Tag Archives: Krzyzstof Komeda

Reel Sounds: Ominous Silences – Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water

The story of Krzysztof Komeda provides a very good argument for US health reform. While in the States at the end of the 60s to compose the music for Rosemary’s Baby, the Polish jazz pianist sustained severe head injuries in a random accident. Lacking any health insurance, he was unable to get treatment and immediately put on a plane back to Poland. He died shortly afterwards without regaining consciousness. He had been one of Poland’s most celebrated jazz musicians, and the first to start a modern jazz group in Poland. His distinctive style was characterised by a mix of the cool school of Gerry Mulligan and the Modern Jazz Quartet, mixed with the bebop he’d witnessed at tiny jam sessions in a basement in Krakow. Under the influence of his years spent composing film scores, his 1965 album, ‘Astigmatic’, was noted for its unique approach to structure, and came to signal a whole new European influence on the development of jazz.

Markedly different from the Wagnerian approach of most Hollywood composers at the time, notably in the way it attaches leitmotifs to specific characters or themes and so on, Komeda’s music for Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) acts more like punctuation, breaking up the tension of the dialogue scenes almost theatrically. But, as Steven Shaviro has commented, the most noteworthy thing about what he calls the ‘scansion’ of the soundtrack is its frequent recourse to silence. Tension is built up, not by the hysterical maximalism of Bernard Herrmann, but through gaps and absences. It is the horror of reading a crucial life-or-death document, partially blacked out by the censor’s pen. At what we might consider the dramatic climax of the film there are no swirling crescendos of discordant strings, no pounding brass or crashing cymbals, just a wandering bassline, circling, seemingly aimlessly, around some indistinct tonality, never quite resolving itself, or finding its home.

Robert Barry