An interview with David Newman by Matthias Büdinger
Originally published in Soundtrack! Vol 9/No 36; 1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the Editor Luc Van de Ven
David Newman is a self-declared pessimist. So he didn’t expect too much when coming to Munich for the first time to conduct and record his score for a 10-minute animated short called FLOWER PLANET. The film was produced by Bob Rogers, whose earlier film, RAINBOW WAR, was a hit at Vancouver’s Expo ‘86 and will make its debut at Japan’s Expo ‘90 in Osaka. Newman’s off-beat score was performed by the 95-piece Graunke Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble which has intensified its film music activities for the last five years, having performed such notable scores as Chris Young’s HELLRAISER. Michael Kamen’s ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN and Carl Davis’s RAINBOW.
Newman’s music, although only twelve minutes in length, has all the qualities which make a great symphonic work: sonorousness, inventiveness, compactness and splendid orchestrations along with fine melodic material. It’s an artfully composed piece of music, rollicking and frolicsome but also with quiet and melancholy moments, prominently featuring eloquent bassoon soli. Says producer Bob Rogers about the score: “It has personal style. It’s not like, say, a John Williams score. It sounds like somebody specific, somebody with a point of view.”
My conversation with David Newman took place during the FLOWER PLANET recording sessions in Munich. In everything David Newman says, there’s a certain seriousness and reflection. But when he talks about his famous father, composer Alfred Newman, his voice and total behavior become passionate and devotional. One immediately feels how much Davis must owe to his late father, who would have been 90 next year.
What is FLOWER PLANET all about?
The film is going to be presented at the Japanese Expo ‘90 in Osaka, which starts In March. It’s going to be projected on a screen. Essentially a kind of parable piece about a planet which is very colorless. A little creature teaches music to the inhabitants, and the music starts making things grow. There are about nine different characters, and they start playing music but in a very primitive way. They don’t really get it. They are not together, and they start fighting. So the whole planet grows into thorns and weeds. They eventually feel that they have to play together in harmony, so they make the planet into a beautiful and colorful place. The color scheme goes from very dark, black and white to very green, lush and jungle-like. And the end it becomes the whole palette of colors. Although there’s no dialogue in the film, each character has its individual voice.
I take it your music also develops from beginning to end.
Oh, yes. Actually, my daughter wrote a little tune, a lullaby, and we decided to use that as the main thematic material of the piece, which is taken and developed in various ways, and played by the various creatures on the planet. They do imitations and permutations of It. There’s is a great statement of the theme.
Were you content with the performance of the Graunke Symphony?
Oh, yes, I was. I thought they did very well. This is my first time here, and it was really pleasant. With my background, I was a violinist and I did a lot of session and recording work In Los Angeles, so I know what’s going on there. I didn’t know what to expect here. It’s such a specialized thing. I asked myself: Can they follow clicks? It takes a while to do stuff like that. I don’t like to use clicks. But in this situation there was a lot of pre-recorded material, so I didn’t have any choice. We had to sync up to that pre-recorded material. It’s an intricate affair to use clicks.
I think it’s even harder in animated films than in live-action films.
If there wasn’t something pre-recorded I probably wouldn’t do it. But then you need more time and money. Clicks can make a performance kind of wooden. This was a really complicated film to do. But this studio is set up technically very well. This is a very nice, big stage. We had 95 people in the orchestra. It sounded great.
I heard someone say that you did eight movies last year.
Yes, I did a bunch of stuff. I did LITTLE MONSTERS, I did HEATHERS, a couple Disney movies, and then MADHOUSE, and WAR OF THE ROSES. Then I did eight Disney shorts for the MGM Disney Studio in Florida. I also did a classic German silent film, SUNRISE [by Murnau] in January in Salt Lake City with the Utah Symphony for the opening of the Sundance Film Festival. That was great. I’d like to do that here. It’s a great movie and it’s a nice score, about 95 minutes, not very long. It’s just an incredible movie that holds up very well, except for a few scenes.
Are you still active at the Sundance Institute?
I resigned a couple months ago. I’ve been there for three years and I got busy. Every year I was having to go back and forth for workshops, three or four times. It was just too much. Every three or four years, there should be a new artistic director. In a way, that place is set up so that it’s a kind of master class situation. I think it should be new people that go up every time.
Is there a new director or a new direction to the Sundance film music program?
We haven’t picked a new director. I don’t know about the film music projects. I don’t think we are going to do that anymore. We are not going to make records with Telarc anymore, It’s just too hard for everybody to do, time-wise. But we are going to record all the music for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. It’s a hell of a lot of music, like four hours. A bunch of it has never been recorded. I’m also going to do some stuff of my father’s at some point. But I’ve been concentrating the last year mostly on my on film music assignments. There are some other things I like to do, too; I have an idea for a one-act opera based upon a story by Conrad Akin, called SILENT SNOW, SECRET SNOW. I have to find some time in the next couple of years to do that.
What is your opinion of the current state of film music?
Film music is in a transition stage right now. Everybody is waiting for the technology to influence It. Electronic music is waning now. More score now – at least In America – that used to be all-electronic, are now orchestral. It’s always gone like that because orchestral film music will always be the mainstay of the medium. It sits the best on optical. But the medium will eventually change, because technology always opens up a big new market — look at CD’s, they absolutely saved the American record industry. I think that not enough people will go to the movies anymore because of the large video market. Why go to the films if you set up a system at home with better sound? It will be interesting to see what happens when there’s a new technology for films, and what it will do to music. What will happen with musical technology? I don’t think of electronics but of things like the ability for musically illiterate people to write music and have it played live by musicians; the music printing capabilities, the ease with which you can manipulate instruments to simulate what an orchestra would sound like. That has never happened in history before. That’s going to change film music, especially commercial music.
There was a time – it seems to be centuries ago – when film music composers had to be classically trained. Now they can manipulate sounds and compose – or compile – music without necessarily having to know what a C-minor chord is. It’s a two-sided coin. I know it’s a delicate question, but considering the technical revolution in film and music we’ve just talked about, could you imagine your father still writing film scores today, were he still living?
I have no idea. I mean, he weathered the changing styles in the ‘50s. My father was very versatile when he was writing. He used a lot of popular music idioms of the time. All that’s happening in film music now is that the popular idioms are being used. It’s not like using popular songs, like using popular concepts and sensibilities. My father would be in his eighties now, so I don’t think he would do it. I mean, for God’s sake, eventually enough is enough; he made enough money, so what’s the point? But had he been a younger man, yes, I do think so because he was able to deal with different styles. You have to be able to deal with different things that come up, otherwise you don’t work. Things always cycle. There were always movies like the ones my father did.
When you were in your teens, did you realize that your father was such a big and famous film composer?
I knew he was. But I was 16 when he died. I wasn’t really into music at that time, I was into athletics, to tell you the truth. I wanted to be a baseball player! I love baseball, it’s a great game. But as I got older I started listening to his music. My father had a larger influence on my than anybody, but it was only after he was dead that I realized it. I remember when I was 18, 19 or 30 years old I was madly love with Mahler. I couldn’t get enough Mahler. Then I started listening to THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. I had all the original music, it’s like three hours. It’s so beautiful, cue after cue, this gorgeous, melancholy music played, like, by God. I also adore ALL ABOUT EVE, especially the last scene where the girl is standing in the mirror looking at herself and bowing. At the end she is just sitting there with her Tony Award. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s like empty power. My father wrote such a seductive music, it’s calling you. You are drawn to the scene. The phrasing and the vibrato that orchestra was able to do, the whole string sound… I just couldn’t believe it when I heard it.
Finally, I got to college. I was a music major as a violinist. I felt out of it, and I was trying to learn what I felt about music. What is important in music? What is it about music that I like? Listening to my father really helped me find myself. I really feel that I got my sensibility about music from my father. I wish he was alive so that I could tell him how much it means to me. My enjoyment in what I like about music is something I learned from my father without knowing that I was learning it, because he did not force any music on us at all. He worked at home, so there was always stuff going on. But I didn’t realize he was really famous. After he died there were about four or five hundred telegrams from all around the world and at least 200 bouquets of flowers at the house, If you imagine your father dying,.., he is just your father, and then there’s a rush of telegrams, people bringing flowers, people calling day and night. You don’t realize it. Film music is a specialized art form. It’s not like if your father was a movie star. He led a pretty normal life. We all went to public school and played sports with everybody.
I have a large Toscanini collection but I’ve never heard any classical orchestra sound like the one my father was conducting. I’ve never heard anybody have that much soul in an orchestra that had that specific point of view, that one single vision. That to me is the ultimate thing in music; it was like a marriage of him writing it and him being in absolutely autocratic control: hiring, firing, budget. He was in control of all of that at Fox. He had a complete carte blanche – to spend as much money as he wanted. He could do anything. You have to be in a situation like that to be able to make something sound that way, and it’s never going to happen again. It’s not the way things work nowadays. He happened to be a great conductor. Other studios also had conductors but they were not trained like he was.
I was also trained as a conductor way before I started writing. I didn’t start writing things down until I was in my late 20s or early 30s. I did a lot of conducting in Los Angeles, a lot of musical shows. I had an orchestra for a while. I’m glad to know how to do that, it comes in very handy. I can see how it was such a necessarily attribute for my father to be able to do what he did. Nobody else could do it.
What I like about his music is that it has two sides; there are moments with a magic feeling or ethereal quality (THE ROBE, DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, SONG OF BERNADETTE, for instance), but he can also be very earthbound and dynamic, as in
HOW THE WEST WAS WON.
You should hear that on Laser-Disc! HOW THE WEST WAS WON is a great score. That, and ALL ABOUT EVE are my favorites. His CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE score just wakes the movie. We show it up at Sundance. You know, in America they are all football-crazy – I mean college football. The last cue in CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE is the “Conquest March”. The school that I went to in Los Angeles, USC, brings marching bands to all the games. They sit in the stands during the play and in the half-time they march around playing stuff. At the end of the game – when they win – they always play “Conquest.” Isn’t that funny? That’s how that music lives on.
My father’s library is at USC. My mom [Martha Newman-Ragland, now the wife of film composer Robert O. Ragland – MB] donated a large sum of money for a hall that’s going to be in his name at USC. It will probably be built in the next five years. It will be a multi-purpose hall that can be made into a lot of different environments. That’Il be nice.