Lee Holdridge is most certainly one of the finest composers of film and television music, his scores have supported underlined and elevated numerous productions for both the silver screen and the small screen. He has the ability and the talent to create film scores that not only work with the motion picture they are intended to ingratiate but also have a life of their own away from the images. He is also an accomplished composer of music for the concert hall and has worked with numerous international vocal artists in both the world of popular music and opera.
What are your earliest memories of any kind of music and were you from a family that was musical at all?
My father was a scientist and loved music, but did not play an instrument. My mother played a little bit of guitar for fun, which I loved listening to. My first real emotional encounter with music was being given some recordings of Mozart Violin Concertos performed by Jascha Heifetz by one of my father’s students. Those recordings changed me forever.
You began to play the violin at the age of ten I understand, what musical studies did you undertake and was it the violin that you focused upon during your musical education?
I started with all the basics of the violin, but when I got to playing violin exercises about a year later, I started to change and rewrite the exercises because I thought they were too boring. This drove my violin teacher crazy, but he then suggested that maybe I should study composing…light bulb!
Soon I was taking some solfege lessons from the first flute player in the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica and beginning to compose my first short original pieces.
Away from scoring movies and TV projects you have worked with many popular recording artists Neil Diamond among them, what are the main differences between working as a film composer and collaborating with vocalists etc.?
Vocalists are very demanding each in their own way. They have their unique styles, their fans and their own ideas about what they see and hear in a song. Each singer I worked with required a totally different approach. Fortunately they liked my orchestral ideas and especially wanted great string parts behind their voices. I noted that on the radio you would mostly hear the top violins, so I made sure the violins had a great line to play. The work with Diamond led to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, my first big full epic score.
At fifteen you decided that you wanted to make a career as a composer and re-located to Boston and began to write music for the theatre and short films as well as chamber music and a handful of rock pieces, had you always been attracted to the notion of writing for motion pictures, or was this something that evolved as your career progressed?
I was very lucky that one of my father’s brothers and his wife lived in Boston and agreed to let me come live with them during the school year so that I could go to high school in Boston and study music. I was fortunate to study violin at the All Newton Music School and they let me write string pieces for their chamber group. In high school, I met composer and music teacher Henry Lasker who guided me in theory, harmony and composition. During those three years, I wrote a single movement piano and orchestra piece, a three-movement orchestral ballet and a great number of chamber and solo works.
You wrote the stirring score for THE BEASTMASTER, I remember at the time there was a few films which had similar plots, what size orchestra did you utilize for the score and did the director have any specific instructions regarding the style of music that he thought the movie required?
Curiously enough, the director heard my Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and that got me hired. That piece is very different from my eventual score for the film, but, whatever works! The sword and sorcery film was very much the rage at the time. I admired the score for Conan the Barbarian, and it certainly set the tone for those scores. I went that route as well with around 60-80-piece orchestra in Rome and added my own touches to the style. The entire score of over 80 minutes had to be delivered in about 10 days so I got some orchestration help from the legendary Greg McRitchie who orchestrated the Conan score and had worked a ton with Alfred Newman. Between cues I would get him to share his insights into the great film scoring days of the studios. Also, my buddy Alf Clausen helped me with orchestration. I would sketch like a madman, and the then the three of us would divide up cues and orchestrate. I finished the last cue in the hotel room in Rome the night before the first session.
Do you think that the film music of today lacks the thematic material which was featured in say the 1980, s back to the 1960, s, by this I mean the opening theme or central theme which audiences could identify with?
It’s a different approach today as the style and tone of films are different. Many scores now are more like incidental music or sound design as opposed to traditional thematic scores. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You do whatever you must do to achieve the sought-after effect. If its minimalist, so be it. It can be purely atmospheric like the score for the 2011 The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or it can be completely eclectic like some of the masterful Carter Burwell scores. It can be non-thematic but strikingly moody and suspenseful like Imitation Game However, every now and then a thematic score comes along like Up. Or the superbly understated work in The Help.
When you are working on a project do you like to start at the opening titles and work through to the end titles or is it better for you to tackle larger cues first and then work through to lesser pieces or cues of a shorter duration?
It varies, it just depends. Many times, the opening titles are the last thing you do. Wherever the first ideas come is where you start. Sometimes shorter cues can be “idea springboards”
You have worked on numerous TV movies and of course have scored motion pictures and shorts, what are the main differences between working on a for example a multi episode series and a motion picture, or do you approach them in a very similar fashion?
To me it is all scoring a film. The artistry must be there no matter the size of the screen. A series is very demanding because it doesn’t end!
You scored the re-make of EAST OF EDEN which had a staggering running time of some eight hours, how much music did you write for this assignment and how much time were you given to score the project from start to finish?
I’m a big Steinbeck fan and East of Eden was a total treat for me as I had read and loved the book in high school. This was going to be a film of the entire book, not just the last few chapters. I composed and orchestrated 2 and ½ hours of music for that mini-series. I had about 10 weeks to do the entire score. I relished every second of that time. In this case I wrote the themes early on so I could build the score for the different characters as I proceeded forward. I added Abra’s Theme (one of my personal favorites) at the last minute at the request of the music supervisor, Tom Catalano, a wonderful suggestion that contrasted Abra beautifully with her innocence and openness in comparison to the darkness of the other characters.
At what stage do you prefer to become involved on a project, does it help if you are given a script or do you think it is probably better to begin work on the movie etc at the rough cut stage?
It’s always best to be involved early as it gives you a chance to read the script and absorb the work in progress. More often than not, that doesn’t occur, and as we all know and often composers are brought in to work at the last minute, causing the composer to rely on what are hopefully his or her great instincts.
Beauty and the Beast was a very popular television show, your theme became very well known all over the world, how did you become involved on the show?
The main writer-producers, Ron Koslow and George R.R. Martin were big music devotees and series creator Koslow was familiar with my work, so he requested me. The score for the pilot was done in a super rush and I had a bit of a tough time coming up with that theme, but of course, now I adore it and all worked out well.
You have worked with a number of orchestras and recorded all over the world; have you any preferences when it comes to a recording studio and for what reason or reasons?
There are many great places to record around the world, but certainly Abbey Road in London is very high on my list. Air in London as well. There have been some great studios that I used in the past, but what is disturbing to me is that so many are disappearing. I think of 30th street in NY and A&R also in NY. Here in LA, Fox is wonderful as well as Sony…but for how long?
You have also been very successful with your music for the concert hall, is writing for the concert hall easier or more difficult than composing music for film, recently a composer who worked in film said that when he wrote his symphony he sometimes wanted a difficult director to stand behind him telling him what to do, so do you find it difficult to become inspired when writing for the concert hall?
Both genres are demanding and daunting. In a film, it is a very collaborative process but in the concert hall you are more on your own. That in itself can be very exhilarating but also rather arduous. I self-criticize a lot until the work feels absolutely right. But, then you could say the same thing about a film score, except now it has to be approved by others and survive the previews.
One of your early assignments was JEREMY which involved a cellist in the storyline, I understand that you wrote the cello sections for the film with George Ricci in mind, do you think of a specific artist or soloist to perform on the soundtrack when you are writing a score or to perform it in concert?
Strangely enough, I was the replacement composer on that film. The scene in the movie where Jeremy solos with his high school orchestra had already been shot to a Bach playback. I now had to take the existing footage and create a new piece that sat with the filmed tempi and bowings. This was in the days before computers and pro tools and all the goodies we use today. I literally sat with a stopwatch and created a bowing map and then wrote a piece to fit. I wanted a great soloist to record it. George Ricci at the time was considered the top freelance cellist in NY. I recorded that movement with him and 22 strings and the end result was pretty amazing. We did it all in free time to picture, no clicks, just a stopwatch. That piece became the basis of the score and several cues in the film derivate from that piece. In the end it was very challenging and a lot of fun. Later I took all the cello sections and molded them into my Concertino for Violoncello and Strings, which has had quite a few performances since the film was released.
Returning to THE BEASTMASTER I watched the movie recently and I think it has stood the test of time well and the music is still magnificent, the assignment I remember was something you had to complete quickly, why was this and where was the score recorded?
I recorded that score in Rome at the great Studio Forum. The producers made a publishing deal with Morricone’s company and that included the use of his studio, his engineer and access to his favorite orchestra group. The reason I was not given a lot of time is that the producers waited to the last minute to decide on the music and so I was thrown into the race against time and literally did not sleep for 10 days while I composed furiously. I loved doing it, don’t get me wrong, the having to work fast comes with the territory, and never will it change!
Orchestration is in many composers’ opinion an important part of the composing process; do you orchestrate all of your scores for film and TV or this at times just not possible because of time restrictions and scheduling?
I love doing my own orchestration and I do it most of the time. There have been extreme occasions when I have had help from likes of the brilliant Ira Hearshen and the legendary Greg McRitchie. My good buddy Alf Clausen helped me out a lot as also did the amazing Don Davis. Whatever happened to those guys? Just kidding.
EL PUEBLO DEL SOL is a Mexican produced documentary, which I have to say contains one of the most exquisite scores, performed by the LSO, how did you become involved on this?
El Pueblo Del Sol was a great moment for me. This was an Omnimax film (a 360 degree view, not unlike a planetarium) produced by the Mexican Government for premiere at the new cultural center in Tijuana. The beauty of it was that it was a 45 minute film with no dialogue, just music. Producer and friend Ricardo Sanchez opted for the London Symphony Orchestra and Abbey Road. In a sense, I brought my concert background and film background together and created a 45 minute tone poem to the beauty and history of Mexico. This score was my audition for Old Gringo. I certainly feel these two scores are kindred spirits. I am pleased that BSX will be re-issuing both scores for streaming and download.
In 1984 you worked on SPLASH for director Ron Howard, what was he like to work with and did he have a hands on approach when it came to scoring the movie?
Splash was a marvelous film (still is, now a classic). I had worked with Ron Howard on 3 TV films prior to Splash. I loved working with him, and he certainly was very much a presence in the final decisions of the making of the film. I regret not ever having the opportunity to work with him again after Splash, but such are the vicissitudes of the Hollywood film universe.
How many times do you like to see a movie before you begin to get any set ideas about the style of music and where the music will be placed to serve the movie best?
I see the film several times before composing and then nowadays, thanks to our technology, you can have that work print residing right in your computer so you can watch a scene over and over while you work on it, hopefully, refining it as you go. It is a great gift to have this as you can really sit back and assess what the cue does for the scene.
You also worked on THE SECRET OF NIMH 2, when you were scoring this were you conscious of the music that had been composed for the first movie THE SECRET OF NIHM by Jerry Goldsmith and was the film temp track with any of his score from the previous film?
I felt that this film was a totally different thing than the first NIMH film. The desire was for a different approach. None of the first film was in this version. I started from scratch. We wrote the songs first and then gradually elaborated a score from there.
You worked in animation before THE SECRET OF NIHM on AMERICAN POP I think, is animation a genre that you are comfortable working in?
Animation and music were born to be together. It’s a great mode to work in. If you think on it, The Secret of Nimh 2 and American Pop are two totally different animals. Thus the beauty of film scoring as you never quite know what road you might be going down.
The temp track. Do you find it helpful or distracting?
The great composer’s dilemma of the 20th and 21st centuries, the temp track can help you or destroy you. The temp track can be a tool in helping you hear what your bosses are looking for, or perhaps what they shouldn’t be looking for. A lot depends on how addicted the powers that be are to their temp track. If you can wean them away from it, great, if you can’t, good luck! I can go see a new release these days and I know what they temped the movie with because I hear the composer sweating, trying to copy the temp, but trying to avoid a lawsuit.
Do you conduct all of your scores for TV and film or is it at times more productive if you monitor the session from the recording booth and use a conductor?
I love to conduct so I usually do and have a colleague sit in the booth monitoring the performance and recording for me. I can shape the performance and make any fixes quickly from the podium. However, I do recommend to composers who are not conductors to bring in someone who is an excellent conductor to help them and the composer can then sit in the booth and now become the score producer.
Many of your scores were released as PROMOS, why were some of these not made available commercially?
Many smaller labels could not afford to take on the cost of union re-use fees and the like, it’s that simple.
THE MISTS OF AVALON is a varied score, it comprises of many themes and also has a Celtic sound to it in places, what size orchestra did you utilize for this and what size choir and how much score did you compose for the three episodes?
What an epic treat to work on this film. I loved it all. It seems to me I composed about 2-3 hours of music for this. I orchestrated every note of this score. We recorded for 5 days in Munich at Bavaria Music Studios and utilized members of the Munich Symphony and Choir.
Staying with MISTS OF AVALON within the score there are a lot of ethnic instruments, numerous different percussion etc and of course the Celtic influences, how do you set about researching these instruments and more importantly where do you find a musician who can play them?
I pre-recorded quite a few ethnic instruments, including the gorgeous and haunting Esraj (the Indian string instrument) a lot of different ethnic percussion instruments like Taiko drums, bamboo sticks, various cymbals and the like. We also brought the excellent Tony Hinnigan (of Titanic fame) down from London to play various ethnic and Celtic flutes. The remarkable Aeone pre-recorded many beautiful and mystical vocal moments that appear throughout the score. This was my introduction to the amazing engineer Peter Fuchs who pulled it all together (pre Pro Tools) into a viable mix for me. This was an epic production, but extremely worthwhile.
What composers both film music and classical have inspired you or influenced you in the way that you approach or score a movie?
This is tough to answer, because in film I like so many different things. I of course love the great epic scores by all the great film score masters, but then I do also admire the chamber scores that Georges Delerue wrote for Francois Truffaut. I like disparate things like the Jobim-Bonfa score for Black Orpheus all the way over to the more sound design approach of Gravity to the eclecticism of Chris Young or Carter Burwell. I admire the scores of Thomas Newman and find his approach very innovative. I admire the beauty and grandness of Morricone and Williams but then like going down a more intimate sound corridor like a score by Desplat.
In the symphonic world I range all the way from the pantheon of the great masters, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart and the like to the more recent modernists like Bartok, Shostakovich, Alban Berg, Stravinsky, Messiaen and Steve Reich. There are just way too many to name and they are all magnificent and they tend to leave me prostrate at the feet of their creations.
INTO THIN AIR is one of my personal favourites of yours, were you familiar with the book before you were asked to work on the film and did Robert Markowitz the director have much input into what style of music should be used?
I did read the book. Harrowing! Robert Markowitz and I have had a great collaboration scoring many of his films. He is one of the few directors that does NOT use a temp score! Consequently, I get a blank canvas to create for his films. He and I love much the same music so we were very much in tune as to what the scores should be. For Into Thin Air, early on I played him elements of my ideas. Once he approved of them I proceeded to the full score. My personal favorite collaboration with Markowitz is the magnificent The Tuskegee Airmen. But, we also went for a very different style in The Pilot’s Wife.
How do you bring your musical ideas to fruition, by this I mean do you sit at piano and write the score to manuscript or are you more inclined to use a more technical approach as in computer etc?
I work at the computer a lot. I do most of my composition in my head and I input quickly with the mouse directly onto the score. However, I do sit down at a keyboard or piano quite often and just play and explore and make notes of sketch ideas to pursue.
What are you working on at the moment?
We neglected to talk about Richard Trank and his extraordinary feature documentary films that he produces for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. We have done 11 films together and are about to embark on films 12 and 13. All are scored orchestrally. The haunting The Long Way Home, our first collaboration won an Oscar for best documentary film. Trank is a great music lover (all genres) and is very keen on the contribution music makes to a film. I don’t feel he has gotten the recognition he deserves, but view any one of his films and you’ll marvel at his work and often be moved to tears.
My collaboration with Trank got me into the exquisite Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, another Academy Award documentary feature winner.
My heartfelt thanks to Maestro Lee Holdridge for agreeing to this interview and also for his wonderful music and as the composer reminded me we have not discussed his Opera’s so soon maybe a second interview with this versatile and highly innovative composer. (John Mansell) MMI© 2016.