An Open letter from Danny Elfman

Keyboard magazine, 1990.03
[Bodies litter the musical battleground, where the forces of innovation engage the armies of tradition time and time again. The latest skirmish pitted Danny Elfman, the self-taught author of the scores to Batman, Midnight run, Pee-wee's big adventure, and Beetlejuice, against Micah D. Rubenstein, a theory and composition teacher at Ohio's Kenyon College. Elfman, in his Oct '89 Keyboard interview confessed to having had only a skimpy musical education; most of his savvy as a performer and composer stems from onstage experience as leader of a 12-piece musical/the atrical troupe, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. This admission outraged Rubenstein, whose subsequent letter in our Jan.'90 issue accused us and Elfman of "glorifying musical ignorance. . . . In the complex world of film and orchestral music, there are no shortcuts. If you can't do it yourself, you have to have the money to hire competent, conservatory-trained people such as (orchestrator) Steve Bartek or (conductor) Shirley Walker,", whose contributions to the Batman sessions were discussed at length in our Elfman interview.
[Our special issue on film scoring was well underway when Elfman called us and asked if he could submit a response to Rubenstein's letter. Though much of what he wanted to say boiled down to a refutation of Rubenstein's allegations about his background, Elfman also wanted to make broader points about the changing dynamics of the film industry and the new standards of excellence being pursued by today's soundtrack composers. His comments fit in so well with this month's focus that we decided to give him this page as his forum.]

Although I'm quite used to being attacked by "knowledgeable" people in the music profession, and I rarely find it worth my time to take these attacks seriously, I'm compelled to respond to Micah Rubenstein's absurd and misinformed letter about my musical abilities (or lack thereof).
I have chosen to defend myself this time not only because of the personal viciousness and many inaccuracies of his com ments, but more importantly because of the frightening musical elitism that they represent.
As well as offering a personal defense, I wish to speak on behalf of the many musicians, composers, and arrangers who lack formal education, yet persist in an extremely difficult craft with nothing more than some raw talent and a belief in their abil ities.
The art of film composition is something I happen to take very seriously. While I would never refer to myself as a wun derkind or a genius of any kind, Mr. Rubestein, your comparison of a film music composer to Mozart is even more pointless.
Film composition is a unique art with unique requirements. It is not the same as writing a symphony-something I've never professed to be able to do. Film music is written for no other reason than to accentuate the images on the screen, to underline the emotions of the characters, and hope- fully, when we're lucky, to help breathe life into a two-dimensional medium. A film score is not "pure music," and should be judged on its dramatic, emotional, and/or visually enhancing merits.
There isn't any one "correct" way to score a film. Each film is a world unto itself, with its own unique strengths and weaknesses which must be addressed.
While one film may, in fact, call for a full- blown "symphonic" approach, synthesizers may be more appropriate for another. The next may require nothing more than a banjo and accordion duet.
It is an art that requires you to constantly invent creative and imaginative solutions to numerous restrictions and obstacles... and doing it fast.
On the film Batman, as with many films, there were about six weeks to compose more than 70 minutes of accurately timed and often complex orchestral music. Add on top of this any number of changes and rewrites due to last-minute film cuts anu/or conceptual shifts, and the total amount of music can increase dramatically.
Because of this, most composers in Hol lywood—yes, even the famous conservatory-trained ones—use orchestrators, music editors, and occasionally conductors to assist them in focusing their creative energy where it will do the most good. The complexity of the task on a huge, high-pressure score can be mind-boggling, I assure you.
On Batman, as on many films, there was a team effort to pull it all together on time, and I'm fortunate to have very talented people on my team. Yes, my orchestrator, Steve Bartek, is very gifted, and did a great job, as did my conductor, Shirley Walker, and the music editor, Bob Badami. Their help was invaluable to me, especially on a difficult job like Batman.
Whether I achieved good, bad, or mediocre results with the music is not the issue here. As with any art, that's a subjective point which will always be up for lively debate and scrutiny. But, having worked my ass off for 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for a month and a half to write that score and yes, you dumb fuck, I actually wrote it down-I will not sit back passively and allow myself to be discredited for the work I did by an idiot who mistakenly thinks that I lazily hire people to do it for me, or that only a conservatory can produce a real film composer.
I am self-taught, and although that's not something I'm proud of, neither am I ashamed of it. While you, Mr. Rubenstein are incorrect in stating that I studied with Christopher Young or anyone else, you are absolutely presumptuous in assuming that Mr. Bartek and Ms. Walker are conservatory-trained. In fact, Mr. Bartek never attended a conservatory, and Ms. Walker, who in addition to being a great conductor and orchestrator is a fine composer in her own right, never finished college, and considers herself to be primarily self-taught as well.
Furthermore, and more to the point, composers, like writers, painters, or film directors, are able to create their art from their instincts, their intuition—their "soul," for lack of a better word—something that has never been easily taught. Imagination, our most valuable tool, is not, unfortunately, conferred by a degree.
A musical education, although I never had one, is something for which I have great respect. It can, I'm sure, be a wonderful thing, and provide all kinds of invaluable tools with which to work. It is not, however, the only way to acquire tools, or to learn.
I would guess that it wouldn't surprise you terribly to find out that a respected author may not have had six years of formal English literature, but learned by doing-that is, by sit ting down at a typewriter and writing, day after day.
Certainly, you must be aware that there are many film directors—Batman's Tim Burton, for one example—who never attended any film school. Why, then, is it so hard to accept the possibility that someone who works hard can learn to write film music from hands-on experience?
In the past five years, I've had the good fortune of being able to write, and have performed, more than 600 minutes of orchestra music. This probably involved writing some where in the neighborhood of 20,000 bars of music. I know I'm not the greatest film composer in the land—something that I couldn't care less about—and I'm more than aware of my many shortcomings. But after all this, I have learned just a few little things—perhaps even a thing or two not taught in your illustrious music class.
I will admit to getting tongue twisted and saying some pretty incomprehensible things more than once in my Keyboard interview. But I feel that my work, of which I'm proud, speaks for me much better than I can.
Finally, I hope there are others out there who can benefit from my experience—other compulsive self-taught artists who feel driven to test their abilities beyond what anal, closed- minded, self-protective "teachers" like yourself try to convince them they cannot do without their degrees.
—Danny Elfman
Graduate, with honors American College of Hard Knocks
Post-graduate studies, Nose to the Grindstone University
Back to The Elfman Zone