Zbigniew Preisner: Requiem For My Friend, 1999

Interview by Jonathan Broxton and James Southall

Zbigniew Preisner has been one of Poland’s leading film music composers for over 20 years, and started writing for documentaries and various short films as early as 1978. His first full-length feature was Prognoza Pogody (The Weather Forecast) for director Antoni Krauze in 1982, a score of which he is still very fond (“that was the kind of music I like the most”). In total, he has written music for over fifty European films during the 1980s alone.

Preisner’s first Hollywood movie was The Secret Garden in 1993. It was a brave decision to ask him to score the family film, since virtually of all his work previously had been for very serious movies, but this was not something he was too worried about. “It was something that came about by accident. Anyway, I’m not sure you could classify it as children’s music, because it wasn’t really a children’s film – it was something anyone could enjoy. You just have to follow the director – in this case Agnieszka Holland, who’d done Olivier Olivier and Europa Europa and others with me. Ultimately, I am a film music composer and I must follow filmmakers. I wouldn’t be good at comedy, and perhaps not at children’s music – who knows? I like serious music. I am serious. Louis Malle was serious. Krzysztof Kieslowski was serious.”

It is his work with director Kieslowski (Dekalog, the Three Colours trilogy, etc), for which Preisner is most famous, and with whom he had one of the great composer/director relationships in European cinema. He has fond memories of the director, a close friend. “It all started in 1982. Poland is the sort of country where you just bump into people, and this is how I met Kieslowski. I was involved in writing a score for another film, and he was in the same studio at the time. We ended up going to a restaurant together – a very bad restaurant which served nothing but vodka and herrings. So, we ate herrings, drank vodka, and he said to me ‘It’s my first film and I’d be grateful if you’d write good music.’ He went rambling on like this for an hour, and I went away and did completely my own thing. He never had to ask me to write good music again.”

Kieslowski died of a heart attack in 1996, aged just 55. At the time, the director and composer had been planning a large-scale, high-concept concert. “One day, we had an idea of organising a concert that would reflect on the meaning of life. The premiere was planned to take place on the Acropolis in Athens. We had in mind a grand spectacle which would reach back to Greek tragedy. Krzysztof Kieslowski would be the director, Krzysztof Piesiewicz would write the script, and I began to compose the music. We planned this occasion to be the first of a whole series of concerts.” As it turned out, their vision was never to be realised.

The music that Preisner did write has been partly adapted into his new CD, Requiem for my Friend, which is written in remembrance of Kieslowski. “It was not the most pleasant piece of work for me because of the circumstances to which it was connected. It never occurred to me that I’d be writing a requiem for my dear friend – but that’s life and that’s how the piece originated. It’s intended to be a way of saying goodbye to him. My Requiem accompanies him on his last journey.”

The album is split into two halves – the first half is the requiem itself, and the second is a tone poem based on life itself. It is a fascinating and, at times, moving work, either marred or blessed, depending upon your point of view, with long periods where nothing much happens apart from the occasional gong crash or woodwind flutter.

The world premiere of the Requiem took place in Poland during 1998, to great acclaim. The British premiere took place at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 19 March 1999 – three years to the week after Kieslowski’s death. The BBC Concert Orchestra, who performed the music, included, as well as the regular complement, a cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer), which was tucked away in one corner of the stage, a trio of gongs hung, which in the centre of the percussion section and, at the very back, a huge church organ, the complex pipework of which rose high up into the rafters of the auditorium.

The hall itself was massive, and the acoustics within it truly impressive. Preisner’s music, which included many pauses and extended moments of silence – a trademark style that he has developed over the years – sounded especially impressive, with the sudden stops causing the notes to linger in the air seemingly forever. Another superb touch was the use of different coloured lighting during the concert, and as the performance went on, the orchestra were regularly swimming in hues of deep purple, oceanic blue and an incredible combination of reds and yellows which, surprisingly, seemed to bring out some of the inner meanings of the music, and added volumes to the experience as a whole.

As conductor Jacek Kaspszyk made his way to the podium, he was followed by the five vocalists who would feature prominently in the performance – soprano Elzbieta Towarnicka, male soprano Dariusz Paradowski, countertenor Piotr Lykowski, tenor Piotr Kusiewicz and bass Grzegorz Zychowicz. Off to the right of the orchestra was a young woman dressed in shimmering white, Dorota Slezak, who was simply credited as “voice”. As the Requiem itself began, the combination of the majestic, reverential sounds of the church organ and the vocalists’ incredible tones filled the room, creating a truly affecting atmosphere of sorrow and reflection. Gongs, tolling bells, arias in Latin and Polish, and long, drawn out notes on the organ bid a melancholy farewell to one of the cinema’s greatest auteurs.

“Life”, the second half of the Requiem, brought the orchestra fully in to play, and had a much broader scope and style. The music followed a life, from birth to death, and encompassed all the conflicting emotions that occur in between, including love, hate, peace, sadness and discovery. Two instrumental soloists both had major parts to play: Jerzy Glowczewski, on alto saxophone, lent a real organic quality and a sense of the contemporary to the music, while the sound of Jacek Ostaszewski’s beautiful recorder (a bold choice) added a touch of romance and effervescence. Parts of “Life” sounded truly massive in scale, something not normally associated with Preisner’s music, and finished with an angelic prayer, sung in Polish by Ms Slezak, a genuinely touching climax.

The second half of the concert was devoted to specially-arranged performances of seven of Preisner’s film scores. It began with the evening’s only oddity, an unusual but engaging series of piano improvisations based on the “Les Marionettes” theme from The Double Life of Veronique. Guest pianist Leszek Mozdzer, bathed in white light, was obviously enjoying himself enormously, and rapidly changed from style to style, from percussive and contemporary, to jazz like, to purely classical all within a matter of moments.

Then the orchestra and Mr. Kaspszyk took over once more, performing a soft rendition of “Bolero”, the Fashion Show theme from Three Colours: Red, which featured a gorgeous harp solo and some imaginative string work. The superb circus-like theme from the BBC television series People’s Century was next, a wonderfully bouncy and dramatic piece which again seemed to have Mr Mozdzer on the piano in absolute raptures.

The concert version of the theme from Dekalog 9, “Nymphea”, featured some lovely choral work and another virtuoso piano element, while the “Tango” from Three Colours: White was quick, fiery and full of passion. The highlight of the second half, though, was undoubtedly the performance of Van Den Budenmayer’s “Concerto in E Minor” from The Double Life of Veronique. Opening with a tender oboe solo, the piece slowly grew in size and power, becoming more turbulent in nature, until the bravura vocals by Elzbieta Towarnicka – the voice of Veronique – dominated the entire performance. The final piece, the “Song for the Unification of Europe” from Three Colours: Blue, ended the evening on a thoughtful note, its Latin choral work, recorder solo and slightly ecclesiastical aspect lending it an appropriate tone of veneration.

Preisner himself was pleased with the concert. “I would have been pleased to see one or two people at my concert. But more than one or two came [three thousand, in fact] and I was very happy to see this many people enjoying my music.”

“We wanted to do something new, something between an opera and a rock concert. I really don’t like the atmosphere in regular concert halls. There are fantastic facilities available to make music these days, but the concert hall can have a poor atmosphere – harsh light, poor acoustics and so on. I like the way Pink Floyd and Queen do it. Krzysztof and I wanted to produce a concert in this style. We thought of doing a concert on the Acropolis. The actual opening in Warsaw was an attempt to do something like this, and it was a great success. It makes things much more interesting.”

The composer’s music has a very distinctive style, often incorporating a variety of instrumental soloists. “Those who are the most important to me in music are the soloists. They contribute more than just the notes I write, they contribute to my music their creativity, which I then complete with the orchestra. Because of the soloists, my music becomes more their own personal expression, and has a greater intimacy as a result.”

Preisner is also renowned for actually using silence as a musical instrument in its own right. “Generally speaking, the most beautiful device in music is silence, but it must be correctly developed. I do so in the best way I can. I liken it to a painting on a wall -if it is surrounded by a whitewash, it brings the painting to life, and it is so much more beautiful than if it were surrounded by other paintings.”

One of his collaborations with Kieslowski, The Double Life of Veronique, features a concerto which is credited to Van den Budenmeyer, a mysterious composer whose true origins are bizarre. “Many people ask me about him. When Kieslowski shot the movie, he originally wanted to use some of Mahler’s music, but this proved too expensive to licence. He asked me to compose something original in Mahler’s style, and we were looking for the name of a composer – something different, something to be taken seriously as ‘proper’ music. Both Kieslowski and I liked Holland, and the name Van den Budenmayer looks as if it comes out of Holland, so we chose that. Afterwards, we got thousands of questions about Van den Budenmayer. We gave him my birth date but 20 years earlier and he even started appearing in music encyclopaedias! At one point, someone wanted to take me to court accusing me of stealing his music! Nowadays, if I write bad music, I accredit it to him!”

Poland seems to be unusually blessed with film composers – not only Preisner, but also Wojciech Kilar and Jan A. P. Kaczmarek have begun to make names for themselves amongst fans and the media alike. Preisner says there are more composers in Poland who have great, or even greater, talent, and thinks that Communism may be ironically responsible. “In the Communist regime, music was the only thing that wasn’t censored – how do you censor music? I can mean so many things to different people. That’s why we have so much good music in Poland. I know at least thirty great composers working there.”

However, he does not hold exactly favourable views of the Hollywood system, which is why he hasn’t worked too often on American films. “I do not like to work in America. Nothing attracts me to go there. I do not like glare. I am interested in creating something different – a new reality. In America, even directors are regarded as virtually nobody with respect to studios, let alone composers. I am interested in musical creativity, and there just isn’t the time to do it in America at all. Few people are willing to take a risk on something new. I know examples of many problems experienced by such composers as Nino Rota – Francis Ford Coppola loved his music for The Godfather, but the studio wanted to remove it and replace it with something more mainstream.”

“In LA, you can either accept what you are told to do, and do it that way, or do nothing. For me – I don’t accept. If a director wants a score in an American style, he should get an American composer. If they pick me, then must go with what I feel is appropriate or get someone else. In Hollywood, everything starts and finishes with the budget of the film. It is obscene that actors get $25m for two weeks’ work. It’s very bad, you know. That’s the budget for a small nation. Everybody is afraid to make decisions. In Europe, the artist has more chance to be creative. My favourite composers are the ones who work in Europe – Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, Michel Legrand. I like to create something new with music – otherwise, what’s the point?”

This is an incredible belief for a composer to hold, but sadly means that Preisner will not get many Hollywood commissions. But it is refreshing and gratifying to know that there is someone whose musical talent is matched by his dedication to the creative process, and his continued search for interesting and heartfelt music in the face of rampant commercialism.

He has recently completed a number of new scores: Liv, a short film by the young director Edoardo Ponti; Foolish Heart, Hector Babenco’s new feature; Dreaming of Joseph Lees, a new British film, directed by Eric Styles, featuring Samantha Morton, Lee Ross and Rupert Graves; and The Last September, based on the novel by Elizabeth Bowen, directed by Deborah Warner and featuring Maggie Smith, Keely Hawes, Michael Gambon and Fiona Shaw. There will be a performance of his Requiem in America at some point in the future and he is planning further straight classical compositions: “I have some plans to write more, and this is what I am involved in presently. Of course, I will be happy to stage the Requiem anywhere, by invitation.”

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