Zdeněk Král: I want to evoke a reaction in the listener, humour in music can take many forms

20 July 2021, 17:00
Zdeněk Král: I want to evoke a reaction in the listener, humour in music can take many forms

How challenging is it to make it as a composer in this day and age? And does it require more than just musical knowledge and talent? We had a conversation with a renowned composer of many genres, a pianist and comedian in his own way. This is what Zdeněk Král is – a native of Nový Bor and the programmer of the Brno Music Marathon Festival, he has already performed at the show three times, and this year he added a whole dramaturgy of one stage called Humour in Music to his performance. As he himself says, “I want to show that even in the field of so-called classical music there can be room for humour and comedy.”

On your website you write about yourself that you are a composer, piano improviser and occasional actor. You are mostly involved in composing. Is it your favourite activity?

Since I’m an introverted person, composing is better for me because I can shut myself away and create. I like to play, of course, but it’s more difficult for me because of my nature. You have to convey energy to the audience, engage them, which is sometimes a challenge for me.

But I suppose in your time playing you’ve gotten used to the stress?

Generally, yes. I made a shift, for example, when I played Nekorektní skeče (Incorrect Sketches), together with Lukáš Pavlášek, Josef Polášek and Kuba Žáček, and I had to be presenter of the performance since in the course of the production, my colleagues were changing and preparing for the next acts, and I was left with the duty to fill the space in between. I was either acting or I was performing the acts to follow. Then sometimes it happened that one of the actors got sick, so I had to replace him in the performances. This happened, for example, with the production of Mladíci z Doloplaz (The Young Men of Doloplazy) in the water park in Prostějov, where we performed in our underwear... Now I had to work with stage fright again. When you don’t play in front of people for a year and a half, it’s easy to get stressed out about something going wrong. On the other hand, I feel that as I get older, I am less aware of what people think of me (laughs).

What was your path to the Brno Music Marathon Festival?

I have known the founder of the festival, David Dittrich, for a long time. He came to me saying that he would like to add a section combining music and humour to the festival, and he thought I was the most qualified person in the field. This year is my fifth year of cooperation with the festival, now also as a programmer. But in classical music it is hard to find ensembles that combine music and humour. Personally, I was helped a lot by the Incorrect Sketches, where I created sketches that were in line with the line of humour and at the same time using my serious-musical erudition.

What is the basis for this year’s dramaturgy, aptly named Humour in Music?

It stands on two pairs. And it’s always a musician-actor pairing. So Tomáš Matonoha and I will be the opening act, followed by Ondřej Gregor Brzobohatý and Ondřej Brousek. Tomáš and I have been playing together for a long time, since the days of Komediograf. Together we performed in the TV show Na forbíně TM, in the project U piana (At the Piano) and in the band Inspektor Kluzó. There is no need to discuss the fact that Tomáš is a comedian by all means. I complement it musically and the connection is unique. During the Zlín Children’s Film Festival I met Ondra Brzobohatý, with whom I performed as co-players on two pianos. We used to play tunes from TV bedtime stories. That’s when I “stole” Ondra Brousek’s job for a while. Both Ondras are actors, so they approach it in an actor’s way, and the piano is a means of creating humour. For me, on the other hand, it is the music that is primary, and I try to provide guidance on how to recognize the classics through humour. I think both concerts will complement each other beautifully.

This year’s event hasn’t finished yet, but I’ll try to ask anyway – do you have an idea about the direction of the stage for the next years? You say that there is not much humorous classical music, on the other hand you are looking for different connections.

So it’s actually an oxymoron. Contrast. Paradox. Funny classical music? That can’t be good. This is like a funny horror movie! But in today’s world, all kinds of connections are possible. I started to look beyond so-called classical music and suddenly the range of possible performers expanded. I would like to invite, for example, Andrea Buršová, who sings chansons and at the same time identifies herself in three characters: the chanson singer, the confident teacher and the slightly dirty cleaning lady. It takes the form of a concert and is also a combination of serious chansons and comic acting. 

Where do you get inspiration for all the new projects and music?

Although I’m an introvert, I’m paradoxically very social. People inspire me a lot, the debate with others is interesting. One has to be open to new stimuli, notice them and at the same time store them somewhere. Besides, I couldn’t work in just one genre of music all the time, it would be a stereotype.

You have won many awards, including the prestigious Classic Prague Awards for Best Classical Music Composition 2019 (Magnificat), the OSA Award for Most Played Classical Music Composer 2018 and 2019, and you were twice a finalist in the UK Songwriting Contest in London in 2017 and 2018. Does that mean anything to you? 

It’s external feedback. I write a lot of music for the theatre and there it is perceived more as an accompaniment and people look primarily at the actors, they appreciate the scene or the direction. On the other hand, classical music stands on its own, and here I take praise from others, or from the jury – that is, people who understand music – as an honour and I take it as encouragement and confirmation that I should continue in this direction. At the same time, it has a practical impact, when I might get more orders or get interesting projects. I appreciate awards, but I don’t overestimate them.

Which award is closest to your heart?

I appreciate the Classic Prague Awards the most. Until I succeeded here, many people in the classical music field didn’t even know about me. But thanks to the win I got into the awareness of others, I managed to establish myself in Denmark, where we are now preparing several projects, for example with the Czech-Danish violinist Lada Fedorová.

On your website you also have written that you don’t create music, but emotions. What do you mean by this?

There are many concepts of how to compose music. One person might compose, for example, using number lines or – what do I know – according to the pattern on a sweater. A different composer, a different approach. I’m capable of writing anything, but generally I’ve gone back to tradition. For me, the equation is: emotion-music-score and not: score-music-emotion. Music is primary for me, and the score is a record of the music that exists. It is written for a performer to play my music on an instrument I don’t know how to play, for example. And to convey the emotion that I put into it. And I don’t mean emotion in the romantic sense. Today the emotions are different, not pathetic and grandiose, but micro-emotions. I can get emotional from a dead iPhone...  

Can we say that you have your own musical signature?

Yes, and I think it’s legible now. Slovak musicologist Taťána Pirníková wrote an analysis of my music for a magazine. She wrote that the individual genres – sketches, classical or children’s music, etc. – are different, but at the same time you can tell that I am creating them. I have centripetal tendencies, several common themes. Of course, this can be binding at times, leading to repetition. That’s why I try to push myself, to learn new things, to be inspired by things around me. I mean, I’m not sure if “having your own musical signature” is right these days. 

Do you use different composing techniques for each genre?

Yes, but I don’t like to limit myself. I try to blend different musical styles. I recently wrote a piece for a piano trio, using a kind of rap rhythm. Sometimes I try to bring jazz harmony or elements of rock into classical music. It’s not done artificially, like that I have to, but it comes from the natural “doing” of the song. For songs, I usually write the music to the finished lyrics, so I think about how to emphasize the meaning of the words. 

So how did you get into creating humorous music and sketches, for example the aforementioned Incorrect Sketches? That’s a completely different discipline. Especially if, as you claim, you’re an introvert. 

It was the fault of Pepa Polášek, who was about to become a happy father and at that time HaDivadlo was due to fly to Moscow. His partner was supposed to accompany a play by the Russian director Ponomarev, but because of her pregnancy I replaced her. I flew to Moscow, saw Lenin and Bulgakov’s apartment. I drank Žiguli beer with all of them, got acquainted with them, and I was able to stay in HaDivadlo for a longer period of time, working in the Komediograf show, which featured Tomáš Matonoha, Pavel Liška, Mariana Chmelařová, Josef Polášek and others. The show ran for over twenty years and became a cult thing. I composed the music, my colleague and I wrote about two hundred songs and we acted as a musical accompaniment. By working in Komediograf and writing music for other stages, I fulfilled part of my mission to have something to do with theatre. 

The offer of Czech Television to participate in the production of a programme for children, Hýbánky (Moving Games),could have been a new inspiration. At the same time, you probably had to deal with the stage fright from a new point of view. Stand in front of the cameras this time...

We came up with it together with programmer Svatava Šenková. We phoned each other and she told me that a new channel called Déčko was being created, if I wanted to get involved somehow. We were thinking about what would be interesting, until we came up with the idea of creating a programme in which folk music would be the main feature. In each piece there is a folk song, which is represented by a dance. And when we were thinking about the name, the Czech name of the show came to me in the shower. In the end, we stuck with it. I had stage fright for the first five episodes, then it was nice work with a nice team and I remember it very fondly.

Others also contributed to the show. Kristýna Štěrhová was with you in the main pair.

Yes, she was in charge of the movement component, I was in charge of the music. The director was Pavel Šimák, who wrote the scripts. In the end, we filmed about 330 episodes and it became a quite successful Czech Television show on the channel. Sometimes we still play the show live with Kristýna.

Did it have an impact on your career? Didn’t you get pigeon-holed?

Yes, not long ago, mothers with children stopped me, saying that it was Zdenda from the show and they wanted an autograph. That’s why I tried to distinguish myself, to get rid of the label of a children’s actor. But in the end, why not? There’s nothing wrong with making a quality kids’ show. I don’t want to compare, but so much rubbish has been created in the field of children’s work... I, on the other hand, have been involved in children’s work for a long time, especially the musical component in the fairy tales and dance films of director Jiří Jelínek and programmer and lyricist Tereza Lexová. We have created more than twenty productions.

You have a wide musical range, from classical music to jazz to folk music and children’s music. You sensed classical music due to your father, jazz due to your mother, as you said in an interview for Harmonie magazine. Which genre in general is closest to your heart?

For a very long time I didn’t write classical music because I didn’t know how to get it to an audience. Nobody wanted to play it. So for the last twenty years I’ve been writing mainly for the theatre. About thirteen years ago I had an offer to present my Carmina Burana 2 – O lidské duši (On the Human Soul) at the Obecní dům venue, but a force majeure intervened – the financial crisis. So nothing came of it. Then, after a long time, came an offer from Mr. Karel Klimeš, a choir singer, to write a mass, Missa brevis. This more or less brought me back to classical music, because other compositions were written in its wake (Ave verum corpus, the award-winning Magnificat and so on) and I found a relationship with it and a way of thinking about it and writing it.

Finally, one interesting fact – you studied double bass at the conservatory, but you are more interested in piano. Why?

I didn’t become interested in music until seventh grade, which is too late for pianists. I improvised at home, but I didn’t do scales and etudes. My piano teacher at the primary art school (PAS) told me right away that it was beyond me. At the conservatory they recommended bassoon or double bass. Although I didn’t really want to, I decided to play the double bass. I got a special wire to stretch my fingers for a better grip. I took the piano exams and ironically they told me that I should have gone to piano because there are not enough male piano players. But once I’m on the double bass, I can’t change it. That was pretty harsh. I tried to go to the headmaster, but he refused me, saying that I could transfer after I graduated in the fifth year. So I continued to play the double bass, without access to the piano. I got back to it at the Faculty of Music at JAMU, where I studied composition and piano was part of my lessons. It is a funny paradox that I have ended up playing the piano and playing it for a living, apart from composing.

Will you ever play the double bass again?

I sold it right after conservatory, which in retrospect I see as a mistake. I could use it now; I like to write music for instruments I can play. That’s why I’m learning violin and ukulele now. I’ll buy a double bass eventually; I’ve already forgiven it.

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