Composer Jan Kaczmarek: 'I Feel Blessed' (Q&A)

Jan Kaczmarek - P 2012
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Jan Kaczmarek - P 2012

The Oscar winner discusses overseeing the second edition of the Transalantyk Film & Music Festival, giving back to young composers and why he is a firm believer in acting on instinct.

Sitting in a café in Poznam, Poland, composer Jan Kaczmarek doesn’t look tired, but he should. As the founder and creative director of the Transatlantyk Film & Music Festival, Kaczmarek embraces his role as the event’s public face.

A national hero in Poland thanks to a thriving Hollywood career that includes a best original score Oscar for 2004’s Finding Neverland, Kaczmarek is seemingly everywhere during the fest. Whether he’s hosting screenings and functions at night or spending his days fielding interview requests from local and international media, Kaczmarek is always eager to talk about what he calls his “festival of ideas.” If that weren’t enough, the 59-year-old composer is also putting the finishing touches on the score for The Time Being, which premiers at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.

Kaczmarek took time out from a hectic schedule to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about the second edition of the Transatlantyk Fest, his early inspiration and why he believes in a “holistic” approach to music.

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The Hollywood Reporter: How would you characterize the overall mood of the festival this year?

Jan Kaczmarek: Very good. There is very good energy in the air. We’re selling a lot of tickets and all the cinemas are very crowded. We’re showing 170 movies here in 18 sections. We’re also showing 17 polish premieres that have been prizewinners at big festivals like the Berlinale. We’ve also started our Transatlantyk Instant Composition Contest. I’m very proud of this competition because it is the only one of its kind in the world: Immediately after seeing a film clip the contestant is taken to another room and he or she has to immediately come up with a piece of music. It’s all about not having time to think and your instant response to the images.

THR: Why is that kind of instant response important?

Kaczmarek: In my experience, instant response to the image is essential. When I see a movie I respond and this is the most important moment. Then of course you work on the structure and revise things, but the essence of finding a good theme or the nature of the music usually happens in that first moment of contact. You have a love affair with the movie or you don’t; it may come easily or be deadly difficult. This is settled very early. And there is a tradition of instant composition. It used to be very alive during the Baroque period. But then, over time, Romanticism in the 19th century was probably the end of it and then slowly an academic point of view took over and there was less and less freedom. You had write very precisely.  

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THR: Are you trying to teach young composers to not over-think things?

Kaczmarek: Yes, at least in the beginning. In the beginning your instincts have to be ready. You will find the best solutions with your naked instinct; something in the very beginning that connects you to the picture without thinking. Then when you have something like a theme or harmony and other elements then you can start thinking and playing with it. 

THR: Was this something you learned through trial and error?

Kaczmarek: I was always instinctive, even in my childhood. In high school I discovered working with poetry and the theater. Poetry gives space to music so when I would sit at the piano I discovered that I could only respond through music to the poetry. That was the beginning of pleasure because I found this joy that I could be stimulated by something, which in this case was poetry and the theater, and then later film.

THR: As a non-musician I’ve always found it fascinating that music can capture so many different moods or emotions. Not just happy or sad but everything in between that is more nuanced. I’ve never really understood how it does that.

Kaczmarek: As you said, the extremes are easy: If something is extremely happy or extremely depressing we can create what you might call a ‘scientific formula.’ But it’s always about what is in between. This is the true art. In that place — in between — you cannot premeditate it. This is a place where your sensitivity comes into play. If you have sensitivity to life and other people or whatever you see around you, then you respond to your experience. This is the basic principle of every artist.

THR: With music though there seems to be an element of real magic to the process. Would you agree with that?

Kaczmarek:  Yes I do, deeply. There is a mysterious algorithm which regulates our responses and how we transfer our experiences into music. Some of us have this gift from somewhere and can do that.  I feel very blessed that I have this as a part of my life, not only as a professional, but in my personal life. I can wake up and go to the piano and it enriches my life.

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THR: Were you a big film fan when you were growing up?

Kaczmarek: I grew up in a small town in Poland and we had only one cinema with very few movies coming from the West. I was not completely aware of film music. But when I was in high school I saw a movie – I can’t remember what it was — but I said to my girlfriend “some day my name will be up there when it says ‘music by’” (laughs). I started in Polish theater in the 70s and 80s. Theater at this time was very open to music. I was lucky to work with the best directors in Poland who were young usually — rebellious and experimental.

THR: Was that sense of experimentation important to your development as a film composer?

Kaczmarek: Yes, no question. I had one experience which was essential: I worked in [experimental theater director] Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘laboratory.’ He was a huge music guru in those days. I spent only a few weeks there and it changed my life. He demolished my mind in such an irresponsible way that today he would be arrested. You left that place and you no longer could live in the reality you left behind because you have no idea what to do with your creativity. I was lucky to find this rare fidola — a kind of zither almost — with 70 strings, which allowed me to use my own techniques. That opened me up to find my own form of expression; my own identity. And there was a theater in Poznan called Theater of the Eight Day where we worked on the same play for a year. It was all about improvising – both actors and musicians. We musicians would sit on the floor and improvise and I would play my fidola and acoustic guitar and we would respond to the actors, who would hear the music and respond to us. It was an incredibly rare way of building a play. When we found something interesting we would stop and repeat it, so slowly all the best moments were becoming a solid structure. It took a year but eventually this was one of the most popular avant-garde plays in Poland.

THR: Did you formally study music?

Kaczmarek: No. I only studied piano formally for nine years. Then I hated music. My teacher was a disciplinarian. Very soviet, merciless (laughs). I just couldn’t function within this level of discipline. But then when I went to high school and discovered freedom in the theater. I felt free because no one would criticize me. That was my beginning.

THR: Things could have gone a number of ways at that point. Do feel like luck or fate played a role in you becoming a composer?

Kaczmarek: Always. There is always a unique combination of luck and fate and inspiration coming from outside. You can never reconstruct your career. There is always this mysterious chain of encounters and collisions that you never could have planned. I never planned on going to America for instance. I got a grant from the State Department to go to America only for one month. One month turned into 23 years. So you never know.

THR: Do you explain to aspiring composers that a large part of what they will be doing is not creative or musical at all, but involves navigating the business?

Kaczmarek: This is the biggest part of our effort, especially with composers coming from Eastern Europe who are not familiar with the nature of the business. My favorite topic is how to maintain your identity as an artist while working and being successful. You can boycott things, but that is easy. You can say ‘I am an artist, I will not compromise.’ That is fine but you will not work. So how do you work in the film business without selling your soul? It’s about finding the limits to your compromises and this is a very difficult art. With many young composers, and even filmmakers, they are lost in a way because no one ever talks about this. We teach them harmony and counterpoint but no one talks about how to survive enormous pressure coming from the corporate world. It is a completely different world.

THR: Did you ever have a hard time navigating that world?

Kaczmarek: Well my story is not typical. I graduated from the law department here in Poznan, but I never practiced law for one day. But that study exposed me to logic and philosophy and it taught me how to think about those things. I hated studying law, but in a strange way it supplied me with the tools to survive my American adventure.  

THR: That’s interesting because musically you said you thrive on instinct, but studying the law is kind of the opposite of that isn’t it?

Kaczmarek: I believe in the holistic approach. You have to find harmony between these two worlds and then you are a complete person.

THR: In addition to all your duties as the festival director, you are also working on the score to the upcoming drama The Time Being, which premieres in Toronto in just a few weeks. How are you holding up?

Kaczmarek: I don’t sleep. This is my secret [laughs]. I divide my time well. I do my festival work and then I write. Composing and the festival both fuel my adrenaline. That said, when the festival is over, I will be mostly dead!