Danny Elfman's Serenada Schizophrana

Source: Soundtrack.net
Transcript provided by Blunt Instrument
DAN GOLDWASSER: You're listening to the Soundtrack.net podcast for September 28th 2006.
[faux orchestral tuning up]
[Serenada Schizophrana clip, 1st mvt, playing through interview]
DG: Hey everybody, I'm your host, Dan Goldwasser. As mentioned in the previous podcast we have an exclusive interview today with composer Danny Elfman to talk about his new concert work Serenada Schizophrana, which will be released on Tuesday of next week by Sony Classical. I begin the phone interview by asking Danny what it was like to write music for the concert world where he didn't have visual media to compose to.
DANNY ELFMAN: Well, that was the hard part, you know. Having a commision saying 'Do whatever you want' is a double-edged sword because it offers both a creative freedom that you don't get when you're working for a film but at the same time it's much more difficult to get started because.. you put pictures in front of me I'm gonna hear music, and so I always knew that I had the emergency hatch that if I really really felt like I was in trouble, I'd put on a silent movie and start writing, but I never had to. I felt like that was cheating, so what I did was I was running out of time - I came bak from a trip to Carnegie, and looking through the hall was the worst idea I could have done, because looking at the manuscripts of the composers on the wall, the real guys, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and I felt like I was walking in the pantheon of the gods but I was a mere cat, and I felt like 'How dare I?' I came home and I was kindof paralysed for three or four weeks. I didn't really do much of anything. And then I finally got off my ass and for two weeks I made myself start a new improvisational composition every day until I had fourteen little compositions, and I said, 'Alright, there's something' and I started letting them expand, and before I knew it I had ten, and then the ten became seven, and now they were really starting to grow, and all of a sudden I knew that I wasn't going to have a problem meeting the minimum 20 minute mark. In fact I was now calling them and going, 'Did you say 42 minutes maximum? What if it's 45?' And suddenly, you know, these things were starting to go off on their own, and then it got fun. So it started out miserable and terrifying and ended up really fun.
DG: I remember hearing something about how with the Quadruped Patrol you had an imagery of a small dog and a little dog...
DE: That was the only one where I actually had, like kindof a.. kept making me chuckle, like that's the silliest of the movements, that and Brass Thing. You know you've got to realise Serenada Schizophrana is a war between two composers: one wants to be taken seriously and the other wants to be taken anything but seriously.
DG: Hm.
DE: And when I was writing the Quadruped Patrol I just pictured two dogs ransacking a neighbourhood, causing all kinds of trouble, and so when I was writing that beat I kept picturing the gait of a big dog, bong-bong-bong-bong-bong-bong-bong, du-du-du-du-du, just a little dog running alongside of him. So this big guy and this little guy trotting along. It was just something that amused me that started that one.
[gap; music continues - currently Quadruped Patrol]
DE: I didn't really have any other images for anything else.
DG: Can you see in the future perhaps someone animating something to the pieces?
DE: I don't know. I don't know whether they'd have any more luck animating to something from Serenada Schizophrana than a piece of film score, but that's totally up to the inspired animator, whoever that might be.
DG: Did you find any limitations when trying to acheive what you had composed and envisioned in your head to the actual realisation of it both in the concert and the ultimate recording?
DE: Yeah, it was a real bucket of cold water when I finally finished it--and I was very excited--when I found out how many rehearsals they had. And I said, 'That's not possible,' and it's like, 'Welcome to the real world of concert performance.' So, it was a great education, and when I first came to New York, at the end of the first rehearsal I was so depressed I almost just came home, and there was only a couple more rehearsals and it just seemed impossible. I had written a very difficult piece for performance, and each movement is so different from one another, and there's nothing that ties it together. It was the opposite of what I'd intended. I thought it was going to be something thematic [with] movement to movement tied together because that's what I do - I tend to be a melodic composer, and I elaborate on themes, and instead I end up with six movements, each felt connected, and I kept playing them in the same order, and yet in a weird way they had nothing to do with each other except that the first and the last movements were somehow connected stylistically in a kindof Prokofievesque, early 20th century way. And they did tell me it's good to start and end with a bang, so that was one of the few things I carried in my mind, but I woudl have done that anyhow because, you know, once a showman always a showman.
It was very difficult, but you know, Steven Sloan, the conductor, is really good and you have to [hang?], look, I know this is tough on you, it's not what you're used to but by concert night they will do it, they will pull it off. And in fact they did.. but it was hair-raising, and I understand that world a lot better now.
DG: After the performance at Carnegie Hall you then tweaked it for a bit before you recorded it John Mauceri.
DE: Well I had a little time to tweak it but unfortunately no time with hearing it, and that's bad, because I'm not the kind of composer who can just look at the paper and make lots of tweaks. I make tweaks based on what I hear because I think it one way, it doesn't mean its going to sound that way. And I'm not going to know that. This thing plays perfectly in my head and the notes are there on paper, but it's awkward for various reasons and I have to make a change, I have to make an adjustment. So recording it was also very very very difficult but I was back at least in a world where I'm used to working intensely under pressure and with the clock ticking away, and so I thought oh my God I'm back to my own world, like, sweating through sessions.. feel like I'm just aging a year every hour, but that's a feeling I know very well. But it was hard, you know, because I was quickly quickly quickly trying to make a lot of adjustments while we were recording it.
DG: Are you happy with the way the album turned out?
DE: I mean I'm pretty happy. You know, you've got to understand, I don't know if I've done anything [when] I look back and listen to the recording, on the rare occasions that I do, and go, I'm happy. My feeling is that if I can get 50% of the way there I consider it, okay, that's fine. Could I have easily have used a couple more days? You bet I could, but I don't think it's any different to any film score I've ever done, you know. I get as close as I can to make it presentable, but am I happy and would I like more time? Absolutely. I'd kill for more time. I would sell my soul to the devil if he appeared right at the moment where... and go 'you can have three more hours for your soul' I've no doubt that at the right moment in the middle of a session I'd do it.
DG: Huh.
DE: But you know unfortunately that doesn't happen.
DG: Well that's a good thing.
DE: Probably a good thing, yes. But I think it came out fairly close. I mean, I'm my own worst critic I suppose, and I have to say there are things that I attempted to do that I think came off, and there's things that I attempted to do which didn't quite come of quite the way I imagined or as powerfully or quite.. you know. And in hindsight I'd like to do this differently, I'd like to do that differently, but I could drive myself crazy that way, so I try not to dwell too long hindsight.
DG: Right.
DE: I think it came out pretty good.
DG: You then had to adapt it for Deep Sea 3D IMAX.
DE: That was fun.
DG: You used music that you'd already written for no images, and..
DE: Yeah.
DG: So it's kindof the backwards process.
DE: It was a backwards process and was really fun because I love adapting and elaborating on [?] melodies. I love taking anything that I've written ever and saying, okay now can you take that and expand it for this? I mean, that was really fun. I love doing it. And I could do that for anything any day. Especially because it was scoring scenes [where] it was not like I had to start/stop for dialogue all over the place, you know. I was scoring under-water scenarios, you know what I mean?
DG: Right.
DE: So it was not like I was trying to adapt it to an action scene of a movie. There were certain scenes like in particular, like the own... like my favourite, the shrimp and the manta, the manta shrimp and the octopuss, where I just scored it because I realised, like, eh, I just simply couldn't adapt a piece or that - it was too much fun, you know, I had to get in there and score it.
[relevant music?: ca.10'52"]
DG: Also this summer you did another concert work, for John Mauceri.
DE: Yeah. An overture.
DG: The Overeager Overture. And how was writing that, coming off of Serenada, and all the time you spent tweeking and adjusting that, sort of have to get this out the door quickly for a one-off performance.
DE: Well I tried to make it more simple. Nothing I ever write is very simple, so.. it was hard, it was really hard work. Writing and overture is harder than I thought 'cause and overture implies the beginning of another work, and I realised at a certain point I was writing an overture for a non-existent musical or non-existent opera, and I originally called it Overture for a Non-Existent Musical, and John said nononono you can't put 'musical' in the name 'cause no orchestra will ever play it if you put 'musical' in the name. "Huh." So I changed it. It was hard 'cause I'd create seven melodies as if they were part of a bigger piece. At the end of Serenada John asked me why don't you do a 7-8 minute overture, I'd love to have one. I said, okay, without thinking about it, and actually it took a lot of work. It was hard, it was fun.
DG: [..] Could it potentially be recorded or expanded down the road?
DE: Well look, anything I ever write I would love to record and have accessible, but that's not up to me. If anybody ever asks me "can we record it?" and if they can provide a good orchestra and enough time to rehearse it and record it and get it done right, of course I'll instantly say yes.
DG: Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
DE: Thank you.
DG: And you have a good day.
DE: You too.
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