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INTERVIEW WITH ALEX BARANOWSKI

MUSIC FOR GRIEF AND COMFORT - In a joint effort BBC Television and German broadcaster ZDF aired the gripping film The Windermere Children on Holocaust Memorial Day, Monday, 27th January. The touching drama about child survivors of the Holocaust was directed by Michael Samuels based on a script by Simon Block. Up-and-coming composer Alex Baranowski wrote a quiet and equally touching score for this drama about young people who try to adjust to a new surrounding after a harrowing period in their lives. With Score he discussed the music he wrote for the film.

British composer Alex Baranowski (1983) has composed for film, theater and ballet in recent years. Starting in 2007 with his music for the short film Auto da Fe, Baranowski won praise for his music for McCullin (2012) and other documentaries like Nureyev (2018). In 2014 he was nominated for a Tony Award for his work on Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan on Broadway. How did you get involved with The Windermere Children? ‛I have lots of different backgrounds in theater, in cinema like documentaries and short films, and in advertising. I’m sure the director has been speaking to different people. This is my first main drama project. The script fascinated me, and I started writing some ideas. Apparently that shone through, and the director made his choice in favour of me.’

The Windermere Children depicts the moving story of a group of children who survived the Holocaust. After the war, in the summer of 1945, 1,000 mainly Polish children were flown to England, where they were able to rebuild their lives. In Windermere, in the Lake District, a group of 300 presumed orphans tried to recover from the horrors they had endured in the years before. Were you familiar with their story? ‛I’ve been to the Lake District many times, but I wasn’t familiar with that particular story at all. I knew what that whole generation was going through after so much struggle during the war. My grandparents were Polish as well, although they were catholic, not Jewish. They were taken to Siberia during the war, and they made their way to the UK, which was a similar thing. I talked quite a lot about that, and the director said: maybe that helps, having this personal connection.’

                                                                                 The Windermere Children.

How did you start this very emotional assignment? ‛Well, where do you start? I watched a rough cut of the film, after which I wanted to make the tone feel quite right. It would be very easy to be too sad or to use a big orchestra. There’s a little lullaby I wrote in the beginning and it ended up being the main theme. Once I found that, it felt like I was going on the right track and then the score came out trying to find themes for different characters.’ One of these characters is the troubled Salek. When he and the other young people arrive in Windermere at the beginning of the film, he doesn’t want to get off the bus. ‛I wrote this tiny little melody for him and then going through all of his scenes, this little melody sort of grow and grow. So in the end, when he is reunited with his brother, this theme really comes out. At the very beginning it is being played on a cello, very strained and not beautiful. In the end it gets played with violins, they are much more strong and emotional. I guess that was a journey I tried to make.’ Did you write a theme for Salek because he has an own thread in the film? ‛Yes. And it’s interesting how that thread really progresses musically. He runs through the woods, and there are some really big musical moments that use that theme. It wasn’t a purposeful thing to do, the director was expecting it, but I thought that it was fitting to use his theme. It really grows in confidence with his character.’

Humming

You might have taken another protagonist for a theme. ‛Oh yes, there are other little bits of character. That main lullaby is the children’s theme. I imagined if that’s the one thing they can remember of their mother – singing a little lullaby to them – then that’s what I wanted it to convey. At the beginning I recorded a sort of humming with performer Polina Shepherd, a much older voice. Then the director said: let’s try with a child, and then we brought in his daughter and we recorded her humming and it felt quite heartfelt and it worked really well, especially in the beginning, when the boys are talking about quite harrowing events.’ Was it your idea to use voices? ‛Yes. They were a nice connection to their mother and a lullaby. I felt that a little melody feels more personal with a voice than it does with a violin or a piano.’

Halfway through the film one of the children has a nightmare. It’s a flashback and we see a woman in the woods, we can hear her singing voice there. ‛Yes, that’s actually the same theme that we hear at the beginning, but now sung by a woman’s voice. It’s almost like a character hearing his mother sing to him in his head. It’s quite a poignant moment, I think.’ Is it possible to musically express the pain and the sorrow these children suffered? ‛It’s really really hard and that’s why I referred back to my grandparents quite a lot, because they express their pain and their suffering through art. My grandfather wrote poetry just as my grandmother made paintings. I was putting them on top of the piano and the scene where the children are painting the pictures – which is quite emotional – was written not to picture, but I wrote it to these big art works of my grandma that were around. So that made it feel quite personal, it came from the heart.’

                                                                                 The Windermere Children.

The score was recorded with the London Metropolitan Orchestra at the Air Studios in London. It features among others a cello and strings, but the piano can be heard only once or twice. ‛Yes, there’s not a lot of piano in it, just a little bit and it is very buried. The strings were very basic, actually there were nine: two string quartets and a double bass. And then there’s this little clarinet and then the vocals and me and the piano and the mandolin. It was a very small scale, but I felt it really worked well. It wasn’t the kind of film that uses a big orchestra. So I was lucky, because I didn’t have the budget.’

Accordion

Baranowski used some instruments his grandfather carried all the way from Italy to England on a rough journey during the war. He and his wife, Baranowski’s grandmother of 96 years, were deported from Poland to Siberia in 1939. ‛After he was liberated from Siberia, he marched through Iran, Iraq, and Palestine and ended up fighting in Italy with the British. One of the instruments he bought in Italy, just before the battle of Monte Cassino, was an amazing accordion. When I was little it was one of the hugest things around. I remember him playing it and I really loved it. And that was the first instrument that I picked up when it came to trying out different ideas.’ Baranowski played this accordion on a traditional Yiddish song by Abraham Goldfaden, called Rozhinkes mit Mandlen, sung by Polina Shepherd. ‛I don’t think it quite made the final mix, but it was recorded and I did use the accordion in more textural ways in other places. And my granddad had quite a few mandolins as well, which I also used in the score.’

Watching The Windermere Children is quite an emotional experience. But there are also joyful moments, for example when Salek is running through the woods accompanied by joyful music, which is played out powerfully. ‛I wrote a few different ideas, and it was interesting how this felt like a joyful moment. The children saw that there are no gates here: they can get out.’ A couple of scenes later some of the youngsters are riding the bicycle heading into a nearby town. ‛Yes, that was a lovely bit to write expressing this joyful new experience of the children.’ At the end of the film we see five elderly men with the actors who portrayed them as young men, standing next to them. We learn what happened with them in England after the period they spent in Windermere up till the present day. We hear the main theme again, in all its glory and beauty. ‛Yes, it’s using that same melody and that same progression, and orchestrating it out completely. This time we can hear it fully for the first time rather than just hearing basic strings.’ As he said before, Baranowski wanted to go on a journey with the children, ‛so the orchestra gets bigger and grows and then the strings get larger and they open up more and more as the film goes on.’

Around the time that the film was shown on BBC television Baranowski was doing a dance production and working on his first album. The soundtrack album of The Windermere Children is available via Sony Classical. The film can still be seen on the video platform of ZDF. It is still unknown if the film will be broadcast in the Netherlands.

Paul Stevelmans