Szymon KuranBorn: December 16th, 1955, Szeligi (Poland)
Died: August 7th, 2005, Reykjavík (Iceland)
Nationality: Polish (1955-1991) / Icelandic (1991-2005)
His exceptional talent at playing the violin coming to the fore, Szymon was allowed to study at the Frederic Chopin Secondary School of Music in Warsaw, graduating in 1975, continuing his studies at the Stanisław Moniuszko Academy of Music in Gdańsk (Danzig). It is here that Zbigniew Dubik, also a violin student, first met Szymon: “Szymon was a couple of years older than me; hence, we were not in the same year. However, we lived in the same dormitory and I got to know him as an extraverted and active student. In his free time, he adored playing jazz music in groups at the institute and in bars. There is this misconception amongst people from the west who think that playing jazz under communist rule was tantamount to rebelling against the system, but, in Poland, this was not the case. You were not allowed to express yourself politically and travelling abroad was almost impossible, but those were the only restrictions. Musically speaking, we were allowed all freedom imaginable. Later onwards, Szymon and I played together in the Polish Chamber Philharmonic, an orchestra for young musicians. Because of all his activities, Szymon was popular amongst his fellow-students.”
With the violin as his main instrument and having taken courses in composition and the obligatory theory subjects as well, Szymon Kuran graduated from the Moniuszko Academy in 1980. After spending one year (1980-’81) in the newly established Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra in Sopot, an orchestra for young music professionals and the brainchild of conductor Wojciech Rajski, Szymon Kuran became the concertmaster of the Polish Baltic Philharmonic in Gdańsk, a position he held for two years (1981-’83). Subsequently, receiving a scholarship from the Polish state, Kuran was allowed one year of additional studies of the violin and composition at the National Centre for Orchestral Studies of the Goldsmiths’ College (University of London) in England.
In response to an advertisement, Szymon Kuran came to Reykjavík to audition for second concertmaster in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in 1984 and was chosen for the job. Guðrún Sigurðardóttir, an Icelandic musician who later became Kuran’s wife: “There were no political reasons Szymon did not want to go back to Poland. For artists, however, life in Poland was a struggle and Szymon, being a creative musician, was simply looking for an opportunity to work and he found it in Reykjavík. His exceptional talent was immediately recognized at the audition with the orchestra.” Szymon Kuran stayed with the Iceland Symphonic for sixteen years, playing the solo violin in several performances, most notably the Icelandic premieres of Andrzej Panufnik’s Violin Concerto (in 1993) and Karol Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto (in 1996); he also performed the former of these two concerts with the Norðurland Symphonic in Akureyri. Later onwards, he worked as the concertmaster of the Norðurland Symphony Orchestra as well as the Orchestra of the Icelandic Opera for some time.
Zbigniew Dubik, the violinist who studied with Kuran in Gdańsk and came to Iceland to play in the Iceland Symphonic four years after Kuran’s arrival: “Szymon was the person who told the orchestra’s management about me and I am eternally grateful to him for that. He was an important member of the orchestra and was highly esteemed by the other players. On many occasions, when our first concertmaster was unavailable, Szymon replaced him. Frustrated about being passed over for first concertmaster year after year, he took a leave of a couple of months, but when the manager sent him a letter requesting to come back, he highly appreciated this and decided to take his place in the orchestra again.”
It was not long before Szymon Kuran engaged in music projects in Iceland in other genres as well, most notably jazz music. Towards the end of the 1980s, he founded the jazz formation Súld, which performed at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in Canada, whilst he formed the Kuran Swing Quartet in 1989, with which he also played in Iceland and abroad. With the quartet, he released an album, ‘Kuran Swing’, in 1992. Later onwards, Kuran occasionally performed with the Icelandic jazz formation South River Band. Composer and friend Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson about Kuran’s love for jazz: “Szymon was much more passionate about jazz than I could ever be, because it was part of his identity. He had been playing jazz music zealously since his days as a student in Poland. Súld was an excellent jazz band, which mainly played Szymon’s compositions. The project had been his brainchild in the first place. They were really on the verge of breakthrough, receiving some big offers from record companies, but one way or another it never really materialized. Szymon regretted this immensely.”
As a session player, Szymon Kuran was much in demand from the 1980s onwards, playing on countless recordings for pop and film music. In particular, he worked extensively with the renowned Icelandic film composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, for whom he recorded the violin parts in no fewer than ten soundtracks: ‘Children of nature’ (1991), ‘The secret weapon’ (1995), ‘Wildside’ (1998), ‘Foreign fields’, ‘Angels of the universe’ (both from 2000), ‘Falcons’, ‘Horse story’ (both from 2002), ‘Nu’, ‘In the cut’ (both from 2003), and ‘When children play in the sky’ (2006).
Hilmarsson about his close collaboration with Kuran: “I first met him in 1990 at a small concert venue in Reykjavík, where he gave this wonderful impromptu solo performance in gypsy style. I was blown away by what I heard… people can try to fake this style of playing, but they lack the emotion, whilst Szymon’s performance was only emotion! Here was a classical musician who knew how to play other types of music as well – and really feel it. Up until I met Szymon, I had experienced problems in the violin parts of my soundtracks. Having played the violin myself as a youngster for some time, I always had precise ideas in my head about how the violin parts should be performed, but it rarely came across. From the moment Szymon and I started talking about music, however, he responded so well, exactly understanding which feelings I wanted to express in my music. After his work on ‘Children of nature’, with which I won the Felix Award in Berlin, there was no question I would ever allow any other violinist to play what I had written than only Szymon. He made my music come alive!”
“To make that point even more clear”, Hilmarsson continues, “when I was working on the film ‘Hin helgu vé’ in ’93, Szymon was abroad and unavailable to record my music. Therefore, I decided to rewrite all violin parts for a viola… I just could not bear the thought of having another violin player than Szymon. Another unforgettable memory was the recording of the soundtrack of ‘In the cut’ in 2003. Director Jane Campion, producer Laurie Parker and I were in the Salurinn in Kópavogur to supervise the recording of the music to that film. For one piece, Szymon played the lead violin and once again succeeded in bringing across exactly the feelings that I wanted to convey. At the end of the session, Jane, Laurie, and I, but Szymon as well, were reduced to tears. It was not unnatural for Szymon to weep when he really got into a piece of music. When it came to music, he was just pure love and pure heart.”
As a session player, Szymon Kuran often gathered a group of string players for recordings with pop artists. As such, he accompanied the likes of Halla Margrét, Paul Oscar, the Millionaires, Casino, and many more. For producers such as Jón Ólafsson and Jon Kjell Seljeseth, he was the first violinist to call when a violin solo was needed. In 1999, his contribution to Sigur Rós’ breakthrough album ‘Ágætis byrjun’ was of pivotal importance. Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who worked closely with Sigur Rós: “Szymon more or less conducted the string accompaniment for that album. None of the boys in the band had any skills in writing scores and their notation programme was slightly primitive. They came out with a very crude template of the orchestral accompaniment, leaving much to the initiative of the players. Szymon did a wonderful job on this. The engineer of the album, Ken Thomas, an extremely experienced guy who had come over from England to do the recording, was very much impressed by Szymon’s abilities.”
Apart from working as a session player, Szymon Kuran was also regularly asked to write arrangements for studio projects, amongst others for the renowned Icelandic folk band Rio Trio. In 1995, Kuran penned part of the scores for Paul Oscar’s cover album ‘Palli’, whilst producer Jon Kjell Seljeseth sometimes called upon his help when a string arrangement was required. Moreover, he wrote the orchestration to Gunnar Þórðarson’s first classical composition, ‘Nocturne’, which was released in 1987.
Throughout his career, Szymon Kuran engaged in composing classical music. During his student days in Gdańsk, he wrote several works, including a Sinfonia Concertante dedicated to the memory of Dimitri Shostakovich (1977), and a Nocturne for piano (1978), for which he was awarded with the first prize in composition and arrangement at the International Festival of Sacral Music 1978 in Warsaw. Later onwards, amongst other works, he added a Post Mortem for Strings (1981) and a Square for violin, flute, clarinet, and cello (1984) to his oeuvre. In 1991, Kuran finished ‘In the light of eternity’, a most unusual mass in jazz style, on which he had been working for over fifteen years. Many of Kuran’s classical works were premiered by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. In 1999 and 2003, he also wrote two ballets, but Szymon Kuran’s main work is without a doubt his Requiem for children’s voice, solo violin, flute, guitar, three choirs, a string orchestra, and percussion, dedicated to the memory of Brynhildur Sigurðardóttir, which he finished after six years of composing in 2000. The Icelandic premiere of Kuran’s requiem took place in Reykjavík’s Basilica of Christ the King, the main Roman Catholic church in Iceland, April 2001. Five years later, one year after Kuran’s passing away, the piece was first performed in Poland in the All Saints’ Church in Warsaw.
One of the Polish violinists of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Zbigniew Dubik, about Szymon Kuran’s classical oeuvre: “Szymon was fascinated by Polish contemporary music by Henryk Górecki and Karol Szymanowski. I can feel some resemblance to those two composers, though Szymon developed a unique style of his own: a very lyrical form of contemporary music. He was at his best when he could write music to poetry. The music he created to it was usually deep and reflective.”
Szymon Kuran, who was awarded with the so-called Borgarlistmaður, the Artist of the Year Prize of the City of Reykjavík in 1994, also worked as a private violin teacher in Iceland. In the last years of his life, he suffered from severe depressions, which hardly allowed him to continue his professional activities. Szymon Kuran passed away in August 2005, aged forty-nine.
Szymon Kuran in the Eurovision Song Contest
Kuran led the string section during the studio recording of several songs which participated in the Icelandic final, including Halla Margrét’s ‘Hægt og hljótt’, arranged by Jon Kjell Seljeseth and Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson, which earned the right to represent the Nordic island in the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest held in Brussels. In 1993, Seljeseth invited Kuran to arrange the strings to his composition ‘Þá veistu svarið’, performed by Inga, which was the Icelandic entry in the 1993 festival. Seljeseth wrote the rest of the orchestration and was the conductor of the song in the contest’s final held in Millstreet, but, as Seljeseth himself revealed, his original idea was to ask Szymon Kuran to take the conducting honours: “I just wanted to come along as the songwriter, relaxing a bit without all the stress of rehearsals and giving the chance to a professional conductor. As Szymon was involved in writing the arrangement, he seemed like a good choice. He was such a likeable guy and, moreover, much better equipped than I to write for strings. As a producer, I invited him to play in string sessions in the studio whenever I had the opportunity. He had some conducting experience as well, certainly more than me or guys like Gunnar Þórðarson and Jón Ólafsson. Before letting Szymon know, I happened to have a chat with RÚV’s chief Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, who I told about my intentions. The fact was that the budget for that year’s Eurovision project was one of the lowest in Iceland’s history as a participant in the contest. As a composer, I received part of that budget. I told Hrafn it was so small, that I would have to put some of my own money in to cover the expenses. Then, quite logically, he suggested that I should do the conducting myself, thereby avoiding having to pay for Szymon’s ticket to Millstreet and, on top of that, for his salary for the conducting job. I decided to take Hrafn’s advice, although I came to regret it, because it would have been so nice to go out there together with Szymon! I never told him about my initial plans, not even after the contest.”
To understand how Szymon Kuran became the conductor of Paul Oscar’s eccentric disco track ‘Minn hinsti dans’ in the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, it is necessary to retrace the history of the song itself. Quite contrary to the live rendition in Dublin, the studio track of the song does not include any orchestral elements. Singer Paul Oscar (Páll Óskar Hjálmtýsson) composed and produced ‘Minn hinsti dans’ in collaboration with Trausti Haraldsson. Paul Oscar: “Trausti and I did the studio arrangement all by ourselves. We programmed the whole thing up in Trausti’s tiny studio in Akureyri, where he lived at that time. When Trausti and I were ready, I was worried that something was missing… at that point, I called on the help of Jóhann Jóhannsson, a genius composer with whom I regularly worked at that time. I wondered if he could add some flavour to what we had done. Jóhann made some suggestions, but these simply did not work out properly. Due to an approaching deadline, there was no question of even considering adding orchestral elements to the track… we simply lacked time. Therefore, the single version of ‘Minn hinsti dans’ is just the rhythm track which Trausti and I recorded up in Akureyri.”
‘Minn hinsti dans’ was internally chosen by RÚV, the Icelandic broadcaster, to represent Iceland in the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest. “When it was clear that RÚV wanted me to go to Eurovision for Iceland”, Paul Oscar tells us, “I decided that it would be cool to mix the two elements together: our own programmed beats and baseline and the orchestra in Dublin. After all, there was the possibility to work with a fully-fledged orchestra and I thought it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to work with it. By using an orchestra, you will achieve a bigger, more glamorous sound, while also creating a sense of excitement you only get from a performance which is live. I called upon Szymon Kuran for the job, because I had worked with him on several occasions since my first disco solo album in 1993. Back then, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and I wanted to create strings in the style of the disco group Chic and first tried fake strings recreated by a synthesizer. Unhappy with the outcome, we wanted the real thing. It was Jon Kjell Seljeseth who advised us to talk to Szymon. He wrote some of the arrangements and played them with three of his colleagues from the Iceland Symphonic. The outcome satisfied us all and I worked with Szymon on several other recording projects in the following years.”
“Szymon was willing to accept this Eurovision challenge”, Paul Oscar continues, “the main challenge for him personally being that he had to conduct a live orchestra to pre-recorded backing tracks, something I believe he had never done before. I made it clear from the beginning that I did not only want him to write the orchestration, but also to conduct it in the international final in Dublin. It was obvious from day one that Szymon liked this prospect. Being the kind of person willing to give everything a try, he was really open to all kinds of music and experiences; that is one thing – the next is to actually pull it off… and, in Ireland, he pulled it off with an amazing ease. With Szymon conducting, we never worried for a second about the orchestra. I was extremely satisfied with the outcome.”
Did Szymon Kuran enjoy himself amidst the Eurovision extravaganza in Dublin? Paul Oscar: “I believe he did, yes! I cannot be sure, because even in Ireland Szymon and I never really socialized. Our relationship was strictly professional, but, at the same time he was so friendly and the communication was very slick. That was one of the reasons I liked working with him. He was quite shy, but when he had the opportunity to play his violin, he was extremely open! In the course of the week of rehearsals, he attended quite some parties and he always took his violin with him. Without further ado, he would just jump on stage and improvise with other artists. I remember he played along some songs with a band which played at the party of the Irish delegation… simply by ear. The atmosphere in our Icelandic group was good: we were a truly happy crew. Though we did not get many votes, I think we managed to rock the boat they way I had intended to; Szymon was a key factor in bringing it about!”
“Szymon was a truly gifted artist”, Paul Oscar concludes. “It was painful to see this awful disease of manic depression slowly but surely eating him up in the following years. I worked with him on two more album projects in 1998 and 1999, for which Szymon led a string group of sixteen players and did a wonderful job. When, in 2001, I was in need of some strings for a recording project I did with the harpist of the Iceland Symphonic, she told me Szymon was too ill to do the job. Therefore, sadly, we had to go for another arranger. I have excellent memories of working with Szymon Kuran… he had an open heart, a heart full of art.”
Quite surprisingly, as it turns out, the twentieth place of ‘Minn hinsti dans’ in Dublin was not the last chapter in the Eurovision book of Szymon Kuran. In 2004-’05, Kuran harboured plans to participate in the Icelandic Eurovision pre-selection with a song of his own. To get the piece ready, he turned to his friend, arranger and producer Jon Kjell Seljeseth. Seljeseth, digging in his memory, told us in 2012: “Actually, I had forgotten all about this. The computer folder, in which I found the demo recently, is labelled ‘Szymon Kuran 2004’. Szymon requested me to help him making a demo of a song he planned to submit to the Icelandic heats. He had resolved he finally wanted to come up with a Eurovision song himself! We put together a recording, of which the purpose was to serve as a scratch track for recording the vocals. What happened next? I have no idea if Szymon really submitted the song.”
Some further investigation now proves that he did. As it turns out, vocals were added to the first demo by Esther Talia Casey, the daughter of a friend, while her husband Ólafur Egill Egilsson came up with some guitar lines. The couple recorded a second demo, with provisional English lyrics to suit the melody: ‘Love is a fool’. Esther Talia Casey recalls: “Szymon requested me to sing the demo for him. We recorded it in the studio of our neighbour, a guitarist. Szymon was very humble about the project and I think he was just doing it for fun… but I cannot be sure.” Kuran himself sent this new demo version to Icelandic television, but his creation was rejected. In the summer of 2005, he passed away. Thanks to Jon Kjell Seljeseth, Esther Talia Casey, and Ólafur Egill Egilsson, who allowed us to publish the demos, we can listen to both versions of ‘Love is a fool’ for the first time now.
Other artists on Szymon Kuran
Film composer, art director, and personal friend Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson: “Szymon Kuran is the most fascinating musician I have met in my whole life. Music was his main drive and when he was caught by a piece of music he interpreted, he would just ‘live’ it. At the same time, he was a man of many interests, making him an excellent collocutor in a wide range of subjects. To my mind, he felt quite at home in Iceland and if he ever felt nostalgia, it was rather for England, where he had spent a year on a scholarship, than for Poland. I know he wished he had started earlier writing classical music. He deserves to be remembered as one of the most remarkable performers Iceland has ever seen. With his playing and his compositions, he enriched our musical culture to no end. As a human being, Szymon was the best… I have never met an equal. I miss him every day!” (2012)
Icelandic pop producer Gunnar Þórðarson worked with Szymon Kuran on several recording projects in the 1980s and 1990s: “In ’87, Szymon was kind enough to accept my request to arrange the first-ever classical piece I wrote, ‘Nocturne’. He accomplished it beautifully. I also called upon him to arrange some strings for one Rio Trio album which I produced. Szymon was able to work in all styles of music and he liked doing many different things. By character quite withdrawn, he made the impression of being happy to keep in the background.” (2012)
Icelandic pop musician and producer Jón Ólafsson: “Szymon Kuran played the violin on a lot of albums for which I did the production. He was a very sensitive person and put lots of emotion into his violin play… big emotions, in a way that usually only gypsies are capable of. In 2002, when I produced a concert with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the thirty-fifth birthday of the Beatles’ album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band’, Szymon did the Indian violin solo on George Harrison’s composition ‘Within you without you’. That was great stuff… he could improvise like no other and played different styles without any problem.” (2012)
Kuran’s former spouse, cellist Guðrún Theodora Sigurðardóttir, about Szymon’s relationship with his motherland: “Szymon did not have particularly good memories of his life in Poland and he did not harbour plans to move back there. He consciously changed nationality in the 1990s. However, it was a feature of his character to always long for things that were gone. He used to give this feeling a Polish name, żał or ‘grief’. It is the Polish word that can be used for everything you miss in your life... this form of melancholy really was his essence!” (2012)
Polish violinist Zbigniew Dubik got to know Szymon Kuran during his student days at the Gdańsk conservatory and later joined him as a player at the Iceland Symphony Orchestra: “It was Szymon who brought me to Iceland… in ’88, he suggested I should take the audition for the symphony orchestra and made sure I received an invitation to travel to Iceland. Szymon was extremely helpful during my first, difficult months in Reykjavík. He supported me spiritually by regularly inviting me over to his place to have dinner and a chat; on top of that, he helped me overcoming the language barrier by filling out bills and translating some inevitable government documents for me. On a personal level, he was most generous and thoughtful… he was the kind of person to surprise you with a present when you least expected it, just because he thought highly of you. Both as a violinist and a composer, he deserves to be remembered as the artist of renaissance, simply because he was so multi-talented and worked in many different genres at such a high level.” (2012)