Music Beyond the Everyday

Requiem for my friend reaches our ears at a time when it can be difficult to use the word "music" without lengthy qualification and explanation.

Technology has enabled its sound to reach across cultures and ages and generations – to become as omnipresent, and as difficult to pin down, as weather, feelings or politics. Musical sound – a melody, a rhythm, a single note – is as difficult to evoke in words as the smell of coffee, or the feeling of warmth from sunlight falling on the.....

int out, this is a time of many "musics", which can range from frozen electronica to the living museum of classical performance; from the ad hoc pleasures of amateur music-making to the anonymous textures that underscore television programmes and advertising, leaking into everyday life. To say "I like music" is a phrase that can be difficult to decode out of context.

Zbigniew Preisner’s music speaks to people who like music – with or without the quotation marks. His is a sound, a body of work, that expresses a kind of purity which seems to exist beyond the detail of everyday music: chord sequences as monolithic as a slab of dark chocolate; timbres as natural and unnatural as a hillside garden. Melodic curves as insinuating as nursery rhymes performed with the dignity of ancient anthems. Yet Preisner has promulgated his career, developed his uniquely personal sound, in film music (an arena of creative endeavour that is notoriously compromised and bastardised). After a dazzling sequence of cultured European movies Preisner has continued to thrive in the Hollywood jungle, crafting a showreel of expansive, orchestral work like that of no other composer working in the industry. Film-makers are the patrons that allow Preisner to ply his art, and the film soundtrack orchestra is his palette. Requiem for my friend is Preisner’s first large-scale, non-soundtrack work. Though it began with a music-theatre hybrid planned with director Krzysztof Kieslowski and writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the work now stands alone as an ambitious orchestral work for recording and live performance.

It is concert music rather than film music, whose patronage stems not from the normal classical system – conductors, traditional publishers and so on – but the record industry. Rather than add his work to the repertoire of a mainstream orchestra, Preisner has written this piece for the Polish orchestral musicians and soloists he knows best, a strategy followed by composers as varied in style as Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, Colin Towns and John Zorn.

The orchestral sound of Requiem is a natural extension of the concert orchestra into the virtual space of the recording studio, a place where intimate voices can be heard above thundering tympani, where organ drones growl below the tubas and basses, where the reverberation of a hall can be ignored or enhanced electronically and where the listener always has the best seat in the house. These are the workaday methods of a composer who makes his living from film soundtracks. After all, most film composers ply their trade with this flexible approach. Preisner, however, is not an ordinary film composer. He isn’t flexible enough to do chase sequences, source music and pastiche. (In this, he has something in common with Philip Glass.) Directors go to Preisner for a slice of his sound, and though he is a sympathetic collaborator, the music that emerges is unmistakably, and undilutedly Preisner.

In his films with Kieslowski, notably The Double Life Of Veronique and the Three Colours series, the music takes such a leading role that the viewer might imagine that the images were devised solely to illuminate the music. Few people talk or write about these films without touching on the music – a claim that is hard to make for much regular cinema fare, whether art-house or mainstream.

So if Preisner has redefined movie music to a point where it takes a bigger, more autonomous role, the progression to the concert music of Requiem is a logical one.

If the recorder melody of Kai Kairos evokes images from Kieslowski’s Dekalog, it is because Preisner made musical sense of those images in the first place.

Significantly, it is not the recorder per se, but the intense, emotion-drenched sound of Jacek Ostaszewski, whose solo playing is an outstanding feature of the Dekalog soundtracks and of the People’s Century theme. By working with the same group of musicians for many years, Preisner has wrought an ensemble sound as distinctive as any jazz composer’s, and his recording methods bring out their strengths. There is no secret to his sound – long reverberations, expressive vibrato, warmth and space – but nobody can emulate it. Most arresting in the context of Requiem is the soprano voice of Elzbieta Towarnicka, the voice of Weronika, who sings on most sections of this largely vocal work. The musical backgrounds used are the small male choir, string quintet, organ, percussion of Requiem, the first act, growing into the 40-piece choir and 60-strong Sinfonia Varsovia deployed in the expansive second act Life.

The three largely instrumental pieces that open the "second act" form an emotional bridge between the two sections, and contain some of Preisner’s most memorable writing: the intriguing and dramatic mini-saxophone concerto of Meeting, the yearning recorder of Discovering the World and the strong melodic, repetitive appeal of Love. The long, slow-burning Kai Kairos leads to the dramatic "march" tempo of Ascende huc. More grand musical gestures follow before the static drones of the closing Prayer, a return to the dark timbres of the first act. Is it correct to refer to first and second acts in what is essentially a work of "pure" music? I think it is. Sir Michael Tippett said, not long before his death, that a way forward might lie in the creation of a new musical theatre of the imagination. Like many of his successful contemporaries in creative music, Preisner’s talent is essentially one of drama – the dramatic organisation of sound.
John L. Walters
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