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
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 lywoodyes, even the famous conservatory-trained
onesuse 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 intuitiontheir
"soul," for lack of a better wordsomething 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 directorsBatman's
Tim Burton, for one examplewho 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 landsomething that I couldn't care less
aboutand I'm more than aware of my many shortcomings. But after all this,
I have learned just a few little thingsperhaps 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 experienceother
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.
Graduate, with honors American College of Hard Knocks
Post-graduate studies, Nose to the Grindstone University