ANNABEL McGILVRAY meets CEZARY SKUBISZEWSKI SCREEN COMPOSER
‘ AT two in the morning she was dancing on the table, singing like an angel, and she looked down at me and said: ‘ You must write a song that I can sing in your film.’ ’’ Composer Cezary Skubiszewski is explaining the inspiration behind a small but memorable part of the score for the film The Sound of One Hand Clapping , as it occurred in his kitchen late one night with more than a dash of Polish vodka and the then lead singer from Riverdance, Katie McMahon.
‘‘ How could I resist? I woke the next morning after just two hours’ sleep, wrote the part and we recorded that afternoon.’’
Skubiszewski, winner of two AFI awards and the man behind the music in films The Rage in Placid Lake , Two Hands , After the Deluge and many more, is a wellspring of vignettes burnished with a heavy accent harking back to his birthplace in Warsaw.
There is talk of Marlene Dietrich, Radiohead, John F. Kennedy’s assassination and beer bottles. Sentences seem never to end, statements are punctuated with rising inflections and laughter turns rapidly to earnest divulgence.
Speaking in his Melbourne backyard studio looking out into his garden, which has contributed the odd accidental big screen bird call, there is an intensity to his storytelling, an evident joy on a nervous edge as he talks about his work on the recently released independent Australian big- screen documentary Night , and the upcoming Scottish- Australian big- budget production Death Defying Acts . He refers to the vulnerability that artists in the public eye must expose themselves to.
‘‘ So much in our type of work depends on selfexamination of your sense of aesthetics,’’ he says. ‘‘ It is work when you really search yourself often and it’s a serious job in a way. You put yourself on the plate and that takes quite a bit of soul- searching and it very much depends on how good an artist you are and, the degree ( to which) you judge yourself.’’
Skubiszewski has deliberately chosen such exposure. He grew up in the centre of the Polish capital in the midst of an arts and theatre focused family: his mother was an accomplished pianist, his aunt a prima ballerina and his family had once managed a string of Warsaw theatres.
But when Skubiszewski migrated to Australia in 1974 after his parents’ deaths, he studied to be a veterinary surgeon.
‘‘ Before vet science I was studying music, I was playing music, but when it came to the big decision about the future of my life, I got cold feet. I didn’t feel confident enough in my creative work. To be a creative person you have to have a selfbelief. At that stage I didn’t see that it was possible that I had enough in me to give.’’
But drawn repeatedly to the piano at the University of Melbourne’s Newman College and with the acclamation his musical doodling brought, he says he realised that music was where his real passion lay.
Since that realisation, Skubiszewski says he has been ‘‘ drifting slightly’’ towards writing music mostly for films. He initially began composing for television before being given the opportunity to write the score for the film of Kate Grenville’s novel Lilian’s Story in 1996.
‘‘ Television is more about the words and communicating the story, whereas with film you remember the scenes; it’s more about the particular scenes from the film that will stay with you. And some scenes don’t have to have any dialogue.
‘‘ When I am approached by a director to work on a film, to me it is so crucial that I get as much information and get as close as possible to the emotional state of the director.
‘‘ What is there for me to grasp so that maybe I can contribute and bring another dimension to the story, yes? Sometimes directors just want to reinforce the story with the music, but they’re very happy if you can bring what I call another colour, another emotional dimension so that it pushes the film deeper.’’
In Death Defying Acts , directed by Gillian Armstrong, the staccato rhythm of percussive strings builds tension as Guy Pearce’s Harry Houdini hangs from a tower, and the faintest echo of a bagpipe follows the trail of Catherine Zeta- Jones’s character through Edinburgh’s streets. In Night , Scott Tinkler’s jazz trumpet lilts above an orchestra while images of neonlit cityscapes sweep past. Skubiszewski has written music for everything from orchestras to uilleann pipes and beer bottles. He writes at the piano, on the computer or on paper, whenever and wherever opportunity allows. As in the case of tabletop dancing for The Sound of One Hand Clapping, he makes use of inspiration wherever and whenever it occurs.
A melody from the AFI award- winning score for La Spagnola was a car park revelation, while Skubiszewski was waiting outside a theatre for his daughter. Realising after an hour that he was at the wrong venue and returning home to find his daughter already safely ensconced, he says, ‘‘ I was able to write the melody down precisely as it had occurred in my head.’’
With talk of inspiration, Skubiszewski becomes vehement about the modern celebration of mediocrity. ‘‘ I love very talented people and I despise mediocrity. I get upset when people don’t differentiate, when they put somebody who in my opinion is a great artist, a great composer, on the same level as someone who I consider is a mediocrity. It’s like people comparing Eric Clapton to ( Jimi) Hendrix. It’s completely wrong because Hendrix was an artist who was more than rock ’ n’ roll; he took the music to another level. Eric Clapton is just a good blues guitar player.’’
And how does he judge himself against the rigorous standards of aesthetic self- examination?
He replies with care.
‘‘ I still think that I’m on a journey to discover more about myself, about what I can come up with. With every job, you feel like you are always challenging yourself. I don’t want to sound pretentious, yes? But it is, in reality, like that. Sometimes I surprise myself and that is quite amazing. But on the other hand, you listen to some parts and you think, ‘ I wish I had done it differently.’ ’’