Film composer Ales Brezina - on Martinu, Menzel, and silence

Jiri Menzel's new film I Served the King of England, an adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal's classic novel of the same name, is proving hugely successful among Czech filmgoers. Many people, however, have been particularly captivated by the wonderful score, created by the Czech film composer Ales Brezina. In this week's edition of Czechs Today, Rob Cameron speaks to Ales at the offices of the Martinu Institute, the organisation he's built up virtually from scratch since 1995.

When did you know you wanted to devote your life to music Ales?

"It was at the age of 5, in 1969. I was listening to the radio playing an incredible beautiful melody and I asked my mother - what instrument is that? And she said - that's the violin. And I asked her - what composition is it? And she said - that's The Nightingale, which was film music by Vaclav Trojan for a puppet film by Jiri Trnka. And the third question was - would I ever be able to play that? And my mother was clever enough to say yes. So then we went to a primary school, an artistic primary school, and I found a very nice violin teacher and I started violin lessons."

How long did it take you to learn that piece?

"I never played it! It's not that it wouldn't be playable, but at the Conservatoire you have to play more serious repertoire such as Beethoven and Mozart and Bruch and so on, and Vaclav Trojan was never recognised as a great master of Czech classical music, at least not at that time and at least not in Plzen. Plzen was a highly conservative city, and you had to play really serious music."

We're sitting here in the offices of the Martinu Institute. Both as a musician and as a composer, how much influence has Bohuslav Martinu had on your own work?

"I would say in terms of music he has no influence, because he wrote music for completely different occasions than me. I write music for cinema. Martinu wrote one large score for a very avant-garde film in 1935 called Marika Nevernice - Marika the Unfaithful - but this was an exception for him, whereas for me it's the rule. So it means to me, more important than my love for Martinu is my love for the subject of the film and my talks with the film's director. So that's what matters."

I'd like to play a piece of music from the I Served the King of England soundtrack, called Padajici Bankovky or Falling Banknotes...

You mentioned that Martinu had no influence on your composing, but listening to that wonderful piece really reminds me of Martinu. Am I wrong or am I right?

"You can never be wrong! I don't know. You know, asking people what their music sounds like is a pointless question. You hear what influenced your thinking in that particular piece."

I'm thinking of the soaring violins, and just the general phrasing.

"Well....could be. As I said, I wouldn't be able to say that, but if you say it sounds a bit like Martinu then I'm happy of course, yes."

Tell me a bit about the composing process. Jiri Menzel asked you to compose the music for I Served the King of England, how did you go about it?

"We had really an immense amount of time. In the case of I Served the King of England, it was two years. In the space of two years, I composed some two hours of music, of which only 35 minutes are in the film. But we really had time to reject a lot of music which wasn't bad at all, but which didn't fit what Jiri Menzel needed. That was the hardest part of our discussion. As you know, Jiri Menzel is some 30 years older than me, and his experience of life, his opinions are in some cases different, and he had - of course, as everyone has - different ideas of what is calm, what is wild, what is nostalgic, what is lyrical and so on. So we spent I would say more than half a year clearing up those terms. I'd bring him a piece of music and he'd say - why is that so sad? And I'd say - it's not sad at all. And only after this half of year of clearing up the terms did we find the way to co-operate."

"I wouldn't say sick. I've no need to listen to it of course, because I know every note, and if you know that, then you see what happened in bar 3 to the horn player, and how we got around it with cutting and so on...I don't listen to music to relax to be honest. I listen to music to learn something new. To me, music is completely incapable of creating relaxation because I can't stop listening to the music and thinking about it. Even if it's stupid trash music, I still think - oh what is this guitar player doing, that's so stupid!"

Dissecting it.

"Yes. So for me, I listen to music to learn something new, to think about it in musicological terms. I listen to it not at the end of the day, because I like silence as much as I like music. I enjoy the silent space in my flat at the end of the day and I prefer to listen to music on weekends or my lunch break. That's when I listen to music very much."