[Interview - Don Davis]
Composer Don Davis has worked on a slew of television works, including "Beauty and the Beast", "Robin Cook's Invasion" and "House of Frankenstein". Theatrically, he's orchestrated some of the biggest scores out there, including Titanic and most recently, Pleasantville and A Bug's Life. His latest score, The Matrix reunites him with Bound directors Andy and Larry Wachowski.

Tell me about The Matrix

It's a big reality romp, which fascinated me when I first read the script. The premise of the film is similar to the Berkeley argument from early existential philosophy: "There is no reality, there is only perception." They took that idea and other existential reality premises and made it into a comic book styled movie, which is absolutely brilliant. They use this reality premise that humans have been taken over by machines and reality is what the machines feed them through electrical impulses fed directly into their brains. As such, the program can be changed and manipulated. It's a brand new way of looking at the superhero legend - Neo has supernatural powers because he learns how to manipulate this virtual reality program to his benefit. Warner Brothers was really interested in that because they have a number of comic book styled franchises.

Did you take the "superhero" approach to the score?

No, I didn't really take the "traditional" superhero approach. The Wachowski Brothers did so many innovative things on this film that they asked me to do something "unusual" - which is a request you get all the time, but when it comes down to it, it's usually the last thing they want. But these aren't your run-of-the-mill filmmakers, and their film truly warranted something different. I had done some concert work, and I found myself drawing from that experience more than my film experience. I would look at every scene, and evaluate it in terms of how I would approach it in a conventional way - and then do something in the opposite direction. I also felt that the medium needed to be orchestral, because I don't really consider synthesized music to be very unusual anymore - it's really become the norm, and orchestral music has become unusual. As such, we're starting to lose the tradition of discovering new ways to approach the orchestra, and that is a big pity. The big achievements in film music, Goldsmith's in particular, were orchestral devices, and new and unusual orchestral combinations.. But to say, "let's do something unusual - let's do a synth score!" is getting ludicrous because that's what you have on Saturday morning cartoons now. When a director comes to me and says, "I want something different," I can't very well say, "Ok - I'll give you a synth score." But then, when you are faced with 300 years of orchestral music tradition, how do you come up with something innovative after that kind of history? The answer for me was to draw from the post-modern works that are being done now on the concert stage.

What concert works have you worked on?

I've had a few commissions over the years, and won a few awards. I've received many of the major awards that young composers can get: BMI Awards to Student Composers, ASCAP Foundations Grants to Young Composers, etc. Once you hit 30, the awards that are available are things like the Guggenheim and the Pulitzer, which are mostly available to composers who limit themselves to academia and concert music. So I have managed to fulfill the occasional commission that would come in during the off-season, but I really couldn't pursue a concert music career because of my obligations in the film music arena. I think the last award I got was First Place in the Independent Composers Association Commission Competition. There's a lot of freedom in concert composition, hence the appeal. I wrote a number of pieces for a contemporary chamber ensemble called "X-tet" which is a group with a revolving set of instrumentalists. The only real limitation they gave me was to write for the instrumentation they had available.

I had heard it said that, "film music is the new classical music." What are your thoughts on that?

Well, I don't really agree with that statement, although I understand where it's coming from. It seems to me that film composers aren't getting more respect now than they did 20 years ago because film music has elevated, rather, it's because concert music has descended. Part of the premise of post-modernism is that music should be accessible, and different music can be drawn upon, including pop and world music. When you get into the concept of accessibility, then anything goes - you're letting loose of a standard that had been held on to for some time. The idea of the post-modernism concept is to turn its back on modernism, modernism being the Boulez-styled, dissonant, highly intellectual concept of music, very formal and well thought out, which is something that is often not easily embraced by a large audience. So this is a counter-movement against that, in which many different approaches are available to composers and should be availed of. Hence, film composers, who have always drawn upon many disparate sources as a matter of course, have become less of a pariah in that view - and that's both good and bad.

"[QuoteThe way I see it is when Brahms and Wagner were the major composers of the world, there were two camps - one of Brahms supporters, and one of Wagner supporters. Even though Brahms and Wagner didn't view themselves as adversaries - they were actually friendly - but to the audience, at least in Vienna, you could either be a Brahms-ite, or a Wagner-ian, but not both. But when Schoenberg came along, prior to his 12-tone innovation, one of the things he did was show us that you don't have to make a choice between Brahms and Wagner, they were both powerful entities and you could embrace both as springboards for newer discoveries. A similar thing happened about 30 or 40 years later, when Schoenberg made a big splash with his 12-tone concept. Most people who were involved in new music found themselves supporting either Schoenberg's music which was highly intellectual and very concerned with lineage, or Stravinsky's, which was more visceral and less interested in a link to the past. They were both very much modernists, but from a completely different approach. So there were these two camps, and they couldn't co-mingle until after World War II, when Boulez came along and showed us that you didn't have to choose between Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and that his total serialism idea embraced both concepts. These were breakthrough ideas. As Boulez later became the establishment, many other composers (Milton Babbit, Elliot Carter) were also entrenched in this highly intellectual total serialism approach to music, and were consequently turning their backs on a very large segment of their audience. As an opposition movement, minimalism appeared, which consisted of very simple ideas that were usually repetitive, and had close relationships to various indigenous music such as Indian ragas. This was completely antithetical to the highly intellectual approach of serialism, and the modernist camp and the minimalist camp were in opposition to each other. The post-modern idea is that you don't have to choose between Terry Riley and Pierre Boulez - both had important things to say, and both approaches are valid and can inform us about what music is, what it can be, and where we can go from there. So the post-modernists embraced both worlds, and our time has become a time of assimilation.

Do you find that is happening in film music, with different styles and different "camps"?

I haven't heard a whole lot of things in film that I would say are in a post-modern style. It is a matter of style, and that style isn't necessarily going to fit every film. The first function of film music is that it must function as film music - that it supports the action when there's action, that it supports the dialogue and emotion when there's dialogue and emotion. Thrusting new styles upon film isn't necessarily going to be successful. But The Matrix has such a new approach to film and visuals, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go in that direction musically.

What do you mean, "a new approach to film"?

The Wachowski's concept of filming - the way they visualize and execute shots - is much more malleable than anything else I've seen. It sounds hyperbolic, but it really isn't. One of the things that is unique to this movie is their use of a lot of reflective imagery. Lawrence Fishburne's character, who is a mentor to Keanu Reeves' character, is always wearing these dark glasses, and when he goes into expository dialogue, they dolly in close to the glasses and you can see Keanu's reactions reflected on the glasses. There is also a sequence in which Keanu's charactor meets a young psychic (called a "potential") and they are bending spoons, and the reflections of Keanu and the boy are superimposed on the spoons - I haven't seen this kind of imagery used much in other films. As such, I wanted to reflect (if you will) that kind of imagery in the music using contrapuntal ideas - not really in a baroque way, but motifs that echo each other in an overlapping way. That kind of thing is a post-modern idea.

You started out by working for Joe Harnell on "The Incredible Hulk" as his orchestrator. What is your music background?

I was a trumpet player when I was a kid, and I did some of the guitar and piano things that kids do. I started writing songs and such when I was about 12, and at the same time I was getting fairly serious about the playing trumpet. By the time I was in High School I was playing in a lot of local jazz ensembles. I started to write for those, and that was a pretty good experience because I had to write the charts and then write out all the parts too. I think that's a significantly good experience, for a young composer, to write the parts out for each instrument. I also had the advantage that I was playing in these ensembles I was writing for and as such I could experience the problems of composing from the performer's point of view. If you write a trumpet line that is 15 bars long, then you have to go back and play it, you realize immediately that it doesn't work because you have to breathe! That kind of experience is invaluable. By the time I got to college I had come to the conclusion that I wanted to be a film composer, and started studying film composition seriously at UCLA. Part of that was learning how to write in every style, not just pop music and jazz, but classical as well, and I fell in love with new serious music in a major way. At one point I nearly made the decision to go into that field permanently - get my Ph.D. and get a professorial position somewhere, write my silly pieces, and teach young composers how to be frustrated for the rest of their lives. <laughs> But I chose to be more practical, and went off into the film direction while keeping my feet wet in the concert field.

When I was in college I studied orchestration with a man named Albert Harris who did orchestration for films and television. He had worked with, and introduced me to, Joe Harnell. When I first got out of school it wasn't easy to get work, and I had a lot of free time. I was writing a chamber symphony at the time, and Joe asked me what I was working on, knowing that my phone wasn't exactly ringing off the hook. When I told him I was working on this chamber symphony, it impressed him. I encounter a lot of people who are trying to get into the business and their focus is, "when do I get the big money?" rather than displaying a real interest in musical achievement, which I feel (and Joe felt) was really the source of music-making, even commercial music-making, and the rewards are secondary. I think that's what impressed Joe , and he looked at the piece and liked it. We had some discussions about orchestration, and he invited me to his scoring sessions of "The Incredible Hulk" and eventually he threw some cues my way to orchestrate, and later he started employing me regularly. He scored a miniseries called V, and I orchestrated the entire show. I was sitting in the booth watching the scores while Joe was conducting, and got into a conversation with the engineer about how I could get a nice 1/4' stereo tape of the score. Joe ended up with a cassette, and I ended up with a very high-quality reel-to-reel copy of the score - which I believe was used for the recent release of it on Super Tracks.

Your career as an orchestrator has been pretty successful as well. You've worked recently for James Horner and Randy Newman. How did that come about?

Well, I got in with both of them through my agent, Michael Gorfaine. What happened was John Debney scored a film called Hocus Pocus, and he asked me to work on it since he was short on time and needed an extra orchestrator. So I ended up doing some of the orchestration, and Mike took notice of it. At the same time, some of Horner's orchestrators were moving on and he needed fresh blood, so Mike asked me if I would work for James. I haven't worked much for James lately because he needs an orchestrator who can book himself well in advance, and I can't really do that. But Randy seems to be happy to have me work for him when I am available, and it doesn't disrupt him when I have other obligations..

This past year you worked on both A Bugs Life and Pleasantville. That's quite a good year, considering the Oscar nominations!

I was delighted to see them both get nominated. When I heard that he had been nominated, the first thing that went through my mind was not, "if he wins he's going to say, 'Thank you Don'!" <laughs>. I'm really hoping that he gets at least one Oscar, if not all three of them! That would be nice - it would really be justice because he deserves the recognition. I don't know if he'll win, but one can only hope.

What would your dream project be?

I could say: "From here I would like to work on a picture that has only 20 minutes of music in it, six months to write it, and lots of money being paid to do it." <laughs> But "dream project" makes me think of something that the editor of The Matrix told me before I actually started writing. He was also the editor on Bound, and he had initially introduced me to the Wachowski's. He told me that he thought this was the score I was born to write. I'm usually not one for that kind of argot, but what he meant was that my background as a concert composer lent something particular to this picture, and this picture is an opportunity to formulate some of the ideas that I've been kicking around for quite a while. So without being so corny as to say I was "born to write this score", it was an excellent opportunity for me to present some of these ideas, and I think they happen to work very well with the picture, so I would have to say that The Matrix was truly my dream project. Film scoring is a matter of opinion, and the director's opinion is the only one that matters, so if a director says, "that music is not right," then it's not right, and it doesn't matter if the composer or anyone else thinks it's perfect - it's just wrong. So it seems that the directors and I were in agreement about the approach to the score for The Matrix, and this was an amazing opportunity to do some innovative things.

The Matrix will be released in theaters nationwide on March 31. A score CD will be released by Varese-Sarabande in May. V: The Miniseries is available on Super Tracks Records.