Growing up in Lublin, in the east of Poland, Piotr Kurek could never quite decide what kind of music he wanted to make. First he played drums in a garage-rock band; then he banged out gabber on his PC. At the same time, he was learning the cornamuse, a Lord of the Rings-looking double-reed instrument, and schooling himself in the work of Thomas Binkley’s medieval ensemble Studio der Frühen Music. So perhaps it stands to reason that Kurek’s music is all over the place, as he cheerfully admits. On 2011’s Heat, the Warsaw-based composer combined sampled exotica with vintage organs and electric piano, evoking humid landscapes and mid-century kitsch. He wove a double helix of Baroque counterpoint and minimalist repetition on 2012’s Edena, then turned around and paired drum-machine jams with quixotic electric guitar soloing. And on 2020’s A Sacrifice Shall Be Made / All the Wicked Scenes—based on scores written for Beijing’s Paper Tiger Theater Studio—he pivoted to doom-metal drones, Renaissance opera, and whispered incantations.
But there are common threads to almost all Kurek’s albums. He’s particularly fond of treating the voice as an instrumental texture—sampling and stacking it into intricate chords, to sumptuous and uncanny effect. On last year’s spellbinding World Speaks, he directed his focus to the anatomical sources of voice, delving into an array of nasal and guttural tones evocative of cartilage and flesh; now, on Peach Blossom, he trades laryngeal meatspace for the hyperreal polish of Auto-Tune.
Auto-Tune is more than a quarter century old, and few genres have not yet been slicked by its chrome. Yet Kurek makes its cyborg mewling sound newly strange. The album opens with a lone voice cooing sweetly to itself: first, a single, unadorned line, and then two multi-tracked parts braided in blissful harmony. In its deepest register, it sounds almost like a bowed cello, while flickering tremolo and rigidly stepped melisma evoke—not unpleasantly—the bleat of a baby goat. This brief prelude, “The Art of Swapping Hearts,” morphs seamlessly into the title track, in which the voice bursts into an a cappella constellation of bagpipe-like wheezing and humming—thick, grainy globs of tone distributed in weirdly perfect swirls, like an AI rendering of peanut butter.
Similar pitch-correction techniques play out all across this short, captivating album, complemented by sparse, pointillistic daubs of flute and marimba and, in the interconnected “Breathing” and “Ds / The Moss Beneath,” a bed of sentimental Hollywood strings. The mood is idyllic yet alien, and scattered interruptions—an acoustic chime reminiscent of a pinging iPhone high in the mix; a low voice muttering “whoa”—keep even the most syrupy passages unpredictable. The Auto-Tune spell finally breaks on the closing “Bau”: Over a melancholy, MIDI-driven chorus of stacked and arpeggiated monosyllables, Paper Tiger performer Xiangjie delivers a thrillingly ominous spoken-word monologue. He sighs and grumbles in a gravelly baritone untouched by pitch correction, part purring cat and part shredded speaker cone; the results sound like a Chinese-language Linton Kwesi Johnson fronting Meredith Monk’s ensemble.
The songs on Peach Blossom grew out Kurek’s compositions for a performance by the Münchner Kammerspiele, 某种类似于我的地洞：心室片段 Heart Chamber Fragments, once again directed by Paper Tiger’s Tian Gebing. The album’s title is a reference to a fable written 16 centuries ago by the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming, who tells the story of a fisherman who stumbles upon a hidden valley where a utopian society has flourished for centuries in seclusion. When the fisherman leaves the isolated village, he attempts to mark the path back to its hidden entrance, yet no seeker ever succeeds in finding it again. Kurek’s otherworldly album feels like a map of this lost paradise; every cryptic, crystalline note—ancient and futuristic alike—might be a coordinate pointing to a fantastical place that exists outside the familiar sweep of linear time.