Nightfall in Elblag

They were three archangels.
None of them knew.
They never had an idea this had happened.
It was impossible for them to know.

The first archangel arrived in a small wooden boat. He was Ärkeängler Mikü. A steady wind, that people of the north experience as pleasant, had made the passage easy for them. Ärkeängler Mikü was travelling with his father. The father was ninety-one years old. He was dressed in a loin cloth, nothing else. “When I was young,” he would shout against the wind, “we ran around naked in Winter.” He would also shout to his son the archangel, that he was a lousy chess player, and always had been one. Mikü’s face had become dark with thoughts. All day they had played chess, while his father told him stories of the great past of his country, when thousands of young vikings sailed the Baltic, wearing nothing but a loin cloth and a sword, and sometimes even less. “They erected houses everywhere,” he shouted, and tried to stand up to point his finger to the horizon. “Not!” Mikü said and grabbed his hand. “They burnt those houses down again, if they had to. They were brave young man.” And so on, while pawns fell, bishops advanced and kings stood firm.

They saw a man on the coast. He stood on top of a house and he was waving with something. Makü dragged the boat on the beach, and helped his father. The man on the roof held a stockfish in his hand. “There is nothing else to eat these days,” he said. The father looked at the house. It was made of different pieces of wood, without a clear plan. “You won’t have any house left after the next storm.” The man said that he wouldn’t wait so long. As soon as it was safe to travel again, he would go west. He had heard stories of a new world. Makü looked for a place to climb the dunes. His father walked to the hut and told the man to come down. A couple of minutes later the two of them were playing chess. They never saw the archangel follow a path, that went to the other side of the dunes.

The second archangel arrived from the east. Someone had told him, there were mountains. Archanioł Mila looked at the sea and the grey waves. He turned around and looked at the land. Black smoke hung over a small village at the far end of the horizon. “Not a good day for travelling,” his father said. Mila sat down and rolled a cigarette. He lighted it and watched the sea again. He had carried his father on his back for four days now.

On the fifth day Mila stopped within a stone’s throw of a big house. “That’s an inn, let’s go there.” “It’s not an inn.” Mila didn’t look up and continued rolling his cigarette.

On the sixth day they met a young man. He was on his way to Braunsberg, a market town on the river further south-east. “We are going in the same direction, ” the father said. He overheard his son saying, that they were not. The young man, who had merely grown out of his years as a boy, accepted the offer with enthusiasm. He shared a piece of sausage with them and offered a cup of beer. His stories were manifold and hardly told unto the end. When he spoke about the bell of the big church in Braunsberg, that he would help to repair, because his father-in-law had a pain in his back, the archangel was about to disappear behind a bend in the road.

The third archangel came from the south. He was Archanioł Maba. He walked with slow, thoughtful passes. Dressed in a heavy black cape, his face was hidden under the cap of a big hood. “You always look at the shadow of things.” His father played a lute and sang songs of fertility and youth. He sat in a small dog-cart. The archangel had pulled the cart, since they had left the royal city two weeks ago. He was getting tired of the continuous flow of cheerful accounts. He wished it would rain, and that night would fall on earth. None of this happened. They walked through deserted cities and met hardly anyone on the way. “Look how the fields bloom.” “They should be fucking harvesting by now. There’s no-one.”

When night came, they could witness little fires in the desolate landscape around them. All, but one of them, were on a day’s walk distance. Archanioł Maba pulled the dog-cart and his father to the nearby campfire. He tried to ignore the poems that his father recited. They were bad stupid sentimental poems on top of that. Maba needed a drink.

The man introduced himself as Admiral Harington, commander in the English Navy. “Bloody imposter.” “What was that?” Maba sneezed. He said he had to go outside to smoke a cigarette. The asshole smelled like rotten fish. Probably he hadn’t changed his uniform for the last two years. “So, I could work as a plumber on your ship?” The archangel looked around. It was a moonless night. He heard explosions in the distance, so soft and delicate was the noise, that he thought of a pillow exploding with the gentlest of gestures, like a toadstool that set free its seeds. “No time for poetry,” he said. He threw his stub away and started walking towards the darkest end of the night.

Our bus arrived in Elblag via Gdańsk in the west. It was a fine clear day. The air was fresh, a bit cold, but pleasant. We were in the north, and the local bus stopped right in front of our hotel. It took some time to go out on the streets again. The big church in the middle of town caught the last glows of daylight. We walked on mud in peripheral darkness and somehow managed to arrive at the old Prussian building, a church that still had to recover from the wounds of world war two. Normally churches had a graveyard in their garden. This was not the case. Probably the death had risen from the graves to follow their offspring to the homeland.

I spoke to John Grzinich the next day. A friendly soundworker, he and his wife had moved to Estonia fifteen years ago, where they had set up an art center. Here in Elblag, he had walked around town with a group of people. He hadn’t conducted any blind-folded golden goose walks this time; he had brought them to some places and made them listen. Rather than to stand in silence I listened to his stories, how the big NATO had changed Estonia into a virtual war zone, with troops invading cities and changing front lines. One of those front lines was right in his back garden. Kids grouped around soldiers in their tanks to ask for sweets, while Russian jets flew low over the land to find out what was going on. He told about spy stories, kidnapping in the middle of the night by secret service men and spy exchange like in the good old cold war days. He had recordings of the NATO jets as well, roaring voices from the sky that made you shiver. I had always imagined his art center as an ex-school that was built in a barren Soviet style, somewhere a bit outside the village. But the image was different. The owners had restored the houses around his place. And now the art center didn’t fit in anymore. There was a risk, that he would lose their home. With a six-year-old child, future looked a bit uncertain.

The following day we met shortly. The main street of the town was completely overtaken by the army. Tents, snipers, men in camouflage, a big panzer car with a structure on the roof, that looked like the wings of a dragonfly, a tank, it was all there, a friendly occupation without any signs of war. They might as well have handed out ice-cream to the children, in the camouflage colors pistachio and hazelnut. John looked amused and confused at the same time. In Estonia the war talks had been going on ever since Russia had invaded Ukraine. And now this. I always thought of John, that when the world said boo, he would just smile back at it. And so he did now, while he walked out of the street at the other end of which a tank pointed its cannon to his back.

It was hard to take things seriously in Elblag. Somewhere at the end of the twentieth century, an enlightened politician had decided to decorate the new apartments with a reconstruction of the facades from the old hanseatic houses. The result looked like an image from a children’s book. They had bright shiny colors, they looked neat and clean, but above all they looked very fake. Maybe they were the perfect setting for an annual fest, where the old skills would be demonstrated, and where people walked around in costumes of those days. But now the absence of any sign of history on those houses struck me. It was closer to IKEA than to the Hanseatic League. But then again, most of the people who lived in Elblag had come from other cities. The families that once were part of the east-Prussian Elbing had all been sent over the border to West Germany, taking history with them. For the new citizens the bright and new houses were an everyday reality that, who knows, corresponded very well with the bright and intense nordic light.

So, the fish we ate, was not cooked in a traditional way, and the caverns where we went to have a drink or two, were poor replica’s of the olden days. But the big Prussian house, that once served as a church, towered over the neighbourhood as it had done many generations before. In daytime its bricks were red as the cheeks of a girl and the breeze, that arrived from the Baltic sea, sharpened its appearance. At night the massive building withdrew to its lonely hours and became a silhouette for thoughts. In we went, through the main door, only to notice that we were not in a church. We had entered the artificial lounge with its flyers, CDs and T-shirts on a table, a reception desk and a cupboard filled with mugs and books, a staircase to our right. On the left, a few steps down we spotted another table; two young ladies handed out soup or a warm dish, a bottle of beer in return for small change. They stood in the corner of what once might have been a separate chapel. Now a screen showed images of nature. There were more chairs than devotees. The stones and statues, the plaques and niches, the ceiling and the floor, it all tasted of church. It was cold and the pumpkin soup couldn’t feed me.

The evening was for our friends. The interior of the building showed how much it was crippled by the war and the following years of neglect. Steel frames rose as high as the ceiling to support the edifice. In the middle of the church stood a big table, completely filled with cables and electronic sound devices. A couple of flood lights accentuated its prominence. Many a years ago the table might have served in a painter’s studio, when he was working on the last supper. The floodlights did not only accentuate the central scene, they also added a desolate character to the rest of the interior. It felt like visiting a building site. Martin Küchen had decided to play in the far end of the apse, a space stripped bare to its essence; it was just an old stone floor with high white walls, a ceiling that bounced back every sound and a giant window.

Martin was the shadow figure of himself. Slightly leaning forward, he carefully blew air through the mouthpiece of his tenor sax. It could have been the young Max von Sydow, dressed in existentialist black, who played a jazz musician in a movie set in Stockholm’s 1950s. Not that Von Sydow came to mind for one single moment. I was grasped by Martin’s appearance and his little theatrical set-up, that further consisted of a glass vase on the floor and a miniature antique record player on a tiny pillar next to him. Cold came creeping over the floors. The shadow moved slowly while the immensity of the chapel reverberated his sounds. I thought of the distance during his walks, somewhere in a village not to far north of Malmö. I imagined him on a strip of land, low herbs, a view on the Baltic sea. On a clear day he could see the coastline of Poland. I imagined him walking, lost in thoughts, at the same time listening to far away screams, a church bell, the sounds of music torn apart by the wind, and while he listened he thought of playing his saxophone. And then he eventually did, dressed in black, with one single light behind him.

That light, and all the other lights, came back at the end of the evening, and, together with the awakening of the interior, also the sounds from little speakers were heard; it was loud and alive again. People walked in, searched for chairs, friends or a mattress, and when all were silent and attentive, all of them together looked like they were posing for a group picture; the one on which during a later generation the figures would be reduced to a blank field with a number in it. I hardly knew a soul. Michal was ready to read his instructions. He stood behind a cathedra. Too bad the pulpit was not ready yet, because what would follow, could easily be understood as the very last residue of the darkest of preaches ever heard. And yet the words and actions were so simple. Somewhere in the half-light Marcin waited for the commands. He wore no shoes; his steps remained unheard. He had to do a lot of walking. I knew the score. Michal would read from a paper which electric device needed to be switched off. He used a walkie-talkie for communication. Marcin answered with the same phrase after each action. The sounds disappeared and the lights went out. I heard my tinnitus and looked at the big window in the back of the church and the yellow light behind it. Michal said the last sentence in polish, but I understood ‘blackout’ and shortly after that the main light went on.

I have seen the Sanctuary of Loyola in the immediate vicinity of the Basque village Azpeita. It was on an autumn day, the trees were still heavy with their green leaves, and the humidity in the valley, on the path along the river Urola, lay as a cold hand on my face. I cannot remember that I have entered the building. Already then, some ten years ago, I didn’t like churches and any form of religious art. I could only think of a little fragile man, his fanaticism, that religious people call devotion, the diseases of that time, the humidity and what a miserable life it must have been to dedicate your entire existence to a vision. Wordly powers may be what they are, but the kingdom of heaven is the most overwhelming, that exists in the feverish brain of a future saint. Loyola helped to build an empire, an empire so big that it occupied worldly places, but also time itself and everything that happened in that time and space. At night the pilgrim and the scholar could go for a walk outside, look up at the stars and think they were in an enormous cathedral. And the only lights to be seen were the stars above and the only sounds to be heard were hidden in the surrounding darkness.

It was cold outside when we sang to Martin’s fiftieth birthday. A little bottle of cold vodka went from hand to hand. Martin welcomed every newcomer with a modest ceremony in which he handed over the bottle. We didn’t need to walk very far, ten steps in fact, to reach the nearest bar. It was another cavern, bricks and vaults and wooden tables, and folkish things everywhere. Martin ordered a vodka and another one. I knew this danger, and stopped halfway mine. Little groups formed, polish and english spoken, laughter, glowing faces, beaming eyes and yet another round of vodka, until it was time for a smoke and the entire gang went upstairs. I was halfway freezing to death, didnot join the vodka cure and had difficulties to understand why everyone was laughing so hard. The next day I heard that Martin on his way to the airport had thrown up three times, and on the airport itself he was attacked by an exploding toilet.

The story ends months later when Michal and Marcin go for a pilgrimage to the north of Spain. The composer of ‘Blackout,’ a young man in his fifties, had died soon after the performance in Elblag. They both knew that he was terminal. He lived in a small village in Catalonia. Marcin had called him after the performancse, outside, even before lightning his cigarette. He had answered the call with a question. “Do you see a full Moon too?”


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From The Book of Doom


In the diary of her great-grandmother she read what happened on this very day, one hundred years ago. “10 October 1916. I heard him walk down the stairs at eleven o’clock this morning. He had coughed all night. I fear for his life. It is humid and cold. The day itself is grey and desolate. Soldiers group around little fires in the park.” Later that day she went to visit the apartment. She remembered the stairwell smelled of stale bread.

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From The Book of Doom

“Everytime she walked through that street she had to cry. Then, in the evening she read the obituary notices. The next day she would attend a funeral, dressed in a black fur coat, her face frozen behind big sunglasses.”

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The Złoty Machine

The next morning the bird hadn’t died. A new sound accompanied its happy whistles. It sounded like an excited herald running up the wooden stairs, while taking two, three steps at once. There was no-one to knock on the door. I looked outside. A man stood in the courtyard. He faced a carpet. He beat the dust out of it with, what seemed to me, an iron rug beater. I watched him for a while. His pace slowed down a bit, almost to match the solemn tread at a funeral march. What else would you expect in the land of Chopin.

I imagined a professional rug beater. Professional in a sense that he would be a percussionist in a symphony orchestra. He doesn’t need to dress as one. But he would need a music stand next to him, so that he could read at which intervals he had to beat the rug. Since the rug will produce one and one note only -and I don’t accept any pussyfooting on this subject- the score can be kept as simple as possible. However, the composer should have very clear thoughts on the weight of the carpet and the composure of the rugbeater (both man and tool), the positioning of the iron structure that holds the carpet, the succession of intervals, the pauses, and, most important of all, the acoustic quality of the courtyard. This is not supposed to become an afternoon’s exercise in musical writing.

And it is not supposed to be an idea that gets copied by other people. That would lead to an installation of, say, at least seven different sized well-tempered rugs, and that would be so lame. I can imagine a special version of ‘We Will Rock You” later this year to commemorate Freddy Mercury’s passing away in 1991. So, don’t do that. I would like to invite an old-fashioned mum, the kind of mother that you won’t recognise like a mother, if you would meet her preparing falafel sandwich for you in a tiny snack bar in Berlin. She would speak russian too. Her clothes and hair are slightly greasy, yes she has some overweight, but that is what happens to some old-fashioned women once they pass the 55-year mark, and it is okay; also, when she smiles, it shows almost like a revelation, and for a very short moment it opens to her younger years, when Russia was still Soviet-Union and she was a young woman with a head scarf and the bright sky of Summer behind her, all in black and white and set in the time when I was afraid of parrots.


I would give her also a rug to beat. She needs to be irritated by the percussionist and his mannerist beats. She would just go paw-paw-paw in a murderous tempo. Free style! Of course, as it goes with performances in places of cultural high-class, it would be a complete bore to stand or sit through the whole thing. I mean, after two minutes you have had enough. That’s why I would rebuilt an exact copy of the Vietnamese restaurant where Anna and I had a late lunch for 26 zlotys, and make it an organic part of the sound experience.


When, on a very sunny and bright day in Warsaw, we walked in front of the monumental stairs that went up to the shopping mall, we didn’t know, that we would end up in a tiny Vietnamese restaurant a couple of streets deeper into Praga. I didn’t even know that I was going to be hungry in about twenty minutes. It arrived to her first. Salad, she wanted salad, something green and healthy. Maybe she was inspired by our immediate surroundings. The Russian-Orthodox church at the other side of the road, with its onion shaped bulbs that topped the edifice, brought a strong pierogi awareness. The transparent blue structures that roofed the entrances to the underground – there were about five of them, looked exactly like the kind of cardboard take-away boxes they give you at McDonald’s or KFC. And then there were the street vendors with their choices of strawberries, raspberries, plums, sunflower seeds and beans. No wonder Anna’s alarm clock went off. She headed for the monumental stairs, and I followed equally decisive. Erase everyone around us from the picture and the scene must have looked like an album cover from the late seventies.

Now there is something about shopping malls, that gives them an almost ceremonial allure. It is all about movement, isn’t it. You walk into it and you recognise the same shops and make-up they use in airports or in modern railway stations. There is lalala in the air, and all that music seems to go on only above your head. It is like an angel’s voice, that never properly enters your ears. I am good at recognising songs, but in the shopping mall I never recognise the song as eventually being a song. The people who pass me on the left and right keep up a rush hour pace. They look rejuvenated, money conscious too. The world of Louis Vuitton and Prada might be very far away, but hey, all mannequins look the same when they are naked. I do like automatic stairs, though. I think they look great everywhere. And they look great ever since I encountered them for the first time, when those steps with their metal jaws looked really ferocious and were a challenge to every daring boy who wanted to impress his mother. Best thing about them is that they still look the same; they never aged. Two of them could take us to the fast food area with its Green Point and the healthy salad, but I could convince Anna to give it a try in a nearby street.

Most of the apartments look battered, and if they don’t look battered, you forget what they look like within a minute. But those damaged ones have character. The roofs are high enough to give the street a big city feel. With time almost all the stucco has crumbled and fallen down. The apartment blocks lay bare their old bricks; they are full of scars. I think I love those houses as much as I love the automatic stairs. Each one of them should have one, as a touch of modernity. The church doesn’t like the idea of replacing the wooden stairs with automatic ones. Somehow they ridicule the idea of ascension, don’t they? I was in Kraków a couple of days after Pope Francis was there. The streets were still filled with pilgrims whose faces shone with happiness; I mean, extreme happiness, as if they had received a free voucher for a beauty treatment in heaven. The last time I had seen people so very happy was in the streets of Berlin, a city considered heaven on earth by a different breed of pilgrim. Though that’s not the point I try to make. Popes don’t come for no specific reason to Poland. I have the impression that the church holds major shares to everything in this country. And neither that is the point I am trying to make.

In Kraków you can book tours to Auschwitz and to Schindler’s factory. The old Jewish town can be reached by foot. It looks like a theme park complete with bloody klezmer musicians that for the entire fucking day play to the tourists on the terraces. Now, one popular neighborhood in Kraków is called Kazimierz, and on two of the corners of a neat little square with a rotunda in the middle, that people who know more than I do want to tear down, there are two replica’s of the old café’s that existed during Jew time. They are full of schmatta, schlubs and shmendriks and other things you can’t describe in yiddish. They look cosy and good, because it looks like they haven’t been designed last year. No. The café’s eventually look like a gift by Steven Spielberg that he made to show his gratitude to the city and citizens of Cracovia, shortly after he had finished working on Schindler’s list. You can almost imagine that the interior is original, even if it is original. I had the same idea when I followed Anna into the restaurant on the corner not far from the street with the pockmarked houses. It could have produced a short tinkle from a bell upon entering, like doors of old grocery shops do, but it didn’t. We looked at the menu. (I didn’t like the calligraphy, neither did I like the dress of the girl behind the counter; it was just a bit too ‘Gone with the Wind, forty years later’, when suddenly all pictures had to be soft-focussed and the girls wore ‘country.’) (all accompanied by terrible film music full of violins, by the way). The prices of the dishes had to remind the customers of €-times to come.

Back outside I looked to the west, where the street opened to a big gate of sunlight. There was some Berlinishness about it, some expectation, a promise that one day a bit of the German capital would enter this street, where everything looked so neat in the low sun. The houses weren’t high, so there was lots of sky above us. Yes, it was a typical fine street for the world citizens of tomorrow, who would come here to buy organic food and health products. There would be shops with restored country furniture and shops where you could buy herbs, tea and coffee. People would sit outside and talk leisurely, while they had an ice cream or a pumpkin soup. There would be little galleries and small boutiques, a record shop and of course a beer brewery where a former hairdresser who had experience in developing all kinds of lotions, would do the same with beer. In short, the street would be full of shops and stores, galleries and boutiques that would take care of your opinions and morals and offer an attitude in return. We walked back into a nondescript street with hardly any traffic, where we had spotted a Vietnamese restaurant. And you know what, I will not build a replica of it at the sound thing, nor will I describe it here. But believe me, it was great. It was better than beating rugs.


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Not a Bad Dream

Every morning I wake up to a dream, that I don’t remember. There is a very distinct reason to it. I hear a bird whistle. It uses the same two notes all the time. When it is in a more generous mood, it even sings four tones. The sound is very pristine, because of the chamber like acoustics of the rather narrow courtyard. It is surrounded by five-storey apartment blocks. There is nothing special about those apartments, if you look at them from the outside. It is all grey, a colour that anticipates the damp and cloudy days of Winter. Not that I think of it, the Polish Winter that will come in a couple of months. In a couple of months is in a couple of months. Now, at the end of Summer somewhere south of the river in Warsaw, I continue to give ear to sounds that come to me from outside: children playing every day, and that bird that welcomes every new morning with the same two-tone salute.

Today the dream had many faces, and one of them told me in a quite casual way that the bird was a parrot. I stared into her face for a moment, and thought: “Of course. No bird sings like that. This was a parrot who imitated a man who had imitated a bird endlessly, every day, until the parrot got it and started to give of these two notes.” They resemble a bit the clear squeak of a gate when it opens and closes again: it sounds like a little protest against being used, born from stubbornness. I also thought of a picture of mine, as a boy, dressed at my Sunday’s best, short trousers, shirt, hair in shape, sharp shoes. It was made somewhere around 1967 in a long gone black and white fashion. I stood next to a giant parrot, at a respectable distance, because I was afraid the bird would knock his beak into my skull, or bite off a piece of my ear. It was an Amazon parrot, full of bright colours and it was almost my size.

And then I thought the impossible.

Ten parrots at an Art Festival. Or better. The impossible happens and someone invites me to set up a sound installation, and I bring ten parrots and ten cassette players. Each player gives of a different loop. A one minute loop that repeats over and over a fragment of a song by Robbie Williams, a historical recording of King Lear, thunder, Nächster Halt: Alexanderplatz, the eight o’clock news, No woman, no cry live at the Hammersmith Odeon, ask a friend to curate one minute, order french fries, whatever, but don’t whistle and don’t say “Bastard.” It is also a great test to see whether parrots prefer one quote over an other. One week into the sound installation when the poor girl, who has to see to it that no-one steals a cassette or feeds the animals, is very near to a hysterical attack, it will be time to see what the parrots have to tell us. And if they say something, the tape players can be turned of. Or the experiment is repeated, but now a tape player will be assigned to each individual parrot, who will undergo sonic treatment in an isolated environment. The third week of the exhibition there should be some result. And when everything is over, the birds will be liberated in the park, where they will surprise the flâneurs with King Lear quotes and Robbie Williams’ “I want to feel.”

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