An Interview with Dana Kaproff by Jörg Kremer
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.10/No.39, 1991
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Can you give me some personal information… When is your birthday, where were you born, and things like that?
I was born in Los Angeles on April 24, 1954. I’m 37 years old. I’ve lived here most of my life. My father is a studio musician, he’s a cellist and so I grew up surrounded by a musical family. My uncle is also a violinist and he is a contractor for various big composers.
So, as I was growing up I used to go down to the studios and watch friends of the family like Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein and so forth do this work for movies, and I always thought of it as a kind of neat thing. At a later point I decided to get serious about it and studied very intensely the typical classical music things: conducting, counterpoint, orchestration, arranging and so forth, at UCLA, Berkeley, and under several private composition teachers including Andrew Imbrie, George Trembley, Paul Chihara. Then I went on to get into the business by doing some orchestrating and arranging, and I worked for Elmer Bernstein for a while, and I worked for other composers like Stu Phillips.
I got my introduction to the business that way and I was lucky enough fairly early on to get my first break at doing my own thing, which was an episode from ELLERY QUEEN (the first time I really did something under my own name), which was a show that Elmer Bernstein was doing, and then things went from there. I guess I was probably doing my first professional things around 21 years of age.
Because of your background you started becoming interested in movies and television very early, but was that your intention all the time, or did you ever think about being a classical composer or classical musician?
The point where I decided to be a composer professionally as opposed to being a lawyer or a psychiatrist, was around the end of my high school years. By that point I was not determined to be necessarily a “Hollywood composer”, I just knew that I wanted to write music and when I went into the university system, my goal was to learn as much as possible about music in general and maybe composing in particular. I was also very interested in conducting as well and it was really when I came out of the university that I started to get into the Hollywood end of things, maybe because of the need to earn money. There was a choice between earning money that way or doing some other kind of work that wasn’t appealing to me, and I liked listening to the music for movies and the idea of putting music to film or television, which is really the same concept, so I just got into that. There’s still the option of doing other things, both doing classical composition and getting involved in the record field.
Right now I’m trying to get a record made of jazz-new age style that I’ve done. I’m always involved with other things and the film music is really just the basis from which I move on to other things that I feel are branching out from that.
So you’re really open to all kinds of music, also modern music like you said, jazz and new age… You wouldn’t mind doing other things, working together with other musicians then?
Oh no, I welcome that. I’m very open to all these types of things. When I became involved in music, actually before I even made the decision to focus on it in the university system, I was always involved with modem music, rock, classical music, jazz, Broadway style music… I wrote a Broadway style show in my high school that we put on. At another point I did a whole rock performance with a group of musicians that later became members of the rock group Toto. So I’ve done a lot of different things like that and I intend to do that in the future.
We know a lot about the job of film composers like Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner and John Williams. How does a television composer work? You’re not only a television composer, but what is the job of a television composer like?
The biggest differences – because I’ve done both – that are apparent are time and money.
The average day for a successful television composer would really not be that different from day for somebody involved in film music, other than the amount of music that he needs to finish in that particular day, minutes wise. I might need to write 2 to 5 minutes of music either completely orchestrated, or, which has been the case in the past couple of years, I’ve an electronic studio, which I do electronic, scores in, when that’s the desire of the production company I’m working for, and I need to either program my computer or record those 2 to 5 minutes per day, because if you’re doing television music the schedules are much shorter and they expect you to deliver the music at a much faster pace.
For an average film you might have, let’s say, 40 minutes that you have to write, and you might have 6 weeks to two, even three months sometimes to complete that. For a TV movie, which I do quite a few of, say for the same 40 minutes you probably have 2 weeks. If you’re involved in weekly episodic television, which I have done, you might need to write 30 minutes of music in a week. It can get pretty rushed as far as that goes.
So your day is pretty much: you get up and you work — I do at least — until I’m not really being creative anymore and I call it a day, but that’s usually sometime in the evening.
The other main difference is the monetary aspect of the job. The salaries are obviously smaller for doing television projects than doing major movies. The budget is not necessarily smaller than doing small movies, in fact sometimes you can have an equal or better budget for a television movie than a small low budget feature, but certainly the big budget blockbuster type of movies have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend just on the production of the music in terms of orchestra and recording studio, forgetting the composer’s fee, whereas for a television movie you might be doing a $30,000 package all in. That includes everything. So that can make a big difference in the type of options creatively that the composer can use, because obviously if you know you can hire the Royal Philharmonic to do your score you can think differently from a creative point of view, than if you can only hire 6 violins, 2 celli, 2 French horns, an oboe, a clarinet and a keyboard for an episode of CAGNEY AND LACEY, which I have done.
So in a way you have to be very creative in terms of trying to be interesting in different things, when you don’t have everything at your disposal and that in a way can force you to be more creative than when you get a big budget and you can hire a big orchestra, and when a big orchestra plays it it’s of no matter what you write — it always sounds great, because it’s so big and you can always turn to any numbers of groups of the orchestra. When you have one oboe you have to really think about what kind of things you are going to use to make it sparkle.
Because of what you just said I was thinking of Danny Elfman, he always uses a big orchestra, it always sounds great.
Right. Without speaking badly of anybody in particular, there are several composers in town who are big names and do big movies and first of all they hire an excellent orchestrator. So all they need to do is write a one-line sketch of a musical idea. In fact some of them don’t even write music, they just literally hum or whistle something. They hire a great orchestrator who literally makes something (out of almost nothing) come alive in a very spectacular manner, and then you get a big orchestra to play it and a wonderful studio engineer to record it all and it’s hard for the music not to sound terrific. They get 4 to 8 days to record 40 minutes of music where I might have a day or a day and a half; it sounds great and it has made a lot of careers happen that maybe wouldn’t have happened if they had to be working in the television industry.
Could you give me some names of composers in the classical field, in the film music field or maybe some rock musicians that you admire who had a big influence on you?
In the classical end, certainly Bartok, very much Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and I was always fond of baroque music. Certainly Bach was a big influence, but only to the extent that I love him so much, I don’t know that my writing would reflect that a lot; going back to more modem composers, probably Copland also. I think he was a great influence on a lot of film composers. As far as film composers go, Jerry Goldsmith is a name that would pop up right away as somebody very influential, and I had and still have the greatest respect for him. Really by the time John Williams’ music got out there I was already getting into the business professionally, but he has been influential. I think a lot of Bruce Broughton – he has done some wonderful things that I enjoy. As far as rock and jazz people go, that’s so big an area… Back when I was younger I was into everything: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, you name it. Now I’m more influenced by jazz artists. I still listen to a lot of older Miles Davis, Coltrane albums. People I like are Michael Becker, Paul Simon influences me at times. So much music out there, so many talented people and not enough time to listen…
You were talking about Bruce Broughton, who is now a film composer, but used to write music for DALLAS and other television shows; he said that as a composer on a television show you have much more freedom than in a feature film. Is that true?
Perhaps it’s true. I think it depends a little bit on the circumstances, but not to put words in his mouth, perhaps he was referring to the fact that because television demands the music so much more quickly and on a regular basis… On an episodic show like DALLAS the producers, directors, the head of the studio etc. don’t have the time or the desire to be involved with an individual score, because there is a score per week and they’re busy trying to get the show out, having nothing to do with the music. So you’re pretty much left to your own devices, and the reason why you continue to work on the show is they like what you’re doing. So they pretty much stay out of your hair. The minute you’re doing anything from a television movie to a feature, all of a sudden the world of producers and heads of studio, directors and so forth descend upon you with a lot of opinions and suddenly you find yourself trying to appease everybody, which sometimes can be difficult, because they can have very different points of view.
Unfortunately I’ve only heard a very small amount of your music. When I first recalled the name of Dana Kaproff that was for the music of FALCON CREST, which I really admire. You wrote some really haunting music there. There’s something I never quite understood with a show like FALCON CREST, the different composers have a totally different musical style sometimes. Is there no overall musical philosophy for a show like FALCON CREST?
There are only certain guiding principles to a show like that. Now, I have to warn you, this is going back a way, because FALCON CREST was a good five years ago for me. What I remember distinctly about it is first of all it was always an orchestral score at the time I was involved with it. When I finished they then switched over to electronics. Also, stylistically, because of the nature of the show, there was a certain amount of a big sweeping style to it, that I tried to follow, maybe a slightly gothic way to it; but it’s very hard to have different composers come in and try to be more specific than that: everybody generally tends to write something in their own style even if they’re keeping within certain boundaries, and in general with shows like that they don’t handcuff you too much. I know when I was doing CAGNEY AND LACEY I was the main composer on the show and when they would bring in another composer, they would play a couple of scores of mine for him or her and say, “That’s what we like”; but again there is a certain amount of freedom and as Bruce was alluding to, they don’t have the time to be on top of every cue and being that involved with it.
What is your overall opinion of synthesizers? Do you like them; do you use them as an additional instrument in the orchestra?
Well, I’m sitting here surrounded by about 25 of them in my studio and they have become in a way my bread and butter for the past several years, because that seems to be where the focus is for TV music at this present time. I think that they are great when the composer is allowed to write a score that is supposed to sound like a synthesizer score. My biggest objection – I get called upon to do it and I do it because it’s how I earn a living – is when I have to mimic an orchestra, when they say , “Well you know we want this to sound like STAR WARS, but we don’t have the money for an orchestra, so we want you to do it electronically.” I mean it can be done, but it’s never satisfying, because I think an orchestra sounds much better than electronics. I think electronics can do some wonderful things that an orchestra can’t do and I think that’s what they should be used for.
Unfortunately in the past couple of years I haven’t been able too often to get a big enough budget to combine the two together. I have done a TV movie where I combined a jazz group with a lot of electronics; it’s called THIS GUN FOR HIRE with Robert Wagner. That’s the kind of thing I really enjoy doing, because then you tend to get the best of both sides, but I think synthesizers are here to stay, they definitely have their place and I just like them when they’re used for their purpose.
Do you have a favorite orchestra that you work with? In America the studio orchestras are among the most professional.
I don’t know what you have heard from other composers, but I think I have a pretty inside view since I grew up with a studio musician as a father and a studio musician/contractor as an uncle. There really are no orchestras for film music here in Los Angeles. Every orchestra that is used for every film is slightly different, because when John Williams comes into town and says, “Well, I’ve got this film and I need 95 musicians,” the contractor he’s using will be calling up musicians that the contractor thinks are good; or the composer may have some key people that he wants on the job, so the make-up of the orchestra is always different. There are no names of particular orchestras in town. The only time you get names of orchestras are really in Europe when a composer will go to London or to Munich and then on the film credits you’ll see “with the London Symphony” or “with the Royal Philharmonic”. So that’s how it works out there.
What about an orchestrator? Do you orchestrate your own scores or do you have an orchestrator?
I have done both. Lately since a lot I have been doing has been electronic, I haven’t been working with many orchestrators, but in the past I’ve worked with many orchestrators that I like: for instance Herb Spencer, who’s terrific, with Eddy Carem, who’s not as well known, but who did a tremendous amount of work for Pat Williams and Johnny Mandel.
Usually I use an orchestrator when there isn’t time, because – again getting back into television music – many times they put you up against the wall time-wise, and the only way possible that you can get it done is to be busy writing the music and have somebody else orchestrating, because there just wouldn’t be time to do the two together. When I have the time I like to orchestrate because it’s just that much closer to exactly what I want.
Coming back to a weekly television show like CAGNEY AND LACEY or FALCON CREST – as an artist – how can you maintain a certain creativity or how can you come up with something new all the time on a show that is pretty repetitive, that has a very similar plot each week?
Well, that’s an excellent question. The answer is a mixture of things. Partially there is the fact – at least speaking for myself – that I am a trained composer, classically trained. I know how to make things happen, musically, technically, even if I’m not feeling it spiritually. I know so many different compositional techniques, tricks that can make things happen when I’m not feeling particularly inspired.
Also it’s very hard to turn out a score every week for maybe a 5 or 6 month period, always having to be equally wonderful and fresh. Many times I’m influenced by the nature of that particular episode. If it’s an episode that for some reason has something that I like in it – even though they are repetitive – they still have enough difference, especially when you are very close to them and are very aware of the performances and the plot twists and so forth. That’s inspiring, that helps. When you happen to hit an episode that you think is particularly boring or silly, it makes it that much harder to get into it; and truthfully, every score is not always equally good, but through discipline you try to keep up the quality in the same way that the writers or the actors do.
Since the scenes on a television show are much shorter than the scenes in a movie, how can you develop a musical statement or a musical idea properly?
Well, that is sometimes true, if not always. FALCON CREST happens to be a show which because of its nature, sort of melodramatic, might seem that way, but a show like CAGNEY AND LACEY could have very long scenes. But when I’m spotting the music, I always tend to link themes together, so that I can have a more musical statement, I try to avoid doing little biddy cues, when you just come in for 10-20 seconds, which I find to be less appealing emotionally. So I will try and marry a couple of themes together that relate to one another.
Are you a friend of a Wagnerian leitmotif or do you like to have a theme for a certain character?
There are times both can work. I don’t generally get into a project with any particular idea for a theme. But once I spot a show then I have a concept of where the music is going, and if and where recurring thematic ideas are going to be appropriate. On an episodic show I tend to avoid it, because except for a theme for the main character, it can get boring. In FALCON CREST there were certain characters for whom I developed motif work, not because the character was coming back, but their particular problem was coming back. I think for the character Julia for example.
I remember. I think it was some kind of love theme for FALCON CREST, which was one of the most beautiful themes I ever heard on television.
Thank you very much. I think maybe more for that show than others I did do, because there was more of a continuing storyline for certain characters. I would introduce a theme for that relationship as opposed to a theme for a character itself. On other shows like CAGNEY AND LACEY or STARMAN I did not do that as much because each show, even though it featured the same basic characters, had a uniquely different story.
Is it hard to develop a musical idea especially on television with the so-called mickey-mousing technique to exactly mirror the action on the screen?
Well, I don’t do that. I’m not really called upon to do that and I hate to do that – I try to avoid it. If the producer starts to sound off about it, I just make sure that they understand it’s just not my style of writing, because I think it’s old-fashioned, it detracts from the show, rather than adds to it. It detracts from the action that you’re trying to point out and I haven’t written a score like that ever.
There are a lot of composers who have a strong relationship with a certain production company or with a certain director. Do you have people in the business that you like to work with, that you admire very much, like Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock?
I do have some relationships actually, with Universal, with MCA, which as a company I’ve had a very fruitful relationship with. I’ve been doing a lot of TV movies for them over the last couple of years.
I also have some good relationships with producers like John Epstein, Barry Croft, and directors like Fred Walton, Jerry London. Hollywood has become a very difficult place lately, although there are still relationships between composers and directors like Danny Elfman and Tim Burton. In features that’s more prevalent. In the television world the things have to go so quickly and they go through a lot of people in order to make a decision. In order to become the composer on a project, very rarely it’s just up to one person, be it the director or the producer. Generally there’s a committee made up of various producers and the director and the head of the studio and the networks. All want to have a say who the composer is going to be and it ends up being the person who got the consensus rather than the director saying, “I always worked with so-and-so and that’s who we’re using”.
But there’s still teams like Steven Canal and Mike Post.
Yes, that’s true, and also teams like Steven Bochko and Mike Post. But again, somebody like Steven Canal is a very powerful figure because of his track records, he produced so many shows and he’ has his own production company, and when he says jump, people ask, “How high”? Also, Mike Post having established a track record by writing several hit themes, nobody is going to say, “Who’s Mike Post and we don’t think he can cut it”.
I do have some relationships like that with Jim Hershen and Bob Appasian, who have a production company. I have done several scores for them. If they say, “We want Dana,” nobody is going to give them a hard time about it. But that’s rarer. There aren’t many Steven Canals around. Mostly in the television industry you have producers who don’t have a long track record and who are trying to get a show onto the air and everybody is very concerned about it because of ratings and so much money involved; everybody wants to have a say in what’s going on. If somebody comes and says, “I want Danny Elfman to do the theme of my show”, generally people don’t object, but mostly television composers don’t have that kind of name as a film composer does and not everybody is going to say, “Of course we’ll use him because he’s so famous.
Do you actually wish to become mainly a film music composer?
Frankly I don’t think there’s a composer in town here who wouldn’t like to be a famous film composer. It’s a wonderful position to be in because – forgetting the fame as primary goal – if you’re a successful major film composer like a John Williams, James Horner or Jerry Goldsmith, you’re making more money, you’re doing bigger projects, you’re actually working less hard for your money. You can get much bigger budgets, so creatively you get many more options open to you. Sure it’s the dream of all composers here to be in that position. The reality is that there’s a lot of luck involved in being in that position. I’m not saying there isn’t talent, there is, but there are only so many films made per year. The reasons why somebody gets on one of those films as a composer has a lot to do with whom you know, of being in the right place at the right time.
Once you are established like, say, James Horner, then it’s different. Then your reputation continues to provide you with more work, but getting to a certain point where you are at that level is tough and I’d love to do that and I’m striving to reach that point. Considering I’m not exactly old, I have not given up the fight. I think it’s a matter of getting on the right project, that’s really all it takes. Bill Conti for example is a friend of mine and you know it took a ROCKY and all of a sudden he went from literally starving and not being able to get any work at all to be a major name in the business.
And that wasn’t even his best score.
Nor was it originally a big blockbuster film in terms of budget. It was a small film – they did it with a small budget and unknown actors and it turned into a blockbuster. So that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for, a vehicle that might be like MY LEFT FOOT or something like that, a small movie that could become a big film.
There are some cult television shows like TWILIGHT ZONE, STAR TREK, where there are soundtracks available. But people like Lance Rubin, Dana Kaproff or Richard Lewis Warren are doing some very beautiful music, yet there’s never an album because they work for television. Now there’s talk of American musicians reducing the re-use fees, is there a chance we’ll get albums with music from DALLAS, FALCON CREST etc?
I don’t think so. I appreciate the compliment and of course we would love to see that happen, but I just don’t see the marketplace is strong enough to get a record company interested in such titles. It wasn’t that many years ago where even soundtracks of films were having a hard time getting made because there was a real slump. That has now come back strongly but really the soundtracks that tend to be sellers are the ones that are song oriented. To get a TV score on record with the way the record industry is, I think it’s just a very long uphill struggle. Even if it’s not fair, that’s the way it is.