Meeting film composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, who won the Oscar for "Finding Neverland" and is building Poland's equivalent of Sundance, it became evident to me just how much personality has to do with success in a creative endeavor. You can be the most inventive, pioneering artist, but if you don't like to breathe, look at the world, play, improvise, jump into situations and see how you can fit into them, you're definitely missing something. Jan's interview was also unique for me, because there was no hurry. I've conducted interviews with other people in which both parties enjoy the conversation and it doesn't feel rushed. But this conversation was perhaps one of the most natural and limitless. If, in fact, I hadn't had to run home and write the piece, we might have spoken longer. Jan's directors echo this sentiment. They told me they like to work with him because he's always happy to open another door and see where it takes him. Read the LA Times profile from this Sunday's Calendar section--it's copied as text after the jump if the LAT link doesn't work--and see how a talented film composer can weather Hollywood politicking and actually stay true to the vision that brought him here.
: CLASSICAL MUSIC
Scoring, but never settling
An Oscar-winning composer, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek stays true to the vision that's taken him from Poland to Hollywood and now back again.
By Adam Baer
Special to The Times
January 15, 2006
Traditionally, going Hollywood has meant repudiating one's past in favor of a glitzier future. But for Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, winner of an Academy Award last year for his score for "Finding Neverland," it's become a way to go home again — on his terms.
Friday at Royce Hall, a concert titled "Journey to Light" will explore the post-Romantic concert and film music of the Polish-born Kaczmarek, 52. The event will cap a year that saw him not only nabbing an Oscar but using the freedom it brought to write powerful, politically charged concert music, aid a Polish film renaissance and plan the equivalent of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Eastern Europe.
Over the last 10 years, Hollywood has enjoyed a welcome return to artful film music grounded in more than pop refrains and the ambitions of the commercial harmonists who descend on L.A. to hit it big writing marketable tunes. Kaczmarek, whose work often combines improvisational soloists with such influences as Mozart's Requiem, is an emblem of that trend, of composers whose subtle scores function as narrative elements in the theater but as independent works too. The fusion of an open-minded European sensibility with an artist-activist spirit informs much of his music, including the subtly wrenching melodic strains in the 2002 movie romance "Unfaithful" and the 2005 "Cantata for Freedom."
The latter — which celebrates Poland's Solidarity movement using texts from Pope John Paul II, union slogans and Polish Romantic poetry — will receive its Los Angeles premiere at Friday's concert, when Michal Nesterowicz conducts selections from it with the USC Thornton Symphony and various soloists. But "Journey to Light" isn't taking place just to promote a composer's career. It was put together by the new Polish Film Institute as a fundraiser for the institute and an affiliated audiovisual publishing organization, both of which aim to ramp up Poland's contributions to the film and film-music worlds in the wake of a Communist government that silenced such efforts.
As a young man in Poznan, Poland, Kaczmarek didn't dream of being a leader of his country's theatrical and cinematic community — at least not at first. Instead, he dedicated himself to pursuing a career in political diplomacy, earning a law degree before turning full time to avant-garde theater music and eventually the film world. Which is why simply hearing him speak about his work is evidence enough that he's more than just a top Hollywood tunesmith.
"With every score, I'm looking for different pieces of myself," he said over coffee recently at a Parisian-style Los Feliz cafe. "Luckily, now composers are enjoying a nice transfer between film and serious music. Take Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Tan Dun. Good music is now becoming one thing. Boundaries are falling."
If anyone knows the perils of boundaries, it's Kaczmarek. As a classical piano student schooled by Eastern European taskmasters who discouraged creativity, he was eventually urged by a jury of teachers to pursue another profession.
"Finally!" he said, laughing. "It was great news — freedom at last. So when I sat down at a piano and began writing music for plays being produced at my high school, it was liberating. The plays were composed of poems, and there was much room for music. I kept writing even though I had other goals."
A few years later, in law school, Kaczmarek realized that the Polish government wasn't the right place for him either. "I quickly understood that to be a diplomat in a Communist country was very unromantic," he said. Instead, he created the instantly successful Orchestra of the Eighth Day, a jazz-cum-avant-garde folk duo made up of guitar and fidola — a zither-like instrument he refashioned by removing the keyboard and exposing the strings, which he could then pluck and bow.
"We quickly began touring Western Europe and making recordings," he said. "We were part of an anti-government movement that had a strong following. Socialist Poland before 1989, when I came here, was a place where everyone, more or less, had the same amount of money. Talent, spirit and intellect, to say nothing of art, music and theater, were the most important things."
Kaczmarek also studied with innovative stage director Jerzy Grotowski, author of "Towards a Poor Theatre." And, not long after immigrating to America, he won Obie and Drama Desk awards for his music for director JoAnne Akalaitis' production of the 17th century shocker " 'Tis Pity She's a Whore" at New York's Public Theatre. But then, on a visit to Francis Ford Coppola's Bay Area home, he met Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who asked him to score her film "Total Eclipse," starring a pre-"Titanic" Leonardo DiCaprio as 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
"I was comfortable with the challenge, since Polish theater relies heavily on music, poetry and visuals," he said. "In Polish theater, music is as important as it is in opera."
Polish show folk are by no means the only people who believe in that importance. Adrian Lyne, who directed "Unfaithful," thinks Kaczmarek is notable among composers who consciously opt not to write prefab "bombastic" film scores but strive to express a script's intentions. "He's not unlike the famous film composer Ennio Morricone," Lyne said recently from France. "Some composers try to isolate themselves with their music. Jan is the opposite. His creative spontaneity and collaborative spirit are unmatched."
Kaczmarek is quick to point out the differences between writing for theater and writing for film. The former, he says, "is much more personal, intimate," while "with film you need to paint with bigger brushes." But anyone who studies his dozen or so major film scores can easily find the personal lyric threads he wove through those multi-genre soundtracks, from the nostalgic charm of "Finding Neverland" to the dark, Tchaikovsky-esque cries of the score for Holland's "Washington Square."
"I never understood the notion of writing for yourself, or for some abstract entity with total disregard for the listener," he said. "You should always write for somebody. Even in the avant-garde."
Richard Gladstein co-produced "Finding Neverland," about J.M. Barrie's friendship with a family who inspired the playwright's "Peter Pan." According to Gladstein, he hired Kaczmarek only after considering many other top composers. "Because our film had so many emotional and dramatic events, from death to fantasy, we were afraid for the music to be too simple, gushy or overtly movie-music-like," he said. "We wanted the music to comment on the emotions of the film, to provide counterpoint — some irony and complexity — as opposed to simply underlining a death.
"Jan said to me when we were working, 'I'd really like for these things to become records in the end, not just soundtracks.' And I know we achieved that. Jan's score was playful and curious but intellectually satisfying and engaging as well. I also think his orchestrations are unique. There are different sounds and rhythms than in that normal bed of movie music."
Currently, in addition to fielding job offers and supporting the fledgling Polish Film Institute — which hopes to raise the country's yearly productions to 40 — Kaczmarek is writing an oratorio called "1956," commissioned by his home city of Poznan to commemorate a workers uprising against the authorities there 50 years ago.
More ambitiously, he's making plans, with his own funds, for a Sundance-style film school set on the wooded Polish-German border outside Poznan and slated to open in summer 2008. He envisions Intstytut Rozbitek, as he has dubbed the site, offering international applicants training in screenwriting, directing, editing, and theater and film scoring, all geared toward encouraging international creative collaborations.
Rozbitek is Polish for "cast away" or "shipwrecked." In Kaczmarek's words, it's a "person on a lonely island. It's the name of the village where the institute is being built, and it's also a metaphor, for me: a perfect opportunity to be free from the outside world and create.
"Sundance inspired me and was very kind to show me the way they do things," he said. "I want Rozbitek to follow in that tradition — I just want it to focus even more on music. A new generation of quality composers is waiting."