At what age would you say that you first started to become aware of music of any type?
I was in a Japanese-American wartime relocation camp from early 1942 to 1945 in Minidoka, Idaho. I was almost four years old when first brought to the camp with my family (except for my father, who was arrested shortly after Dec. 7, 1941, and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Texas). I was in this camp until our family’s release in 1945, just before War’s end, by which time I was seven years old. It was during this three years period that I became involved with music making. On Saturday evenings in Minidoka, in our Block 14, the inmates held informal musical entertainments for each other. Some people performed on their Japanese instruments which they had brought with them, others sang or danced in traditional Japanese kimono, and some performed western song and dances. I sang songs solo, sometimes popular Japanese songs of the period (such as the very popular “Shino no yoru” or “China Nights”) or Hit Parade songs of the era (“Blues in the Night”). Unfortunately, these impromptu performances were not preserved by film or recording. But I remember well the thrill of hearing people applauding me after each song, and the rush of being appreciated. I am sure my love of attention and performance was born during those early formative years! I had no teacher or mentor, but I had an audience — a captive audience! And I had no shame — an ingredient indispensable to my subsequent career in show business and the concert stage!
I listened to songs (so it seems in my memory) all day long, with my older brother Ted, who was a teenager at the time, with his young friends, mostly the great big band tunes of the era: Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington — and the immortal singers of the wartime, such as Jo Stafford, Dick Haymes, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, etc. And I also spent a great deal of time with my young mother and her friends, hearing Japanese recordings of the pre-war time (mostly Enca, or sad love songs) whose sentimental melodies and aching lyrics are embedded in my subconscious to this day.
I did not begin formal music lessons until after the War, when we finally returned to Seattle, Washington in 1945. I was enrolled in Catholic education, where I asked the good nuns at the Immaculate Conception parochial school for private lessons. My first teacher Sister Virginia Marie taught me piano, and violin. I was seven years old, and for the first time encountered “classical music” — or very simplified versions of pieces that are the pillars of our Western musical culture. And though I was completely smitten by this “new music,”
I was already hopelessly formed and enamoured with the music of entertainment. Shortly thereafter, around 1951, my sister Catherine (a pianist and church organist) and I joined a USO troupe, and entertained American soldiers bound for the Korean War. We performed pop music and easy classics in the boot camps and army staging areas, such as Fort Lewis, Fort Lawton, and several naval bases near Seattle.
My first “serious” musical experience was playing in the Seattle Youth Symphony of the Pacific Northwest in 1951. It was Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony in G Major, and it was
a white light experience. Like St. Paul on the road to Tarsus, I was knocked off my horse and totally converted to classical music. I eventually became concert master of this
youth orchestra and performed in concert the first movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto, and the finale of the Mozart Fifth (A Major) Concerto.
You write for film, TV, Theatre and the concert hall and I am told have a love of the popular music from the 1930’s and 1940’s, how do you fit all these styles of music into your schedule?
I write very quickly and can work deeply for long hours. I have always felt that finishing a work is as important as beginning one. On Broadway or in Hollywood, getting the project in on time is sometimes as important as getting it done well. My great mentor Nadia Boulanger expected us to bring her substantial new work every week, and as long as I was with her, I did write a movement or a new composition every week. Some of these fugitive pieces have blossomed into my best work in later years. I resist the urge to overlay (especially addictive because of the computer!) my original thoughts with too many additional layers.
When I first began writing movies (in 1975 with “Death Race 2000″), I noticed that my “concert” pieces began to develop into very serious and academic contemporary explorations — as if I were proving to myself and the world that I was still a member of the sixties avant-garde. I soon recognized that this direction was false and untenable, and returned to being myself whether in film or concert work. I am who I am and try to write in the same spirit and style whether for Carnegie Hall or Walt Disney. As for the music of the 30’s and 40’s, it is still my personal favourite music, and it is somehow an intrinsic part of my musical imagination and creative DNA.
What was your first scoring assignment for either TV or Film, and how did you begin to work within the industry?
The year was 1974 and I was 36 years old and a popular tenured Professor of Music at UCLA. And hating it. Though I was the composer-in-residence at the time with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under the immortal Sir Neville Mariner (who had been my lifelong friend ever since), I longed for a more creative and adventurous life. And so, I resigned my position at the university (though not with the Orchestra)— even though I had no alternative career waiting for me. I just knew I had to find something more personally fulfilling and challenging. One day I was at UCLA completing some teaching obligations left over from my professorial days, when the phone rang. It was the famous producer Roger Corman who asked if I was the teacher of electronic music at UCLA. I said that I was, and he asked me if I had a talented graduate student who could provide some electronic music cues for a science fiction movie he was producing and just in the process of shooting in Simi Valley. I said that I would send him my best student, and promptly jumped into my car and drove the 20 minutes up Sunset Blvd. to the offices of New World Pictures. I think he knew that I was the professor and not a graduate student, because when I told him that I could produce the entire score and not just the special effects, he promptly agreed. He gave me a $1,000 which I thought was my fee, but which turned out to be my entire budge, and I got to work. This tiny budget feature starred a totally unknown Sylvester Stallone and John Landis, was written by Robert Towne, and had Tak Fujimoto as its Director of Photography. He later gave me more money to produce the score, which turned out to be one of my most imaginative works, because I wrote from the heart without the slightest idea what I was doing. I was fortunate that the director of the film was the equally immortal Paul Bartel, both a genius and a lunatic (it seemed to me!) who used my music in ways that taught me a great deal about the possibilities of music and action working together. He was my sole education and training in film scoring, and I learned a great deal from him and his inspired madness!
Roger Corman not only gave me my first movie assignment. He trusted me and gave me a career. And I thank, Almighty God for his place in my life!
What musical education did you receive and what music did you focus upon?
My first music teacher was a Catholic nun (Sister Virginia Marie) at the Immaculate Conception parochial school in Seattle in 1947, when I was nine.
She gave me lessons in piano and violin. Other violin teachers included Francis Aranyi (who gave also gave me my first counterpoint lessons) and Emmanuel Zetlin at the University of Washington. I began composing music without any teachers while still in high school, and eventually received more formal composition lessons from John Verrall. But for the most part, I began composing without teachers, and have always considered myself basically self-taught. I majored in English Literature, History, and Classic Studies in college, and won a scholarship to Cornel University in 1960 in the English Department, where I completed my Master’s Degree majoring in Old English. My MA thesis was a linguistic study of the grammar in the original Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.
While at Cornell as an English Major in 1961, studying composition privately with Robert Palmer, the visiting teacher (the legendary Nadia Boulanger) invited me to study with her in Paris. While there (in 1961-2) I received the Lili Boulanger Memorial Award for my orchestral work “Four Pieces for Orchestra,” which was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1963 by the National Orchestral Association.
In 1965, I completed my Doctorate in Music at Cornell University, then attended the Tanglewood Music Festival on a choral singing and conducting scholarship.
In September 1965, I travelled to Berlin on a Fulbright Scholarship where I studied composition with Ernst Pepping at the Hochschule für Musik (1965-6).
I studied on Fellowships at Tanglewood in 1966 and 1968 with Gunther Schuller.
I was hired by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1966, where I taught until 1971, when I resigned (just after receiving tenure) to begin my career as a free-lance composer. In 1971, I was hired by the newly founded Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to be their first composer-in-residence, under the conductor Neville Marriner.
I wrote my first movie score in 1975 “Death Race 2000.” Also, in 1975, Michael Smuin commissioned me to compose my first ballet score “Shinju” for the San Francisco Ballet, for which I was subsequently appointed their composer-in-residence. In 1979, Mercer Ellington (with the strong support of Gunther Schuller) hired me to orchestrate the music of his father (Duke Ellington) in the Broadway show “Sophisticated Ladies” which opened to great success at the Lunt Fontaine Theatre in 1980.
Back in 1981, you scored a movie entitled PRINCE OF THE CITY for director Sidney Lumet. What size orchestra did you use on this assignment?
The score for PRINCE OF THE CITY was recorded and produced in Paris, France, under the baton and supervision of the great French composer George Delerue. The symphonic orchestra was large (about 60 musicians) with a superb jazz saxophonist Pierre Gossez, who had often performed with major jazz greats, including Duke Ellington. Many of the musicians were from the Paris Opera Orchestra, who had just recorded the newly discovered Third Act of Alban Berg’s opera LULU under Pierre Boulez. I could not have asked for a better, ideal orchestra or conductor for my score.
I think I am right when I say very few of your scores are released onto disc. This is a shame. Do you retain the right to any of your film or TV scores, or do they remain the property of whatever film company is responsible for producing the projects?
Several of my earlier films were released as Video tapes, such as PRINCE OF THE CITY, and James Clavell’s NOBLE HOUSE. And more recently DVDs were released of Sidney Lumet’s THE MORNING AFTER (with Jane Fonda), CROSSING DELANCEY (with Amy Irving), John Turturro’s ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES, and the poplar series CHINA BEACH, which ran for four seasons on ABC TV. I do not own the music to any of these films and TV series.
Is orchestration an important part of the composition process, and do you always orchestrate all your work, or this not always possible?
Orchestration is composition, and I think in terms of instruments from the start, not just lines or theoretical melodies and shapes to be coloured later (by someone else!).
For the computer (digital) world of music, orchestration means synthestration, the art of using and mixing samples of real acoustic instruments. The music of Hans Zimmer, for example, is unthinkable without the intrinsic sound of the samples with which he presents his ideas. And yes, I orchestrate all my own music, whether for TV or features. And also for the concert world, or for Broadway and ballet.
Do you conduct all of your scores for TV and Cinema or can this be difficult because of the scheduling?
I conduct all my film and TV scores. Scheduling may be difficult or not, whether I am conducting or not!
What is your routine when you are offered a movie, do you spot the film with the director and decide together where music should be placed and what style of music it requires, or do you look at the movie and sketch out ideas for the director to hear and then take it from that point?
The working process varies with each project and each director. But I approach most of projects with the same mind set. First, I spend time with the movie itself, getting to know it as a dramatic presentation, and not as a music project. A film is not an accompaniment to a great score, nor is a motion picture created to enhance a musical presentation.
Sidney Lumet asked me to watch his director’s cut of PRINCE OF THE CITY and try to find a turning point in the movie. He asked me in which scene does the drama change and begin to move in a new direction? Is there one such moment, or are there several? Does the movie depend on a melody to establish a central emotional profile for the principal character? Is the principal musical idea a tune, or an unmistakeable rhythmic pattern (such as “heart beat”)? Should there be more than one theme, such as in a Wagner opera, with different motives for different characters? I have used different approaches, but I tend to favour having separate melodies for different characters or situations.
Usually, I formulate my stylistic plan on my own, and then share my ideas with the director before our first spotting session.
Is working in TV more demanding than writing for a feature film, by this I mean are the schedules tighter and the budgets lower?
Nothing is more demanding than working for a director who is not sure what he wants or changes his mind with each passing day of post-production.
Every composer has stories to tell of situations like that! (Though most of us would welcome that situation over not having any work at all!). TV can be more frantic than feature films in that the post-production schedule is often compromised (shortened) by delays in production. And series TV is like a roller coaster ride with scary ups and downs in the time given to compose and record a segment. Budgets are usually lower for TV than independent features, though some feature producers sometimes offer a package deal so small that the composer must create the score entirely digitally or in Europe. In recent years, the so-called “back-end” deal is becoming more common, where nothing is paid the composer up front for the creation of the score, though he is promised a certain amount or percentage of profits when the picture is sold. This is the most precarious of situations for the composer, though with so many now looking for work and willing to take risks, they are becoming more common.
Does a low budget for the music effect the amount or the style of music that a composer can create for a production?
Unless the low budget makes the composer hate his gig, it should not have any bearing on the style or quality of his work. A good composer writes his best music because he cares and loves music, regardless of the fee. Having said that, it must be admitted that the size of the budget will certainly affect the size of the orchestra, or whether the score will be entirely digitally produced or not. In other words, the budget will affect the orchestration, or synthestration, as the case may be. Recent TV series, especially popular and influential shows such as “Game of Thrones” have popularized the use of acoustic piano with one solo instrument (such as the cello!) in long dramatic cues — a sound unthinkable in the network days
Writing for film and for the concert hall must be very different. Is writing for the concert hall less constraining for the composer, as he or she does not have timings or sound effects to deal with?
Writing for the concert hall is infinitely more constraining for the composer than writing for movies or TV. Timings, dialogue and sound effects are easily
dealt with in composing a cue. It is simply a matter of experience and professionalism. But writing for the concert hall is a mine field of musical politics,
style mandates, and contemporary expectations. Writing a tonal piece when Post-Minimalism is in vogue, or in twelve tone when Spectral is ascendant,
or in a George Crumb inspired texture with instrumental exoticism when academic serialism is the regional norm, or a lyric serial composition when Pan-tonal music is the ruling model: these can lead to immediate rejection and scorn, when all the composer really wants is to be loved! And the most likely to be laughed
and ridiculed is a sincerely emotional piece (as in Mahler or Shostakovich), or dismissed outright as “Hollywood” and cheap imitation.
What do you think is the job of music in film?
Originally, the role of music was simply two-fold: (1) to mask or cover the noise of the projector, (2) To enhance the mood or give emotion to the images. Music, whether rendered on piano or several instruments and liberally borrowed from the nineteenth century classics and popular music hall song and dances, could enhance romance, add terror to darkness, contribute jollity to slapstick, and warmth to intimacy. With the introduction of the electronic sound track, music in the early thirties became grand opera (as in Max Steiner’s King Kong, 1932) or psychological melodrama as in Alfred Hitchcock’s early British movies, with symphonic resources giving weight, volume, colour, and power to the sound world of the movies. Film scores created a totally new experience, beyond simply sensation, novelty, and diversion. It could arouse as well as entertain or teach.
One day, a legendary director, normally indifferent to music and its purely utilitarian use in his movies, sat watching one of his pedestrian scenes in one of his
pedestrian movies, and accidentally having the score played back to him unusually loud, had a revelation. The music playing at a volume that was not realistic seemed to transform the images he had himself shot and edited. Something totally new and unscripted emerged before his eyes (and ears)! It was magic! The magic of music creating an experience beyond the script and the pictures so familiar to him. AS they say in Hollywood: that’s entertainment! And that’s the magic we all strive to capture in our scores.
When you are working on a long running series of multiple episodes, do you ever re-cycle any musical ideas from early episodes into later additions to the series? What method or methods do you use to work out your musical ideas, do you write straight to manuscript, or do you work out your ideas on piano, or use a computer?
I have had several TV series that have had more than one season. “China Beach” ran for four years, and I composed 58 of the episodes. I have never recycled any of my cues, but I did of course use the many principal themes and melodies over the years. The series “Whiz Kids” used the music of Mozart in its Main Title (from his 21st Piano Concerto, first movement), which I used in all the episodes in different variations. My music is tonal generally, bi-tonal occasionally, and serial in some instances (in both my concert and film work). I usually compose straight onto the orchestral score. I am not a very good pianist, so I seldom work at the keyboard.
What is your opinion of the use of the temp track by filmmakers, is it a useful tool and guide for composers or can it have a distracting effect?
Every filmmaker seems to use the temp track, often to cut picture to, or to give a sense of his intention to the composer. I remember being unsettled by this procedure back in the early eighties when I first began to encounter it. My friend Jerry Goldsmith flatly refused to work on a film that used temp tracks, as did some other established composers I knew. I no longer am surprised or bothered by this practice, as I have found my own way to interpret the temp track and be guided to my own ideas.
Film makers themselves seem to be more flexible these days in their use of them, and do not necessarily insist that the composer simply imitate it (or, as one prominent director once said to me “Rip this off!” — meaning, copy it as literally as possible!}. It is no longer a distraction.
Electronics, synthetics, samples etc, have established themselves more and more within film music in recent years, have you any opinions about the increased use of these and are you a fan of the DRONE sound in newer film scores, can it really be called music?
Johann Johannson and Hans Zimmer have used DRONES effectively in their recent dramatic pictures: in “Arrival” and “Dunkirk.” But these are not “Drones” created in simple analogue synthesis. These are examples of sophisticated and complex sounds created with samples and digital processes that often use the sounds of nature as musical instruments. The opening sequence in the Pilot to “The Handmaid’s Tale” uses the natural sounds of an automobile transformed through digital processing to create a haunting and scary Minimalist texture of falling triads D Major to D-flat Major. “Dunkirk” creates a memorable moment when the sounds of wind and aviation somehow morph into the Elgar “ Nimrod” (in E-flat) tune from the Enigma Variations. Johannson’s Drones seem to be created by the extra-terrestrials themselves from another reality altogether. One of the first and most effective examples of extended techniques in “sound design” (a term that Toru Takemitsu himself created to describe his own film music) was in “Women in the Dunes” (1964).
I definitely call this music, and very advanced music!
What composers or artists have influenced or inspired you and maybe have also had an influence over the way in which you approached a movie or TV assignment?
The greatest influences on my film work came not from other composers but primarily from two directors, both as different from each other as night to day:
Paul Bartel and Sidney Lumet.
Paul Bartel was a lovely man, and a lunatic genius film maker! He was the director of my first ever movie “Death Race 2000” — and his approach to making movies seemed as spontaneous as an inspired ride on a magic carpet. He loved all my cues, but almost never used them where I had intended them, and often in irony or sarcasm. I remember him using a sexy love theme that I had composed for David Carradine on soprano saxophone (performed by the great classical saxophone player Harvey Pittel) over a car chase scene. And it worked wonderfully! He resisted placing music “on the nose” for love scenes and action sequences. And Sidney Lumet was the ultimate dramatic director, who approached each film as a great play by Eugene O’Neill. He had me study scenes, use of camera movement, notice reaction shots and silences in dialogue, and the set designs of Tony Walton! He asked me where I felt the turning point to be in his great feature “Prince of the City.” Among film composers, two friends of mine were very helpful in showing me approaches to scoring: Jerry Goldsmith and Charles Fox. Goldsmith primarily by his absolutely impeccable melodic skill, and Charles for telling me that music in a film should also have a POV.
Charles Fox and Jerry Goldsmith.
Have you ever been hired for a film score and realized that it was not for you, or the director has had a totally different take on the movie from you where the music is concerned?
Yes, several times, and in each instance, I asked to leave the film. You really can’t do this in a TV assignment, because the deadlines are so tight.
What have you been working on recently?
I wrote the score for a charming indie feature last year (2016) called “Sensitivity Training.” And I have been working for the wonderful Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York for the past five years and loving it. I am presently completing a large symphonic work for speaker and orchestra called “A Matter of Honour” for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.