Abel Korzeniowski

Amazing story about the collaboration of Polish composer and pop icon. Abel told us which MDNA Tour song is Madonna's favourite.


He graduated from the Academy of Music in Kraków and composer studies under the supervision of Krzysztof Penderecki. today he is a famous film scores' composer in hollywood. For two of them he got nominations to golden globes. Recently he collaborated with the queen of pop.

We are 9 hours apart, we are calling you at your home in Hollywood. What train should we take to get there?

First of all, you should buy a one-way ticket. It’s very motivating. You have to put yourself up against the wall -- so that you just have to keep going. I remember when my wife and I were on the plane, looking through the window and thinking that there’s no way back. If we hadn’t made it, we wouldn’t have been able to return. It was a big risk.

And were you flying there already having guaranteed projects or was it a leap into the deep end?

I had a signed contract with a talent agency, representing me in Hollywood, but without anything being promised. I realised that in order to get a project I had to cross the ocean. It wouldn’t have been possible long distance. Serious producers are reluctant to engage newcomers. They may enjoy your music, but it’s no less important who have you worked for.

Did the American dream got fulfilled right away?

I had to work really, really hard for the American dream.

And did you have to work long for this first project?

My first meeting went really bad. It was about „PU-239” produced by HBO, on the second day after my arrival. I was jet-lagged and English on the professional level was a challenge. I didn’t get that project and ended up unemployed for a long time. After 6 months the producers of „PU-239” reconsidered and got back to me.

And that was the moment when you felt that you are staying in Hollywood?

I felt it was my chance. The cooperation with HBO was really difficult though. Too many people have supervised the production, often having conflicting artistic visions. Had it not worked out, it would have been over for me. So, it was a test of mental strength and at the same time a huge risk. If someone wants to really change the film’s character, a simple solution is changing the editor or the composer. I managed to stay till the very end but many people lost their jobs.

Abel Korzeniowski was nominated to Golden Globes twice.
For the "W.E." score (left) and "A Single Man" one (right).

Risk which paid off. Later there appeared several other projects and finally A Single Man by Tom Ford and the nomination to Golden Globes and then W.E., Madonna’s film and the next nomination. How did it happen that you became a composer for Madonna?

It’s an amazing story. My agents tried to reach out to Madonna about this film...

...but because you were seduced by the script or the fact that it was directed by Madonna?

Both the story and what we had heard about the film seemed like a perfect match for my music. That’s why we tried to contact her but we failed. To our surprise, several months later, Madonna approached us about cooperation. She loved my music to “A Single Man”. What happened next was incredible.

I am trying to imagine this! And how did the first meeting look like?

First of all, it turned out that Madonna is a big film buff and has an intimate knowledge on the subject. During the course of our meeting she was referring to films outside the mainstream and popular culture. Bergman, Wong Kar-Wai, Almodóvar. She is a real flesh and blood director.

Did you work with Madonna at a distance or together in the studio?

At the beginning, we met several times in Los Angeles and New York, discussing how music should work and sound in the film. Then we talked frequently over the phone and e-mail. At the end of the process, she came again to Los Angeles and we worked at my house for a couple of days -- this was an unforgettable experience.

Home? How does it feel to “have” Madonna at home?

Madonna and her whole team. It was amazing.

And what was the most difficult during this cooperation?

Before recording an orchestra I have to present an electronic demo of what I wrote. Usually I use synthesisers and orchestral samples. The problem is that for very emotional music, like in "W.E.", an electronic demo doesn’t sound emotional at all. So my demos had to be recorded live. I couldn’t hire a whole orchestra just for this purpos,e but I invited a string quintet, just five string players to my home studio, and then combined their live sound with synthetic instruments. It still didn’t sound right, but at least we could hear emotions.

W.E. premiere at Toronto Film Festival. Madonna, Abel Korzeniowski and the film crew.

And when Madonna was at your home was she accompanied by musicians?

We were supposed to work together for one day, but it was going really well, so Madonna wanted to continue on the next day. As a result, I’d rewritten a solo violin part at night and recorded it with a violinist in the morning, before Madonna arrived. I asked the violinist to stay with us for the rest of the day to play live each new revision. I have never worked like that before. Madonna was really impressed though.

And did she give a free hand? Madonna is known for trying to strongly coproduce...

Madonna had a very precise vision of what the music should sound like. She gave me a lot of hints and directions, but I had to come up with something unique and original.

...we are asking, because in this case the director is also a musician with quite a powerful output...

Madonna never tried to cross the line between a director and a composer. The final result and the energy of a scene were the only things important to her. She wanted to get precisely what she imagined and it was very easy to get a clear answer to all questions regarding her vision.

And is there something on this soundtrack that you are especially proud of? Or something that was unusual?

I’m proud of what I wrote for “W.E.”-- especially “Abdication” and “Dance for me Wallis”. This was the first time I worked in Abbey Road Studios in London. This was the place were The Beatles created their songs, where John Williams recorded music for "Star Wars". Madonna was there with us. She was inspiring the players, not sparing dirty jokes. It was a really enjoyable and creative process.

And in what words would you describe the music which was finally made?

This is my most mature work so far. However I was even more surprised how fast this music spread beyond the film...

Are you talking about „Evgeni's Waltz” on MDNA Tour? How did you find about this?

Yes, and to be honest, I found out on the Internet! (laugh) I have read a post on a Madonna forum about her trying to rework “Evgeni's Waltz”...

...and what did you feel then? What was your first thought?

I was shocked that she had such an idea and I couldn’t believe that she would combine it with „Like a Virgin”! One is an intimate, classical piece for piano, the other, one of the biggest hits of pop music? A couple days later, Madonna’s lawyer called to inform that everything was ready to go. I listened to the song… over the phone – I couldn’t hear much, but it was enough to understand what she was going for. The melody of her iconic song had been adapted to my piano piece, the only instrumental background to her voice. Later, when I watched a YouTube clip from Tel Aviv, I was stunned – both by the performance and the reaction of the audience.

Do you know that in Berlin and Warsaw Madonna cried during this song?

Yes, so I’ve heard.

But this performance moves not only Madonna – it has already been hailed one of the most important ones in her career.

I’m very happy about it. Madonna has redefined the meaning of this song. This is...

...the confession of a mature woman?

Yes. This is a very mature interpretation, a metaphorical reflection. She turned a simple hedonistic song into something profound, touching and beautiful. The moment of tightening a corset is fantastic – the whole crowd gasps, incredible. Madonna told me that this was her favourite song of the show and I want to believe it!

That’s great, ours too! We also love Abdication... this song has a beautiful, rising, dramatic effect and interesting suspense at the end. Do you remember your work on this song?

“Abdication” is one of my favourite. This sequence in the movie fast-forwards through the whole life of Wallis and Edward. It was difficult to get the delicate balance  between emotionality and the feeling of life unavoidably passing by. Madonna was very demanding. The film’s footage was constantly refined and edited and I had to follow the changes, rewriting my score. One of the most difficult sequences was the one with the Cartier bracelet – I wrote music for this moment at least 16 times. Each song had many versions, I remember working on each of them.

There were also rumours that you arranged the strings to Masterpiece...

Yes, I arranged the strings for „Masterpiece” and conducted the orchestra for „Falling Free”. William Orbit was producing both songs and, to be honest, I cannot really say how much of these recordings made it into the final mix.

And is it true that there exist an unreleased symphonic version to „Masterpiece”? When the song was nominated to the Golden Globe, there were information that it sounds totally different than on the album.

I wouldn’t describe it as symphonic. As I said, we worked on a version of Masterpiece featuring a classical string orchestra. Eventually, William chose a more modern, synthetic sound. This song was created independent of the original film score.

Abel Korzeniowski, Andrea Riseborough, Madonna and Abbie Cornish
attending "W.E." press conference during Toronto Film Festival.

And if you were offered by Madonna to write a song for her album, e.g., a ballad? Would a soundtrack composer find himself in the pop production?

Any time!!!

And do you know Madonna’s work in general? Have you ever listened to her? We are asking because we are wondering if the graduate from the Musical Academy is able to find something for himself in music of the Queen of Pop?

Of course I have. When I was a teenager her music was everywhere. I don’t believe that popular music is inferior to classical. What I was taught by pop and Madonna herself is a process of a distillation of a musical idea, which connects with the audience in an instant. A song cannot just unfold for 10 minutes. It should catch us with the first note. Madonna asked me not to overcomplicate music, she wanted a theme to be repeated without changes. For a classical composer those requests were quite unexpected but they turned out to be very inspiring. This challenged me to write themes that did not need any changes or variations. This is the essence of popular music.

And what can I say to music lovers and lovers of high culture who sometimes ignore pop culture?

There are diamonds in both classical and popular music, but more often then not everything tends to be just mediocre. In pop, when songs are influenced too much by the marketing, and in classical music, when composers don’t care about the public reception. For me, a strong feedback from the audience is essential. When music resonates with other people, when it influences their lives -- it’s all I hope for.

And there is one more thing, which combines you with Madonna – the film Metropolis. Madonna inspired by this image of Fritz Lang in 1989 recorded a music video for Express Yourself, and you created music to this film during the festival Era Nowe Horyzonty. What do you think, why does this film fascinates people so much? Very soon it will be 100 years since its creation.

Yes, and there is a Hollywood remake in preproduction. Despite its dialogs being rather lengthy for today’s standards, this film is truly epic. I wrote my new score for „Metropolis” shortly after September 11, 2001. “The War on Terror” has begun and the whole world started building walls that were higher and higher. I wanted to express this state of mind in music.

Where can we listen to this music?

It’s performed live from time to time. At this moment, there are no specific plans for an album release. The score is 147 minutes long, which makes it a very expensive project.

Recently in Cracow there took place a concert with your excerpts from Metropolis but also W.E. and A Single Man. Your brother, Andrzej Korzeniowski, has conducted. And when can we see you conducting on your concert?

At some point, I would love to do it. I’ve been thinking about live concerts that would be more theatrical. Hopefully, this would be a world tour.

Kaas Chante Piaf
Buy it on iTunes

And what are you working on currently?

I’ve just finished “Kaas chante Piaf” -- my project with Patricia Kaas. The album was released on November 5th, starting a world tour. It is a tribute to Edith Piaf, commemorating the 50th anniversary of her death. It was a big project. I created new arrangements and we recorded the album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. I am looking for a new film right now..

You have already got nominations to Golden Globes for two films. It is said that this is the vestibule to the Academy Awards. Do you have a plan now for the Oscar?

There’s no formula for this.

Anyway, on behalf of Polish fans of Madonna we wish you the Oscar! Thank you for your time and honest conversation.

I thank you too, and greetings to all fans of MadonnaNewEra.

To international fans: MadonnaNewEra is going English later this year so like our fanpage and don't miss future interviews!

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