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The Transparent Composer

Al Kryszak and Ivan Docenko

Pianist Ivan Docenko records Al Kryszak’s Transparent Preludes

Is Al Kryszak Buffalo’s “stealth” classical music composer? Kryszak has been composing and performing music in many different genres for over thirty years, but his name is not yet all that familiar to Buffalo classical music audiences, let alone to the national audience for classical, or, as Kryszak prefers to call it, concert music.

Kryszak has a higher profile, perhaps both locally and nationally, through his work as a founding member and songwriter of the upstate New York alt rock trio, REV, where he is featured on Stratocaster and baritone guitar, piano and vocals. Reviewing Restless, a recent REV release, Buffalo News rock music critic Jeff Miers wrote “the album blends anger and empathy, balancing gritty, post-punk guitar figures against more reflective, esoteric melodic and harmonic movements”. Kryszak is also an actively involved visual artist, combining painting in acrylic and wood burning techniques.

So how does composing and performing for a contemporary alternative rock group fit in with composing concert music?

“I grew up with no respect for genre”, says Kryszak, “and it costs you when music people think you’re a painter and artistic people think you’re a composer. Early music, not only the sound, but the whole approach, gave me a reason to keep going, since popular songs, instrumental and choral music intersected in the most organic ways, as if medieval composers recognized that music was bigger than religious, secular or class boundaries, for example in the medieval Codex Faenza. I have alt rock songs with REV, and concert music that weaves in and out of genre in the last thirty years of work, and I figure it’s just one visual/sonic/written piece, with interruptions from life, and other stuff that happens”.

Kryszak has earned something of a national reputation for his work as a composer of new scores for silent films. He composed several scores for live presentations by the prestigious Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, including D.W. Griffith’s 1919 silent classic Broken Blossoms. His scores were subsequently recorded and released with the films by Turner Classic Movies. “The Turner Classic Movies silent film scores were generated after the Film Society of Lincoln Center commissioned me for live film events,” says Kryszak, “and those were due to the great fortune of collaborating with Sandra Birnhak, a Renaissance woman who is both an Antarctic explorer and a film collector. She provided me with access to a gigantic silent film library struck from the original negatives. The very first gig was major fun, Nosferatu at the Riviera Theatre in 1991, where I scared people with a Fender Strat rumbling through 12-foot tall Leslie speakers at the landmark venue”.

Both in Broken Blossoms and in his score for the 1924 version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the piano, played by Ivan Docenko, is prominently featured, so it is no surprise that Kryszak asked Docenko to record his Transparent Preludes. Composed over the course of twenty years, the twelve solo preludes “interlock in the sense that they were written to be played over each other at the same time”, says Kryszak. “They are called ‘transparent’ “because they are composed in a way that allows two pianists to perform the entire work according to the ‘layered’ instructions on each piece. ‘Transparent’ also describes how these works fold back or leaf over each other as in a montage from the visual arts of painting, photography or film. The layering process in the preludes is really just another version of the musical counterpoint that began in the 14th century with Machaut, up through J.S. Bach, with retrogrades and variations on a single musical line. As a World Music freak, I couldn’t help but be influenced by the freely performed ‘unison’ melodies in Tibetan, Korean Court Music and other Asian traditions”.

Docenko, who is well known locally as the keyboardist for the Camerata di Sant’Antonio and Buffalo Tango Orkestra in addition to being the staff accompanist for the Buffalo State Music Department, worked closely with Kryszak in recording the layered combinations. “Ivan was able to perform many movements without a click track, so he could think and feel like a pianist, who are natural born expressive soloists. Since Ivan is usually backing up a singer or chorus, I wanted him to play these exactly how he heard them, and then try different takes as if filming an actor with various motivations. Select Sound’s engineer, Tim Van Lear, kept everything moving in the studio so the momentum kept focused on Ivan’s amazing virtuosity”.

Overall, there is a dreamily introspective quality to many of the preludes, punctuated occasionally by briefer animated episodes, such as the one titled “Cheer up if it kills you”, a number written in ragtime that the composer describes as “a vision of two bar room piano players from the Old west being pushed down a staircase with pianos in tow”.

Kryszak is high on the local creative milieu. “I grew up five blocks away from a cello virtuoso (Bryan Eckenrode), a flute genius (Michael Colquhoun), Ukrainian piano/violin prodigies (Ivan and Gregory Docenko) and a great recording studio (Bill Kothen and Select Sound). This piano collection started with a personal piece for my Mom, developed through Yvar Mikhashoff at UB, but would’ve gone nowhere without dedicated musical test pilots like Ivan Docenko”.

Transparent Preludes and other music by Al Kryszak is available at iTunes. Information at: alankryszak.com.

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