An Interview with George Antheil by Lawrence Morton
Originally published in Film Music Notes Vol. X/No. 11, 1950
Official publication of the National Film Music Council © 1950
Early this year the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned Lawrence Morton to record in Hollywood fourteen interviews with film composers for subsequent broadcast on the CBC series entitled MUSIC FROM THE FILMS. Morton’s interviews had been preceded by a series in which Muir Mathieson had discussed film music with British composers; a new British series is now current, MUSIC FROM THE FILMS is produced by Gerald Pratley in Toronto, and as a year round program devoted exclusively to film music, it is unique in radio.
The following interview with George Antheil was the eighth in Morton’s series. His guests at other times were Constantino Bakaleinikoff, Maurice Depackh, Adolph Deutsch, George Duning, Hugo Friedhofer, Johnny Green, Gail Kubik, Alfred Newman, Andre Previn, David Raksin, Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, Roy Webb.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My guest tonight is George Antheil, one of those versatile composers who can shuttle back and forth between the concert hall and the film studio with perfect composure, and without losing his sense of direction. He tells me that between film assignments he is working on an opera. It is sometimes considered indiscreet to ask a composer about the piece he is currently working on. Therefore, Mr. Antheil, I won’t ask you anything directly about the opera. But I will suggest that if you feel like giving any clues, hints, or inklings about it, you have a large audience to whisper to. Are there any rumors that you would like to start circulating?
There’s nothing secret about the opera, Mr. Morton. It’s Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE. I’m working from the original play, not the adaptation that has been so popular on the American stage.
When you are working simultaneously on opera and film music, Mr. Antheil, do you find yourself leading a kind of Jekyll and Hyde existence? Do you have to keep your operatic right hand ignorant of what your left hand is doing in the studio?
No, not at all. I write all my music with my right hand, whether it’s a film score or a symphony. Opera and film music, as a matter of fact, are very closely related, both being in the same category of theater music. They are far less separated from each other than they are from another large category – music for the concert hall. Of course all these categories intertwine, and their techniques and styles are transferable.
Are there any specific film techniques that you can carry over into the field of opera?
Yes, there are several. One is the technique of underscoring. In the old operas the voice and the orchestra always go together, and even when they are musically “counterpointed” they are still, in a dramatic sense, presenting different aspects of the same pattern. This is not so in the films. The characters in a film drama never know what is going to happen to them, but the music always knows. Hence an orchestral commentary is possible, but it can comment on the action without necessarily illustrating it. Film music can go against the voice – that is, against the dialogue – and also against the action. I did this in my early operas, and I was interested to notice that Menotti does it in THE CONSUL, which I saw in New York recently. Much of Menotti’s music is underscoring and consequently it sounds a great deal like film music.
One of the most characteristic techniques of film music is the montage where, in perhaps a minute of film, the accumulative action of days or years is reviewed in quick camera shots. Can this technique be used in opera?
Yes, I used it in my opera TRANSATLANTIQUE in 1927. It’s more a staging problem than a musical one, however.
Let’s shift into reverse here. Can you use operatic techniques in the films – the aria form, for instance?
Well, in opera an aria is most often a way of letting a character express lyrically his feelings about a certain dramatic situation. We do this in films very often. We might write a string melody with an orchestral accompaniment, to be played behind dialogue or a long speech. If there is time enough, the music can take on the actual form of an aria.
Yes, I can see how this is possible in a lyric scene. But what about a highly dramatic one requiring the kind of expressiveness in, say, the “Credo” in OTELLO, or “Vesti la giubba”?
That is also possible for the screen. In a recent score of mine, KNOCK ON ANY DOOR, there was just this kind of a scene. A boy is standing on a roof, watching on the street below the funeral of his sweetheart who had committed suicide. He can’t go to the funeral because he is hiding from the police. The music I wrote for the scene was a kind of aria – an aria of despair and hatred. Of course there was no dialogue here and the sound track was clear, It is in scenes like this that film music functions most effectively, when it is doing something that neither speech nor photography is doing.
What about the recitative technique, where a character sings unaccompanied except for a few strategically placed chords?
Recitative presents the question of where to put the chord. It’s like punctuation. In opera it is used mostly to establish a harmony, but in films it can be used dramatically, to punctuate action as well as speech.
Can you explain why the main title of a film score has not generally taken on the function of the operatic overture?
It really ought to. It should be one place in a film score where strictly musical form dominates. I can’t explain why the main title hasn’t become more overture-like, but everyone can observe that it has developed into a cliché, with a fanfare for the director, a louder fanfare for the producer, lots of noise. Main titles seem to be telling the audience that every picture is a colossal epic. The most usual exception to the rule is when the maintitle plugs a love theme, in the hope, I suppose, that the plug might help the tune make the Hit Parade. I wrote a real overture recently, for a film called WE WERE STRANGERS. It wasn’t acceptable to the front office, and so I had to rewrite it. By now, of course, everybody knows the story of how Aaron Copland’s title music for THE HEIRESS was deleted from his score and replaced by an orchestral version of a little French song that is sung in the film. Copland felt obliged to write a letter to the press disclaiming responsibility for that part of the score.
You just mentioned love themes. Do you have any particular feeling about them?
Indeed I do. They are the bane of the film composer’s life. For the most part they are the kind that spells love L-U-V. I’m afraid that audiences and film producers alike have come to believe that that is the only kind of love that exists in the world. Actually it isn’t that sickly sweet and sentimental except in the movie. What I consider my best score was written for a film that had no love story and therefore no love music. It was called THAT BRENNAN GIRL, but I’m afraid not many people heard about it.
When you say you object to “luv themes” do you mean that you are a follower of the so-called “cult of the inexpressive?”
No, not at all. There was a period, say about twenty years ago, when all the leading composers were being non-expressive. And I went right along with them. All of us were in revolt against the ultra-expressiveness of the preceding generation which had brought music to a real orgy of extravagant emotionalism. Now we have achieved a kind of balance. Taste and judgment have been restored as the real criteria of expression.
Can’t that same taste and judgment guide you in the writing of film music?
To a certain extent, yes. But it can’t help much against the industrial cliches of the “luv theme” and main title. Almost everywhere else it is possible for the composer to write just about as he pleases. At least, that is my experience. Most of my scores are, I believe, what the layman would call “modern”. Their modern-ness doesn’t seem to be a hindrance to my career in films. And there are passages in those scores that I regard as my very best dramatic music. I mean things like the digging music in WE WERE STRANGERS and some passages in TOKYO JOE.
Do you believe that the “serious” composer can handle cliché situations any better than the “commercial” Hollywood men?
He should be able to, but he doesn’t always, I’m sorry to say. Perhaps I shouldn’t publicly criticize my colleagues, but I must say that they have disappointed me many times by their failure to find new and better ways of handling clichés. What disappoints me most is that these failures are artistic mistakes, not errors due to lack of the special craft of writing for films. I had a really cliché situation to deal with in a recent score of mine, IN A LONELY PLACE. There was a series of brutal incidents – an automobile chase ending in a crash, and the crash leading to a fight between the drivers. Originally there was no music, only sound effects in the scene. But I wanted to score it because I felt I could bring something fresh-sounding to it. I prevailed on the producer to let me try it – he could always take the music out if he didn’t like it. Eventually the scene had music and no sound effects at all.
Generally, Mr. Antheil, you have been highly critical of Hollywood music, through less so here tonight than in your book. Do you believe film music has a hopeful future?
Indeed I do. The problems of film music are very exciting. The composer is constantly challenged by dramatic situations which, however commonplace they may seem, all have their own peculiar and individual flavor. You have to have a real dramaturgical instinct. And there are purely musical problems too that keep a composer on his toes. Because there are so many short pieces in a film score, you have to find a way to make them stick together. There has to be cohesion just as there is in any other music. The most difficult Job of all is to make it sound like music, not sound effects. The very fact that there are problems in film music is what gives one hope for it. If there were no problems the same thing would happen to film music as happened to old-fashioned opera. Opera died because composers had licked all the problems, and the whole form became a cliché. That is why composers today are trying to write operas of a new kind. Shows like SOUTH PACIFIC and operas like THE CONSUL are tremendously important in the search for new operatic techniques. Films are very quick in taking up new trends in the entertainment world. And I believe that out of such trends there will eventually come a way of writing opera directly for the screen – with music in the driver’s seat.
That is a hopeful note to end this interview on, Mr. Antheil. Thank you for the time and thought you have given to this discussion. I hope VOLPONE progresses speedily and successfully. And now goodnight to the CBC audience, until next week. This is Lawrence Morton, speaking to you from Hollywood.