Sandro Ruscio is an Italian composer of film, ballet, theater and concert music. He collaborated with Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi on the movie Eter and his music was performed during the 12th Film Music Festival in Cracow. Inspired by that event, we asked the composer a few questions. You can read the interview below.
Daniel Krause: Hi Sandro, it’s very nice to meet you again after the Film Music Festival in Cracow.
Sandro Ruscio: Hi, thank you.
DK: First of all, congratulations. You took part in a really big event, where everybody could hear your piece – Valse from the movie Eter. How did you like the Festival as a whole, and how did it feel to hear your music played live?
SR: Ah, that was a really great feeling. I love that conductor and the orchestra. Actually, I would like to work with him again… During the rehearsals he would say exactly what I wanted to say to the orchestra before I did! The festival was really beautiful – the atmosphere, the people… and it was all very professional as well. It was a very exciting week for me.
DK: So you had a great connection with Marek Moś… did he consult the performance with you?
SR: Yes. I don’t know how he felt about it, but I did feel a connection… And yes, we had two meetings, one before and another after the rehearsal.
DK: Personally speaking, it was one of my favourite pieces during the concert – a really beautiful waltz. You composed it for Eter, directed by Krzysztof Zanussi. How did the connection with Zanussi come about?
SR: Oh, thank you. It’s actually a beautiful story. I just wanted to meet him – I had seen some of his films, and because my wife is from Warsaw I said “OK, let’s see if it’s possible to meet him”. But he doesn’t use Facebook or e-mail – just personal meetings… So I went to meet him with a score of “Dea Smarrita”…
DK: Your first symphony.
SR: Yes. I gave him [Krzysztof Zanussi] a copy of the score, and he said “OK, let’s meet again in two weeks, after I listen to it”. I was very happy to hear that, because it meant he was serious about it. After that initial meeting we met again at a conference about Polish film in Madrid. We watched one of his short films from the 1960s… I don’t know how to pronounce it, something like “Śmierć prowincjała”…?
DK: Yeah, very good!
SR: It was about this young guy who is working at a monastery and meets an old monk who, like all the other monks there has made a vow of silence. There isn’t a single word in the whole film! So those two had a connection… and in the end the old monk gets sick and dies. But before he dies, he tries to say something and no words came out… I asked Zanussi after the screening what the monk’s last words were supposed to be, and he said, “you don’t know how much I would pay to know that”! So, I wrote a symphony, “Passaggio – The Monk’s Last Word” and I gave it to him. That was the start of our professional relationship.
DK: So, if I understand it right, you wrote your second symphony just for him? That must’ve been a deep inspiration. That’s a very inspiring, symbolic scene. But let’s go back to Eter itself. Could you tell us a little bit more about the piece that you’ve written – what was the inspiration behind it? Did you refer somehow to the idea of the pact with the devil, which was an important point of the movie?
SR: Well, actually no… I had given him a CD with ballet music I had written before. One year afterwards he called me to say that he wanted that waltz in his film because it had the right character. And so I made several arrangements of it for different combinations of instruments. There’s something disturbing about this waltz, it’s not a happy-go-lucky one…
DK: Interesting. What about your very beginnings? How did your connection with music start? Did you start as a performing musician or were you into composition from the very beginning?
SR: I began by studying guitar and piano, and only much later took up violin and composition. The first few years I studied music from morning to evening, but I was doing it in completely the wrong way. I was trying to control everything, which didn’t work at all. I was kind of artistically paralysed – I wanted to do too much and to take control of too many things. This made me search for other things – like dancing, yoga… I met a yoga and meditation master whose teachings basically changed my life. His integrity, his energy… it changed everything for me. After that I went back to music, but with a more direct connection. Back when I was trying to control music, I failed. And now I’m happy that I failed because if I didn’t, I would be probably dead by now [laughs].
DK: So it was about controlling your ego in some way?
SR: Yes, but… it’s tricky to talk about the ego. The ego is actually important as well. It’s a tool. We need it.
DK: I meant controlling your ego instead of the ego controlling you.
SR: Yes, that too. You may think you know something about yourself, but thinking is not a solution in that respect because there are things about yourself that never become any clearer that way. Music is useful then, because you can have a complex inner connection impossible to achieve through words – reality is so much more complicated than words. So, if you believe to know more than you really know – you’re lost. That’s what I think – the first important step is to realize that we actually know quite little about ourselves.
DK: So, we got into more philosophical topics…
SR: [laughs] Sorry!
DK: No, that’s very good! You mentioned that at some point you took up dancing… Listening to your music, I had the impression that your music is very dance-like… You also wrote a tarantella for the movie “El amor perjudica seriamente la salud” and a few ballets. Do you feel you’ve got a special connection to dance?
SR: Yes. I think it’s really important. The body is a good starting point… We feel a lot physically, so I’m less interested in abstract ideas than about connecting in bodily ways. Let me give you an example. I wrote this piece, a “Stabat Mater” – it’s one hour of music for full orchestra, choir and soloists. The interesting thing is that I started without any structure… If you choose a structure at the very beginning it’s somewhat easier, but the material does not unfold as naturally. So I just started to write down many different ideas, hundreds of pages of them… The actual structure came later, almost on its own.
DK: So for you that’s a more natural way?
SR: Yes. I start with a few basic ideas which then generate more material. But at the beginning I don’t know what that will be, and it surprises me. It’s a riskier process, but that’s how I work…
DK: You’ve lived in Italy and Spain, and now you live in Poland. Plus, you’ve also done projects in China. Do you get different sorts of musical inspiration from those places?
SR: In Italy I was not so conscious about where my musical ideas came from, because I simply was there. Now I can see that my music has some Italian roots to it. There is something about the melody, and about the dance elements that we talked about earlier… Living in Spain gave me some perspective on that, and now Poland even more so. In Poland you’ve got a very special way of thinking – you complain about the weather, about the darkness… But I’m happy, because I see other things here – a fresh perspective on things. And the weather is also not bad – actually it’s very good for a composer, because you’ve got plenty of time [laughs].
DK: [laughs] Yeah.
SR: When you’re in Spain, social life is different… it’s easier there. Here it’s more difficult, people are not so keen on going out all the time, or to meet up without scheduling a meeting. You can’t improvise as much. Sometimes it’s a problem… Does that answer your question [laughs]?
DK: Yes, it does! What do you like most about Poland?
SR: I think people here really believe in something. They believe in what’s important. In Spain and Italy people are a bit more jaded, they think that they’ve already seen everything.
DK: You career covers a quite wide range of media – movies, ballets, theatre… But you’ve also composed a lot of concert music. Do you have a preferred medium?
SR: I just like it when a project rings true, in any medium. I told you that I really loved working with Moś and Zanussi, because I felt that connection. I think it’s all about the transformative power of music. Music can add intensity to a film if you have a good connection with the director. But, depending on the conductor, you could also get such intensity from a symphony. I love working in all of these media, as long as there’s that kind of intensity. But I’m getting philosophical again, sorry! [laughs]
DK: [laughs] I think it’s quite natural that music connects with philosophy!
SR: Yes, yes, it is.
DK: I wanted to ask you specifically about your film music. There are different schools of thought on this, like whether writing film music is an art or more of a craft. What do you think about that?
SR: To me it’s obviously both. Because of the coupling with images, film music can be quite dense, crowded with information. A few seconds can tell you a lot about the past of a person, or about their emotions… That compression is technically not easy to do, and that’s why you need to think about it as a craft. But you also need to touch upon those emotions – to express what images cannot. So, you really need art and craft.
DK: Are there any composers that inspire you?
SR: I read Bach every day. Actually, I don’t just read him – I study his music thoroughly… At least half an hour every day. It’s brainwork, really, a kind of meditation. I love Schubert as well. These two composers are special to me. But listening to live music is a physical necessity to me, and of many kinds of music, not just classical.
DK: What about Polish composers?
SR: I love Kilar, Górecki… is that the pronunciation?
DK: Yes, very good!
SR: Yeah, I love Górecki as well. Szymanowski… I’ve learned a lot about them and their music during my time here. By the way, some people were saying that my waltz reminded them of Kilar!
DK: Nowadays there are many discussions about different approaches to film scoring. On one hand you have old school composers like John Williams, Howard Shore or Ennio Morricone, who still use a pencil and a piece of paper, and on the other younger composers who use computers, sometimes even exclusively. What’s your approach?
SR: I use pencil and paper to sketch, and when that’s sufficiently developed I go to the computer.
DK: So you compose a piece, orchestrate it and then create a synthetic mock-up?
SR: Yes, something like that. Actually, all of this is part of a very important question. I think computers can eat you up. They can decide what kind of music you make in the end, because there are lots of easier ready-made computer sounds or samples, and it can all sound quite good very fast. If you don’t have the necessary craft, you can get lost. Computers and samplers are really amazing tools these days, but if you don’t have a clear picture of what you want in your mind, the computer will decide it for you.
DK: Are you open to collaborations with other composers?
SR: It depends on the project… Obviously, if I’m writing a symphony, I’m responsible for everything in it, there’s no question about that. But there are projects that require a different sort of approach, like Hollywood productions where a lot of different people work on the same project. And this can be a good thing.
DK: But you’re not thinking about a career in Hollywood?
SR: No, I don’t think about a Hollywood career at all. Actually, I don’t know what kind of career I do have… I usually see things after they happen. I was in Spain, then I moved to Poland, I met Zanussi and the work kept coming. Things just keep happening somehow.
DK: What are you currently working on?
SR: The Stabat Mater I was telling you about before. I’m also working on the trailer of a very special documentary about euthanasia. The director is a good friend of mine, and it’s a very personal project for her because her mother had been sick and wanting to die for many years… And it is quite hard, emotionally, because she interviewed many people who now have died. And yet, surprisingly, the film manages to be uplifting somehow.
DK: To bring this to a close, is there anything that you’d like to share with your potential fans or listeners?
SR: Interesting question… I would like to give people the possibility of revisiting worlds that I inhabit, and in a way that means sharing those with them – they are theirs too, in so many ways. I don’t know how that works, exactly, it’s this special kind of energy, I don’t know… When the music works, I feel that energy. By the way, thank you for this interview, you’ve made me think about a lot of things that I usually don’t put into words!
DK: That’s great to hear, thanks!
SR: [laughs] Good work.
DK: Thank you very much, Sandro. That was a very candid interview…
SR: [laughs] Thank you too!