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    Zbigniew Preisner Reflects on Music for Films, and for Kieślowski Films


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    One challenge: ‘It is not possible to talk about music. It’s metaphysics.’

    Zbigniew Preisner at work. (Photo: Anna Wloch, via

    Zbigniew Preisner at work. (Photo: Anna Wloch, via

    This week’s special opportunity to revisit Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog also brings an opportunity for a chat with one of the late director’s most frequent and distinguished collaborators, composer Zbigniew Preisner. They first worked together in 1985 on No End, a brutally intimate film about—to boil it down, rather unfairly—loss. The subtlety and simplicity of Preisner’s score would be a hallmark of their continued collaboration, most remarkably in Dekalog, The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colors trilogy.

    There’s an ineffable quality to his music, some inexplicable emotional immediacy. In our conversation, chronicled below, Preisner calls music “the only metaphysical element of a film,” and that seems very accurate coming from him. After all, Preisner—or, sometimes, his fictive alter ego, Van den Budenmayer—did so much to help Kieślowski’s great films achieve their ethereal yet lasting aura.

    Edward Dunn: You studied history and philosophy and became a composer. I started as a composition and music theory student, but ended up as a history student. Do you find any interesting overlap in these disciplines?

    Zbigniew Preisner: It is not important what we study. It is important that we know something about the world, people, history, and who we want to be. Being an artist means also to know more about the world.

    Dunn: When I was studying composition, most of the students were mathematically inclined—immersed in serial music, musique concrète and non-tonal formulae. I was something of a relic—a lover of orchestral timbre, of Satie and Debussy, of madrigal singing and Hungarian folk music. What are your influences? Your inspirations?

    Preisner: Composition and most instrumentation is mathematics. In my opinion it is impossible to teach anybody to compose or make instrumentation. It is individual. Similarly it is impossible to teach musical form. It can be felt or not. Art is metaphysics. And as Baudelaire said: The greater the artist you are, the better you should know your craft so that it doesn’t limit your expression. It took me two years to learn my craft. And no particular composer has inspired me. I always compose music that I would like to listen to if I hadn’t composed it.

    Dunn: Your music is decidedly melodic, often relying on solo instruments. What is your thinking behind the heavy reliance on sparse instrumentation?

    Preisner: I believe melody is the nucleus of every piece of music. I think it’s easier to compose dodecaphonic music than tonal music. Instrumentation is nothing more than a nice dress for a pretty woman. You shouldn’t overdo the elements of clothes. Simplicity is the power of loveliness.

    Dunn: You use wind instruments often and to great effect. Is it a personal fondness or a textual choice?

    Preisner: You are mistaken. I rarely use wind instruments, especially brass. They are like a belt on a woman’s waist. Used in a good way it can be seen, but very often it doesn’t match. Saying it in a musical way: When I want to underline something, I use winds; if not, I don’t use them. There is no obligation to use a big orchestra all the time. I like minimalism.

    Dunn: The particular expression of (some) wind instruments, the immediacy of human breath, seems particularly suited to Kieślowski’s intimate style of filmmaking.

    Preisner: I don’t remember using wind instruments in Kieślowski’s films unless you mean the recorder that was used in Dekalog, The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors: Blue. But it is closer to the human voice than to the winds. If I used winds somewhere it means that I needed them. But it is not my favorite sound.

    ‘Dekalog: Six’ (Photo courtesy of Janus Films)

    ‘Dekalog: Six’ (Photo courtesy of Janus Films)

    Dunn: Whose idea was Van den Budenmayer? And how did he become a reference that spanned a number of films? Was this a mutual decision?

    Preisner: As you know, Van den Budenmayer is a fictional character that I created with Kieslowski. The archetype of that character comes from literature. A little like Waiting for Godot, a little bit like Mr. Cogito (a series of poems written by the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert). Van den Budenmayer is somebody who appeared, came into being, and left. We played games with the spectator.

    Dunn: Kieślowski said in interviews that you worked together throughout the filmmaking process, as opposed to the more common relationship of director and film composer—writing a score for a finished film. What did you discuss during the filmmaking process? Did you give him input, and did he use it? What kind of input did Kieślowski have in your composition? Was this typical of your relationship from the beginning?

    Preisner: The director makes the two most important decisions: What the film is going to be about, and with whom he or she is making the film. Conscious choice and the choice of collaborators create closer relations. The closer the collaboration, the better the results in the end. Here I need to disappoint you. We hardly ever talked about music, we talked about life, politics, cars. We went skiing together. But it was spending time together that produced some creative tension, an ambience that meant that in the end everybody knew what to do. It is not possible to talk about music. It’s metaphysics. Music is composed for a film. It’s the only metaphysical element of a film. If you feel the movie, and you are not afraid of adding your music personality, you win. It all depends on the communication between director and composer.

    Dunn: How important are leitmotivs in your film composing?

    Preisner: A leitmotif is always a fundamental axis of a film. Sometimes it is a melody that appears in different interpretations. And sometimes it is a climate created by orchestral tone.

    Dunn: How did you approach the ten parts of the Dekalog? How much did you focus on the whole versus the separate parts?

    Preisner: At the beginning I composed the leitmotif that appears in the whole Dekalog. Later I composed the music for each episode assuming that each of them should be different. The leitmotif developed into the main theme in Dekalog IX. I don’t know whether composing can be called pleasure. It’s work just like any other. That is my job, and I try to do it as well as possible. At the beginning it is delightful because I have always wanted to do this. And if you work with great people like Kieślowski that work is pleasant. There are emotions. But in other situations it can vary enormously.

    Dunn: For the new release of the Dekalog, were there any re-workings or re-editing of the soundtrack?

    Preisner: There were no changes since it was created apart from probably a new master of the film, about which I do not have any information. Even if I had been informed about it, I wouldn’t change anything. Dekalog is a finished work. And there is no reason to tamper with it.

    Dunn: Do you have a preference between film composing and independent composition—the freedom to compose without outside constraints, or the challenge of integrating into the whole of a film?

    Preisner: If there is a nice film proposition, then I compose for that film. And if I have something to say privately, I do it in a musical way. As with my recent album Diaries of Hope, on which Lisa Gerrard sang.

    Dunn: Are you particularly drawn to the work of any other film composers? If so, who, and why or why not?

    Preisner: I am not drawn to any of the compositions of my composer colleagues. I don’t listen and I don’t analyze. I live in my own musical world.

    Dunn: What is your ideal vision of how music should work in cinema?

    Preisner: There is no prescription. I like silence the most. Sometimes it must be prepared in a musical way.

    Dunn: Are there thematic threads—techniques, goals—that span your collaboration with Kieślowski? Or a non-musical goal?

    Preisner: Friendship.

    Dunn: Should you ever consider putting together a release of “The Lost Works of Van den Budenmayer,” I’d be humbled to contribute a piece and keep the legend alive.

    Preisner: Van den Budenmayer departed this world along with Kieślowski on March 13th1996.

    By Edward Dunn


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