Angelo Badalamenti was born in Brooklyn New York in 1937, and has become an acclaimed and prolific composer who has written some of the most unique film scores of our time. He is widely known for his long-standing collaboration with the director David Lynch, which has produced a creative and inspired body of work. One of his most recent scoring assignments is the Russian made 3d motion picture STALINGRAD which has inpressed critics and added even more admirers to the composers army of fans.
You studied at the Eastman school of music and the Manhattan school of music where you concentrated upon French horn and piano, when you were studying did you think about writing music for films, or was this something that came about as your career progressed?
Not at all. I was studying performance as a French horn player with the hope of joining a professional orchestra one day. That was the dream. But I was also studying composition and playing piano. I spent many summers during college working as a pianist in the Catskills – accompanying singers, and playing for shows. And when I graduated from school, I took a job as a middle school music teacher back in Brooklyn. Working with the kids was fantastic. One year, I had written an original score for the Christmas musical. And somehow it was such a big success that the Board of Education got excited, and the local PBS channel came to the school and wanted to tape the show. It aired over the holidays in New York, and as a result a publisher who saw the show offered me a job as a writer. That’s really the first small step that I took to becoming a full time composer.
What are your earliest memories of music and do you come from a family background that is musical?
There was music in the house for sure. My grandfather and uncles exposed me to opera which I truly adore, and my cousin, Vinnie Badale, was a great big-band trumpeter who worked with Benny Goodman and Harry James. My brother Steve took up the trumpet as well and he’d have other jazz musicians come around to the house from time to time.
STALINGRAD is one of your most recent film scores, the soundtrack is glorious, you recorded the music in Russia, what size orchestra did you utilize and did you also travel to Russia to view the film prior to scoring it?
We recorded an 80-piece orchestra for Stalingrad over about 5 days this summer at Mosfilm studios in Moscow. Yes, I made the trip to Russia and produced from the booth. Prior to that, the work was done at my studio in New Jersey and we had a couple meetings with the director there. After the recording, we did our mix in New York.
Thankfully, this score was being talked about long before production. So, I was able to write some themes and send them to the director early on. Of course, I had the script and some general ideas about the concept. I shaped these early themes to picture later on , and the director gave me insight as we progressed. But no matter how early you start, there’s always a crunch right at the end.
You began to write music for film when you scored GORDONS WAR in 1973 and LAW AND DISORDER in 1974, how did you become involved with these projects?
I spent a good deal of time at Palomar Pictures where my friend, Al Elias, was a staff lyricist. It was there that I met Ossie Davis, who’d directed a blaxploitation film called Gordon’s War. One day I invited him over to the piano and played some themes based on his key characters in the script. (I had read it and done this on spec.) He said “I am sorry, but I already have a call in to Barry White to compose the score.” But Ossie politely agreed to hear my themes anyway. He really felt they were perfect, and asked me to score his film. Also, while at Palomar Pictures, I met a Czechoslovakian director named Ivan Passer. He’d just finished Law and Disorder, a cop movie starring Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine. Once again, I’d read the script which was sitting in the office and was inspired to write some music. I caught Ivan as he was about to head out the door one day and told him that I’d like to play him the music that I wrote based on the characters of his film. He replied, “Oh, I’ve got to go down and mail this letter. But, tell you what. Why don’t you play me your music before I go?” So I played two themes for him, one for each character, and demonstrated how the these themes might work together. Ivan really flipped over the music, and asked me to score the picture. Then, Ivan said “You’re lucky I didn’t mail this letter.” I asked him why, and Ivan took it from his coat pocket. It was addressed to a composer named Aaron Copland!
You first worked with David Lynch in 1986 when you composed the music for BLUE VELVET, you were originally asked to act as a vocal coach for Isabella Rossellini, and this progressed to you writing the score and also the song MYSTERIES OF LOVE, does David Lynch have very hands on approach to music in his films?
David is a remarkable artist with a keen ear for music. Sure, he’s very involved in the scoring. We work together to achieve something unique that really suits his work. Either he’s steering me to new creative directions, or writing lyrics, or listening in the studio. He’s a genius.
You scored the re-make of THE WICKER MAN, I personally like your score a lot, when you were working on the movie were you conscious of the cult status that both the original film and score had, and did this affect the way in which you approached the project?
No, not really. I don’t like to have any pre-conceived notions about the project before scoring. That way you’re not fighting to differentiate yourself from the other version. Temp music works this way as well. Sometimes it’s best to come at it with a fresh perspective.
TWINSPEAKS is a cult TV series and your music also has attained this status amongst collectors and critics alike, what are the differences between working on a long running or popular series and scoring a motion picture, if indeed there are any differences?
Twin Peaks was not a long-running series. It was only two seasons but it had a major impact. I would say the main difference with TV – is that you score everything early on. But as the series continues, you can create a library of thematic tracks and mixes that can be used to score later episodes. So, once you build a sizable list of tracks, the music editor can use these.
Staying with TV scoring, and TWINPEAKS, how much music did you write for the series in total, and did you at times ever recycle music as in use a cue or part of a cue from one episode within another episode?
I wrote heaps of music for the show. No idea how many minutes. I wouldn’t say we recycled music but we were quite effective in creating a number of different mixes for themes and cues. Our engineer and music editor were helpful in getting this done. So, maybe you’d hear the tune again, but this time with just brushes and bass, with no melody or vibes or synth.
Do you conduct your scores for film or do you prefer to use a conductor and monitor the proceedings at the session from the recording booth?
I used to conduct but I found that I prefer to be in the booth listening and producing.
Do you think that orchestration is an important part of the composing process, and do you orchestrate all of your scores for film, or is this nowadays almost impossible with the tight schedules etc?
Sure, orchestration is important. I do orchestrate some cues, but I have an orchestrator do some as well. It just depends on the piece and the timeline for the work to be done.
Your score for TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE, has just been issued on to Compact Disc, when one of your scores is to be issued onto a recording do you like to be involved with the selection of cues that will go onto the release, STALINGRAD for example?
Absolutely, many cues in a film are not suitable for an album. Either they’re too short, or perhaps the performance is not top notch. Music for film is quite different than music for music’s sake. The bar is set much higher when you create music for an album I feel.
How many times do you like to see a movie before you begin to get ideas about what style of music is needed and where the music will be placed to best serve the movie?
Sometimes, just once is enough for me to determine the style. Directors often have some sort of concept in mind – so you also have to help them realize that and be true to yourself.
Do you have a set way in which you approach a film score, by this I mean do you like to establish a central theme and then work from this or is every project different?
I do like to establish solid themes in my work when possible because most films benefit from a musical thread. There are a couple different levels to this – there’s the actual musical content (melody and harmony) and then there’s the sonic palette (instrumentation/orchestration). The constant factors are melody, harmony, counter lines and an integrated middle voice, which I use to create a beautiful dissonance.
What composers or artists would you say have influenced you in maybe the way you approach a film score or in the way that you compose?
Opera and classical music were an early influence for sure. Bach, Debussy, Chopin, Puccini. Stravinsky, as well as the semi-classical Kurt Weill, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern. But jazz was an interest of mine too. And of course, I got started writing songs and working with singers. So, I was expected to write in so many different styles (pop, soul, blues, even country). I guess that songwriting background has had an impact on the way I write.
Do you have a preference for any particular studio or orchestra when you are scoring a motion picture and if the score should call for solo performances; do you write these parts of the score with a particular soloist in mind?
If you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with an orchestra, you take it. For most solos, a decent orchestra will have talented section leaders that can cover the part. Many films cannot afford this luxury. On top of that, if you want to get a true solo artist involved, it has to be a shared priority for the filmmakers.
What is your opinion of the increased use of synthetic elements within film scores?
I am very happy making music with synths and samples. It’s an effective way to work and you can do so much with it. It’s nice when you have some real elements mixed in, so that it’s not 100% synthetic. That can breathe some life into a performance.
When you are working on a score, do you work out your musical ideas on piano, or a keyboard or maybe straight to paper?
I like to compose at the keyboard with a sustained analog string sound. But of course, there are many times when I just sketch something out on paper, or sing it into a tape recorder first.
I thought that your music for TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE contained certain passages that evoked the style and the sound of the scores from film noir pictures and composers such as Rozsa, Steiner and Raksin. Was this something that you set out to do or did it just develop as the project moved forward?
Thanks, John. TOUGH GUYS DONT DANCE was early in my career and I feel that I’ve developed a lot since then. However, I do think that the classic film-noir sound was appealing to me then, and it still is.
How do you think that film music today compares with film music from the Golden age?
I feel like the past masters were such enormous talents. The style has changed so much today that it’s a like different art form. It’s hard to compare generations. There’s some great music out there today too but it’s just a different concept.
What in your opinion is the purpose of music in film?
Really film music is there to serve the film. There are so many variables in a film to work with – the music can play many roles. It can enhance emotions, give perspective, set pace and mood, and make mental markers related to the story and characters.
With the winter we’re having here on the east coast, what’s next for me, is a week in Aruba,
Many Thanks to the composer for his time and his patience. Also thanks to Godwin Borg of Kronos records and Mikael Carlsson of Movie Score Media and Jim Bruening for his help with the interview.