An interview with Carl Davis by Matthias Büdinger
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/No.35/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Like many contemporary film composers, Carl Davis has found his way to Munich, taking advantage of the Graunke Symphony’s growing reputation as a film music recording orchestra. For Carl Davis, the Graunke Symphony recorded his score for Ken Russell’s period drama, RAINBOW, and in December 1989 Davis was back recording a pair of documentaries, THE SECRET LIFE OF IAN FLEMING, and IRONY CURTAIN, the latter an artsy documentary directed by Murray Grigor which depicts the differences between “official” art (as represented by Stalin’s Soviet regime, Hitler’s Germany, and Roosevelt’s America during and preceding World War II) and counter-establishment art. Davis felt that a big musical gesture like ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra” would be appropriate to represent the official State Art. Carl Davis returned to Munich in January, 1990, to record his score for Roger Corman’s directorial comeback, FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND (ironically, Hugo Friedhofer’s score for Corman’s last film, RICHTOFEN AND BROWN, was also recorded in Munich, in 1971).
The following interview was conducted at Davis’s recording sessions in December, 1989, and January, 1990.
How did you find working with Ken Russell on RAINBOW?
I always wanted to work with Ken because I thought he was really crazy about music. Music excites him more than anything. His early documentaries – which is how I got to know him – were cut to music and inspired by music. He did biographies of composers like Elgar, Bartok, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Mahler, Liszt and recently Vaughan Williams, or films about people related to music, like Isadora Duncan. So I always knew he would stimulate me and it would be a great challenge and in electric experience with him. It really was, it was very exciting.
He gave me two really major compliments. One was: I played a cue on my piano at home for him, to give him an idea what I was going to do, and when we came to one scene, he said “Would you like to finish that phrase, and go on? I have more footage.” That was the scene where Ursula rides the bicycle to her teacher, whom she loves. I thought that was a great compliment. No one had ever offered to make the film meet the music. Ken also asked if I would ever consider writing a score before he shot the film, and that was very nice, too.
The Interesting thing about the RAINBOW soundtrack record is that it has virtually everything on it that I recorded, including some tracks that had been rejected and rewritten. We had to have enough music for a full album, so I had the idea of recording the first versions as well, so they are on the album.
RAINBOW is based on the D.H. Lawrence novel. Writing the score for an adaptation of a literary source must be…
… very exciting, because you have a “bible”, a terrific source. It’s very stimulating. In a way the style of writing in the book is important. You get a lot from what the author is all about. Sometimes a film can’t match the author’s descriptions; the film can only show it, but it can’t be put into words the way a writer describes something. But the music can actually convey the particular atmosphere of D.H. Lawrence – rather overheated, excitable and pantheistic – to the subconscious of the viewer. I always believe in looking at the source of a film, if it’s a novel or a short story or something else. I always try to get the particular flavor.
You seem to prefer writing for solo instruments, like the piano, viola, violin.
I think it’s a hold-over from my early days in TV when I was first writing, where one had to use a very small number of instruments. So I wrote chamber music scores. But I think the use of a solo Instrument Is always valuable, coming down after a big orchestra passage. It’s always very intimate and has a human scale. It’s not too inflated.
Didn’t you work on a Chaplin score recently?
Yes. I did a reconstruction of Chaplin’s score for CITY LIGHTS. First Night Records is going to do an album. There has never been one. I did live performances in London, Italy, Yugoslavia and in New York. In Chaplin’s own film tracks the solo piano means poverty. The lowest form of the presentation of a silent film would be just a piano. So that’s almost totally excluded from CITY LIGHTS, except inside the orchestra. I tried as faithfully as possible to reconstruct Chaplin’s score. He saved everything so that in the archive at Vevey (where Chaplin lived until his death in 1977; -MB) all the scores that he wrote from 1930-on are there. They sent me a photocopy of all the parts, and it’s like a time capsule of the tastes, the orchestration and the playing style of that time, 1930. It completely reveals what Chaplin liked and what he felt he needed for comedy. Even though I had done a lot of music for silent comedies – including two Buster Keaton films – it really did quite change my view of how to approach comedies. The next project I went on to do in that particular area was a Harold Lloyd film, and it was very much influenced by CITY LIGHTS.
Is your writing for contemporary films also influenced by your reconstructions and original scores to silent films?
It’s a different technique. With silent films the music has to do everything. It has to do effects, dialogue, create the mood. It’s the only sound. I did a silent film called THE BIG PARADE. We know that in silent days they had a lot of people in the major cinemas making battle noises behind the screen. We tried not to do that. We tried to make it in the orchestra as part of the music. It’s like writing an opera or a ballet; everything must be in the score. When you begin to create a score for a new film you know that the music is going to be just one of three elements in the soundtrack: there’ll be dialogue and sound effects also. So you and the director, and sometimes (if your not lucky) the producer have to make a choice where to have music.
That’s a decision you never even discuss in silent films. There must be music. But in new films – why have music at all? There are very successful films with no score. You have to justify and establish a style for each project. FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, for instance, being a romantic melodrama, is nearer to a silent film because the music is very operatic. It has to be. It’s a costume piece, in the year 1817. In some films the music should only be there to describe a state of mind. Why describe the scenery If It’s already there? In my career I had only one score rejected. That was by Fred Zinnemann, I did a score for FIVE DAYS ONE SUMMER. He didn’t like my musical description of the scenery – which I do in silent films as well. Zinnemann said, “What do I need a horn over the Alps? I’ve been hearing that all my life.” He didn’t want any music at all. He just wanted wind. So ever though that was painful, it was quite instructive.
I think Elmer Bernstein composed the new score.
Yes, he did it in the end. What was extraordinary about Elmer was that they asked him to sometimes pout highly emotive music on top of dialogue scenes which we didn’t do. I think they were really quite desperate about a style of music for the film.
Let’s talk about the silent BEN-HUR which you rescored.
Except for NAPOLEON, I’ve done the most performance of BEN-HUR. I’ve conducted it in London, Liverpool, New York, Melbourne, Brisbane, Barcelona and Luxembourg. We’ve just finished the album. I recorded the video version In London with the London Philharmonic, and I recorded the album with the Liverpool Philharmonic. It’s very good. The album is about 70 minutes of music; the whole film is two hours and twenty minutes.
Did you incorporate the music you wrote for the HOLLYWOOD series?
Yes, all of it. In the HOLLYWOOD series we did the Galley Slave Scene and a lot of the Chariot Race. The only problem was that for the purposes of documentary films they cut down the scenes – just showing collections of shots because they were busy making points. The whole Chariot Race is really about 9 minutes long, so though I used the themes I really had to compose from start to finish, putting them into a wider context.
There was an original score for that film, in 1925.
Yes. Sometimes in the 20’s a studio would issue a score. MGM had staff composers, a pair by the name of William Axt and Mendoza. They were the studio musicians for MGM, and they put together a score. It had some original themes but also an enormous amount of quotations – a lot of Massenet, Wagner (Rienzi), Beethoven (Corioilan) and a lot of “mood” music”.
But you didn’t use any quotations in your score?
No. The only quotation I did make was a phrase called ‘Dresden Amen’ from Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. Wagner used it in Parsifal.
So you are in good company…
I would think so. It’s really just 8 bars. It’s medieval, by Luther. The Important part of BEN-HUR is the New Testament. That had to be presented in a very serious and good way, so I tried to model that on Bruckner, to make it sound like a Bruckner orchestration. The only thing I borrowed from the 1925 score was the rhythmic pattern for the race, which was unusual, It’s a 9/8 measure. My entire race music was based on that pattern, and I developed all my themes (Ben-Hur, Messala, and the Race Theme) over that pattern. The use of leitmotifs is very important in silent films. You evolve themes and interweave them as characters, situations, or Ideas come up in the film. Even In comedies it’s useful.
Leitmotifs are also very helpful as a guide for the audience.
Of course. Hans Brecht, who is a producer for a German broadcast corporation commissioned a score for me last year, called MYSTERIOUS LADY (Die Welt im Dunkeln). It was a silent MGM film with Greta Garbo. Hans said what was going about my music was that it helped bridge the years. You are drawn into the atmosphere of the 20’s, the film style. Music helps you overcome the stylistic problems because what you want to do is to really involve the audience in the film. There are so many factors in a silent film which prevent them from being involved; the acting style may be old-fashioned, the print may be damaged.
You mentioned Wagner. That brings me back to RAINBOW. I remember from school days (thanks Mt. Specht, my music teacher!) that I had to learn the famous “Tristan chord” by heart. I think I’ve also heard it in your score.
Yes, it was very important. We did quote it, but I changed its position. It had to do with Ursula’s unhappy love affairs. It was a very intimate scene at the end of the film with Ursula and Anton after making love. He opens a bottle of wine and brings it over to her. It’s a kind of “Liebestrank” (love’s drink). So I said to Ken: “Shall we quote from ‘Tristan?’” He said, “Why not?” So I wrote this arrangement to that track with solo strings which is just absolutely the prelude from ‘Tristan’.
But unlike Wagner you didn’t resolve the dissonant chord.
No. You never resolve the chord because it wasn’t a death (laughing). But when they were working on the film after the recording they decided that they didn’t want it there. They found another piece of music they liked better, and they put the ‘Tristan’ music in another place, which was a dream sequence of the three major characters running naked over the Lake District and the mountains. The scene was all running, and combined with the very slow music from ‘Tristan’ that made it really feel like a dream.
What can you say about THE SECRET LIFE OF IAN FLEMING?
It’s what I’ve called for many years a bastard form of a movie; you get more money for the production than you would get for TV but not enough to make a proper cinema film. So both are cheated, in a way. But it’s a very nice film nevertheless. It is now destined for cable TV. The director is a British man named Ferdinand Fairfax with whom I had done two very distinguished British productions about six or seven years ago, one for the BBC called SPEED KING, about the life of race driver Malcolm Campbell, the other one was called CHURCHILL – THE WILDERNESS YEARS, an 8-part series. Ferdinand went to Hollywood where he did two films which were unhappy experiences for him, so THE SECRET LIFE OF IAN FLEMING is his first film back in England, though it’s financed totally from America. The film is about the life of Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels. In some ways Fleming’s life parallels the things he wrote in his novels – he was in the Secret Service and he did have very daring exploits. The touching thing about the film is that Fleming is played by Jason Connery who is the son of Sean Connery. Sometimes he really does look like his father.
Did you write any Bond-type music for this film?
There were references but not really quotes. We wanted to create some of the moods of the Bond films. The man who assisted me, Nic Raine, had actually worked on two of john Barry’s Bond films, so I would always keep checking, “is this the sort of thing they did?”
You must have needed a lot of brass then?
Yes. I excluded woodwinds completely and did it all on brass, strings and percussion. A problem is that I don’t know the formulas, so I can to invent it for myself.
Let’s discuss your much bigger commission from Roger Corman, FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, starring John Hurt.
Corman always has a light touch, very direct. The film has a futuristic element; John Hurt plays a scientist named Buchanan who has been commissioned to create a weapon that destroys specific things with some kind of molecular displacement. While he works on it he is caught up in some sort of time-storm and transported back into 1817 which is the year Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein by the Lake Geneva. Frankenstein has already created the monster, and the monster is insisting that he’ll have a mate. Buchanan participates in the creation of the woman and then plays a trick on them and explodes them all into the very distant future. Buchanan has with him a car which is a bit like the one In KNIGHTRIDER; it had a computer and a whole workshop.
Would you call your music for the film a romantic Gothic score?
Yes. The idea of creating new life is a romantic legend. It was very important that the music sounded like Beethoven or Brahms, that it had a feeling of the 19th Century romanticism about it. The whole dynamic of Beethoven taking a little motif and then developing it was appropriate for the film. As soon as you get modern actors speaking with American or English accents wearing period clothes in period settings it’s really only with the music that you’re going to bridge that gap and make the audience accept it, otherwise it seems like fancy dress. The music can help make it feel as if it’s sitting right.
Who did you work with, Corman or Kobi Jaeger, the producer?
With Corman. We had a couple of days together on the film, it wasn’t completely fine cut. We evolved the idea about the Beethoven style being Important.
But there was another interesting thing. Buchanan’s car is capable of projecting holographs, and he shows Mary Shelley a holograph of a pop video. I had to create this futuristic pop song. It’s completely in modern style with just synthesizer and two voices. Then I liked all the material that was in it, so two of the principal themes in the pop video – the love theme and the music I call “Alpha and Omega”, which has the most terrifying text about the beginning and the end of the world – have been used throughout the film as a symbol of science gone wrong, but In very different variations. In the song, of course, I treated them in a very light way.
It was Interesting making all the themes interconnect. The score is quite unified in its ideas.
Is this the first time you did a horror movie?
No. In the early ‘70s I did a few very primitive horror films for Amicus Productions in England. One film was called l, MONSTER; it was done on the slimmest resources, and it was “Jekyll and Hyde” with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The whole thing was very poverty-stricken. I thought I must stop doing this. Occasionally the film turns up on TV and I’m acutely embarrassed. FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND is the first horror movie I’ve done since 1972.
Will there be a soundtrack album and CD of FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND?
Definitely, yes, on the Capitol/EMI label. Then you can listen to the whole of the pop song. I think everyone will enjoy that.
Did you use of leitmotifs in your score?
Like mad. The score is very didactic. All the themes mean something, and that’s very useful in a period film. There was a pastoral scene set in Switzerland. The hero wakes up on the banks of Lake Geneva. The conventional thing to do would have been a cor anglais playing something intense. But if there is something obvious to do, I never believe in it. That theme evolved and became a sort of victim’s theme for the victims of Frankenstein. At the end somehow the monster became the victim, and the big fight at the end between Buchanan and the monster actually has got a version of the victim’s theme combined with the giant footsteps in the music which are a kind of monster motif.
Did you play your themes on the piano for Roger Corman as they were developed?
No, because Corman was in the States. This particular case was very rare for me, in that there was no preview. The first time anyone heard a note was in the recording studio.
Did you start working on the score immediately after leaving Munich in mid-December last year?
Even later. I had to do it very fast because it wasn’t fine cut. I did the video song without timings just before Christmas.
Do you think in classical music terms when you are writing a film score?
Yes, always. I try to find a good parallel in a classical piece or a classical style. Then I go on my own way. But I always like to have a classical reference. It’s almost become my trademark.
What are your next projects?
I have a project with Paul McCartney.
Is that a film?
No, but it could be. That’s the major thing. We have to work very hard because we must deliver in the autumn. There is another nice thing that is going to happen: my colleagues made a two-part documentary series and the two feature films of Harold Lloyd. In London in February there is going to be a film week with these films, the Lloyd Estate are very excited. They are now beginning to organize a deal to do all of the eleven Harold Lloyd feature films with new scores and the best prints. We did SAFETY LAST for the London Film Festival. It was absolutely terrific.