It could be said composer Jan Kaczmarek (“Finding Neverland”) is attracted to the unknown. When he moved from his native Poland to the United States in 1989, he chose to live in L.A. partly due to its unfamiliarity, and its promise of “unfulfilled dreams and expectations.” And, as he describes it, the film projects that most excite him involve genres and styles “that I’ve never done.”
And so when he was approached to score “Get Low,” a story set in 1930s Tennessee that mixes fact, rural folktales and myth, he was attracted to the idea of infusing the music with subtle elements of American bluegrass, which he describes as “having a mystery in it.”
The Depression-era tale, which opens Friday and stars Robert Duvall as an enigmatic, small-town hermit who plans his own funeral party while harboring a dark secret about his past, begins dramatically with a house in full blaze, setting up the story with a glimpse of the mysterious incident that lies at the movie’s core.
Employing a string quartet accompanied by piano, the music suggests a sense of mystery and anticipation, eventually swelling to a larger orchestral arrangement with the use of the synthesizer, which Kaczmarek himself plays. The mix of traditional and modern instrumentation was designed to maintain a sense of authenticity while creating what Kaczmarek terms a “mysterious or metaphysical environment.”
“I wanted to escape easy classification that the music was of a certain period,” he says. “Thanks to the synthesizer, the sound cannot be labeled easily.”
The use of dobro, a variation on the steel slide guitar, was key. “For me,” Kaczmarek says, “the challenge and pleasure was to use instruments like dobro guitar and employ them in slightly different forms so we can actually achieve the delicate soundscape of mystery, trying to create the impression a unique flavor for the entire picture.”
The dobro, for which Kaczmarek and first-time feature director Aaron Schneider recruited the 12-time, Grammy-winning Jerry Douglas also connotes both a regional flavor and a tinge of lightness and humor in the film’s more relaxed scenes, such as the exchanges between Duvall and a funeral home salesman played by Lucas Black.
“The idea was to be subtle and just have a flavor,” Kaczmarek says, “which helps you to have a certain distance and allows you to depart from seriousness of it, but not obviously funny in a straightforward fashion.”
Kaczmarek is all about subtlety and experimentation. In the late ’70s, he formed the Orchestra of the Eighth Day, performing at such events as the Venice Biennale and the International Music Festival in Karlovy Vary and gaining critical acclaim in jazz circles (one of his heroes is Polish jazz trumpeter Tomasz Stanko). He has won an Obie and a Drama Desk award for his music for the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1992 production of John Ford’s 17th Century play ” ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore”; and has studied and worked with the pioneering avant-garde theater director and fellow Pole Jerzy Grotowski.
The subtlety part is his embrace of silence, a refreshing trait when so many tentpole pictures employ wall-to-wall music that borders on, and often surpasses, bombast.
“I believe that silence increases the importance of music,” he says. “When music comes after a certain amount of silence its presence is very meaningful and it contributes emotionally much stronger than happens otherwise.”
Kaczmarek spoke to Daily Variety from the small Polish town of Rozbitek, where in 2005 he founded the Instytut Rozbitek, a kind of Eastern European version of the Sundance Institute designed to encourage work in film, theater, music and new media.
“Part of the charm, part of the surprise of the village,” he says, “is its name means ‘castaway,’ which was an interesting metaphor for an immigrant like myself, somebody who left Poland 20 years ago, lives in the United States but somehow is always in between, no matter how well-organized your life is, how wonderful your career is.
“I deeply believe that traveling between two cultures is always beneficial to anybody, not to mention working with young talented people is always a source of inspiration and stimulates my mind.”