Danny Elfman takes a leap with a ballet in Costa Mesa
The busy film composer and former Oingo Boingo leader writes
a work for American Ballet Theatre and choreographer Twyla Tharp.
Danny Elfman, the film composer and former leader of Oingo Boingo, was in Santa
Barbara on Tuesday morning setting up a studio at his second home, a "rambling
property," when the earthquake hit. He had a feeling it was coming before
it arrived because his caller, further south, nearer the epicenter, was feeling
it before him.
"Yup, here it is," he said about 30 seconds later. "Yeah, it's
a pretty good shaker. My chandeliers are swinging. A rocking earthquake I'd
call it. ... We've just done an interesting experiment." He excused himself
to call home to Los Angeles to check on his wife, Bridget Fonda, and their three-year-old
son, Oliver, and was back on the line in a minute or two. Everything was fine.
Elfman has just written his first ballet, a much more frightening
experience than the earthquake to hear him tell it. The 45-minute work, dubbed
Rabbit and Rogue, was commissioned by American Ballet Theatre, choreographed
by Twyla Tharp and given its premiere in New York in June. It arrives at the
Orange County Performing Arts Center for its West Coast premiere this week,
performed by ABT and the Pacific Symphony.
"It was terrifying and awesome and immensely satisfying ultimately,"
Elfman, 55, said of composing the ballet.
"Of course the excitement of writing for Twyla in the beginning was both
exciting and terrifying, because not knowing what to expect out of her. You
know, she has a reputation for being a very exacting and can be a difficult
person. So I was given all these warnings and admonishments. In the end, she
was by far the easiest part of doing the ballet, and the most pleasureful."
When Tharp and Elfman first discussed the ballet, they kicked around a few
ideas for a scenario, but eventually decided not to have one.
"Once we made the decision to have a nonnarrative, to not have a story
that's kind of a blessing and a curse," Elfman said. "As you
can imagine the blessing is that, well, (you're) not restrained by anything.
But of course the curse is much greater than the blessing because it's a blank
Elfman had written one other non-filmic orchestral work before,
the Serenada Schizophrania [sic.] for the American Composers Orchestra
in 2005. He's far more comfortable writing for film he's written some
70 hours of film music where the musical content is inspired and dictated
by the images and the story. He had a hard time finding his way with "Rabbit
"'Let's just begin,'" Tharp told him, he said. "'You start writing
some music, and we'll take it from there.'"
It wasn't much to start on. He didn't even have a title yet. All he knew was
that it had to be 45 minutes long. Tharp felt that after he had written something
she could guide Elfman, telling him what were or weren't good tempos, what were
or weren't workable ideas.
"And so I kind of dived in on a really broad scale," he said, "writing
about 13 or 14 pieces, ranging from some of them as short as a minute to maybe
two or three minutes, and brought them back to her, and then she got very excited
and much to my surprise she was like 'Oh, I can definitely do that to this,"
"So I started trying to figure out how to take these ideas and put them
in some form."
Elfman is genuinely modest about his musical talents. He never had formal training
in the art form, and rues it. At 18, while traveling in Africa, he taught himself
to play the violin, but never had lessons. Some people tell him he's better
off being an instinctive musician, but he doesn't think so.
"The only music I've actually ever studied was gamelan. I don't know.
I've bitched and moaned to my orchestrator (former Oingo Boingo guitarist and
arranger Steve Bartek) over the years if I could only go back into time,
I would have gotten the background that I never had. And he tells me the same
thing, 'No, no, you're better off this way.' But in my case, my poor reading
skills are a hampering factor.
"I taught myself to write (music) without knowing how to read (it), and
that began pre-Oingo Boingo with the Mystic Knights, when I started doing my
first compositions for them, and transcribing music." He's still "someone
who can only read as fast as they write," and compares himself to an illiterate
In the early days, when he began writing for television and the
movies the classic razzy theme to The Simpsons and the music for
Tim Burton's Pee-wee's Big Adventure he had to copy all his scores
out by hand.
"I was strictly an ear musician. But I did force myself to write my compositions,
because, thank God, I had to. Had we had Midi (a special computerized keyboard)
back then I might have been tempted to not even do that."
These days he works at a keyboard with software that files his
musical thoughts and makes them into demos. Another program can help turn those
demos into printed orchestral scores, without the need for copyists. He's written
dozens of film scores, including for most of Tim Burton's movies, as well as
for this summer's Wanted and Hellboy II.
When composing Rabbit and Rogue, Elfman battled with the
two sides of his musical personality.
"I have a tremendous internal competition going on between the two composers
that are fighting for space," he says.
"I mean one likes to try to write things melodically, and if possible
occasionally something poignant or lovely to the ear, or with texture or a little
deeper. And the other is definitely a graffiti artist that likes to mess everything
else up and hates to be taken seriously. ...
"The way I control these two in the films is because of the film. I look
at the film and one or the other has to take a back seat, sometimes just go
to sleep completely. It's like 'Sorry, see you next time,' and they've just
learned that that is the law in film. The film is the ultimate god, it is the
force by which you must comply with the needs of the film. ...
"But given no image in front of them, they're really just elbowing each
other. And I went through a month where I just couldn't figure it out, it was
just like a jigsaw puzzle and it wasn't making sense. Slowly, I started to lose
the fear of having contrasting elements together. I came to the conclusion that
that is really what I enjoy, is taking wildly diverse elements and moshing them
together into a shape that didn't exist before, but using elements that are
He got a lot of encouragement along the way from Tharp, who loved what she
heard, and gave him confidence. Elfman was worried that some of his music might
overwhelm the dancing.
"She says, 'Of course you want to overwhelm it you
want to knock them dead!' She says, "This is not a ballet for purists;
this is not a ballet for a perfect complement to Swan Lake. This is a
different animal, let's have fun.'"
Tharp came up with the title of the ballet after hearing parts of Elfman's
score with its dueling personalities, one rabbit, one rogue.
Elfman would like to write more concert music and ballet, though his next effort
may be something smaller, he says, a string quartet, for instance. He enjoys
doing non-film work. "I have to have that balance."
Not that it brings in a lot of money. The Rabbit and Rogue
commission ended up being a labor of love.
"I'm like, 'How much will it cost me?,' not 'How much will I make?' Because
two extra trips to New York and upgrading my hotel and airfare is already more
than I'm going to earn."