In a world where the boundaries between physical and digital experiences get blurred a little more each passing day, the new Penderecki's Garden website, celebrating Krzysztof Penderecki's musical and horticultural legacy, is a rather unique treasure trove of information and sensory stimulation. 

Krzysztof Penderecki
© Bartłomiej Barczyk

This visually stunning site is part digital art installation, part archive, part ever-expanding interactive memory collection, pushing the boundaries of what you'd expect from an online space designed to talk about a musician’s heritage. But Penderecki, after all, was not someone who did anything the way people expected him to. 

The celebrated Polish composer and conductor, who passed away last year, had a daring approach to instrumentation and textures, and his work crossed over a wide range of genres, not only vocal and classical but also jazz, electronic and rock, even going as far as being quoted as a source of inspiration for musical artists as diverse as Radiohead's guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Polish nu jazz DJs Skalpel and alternative soundscapes creator Max Richter.

Penderecki's compositions range from atmospheric soundtracks for iconic Hollywood pictures – think William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or, more recently, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island – to poignant pieces such as the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, a composition for 52 string instruments that was awarded the Tribune internationale des compositeurs UNESCO prize.

Penderecki’s pieces often make use of new textures and unusual tone clusters and his dense orchestral works often require musicians to use non-standard playing techniques, resulting in unique colours and sounds. He even invented an original method to notate his scores, where he marked the various motifs and layers with coloured felt-tip pens, making them accessible to any reader, regardless of one’s musical expertise. 

It’s this spirit of accessibility that is also reflected in this new website, created by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw: you don’t need to be a music whizz to be swept away on a wondrous journey into this luscious virtual green space. 

Penderecki's Garden website
© Penderecki's Garden

On the grounds of his estate in Lusławice, 100 Km outside of Kraków – today the Penderecki’s European Music Centre – Penderecki personally cultivated one of Europe’s largest and most diverse arboretums, a Medieval-inspired maze as well as Japanese-style and Italian-style gardens, often using seeds he collected during his many travels around the world. Mirroring this incredible physical space, the digital version adds an extra layer by including a soundtrack accompanying you through the leafy paths. And let me tell you, you will never look at a bald cypress the same after you've admired its remarkable roots and textured bark while listening to the emotionally stirring Violin Concerto no. 1.

This is why the Penderecki's Garden website is best enjoyed with audio on, and preferably on a larger screen with a good set of headphones, to make the experience even more immersive. Available in both Polish and English, the site is organised in seven sections, each with different features, creating a multi-sensory interactive journey through music, information, pictures and personal memories that allow visitors to learn more not only about Penderecki the composer, but also about his personal life and passions.

Spread through the pointillist-inspired images are a series of spheres, each featuring a different symbol representing the content hidden behind it: three dotted lines bring to memories or information, play buttons are for video and audio files, maple leaves are for horticultural highlights, quotation marks bring you to quotes from the composer himself... and so on. Clicking on each sphere will give you a short preview of the content available and, if you want to read more, you can click further. 

By clicking on the bottom right corner at any point during your navigation, you can access the general map of the site, mirroring the actual map of the physical gardens in Poland. The amount of content on the site is enough to keep you entertained for hours, if not days. One could be tempted to follow the sections in numerical order, taking a morsel from each, however, in my own personal experience, there isn’t a defined path that must be adhered to: just carve your own way, jumping from section to section as your mood and curiosity dictate. As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “not all those who wander are lost” and having the chance to roam around these digital grounds is a very good example of this sentiment.

Penderecki's Garden: digital map
© Penderecki's Garden

While each visitor’s journey is bound to be very different, simply due to the sheer amount of content to be explored, here is an account of my personal walks through Penderecki’s welcoming virtual home, that I hope will inspire you to retrace some of my steps in your own time. 

The first section – “The Maestro's Manor” – features snippets of memories, historical information and quotes, some written, some in the shape of video interviews, outlining the composer’s life and beliefs, down to his favourite books when he was a child and his meeting in Barcelona with painter Salvador Dalí. But the most engaging part for me was hearing about him from the direct voice of those who knew him in real life, such as German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, to whom he dedicated his Violin Concerto no. 2 ‘Metamorphoses’. She remembers how they spoke of the different types of music that the wind creates when blowing through trees and plants, and how important nature is as inspiration. Finnish cellist Arto Noras, a lifelong friend, recalls how the composer planned his gardens just as he would plan a music score, mapping out every single tree, and how he told him: “Look at a tree: it teaches. For us, the work of art must have double roots, in heaven and on earth. No art can survive without roots.” 

Penderecki's Garden website
© Penderecki's Garden

The second section – “The Park” – includes several quotes from the composer, as well as horticultural explanations and pictures featuring plants and buildings of interest that are on the property, placed on the map in the location where they actually are in real life. You can see, for example, a serene chapel that he designed himself. Although not dedicated to any particular denomination, it offers a space for quiet contemplation, virtual and beyond, from the top of a hill. A quote states that Penderecki “decided to conclude a pact of happiness with nature”, and the care with which every plant and building is classified and paired to a piece of music or appropriate ambient noises – from crackling fire to rushing wind – is testimony to the fact that this happiness is now aiming to be shared with those of us visiting this virtual space. 

Section number three – “The Music Salon” – is all about, you guessed it, the music: from Penderecki himself recalling discussing film music matters with Kubrick, to explanations about the inspiration behind his pieces, this section is a deep dive into his musical mind. Various sound recordings of performances are also featured, my favourite being the stirring Stabat Mater, that the composer apparently created in one single afternoon while on a Baltic beach.  

“The Amphitheatre” section presents a series of time-limited video recordings that can be watched for free. At the time of writing, on offer are three concerts that will be available until 31st December 2021. The influence of Penderecki’s music on contemporary composers and musicians across genres is made evident in the eclectic programming of a concert featuring, alongside Penderecki’s pieces, premieres of new works by Max Richter and Hania Rani. A second video offers a performance of the striking String Quartet no. 3 ‘Leaves of an unwritten diary’, and a third is the moving Adagio from Symphony no. 3, as performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Cornelius Meister.

The real Penderecki's Garden in Lusławice
© Bartłomiej Barczyk

“The Labyrinth” offers a challenge that slightly stumped me at first. This area of the site invites you to find four fragments of the composer's music hidden somewhere around the winding digital hedges. Your prize for discovering them all is information about the real-life labyrinth and a wonderful quote from Penderecki stating that “only error and the roundabout way lead to fulfilment”. The composer's fascination with labyrinths as a metaphor for life is also reflected in the fact that it's not a coincidence that his music can be heard in the final scenes of The Shining, set in a snowbound maze.

“The Studio” section is inspired by the habit of the composer to annotate his score with multicoloured felt-tip pens, as mentioned earlier. In this area of the site, the Lusławice Manor’s driveway has been transformed into a digital score, and what you see changes alongside the progress of the accompanying music, Penderecki’s Capriccio for oboe and ensemble.

“The Garden of Memory”, the most recent section of the site to be inaugurated, is a collection of personal written memories and audio and video messages, to which you can contribute. If a piece has a special place in your heart, or maybe you met the composer himself in the past, you can include your own sapling to this growing forest of remembrance. 

In conclusion, whatever path you want to take through these virtual gardens, you are guaranteed to fall into an enjoyable rabbit hole of music, information and unique insight into this composer's life. 

Krzysztof Penderecki next to a bald cypress in his garden in Lusławice
© Bartłomiej Barczyk

Even if you are not very familiar with Penderecki and his music and even if you're the kind of person who can't keep a cactus alive (I know I am), I have no doubt that exploring this delightfully artsy and incredibly interesting website will inspire you to find out more – if about dramatic glissandos and unusual instruments or about the unique leaves of the American tulip tree, it's up to you. Either way, this site is a wonderful journey through the mind of one of 21st-century most unique composers, and, especially in times when physical travel is limited by the constraints of the ever-present pandemic struggle, it truly allows you to feel that you've left home for a place of wonder and discovery. 

As I stand on this Narnia-like threshold, after several hours spent exploring this website, I feel uplifted and heartened, and let's be honest, we could all do with a little more of that, these days. 

This article was sponsored by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute