Abel Korzeniowski is unique among today's film and TV composers — for a number of reasons. With everything increasingly fast-paced and ever more composers delving into percussion and synths as a starting point, Korzeniowski begins with the strings.
With cello as his origin point, he brings a different voice to the film and television landscape — a voice distinctive enough to contend with heavy hitters like Hans Zimmer. Currently you can hear his work on Showtime's Penny Dreadful, which is gearing up for a second season with a season one release on Blu-ray and DVD in October.
You're from Poland, is that correct?
Yes, I am.
Do you enjoy Los Angeles better?
Yes, I do. The amount of light keeps you a little more euphoric.
And when did you move to LA?
Eight years ago.
What brought the shift for you?
This had always been my big dream — to work in Hollywood. It's a mecca. After I wrote Metropolis I felt ready to see if I could make it in Hollywood because Metropolis was a really large project — over 140 minutes of music, all orchestral — so I felt I had something in my hand that I could show for my demo reel. So, I looked for an agent and moved here as soon as I got my work permit, which was very difficult.
How long was it before you got A Single Man? At least for me, that was my exposure to your work.
Yes, for many people [laughs]. A Single Man must have been two years after I got here. I had an interview for my fist film — this was Pu-239 for HBO — the day after I arrived, and I had terrible jetlag and this was my first contact with professional English and I wasn't getting everything. This was really difficult and eventually I didn't get the project. So, they hired another composer and fortunately for me this collaboration didn't work and they came back to me after six months and that's how I started my first movie in Hollywood. Getting this first one was a real challenge because nothing I had done in Poland mattered for anybody. The response was "okay, we like your music, it's nice, come back to us once you have a couple of projects done here." The main anxiety was to engage with someone from outside who hadn't worked in the Hollywood system yet. So, this was a big deal.
Is it fair to assume you don't have this problem anymore with a few projects under your belt?
Yes and no, because right now I am looking for a different level of project. So, it's still very difficult. I haven't done a proper studio film yet — I am still not there in terms of a very large movie, and it would still require a lot of convincing and fighting for it, dealing with politics and everything. So, it's still hard. The easier thing is I could probably have a movie that's very small or similar to what I have done in the past without difficulty. This is the easiest thing right now, but it's something I wouldn't want to do. I really try to expand the way people see my music — it's important to me that I am not strictly classified as a romantic or sorrowful, sad score composer. The biggest dream would be frankly a scifi/fantasy film — Star Trek or Inception, something like that — this is what inspires me, movies with imagination.
I love that you come at composition with strings as a starting point and I think it really sets you apart. You have a unique voice compared to many composers working on big, blockbuster projects. Your focus is cello, is that correct?
I have a Master's degree in cello. I played it for 21 years and then I concentrated on composition, but this is my Eastern European heritage. We love strings, can do all kinds of things with them, and perhaps because we love them so much we can be a bit more sophisticated with them. On the other hand, British composers have their brass — incredible tradition of writing for wind instruments — and obviously percussionists have their own world of doing great energetic textures, but not necessarily developing proper themes, which is important to me. This is always my first goal to create identity, which I believe comes from a strong theme in the first place.
How does your process work for developing new work?
I cannot really say. I'm not aware how it works and I can only assume it is similar for all composers. If you're a percussionist you will naturally start from what you know best, and the same with other instruments. If I want to develop a theme, a string instrument is really my natural choice. I cannot write music thinking I use strings too much and even when I feel compelled to use strings I will try to use different instruments because on an intellectual level I feel the drive to change it. The change comes when you feel the need to expand the palette. This is one of the reasons I used electronics and synthetic strings in Penny Dreadful — it offers a distinct color, not substituting, but complementing the orchestra recording. You can hear it in Mina's theme — it provides a super natural element that I couldn't get from acoustic instruments. There's always a time where you need to add something to your palette and not earlier than that.
The show's sound has such a heavy focus on wood and gears, which allows a symbiosis with your score — drawing in the natural organics of your work. Did you work at all with the sound designers?
No. I only had some sound design in place as a temporary mock-up. Frankly, I'm not fully aware of what is present in the sound design so I'm not able to comment.
The sound just has a very organic wood and metal focus that feels right for the show, and I can see why your work was desirable.
There's always a matter of fitting your orchestration into the spaces the characters are in. For example, I would use prepared piano only in enclosed spaces like the one when they pledge to each other. Because this is an intimate instrument that you associate with listening to it in a living room, in my mind when you use piano in an outdoor scene, it provides a certain intimacy immediately. Depending on the scene, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. If music is supposed to be neutral and fitting the general surroundings it would not be great because it will be too emotional. On the other hand, if you need that, if you need this element of close-up to music, a focus or spotlight, then having piano is the right thing to do. There's always choices like this. In my view, this is why the strings work well for Penny Dreadful: there's a lot of intimate space around the corridors, there's small wooden rooms with wooden walls. If you try to imagine different kinds of sounds, or come at it with some brassy, shiny things it would be much more than the visual space could handle. This is the connection I try to make.
If I am remembering correctly the chronology of the show, I think you introduced the piano first with the character of Proteus.
Yes, that's correct.
What is it about that character and that introduction that brought in the piano for you?
What music does in this scene is a sort of commentary. I felt entitled to speak to the audience in a more immediate way. Proteus is basically a child. Really naive, learning basic things, and perceiving the world like a child responding to very basic things we take for granted. He would respond to new smells, to changes in light, very basic elements. This is what I needed to express in his music — a certain emotion that's not connected to any historical period because it's not the essence of this character, it's his pure soul, he's as sincere as a child would be, and this is a very universal quality. A child is a child in the 17th century as a child would be now. The sensitivity would be very similar. So, music for him was also a bit more modern in a sense of appealing to modern sensitivity because this is how I thought I would feel toward this kind of person today and it didn't matter that we see a scene taking place in the 19th century. Does that make sense?
It absolutely does. Did you score to a lot of the characters — was that how you developed the themes or was Proteus an anomaly?
Not all of the characters called for a theme. For example, Ethan didn't really have a chance to show his true self so there wasn't a proper opportunity to attempt a theme that would represent him. So, not all the characters are equal. In the first season Vanessa obviously had the focus on her and Mina was the main challenge for the characters — Mina was the quest so she got a dedicated theme. Proteus and the Creature, their themes are connected. It's a different style of music and I don't even think about those themes as something you could hum or sing. But, rather, a little more modern aesthetic choice for what kind of music this is because they both are modern and the Creature, Frankenstein's first born, has an incredibly sophisticated way of speaking and his philosophy is fascinating — he's modernity personified. That's why his music, like Proteus, is very different from the rest of the score. Less based in period and more universal. Other characters didn't really have a chance to get themes because they weren't presented this way in the first season.
Were you aware of the entire season's narrative arc or were you working episode to episode?
I was, yeah. I was given all the scripts to read first and then I was given episodes as they were finished. Obviously I couldn't see the whole series on screen, but I read the scripts first.
Did that influence your process? Were you composing it more as a long movie or did you find yourself composing to each episode? Or a mix?
That's a very good question. It felt like a very long movie, but I was getting sections of it so I couldn't really say I was scoring it as one eight hour movie. But, it felt this way.
At particular times you bring the main credit theme into the show. What made that appropriate for those times?
The main theme — after the intro, it starts with a viola solo — is actually Vanessa's theme, which has two parts. The first part has this three note motif that creates a larger arc, but basically with those three notes I was able to indicate her presence and this was something the producers wanted me to do to underline her presence in many moments. The second part of her theme is a more lyrical one — a more elaborate melody. This part of Vanessa's theme represents her complexity. Her being the mother of evil — this was one of the most important notes I was given by John Logan — meant that she's not supposed to be understood as a victim. The part of her being possessed is a feature of her character — a quality of advantage, not a flaw. So, the second part of her theme represents this kind of different beauty in her. We're not supposed to pity her, we're supposed to be fascinated by her. I don't consider her a sad character or something like that. It was all about enhancing her complexity and the many emotional levels so beautifully performed by Eva Green.
And it takes you all the way to the final moments of the season when she is asked if she really wants to lose something that makes her different.
Yes, exactly. This is the explanation of the whole character and really crucial to understanding what she is — you know, she's this kind of a creature in a way that every one of us has different sides/elements to our personality that may be considered by those in the outside world as evil or bad, but you know they are a part of us.
Continuing with that idea, did you have anything in your music to allude to the person Josh Hartnett's character would reveal himself to be in the final episode?
Yes, but it didn't make it to the final cuts. The producers didn't want to lead too much to the reveal. So, when I tried to write something that really defined his character in this way it would momentarily blow the cover.
Do you imagine trying to take that into season two?
Oh yeah, I am sure.
In episode two, during the seance sequence, there's a lot of more experimental composition that occurs, at least for the first part of it, and I know you studied under Penderecki's school; so I'm wondering if the process of composing something like this is different than the more theme-based pieces.
Yes, it's different. In a way it's a composition that's less organized, but I'm still inclined to organize things in my music so I need to keep a certain flow of ideas even if I use more sounds that are closer to sound effects. There was a lot of prepared piano in this particular scene, intersecting with short snippets of melodies and themes like a sort of patchwork reflecting that Vanessa transitions from one character to another within acting as a medium. So, yes, this is a bit different type of music, but enjoyable too.
Was that a particular sequence where you brought in more of electronics too or did you achieve that organically?
This particular sequence didn't use too much electronics. There's much more in the openly scary scenes where they are fighting with vampires — a lot more electronic textures and other sound effects. But, the seance scene was more about different acoustic noises intersecting with musical elements.
What was it about the more action-oriented scenes that seemed to elicit the need or desire for more electronics and sound effects? Was it just a little more modern take on the scene?
Not really. It was more about getting many layers and making it really thick so that you have a background that may be synthetic, may have some menacing texture quality, then you have other layers of acoustic instruments, and eventually on top of it you have other elements that could be sparse, but much more scary and acting as events. So, electronic textures were a very natural thing to use and achieve this multi-layered composition.
In episode six, you have a singular theme that leads up to them getting on the boat. If I remember correctly it comes in three different times and each time it evolves a little more — you start to bring in more percussion and then the third time as they see the boat you start to bring in the piano. Can you talk about that at all and what made that episode call for something singular like that?
It's an interesting question because you are not the first person who has asked me about it. This element didn't make it onto the album because it was not doubled up enough to make sense of it on the album and I just couldn't find the place that would be proper for it. Perhaps on the next season this will be possible. But, this was something that started in episode 1 when they enter the first fight with familiars and the vampire. And then it sort of continued throughout their following fights, but it never really had a chance to double up into something longer, just an introduction.
One more thing that I am curious about: for you, what is this show about? Beyond the actual narrative, stemming from your perspective as a composer, what do you think it is?
To me it's very modern. It's about identity, trying to find oneself in the world.
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