Stop Making Sense: Nonsensical Connections: Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “The Polish Song,” by Josh Ottum

by justindburton on May 22, 2013

Guest Editor Elizabeth Lindau brings to the IASPM-US site a series of essays on the topic “Stop Making Sense: The Unintelligible in Popular Song.” During the month of May, we’ll explore what it is to sit just on the edge of reason in popular music.

A breathy, falsetto voice bends upward supported by a plucked chord on a 4-string Stella acoustic guitar. The intonation wavers. Swinging syllabic constructions unroll in what sounds like an Eastern European dialect. A digital reverb accentuates the pairing of vocal and guitar, obscuring the ambient hum of background noise. As the second verse appears, textual variations take flight, complicating any attempts to situate the ever-changing vocal phrases. The ebb and flow continues, intersecting to create unexpected connections between instrument and voice. On the cover stands a pale figure, eyes closed, jacket unzipped, holding his instrument to the side. The aquatic hues and circular shapes that filter the cover reflect the wistful character of the song. Is it a recent performance by an Eastern European folk singer? Is it a reissue of a Nonesuch Explorer series release from the 60s? Or is it a Philadelphia-born, Berklee-bred jazz guitarist singing a freely improvised song on his debut for Verve Records?


Kurt Rosenwinkel’s The Enemies of Energy was recorded in 1996 on the guitarist’s own budget, seeing a release on Verve four years later. Having received accolades from jazz guitar luminaries such as Pat Metheny and John Scofield, Rosenwinkel left Berklee College of Music to tour in vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band. After years on the road and playing around New York and Boston, Rosenwinkel cobbled together enough money to make what would is considered his breakout record. Halfway through Enemies, clocking in at 3:21, “The Polish Song” appears. “Born from a spontaneous improvisation in his Brooklyn apartment,” the stark orchestration of the track strikes an immediate contrast with the rest of the record’s quintet interplay. The sound of Enemies follows in the footsteps of late 90s Blue Note-era acoustic electric John Scofield records. Semi-distorted electric guitar is at the center of the sound but there is still room for saxophone and acoustic piano to successfully co-operate within the timbral landscape. The harmonies are challenging, the playing top-notch, yet the material remains accessible, almost catchy at times. With all of his connections to jazz royalty and stylistic trends of the time, one would think Rosenwinkel would end up as a variation on the theme of myriad Berklee dropouts who can play “Giant Steps” faster than you! But it is Rosenwinkel’s unique compositional style and consistent use of vocalizations that sets him apart from his 6-string brethren.

While jazz guitarists George Benson (start at 2:05) and John Pizzarelli audibly accompany their improvisations with vocalizations, their approaches are steeped in jazz scat traditions. By contrast, Rosenwinkel’s vocals are non-lexical, free from scat cliche, and often accompany the guitarist’s pre-composed and improvised melodic lines. Over the course of his career, I have witnessed Rosenwinkel vocalizing without amplification, using an SM58 dynamic microphone on a stand, and more recently opting for a lavelier mic clipped to his shirt. The lavelier offers a solution void of visual distraction and provides a seamless blend of vocals and delay-processed electric guitar resulting in a chorus effect. When asked about his improvised vocalizations, Rosenwinkel simply responds, “It keeps me in touch with the primary impulse of music: to sing. I imagine that’s where music started.” Rosenwinkel has been composing his own material for the guitar and accompanying voice throughout his professional career. Such compositional and improvisational practices surely inform the foregrounded nonsensical vocals of “The Polish Song.”

In an early Enemies interview for All About Jazz, Rosenwinkel responds to an inquiry about the song noting that he sings in what “might be Polish.” Further research shows no signs of the guitarist having knowledge of the Polish language, a familial connection, or a political agenda. Rosenwinkel is simply (or not-so-simply) singing in what he thinks Polish may sound like. While there are myriad uses of made up languages in experimental musical contexts (Mike Patton’s work in John Zorn’s Moonchild; The Residents invented a language for The Big Bubble, which provided a historical context for the stunted Mole Trilogy; French prog group Magma’s drummer Christian Vander invented a language called Kobaïan), they often point towards the fantastical, aiming to disconnect from specific cultural practices. In the realm of pop music, Sigur Ros sings in a made up language called Vonlenska, also known as Hopelandic. Stevie Wonder did an intro in what he refers to as ‘Spanish’ at the beginning of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” (this live version points towards the improvisational nature of the brief interlude of non-lexical vocables). Still, Sigur Ros and Wonder provide some kind of context for their use of the non-sensical, the former expanding upon their native language to increase options for listener interpretation while the latter plays with the sounds of a well traveled con-artist.

Just as Wonder’s shady character riffs on what he imagines Spanish to sound like, we find Rosenwinkel sounding out his own imagined conception of the Polish language. Through this approximate imitation of a fully formed language, the guitarist’s syllabic constructions provide a paradoxical foundation for improvisation. The foundation is both liquid and solid, floating and grounded. The inherent liminality of “The Polish Song” provides a space for meaning to float freely while securely connecting to nodal signifiers. These signifiers, such as the familiar harmonic progressions and lingual maneuvers incorporated by Rosenwinkel, are fleeting signposts, forming instantaneous connection that quickly dissolves. The same goes for Rosenwinkel’s  His identity as a jazz guitarist recording for Verve in the year 2000 bears little sign of socio-economic or political intentions to comment on Polish language and culture. Furthermore, in contrast to many of the examples above, there is no alien, no backstory of a mythical culture inhabiting planet earth. By simply giving “The Polish Song” its name, a context was created for nonsensical vocalizations to gather unexpected meanings, not the least of which lands the piece in the very country it references.

Nearly a decade after its release “The Polish Song” found a home in the repertoire of Polish jazz singer Grazyna Auguścik. Auguścik and Rosenwinkel studied at Berklee School of Music at the same time, perhaps leading to their 2009 performance at Jazz Club Drukarnia in Krakow. In the performance, Rosenwinkel is reading off of sheet music, most likely his own transcription of the improvisation he recorded more than a decade earlier. The Auguścik-Rosenwinkel version stretches out a bit longer than the original and is played on a 6-string archtop in traditional tuning. Listening to Auguścik vocalize on the “Polish” theme imbues the song with new and old meaning. Is this the long awaited natural habitat for the piece? Or is something lost in the collision of the imaginary and the literal? Having started as a home recorded improvisation, “The Polish Song” floated in digital form for a decade only to receive its debut live performance across the Atlantic in the very location originally referenced. This potent contextual narrative mirrors the pregnant improvisations that infuse the song with its preternatural character.


Grażyna Auguścik feat. Kurt Rosenwinkel – The Polish Song

The unlikely success of “The Polish Song” is in the complete sense of connection that emerges out of the nonsensical. In the song’s final moments, a vocal line ascends by whole steps giving way to a three-note figure, Ab, Eb, and G, played consecutively as a series of natural harmonics. Is it an Fm9 without the root? Or an AbM7 without the third? Or none of the above? The phrase is repeated, this time with more attack, as the mid-range timbre of the plywood Stella gives way to what is perhaps the hum of a spinning hard drive in the guitarist’s Brooklyn apartment. The repeated figure normalizes the nonsensical, simultaneously crystallizing and washing away all meaning. Rosenwinkel’s use of approximated language and freely improvised compositional form pushes the door wide open for this sideswiping refrain. As the final notes float there, they prod the listener with a final series questions: What did you hear? What does it mean? Is this the end? Was there even a beginning?

The answers are all right there. And it all makes (non)sense.

Josh Ottum holds an MFA in Integrated Composition Improvisation and Technology from UC Irvine and is currently a PhD student at Ohio University in the department of Interdisciplinary Arts. His research interests include sounds of energy extraction, Van Dyke Parks, library music, and synthesizers. As a singer-songwriter, and composer for TV and Film, Josh has released multiple records on various labels, completed numerous international tours, and had music appear on MTV, AMC’s Mad Men, and NPR.

Elizabeth Lindau is Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology at Gettysburg College. She completed her Ph.D. in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia in 2012 with a dissertation titled “Art is Dead. Long Live Rock! Avant-Gardism and Popular Music, 1967-99.” Liz’s essay “Goodbye 20th Century! Sonic Youth Records John Cage’s ‘Number Pieces’ ” appears in Benjamin Piekut, ed. Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies (University of Michigan Press, in press). This fall, she will join the faculty of Wesleyan University as Visiting Assistant Professor of Music.

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