An Interview with Eugen Thomass by Ralf Schuder
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Eugen Thomass was born in Munich in 1927. He studied literature, psychology, theatre and music in the same city. He currently  writes music chiefly for television, although the successful German film, FLEISCH (which is similar in concept to the American picture, COMA) numbers among his works. In 1982 he was awarded the first prize in the musical competition of Hagen, the only prize of this kind in Germany.
How many musicians are usually at your disposal?
Every composer’s dream is a full orchestra; let’s modestly say no more than 90 musicians. But the budget available in practice deals relentlessly with those dreams. More than 15 musicians are the great exception, and there are a lot of producers who consider ten musicians already as a big waste. The most extensive orchestra I had so far was for parts of the BUDDENBROOKS music – 50 members of the Warsaw Radio Orchestra.
How do you get musical inspirations?
There is no rule for that, except the one which, however, is not a rule but a comforting experience: the better the film is and the more it needs music and the more it can absorb music, the faster and more easily the inspiration comes, sometimes even at the editing table, but that is rather the exception.
How do you arrange the music with directors and actors, and does that some times lead to differences of opinion?
Discussions with actors about film music are rare. Usually they are already off and away and busy with other films when the composer appears at the end. With directors there are probably as many forms of arrangements as there are directors. It depends on a director’s means of expression how tile music is discussed. There are almost always disparities of views, and fortunately so! They animate the argument and, as a rule, bring about better results than undebated unanimity. If the disagreements exceed a certain degree it is likely that you have worked with that director for the last time.
Composers have often liked to produce popular feature music in order to gain record hits. The titles were often placed absolutely wrong in the films, at least if seen from an artistic point of view. Were you also once influenced by commerce?
“Influenced by commerce” is probably to say that I, as a composer, work below my standard for the sake of a wider spreading of the music, or that, in favor of such wider circulation, I place music where it dramatically does not really belong. So far I have avoided such temptation. TV benefits this attitude as it is more interested in dramaturgically correct than in sales oriented music. Years ago, I incurred a powerful music producer’s anger because in a sequence in a jerry-shop I had an unknown singer improvise into the microphone, which dramatically was appropriate for the film, instead of inserting a song which he had pre-produced and planned for sale. The point is that this Singer (Donna Summer) has meanwhile devoted herself entirely to commercial music and has become known all over the world. Of course, every film composer dreams of a film music which on the one hand tallies with the film, is demanding and modern and has never been heard before, and on the other hand is repeated and bought by everybody.
It sometimes seems as if the German composers are already glad if they master only one melody or at least one rhythm. Are there no talents any more?
I know some German film composers with a first-class qualification who, with their music, need not be afraid of international competition. If we continue to hear a lot of unqualified music, the reason might be the large number of films produced, particularly since television came into being. Remember that there are only two prerequisites for the emergence of film music: (1) a film, and (2) a party ordering it.
Orders are placed carelessly, then?
What should I answer? We cannot criticize the orders but only the outcome, and there are indeed film music whose threadbare quality aches in one’s ears.
To what reasons do you attribute the presently large interest in film music?
To the increased interest in the media in general, on the one hand. On the other, to a reason very important in itself: Film music fills a gap which is taken care of my neither record producers nor by radio corporations: gripping, stimulating music which competes with neither the hit nor the avant-garde and which makes use of all the resources and styles available today. This music does have its audience, but is not produced outside of films.
Do you think the American composers take film music more seriously than their German colleagues do?
The difference shows in the fact that in the German film scenery-music is handled more efficiently, better devised and more carefully while the American producer generally provides his films with music from the beginning to the ending, and thus pours emotions over the film to an extent which is not always necessary. Undoubtedly there is more training in America, more tradition in the film music trade and, thus, hardly any dilettantism. But all that is not only advantageous but can also generate a certain sterility.
In which films does such sterility show?
In most of the American detective serials which are forced upon us here, for instance. But I must admit that I hardly watch more than one film per serial because I simply do not want to waste my time.
In what way does the music suffer from jam-up and budgetary difficulties?
There is no production at all in which the financial conditions do not exert terrible pressure on the composer (the only exception today, perhaps, being Peer Raben with his compositions for the Fassbinder films. I would like to know how he manages to elicit such a lot of funds from the producers). Composing film music becomes ever more the art of managing with the small budgets and yet bringing about an acceptable music.
In electronic music, Jean-Michel Jarre, son of Maurice Jarre, is your model. Do you want to achieve such music in motion pictures or separately?
I like some of the electronic compositions by Jarre very, very much, yet I would not say that he is my ideal. Actually, an ideal for me is always what does not yet exist, in countries like France and the USA, electronic music in film and television occupies much more room. Germany is still a little underdeveloped in this area. I like to make music with this new instrument and I am curious about where it will lead. I also want to combine stage music with electronic elements in the future.
Two West German TV serials about Nazi times have become popular lately: EIN STUCK HIMMEL (A Piece of Heaven) with your subtle music, and BLUT UND EHRE (Blood and Honor) with the heroic music of Ernst Brandner (as closing music here we could even hear ‘Denn heute gehört uns Deutschland und morgen die ganze Welt’ – ‘Today, Germany is ours and tomorrow the whole world’, a Nazi song). Would you also have written heroic music in BLUT UND EHRE, if that speculative question is permitted?
I regret I have not seen BLUT UND EHRE, but it could have been possible that I would also have written heroic music. That has happened occasionally although I cannot bear such music, there are some kinds of music which I cannot stand and yet have to write sometimes. Nobody can escape unloved work and we should not transform it into a problem as long as it is not predominant. Besides, the composer is also some kind of an actor or clown who also likes to slip into a role sometimes which is not in his line, be it only to demonstrate his virtuosity.