By Karol Krok
Abel Korzeniowski, one of Hollywood’s most promising film composers, certainly wasted no time in the past few years. First brought to mainstream attention back in 2009, after scoring arthouse film ‘A Single Man’ and the subsequent Golden Globe nomination, he made a name for himself in the film industry. After this initial success, he ended up scoring such projects such as Madonna’s W.E. and last years’ Romeo & Juliet adaptation. Abel was kind enough to make a tiny slot in his schedule available to us in order to sit down and talk about his latest project – the romantic and sensually dark score to Showtime’s Penny Dreadful television series (starring Eva Green, Josh Hartnett and Timothy Dalton).
Abel Korzeniowski: Hello, Karol! How are you?
Karol Krok: I’m fine, thank you. How about yourself?
AK: I’m very, very good.
KK: How did it happen that you started composing for films? Is it something you’ve been always interested in or maybe you just encountered an opportunity somewhere along the way?
AK: Actually, that’s exactly how it begun – from film music. It was the first impulse when I started thinking about composing. My first pictures were made with Borys Lankosz, still in a primary school. He’s now a famous director in Poland. He always had a dream of becoming one and I started writing music for his films. It was a great adventure, fascinating to both of us. We were using tools available at the time. And then we continued this relationship in secondary school, where there was more films being made. Based on those projects, I got my first offer to write music for theatre. It was Macbeth directed by Jerzy Stuhr. That experience led me back to film. This time, it was a feature – A Big Animal.
KK: You’re an academically trained musician, is that right?
KK: Film composers are often looked down on in academic world, due to the nature of their work. The artistic value is being often questioned – whether film music has any real value or not. I have been wondering whether your mentor Krzysztof Penderecki ever commented on the subject of your musical interests?
AK: Yes, he did comment a couple of times, with a great regret (laughs). That I escaped into film music, that I was a promising concert composer. Often forgetting that he himself wrote a lot of theatre and film music.
For me, those forms don’t really differ all that much. Film music is, at the moment, the only form of “living” classical music, which actually has its function in society. Can be consumed and appreciated in a very natural way. In Polish, the word “consumption” might have negative connotations. However, the thing that it can be “consumed”, used in a normal straightforward fashion and very much like popular music, is really important to me. Contemporary concert music doesn’t have that resonance. It’s not experienced in a normal, domestic environment. Which is what was a great success of film music and how its varied forms reached out to people who wouldn’t normally pursue Stravinsky, for example.
KK: A famous film composer, Bernard Herrmann, once said that film is the only medium that uses orchestral music as part of its artistic expression. That it’s not really that different from Bach composing his weekly mass or Mozart writing dinner music for patrons in the court. In the same way, film music is a sign of its time. And that it is a perfect vehicle for artistic explorations.
AK: If anything, it is an equivalent to opera, which fulfilled the same function – plays/narratives with music. At the moment, opera has lost its place in culture. I believe that film took over that role in a natural way and reached deeper into the society in that respect. It’s not only a form of entertainment for higher classes, but a very democratic one.
KK: Let’s talk about your latest, very exciting, project – the television series Penny Dreadful. How did you get involved?
AK: This is a good question. I’m not quite sure. It was the fortunate turn of events that Showtime approached me with an offer to write the score. Not the opposite, as it usually happens. There were apparently a few people who recommended me. Firstly, John Logan, the writer and creator of Penny Dreadful, knew and appreciated my work. Secondly, it was Juan Antonio Bayona who directed and shaped the series. Eva Green would play my music on the set, while they were shooting. She was a great ambassador (for my music).
I got invited to Dublin for meetings with Bayona, Logan and Eva Green. It was a great feeling, that my music was expected and requested. Also, seeing all the sets, built with such astonishing level of detail, was really a great experience.
KK: You mentioned that Eva Green was an ambassador for your music. I’ve been wondering whether you received any particular instructions when scoring the series or did you have a lot of influence on how the musical world of Penny Dreadful was taking shape?
AK: It was expected of me to grace the show with colour of my music – to provide it with a certain emotional and layered quality. This was apparently the reason they approached me. One the other hand, the horror genre itself requires certain elements. If we want to scare (the audience), then we need to do that. These things are impossible to avoid. The greatest challenge, and difficulty, was to find a balance – between the elements that are typical for the genre and things that could be added – to widen the spectrum and cause the whole package to feel more individual and less generic. These were the two poles, in between which I had to maneuver.
KK: I understand. I can imagine working on a television series might feel very different to the experience of scoring a feature film. From many interviews, of various composers, I gather schedules in television medium can be extremely frantic. What are your own experiences?
AK: I believe I was lucky enough to be involved in a project like Penny Dreadful, that was put together in a very filmic kind of way. It wasn’t that much different from working on a feature. The only difference was that I had to write over three hours of music. So it was more about the amount to work, not so much the intensity of it. Films can also have crazy schedules, where you have to write a score in three weeks or something like that. So composers generally encounter these kind of situations quite often. There were no big surprises in this case. While towards the end of the season we had a much tighter schedule, the production was so well organised that the process was painless for the most part. We were working as quickly as we could, there was little time, but there were certainly no tears involved (laughs).
KK: You mentioned that the production resembled that of a feature film. So does it mean you worked on the entire season as one long film? Or did you score each episode separately?
AK: I worked on each episode on its own. At times, while we were recording music for one of them, I had to already write score to another. It took some time to find a musical language for the series so the first two episodes took very long time. Which we then had to make up for towards the end. But that’s how these things work.
KK: I noticed that you compose, orchestrate and conduct your own music on this project, same as you do with any other projects. Did you ever consider hiring a professional orchestrator to take some pressure off your shoulders?
AK: An orchestrator? No. But I used other conductors here in Los Angeles. But it soon turned out the process is more efficient if I conduct all by myself. That is because there is no need to explain my intentions to another person, who would then present my feedback to an orchestra. I would be be explaining something to a conductor for two minutes, in elaborate and florid terms, describing emotions and so on… After which, I can hear the same instructions being presented to musicians in… basic language (laughs). That is why being on the spot is much more effective. Because I can communicate with them without having to resort to intermediaries. And because I have an experience in playing along with an orchestra (on a cello), and working with musicians. So this communication works very well.
As for orchestration and arranging, this is something I won’t be able to part with. It is a part of composition. If an orchestrator would attempt to arrange my music the way they would usually do it, the final result would sound like a typical generic film music. My orchestrations contain some very characteristic elements, I do these things in my own way. And they are integral part of my compositional process. So this is something I would never give away.
KK: The music in the show sounds very large and elegant, certainly worth of its literary inspirations. It’s a far cry from cheap-sounding television music that we are often treated to. Would you talk a little bit about the ensemble? How large was it?
AK: Most of the time we had about 25-30 musicians during every session. That included piano and occasional other solo instruments. Some of them we would record separately. But that was the basically the size of the orchestra we used.
KK: I would like to talk a little bit about themes that you created for the series. Did you work on them before scoring particular episodes? Or would they evolve on their own, as you were working on each chapter?
AK: I never start from writing themes. They usually come from particular moments. The main theme, for example, originates from the scene when Vanessa meets Dorian Gray for the first time. It was strong enough that I developed into the a form heard in main title sequence, ‘Demimonde’. And that became the main idea for series and the character of Vanessa. And it was the process behind every other theme – it was never a detached theoretical process.
KK: Vanessa’s theme consists of two parts. One could say they could be even treated as two different ideas. The first one is this three-note motif which appears all over the score, in various incarnations. And there is the second part. I was wondering what these two elements symbolise in your mind?
AK: My inspiration came from the fact Vanessa has a really complicated personality. At the very beginning, when I first started working on Penny Dreadful, it wasn’t exactly clear what kind of character she was – a victim of spirits that torment her, a martyr? At one point, John Logan pointed out to me she’s in fact a mother of evil. And that was something that guided me (through the process). The character’s possession is indeed an element of her strength, not necessarily a cause for us to feel sorry for her. That beauty and complexity is illustrated by lush and romantic second part of the theme. The opening three-note motif is indeed her mark, which can be weaved into everything else – it’s easy to hint at. So that’s a basic motif for her character, whereas the other section symbolises her depth, strength and everything that it causes.
KK: There is also a third musical element, appearing most notably in two sequences – ‘Transgression’ and ‘Mother of Evil’. It’s a very demonic theme. In those two places you use a choir chanting. Is this a particular text or just random vowels?
AK: There is a text. This is the theme that illustrate her demonic side, her contact with something very evil and powerful – this stream of black energy. It’s one of my favourite themes. I was wondering for a long time what kind of text should be used in there. While doing my research on the subject, I thought of Satanist elements, maybe using something from a Satanist bible. Or something like that.
At some point, I started looking at Egyptian prayers connected to cult of Amun-Ra. So I’ve been looking for different things. But if one wants to add words to music, they must have certain qualities. So, for example, the Egyptian text didn’t seem to work with the music, as already written. In the end, I decided to use a Latin paraphrase of ‘Our Father’ prayer, but written and spoken backwards. This element, of using an inversion of liturgical text, is often used in satanic rites. One of the other options I considered was so-called ‘Witch’s Prayer’, words of which, when read backwards, had a different meaning. Another reason I decided to use things like that is because there was a certain neutral ring to words when spelled in such a way. It’s not quite obvious what exactly is being sung. So that was the process.
KK: There is another important musical element in Penny Dreadful. That is Mina’s theme. On your Facebook profile you mentioned how it is the most traditional idea in the score. It employs, however, slightly unusual instrumentation. Would you explain what that means?
AK: Yes. Mina’s theme is the most likeable (laughs). At least I think so. It’s very classical, easy to hum. And it is also a theme representing the first season. The element of it that was not so classical was adding synthetic strings to enrich and complete the live recording with a different colour. It’s not that the performance was insufficient and we needed some enhancements to make it sound better. However, we wanted to widen the palette by something that echoes the recording but adds a different, more mystical aura. And that technique I fell in love with, so, it started to used more and more. It became one of the constant elements of this score.
KK: Most of your music, up to this point at least, was very warm and tonal. But, as you mentioned before, Penny Dreadful contains elements of horror. And, thanks to that, we are treated to some delightful challengingly dark passages? A certain points, you seem to flirt with more avant-garde techniques. Did you enjoy exploring this kind of territory?
AK: Those techniques are hardly avant-garde at this point, they are well known and quite typical for horror genre. But it was indeed one element that I never used (in my music), up to this point. Mostly because there was no reason to. I must say we had a lot of fun with musicians, while working on those to get the right kind of effect. Although, I have to admit not everything relies on dissonance and attempts to create horrifying sounds. At times, the most scary things came out of playing sustained notes. And it was really surprising, that one sustained note could be just as disturbing as some clusters or dissonant textures.
KK: Now I’d like to move to album presentations of your scores. Film music is a very peculiar area where you meet certain dilemmas – full scores often don’t make best albums but, at the same time, specially arranged soundtrack presentation misrepresent complete works. Many composers choose certain fragments, often out of order, and combine different pieces into one sequence. On the other hand, others prefer the strictly chronological listening programme. Many listeners have different opinions on this subject. Music as presented on Penny Dreadful soundtrack is an example of former. I was wondering what was your motivation while putting it all together for listening pleasure?
AK: I’m personally not a fan of chronological presentations. And that’s because there is a different logic to putting an album together. For example, the main theme might not appear in the very first scene. And what then? For me, one firm rule is to start from something very distinctive, something that would open up a soundscape of this disc. And that’s what influences sequencing – it’s about how certain sections linger on a particular emotion and how long that feeling should last. Do we get bored? Maybe it’s time to move to faster music. It’s a matter of balance. In this process, certain fragments that were in the film, and which I might have liked, won’t be making an appearance. Because, after arranging the whole thing, there might be simply no room for it. Some pieces can only be used for an early parts, because they are, for example, very breezy. But something else is fulfilling the same function already. It’s a lot of work.
I can remember that putting together this disc took probably two weeks. To find a key to all this. For me, it has to be an impression of a story, some form of narrative, moving through different worlds. And when it finally it ends, I want to have an impression that someone invited me to take a journey, and things happened. It’s obviously for each individual listener to decide and interpret, but that’s the basic idea.
KK: You mentioned a couple of times how your wife, Mina, tends to be your biggest critic. Is this what was happening during the process of composing score for Penny Dreadful?
AK: Yes, of course. She’s my closest collaborator, my editor. I always show her my work and, most often than not, it is not good enough so it ends up in a bin. And so I need to start over.
KK: I noticed that you’re not a typical composer in that you actively communicate and interact with your fans. Either through Facebook or by organising different types of competitions. This is unlike many of your colleagues who close themselves in the solitary of their studios.
AK: It is very important to me, this contact with people who listen to my music. And how they hear it. That it doesn’t exist in vacuum and all the energy and emotions, which I invest in composing, go somewhere. And I can maintain that two-way communication – other people can contact me, I can share what’s important to me. And add a bit more personal touch to all of that. That music is written from myself to you, that’s exactly how it works. And it seems natural for me to talk about it.
KK: Film music concerts are becoming very popular lately around the world. You made several appearances during events such as Film Music Festival in Krakow (Cracow) or, more recently, Festival Internacional de Música de Cine in Cordoba. Can we expect more of those to come?
AK: I made a debut in Cordoba as a conductor in front of an live audience. I never performed my music outside of recording studio and that was a wonderful experience and a big thing. I really enjoyed it and would like to continue that.
KK: I hope so, too. I’ve got one last question, probably typical for an interview like this. Do you have a dream projects? Some particular title or genre that you’ve not tried your hands on yet?
AK: Naturally. Science fiction. Things like Inception, or Star Trek. That’s big dream of mine.
KK: It would have been really interesting indeed. Thank you for this interview and for your time.
AK: Thank you very much and see you.
Special thanks to Beth Krakower of CineMedia Promotions for making this interview possible.
Penny Dreadful is out now from Varese Sarabande