An Interview with David Amram by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.66/1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Coming out of the Jack Kerouac era of jazz poetry, David Amram has maintained a long and notable career as a jazz performer and composer of varied orchestral and chamber works, including Broadway theater, and some half dozen Hollywood films, most notably John Frankenheimer’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962). With the subsequent withdrawal of that film from the public in the wake of the JFK assassination – which it prefigured through its conspiratorial plot – Amram’s brilliant score was lost as well. Now that the film has become available again, Amram’s score can also be appreciated on a new CD and within the context of the film on video and laser disk. Interviewed in February, 1998, the 67-year old Amram described his involvement with film music, his musical psychologies for THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and his new PBS documentary score.
How did you get Involved in Hollywood film music?
A writer friend of mine, Terry Southern, used to come to hear me play jazz in 1954 and 1955 in Paris. He was very good friends with a film editor named AI Lavakian, who’s the brother of George Lavakian, a record producer. They liked my music, and they also heard music that I was trying to write as a composer.
In 1956, someone named Hal Freeman made a documentary film about the Third Avenue EI called ECHO OF AN ERA, and I was asked to write the music for it. I also worked on a Broadway play directed by Elia Kazan, and he asked me to score SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. At the same time I’d been asked by John Frankenheimer to do music for a television program of TURN OF THE SCREW with Ingrid Bergman, and that led to John Frankenheimer’s first Hollywood film, THE YOUNG SAVAGES. He asked me to do the music for that. Since I was totally unknown, and people knew that I orchestrated, performed and conducted my own music – I’d made it clear that I didn’t need ghostwriters, orchestrators, or steal from Tchaikovsky and Bartok – they thought I was so eccentric that they expressed reservations to both John Frankenheimer and Elia Kazan that perhaps I was mentally unbalanced! Because they kept saying, “You and your writers and your orchestrators” and I kept saying, “I don’t have any writers and orchestrators, I do it all myself.” But, fortunately, they still took a chance, and I had a wonderful time working on those two films. When THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE came about, (star) Frank Sinatra himself loved jazz, and he also loved symphonic music, and John Frankenheimer had already had a good score from me, so by that time there wasn’t any problem. I was called to come out to California and to write the very best music I could.
Stepping back in time, here it is: 1962. You’ve just got on the project to do THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. What was your first take on the assignment? What kind of music did you feel the film needed to have?
John just told me to watch the film. He said “The film will tell you what to do. He told me, “I didn’t want to hire somebody to write Chinese war music. I want some real music.” So I watched the first rough cut, and they had that incredible scene with the prisoners of war and you see a ladies’ group of older, very charming, well mannered women, all wearing hats and all drinking tea, almost a scene out of Savannah, Georgia in the 18th or 19th Century, and then suddenly it turns into a war tribunal in Manchuria, I was completely blown away. I thought they had miscut the film, it was so shocking! I told that to John and he said “No, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, to show the viewers, to make them feel what it’s like to actually be programmed and brainwashed.” And he said, “The music can really help to further that”. So I came up with a kind of very dissonant and somewhat terrifying music, using the harpsichord, which wasn’t used that much in film at that time, three piccolos, and strings. And I tried to make the character of Laurence Harvey more human and more noble by using the trumpet in the film’s main theme of the film to show that he was a hero, almost a victim of fate. I hoped that the music, in some small way, could help to ennoble his situation, rather than cheapen it. And then there was some very sentimental, romantic music used very briefly underneath a love scene. Actually there was another love theme, which is on the CD, and which I’m very proud of, that wasn’t used in the film. It had too much sentiment, so we had to cut that one out at the very end, because I agreed with John that while it was lovely, it was too pretty for what the picture was about.
I’ve always felt with music for film, theater or opera, that the music has to forward and be part of the drama. It’s not background music, except very, very occasionally. It’s part of the whole picture, and since I’ve always written symphonic music I know what it’s like when you’re a soloist and someone’s playing the wrong thing behind me. It can ruin not only your performance but the entire musical picture. So in doing film music, it’s a question of being sensitive to the whole situation, and having the film itself be part of the music and the music being part of the film. And when you look at it that way, then it’s very exciting, and when you’re able to work with filmmakers who feel that way not only about the music but about the film itself, you can come out feeling wonderful and enriched.
After I did THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE I was flooded with offers and a lot of other work. Even though no one’s ever accused me of being a snob, most of the films, especially at that time, were so awful that I just felt I didn’t want to work on something, after working on three films I was very proud of. In 1969 I did Kazan’s film THE ARRANGEMENT, with Kirk Douglas and Faye Dunaway, which I loved working on, and I haven’t done any feature films since then. But I have done some documentaries – I’ve done music for a lot of films about Jack Kerouac, who I originally performed with. I did the music for a 1959 underground film, PULL MY DAISY. I’m doing music now for a PBS film now about Walker Evans, the photographer. But, again, the person who’s doing it is someone who not only loves music but loves film. Even with THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE coming out on CD now, I’m now being called to do films again. A lot of people, I think, may have thought I’d expired or retired, so when they read the liner notes and saw the enormous amount of stuff that I’ve done and still am doing, I’m sure that I’ll be probably be coming back and doing some more.
How does working on these films today compare with your experience back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s?
It’s a lot easier, because the technology is so terrific. I don’t use synthesizers or computers. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with that, but because that’s not my calling, and I couldn’t put my heart into it, so therefore it’s better to have that done by someone who feels comfortable and loves that as much as I love music from all around the world. I think film music now is a much more open situation. I’m proud that I was able to bring really accomplished jazz performers into playing on film scores, which was almost unheard of in 1962. I’ve also shown that a film composer could be a real composer, period, and doesn’t have to use ghost writers or orchestrators.
There have only been a handful of really successful jazz film scores, and yours have certainly been among them. What is your feeling about the use of jazz in film music?
Very often, jazz has been used traditionally to depict crime or death or drugs, or depravity. It was limited very often to that, so sometimes it wasn’t used in a kind of mainstream way, the way I was able to sneak it into SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS and THE YOUNG SAVAGES, in fact in all the film scores that I did. And also, I’ve always done jazz and work from the European classical tradition, and I’m equally at home in both. Now, I think there are more composers like that who are versed in music in totality, and I think that’s something that’s yet to come, and I think that we’ll see, in the next ten or fifteen years, a lot of the younger musicians who were brought up being able to be equally at home in many forms of music, contributing some wonderful film scores.
What’s your view of contemporary film composers?
I think that there’s a whole group of composers who have really contributed some wonderful scores. I thought the score for SCHINDLER’S LIST was just wonderful; the violin piece that John Williams has taken away from the film is very, very beautiful. I think the Horner score for TITANIC was terrific, just excellent. I really like John Barry’s music. I think every score I’ve ever heard by Jerry Goldsmith or Lalo Schifrin has always been excellent music. I think that the people like Elmer Bernstein, who’ve done film for so long, keep up a wonderful standard. And of course a lot of the European composers have opened up film music.
What do you think has made your score for THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE so special and memorable, so that now, even after 35 years, finally now appearing on CD is quite an event?
People have always commented that they cared for it. So thank heaven Bob Stern was interested in putting the entire CD out so you could hear all of it. I think maybe what makes it special is that, aside from trying to do a good job, something that would enhance the film, I also tried to write the very best music that I possibly could, because even back in 1962 I had the wild dream that somebody someday might notice what I had done!