A composer for screen gets a stage debut

Radio interview with Sheilah Kast
NPR (National Public Radio), 2005.02.27
Source: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4515287
Website data: Weekend Edition - Sunday, February 27, 2005 · Guest host Sheilah Kast speaks with composer Danny Elfman. Elfman is best known for his many TV and film scores—including the music for The Simpsons, Batman, Good Will Hunting and Men in Black. But this past Wednesday, Elfman was recognized as a composer for the concert stage. His Serenada Schizophrana received its world premiere at Carnegie Hall in New York by the American Composers Orchestra.
Radio programme:
[Opening of The Simpsons main title]
SHEILAH KAST: From early in his career composer Danny Elfman scored big in the world of mass-market entertainment. He wrote the music for The Simpsons, Batman, Men in Black, Good Will Hunting and Spider-man to name just a few. This past week, though, Danny Elfman has not been focussed on the run-up to the Academy Awards—he was in New York City, attending the world premiere of his Serenada Schizophrana, performed by the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
[Excerpt from Serenada Schizophrana]
KAST: Danny Elfman joins us from our New York bureau. Congratulations Mr Elfman.
DANNY ELFMAN: Thank you very much.
KAST: So why did you decide to take on a work for the concert hall.
ELFMAN: Err, because it was there?
KAST: Like a mountain?
ELFMAN: Yeah, like a mountain. I mean, I never would have taken a commission for the big hall, Carnegie Hall, as a first commission. I accepted a commission for the basement underneath. There's a little room under the big hall, at carnegie, that's only about 350 seats. I said, "That's perfect, it's way off the radar, and I could just do something fun for small orchestra and noone will even know that I did it, and that's a kinda good way to wet my feet, you know what I mean?
KAST: M-hm.
ELFMAN: Many months went by and we had that scheduled, and I found out at a certain point that my wife was expecting a baby. And I couldn't tell anybody, 'cause it was really fresh news, and gonna wait three months, as people often do, you know, until you really know that it's really gonna happen, 'cause sometimes it doesn't. So you can't tell anybody, and I had this terrible secret. However, [snipped interruption by interviewer] the due-date was the same week at the scheduled concert for Carnegie, and I was trying to cancel it, I was trying to get out of it, but I couldn't tell anybody why, 'cause suddenly I was going "I really can't do this", and [people were going] "why?".. and I couldn't come up with a good reason, so I'd just go "ooh, alright". And then at a certain point they came and said "Danny, you know, if you're interested, we'll bounce you upstairs. We're interested in putting you in this programme that would be in the big hall." And I said, "No, absolutely no way. Really I'm not ready for that." And they said, "Well, and it also moves your schedule back from January to february" and I said "I'll-take-it".
KAST: [Laughs] So by this time they think you're crazy, right?
ELFMAN: Yeah, so really I owe the entire concerto to my now six-week-old son Oliver.
[Excerpt from Serenada Schizophrana]
ELFMAN: I came out about six weeks ago to hear the hall and take a look around, as I was beginning to write the piece, and I found myself intimidated to the point of paralysis. I almost went into a coma. The Hall is so amazing, and the history there is so... thick. And I went home terrified with this feeling of, "I'm in the playground of the big boys now. This isn't the little sandbox that I'm used to." So it kind of froze me up for a couple of weeks then I finally shook it off and started writing.
KAST: So you started writing this piece about six weeks ago.
ELFMAN: More like started eight-ten weeks ago, I guess. My time-frame is always bad.
KAST: That's still not a lot of time to write a concert hall piece, I think.
ELFMAN: Well for me that's a normal amount of time. You've gotta realise that I'm in a profession where I have to come up with big huge monstrous works in usually about ten weeks.
KAST: Well, what was the technique you found to get you started on this project?
ELFMAN: Well what I started doing - because I was really sure what I wanted to do - what I started doing was: for two weeks I forced myself to write a small composition every day. After about 14-15 days I had 15 or 16 little compositions, mostly about a minute-and-a-half long. So now I ended up with all these little fragments and I let pieces start evolving, and I found that some fell by the wayside and some started expanding and taking off. And now I ended up with about ten longer pieces. I said "ah, this is getting interesting; how do they fit together?; I don't know; what do they mean?; I don't know, but.. and then I ended up with six that were now ranging six-seven-eight minutes long a-piece. They were taking off on their own in crazy ways that were surprising me and I just found that one went into the next went into the next. I was resolved that I didn't want this concerto to either be too much of a whimsical frollick or too serious, so one piece kept bouncing me into the next, and then bounced over to a third direction and bounced back to the first, and that schizophrenic approach is what fuels me.
[Excerpt from Serenada Schizophrana] ca5'00 now
ELFMAN: I'm throwing together all these influences. There's not a single orchestral idea that I did out there that wasn't expressed before 1950. My inspiration comes from film composers of the Golden Era of the 40's into the 50's - Alex North and my God Bernard Herrmann. My inspiration comes from Russia, and when I heard Prokofiev for the first time I felt like I had an arrow shot into my heart that I could never remove. It hit me that strong and that suddenly. I'm just a cornball for early 20th century Russian composition. I don't know why. The first time I heard Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat I didn't want to listen to anything else for two years - I mean that's how strong it was for me. And there's a lot of Duke Ellington influence and early jazz all mixed together, but that's where I love to be.
[Excerpt from Serenada Schizophrana]
ELFMAN: I am for 20 years now.. if I see picture, I see music. Period. I always work visually, and I did have on the back-burner an emergency plan - if I went too far - that I would put on some silent movie footage or even some non-silent movie footage just playing silently, and just start composing to it. Put on some W. D. Griffith, put on anything and start composing to it. I knew that if I ran into trouble I could put on anything and begin composing, but I also felt that that was cheating, and I never did have to do it.
KAST: So what were the pictures you were seeing as you wrote this time.
ELFMAN: Well, for example, one of them is called Quadruped the Troll - I kept picturing a large dog trotting along, and how a dog is trot-trot-trot-dndndndn - there was a big dog and a little dog, and how they look right and they look left, and this dog was very serious, had very strong intent but was still never breaking stride with his trot. I had so much fun with it because I never could stop seeing a big dog and a little dog.
[Excerpt from Serenada Schizophrana]
ELFMAN: If you listen to it you'll hear bombombombombom big dog trot trot d-d-d-d-d that's the little dog trotting up alongside. It gets very dramatic because there's inevitably a confrontation about who's going to dominate - the big dog or the little dog.
KAST: Who wins?
ELFMAN: The little dog.
[Excerpt from Serenada Schizophrana]
KAST: Now along with the American Composers Orchestra you also had the ACO Singers.
ELFMAN: Well, it's erm.. the fifth movement (I knew as I was writing it) had voices, and I called them up kindof sheepishly going ('cause I kept asking "can I have another percussionist pleeease" - "eer alright" - "I really need an extra trombone and extra French horn" - "[untranscribable]" - I know they're ona tight budget. They say "right, one trombone, one French horn, one percussionist. That's all you're gonna ask for?" - "Yeah-yeah.. except for those two electronic instruments that have to be playing" - "ahh, okay, we have a third keyboard.. how many pianos? We'll have one piano, right" - "Well, actually two pianos - it's kind of two/double piano concerto the first and sixth movement". So they're already, like, I can see them going so miserable, and I say...) "please, I need a choir".
KAST: [Laughs]
ELFMAN: And I knew.. I was, like, wincing, waiting for, like, the melt-down. And they said, very calmly, this Michael Gellar: "How many voices do you need?" I said, "How about twenty-five?" He said: "How about six?"
KAST: [Laughs]
ELFMAN: He says, "Alright... eight."
[Excerpt from Serenada Schizophrana]
ELFMAN: All I can say is that it was far from being a perfect evening. I actually, sitting up in the balcony, I only heard (really) the woodwinds for the first time because I couldn't hear them in the rehearsal hall up at Columbia, and I heard a couple of mistakes that I hadn't even heard going by. It was like "oh my God, that was mistake that just went by, and so was that." I was like, mmk, okay, next time, let it go. It was a mixture of whimsical fun, like being out of my body watching it, going, [earnest baritone voice:] "How amusing". And then occasional bursts of terror, like "Oh my God, what's that that just happened." And then back out of my body like "Well, what difference does it make? It's not like they're going to hang you after the show! I mean, the worst is they're going to say is that you overshot and did a poor job, and you can live with that." I actually had fun because, you know, once there was nothing else I can do to it for the performance, once I reach that point, where I can no longer do anything more, I've given it as much as I could do through the dress rehearsal.. now it's time just to have a Martini and sit there in the box and enjoy it.
KAST: composer Danny Elfman and his Serenada Schizophrana, commissioned by the American composers Orchestra received its premiere at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday. Thanks very much.
ELFMAN: You're very welcome.
[Excerpt from Serenada Schizophrana]
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