their time, others were on no-publish lists of the communist censorship, others created music too niche to be published,” says Wojciechowski. “Now, the listeners have changed; more and more people want to listen to Debich, Mililan, or Kurylewicz. Their records, today rare and expensive, were given away as prizes in the lotteries.” Ultimately, a growing portion of music lovers have realised this music is a part of Poland’s popular history. It is far too precious to fall into oblivion.

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