Composers from Russia, Bulgaria, Poland tackle Hollywood
The headwaters of film music tend to replenish themselves in unexpected ways. And lately that’s meant an influx of talent from Eastern Europe, where three composers in particular — Abel Korzeniowski, Sergey Yevtushenko and Mario Grigorov — have begun to make their marks on the film world, each in a novel way.
Korzeniowski, who wrote the score to Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” hails from Poland and was a student of classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki. His score for Ford’s debut feature is short — around 30 minutes of music — but it includes an especially compelling theme: an aching melody tinged with the sort of melancholy often associated with music from Eastern Europe. The theme is carried principally by a solo violin, but the composer maintains that he did not intend to draw obvious parallels between his score and the film’s solitary protagonist.
The composer’s intent was to get at the emotional core of Ford’s movie, in which an outwardly austere, emotionally reserved professor (Colin Firth) is reawakened to life. “First and foremost, I was trying to convey complexity of emotions,” Korzeniowski says. “It’s kind of hard to describe, but going the way of the very simple, using a theme with no counterpoint, means being exposed. The melody really has to work, because you don’t have anything to mask it. This was the main struggle: how to use simple means to achieve something like a blade that could cut through you and reach your heart. ”
Grigorov, who hails from Bulgaria but spent his formative years in Iran and then East Germany, faced a different challenge. His fanciful underscore to the movie “Precious” is also short, but it plays against songs by such big names as Mary J. Blige and Queen Latifah that more overtly relate to the world of the young, incredibly put-upon protagonist (played by Gabourey Sidibe). By contrast, his music conveys her interior life.
I was really hoping to bring out the emotional side of Precious,” Grigorov says. “My role in the film was to tell that story, to show that she is someone who has feelings. The music had to help humanize her and make her a believable character who needs love.”
Though the choice was director Lee Daniels’ rather than his own, Grigorov maintains that he’s comfortable with the way musical duties were divided on this project: “I think the film would have been very different having an hour and a half of score. But the combination of silence, source music — which is the songs — and my score all works together very powerfully. I think Lee did an amazing job of knowing where to place the music.”
The story of Russian musicologist Yevtushenko’s score to Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” which depicts the final days of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his tempestuous marriage to Sofya (Helen Mirren), is nearly as dramatic as the one it accompanies, but you’d never know it from the pic’s seamless interplay of image and music.
Instead, Yevtushenko’s music seems as elemental and organic as Tolstoy himself, with brooding lyricism and wistful, contemplative motifs leavened by an arcing quality clearly evoking romance and passion. “The message is: Love each other,” the composer says. “It is the most important treasure. If love dies on our planet, everything will die. This is the main feeling I felt, and this was also Mike’s central idea: how difficult it is to live with love and how impossible it is to live without it.”
His three hours of music were whittled down to 45 minutes; throughout, the cello represents Tolstoy and the oboe Sofya. But the title track, which sums up the film’s conflicting emotions in a simple melody reminiscent of something by Tchaikovsky, came only after much anguish.
I wake up and come to the piano, and my hands just play this music,” Yevtushenko says. “And when I show it to Mike, it was immediately loved by him. It was the result of inspiration, of music coming from somewhere after I was so upset and crying that I have no love theme. And then it became the main theme of love throughout the movie. It was made under the inspiration of Mike and our prayers to God.”