Zdeněk Liška

Resident archivist Jack Dangers disappears down the rabbit hole of soundtracks by Czechoslovakian composer Zdeněk Liška

Back in 1990, I made a track called ‘Love Mad’ for the first edition of the book/CD series ‘Volume’, which was the brainchild of Rob Deacon who ran Meat Beat Manifesto’s first label, Sweatbox. The dominant theme in the song is a sample from a film called ‘The Flat’ by avant-garde filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. He created a lot of surreal and disturbing stop-frame animation work, including ‘Alice’ in 1988, an amazing version of ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Around about that time, Channel 4 showed ‘The Flat’ as part of a season of animation which I videotaped, and I took the sample for ‘Love Mad’ from that. 

The music was by Zdeněk Liška, probably Czechoslovakia’s best known film composer. He wrote hundreds of mostly orchestral film scores in his career, but he was also a pioneer of electronic and electroacoustic music in film.

None of Liška’s work for Jan Švankmajer has been released, but Andy Votel’s label Finders Keepers has released several of his other soundtracks, including the 1963 Czech science fiction movie ‘Ikarie XB-1’, which was written for a small orchestra and manipulated tape. The music is great, and it’s a really good film, too. I think Kubrick must have seen it – you can see the influence in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Finders Keepers also released Liška’s scores for the 1969 surreal serial killer film ‘The Cremator’, and his orchestral/electronic score of ‘The Little Mermaid’ from 1976.

Zdeněk Liška was born in what was then Bohemia in 1922, and studied at the Prague Conservatory before joining the film studios of the Baťa shoe company in Zlín in 1945. Zlín had been a company town for decades, and Baťa built department stores, schools, hospitals, blocks of flats and cinemas – and a film studio.

When Liška died in 1983, aged just 61, Jan Švankmajer announced he wouldn’t use any other living composer’s music for his films, and has used only classical music since. 

As a postscript, 10 years after sampling ‘The Flat’, on a really misty, wintry morning, I was on my way to a small museum in Rotterdam to see a Jan Švankmajer exhibition, and I encountered a Flemish Giant rabbit on the way. They’re the biggest rabbits in the world, about the size of a dog, and there was one on the loose. It was such a Jan Švankmajer moment, I couldn’t believe it. A truly bizarre experience.

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