The classical film score is here to stay
Subtitle: Brief visits with two of Hollywood's busiest men

Paste Magazine
Uploaded 2008.08
[Link now broken]

Last year Danny Elfman accepted an invitation from the American Composer Orchestra to write an evening of music for them to perform at Carnegie Hall, “and there wasn’t a terrible lot of thought that went into [the decision],” he says. “[So] I decided I better go to New York and see Carnegie Hall, because I’d never been there. And that was my biggest mistake.”

For the first time in his career, Elfman was asked to write orchestral music that wasn’t attached to a film, and he was given nearly free rein. Film composers typically arrive on a project at the end of production when they’re expected to write music that fits precisely into a scene under the pressure of a ticking clock. And these are the conditions under which Elfman wrote a dozen memorable scores, from Batman to Mission Impossible. “I really think I would never get anything done if I didn’t have a deadline,” he says. “I’d probably still be working on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.”

“But when I actually walked around the lobby [of Carnegie Hall], rather than inspiring me it had a catatonia-producing effect. It was like the Wizard of Oz voice: ‘You’re playing Carnegie Hall.’” Elfman, a self-trained musician who fronted L.A’s Oingo Boingo for nearly two decades, may joke that visiting the Hall was a mistake, but when the deadline began to loom and his film composer’s discipline kicked in, he produced Serenada Schizophrana, a series of six dense but broadly reaching movements that’s chaos is Elfmanesque and that’s complexity will surprise only those who haven’t been paying attention to his film work. “It’s an internal battle between the two composers that live in my head, one that would like to be taken a little more seriously and the other that wants to be taken anything but seriously. They were duking it out, and I just kind of let them run amok.”

And amok they ran, nodding to Orff’s Carmina Burana and Herrmann’s Vertigo, Sergei Prokofiev and Duke Ellington. “That’s the stuff that rolls around in my head,” he says. While Zach Braff and Wes Anderson are blanketing their movies with pop songs, a number of modern film composers are drawing on a century or more of musical inspiration. Elfman, arguably the best-known American film composer working today, transitioned with apparent ease into a purely orchestral work and then back to film, most recently scoring the live-action version of Charlotte’s Web, but the distinction between the two forms isn’t always so clear, and he may have put his finger on why: as he says, the great film composers—Steiner, Korngold, Waxman, Tiomkin, Alex North—were inspired by classical music, and they in turn created the style of music that became film music.

[Roger Neill encounter snipped]

Movies with pop-song soundtracks date back at least as far as Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More. But the synergy of classical music and cinema goes back to the silent era, and it’s refreshing to find active composers who are not only aware of that lineage but are embracing it with gusto.

Back to The Elfman Zone