Zdenek Merta

Meeting Music Composer Zdenek Merta
“Laterna magika is a paradoxical connection of experiment and conservatism”

On January 6, 2017, we made a video interview with music composer Zdenek Merta in the screening hall of the National Film Archive at Prague’s Žižkov district.

Zdenek Merta wrote music for dozens of films and TV plays. After studying organ and composition at the Prague Conservatory, he graduated from the Music and Dance Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (HAMU) in composition. He was a pianist in the band Skupina Františka Ringo Čecha, later a band leader of Kardinálové. He composed music for the songs of Hana Hegerová, Eva Pilarová, Zora Jandová and others. He was a co-producer of the first Czech production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. He composed operas, operettas and musicals for a whole range of theatre stages. He currently works at the Brno City Theatre.

February 9, 1995 saw the premiere of the multimedia ballet Casanova directed by Juraj Jakubisko for which Zdenek Merta composed music. The performance was in the repertoire of the New Stage of the National Theatre for 18 years. The closing performance was held on October 26, 2013. Making music for Casanova is the key theme of the video interview which further includes interesting observations and recollections of Zdenek Merta concerning the past of Laterna magika and more.

Zdenek Merta stood at the birth of the ambitious production of Casanova from the very beginning, as he was friends with Juraj Jakubisko and the two authors were in close touch. In the making of Casanova, different ideas of the makers clashed but “nobody cared how to combine those ideas.” Choreographer Jean-Pierre Aviotte created his choreography in advance using completely different music; moreover, communication was difficult as he spoke no English. Working on Casanova was an extraordinary and strong experience for Zdenek Merta. The specific character of Laterna magika, with its multiple elements, taught him to communicate, “know the opinion of my colleagues, think deeper and anticipate more.” The unifying element of music for Casanova was big sound. Paradoxically, the reproduced music was played quietly so it would not disturb the visitors. However, the sound engineers often failed to follow the instruction that the intensity level of the music be low. According to the composer, it would benefit the music in Laterna magika if it were composed much more ahead of time and if the performance was built around it more. “I believe that the result of some of the performances would have been much better had they been based more on intuition and something as abstract as music.”

As a child, Zdenek Merta was enthralled by Revue from a Box. However, when he attended all premieres of theatres that bore witness to the times in the 1980s, Laterna magika was not among them. In the interview, the composer mentions the great force of the Laterna magika brand which was much attended by foreigners but at the same time remote from the real world. He speaks about the paradoxical connection of experiment and conservatism. It was nice that Laterna magika had its freedom and excellent artists. However, it became an institution that needed to reach a broad international audience while still wishing to continue its experimentation, says Merta: “It was partly an experiment and partly a variety show for foreigners.” Technocracy made Laterna magika gradually lose the spirit of theatre where “blood, sweat and tears” create the actor’s performance.

An Excerpt from an Interview with Composer Zdenek Merta

Did you have a libretto or technical screenplay at hand when composing music for Casanova? Or perhaps some theses?
To a large extent, the screenplay was written along with the music. I believe that some things were even influenced by our debates with Juraj Jakubisko. Because I really spent a lot of time with him back then and discussed it. I played him some pieces, he would choose some, throw away others… I remember playing some random stuff that was not intended for the performance and he said: “O my God, I want that, that’s it, why haven’t you shown it to me earlier?” And it never really occurred to me that it would fit in any way; and then it had a significant role there. I don’t really remember reading any screenplay as I was involved in it since the very beginning. There must have been some kind of a scene plan that we stuck to more or less, but I would be making that up now.

Where was the music for Casanova recorded?
In Ve Smečkách street. It was done partly by Mario Klemens and partly by Vladimír Válek [conductors]. That means it was in good hands. I was interested in the project so I did a good job or at least tried to do my best, I would say. I had plenty of time and zest and I was in a good frame of mind back then. By the way, I think that the CD is fairly good on its own and that the music has its own independent qualities. The music was created even before the performance. Juraj told me how he wanted to build it, because it’s his story, his theme, his mini stories, and I wrote music that I played on demo recordings which were done so as to sound roughly like the final recording so that others can get as good a notion of it as possible. Jean-Pierre Aviotte [choreographer of Casanova] created choreographies based on that. That was very problematic, since he naturally had a certain idea and built many acts around unfinished music. Which is often done in film, directors do it that way…

I don’t really mind it although some people just hate it. It is naturally a problem when people get used to some music, mostly by someone like Mozart and Shostakovich, so they’re no dolts, so to say. If you are to outdo that, it’s an uneven match, it’s impossible. But mostly it’s done knowing that it will be different. But Jean-Pierre was quite in love with it and already worked with it to a certain degree so it was a big deal for him to put up with there being different music. Finally we did find common ground though, because he liked my music, too; at least he seemed to. One act was left there, it was done brilliantly, Violin Concerto in E major by J. S. Bach. I understood that it was ok because I could not outcompose Bach. I was happy with it. I still feel good about the music today.

An edited excerpt from an interview with Zdenek Merta made by Jan Černíček on November 8, 2016. The original audio recording and its unedited transcription are available in the Collection of Sound Recordings at the NFA.