Krzesimir Dębski | Playlist

Initially, Wojciech Kilar was an avant-garde composer. A few years after finishing his studies he underwent a stylistic change, because at the beginning he wrote old-style works. He was slightly influenced by the world of politics, which imposed socialist realism on Polish artists, so he escaped into the world of early music, like Górecki did. But then he became a leading exponent of sonorism, which was about exploring new sounds of traditional instruments, the traditional orchestra. At some point, as he said, he became horrified by the fact that the 20th century was a graveyard of scores, that many works had been written, that there was this incredible emancipation of composers – everybody could compose, democratically. Albums, recordings, radio – music was spreading at an incredible pace. Unfortunately, this arrogance of 20th-century artists, not only in music, in their tendency to impose an avant-garde way of thinking may have done a lot of damage to the development of music. When they came to the conclusion that old works were basically worthless, nearly all music other than theirs was burned at the stake.

So in the early 1970s Wojciech Kilar made a turn in his composing. He decided to write what he felt he should write. But when it comes to some of his earlier compositions, I think that Riff is an excellent avant-garde piece, as is Upstairs-Downstairs. These are two works that are very important and very pleasant to me. Surprisingly, they were followed by works like Angelus, Krzesany and Orawa, that is, by attempts to use religious or folk music in a modern manner, and to draw on folklore, especially highlander folklore.

Kilar’s achievements in this respect are, I think, great – thanks to this folklorism they are performed very frequently around the world. I myself heard performances of these works in the U.S. and Norway. And they created a sensation.

I think that this is something we have a slight problem with in Poland. What the poet Mikołaj Rej said long ago about Poles having their own language... Yet we still ape everything that is foreign. Here, on the other hand, Kilar made a modern use of folklore, which is attractive, which is unknown and which is ours. This surprises people in the West, because it’s something fresh, something they didn’t know. It is also brilliantly written and can be brilliantly performed.

Kilar – I talked to him several times about it – wasn’t very eager to boast about his film music. I also write film music and it’s a pleasant job – like the work of a set designer in the theatre. A set designer has to come up with a 19th-century interior, a new synthesis of this style, has to paint a picture imitating some painter’s style or at least commission such a painting. And costumes. It’s about working with eclectic material but with old music. And it’s a very good exercise for any composer. Yet as far as I know Kilar didn’t value these works of his very highly, he treated them as a source of income and exercise. He later would transfer some of his film themes to his art music, transforming them in an artistic, more original manner.

I think the audiences have the same problem as Kilar had. Which works to like – Riff, the avant-garde Upstairs-Downstairs, or, for example, Hoary Fog or Krzesany. I think one can like both. And Kilar probably did like both. Why not? As a composer I would like for more of his earlier pieces – modern, avant-garde pieces – to be known to a wider audience.

Krzesimir Dębski – Polish composer, conductor and jazz violinist as well as arranger and music producer. A versatile composer of contemporary music: symphonic and chamber music as well as theatre and film music.