An Interview with George Korngold by Matthias Büdinger
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.6/No.22/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Matthias Büdinger
From February 12th to the 15th, John Scott, producer George Korngold and orchestrator John Fiddy were in the Bavaria Music Studio to record a film score for the Columbia picture THE RITES OF SUMMER (produced by Mark Tarlov, who was also present at the recording sessions). And from February 18th to 22nd, Elmer Bernstein and Christopher were in the ARCO studios to record Elmer’s score for AMAZING GRACE AND CHUCK with the Bavarian State Opera.
First there’s an interview with George Korngold about THE RITES OF SUMMER and about producing soundtrack albums in general with brief comments by John Scott on his music. During the interview both Mr. Korngold and Mr. Scott displayed remarkable patience and limitless courtesy.
I found it interesting to notice that even during the recording sessions certain changes were made to the score: complete bars were cancelled and flute parts were substituted by an oboe. Wherever there were errors in the performance of the music, or a weak performance of the orchestra at some point, George Korngold’s voice “from outer space” interrupted the session; he was in the mixing booth, while John Scott conducted the orchestra.
Mr. Korngold, what brings you to Munich?
We recorded the score for a new Columbia picture called THE RITES OF SUMMER with music by John Scott, who had previously written the music for GREYSTOKE, KING KONG LIVES and THE SHOOTING PARTY. He is a wonderful musician.
Are there any well-known actors in this movie?
No, there are mostly unknown actors. It is a story of 4 boys that are taken into the wilderness by a sort of scout-leader who is older than they are. The film deals with the adventures that they have there.
You were the artistic and technical supervisor?
Yes, what one would call the producer.
When I was with you at the studio yesterday, I had the impression that John Scott was “only” the conductor, whereas you where the person who took care of the artistic matters, for example at pone point you said, “This flute is playing too loud,” and details like that…
Absolutely, because John Scott hears the music as performed by an orchestra, while I hear it as a recording and that is always slightly different from what you hear in the concert hall.
In late January you were also in Nuremberg for a few days…
We recorded a complete LP consisting of 72 minutes of music by Miklos Rozsa. That’s in honor of his 80th birthday, which is in April this year. Elmer Bernstein was the conductor and it was a very pleasant time. We used the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra and recorded the music at the Colosseum studio. We did EL CID, BEN-HUR, QUO VADIS?, STORY OF THREE LOVES, SHERLOCK HOLMES, DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID and STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS. In all, we did 11 pieces and only one of these has been previously recorded.
Could you briefly sketch the various steps you have to undertake in producing a soundtrack album?
It depends if you’re working for a major company or if you’re an independent. It’s pretty similar actually. First, you have to come up with an idea for an album or a repertoire. If you’re working for a major company and they like the idea they’ll finance the album. Otherwise you may have to find financing, which I never do. I only do it if a company wants it done. We then have to find the correct venue, the studio, the country where it’s to be done, the orchestra, most importantly the right conductor for that kind of music. We hire them, we make the schedules and then go into the studio and do what you saw me doing yesterday, the artistic production. After that I always do my own editing, and if necessary my own re-mixing. I don’t let engineers do it. And then we follow through to the end of a final disc – that means, we take care of the covers and the liner notes and the wording on the cover. Sometimes we help with the publicity, if it’s for a major company straight through till the record’s in the stores.
Who decides if there will be a soundtrack album or not?
If it’s a current film you either buy the soundtrack – that’s a different story: then you just have to get it into production – or you re-record it in another country because the soundtrack of an American picture is very expensive. And that’s up to the film company if they want to do it, or the record company who suggests it to the film company. But in the case of Varese Sarabande who specialize in film albums. I see them every week. We have a discussion and they always ask for ideas and advice about what to do next. That’s how things get started, with ideas.
Which company do you work for?
No company. I’m actually more or less retired.
What is your special function when you produce soundtrack albums?
I think I’ve described that. In my case it’s because I’ve been both in the film business and the record business that I really know both sides of the story. So my function can be as a consultant or as the actual producer. And I guess people like to use me because I have a lot of experience in this particular field.
How many copies are normally made of a soundtrack LP?
If you’re speaking about the American market, if it’s a soundtrack album or a re-recorded soundtrack album from a current picture and if it’s a well-known, successful picture, you would probably start with 5,000 LPs, 5,000 cassettes and maybe 2,000 compact discs. And if it’s something like this Rozsa record we probably start with 3,000 LPs and still 2,000 compact discs, because CDs sell very well now, I’m speaking of a company like Varese. A major company would maybe press 10,000 copies because they have a good distribution and they can probably sell them. But mind you: there are some record albums such as WITNESS that sold over 40,000 copies just in America. If you initially order too many copies you can get stock problems, because wholesalers and stores are allowed to return unsold units. I don’t think they can do that in Europe. But if a store in America orders 200 records and can only sell 100, they send you the 100 unsold copies back, and you have to take them. So it’s best not to be caught with too much stock. And it’s easy to re-order. If you run out of the first 5,000 copies in two nights they can print you another 5,000. That’s better than having 10,000 units and being stocked with 5,000 if nobody wants them.
How much does it cost to produce that many records, let’s say for 3,000 units?
It depends on the cover and so on. But I would say 3,000 copies probably would cost you about $4,500 with everything, that’s with cover and labels and the whole thing. (But excluding royalty payments, travel expenses to Europe, hiring the orchestra and the studio, and so on. Ed)
Do such soundtrack albums earn their money back, or are they sold at a loss. I mean a record album like THE COMANCHEROS / TRUE GRIT.
Again, that depends. That’s like speaking of anything. Do trousers sell well? I’ve don’t know. If there is a demand, yes. I think that an average soundtrack album can probably break even around 3,000 to 4,000 records if it’s done properly and not too expensively. And generally you can sell that many. Believe me: Varese wouldn’t be there if they didn’t make money.
Do such albums help to sell the film if it’s a current picture?
Especially if it’s a current soundtrack LP and if it happens to be pop music then it absolutely helps to sell the film, and the film helps to sell the album. I think in the case of a regular symphonic background score the picture might help the album, but the LP won’t help the movie.
Do the musicians of the orchestra get any kind of financial participation when these records hit the record stores?
In America there is a certain amount you have to pay to the Union trust fund, but nowhere else.
So they are only being paid for the recording sessions?
Yes, and later I think 1 per cent of the record’s price is paid into the Union Fund if you have a contract with them. If you don’t have a contract with the musician’s union there’s nothing.
What happens with the score? I believe the composer doesn’t own his own music, does he?
These are two different things. Let’s first talk about the rights. When you write a motion picture score, composing “for hire” means that the studio or the producer is the copyright owner. He is the composer, or becomes the “composer”! The composer himself does not lose his mechanical right, which means records, TV, and so on. But he is not the owner of the copyright. For instance, he cannot renew the copyright. Only the studio or the producer who owns the music can. The “physical” music always goes to the studio. Some independent pictures where they don’t have storage don’t care and leave the scores with the composer.
And some studios burn the scores…
Unfortunately we all know about MGM. But there are also studios that have been very conscientious. Warner Brothers kept everything since the twenties, that includes silent movies, shorts, cartoons, everything! And they gave everything to the University of Southern California. It’s there, being preserved, in very good condition. Anyone can take a look at the material, and I have a special arrangement: I can borrow it for my records.
Do you think that record albums still have a future in these compact-disc-oriented times?
It’s getting less and less, but I think they’ll still be around for at least 3 to 5 years.
How much cheaper is it to record film scores here in Europe, in comparison wit U.S. “rates”?
60% at least.
Is there an important difference between American and European orchestras?
There are important differences between all orchestras, but there are very fine musicians here. England is ideal for recording, but West-Germany is very good too. There are certainly different “schools” and “sounds”, e.g. woodwinds here sound different than they do in England and the USA. String playing, though very good here, has a slightly different feeling because Americans and English will learn the Russian school, and the Germans have a more classical school without as much vibrato as the Americans use. American orchestras sound “sweeter”.
What was it like to be born with the name Korngold? Did your father’s fame help you to establish yourself in the music and film world?
I can honestly say I don’t think so, because what I established myself in first was as a recording engineer and that certainly had nothing to do with my father. In fact my father died five years after I started my career. Having that name I never bothered me. I don’t think it helped and I don’t think it hurt. I don’t feel I have to live up to anything as far as Ersatz is concerned.
This year Erich Wolfgang Korngold would have been 90 years old. Will there be any concerts to honor his life or work?
Yes, for instance a concert in Vienna. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is touring Europe this year. They are playing the Korngold ‘Violin Concerto’ in Berlin, Vienna and Florence. And there’s going to be a film week in Vienna, and possibly ‘Die Tote Stadt’ will be presented there during the festival. I’m sure lots of radio programs will be made. In Germany currently there is a presentation of ‘Die Tote Stadt’ being made in Dusseldorf, which is rather grotesque from the direction standpoint. I was advised not to go see it.
Who plays the violin part with the Los Angeles Philharmonic?
The concertmaster Sidney Wise. He just played it at least 7 times in Los Angeles. The German violinist Ulf Hölscher has it in his repertoire. He will record the ‘Concerto’. He just played it in Detroit and so it is sort of reciprocal: an American will play it in Europe and a German plays it in America.
Do you consider yourself to be an American, or does your heart still beat in three quarter measure?
It beats in three quarter measure for Patisseries, (Where you can eat little cakes. – Ed.) in Austria. I’m an American but I’ve loved being in Europe and I enjoy being in Austria too, but I wouldn’t ever want to live there again.
What does your brother Ernst do?
He was a teacher. He’s retired now.
What are your forthcoming projects?
At the moment nothing too serious. We probably will make a record with Elmer Bernstein for the Film Music Collection, again with the Utah Symphony. The repertoire hasn’t been decided. Maybe even THE SEA HAWK, I don’t know. And there is a possibility that in March we will go to Brigham Young University and record a piece called MAN FROM GALILEE by Alfred Newman… It’s a piece put together by Ken Darby, the choral director who worked with Newman for years. I think the suite consists of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE-DAME, THE ROBE, etc.
I’ve heard of a record with MARK OF ZORRO…
That’s another thing. I’ve always wanted to do ZORRO, GUNGA DIN and HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE-DAME. Maybe that will happen, and it might also be played by the Brigham Young University Orchestra.
4 Questions, Mr. Scott!
How many recording sessions have you had?
We’ve had 5 sessions. We started Thursday night at 6 o’clock until nine, and then yesterday all day. We recorded from 10 to 1, from 2 to 5, and then we mixed. Probably 8 or 9 days ago I got the last reel of THE RITES OF SUMMER, very close to the recording sessions; so the music for the last reel of the film was written in a short space of time.
What kind of music is it? Lush romanticism?
I hope it’s adventure music. The aim is to point out the intellectual involvement between the characters and their developments through this adventure. It’s an adventure story, but it’s really a psychological drama as well.
So it’s what one might call “indoor” music?
No, it’s mostly kind of “outdoor” music. When you see you see this film in the cinema, on a big screen, it’s got a tremendous dimension. The music is supposed to enhance that dimension as well as stress the involvement of the characters.
You’ve used the marimba, it sounded kind of Latin-American to me.
The marimba is an instrument that has gone through all kinds of civilizations and certainly didn’t start in Latin America.