An interview with Fred Karlin by Daniel Mangodt
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.13/No.52/1994
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Music is Fred Karlin’s life: from jazz to symphonic music, from ethnic to electronic music, from composing to writing about it and finally teaching it. Very little of Karlin’s music is available on disc. However, a series of CD’s, focusing mainly on Karlin’s television scores, will be released during the next 2 years. The first album will contain THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN, VAMPIRE and INSIDE THE THIRD REICH. The second one will contain excerpts from THE STALKING MOON and ROBERT KENNEDY AND HIS DAYS.
You started out as a jazz trumpetist…
I was 14 or so, went into a movie theatre to see a movie called YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, and I walked out just wanting to play jazz trumpet. It was just instantaneous. So I went back and asked my folks for a trumpet. They had always been very enthusiastic about my interests, very supportive, and they got me one. It was a cornet actually at that time. And for the first few years that’s what I did; I learned to play jazz trumpet and my interests grew over the years and by the time I went to college (I went to Amherst College, Massachusetts, where Lukas Kendall now goes) I had my own big band that I worked around the college circuit with. I wrote extensively for that band and also played bee-bop in small groups. It wasn’t until after college that I began to expand more and more interests into different kinds of music.
You also worked with Benny Goodman…
When I first came to New York in 1958, Benny Goodman organized a tentet, with a number of his favorite musicians: there was Philips, Red Norton, Jack Shelton was the trumpet player. He had a terrific group. They did some touring and we recorded one album while I was his arranger for that tentet, which was an album with my arrangements for THE SOUND OF MUSIC, a show that had just opened. One of my original pieces from that time has just been reissued on the ‘Yale University Series’ of Benny Goodman material that was unreleased, called ‘Marching and Swinging’ and it’s one of the 13 pieces selected for the newest biography of Benny Goodman.
You wrote your first film music for UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE in 1967 at the age of 31, wasn’t that rather late for a film composer?
At that time it was very young. There is a big difference between 1967 and 1994, in terms of age. At that time we had all 5 to 10 years professional experience doing other things before we even thought of getting into television or film scoring. Today students, as soon as they are out of college, are ready to score television and features. There has been a big difference to learn the technique and the drama and the dramatic sensibilities that are required. But then it was not unusual and it was a double deal: I was young and I was from New York, so outside the Hollywood system.
How did you get involved with UP THE DOWN STAIR CASE?
Because I was in New York. It was an amazing twist of fate. The producer and the director (Alan J. Pakula and Robert Mulligan) had shot the film in New York and were quite certain they didn’t want somebody from Hollywood to score the film. They had worked with wonderful composers such as Andre Previn and Elmer Bernstein and they had done some terrific movies, including TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. It wasn’t a reflection on the Hollywood composers whatsoever, they simply felt it was a New York film and they didn’t want somebody who would try to adapt it to a Hollywood style. They wanted a new look and they heard my tape and it seemed very appropriate.
How did you decide on the style for this rather difficult movie?
It was a difficult movie but for me it was the ideal way to start, because the film centered on a New York high school and I felt that the street sounds the kids liked were appropriate. I used sound effect music, like pouring water into bottles, I created pitches that were like a glass xylophone I had refrigerator drills that were stroked by a percussionist, New Year’s Eve noise makers, clackers, etc… I used a lot of non-musical percussion sounds plus rock and roll guitar, rock and roll rhythm section. In other words, I used the kids’ sounds against the streets and I wanted to work the opposite coloration with the high school teacher, because she was an outsider and she had never even been into contact with the big city. She didn’t fit in, her personality wasn’t aggressive and should have been for that high school. Her background was explained in the script – middle ages literature. So here we have a crispy, light character, without assertiveness, just floating around, coming into this incredibly real situation and the recorder would be a perfect sound and it came directly from her story and her character. In the end she succeeds and I put the 2 colors together.
You have scored several westerns, including THE STALKING MOON…
I wanted to find something that was singularly appropriate to express the unseen villainous personality of this unseen mythic Indian in the dark. He is always behind the next bush until the very end when the big fight takes place with Gregory Peck. I wanted the music to express that and I wanted it to be a little different and difficult to label and identify it. It’s a 2 hour story and it’s a stalk from beginning to end and it’s slow moving. There is a love story as well, but basically the heart of the story is that they are terrorized, it’s jeopardy. That score is going to be issued on CD.
According to some filmographies you also scored ZANDY’S BRIDE? Did you score it or was it Michael Franks?
It shouldn’t be in my list. I was considered for it until about 3 weeks before scoring, but they never wanted anybody but Michael Franks.
You also wrote many songs as part of some film scores…
I love writing songs. I’m very happy when I’m writing songs, but I wasn’t a song writer and my songs have always come out of film experiences. So the first one was for YOURS, MINE AND OURS. I did 2 songs for this film, including the title song and Ernie Shelton was the lyricist of both. The next film with a song was THE STERILE CUCKOO, with ‘Come Saturday Morning’, which was a big hit. It was the first film directed by Alan J. Pakula; he wasn’t sure that he was going to use lyrics and he wasn’t at all sure that he would have a song but he had these long montages that required music, whether it was vocal or not. They were reliant upon music to carry them, since there was no dialog in the 2 big montages and there was relatively little in the main title and at the end of the film (all four places where the song ended up). So the theme was written and he decided that Dory Previn would write a lyric to it. So all these songs that have come after that have grown out of film situations.
One of your lyricists is Marsha Karlin…
That’s my wife. You will also find her ‘nom de plume’, Tylwyth Kymry. Her real name is Megan, but for a period of time she used Tylwyth Kymry as an homage to her Welsh family and just as people were able to pronounce the name she changed it. She was nominated twice with me for work that we did together and once for an Emmy as well, and additionally she wrote a beautiful lyric for the theme for THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN. We weren’t asked to put a song in the film, she just couldn’t resist writing the lyric to it. It goes with the main theme as I used it over the end walk (which lasts 5 minutes) and this will be included on the first CD that is coming out.
An interesting diptych is made by WESTWORLD and FUTUREWORLD. The music sounds very metallic and there are even some “imitations” of’ Bernstein’s MAGNIFICENT 7.
It wasn’t meant to be an imitation but it was definitely inspired by Bernstein’s score, by the old tradition of western scoring as I knew it. The concept was that the robots are human, except they aren’t. In every way they are, except you can kill them and they are repaired, especially when they gain control of themselves and the chase begins and they are no longer controlled by the technicians. My feeling was to use almost completely acoustic instruments, but manipulate them electronically, so they weren’t quite human. That was the concept that triggered this and therefore I would do the same thing with the style which would be evocative of the western. For instance I had a single violin – I played all this music incidentally – that captured this horse galloping, but it was manipulated so that it sounded much more than one violin and secondly it didn’t sound like any violin, because I wanted that shrieking, primitive quality. So it’s a little electronic, but manipulated from an acoustic instrument. The same thing with my trumpet. I use the echoplex, to give it a more electronic feel. There were few electronic instruments used, and almost exclusively in some scenes when the robots are repaired at night. That, I felt, should be more electronic.
Did you change the concept when you did FUTUREWORLD?
It grew from that. It was a different story, but it had the same problems with the robots. I used a full orchestra, but kept some of the original coloration with some reminiscences of the original theme and the electronic violin.
You also performed in CHOSEN SURVIVORS. Do you often perform?
That was the same period of time. I had my own studio at home and I performed quite a lot. It was very difficult at the time, much more so than now. It was all multi-track and there was no computerization to help you out, so it was quite difficult, but I loved it.
You also wrote the music for LEADBELLY, a biopic about the black blues singer Huddie Leadbetter…
That’s one of my favorite films. I used pre-existing music as a starting point; they were all Leadbelly songs, sung by Hi Tide Harris. One of them is a beautiful duet with Art Evans, playing the role of Blind Lemon Jefferson, but most of them are solos. A lot of the scoring is either adaptation, as in the case of ‘Cotton Fields’, which I use once, or it’s so extended and adapted that it becomes an original composition. The chase sequence is a real blend of several of materials that existed along with my own compositions.
You have scored some 30 features, but the bulk of your work is for more than 120 television films and series. Which do you prefer?
What I loved about TV and what caused me to do so much TV was that it reached more people, and secondly that they often made social statements for the first time, way before they appeared in significant feature films. I scored films about alcohol, teenage prostitution, drug addiction. I was called for many different kinds of subjects and I felt that I was making a contribution in my own small way to increase the awareness to the public of these problems.
You don’t like being typecast?
I never had that problem. I also liked the mini-series, like IKE, ROBERT KENNEDY, INSIDE THE THIRD REICH, and THE AWAKENING LAND. These are big subjects. They are 6 or 7 hour films. That was extraordinary and an opportunity that doesn’t exist many times in features. I like doing those historical-scope films and expansive scores. Features on the other hand give you – especially these days – a wonderful sound panorama for a full life. In general there is much more room for the sound palate to work together and that’s thrilling and when the subject is serious, there is no medium like it. We saw NOSTRADAMUS last night, a wonderful film, a wonderful use of music. The music was very true to the style of the film. This is a feature film I would have loved to score. Anyway the art of film scoring is not lost.
You received an Emmy for THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN.
That story reached so many people and my music and Cecily Tyson’s acting were so heartfelt, everything was so rich in scope and feeling. It was about civil rights. It’s the story of a woman who lived from pre-slavery days until 1955 and still her great grandson is shot on the day the story takes place. The film shows how much progress was made in a hundred years. So the film is about something, even if it is a fictional character.
You used a lot of ethnic music…
I have a strong feeling for that. Because of my jazz roots, I’m very close to ragtime. One of my favorite scenes is the sequence where her son she hadn’t seen for a few years and who had gone off to fight in the Spanish-American civil war comes back after the war, and he is with his wife and child and Jane Pittman sees them coming up the river. My goal was to use the pure ragtime language, but also to give the scene an emotional build as they finally meet.
You also did MAN FROM ATLANTIS.
I scored every episode. We did 4 two-hour movies and then we did 13 one-hour episodes. I enjoyed that. For those days we had a large orchestra, 35 players. STAR TREK – THE NEXT GENERATION has 45 players and that’s a big orchestra for television. This was a little series but they wanted an orchestra. For those days we got a pretty good size chamber orchestra. It gave me a lot of music opportunity with the sequences under water and when they did the episodes they went into different locales and times, like STAR TREK used to do. Some were western, some were medieval, and some were futuristic. It was fun.
BLIND AMBITION was a 4-part mini-series. Walter Scharf scored episodes 1 and 2, you scored parts 3 and 4. How did that happen?
David Susskind was the producer and I had worked with him before. One day he asked me if I would like to step in and do episodes 3 and 4. This kind of thing happens all the time and especially nowadays. They just wanted a different approach. Each episode was 2 hours long, but there was very little music. It’s a kind of docudrama and it’s about a person you really can’t be too sympathetic towards. So what do you play? I never listened to the other music. I did a new theme and started all over. There was a big tradition in the thirties and forties with the big studios like Fox and Universal where they had 3 or 4 people working on one film.
You compose and you also teach film music. What made you decide to do that?
It really grew out of my deciding to write about films. Ray Wright and I co-authored ‘On the Track’ and there was a long period of time, about 6 years from the time we started until we held the book in our hands. During that time I did all the research, did a lot of interviews, except 2 or 3. I liked writing the book, studying the films, doing the research and it became and extension of my musical interest. By the time that was finished and I was asked to do a second book by the same publisher for the general audience, it became an easy decision to do it because it was part of my life. During the period of writing ‘On the Track’ I began to realize that it would be good for me and for the students to connect with some of them whenever practical on a one to one basis to teach the materials. So I have now my own ASCAP Fred Karlin Film Scoring Workshop, just finishing the 7th season. I do that once a year and it’s nine 4-hour meetings. I did a little teaching at USC every fall for the last 3 years. And I have done some teaching at my home town, Santa Barbara, University of California, for film students, who have no musical background, and I teach the same way as you saw me teaching Saturday at the seminar. And I’m now looking forward to give seminars around the world like the one I did here. It’s really a kind of a raw model for what I hope to do, to reach both kinds of groups, both the filmmakers and non-musicians and also the composers.
I guess that you go much further when you teach composers?
Yes, but it’s step by step. It’s very much like the material in both books. Those materials in those books are designed for teaching as well. Eventually you’re getting to music, but it’s the last step. The next step after what we talked about is how to play the drama and that’s a considerably broad subject. That could be a day in itself. When I do a quarter (10 weeks) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I have a 2 hour lecture twice a week (about a 32-hour course), I discuss genres eventually, the difference between scoring a western, a science fiction film, etc… Even the same materials, where the music goes, the spotting is different. There are different expectations, we just mentioned a docudrama shown last Saturday where you wouldn’t score.
In the end, do you actually teach how to compose?
Separate course. At USC last year we did some work with music, at UCSB last spring I had two different courses, one with non-music students and with the composers I worked almost exclusively on writing music for a film. We actually did 2 scoring sessions.