Asylum Zone – A Czechoslovakian Soundtrack

From Unearthing The Music

»Voyage to the End of the Universe« (directed by Jindřich Polák, 1963) based on a story by Stanislaw Lem; music: Zdeněk Liška

Asylum Zone – A Czechoslovakian Soundtrack: An essay by Pavel Klusák for Sound Exchange.

In socialist Czechoslovakia »authentic« art found itself in a unique situation. Artists could not work freely and develop their art, and state institutions often refused to accept them in artists’ associations and rejected their publications, exhibitions and concerts. In consequence, a whole generation of poets and writers spent twenty years seeking asylum in other fields.

The situation in music was similar: music written for films and dramas served as a substitute, often resulting in highly original works. Unlike events organised by the official Composers Union, film work offered much greater freedom for nonconformist composers. It was less supervised and provided greater opportunity to make recordings, and was, thanks to the production system, fully financed by the state.

Even before the sudden explosion of freedom brought by the Czechoslovakian New Wave of the 1960s, Zdeněk Liška (1922–1983) had established himself as the most prolific and versatile composer in the history of Czechoslovakian film. His music for the partly animated film »The Fabulous World of Jules Verne« (1958), directed by Karel Zeman, used a novel combination of electronic and acoustic sounds. His soundtrack for the first Czechoslovakian science fiction film »Voyage to the End of the Universe« (directed by Jindřich Polák, 1963), based on a story by Stanislaw Lem, established the metaphorical potential of music created by analogue synthesizers. However, Liška was above all a classically-trained composer, and his symphonic music can be heard in František Vláčil’s »The White Dove« (1960) and in »The Shop on Main Street« (1965, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos), which won an Oscar for the best foreign language film.

Zdeněk Liška possessed an extraordinary empathy and he dedicated his life to Czechoslovakian film. Paradoxically, although he contributed to around 500 films (including short films), he left behind not a single portrait photograph in press agencies, nor even an interview. It was as though Liška’s career spanned the best and worst aspects of Czechoslovakian film history: the last two films he worked on were »The Medal« (1980), a film set during World War One which ran into conflict with the censors, and »Taken Hostage in Bella Vista« (1980), a propagandist espionage story whose main character was Major Zeman, a policeman from a television serial produced on the orders of the Ministry of the Interior. However, we can find a more important diversity in Liška’s easy mastery of various styles: a hint of psychedelia (»Birds, Orphans and Fools«, 1969), an echo of urban folklore with progressive instrumentation (»The Sinful People of Prague«, 1968), symphonic saloon music somewhere between idyll and horror (»The Cremator«, 1968) and melodically unique pastoral subjects (»Foxes, Mice and Gallows Hill«).

Liška was far from the only composer to channel his talent into Czech and Slovak film music. Luboš Fišer (1935–1999) created dramatic and sometimes disharmonious sound for dramas (»A Case for the Young Hangman«, 1969), genre parodies (»Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet«) and the remarkable animated film »Deadly Fragrance« (Václav Bedřich, 1969), with elements of experimental art brut. His finest work is considered to be his music – with a characteristic »ticking harpsichord« – for the final film of the Czechoslovakian New Wave, »Valerie and Her Week of Wonders« (1969), a surrealist horror with elements of eroticism.

Jan Klusák (*1934) brought the abstract, demanding New Music of the 1960s into films (»The Return of the Prodigal Son«, 1965), and at other times parodied the post-Zhdanov regime’s adherence to »traditional Czech« roots and motifs (»The End of a Priest«, 1967). The composer Jan Novák (1921–1984) created an analogy of a forest with an »invisible forest« of organ pipes for the intimate wartime drama »Carriage to Vienna« (1969). For his film of short stories and dreams, »Martyrs of Love« the radical director Jan Němec used an original concept, commissioning the pop music composer Karel Mareš to produce the most serious composition he could, while asking the existentialist composer Jan Klusák to write the most vapid tunes possible.

In the years of socialism and censorship, film became an asylum zone which allowed composers to remain active and produce works destined for the public rather than their filing cabinets, and to have feedback on individual works and their longer-term development as composers. Directors often came into conflict with the censors, and after the Soviet occupation in 1968 many films wound up in the vaults, remaining there until the regime fell in 1989. But censorship of film music was relatively lenient: it was wordless, and so seemed to be devoid of controversy and the risk of subversion.

As was the case so often before and since, the powers that be were greatly mistaken.