Nóz w Wodzie

Krzysztof Komeda

" Nóz w Wodzie is an exemplary score by Krzysztof Komeda "

Written by Joep de Bruijn - Review of the music as heard in the movie

Nóz w Wodzie (Knife in the Water, 1962) was Roman Polanski´s first full-length film. It features a couple, called Andrzej and Krystyna, that invites a young unnamed conformist aboard their sailing boat for a trip. As time passes a psychological tension and rivalry emerges. It is quite a good film that was condemned by Polish communist politicians, who also had wrath towards jazz music, but did receive international praiseworthy reviews. The music was written by Krzysztof Komeda.

Krzysztof Komeda (1931-1969) was an important jazz musician that was recognized in Poland and the rest of Europe as the most important person to work on Polish free jazz. His album Aegestic (1965), performed by his Komeda Quintet, including the famous trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, is arguably one of his finest achievements. This same Stanko was involved in a series of new releases, honouring the legacy of Komeda. Alongside his career in jazz he wrote scores to more than 40 films, increasingly adopting more elements of classical, experimental and pop music, which is also evident in his collaborations with director Roman Polanski. He began to write music to his short films, continuing with scores to full-length films Nóz w Wodzie , Cul-de-Sac and Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (segment "La Rivière de Diamants"), before expanding on his usual jazz score and typical 60s sounds, with variations of a haunting wordless chorus in Dance of the Vampires/The Fearless Vampire Killers and his portion of electronics, strings and the shivering lullaby for Rosemary´s Baby.

The score to Nóz w Wodzie was recorded with a small jazz ensemble, including the seductive and suave playing of a Swedish jazz tenor saxophonist Bernt Rosengren. The suave saxaphone playing is by far the best part of the score, remembling the jazz noir sound that Jerry Goldsmith popularised for Polanski´ Chinatown. It gives Nóz w Wodzie a leisure mood that works on a moderate level. Generally, Komeda´s film music is nothing more than some random jazz painting, even though it is often based around a central theme, like the theme with the saxaphone. He usually fails in making an actual contribution to the progression and the tension of the drama in a film. The composer himself has once explained he felt that modern pictures require modern jazz and felt that no other music could replace this more effectively. So this explains why throughout his film resume most of the music does not ascend above the basic idea of injecting jazz music for the images. The baffling part is that he even considers this modern jazz to be able to adress psychological elements of a film, such Nóz w Wodzie. Now, I must have lost count of people praising this particular score and think highly of the function of his music, but I cannot agree with them, nor with the strong beliefs of the composer.

The triangular tension in the film is observed from the unspoken human expressions, how they behave, their actions and their ways of speaking to one another, which is all very intriguing. They engage in challenging each other: who can best throw the knife, who can climb up the mast.... It just is magnificent tension in a film that says a lot about human relationships. Komeda´s probable attempts to address this with his music are futile. The relaxing jazz music certainly does not establish this.

In a few scenes the composer offers something different from his usual jazz, but I cannot grasp the point of it all. In one scene, the boy provokes the couple, though mostly Andrzej, by climbing the mast. Komeda underscores it with a flute motif ascending higher and higher, mimicking the movements of the boy to the top of the mast. This curious piece of music is likely to illustrate the playful, provocative nature of the boy, which the films shows dozens of times without such daft music. In another scene the boy makes fun of Andrejz carrying a pan of boiling soup, protecting his hands with a tool.. He is then challenged to hold on to it with his bare hands, underscored by a similar motif ending in a long sustained note. This is the only attempt to underscore, one of the many provocations that are in terms with progressive triangular tension, with something that actually sounds tense. Considering the overall use of score, these two deviating moments are entirely illogical. In the culmination of the triangular tension, the key scene of the film, some subdued low tones of a bass guitar and drums, address the only appropriate moment where the score ascends above being merely aimless. Thinking in terms of diegetic sound sources, the characters rivaling whistle of a tune and the beautiful song performed by Krystyna, are incredibly powerful in the film.

Nóz w Wodzie is an exemplary score by Krzysztof Komeda. Like with so many other film works, there is something interesting, but mostly the music fails to do anything interesting at all. In his shorts for Polanski, there's a charming quality that makes me like them a bit more, sometimes even providing some very good relevant music, but full-length Polanski films are something else, even though their final two collaborations, Dance of the Vampires and Rosemary´s Baby, are certainly different and much better. I would not say the music to Nóz w Wodzie, cannot be enjoyed in or outside the film, regardless of its irrelevant placement, but for me it just barely holds up as a listening experience.

The music has been released by many different labels, often joined by other scores by Krzysztof Komeda. I am hesitant to choose the best release, but its place amongst the retropspective boxsets by both Polonia and Powerbros records offer a good overview of his film music.

(written 10-10-2019)

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