Tall, athletic, slightly grizzled, sipping a cup of espresso and smoking a red pipe he refills constantly, Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner looks like a cross between a handyman who can fix everything a klutz like you can’t and a guy you’d see sitting at a European cafe at 11 in the morning.
That may sound like an odd mixture, but Preisner, an acclaimed composer and conductor who is the guest of honor at the 34th Haifa International Film Festival, which runs through October 1, and who won its Award for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema, is an unusual man. Exuding a Humphrey Bogart toughness, he is a selftaught classical music composer who has written for the movies for years, outlasting the Soviet regime and the ups and downs of the Polish film industry to triumph with his scores for some of the most important European movies of all time.
He has won dozens of awards, including the Silver Bear from the Berlin Film Festival.
Particularly notable is his collaboration with the late master Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, and one of the highlights of this year’s film festival will be Preisner’s chamber music concert on September 29 at 8:30 p.m. He will conduct music he composed for Kieslowski’s movies, including the Three Colors
trilogy (the films Blue, White
) and The Double Life of Veronique
, as well as a segment from his Requiem for My Friend
, which was written for Kieslowski. The concert will feature soprano Edyta Krzemień and Konrad Mastyło on piano, as well as the singers of the Israeli Opera Choir under the direction of the chorus master Ethan Schmeisser.
Clips from Kieslowski’s films will be shown during the event.
Preisner said that he met Kieslowski “by accident” in 1984, but that the two hit if off immediately, at least once he convinced the film director – over a few vodkas – that he wasn’t just a flaky musician who wrote music for cabaret revues and that he could be trusted to be punctual and precise.
“Once, at the Zurich airport, we bought the same watch and synchronized it.”
The two collaborated on 17 films altogether.
“He gave me more and more creative freedom as the years went on.”
Eventually, Kieslowski would give the composer his scripts and let him begin composing even before the movie was finished, an unusual practice.
Generally, composers score a movie only after it is finished.
“In The Double Life of Veronique
, the script said that Veronique is singing a beautiful song,” he said. “It didn’t say what kind of song, how long, how she sang, what it was about. I decided. This is the way we made films together. He believed in me… he even mentioned me as a co-writer.”
Preisner has worked with many other directors, including Louis Malle, Hector Babenco and Agnieszka Holland. Besides his classical music, Preisner has collaborated with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on albums and concerts.
But getting to summit of European cinema wasn’t easy for a kid from a small Polish town with no music school who was born in the mid-1950s.
Although he loved music, “I decided to be a serious guy and studied history and philosophy.”
It took him a few months to “get sober” and realize that he needed to learn all he could about music. He said that he was inspired by a quote from Baudelaire, who said, “The better an artist you want to become, the more you need to study” so that a lack of knowledge doesn’t get in the way.
Since there was no place to study formally, he taught himself to read and write music by playing albums he loved over and over. But just acquiring the technical tools was not enough to make him a composer, he said.
“No school can teach you how to compose or structure a composition. Either you were born with it, or you were not.”
Clearly, he did have that inborn talent, and eventually he gravitated to cinema.
“I always liked movies,” recalled Preisner, noting that the first film he ever saw was a “Yugoslavian Western about Indians,” since movies from outside the Soviet bloc were forbidden.
He recalls seeing Italian classics such as the films of Antonioni in underground screenings, as well as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Czech emigre Milos Forman.
Those were the days when citizens of the USSR countries were stuck behind the Iron Curtain, and when A Short History of Killing, one of the first films he scored for Kieslowski, was shown at Cannes in 1988, Preisner did not get a visa to leave Poland and attend the film festival.
The tide turned after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but Preisner said that at no time did he consider leaving Poland.
“It’s my country, why should I leave my country?” he said, adding that filmmakers did a delicate dance during the Cold War era to confound the censors, “saying things in a poetic way that went over the heads” of the bureaucrats charged with policing the arts.
Preisner, who disdains discordant avant-garde music, does mix electronic music with symphonic music in some of his recent compositions, but said that, “For me, music is melody.
A composer must find his style. He must know where he is going.”
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