Acclaimed for his exquisite work in Tom Ford´s "A Single Man," Abel Korzeniowski continues to climb steps on the international scene. Currently he is experiencing one of the best moments of his career with the nomination for a Golden Globe for his score for "WE", Madonna´s new film. SCOREMAGACINE spoke exclusively with him during the last Ghent Film Festival.
“W.E.” tells two love stories located in different time periods. Did this influence your musical approach?
Yes and no. The relation between the two stories, the one back in history and the one in modern times, it´s very special because the past is being imagined by a contemporary woman. So the historical story doesn´t have to be fully truthful in a historical sense. This had to be also reflected in the music. That´s why Madonna used a Sex Pistols song in one of the sequences. It has to do with the perspective that the past, in our movie, is an impression of that time through our contemporary imagination, it doesn´t have to be a documentary. Consequently I didn´t have to write music so that there will be a clear distinction between times. In some of the “historical” scenes I could use instrumentation which was too modern for that time, and it still doesn´t matter because the point was to make a connection between these two worlds.
What makes you say that “W.E.” is the favourite of your scores until this day? Why is it so special?
At the beginning it was a quite long movie. The first edit they presented to me was three hours long, even that right now is regular length. So there was a lot of music in the movie and I was given four months to work on it, which is a good amount of time, enough to revise your ideas, to change things that once worked but not any more. I just had a good feeling, a sense of fulfilment, that what´s there is really what I wanted. Although I could always use another week or two.
You have worked with Tom Ford and Madonna, two big stars who do not belong to the cinema field. Did you experience any advantage from the fact that they are not attached to the so often too standardized film industry?
They are both very uncompromising and attached to their vision. Obviously nowadays it is possible to make a mainstream movie based on social research on what people like and how people respond to it. Some movies are made this way in Hollywood and they can become huge box office successes. But I think there are also movies that come from a great passion of storytelling, not caring so much about test screenings or what people are used to, focused on telling the story in your way. Those movies can be very unique and they get a different type of following. It´s hard to say that for example Wong Kar Wai´s movies are big box office successes, because they probably never had a chance, they were not advertise so much, but they live much longer, they are not season movies, they just slowly dig their way through some obscure channels and eventually they reach their audience, maybe for generations. I think this happened to “A Single Man”. Its life after the main theatrical release has been quite long, people keep responding to it. I feel very lucky to have worked on two films like these.
How was it to work with these two strong personalities who have also a very strong artistic vision?
It was surprisingly easy because both of them have a really precise vision and were extremely consistent in what they wanted to achieve. It´s very important working with a director who knows exactly what he wants, then it´s only a question of executing that vision. I would say that both Tom and Madonna were even painfully precise, but at the same time it was an extremely rewarding experience.
With Madonna did you have the feeling that you were working with someone so knowledgeable on music, apart from a showbiz phenomenon, or did that all just disappear and she was just a director working with a composer?
I didn´t know what to expect from her, if it would be a strange collaboration when I´m hired as a composer and she has this mega-star attitude and would she want even to write music. But it didn´t happen. It really was a relationship as with any other director, very traditional. What wasn´t so traditional was perhaps my attitude sometimes. Since she was constantly somewhere else, mainly in New York, while I was in Los Angeles, we had to use the phone very often. We discussed about music by phone and many times she would sing the cues that I had sent her. I just couldn´t control my thrill. “Oh my God! Is it really happening that Madonna is singing my music on the phone?” It was the best cell phone call you can have.
Being a classically trained composer, involved in concert music and theatre before turning to cinema, has film music been a possible or desirable field to work on - or just a very realistic way of making a living?
This was my goal from the very beginning. Actually it was the reason why I started studying classical music, because I wanted to be well prepared to write film music. I just thought that having classical education would help me write good film music. This was my plan and so far I managed to stay on this path.
You have been involved in very different films that consequently demanded diverse styles of music. How much has this experience of being forced to adapt to different styles and genres influenced your own musical language?
The great thing about writing film music is that the film itself forces you to break your habits. I don´t suspect that what I wrote for “A Single Man” would be good for any other movie. Even if this music was a certain personal achievement to me, because of the way people responded to it, I don´t think I could say “oh, I found something that could be my style”. You can not really replay it again and again. I don´t want to write violin music for every movie in the future. I also want to do an action movie, and I would love to see what I can do with something new. Style is made by many little things, is something that you repeat in your scores, but you still have enough room to make everyone of them very different from each other.
What is the most important thing for you the first time you watch a movie that you have to score?
The most important thing is inspiration. I don´t believe that you can just analyze and say “this may work” or approach it from a technical side. It´s a very interesting process how you discover what could work, but it´s also hard to explain. It´s more like certain ideas sing into your brain, very slowly. One leads to another. I just believe that as long as you feel inspired and you find something that really brings strong emotion in you, then there is a chance that what you produce will be coherent and will match the visual idea you are presented with. Frankly I think this is a recipe to write film music, to work on films that I would feel inspired by, called to add something.
What is the most essential element in your music?
Melodic themes are very important to me. I´m never happy if music is only rhythmic. I need this identity in melody for me, personally. This is something that gives another dimension to every movie.
What composers did influence you?
Most of the times it´s more about things that someone did and you don´t know how. There can be composers that you don´t necessary want to “imitate”, you would just like to know more about how they do what they do because it´s incredible even if it´s not really your style. And on the other hand, there are composers like Alexandre Desplat who are really close stylistically to my language and whose music I really admire. But I don´t listen to a lot of music and I don´t listen to music at all when I write, not to influence myself with someone else´s work, trying to invent as much as I can by my own.
After writing the new score for “Metropolis” in 2004 you felt ready to move to Los Angeles. How difficult is to begin in such an industry, where you have to get an assignment, which means that you may have to follow some standards and satisfy some people, while at the same time you have to distinguish yourself, show some personality? How is it possible to reach a balance?
Well, it seems impossible. It seemed more open before I came to Hollywood. The experience I have right now tells me “how can it have worked?” It was really a lot of luck, meeting the right people. I can´t really answer the question, how genuine versus flexible you should be, I think there is no good answer to it. Whatever you plan on doing, whatever you imagine how you would behave in certain situations, all this preparation stops at the moment you talk to an actual director. Most of the times, I have to scratch everything I thought I would say about the movie or about my approach to the music because I´ve just heard him saying something that changes everything. So I guess flexibility is a crucial thing. And the other important advise that I could give to future composers, besides getting a better job, is to prepare for being rejected and to learn to deal with the sense of failure that comes with it, how to get up the next day.
As a newcomer composer in the Hollywood community who is building up a career, how is the mutual relationship between film composers? Are you forced to be competitive?
I don´t think that many of us perceive ourselves as competitors very much, because it doesn´t mean that if any of my colleagues didn´t get a movie I would get it. It depends on so many things, the studio executives, directors, producers, etc., that it´s really the last thing to be jealous of someone else getting the job. Eventually it´s rather more about admiration if someone manages to do something right for the movie. Sometimes it´s inspiring and makes you think “wow, how could this be done and can I do it better?”
How much does the production size and the budget of the movie affect your work?
I think it´s always more about the people who you work with. Working on a bigger movie can be a really pleasant thing and working on a smaller movie can be difficult, depending on what is your relationship with the director mainly. The thing that really matters to me personally is how much collaboration there is, how the communication flows, if I have a chance to actually work with someone in the same room, as opposed to over the phone, for example, or via skype, which unfortunately happens quite often, at least to me. Talking about things that we don´t see at the same time can be very difficult. The film is a collaborative art but I still think that the essential relationship that people have actually working in the same room, not only in the same project, is a better recipe to make anything work.
Which of your films was particularly challenging to score?
It´s always the last one. Because the last one always makes me think that I can not write anything else, that I won´t be able to come up with another theme in the future. When the next project comes there is this fear that I´m still trying to continue the last one. It´s this focus on the undercurrent music that I´m working on that lingers for a long time. It´s a very strange feeling when starting a new movie. I put the hands on the keyboard and I feel that my fingers are basically used to this last project. I can not get anything new. Sometimes I´m tired of playing and I would just sit and think “ok, which key should I press”, there is not a key on your keyboard that could be pressed. It´s really frustrating. It takes really a long time to come up with something that sounds different and fresh.
Do you read the reviews on your scores?
Yes. I do also google my name (laughs). Internet is so wild sometimes that I would like to say “oh, come on, it´s not this way”, but you can´t obviously. Feedback from the audience is something that I really like and I need personally. I don´t really believe in writing music just for oneself. This is the ultimate test of the quality of your work and makes it all worth. Or not.
When you are working on films, you are alone in your studio, but on events like the Ghent Festival, where you play your music live, you are faced to the public. What is the difference for you?
A speaker that would reproduce music in a perfect way hasn´t been invented yet, so until this day a live concert is something unique, is the moment where you can actually feel energy that is not there on the CD and even less on the mp3. The moment of being in the same room with an orchestra and the feeling of many people giving their energy is magical, is the best part of the process.