I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Zdenek Liska: A Unique Talent


by Cory Vielma
Nov. 24, 2012

By all accounts, Liska's ability to compose was nearly effortless, his scores seemingly flowing from his body like an exhaled breath. Besides being the most prolific composer in Czech history, he was known to work on composing new scores while in the studio recording others, apparently able to devote full attention to both. His gift for melody is unparalleled and his knack for combining disparate sounds, moods and genres into a wholly new musical package while also working within the rhythms, emotions and time limits of any given film is beyond compare. His many musical innovations include using the human voice as a wordless instrument, (or even as the rhythm section), using unusual combinations of instruments to create a new timbre (like for example harmonica and glockenspiel) and using sounds considered "sound effects" like whistles, creaks and bangs in his compositions, but most importantly, elevating the language of film music to the point where the music was at least as important as the image (in some cases even more so). Even Svankmajer admits that in many of his films, there is little action, but it feels like action thanks to Liska's delightful music.

Liska's working relationship with Svankmajer was especially long and fruitful. Liska's endless reservoir of invention was the perfect fit for Svankmajer's equally inventive, surreal and playfully macabre creations. They made many films together (my internet research proved inconclusive, but the final count was certainly in the double digits) and one could argue that neither would have been as artistically successful without the other. Since Liska's death in 1983, Svankmajer has never used music in his films again. That's how powerful their collaboration was.

Liska's ability to translate and enhance the action and emotions on the screen is almost entirely unique to the history of cinema. I could name a handful of exceptions, like Morricone or Rota, but I would put myself out on a limb and say that Liska was even better at it, or at the very least, had a more unique take on it. The combination of all of the elements unique to Liska's music came together to create a gripping and overwhelming emotional reaction in the viewer that, at times, feels like nothing else.

Take for example his remarkable score for Mala Morska Vila, the 1976 adaptation of Hans-Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. In the opening theme, wordless voices swell and crash like the ocean waves you see on the screen. The tone seems to indicate that something grandiose and romantic is about to happen, but then about 2/3 of the way through the song, the tone suddenly takes on a much darker tone and the ending feels like slowly drifting to the bottom of the sea, echoing the entire arc of the story in a single piece. Even without the visuals, this is the unmistakable feeling one has when listening to the track.

Liska also thrilled in using unique sound sources and had no qualms about bringing electronic instruments into the mix when they became available. The track "Witches Firewall" from Mala Morska Vila is created almost exclusively through pulsing electronics and noisy washes and would not sound out of place on a Throbbing Gristle record.

With this collection of opening sequences, I am attempting to show not only the wide variety of sounds and emotions he was able to create, but also the variety of projects on which he worked. Ikarie XB-1 is a dark sci-fi drama with an experimental electronic theme, whereas Kat'a a Krokodyl was a children's fantasy film with a playful score, and 30 Pripadu Majora Zemana was a TV soap opera with an appropriately energetic and varied theme.

People with Liska's immense talent come along all too rarely and are sorely missed when they are gone. And with the state of most modern scores being little more than a collection of tunes, the world may never again stand witness to another genius like Liska. I, for one, am thankful for what he left behind.

Cory Vielma is an American musician, photographer and occasional guy who strings words together, based in Berlin. Under the name The Sadnesses, he has released several records and has had the pleasure of writing for such great publications as SF WeeklyGreencine.com and Si Señor Journalism Compendium. His love of music and film runs so deep that it has permanently altered his DNA and given him the ability to smell time and taste rhumbas. Additionally, he is very fond of a good veggie burger with fries and a side of mustard.