In November of 2019, I found myself sitting in a pew at New York’s St. Peter’s Church on 20th Street in Chelsea. Friends had been telling me for years that I needed to see a band called Księżyc—“moon,” in Polish. I was told they rarely left Poland, so it was not a night to stay home. Księżyc was playing their first show ever in America, almost 30 years after forming.
A little after 9 pm, two women and three men took the stage. 15 minutes in, I still had my gloves on, not because I was cold but because I was hypnotized by what was and wasn’t happening. There were no drum beats, no clear divisions between songs, no words in English, and no guitars. Two women, Kasia and Agata, were the only singers, but they filled the room with sound. Later, I found out that what they do is called “open singing” or “overdrive,” a technical way of describing a loud, vibrato-free sound. It is the opposite of breathy, and is common to Bulgarian and Lithuanian folk singing. I think it’s fair to call it yelling, though it is not only that. From Lithuania, Agata and Kasia also borrowed a multipart approach that combines and interweaves brief sections, a little like a choir of two singing erratic rounds.
Around the singing, the men on stage played digital keyboard, accordion, and clarinet. The music was doled out in distinct parcels, mournful without feeling weak. The sadness in the music did not feel like the petulance of the wronged individual but like the expression of a collective, heaving regret, shiny in its refusal to let melancholy curdle into self-pity. I say this in full awareness of the fact that I have no idea what they are ever singing about.
In the 30 years they’ve been together, Księżyc have only put out two albums, and for a good chunk of that time, it seemed they would only have one, their self-titled 1996 debut Księżyc. Mark Harwood, of Penultimate Press, reissued that album and coaxed them back into existence in 2013, which led them to record their second masterpiece, 2016’s Rabbit Eclipse. With the consistent support of the “amorphous global-minded music and sound festival,” Unsound, over the last ten years, Księżyc has moved into the public eye about as much as they can. But success is also a spiritual matter and the idea of ambition seems completely alien to their way of working. As much as I want them to come back to New York and make a dozen more albums, I also don’t want them to do anything even a little bit differently.
Harwood called them “the Polish AC/DC,” which will not help if you think that’s a comment on style. But if you take that statement as a nod to their unique qualities and the honor they bring to their country, it works. Other notes I took that night at St. Peter’s were “Lithuanian? Polish? singing <—> Meredith Monk??” and “hurdy gurdy/accordion through Reich (maybe as Reich).”
The sprawl of their peaceful web defeated me a little at first. I was frightened of getting something about their national history wrong, and worried that I might diminish the intensity of their beauty with inaccuracies. I, like anyone might, Googled “folk” and “tradition” and found a Nat Hentoff piece on Bob Dylan from 1964, published in The New Yorker. It begins like this:
The word “folk” in the term “folk music” used to connote a rural homogeneous community that carried on a tradition of anonymously created music. No one person composed a piece; it evolved through generations of communal care. In recent years, however, folk music has increasingly become the personal—and copyrighted—product of specific creators. More and more of them, in fact, are neither rural nor representative of centuries-old family and regional traditions. They are often city-bred converts to the folk style; and, after an apprenticeship during which they try to imitate rural models from the older approach to folk music, they write and perform their own songs out of their own concerns and preoccupations.
I don’t know anything about Lithuania or Bulgarian folk but I listen to hundreds of musicians who “imitate rural models” without doubting my reactions to what they come up with. Over the course of the pandemic, I Zoomed and emailed with the members of Księżyc several times. During lockdown they had been meeting by internet and had even made new pieces of music together with Tim Hecker. I came to love my electronic time with them, which had the same quality as their music—that of spending time with people who had actively and carefully chosen their priorities.
The group was a vocal trio at first, with Agata, Kasia and a woman named Olga. They met in the early ’90s through a Warsaw theater group called Poga, which Kasia described to me as “an amateur dramatics students group.” Several people told me the theater was very political in the post-Soviet moment. “Actually, no,” Kasia said. “It was more about esoteric wisdom, trying to glimpse and seize the undetectable. The only play we showed the audience was based on the biblical Job’s story. Everything else in Poland at this time was political. Apparently some respite from mundane reality was what we needed.”
“Ukrainians love to sing their folk songs at parties,” Kasia told me. She learned songs with original group member, Olga, a Ukrainian, and listened to the recordings of Ukrainian folk singer Nina Matvienko. The three of them—Kasia, Agata and Olga—started singing as a trio. “We sang songs from Ukraine, Poland, and from the eastern border areas, also Lithuania,” Kasia said. “We started experimenting with our own melodies (being fans of Meredith Monk's work we were bound to do it) and this is how all of this started.”
The group performed at street theater festivals, and all the members of the band eventually became involved: Agata, Remek, Leszek, and Kasia. Robert joined later when he approached them after a gig at a museum in 1992.
“He introduced himself,” Kasia said.
“Robert was just a stranger,” Agata clarified.
“We used to tell journalists, when we were much younger, that our music needs a meeting over a pot of good tea,” Kasia said. “It usually was my flat, but sometimes somebody else’s, and we just sat together. We started singing or playing or whatever and it just went on.”
“After performing as a female folk songs trio, Księżyc began evolving into something else. No longer were we just followers of the traditional folk songs. Remek wrote a few texts for us; then Leszek joined as an instrumentalist. In the meantime Olga dropped out and Robert joined the group.”
There’s a video from their early days, in 1993, with Agata and Kasia singing while Robert and Leszek play the piano together. The performance combines three songs from their debut: “Klepana,” “Chodź,” and “Historyjka.” They are working in a small room in Bytów Castle, in the north of Poland. As the piece begins with Robert and Leszek playing the minimalist track, “Klepana,” Agata crosses the room and stands against the far wall, staring back at her bandmates. It’s a very Monk-y bit of choreography. She opens her mouth and howls a big sound that catches and cracks into a second tone, a kind of polyphonic approach associated with Bulgarian singers. It’s shockingly loud, even through the YouTube compression. The song is called “Chodź,” which means “Come,” and the translated lyrics, in their entirety, are these:
“I will not come!”
“I do not pay such a great attention to the folk song lyrics I hear,” Kasia told me. “And when singing, it’s important for me to express the mood, the feeling, rather than a specific story. For me, the heritage isn’t as important in terms of verbal content as much as in terms of tunes and musical harmonies and rhythms.”
Księżyc’s debut album—originally issued on ten-inch vinyl by a Polish independent called OBUH—is a completely fat-free record, some kind of communique from another place. There are no drums of any kind and the electronics are fairly simple, so it seems as if it could have been made at any point in the last 60 years, in any country. The sound never gets particularly clogged up or dense; often, one voice is holding a melody while something, an animal or a violin or a creaky door, squeals away. The heavy reverb across the album—natural or digital, I have no idea—makes it sound a bit like the band snuck into an abandoned state department building and set up their harpsichord and began singing hymns to their distant planet.
After playing less than 30 shows over the course of five years, Księżyc stopped performing. Agata and Remek, a married couple, became experts on Polish folk music, studying and performing it. Remek told me they were “interested in the spontaneity, emotionality, ritual and lyrical aspects of traditional music.”
In 2007 in London, Mark Harwood heard MP3s of the first Księżyc album on the Mutant Sounds blog. The description they provided for the music was “medieval, experimental, folk something,” Harwood told me. “I don’t go for that kind of Gothic stuff, but this was such a beautifully nuanced record. You’ve got that Lithuanian vocal technique, and the hurdy-gurdy and the folk instrumentation going through Steve Reich. It’s this radical avant-garde lens onto this cocktail of Baltic State folk pagan stuff. No one’s done that as well as—well, no one’s done that.”
Over the course of several years, Harwood coaxed the band into reissuing the first album and then making a second, their spacy and gorgeous Rabbit Eclipse. He became as fond of them as I did.
“We began a new life and our merry journey began,” Agata told me. “It was a new beginning for us. It turned out that there are plenty of people who want to listen to our music, young people. They want our music. They want our concerts. They want us. We were really shocked. So, we couldn’t stop. And we have found a lot of music which inspires us. We like a young Estonian artist, Maarja Nuut, and the girls which we met in Paris this year in January, Tarta Relena. Young girls. They were classical singers, but now they experiment with voices and percussion, and they have very huge sound. There are a few other groups, like La Novia.”
The group has retained a balance, a careful relationship of energies that keeps their light on at all times.
“Remek is definitely a powerful force in the musical sense,” Harwood said. He also runs a label called In Crudo that issues recordings of Polish traditional peasants’ music. “Leszek is definitely the most talented musically, in terms of playing instruments,” Harwood said. “Robert is the soul that binds it all together, and the two women are the guiding light. That’s the operation of that band.”
Rabbit Eclipse is more of a band record, less focused on the two voices and more committed to showing their sense of space and sonic procedure. Several tracks are close to ten minutes long and “Syreny” (which means “sirens”) is almost seventeen minutes. If the first album showed you what the people on Księżyc’s planet were like, this one puts you there on the surface.
“You can’t identify the source of where this is coming from,” Harwood said. “It has this outside-of-human, beautiful, magical quality, because there is no center. It is a complete unit.”
At the church in Chelsea, they made that lack of center a concrete position, detangling the band and separating it intermittently into one half musicians and one half theatrical performers. Towards the middle of the show, Agata and Kasia poured water into wine glasses from a pitcher, a kind of bootleg communion, and then bounced an inflatable white ball between them. Later, they brought a glowing white light into the audience, a corded deity. Things that might have been reaching for comic effect elsewhere didn’t come across that way with Księżyc. I cannot tell you that I am definitely not assigning magical dexterity to this band but after this show, I kept thinking about the place they brought me into, where thoughts have space to wander and seriousness is a given. Kasia claimed in a radio interview that they play churches because of the acoustics, only. They have also said, though, that their music is connected to “spiritual worlds,” so my projection may not be unfounded. It is easy to think of anything that happens near a pulpit as a ritual, especially in low light. I am told they can reproduce it in a cafeteria or an empty factory, too. Księżyc has no center the way the church has no center, just room. ♦
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