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Interviews

Interview mit Abel Korzeniowski (Karriere, Metropolis, A Single Man)

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Click here for a german version of the interview.

Mehr von Abel Korzeniowski

Hello Mr. Korzeniowski. Let’s start with your first feature film score for the Polish comedy-drama “Big Animal” ten years ago. Can you remember how you got this scoring assignment? How did you experience your work on this film?

Yes, this was my first feature film. I started writing film music long before that, mostly for short films. Then I got into theater. And then the director Jerzy Stuhr gave me the opportunity to score his movie. “Big Animal” was based on a Krzysztof Kieslowski script and was shot in black and white. My score for this picture was quite unusual, the majority of it was based on a brass band. The whole score has this kind of a small town vibe with the orchestra playing a little out of tune. The music was connected to what was going on on the set, so parts of the score have already been written before the shooting. Some cues were played back on the set to make it easier to edit the film afterwards. Because the main character was a brass band musician, the rest of the score was also closely related to his music.

In your biography we can read, that you studied cello and composition until 2000. Can you tell us some more details about your musical education?

I got the cello into my hands at the age of six, mainly because my mom was a cello player in the opera in Cracow. This was my main instrument for many many years. I graduated with a Master’s Degree in cello, completing the full cycle of formal education in this instrument. At some point during my instrumental studies, I realized that what I really want to do is composition. So I started studying classical composition with Krzysztof Penderecki. This was really a big thing for me, because he had always been a great inspiration. He had also been the one who introduced me to modern classical music years earlier. I had been singing in a boy’s choir, performing his Lukas-Passion, which was my very first contact with his music. After many years I got this great privilege of becoming his student, this was something I had always dreamed of.

For a classically trained composer it is a step from concert music to film scores. How you were attracted by doing music for films actually?

This had begun long before I started my composition studies. I mentioned the short films I did, some of them shot by a friend of mine, Borys Lankosz. He is the director of Poland’s candidate for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Nomination this year. This was my beginning in film music and I decided to go the way of classical composition, because I wanted to be prepared as well as possible for writing music for film. I wanted to learn everything I could to be able to write good music in the first place.

A lot of composers for film these days cannot offer such a classical educational background. Can you tell us, how your style and your musical interest was influenced by this? Do you compose film music from this special, classical perspective?

Studying classical music is a very different approach to music than learning it in a rock band. I’d say that because of my classical background I pay much more attention to purely musical aspects of my film scores, like melody or counterpoints. I try to write film music just as if i was writing a concert piece, with the same level of patience and attention to detail. The most important thing that I learned in a classical environment is how to write a melodic theme. A melody, that is unique and has the potential to live on its own. It takes a lot of time for me to  accept any theme I write. There are always many attempts and many melodies going to the trash bin.
I think, it is quite easy to write an effective score without any characteristic melody. You just use something basic and add on top of it an efficient orchestration, some electronics and synthetic textures. It will work to some degree, some people might even like it. Especially if it has some drive, if there is a rhythmic element. I believe though, that the result of this approach is generic and that the uniqueness is best achieved through melodic content.

Several important aspects of your biography are linked to Krzysztof Penderecki. How does this affect your personal style? How would you describe your standalone compositions?

I doubt that one could find a direct reference to Penderecki in my music, be it film music or concert pieces. I never tried to mimic his style, my approach to music is much more minimalistic. If you are looking for some references, you’ll find me closer to Philip Glass, in terms of repetitiveness and a small number of elements in my scores. But the main lesson that I learned from my master, is the way I think about counterpoint and melody. And there is this specific attention to detail he thought me. We started from working on solo pieces first, and then duets, quartets, a small ensemble and so on. Because of him I learned about the importance of each single line in music. I learned to think about the individual players performing the score. Will it be inspiring for them? Will they become emotional involved in this music? This is what I call the classical approach.

Did a film producer ever want to typecast you as a horror film composer because of your link to Penderecki? This is one of the most persistent clichés at least in Hollywood.

Yes, that really happened once. I was working with another composer on „30 Days of Night“, which was a very scary movie. We were doing a lot of sonoristic textures, this sort of music that comes to your mind when you think about early Penderecki’s pieces. But I didn’t have a chance to score a horror film on my own.

Until 2006 you composed music for Polish cinema, theater and television. How does this creative industry work in Poland? Can you compare it to the United States?

Productions in Poland are very limited, even comparing to France, UK or Spain. That’s true both in a number of films created each year and the budgets. The resources for music production are usually insufficient. And there is also a difference in a way Polish directors work with composers. Traditionally they rely mainly on dialogue only and score is not regarded as something essential to the production. Most of the scenes simply don’t have any music at all.

In 2004 you staged a new score for Fritz Lang’s classic “Metropolis”. How did you get the idea to do such a project and where did your inspirations come from?

This was the idea of a friend of mine, Krzysztof Gluchowski. He was the producer of a Silent Film Festival in Krakow, Poland. They were doing screenings with music performed live. He wanted to do something in a large scale and “Metropolis“ seemed like a perfect project for me. He also gave me all resources I needed, a large orchestra, choirs and singers. It took half a year of my life to write the 147 minutes of music. This was a very important milestone for me. After having written this amount of music I felt ready to move to Los Angeles, to continue my career.

Your score for “Metropolis” is very diverse, ranging from polyphone terror to inspired melody of almost religious connotation? Can you tell us something about your dramatic concept for this massive score?

“Metropolis“ is like a mine. You have romance, epic, suspense. This was a great opportunity to try many things. I really wanted to make “Metropolis“ relate more to modern audiences and give it a sort of quotation marks by connecting it to current events in our modern history. Therefore I wrote some poetry, that serves as a commentary to the film. The production was huge, we had a 90-piece orchestra and two choirs. Then there were electronics, solo singers and two projectors adjusted to 20 frames per second. The technical crew was so huge that it was almost a miracle that we made it. It ended up being very expensive, so it hasn’t been performed many times.

Is there a partial or complete release of the music?

There are some excerpts on my website from the premier in Poland in 2004. At the moment I do not plan a complete release of the music for „Metropolis“, mainly because there is no recording available that would be appropriate. Until we have resources to do a proper studio recording, this will not happen. Frankly, I’m more interested in writing new music than looking backwards.

In 2006 you moved to Hollywood to “pursue a career in Hollywood”. What was it exactly that drove you to LA? How did you get started there?

After „Metropolis“ I wanted to see what my options are. For some time I actually considered moving to Berlin. I thought that going through European productions would be the way to go. But I also started researching production companies in Hollywood at the same time. After weeks of research and gathering data I realized that I could send a thousand copies of my demo reel and none of it would be even opened. Any unsolicited mail would just end up in the trash immediately. So I started looking for agencies. I learned that in Hollywood, you have to have an agent to get a project, and to get an agent you have to have a project. This is a circle. Luckily, I found six agencies that matched my profile, that were not too big and not too small. I wrote six emails and three of them responded – one of them was the agency that I work with to this day. They were really passionate about promoting me and they helped me move to the States. With all legal procedures, a Visa and so on. This is how it started.

This was almost four years ago. Did your career evolve the way you imagined the first years in LA? Did you think of returning to Poland during this time? 

[Laughs] No, I really didn’t. I got my first project in Hollywood six months after I had moved here. Three and a half years later I got a nomination for the Golden Globe. This has happened really, really fast and I didn’t expect my career to go so fast. Hollywood is a very different place than Europe. Coming from Poland with achievements related mostly to my home country, it was really like starting all over again. It didn’t really matter that I’d already done movies in Poland. I met several producers early on and many of them liked my music. But it was very hard to convince anybody to be the first to give me a chance in Hollywood. Personally, I think of it as quite an achievement to have gotten where I am right now.

In 2007 got an assignment for the ambitious animation film “Terra”. It was a commercial disaster, not being released until mid 2009. Yet your score is great. How did you experience the reception of this film? Was it frustrating?

Yes, this was very frustrating, mostly because there was absolutely no promotion from the studio side. Not many people knew that this movie was in theaters. Even on the distributor’s Web page there was no mention of it. So this was not a surprise that this movie bombed. This was even more frustrating because I was really proud of music and I enjoyed the movie as well. Luckily, “Battle for Terra” does much better worldwide and many people enjoy the score. 

Can you tell us some more details about the score and how it reflects the film?

This was a large and difficult score, as an animation always is. The time between the first public screening and the time when it was theatrically released was very long. The picture was recut many times. It changed from 2D to 3D, too. The story became simpler but perhaps more commercial. Some scenes got more energy, which was good, but I also miss some of the important aspects of the story. It is a perfect example, that you cannot rely on the quality of a movie to be successful. You have to support it with promotion, otherwise you cannot  compete with Pixar. 
In my score, I used quite a lot of unusual instruments, like a gigantic 8-foot frame drum, a glass harmonica and an electric cello. I used very different orchestration for themes related to Terrians, the natives of the planet. To reflect their environment, full of soft, wooden elements, I didn’t use brass at all. 

Last year I was talking to another young composer in Hollywood after his first widely recognized score. He told me that he felt extremely lucky to ultimately be discovered with dozens of talented artist never having this luck. Do you feel the same regarding your Golden Globe nominated score for “A Single Man”?

Definitely. Suddenly there is so much attention for my music. Until the nomination, I was completely unknown and now my name is on the same shortlist with James Horner, one of my masters in film scoring. I feel honored by this. It was really unexpected and is definitely a breakthrough in my career. Many doors have opened right now.

Your score is intimate, poetic and emotional. How did you work with the director to set the tone for the music? Were there classical references?

Tom Ford really loved my music from the beginning. And he used a lot of what I had done before in the temp track. This was a bit of a problem for me, because it is difficult for a composer to have a temp track with his own music. With someone else’s music in the temp, it makes a healthier competition. You want to beat that cue, you want to write something better than the other composer. But you want to do it in your own way. When the temp track is based your music, it already is your language, your style. It can become very hard to find another way in your vocabulary to achieve a better expression of the scene, especially when a director loves his original find.
Luckily, I could write the most important part of „A Single Man“ score, the main theme, without any reference whatsoever. No temp track. A very comfortable situation. 
The main theme is very simple, it basically is a melody for solo violin. It repeats itself and the whole orchestration, which is mostly string orchestra, is there to support this single melody. The whole score is simple, there are no unnecessary embellishment, no electronics – the whole music is very classical. We were recording without click tracks to achieve a more natural, live performance feeling. I also asked the solo violin player to stand up while recording, to give him a little boost of adrenaline. In addition we were recording the whole orchestra at once, no overdubs. To get this natural, emotional flow most of the cues are almost unedited and consist of only one take. All those things really worked very well.

The result proves you right, I agree. I’d like to come back to one interesting thing you said about temp tracks. I talked to several composers and none of them liked temp tracks by other composers, because the editor, director or producer is intrigued to only one possible scoring of a scene. They tend to like the temp so much that they want the composer to mimic it.

Yes, this is how I feel about it. It really depends on how you deal with the temporary music. I never try to mimic a piece by another composer, I only analyze how a particular track works with the scene. Then I try to preserve the same energy in my cue. It’s never about the actual melody or motives, it’s more about pace and energy. This way, I don’t have to worry about writing a plagiarism, because I never try to copy anything.

You have the Golden Globe Ceremony ahead. Any dreams or wishes for this night?

Well, what do you think [laughs]? Before the nomination I thought that it would be great to be nominated and I wouldn’t even care about the award. Actually having the nomination is a different thing though. Whatever happens, I am honored already.

How do you imagine your next years in Hollywood. Which genres you wish to tackle, what kind of movie would be your favorite assignment?

Well, that’s a good question. There are a lot of productions in the pipeline right now, many scripts green-lit to production. It feels like it’s starting over again after the writers’ strike. This was a difficult time for everybody here. I do not have any specific plans yet, but I would love my next project to be demanding again.

This leaves me wishing you good luck for the future. Thank you for this interview!

Thank you very much.

Jan Zwilling / 13.01.10