Danny Elfman takes a leap with a ballet in Costa Mesa

By Timothy Mangan
Orange County Register
Uploaded 2008.07.31
Source: ocregister.com
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 page."
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 and Rogue."
"'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," etc.
"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 storyteller.
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 recognizable."
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."
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