Emil Viklicky: Patriarch of Czech Jazz Piano

Victor Verney By

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EV: Yes, I did the same thing with Herbie [Hancock]. He was a houseguest of mine in Prague. We met at a jazz festival in San Sebastian [Spain] in 1976. I knew he was staying on a different floor in the same hotel as mine, and I called up the desk and asked for his room. I left a message and the next night—I was already in bed—he called me up and invited me to his room. We chatted and finished a bottle of Remy Martin. Then, ten years later he came to Prague for a concert at the American Embassy, with [drummer] Tony Williams, Marsalis, [bassist] Buster Williams, I think. He called me up and said he wanted to see me, so I invited him over to my house. I played the piano for him and we had dinner, but I didn't ask for his autograph or even take a picture or anything. Actually, he was late for his performance because of me. I'd picked him up at 12:00 [noon] and brought him to my house, and at 3:10 I said, "Hey, aren't you supposed to be at that gig?" He thought he didn't have to leave until 3:30 and the gig was at 4:00. I drove him to the Embassy, and we got there at 4:10. Everyone was frantic because he was supposed to have been there at 3:00!

AAJ: Wonderful story!

EV: Then, when I was in L.A. in 1991, I visited him at his house on Doheny Drive. We've run into each other many times—at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, and again at the Pori Jazz Festival in 1982—there's a picture of us from that on my website. We met up again about a year ago. He was playing with George Mraz. That was great because I was playing the same festival in Vien [France], about 60 kilometers south of Lyons. It's a big, two thousand year-old Roman amphitheatre. They came late—there was [trumpeter Roy] Hargrove, [saxophonist Michael] Brecker, Mraz, some African drummer—George didn't like him—and Herbie.

AAJ: So you two guys are regular old buddies now, it sounds like. Getting back to literature, I see you're reading Mailer; do you like him? Do you have any other particular favorites?

EV: Yes, I like Mailer. The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte is one of my favorites, and I like Elmore Leonard a lot.

AAJ: I'm struck by the number of scores you've written for dramatic works by writers like Strindberg, Nietzsche, Albee, Arthur Miller, Mishima.

EV: Oh, yes, so many!

AAJ: It would seem like a natural for you to do the music for something on Kafka.

EV: Actually, I've been approached recently by some Swiss Czechs who are interested in having me write an opera about Kafka. Right now, the money isn't there for the project, but it could happen. Back in the communist days, I doing a lot of theater and film music, but I was not a member of the Party, I wasn't allowed to work on feature films or anything. But I could do a short, three-minute children's films, cartoons and theater. At the time, they had an 80-person orchestra, but they were just sitting around; the film directors were under the influence of American rock music, and they had a young guy playing guitar. They didn't even use the orchestra.

AAJ: More wasted resources!

EV: Yes. And I was an aspiring composer, and I approached them asked if I could the orchestrate some of the cartoons, and they said, "Of course! That would be fantastic!" They were delighted because the orchestra was just sitting around doing nothing. I made mistakes with my scores at first. Then I had the opportunity to score a somewhat longer children's film, again making some mistakes there, too. So I did that for five or ten years, and it was an invaluable learning experience. Then, later, in 1998, after the communists were gone, I was feeling a bit dissatisfied. "Jesus Christ," I said to myself, "All my life all I've written are these little pieces for children's cartoons and twelve-bar or sixteen-bar blues, and messing up this folklore music." I felt like I wanted to do something bigger. By coincidence, an announcement came in the mail for a competition to score a new opera, Faidra, being produced by the National Theater of Prague. The entry requirement was to fully orchestrate an eight-minute scene. I had learned about orchestration from doing those children's films and cartoons, so I said, "OK, I'll try."

It was a story about two Czech soldiers who were accused of raping an American sergeant in Yugoslavia. True story. What I didn't know at the time—I learned later on—was that she was quite ugly. The two Czech soldiers—they were privates—slept with her, and the next day at the cafeteria they were laughing at her. She said, "Oh you're laughing at me? I'll show you!" And she blabbed a big story, "Those guys raped me, etc. etc!" And they were found guilty of raping her.

AAJ: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

EV: Exactly. At the premier, one of the generals came up to me and said, "Emil, there is a problem. The singer you have playing the female lead is quite beautiful." I said, "Yes, she is." And he said, "But I can tell you that in real life she was very ugly." Anyway, when I first looked at the opera I realized how similar it was to the ancient Greek tragedy about Pheadra, an older woman who tried to woo her young stepson Hippolyte. He wasn't interested in her, so she accused him of raping her.

AAJ: A little bit like the story of Joseph and the Pharoah's wife in the Bible.

EV: Yes, same thing. I went see the librettist, a very educated lady. I figured I had nothing to lose by entering; if I didn't win, I could always use the score for some film or television project. Anyway, out of sixty entrants, I was chosen as one of ten finalists. I said, "Uh-oh—I'm in trouble now." What started as a joke, all of a sudden it was serious. But I went to work on it and submitted a 350-page score, again I said to myself, "Who cares? If I don't win I can use it on somewhere else." Well, what do you know—I won! They gave me the prize money and all that, but then what happened was then they said, "OK—now you owe us a chamber opera"; it was kind of like an option they felt they had.

So I said, "All right, I'll do one on Karel Macha, a Czech romantic poet. Then I said to myself, "Jesus Christ—how am I going to write an opera about the erotic diaries of a man who lived in 1810 and died when he was 26?!" It's very interesting: they're only eight pages, and they were locked away for 170 years. They didn't want to show that this Czech national hero, considered the creator of the Czech language, had this erotic element.

AAJ: I see you worked with Milan Kundera.

EV: Oh, we only used his poem, but he gave us permission. That belongs to my next project. We were lucky to get his cooperation because he can be complicated. But Zuzana Lapcikova, that folksinger I mentioned before, she somehow got permission from him, and he said, "Yes, you can use my poem." It's a story about a boy who kills his girlfriend because he loves her so much.
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