The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

‘ 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.’ ’’

Pic­ture: David Ger­aghty

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