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Lost Issue Wednesday: Wojciech Kilar Interview Part 1

Interviewed and interview translated from Polish by Mark G. So

Wojciech Kilar stood at the vanguard of Polish modern music for nearly four decades, and he has been scoring films prolifically for just as long. However, widespread attention beyond his native Poland (where he was born in the city of Lvov in 1932) and continental spheres has come only recently, since he scored his first American film, Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. The popularity of this score raised Kilar's profile considerably, sparking interest in his expansive body of music (an appreciable amount of which is available on import label CDs; look for Polish film score groupings from Olympia) and propelling him to such big-name assignments as Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden and Jane Campion's screen adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady. Response to the latter score has been a steady stream of enthusiastic praise, with audiences and critics enjoying its abundance of melody. While broad and simple, Kilar's melodies often embody meta-narrativic psychological supertexts, acting as tight weaves that seamlessly resolve and unify a great many "threads"; hence, Kilar's Portrait score demonstrates to stunning effect that things needn't be complicated to bear complexity.

Stylistically, the Portrait score resembles Kilar's recent output for the concert hall, which is to say that it utilizes very romantic melodies and textures but deploys them via a reductive, repetitive long-form mode. This tends to make archaic-sounding ideas nostalgically compelling in a very current sense; in the case of Portrait, it makes the music concerned with how contemporary audiences relate to events of archaic literature, rather than with simply relating past literary events. The excitement which Kilar's score has generated marks its success -- the music conveys a deepening, intoxicating sense of happening over the literal development of what happened. As a result, the events of century-old yellowing pages gain a most remarkable presence, and this is to say nothing of the mesmerizing listen provided by the score album, which is available now on a London compact disc recording.

As his words will attest, Wojciech Kilar is intensely affected by the creative process. He seems to take great joy in probing the complexities of music in film and certainly regards the medium to be as potent creatively as the concert hall. He harbors strong attitudes about music but interestingly, he tends to regard and approach his work for both film and concert in a similar way; he does not fail, however, to make astute insights into the defining politics of collaborative work in cinema, and with regard to differences therein between conditions in Europe and in the U.S. Overall, Mr. Kilar's observations proved as fascinating as the very unique sensibility which he has brought to film scoring. I thank him for his time.

Mark So: Would you tell us a bit about your musical background, and about what drew you into film scoring?

Wojciech Kilar: I was forced by my parents to learn to play the piano, which I couldn't stand -- I hated it! [laughs] That is, at least until my teachers started giving me a little contemporary music to play. It bored me to play all those academic etudes and so forth, and later I was even bored playing classical music, but when I got to play, for instance, a simple Debussy piece -- there was an Arabesque, as I recall -- a Szymanowski Mazurka, de Falla's Fire Dance, this kind of music I very much enjoyed. So really, it wasn't until I got acquainted with contemporary music that I became interested, and from there, I very quickly began my own experiments. I thought to myself, "this is my domain," and started trying things out. In addition to [formal instruction], I had my stepfather who composed music for little comedies, musicals, "fairy tale" stories for children, and for the theater. Through him, I came to see that a composer is an ordinary person -- that he isn't some kind of creature that sits up there in the clouds and sends these sounds down from the sky, but just a normal person. I thought to myself, "why don't I try this?" and began writing. That's how it started, really. From that point forward, I involved myself only with music and studied only music. This suited me well, as I'm a lazy person; this is a good profession for me because I can work when I want to, I don't have to be on time for work, and so forth. In great short, that's how things looked for me early on.

Later, I graduated from the musical academy in Poland, then went on to study in Paris, where I spent two years studying with Nadia Boulanger. I lived in her house, up on the top floor in one of the chambres des bonnes, little quarters where the servants were housed. She gave me one of those rooms so that I wouldn't have to pay for a hotel, as I was very poor at the time. I returned home from Paris in the early 1960s, at the time of a great explosion in Polish avant-garde music. Here primarily you had my friends who were more or less my age, meaning Penderecki and Gorecki; we tended to be regarded as a trio. Poles seem to like going by such a system of threes, with gold, silver, and bronze placements like in the Olympics [laughs]. The three of us would get shifted around -- one minute one would be gold and another bronze, the next minute the order would be switched -- [the order of importance of] our trio would be arranged and rearranged in such a fashion. It's like that today as well, since the passing of our great composers like Lutoslawski, Panufnik, Bacewiczowna, Serocki, and Berg; once again in Polish music our three names [Gorecki, Kilar, Penderecki] are somehow central.

As for when and how I came to write music for film, someone simply proposed -- you know, there was probably something in my music that grabbed a director's attention. I wrote a piece in 1962 entitled Riff 62, which was performed in Warsaw, and then a year later Lukas Foss performed the work with the New York Philharmonic, with the Cleveland Orchestra, and with his own orchestra, which was the Buffalo Symphony at the time. But most importantly, following the NY performance, Harold Schonberg, who as you know is the pope of all music critics [laughs], wrote of this work that one 'sees' it on hearing it; that it's like musical 'op-art.' This I think in part is because I've been greatly influenced by the Impressionists -- Debussy and Ravel -- whose music is also of that type that is really seen. It's because my music seems to correlate with pictures and images, and of the sort conducive to the development of mental images -- and  not simply a dry construction, or a mere structure -- that I suppose filmmakers took an interest to me.

Then, I proceeded to write along two parallel tracks between my work for film and for the concert hall. I say that I'm like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; I have two faces [laughs]. I wrote music for many films in Poland, Germany, France and finally in America. And I'll tell you, it's like this: in Europe, you can write god-knows-what; you can write the best music, but if America doesn't notice you, you won't gain any of the attention of which you though you had coming. For instance, I've probably known Roman Polanski for thirty-five years, and only when he made Death and the Maiden did he propose that I score a film of his, and that only after I had scored Bram Stoker's Dracula for [Francis Ford] Coppola, even though I had for a long time been writing for big directors; Wajda after all is a great director -- he isn't bad, you understand [laughs]. And our Kutz is a fine director; granted, not as well-known as Wajda or Zanussi. I wrote music for Kieslowski, as well. I had written in France, and in Germany, too; I wrote for many good directors. But only after -- how to put this -- the Hollywood blessing [laughs] did I start getting markedly more commissions for film scores in Europe and in America.

I think it's wonderful the way my life has unfolded, because if, back when I was 30 or so, someone had suggested a musical career in Hollywood, and had it worked out, had I wound up scoring my first, my second, my fifth project, I perhaps would not have written all of my symphonic works. And maybe I would have been absorbed into [Hollywood] and now be like certain friends who, without giving names, devoted themselves entirely to film music and are now sitting in Hollywood, very rich, but perhaps sometimes regretting not having written a symphony or an opera [laughs]. You know, there is a composer whose music I heard sometime in the 1950s at a contemporary music festival in Zurich. Later, this composer was offered work in Hollywood and he wound up being one of the most prominent composers there, but he threw off [concert] music entirely, and I don't know if he doesn't regret that a little. The music of his that I heard at the festival in Zurich was very avant-garde and incredibly experimental. He started out that way, but Hollywood very quickly sucked him in. I think things have worked out well for me in that I've been able to write all my symphonic works while also, for my old age, having gained that sort of popularity from the film work and with it some bigger money, so I feel in a sense very fortunate.

MS: Your most recent score for an American picture was for Jane Campion's cinematic adaptation of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. How did you come to be involved with this project, and what was your working experience like?

WK: Well, it's always the same -- someone calls me, why exactly, I don't know. It was just that way with Jane Campion. She called me, said she had made this film, and would I be able to come to Australia [to discuss the project]. So I flew to Australia. I have to say that for me the most important thing first of all is to see the person, to see what kind of person I'll be working with. I remember I flew into Sydney and [Campion] called on me at the hotel -- she was waiting for me in the lobby -- and when I came down [to meet her], I right away knew from the way she gave me her hand and how she smiled at me that this had to be 'OK'; that here was a wonderful person. I enjoyed the film [Portrait] wildly from the start, such that after just one hour -- and remember, this film is over two hours long! -- I already had one little motif, which of course I later worked out a bit, but the first few notes of this very important motif I had by the time I was just halfway through the film -- I hadn't even seen the whole thing yet! Later, when I was on my return flight home, on the plane between Sydney and Singapore two or three days after my only viewing of the film (aside from in the cutting room), I wrote that melody for four recorders, strings, and piano, the one that opens the film. So the two perhaps most important melodies in the film I had right away. You know, I asked [Campion] what would happen if I wrote the wrong kind of music, and she said to me, "write us some bad music and we'll be happy." [laughs] When such a personable, familiar working atmosphere persists, the writing goes very well. I came to like Campion very much. Later she visited me in Katowice [Kilar's hometown in Poland] with her husband, and even later, at the recording in Prague, she was there with her husband and their child; Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman also showed up. So there was always this pleasant family atmosphere at every level of my involvement with this film.

[Regarding my attraction to the film itself], I like this film's epoch very much. Around the time that Campion called me for this film, I turned down a few films because I had begun composing my Piano Concerto, for a marvelous pianist named Peter Jablonski, who's fairly well known; he's played at the Hollywood Bowl and has recorded many, many programs in Europe for PolyGram. So I had started writing my Piano Concerto for him, and I remember telling my wife that I wouldn't accept any film music commissions, except maybe for a big costume film set in the second half of the 19th century, a little romantic and a little psychological. [I said to my wife] that I would not bend except for such a film, and just a few weeks after I said this to her, I was approached for Portrait, which was just this kind of film. [laughs] I am very comfortable working within [Portrait's] historical epoch; I like it very much.

As I had said, if I were to get just such a film I would do it, and so I'm very happy [to have worked on the film]. It was a very nice experience, I had a great time, and I met a wonderful person. What touches me is Campion's independence -- that she does what she wants, and this is fantastic. If people said this and that about Portrait a long time ago, this certainly didn't influence her; she made what she wanted. Working with her was very nice, very pleasant, and I feel like I've made another friend in life. So that's how it was [working on Portrait].

MS: Let's turn to your musical approaches for Portrait. To begin with, I was intrigued by the haunting recorder theme which opens both the film and the score album. What were your ideas behind that theme?

WK: That theme really originates from the film's opening scene. There you had contemporary women, women with many different shades of skin, Afro-Americans --

MS: Blacks?

WK: Is this the politically correct term? Attention! [laughs] So there are many different women [in that scene], but most importantly contemporary women. The rest of the score is a little inspired by or in a way near to that epoch [late 19th c.]. There's that theme called "The Portrait of a Lady" [sings theme] which seems a little after Brahms. However, with the recorder theme, I wanted something contemporary and a little ethnic, meaning not necessarily European. It seems those recorders somehow correspond with something exotic, not South America or anything in particular, but I wanted nevertheless something ethnic and for there to be this tie-in with modernity, so as to say that a contemporary woman has the exact same problems as Isabel. That's simply what I wanted to say with this music, and that's why the film also ends with this music -- I think it shows up again in "End Credits." I think Jane [Campion] wanted to say this in showing those girls at the beginning, and I wanted to underline this musically. This music is at once ethnic and, as recorders have been "en vogue' for some time now, immediately contemporary, despite that recorders have been around longer than violins, as their lineage goes back a long way. But they are fashionable. I wanted to use something that was both fashionable, and therefore contemporary, and at the same time ethnic in order to exemplify not only European women but women from all over the world. That's how Jane showed it in the opening scenes, and that's where that music came from.

To be continued in the next Lost Issue...

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