by Frederic Gimello-Mesplomb and Dominic Van der Zypen
What is your musical background?
I studied piano with my mother when I was 3, and all through my childhood. When I was 17, I went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester (New York) where I studied piano and composition for four years. After that, I went to Paris, to study with Nadia Boulanger for two years. I once met Aaron Copland in Paris where he had been a student. He came to visit Nadia Boulanger and I played some of my music for him, but it was not especially his taste. Soon after, I came back to for military service. It was during the Korean War. I was assigned to the Documentary Film Unit, to compose original music for these films. During this time, the US Air Force Symphony Orchestra (100 players) was, for me, the best of all the conservatories. After four years, when I came out of the military service, I went for New York and began composing for the theatre, television, and films...
In which way did your European studies in Salzburg influence your approach of 12-tone music?
[silence] I do not believe in 12-tone music. But, it is, of course, my personal view. It was an important phenomenon in 20th century music, but there is something essentially artificial in 12-tone music. Tonality, as we understood it for centuries, is based on laws, natural laws of sounds and physics. Whereas, the 12-tone system is a man-made manipulation of these tones, even when it was used by such enormously gifted and genius composers like Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg or Webern. But to me, the most moving and beautiful parts, especially of Schoenberg and Berg, are not purely 12-tone parts. So, when I was In Salzburg, I was more influenced by Mozart than by Schoenberg! [laughs]
However, atonality seems to be an important element in your film compositions, especially during the seventies (Clash of the Titans: Medusa) and in your TV works too (Blackout: The Prologue and Anastasia: The Bridge)
Yes, all of those employed some atonal elements. It is true. Sometimes, I think especially in dramatic situations, like in film scores, it is enormously effective. It's wonderful. In films, I use atonality to express dark things, such as feelings of disorientation and certain kinds of inner states of fear or anxiety. In Blackout (Douglas Hickox, TV, 1985) music was principally to express fear. It was a film of terror. Medusa, in Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davis, 1981), same case. In Anastasia, the music tries to evoke the feeling of the music of Alban Berg. It also tries to evoke the deep alienation and disorder reflected musically in the often poignant Viennese atonality of the period, mirroring, in a way, the bleak and unsettled condition of post World War I Germany. But, I would not say I have never written 12-tone piece. In certain passages, I occasionally used it in dramatic situations. Sometimes, certain forms of atonality I do find attractive. But I am certainly a tonal composer. I believe in tonality. It is very popular to say today that tonality is out, over used. I do not believe that's true.
Does the Hollywood film system still accept this kind of research?
For certain kinds of film, yes, absolutely. People like Jerry Goldsmith use this kind of technique a lot. Other composers as well. But if you were going to write a very romantic film, you would be very unlikely to use it! [laughs] You could, of course, in very special conditions. But, you can not generalize. Each moment in each film has to be judged by its own needs for music.
Could you tell us about your collaboration with Peter Glenville on Becket (1964), The Comedians (1967) and Hotel Paradiso (1966)? Why did this English director stop his career so early after his last film The Comedians?
I met Peter Glenville not in films, but for a play based on the famous Kurosawa film Rashomon (1950). Peter Glenville directed the stage version team. I told them that I was an expert in Japanese music! When they heard about me, the believed I was an expert, but I soon became quite knowledgeable about it. Peter and I got along very well, and understood each other immediately. It was a very unusual and interesting score. Still one of the most interesting scores I've ever done, very exotic, with a lot of percussion and Japanese instruments. Later, he was going to do a production of Jean Anouilh's play Becket on Broadway with Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn. He asked me to do incidental music for this play, which was a big success. Shortly thereafter, he was going to make a film version of the play in London. He invited me to come and compose the music. So, I took some of the elements from the theatre score and expanded them enormously for the film.
After that, I continued to work a lot with Peter Glenville. We did another film, Hotel Paradiso, with Alec Guinness and Gina Lollobrigida and Dylan, a Broadway stage production based on the poet Dylan Thomas's life, with Alec Guinness again. Then we did a film in France, which was actually shot in West Africa, called The Comedians, with Richard Burton, Elisabeth Taylor and Peter Ustinov. We worked again on the Broadway stage on a project called Patriot, a very interesting play and a brilliant production by John Osborne, staring Maximilian Shell. Glenville loved the theatre. He is the kind of director I love to work with. Because whenever I spoke with him, I could ask him what the music should achieve in the film. And he would never tell me what I should do. He always told me what he wanted the music to accomplish. How I did it was my job.
For some reasons, Glenville was, I feel, unfairly judged by the critics. He went out to Mexico. I lost contact with him. I think he was rather discouraged, disillusioned because he was so badly critiqued. Perhaps he understood it was too hard to continue? He didn't make money, and so, he just decided to retire. I really had a wonderful relationship with him. He was a marvelous director and a brilliant and honest man... very cultured.
Your filmography includes a lot of remakes: ANASTASIA (TV remake of the 1956 Anatole Litvak feature), THE POWER AND THE GLORY (remake of a William K. Howard/Preston Sturges film), ROOSTER COGBURN (remake of TRUE GRIT, original 1969 music by Elmer Bernstein), or LOGAN'S RUN (TV remake of a Michael Anderson feature, music by Jerry Goldsmith)... How do you work in these cases? Can you really forget the previous scores?
I hardly knew Jerry's score to Logan's Run, a very good score by a wonderful composer. But, in the cases you give me as examples, I never saw True Grit, I never saw A Man Called Horse and heard the Leonard Rosenman film score, I heard it afterword, and it is completely different from my score. Generally speaking, I would try not to listen. I really don't want to be influenced by what someone else has done. Anastasia, the TV remake of the famous film with Ingrid Bergman, was so different in its approach that I tried to writing in a completely different way. I have just scored another remake by Daniel Petrie, Inherit the Wind (1999), and I never seen the original.
In the late 80's and the 90's, you composed a lot of scores based on historic themes, especially for the Marvin J. Chomsky films Anastasia, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, The Strauss Dynasty and for other projects such as Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. These films have been awarded for their music, based in a great part on "historical" music. Your colleague Leonard Rosenman was in the same case when he received two Academy Awards for Best Adaptation Score for Bound for Glory (1976) and Barry Lyndon (1975) even when his scores for The Cobweb (1955), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), A Man Called Horse (1970) or Lord of the Rings (1978) were more complex, more personal, but also less accessible for the audience and perhaps the Academy. Isn't it frustrating to write complete and complex scores and to be only awarded for functional compositions?
Anastasia, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, The Strauss Dynasty were films based on historic themes. The Strauss Dynasty was a film about the Strauss family, obviously, when you do a film like that, most all the music is by Strauss! But I think it is quite true. Leonard Rosenman wrote such interesting, adhering, inventive scores, for The Cobweb and Lord of the Rings. Much of his music is very "avant-garde", and naturally, members of the Academy are not interested in that kind of music. But, you have to understand one thing, not everyone knows about the Oscars of Best Score. When one film is a huge success, like Titanic, The English Patient, or Shakespeare In Love, it sweeps everything, and everyone who is connected with the film, including the composer. So, in those cases, there are very often perfectly acceptable scores, but certainly not great pieces of music, and are often swept to success by the power of the film itself because, for the Oscars, the entire Academy votes in all categories. So, if I am a member of the Academy, I have to vote for best sound engineering or for best costume design, even if it is not my specialty. So, very often, the winning picture brings the score with it. For the Emmys the voting system is different. For the Emmys, everybody is there to nominate, but a panel of experts in that field chooses the actual winner. It is the best way to be judged by your peers.
Jerry Goldsmith and Alexander Courage talk often with certain nostalgia about the "good old days." It seems that today in the Hollywood music community, there is a real kinship between David Raksin (87), Arthur Morton (91), Elmer Bernstein (77), Alexander Courage (80), Leonard Rosenman (75), Jerry Goldsmith (70) and yourself (72)?
Yes! I studied in the same school with Alexander Courage in Rochester. He orchestrated a lot of scores for me including Island of Dr Moreau. Arthur Morton was my first orchestrator in Hollywood on the Daniel Petrie's film, A Raisin in the Sun. Jerry Goldsmith is an old friend. Leonard Rosenman is another very good friend as was Herbert Spencer. But you have to include also John Williams in this group... It is quite true; there was a kind of "kinship". All the people you mentioned studied classical music. They have a real musical "background" and they don't need synthesizers or computers to compose. They didn't exist. Look at the musical sketches of John, Jerry or Leonard, before to being given to the orchestrator... it's all there everything. The entire score is already there, in a compressed form. Courage, Morton and Spencer were all brilliant orchestrators. They could help very often by making wonderful suggestions. We were speaking as equals to each other, as professional musicians and very often, in the modern age, it's not the case. I mean they are still good composers, but it was a small community in the old days, we all knew each other really quite well, there was a kind of intimacy and a worth, and even an affection between all these people.
September 1999 will mark an important stage in your career. On the 16th, you will be the guest speaker of the respected, annual American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers luncheon. The 18th, following Toru Takemitsu, Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone among others, you will receive the prestigious annual Career Achievement Award presented by the Film Music Society. What do you think about this late testimony of gratitude expressed by the Hollywood music community?
Late? Well, unavoidably, it must be late. Because if you are being given an award for your whole career, you can't be given that award when you are 23 years old, or even 30. So, I am deeply flattered and honored by this award. I've worked hard in the field. I have done not nearly as many films, as many of my colleagues like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, or even James Horner, who is quite a bit younger than I am, and all have done many more films than I have. The only thing I can say about the films that I have done, is that many of them, quite a few, are films that are still remembered, and are still watched and admired, even though, most films that get made are very quickly forgotten. Yet a film like The Miracle Worker or a film like Becket have become classics. So, I feel very grateful to have been involved with those films. I am very pleased by the Film Music Society Award.
Special Thanks to: Claude Bourhis, David Hocquet and Angel Ortega, and especially Laurence Rosenthal for his time and hospitality.