An Interview with Carl Davis by David Hirsch
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.15/No.58/1996
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and David Hirsch
It all began when I opened my mailbox to discover some junk mail addressed to the last occupant of my apartment. Normally, I would have thrown it out. Curiosity, however, got the better of me and I began to scan the list. La and behold, there was a listing for Charlie Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS featuring Carl Davis and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
A real film music concert in my own backyard! Finding a free moment in Carl Davis’ daunting tour schedule was a bit difficult but, within a week, I was given Davis’ hotel number on a brief stop in Manhattan and we began our chat.
This isn’t the first time you’ve done a tour, is it?
This is the first time I’ve done a tour. I have performed the work in a number of venues in the States. It’s the first time I’ve done anything as extended as this.
You’ve done tours of film music for quite some time, haven’t you?
Not of film music, but this live cinema, reviving the earlier practice of showing films accompanied by a live orchestra. To that end, I had been very lucky because I had done a series called HOLLYWOOD a few years ago and the result of that was that a very generous offer was made to me and my colleagues to mount a performance of one of the longest silent films ever made, NAPOLEON. So, in 1980, we attempted to do NAPOLEON with an orchestra and I organized a score that was just under five hours long. We played for five hours that day! People were so amazed by it, and our timing was good because a new television channel was being formed in the U.K. (Channel 4) with the brief that they would do unusual things, an alternative channel. So we had a chance to do a series of silent films, which are now numbering 30, with new scores, or in the case of the Chaplin films, recreating the original. There was a mix of the original scores and ones that I would compose from beginning to end.
Silva released your scores for NAPOLEON and BEN-HUR.
My music for INTOLERANCE was on an album for Prometheus and Virgin took on THE SILENTS, which is an album of extracts. Many of these films are on videotape in the Turner/MOM video collection.
Turner ran the films here in the U.S. on their station, TNT. Do you think this a new form that really lends itself…?
It’s an old form. Until sound film came in and you went to the cinema, the movie palace, you’d see the film in this way with an orchestra. I don’t guarantee it would have been played as well, or as interesting the music I’ve provided! That’s the idea. What we’ve done is to take it a step further and actually compose music especially for these films. It’s become a dual purpose, the video version and the live version.
Do you find that doing it live you have trouble keeping in sync with the film?
No. I plan the score to do that. I’ve gotten quite experienced in creating a score in a way technically so that I can conduct it and be in synch to it.
That was probably difficult for you at the beginning?
Yes, it took many years to work that out. I’ve been doing it since 1980, so I’ve had a lot of experience. What started as sporadic performances has now become a regular feature.
So you’re doing different films on this tour?
Principally we’re doing CITY LIGHTS. Just one city requested a second film, which is the University of Fairfax, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
We’re lined up to do a lecture of Friday, CITY LIGHTS on Saturday, and THE GENERAL on Sunday.
The performance is all done in one sitting, or do you take a break?
No. What we’re doing with CITY LIGHTS is a short concert with Leonard Bernstein’s overture to ‘Candide’ and the original jazz band version of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. Then we have a short interval and CITY LIGHTS.
Do you find a silent film score requires a different style of music, a different approach from that which you’d do for a contemporary film?
How would you describe that difference?
I think: that the music for a silent film has to be far more graphic because you must remember that, in a contemporary film, a soundtrack is shared three ways. You have dialogue and sound effects as two thirds of the soundtrack, then you have music. So you always have a discussion, should there be music or not? There could very well be long passages without music. In addition to which, you may have music under dialogue or sound effects, competing with these, so you always have to be careful it will balance out.
When dealing with the silent film, you are the complete sound picture. There’s nothing else. You have to make the effects; you have to make the dialog. Make everyone think they are hearing the people speak, that they’re hearing the sound effects.
In early silents, many of the scores depended on the use of popular music. Do you try and avoid that in recapturing the style for your scores?
I think our audiences, in the main, have many decades of listening to music. You must remember that in the 1920s there wasn’t this great proliferation of gramophones. There was no television and it was the beginning of radio. There was no sound film. In order to hear classical music, you had to go to the concert hall. The process of the broad music education for the masses had just begun.
Now, in general you have a much more educated public, so I then to want to be more discreet about using pieces that are well known because they tend to carry with them many associations for people which they might not have had in the 1920s. For instance, at the last London Film Festival, my colleagues did a reconstruction of a score that was created in 1927 for the film SUNRISE. There were quite a few familiar pieces and it really didn’t matter. It was done in such a clever way that you didn’t mind.
Considering the amount of music silents require, do you prefer working on the silents to a contemporary film.
Well, I enjoy the expansion it gives me. I do enjoy the big onrush of creativity that I must make myself do. I like performing them. I like the concept I call it a ‘Concerto for Film and Orchestra’. I like the showmanship of it all as well and the challenge of the synchronization. It’s very satisfying to me, especially if I have a very good orchestra, as I do on this tour.
Some composers always say film music isn’t meant to be heard, but in this case it’s a large part of the picture. Do you feel having the spotlight on you is more daunting or satisfying?
No. If you work in a contemporary film, my theory has always been that you can’t have an ego. Your life, that is, this music, is subject to the whim of producers and directors and with a touch of the fader you can vanish. Write any music where there’s running water or action sounds, a punch… do remember an article by Leonard Bernstein about writing the music for ON THE WATERFRONT and attending the dub. In order get the sound of Marlon Brando belching they had to actually screw down an entire symphony orchestra playing fortissimo. So you’re working in an industry where you’re part of the team, you’re part of the props.
We, my team and I, are very selective about what we choose to do. We always try and do films that have an intrinsic interest for people. There were some very fine films made during that period. We’re going to choose a film that, in itself, is a film of merit, even without music. Therefore, it’s going to inspire me in producing great love, religious, action or comedy music. It will be a delight and very satisfying to a) write this combination, b) perform it and c) have people watch and listen to it. It’s meant for special occasions, festivals.
How long, on average, does it take you to write a silent film score?
Well, it depends on how long I’m given! That’s always the problem in film music. I’d say for an average two hour film about four or five months.
Are you involved in the actual selection process, picking the films?
I very rarely have not wanted to do a film. In the main, I trust my colleagues, who will always start by saying, “We’d like to show you this film. This is what we’d like to do, what do you think?” Invariably, I’m attracted to it.
Do you stay with a purely acoustical orchestra or have you introduced electronics?
No, as little electronics as possible. I use them to mimic certain things. For instance, in THE GENERAL, I wrote a part for a harmonica, which is a very archetypically Civil War instrument. It’s very, very hard to tour with a harmonica player, so we’ve put that on synthesizer and that’s quite convincing. A synthesizer will work for organ, accordion. It’s used to imitate an instrument, not to make a statement as a synthesizer.
What percentage of the silents you’ve done have used your original scores?
The bulk I would say have been original. I would say the most successful transcriptions or reconstructions have been the Chaplin’s, CITY LIGHTS and THE GOLD RUSH, which I’m dying to perform in the States, and haven’t so far except in L.A. I’ve been very, very faithful to Chaplin and I’m now involved in the restoration of THE KID, a score he did late in life.
You once said they had found the original Chaplin scores at his home.
They were never lost, he was a great hoarder. He kept everything in vaults in Geneva and that’s where I had access to everything.
When starting on a project, do you make an attempt to track down the original 1920 film scores?
If I can. Sometimes people find them and we’re disappointed. We did find a score for GREED which was issued at the time, but it was awful. We had the original music for INTOLERANCE and it was awful, so what’s the point? For our audiences today, I think we can do better. We did use the score composed under D.W. Griffith’s supervision for BLOSSOMS. That was lovely.
Did Chaplin use standard tunes, too?
Sometimes, but they were very carefully chosen. Sometimes he thought they were original as in the ease of ‘Violetra’ in CITY LIGHTS. He had total control over his sound tracks. He was his own producer. They are very telling, very effective.
The Chaplin project is really special. Starting with CITY LIGHTS, I have endeavored to be as faithful as possible to him. You can buy a video of CITY LIGHTS with the original soundtrack. There’s no point in doing anything else except to make the live shows as much like the originals as possible.
Do you see yourself doing this thing for a long time to come?
No question. It’s very satisfying to reveal these masterpieces in a way that would never have occurred to us when we began in 1980. To have public tours, reviving an interest in seeing these films this way… but that’s not all I do! It’s occupying more and more of my time these days, but they aired in the States my BRC series of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, released on an EMI album in England.
Any other projects pending?
Well, a documentary film I made called ANNE FRANK REMEMBERED is an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary. On the cards are THE KID and Chaplin’s THE IDLE CLASS, I’ve my Tchaikovsky arrangement of the Alice in Wonderland ballet, which opened in March in London, and one of the most successful television series I’ve done, THE WORLD AT WAR in the 70s, is now having a sequel called THE COLD WAR. That’s been commissioned by the Turner Network. It’s 20 hours, made by all my WORLD AT WAR colleagues. That’ll be rolling on, episode by episode over the next two years.
Will you be touring while working on that?
Oh, yes, and fitting in the rest of my life. My next tour is six cities in Holland with BEN-HUR. The Dutch adore this. I’m doing NAPOLEON in Glasgow and London. I’ll premiere THE KID in Los Angeles. Lots of concerts! That’s all I can think of at the moment. That’s enough.
The Tilles Center, C.W. Post College, March 2, 1996. By Saturday morning, Long Island was already covered by a blanket of snow. This was an occurrence that, as Carl Davis would tell me after the concert, sent shivers down his spine. Would the concert go as planned?
As luck would have it, by about four in the afternoon, the sun had come out and, by early evening, the roads were free and clear. I arrived at the concert hall about a quarter past seven. Just a few minutes past eight, after the orchestra had filed onstage and tuned their instruments, Davis entered from stage left and opened the evening’s event with Bernstein’s ‘Overture to CANDIDE’. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic played the 1956 Broadway version with energetic style. There really is no comparison between listening to home recordings and the ambiance of a live performance. Then a piano was brought up from the pit and John Bayless took center stage to lead the original jazz band version of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.
After a short intermission, a motion picture screen was lowered above the orchestra and the main event began. The stage went dark and the film began.
For me, music, especially film music, is the only real magic. People like David Copperfield are just illusionists; they trick you into believing you’re seeing something you’re not. A good film score, however, can bring out your emotions in a way you can’t possibly figure out. CITY LIGHTS is a simple story, the Tramp (Chaplin) meets and falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). He also befriends a despondent Millionaire who is only kind to the Tramp when drunk. After attempting several jobs, from street sweeper to boxer to earn money to help the girl, he’s offered $1,000 by the Millionaire, only to be accused of stealing it.
Chaplin himself composed this elegant score, probably one of the first truly great works. The romance is as tender as the comic timing intensely intricate. Surprisingly, this was one of the last of the great silent films. Sound was already upon the industry and Chaplin publicly proclaimed sound as a passing fad, while choosing in private to exploit it. He used the current technology to add a standardized soundtrack of sound effects and music. An in-theatre orchestra (or single player) was the norm in the days of the silent film, but Chaplin sought to create something unique. Though it was originally rescored for Thames’ THE SILENTS series of TV presentations, this live musical tour-de-force brings the whole experience back to the days when stately movie palaces performed the scores with live symphonic orchestras. With Davis’ aid, this restored work comes full circle, what is old is new again.
I was surprised how easily it was to forget that the orchestra was there, on stage. I had expected to be distracted by the film, but so powerful is the medium that I was mesmerized. And yet, I was forever amazed by the realization that Davis managed time and again to keep the orchestra in time with the various mood changes. I could see him glancing from his score page up to the screen, like any mm conductor, but he had none of the marking aids common at score recording sessions, those flashing dots and bars that track from left to right. Davis had to rely on his familiarity with the mm, keeping in mind all the changes.
For anyone who loves film music, I would strongly urge them to experience this. Even though I have sat in on many a scoring session, never before has the power of film music been so moving, so alive.