An Interview with John Morgan by John Mansell © 2008
John Morgan is a film composer based in Los Angeles, California. After receiving his Masters Degree in Music at San Diego State University, and studying composition with David Ward-Steinman, he stayed on at the University and taught orchestration, music theory and various film music courses. In the late 70s, Morgan moved to the Los Angeles area and secured work orchestrating for such composers as Fred Steiner, Bruce Broughton and Alex North. In 1979, Morgan composed and orchestrated his first feature film score and in the ensuing years composed music for more than 30 feature films, as well as many television, radio and cable projects including STARSHIP TROOPERS 2, TRINITY AND BEYOND, RAY HARRYHAUSEN – THE EARLY YEARS, CINERAMA ADVENTURE, DEMON IN THE BOTTLE, TINY TOON ADVENTURES and others, many in collaboration with his music partner and life long friend, William Stromberg. Morgan’s love and passion for the great scores of Hollywood’s golden age has led him to the arena of arranging and reconstructing many classic scores for new recordings. He has embarked on a long series of film music recordings for Marco Polo (Naxos), BMG Classics his own label with Anna Bonn and William Stromberg, TRIBUTE FILM CLASSICS.
Among the scores he has reconstructed and orchestrated for new recordings are: Max Steiner’s THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, KING KONG; Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s CAPTAIN BLOOD, ESCAPE ME NEVER, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, THE SEA HAWK; Roy Webb’s scores for the Val Lewton films, Hans Salter and Frank Skinner’s THE WOLF MAN, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN as well as scores by Hugo Friedhofer and Victor Young.
Where and when were you born?
Los Angeles, California. October 21, 1946
What musical education did you receive?
Received my Masters in Music Composition from San Diego State University.
Were any of your family musical at all?
My mom and dad loved music. We had a piano in the house and they loved opera, classical music and generally all types. They weren’t really “musical”, other than loving it. I was able to take piano lessons just about as early as I can remember.
What attracted you to film music?
In the mid fifties KING KONG (1933) came on television and I was about 10 years old and noticed how effective the music enhanced the drama. Since then I always listened to the music scores and began associating styles with particular composers.
What was your first soundtrack album?
I really don’t remember. Probably the earliest I remember is getting 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Band of Angels.
When did you first realise that you would make music a career
I knew music was the main thing in my life from the beginning. Like all kids, I went through phases related to music. First, big shot pianist playing Rachmaninov with a big orchestra, then teaching music and finally moving to Los Angeles and knowing I had to compose for films.
I know that most collectors associate you with the excellent restoration work you have carried out on vintage scores but you have also composed film scores of your own. What do you prefer to work on: your own scores or restoring past works or do you have the same amount of fondness for both?
Well, there is nothing like writing your own music and having a 90 piece orchestra play it. But with restoration and reconstruction I only have to answer to myself and not worry about a tin-eared producer not liking this or that. And I think by these re-recorded classic scores, I have done something that will outlive me.
Rome Adventure is a wonderful score by Max Steiner; do you think in the future this could be a work that you would look at to re-record?
Certainly. Almost any Max Steiner score is worth re-recording. It has some beautiful themes. Max probably has 100 scores that are worth re-recording that no one has touched yet.
I was hooked on the Marco Polo re-recordings that you did with William Stromberg. I think I heard one and went out and just got the whole lot. I particularly enjoyed the Horror material i.e. – THE WOLFMAN, DRACULA etc. Wonderful atmospheric movies, with great scores. I think their appeal was that nothing had been available before, like the Hammer material in the UK; were these works that you yourself were particularly fond of?
Thanks for supporting our efforts. I think we have done about 30 albums for Marco Polo/Naxos. Those Universal horror scores by Skinner and Salter have been favourites since I first saw the films on television in the fifties. I just loved the music and it really became part of me and my musical taste. I was so happy we were able to do these as I am convinced no others in the music world would tackle them as the films, for the most part, were considered B material. But they had A scores. It was difficult too, as none of the orchestration survived, so I had to use the abbreviated piano-conductor sheets and orchestrate the music from top to bottom. I was glad Hans Salter was still alive when we started on his project.
Why, after so many years with Marco Polo (1993-2007), did you choose to start a new label? Have you parted ways with Marco Polo for good?
It was time to go. Our first several years with Marco Polo, we did about 4 CDs per year. And the last few years we were barely doing 2 CDs every 2 years. Bill and I saw the handwriting on the wall. The Marco Polo releases shifted to the budget Naxos label, which I doubt a new recording could ever recoup its costs with the retail price. We were doing more elaborate scores and didn’t have the freedom of picking what we wanted to do like we used to. I have nothing but thanks for Marco Polo and Klaus Heymann for backing our series for so long, but we wanted to do more and have more control and own what we did – so that was our basic reason for striking out on our own. We would have been happy to continue with Naxos but they thought differently when they found out about our new company. We practically worked free for Naxos to just get this stuff done. We got tired, and never got a raise in the 15 years we were with them. And when the music was licensed we never shared in that revenue. So that, in a nutshell, is our reasoning.
For me the new CDs do sound different from the Marco Polo recordings. Is it because of a different recording technique or maybe different placing of microphones etc?
I think The Adventures of Robin Hood was the first release we did in 5.1 sound. We felt the recording was much better with finer detail, so we have done all our subsequent recordings in 5.1 sound, although most are released in normal CD format. The SACD and DVD-A market is just too small to justify the added expense of releasing them in multiple editions… but we have the masters in that form, so whatever format comes along, we will be ready.
What are the realities of re-recording classic film music – artistic restrictions and concessions?
Not really. If we think the music holds up on its own, away from the film, we have no qualms. So far, no artistic restrictions. The only thing that may restrict us if no written materials exist along with no in-the-clear music track. A couple of cues I had to reconstruct by listening to the original music tracks but if there are too many sound effects or other intrusions, it is impossible to authentically reconstruct it. The Roy Webb and Hans Salter/Universal stuff was tough because the conductor books were so skimpy I had to do a lot of intense listening to hear all that was in the music… or most all!
Why have so many Steiner scores been re-recorded, is it simply because the composer is more popular, or maybe his scores are more readily available, or is this a personal choice? There are so many composers, Roy Webb, Frank Skinner, George Dunning etc. who are not well represented on recordings?
His scores are not more readily available but he is popular. And of the greats and the amount of scores he has done, he is very under-represented. His music is very difficult to prepare, even if the full scores exist; lots of extra instruments and other difficulties. Many scores have missing music but I have a good relationship with James D’Arc at BYU, who has the Steiner material, and have his sketches to help me in reconstruction. The musicians probably love playing Steiner more than most film scores. His music is very difficult but is written well and they enjoy the challenge. I remember our engineer when we were recording KING KONG saying, “Mahler easy, Steiner, difficult!” Actually, Steiner, Korngold and Herrmann are our best sellers. But we love almost all the golden age composers, so hopefully we can continue doing the better known ones along with the more obscure ones. We were able to do that with Naxos/Marco Polo.
Would you consider recording other material not film related, like music from radio shows, for example Bernard Herrmann’s HAPPY PRINCE (a fairy-tale by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Orson Welles). I think this was performed in concert?
I guess we would consider anything, but right now, I think film-related music is our main focus. Hopefully, we fill in a niche in this big world. If it was a perfect world, I would love to include some classical music these composers have done. I know Bill would very much enjoy conducting a new recording of Herrmann’s MOBY DICK cantata.
Would you also consider re-recording non Hollywood scores, maybe a re-recording of ROCKET TO THE MOON by John Scott, or even music by composers such as Clifton Parker, Francesco Lavagnino, John Barry and even Frank Cordell (CROMWELL)?
As you may know, we did Philip Sainton’s MOBY DICK and a Malcolm Arnold CD with DAVID COPPERFIELD and THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN. I would love to do a complete recording of Parker’s CURSE OF THE DEMON, as well as the wonderful music of Easdale. So much to do.
What do you do when you begin to restore a score, and maybe you get midway through and you realise that sections are missing; is it a case of then watching the movie and listening to the score?
Yes, we certainly do that. I had to reconstruct (orchestrate) all of SHE, KONG, SON OF… MOST DANGEROUS GAME, as well as a great deal for CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Also, CAPTAIN BLOOD, all the Roy Webb – Val Lewton music, and of course, the Universal horror music. So much of this music is simply missing and was dumped many years ago. Sad.
What do you think is the purpose of music in film?
To enhance the drama of the film. But when we re-record a score, I feel it must work as music away from the film as a listening experience… even if the listener hasn’t a clue what the film is about. When music is written for a film it belongs to the art of film, when you separate it from the film; it becomes a music art and must be enjoyable as music. I think there are lots of wonderful scores that simply would not work well away from the film. And there are lots of scores that may not work with the film but is terrific music on its own.
Who would you say were your influences musically – this can be classical, modern or film music composers?
Too many to really list. So many, actually. Mostly classical composers, but Richard Strauss, Mahler, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Puccini, Wagner, Vaughn-Williams and on and on. For film, I love the golden agers… Steiner, Herrmann, Waxman, Korngold, etc. And of the more recent ones, Bernstein, Williams, Goldsmith, etc.
THE ALAMO is a score that is crying out to be re-recorded; do you think that this will ever get the Morgan/Stromberg treatment, or maybe a full version of Tiomkin’s 55 DAYS AT PEKING or THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE?
Well, THE ALAMO is a first rate score, however all the music stems survive in stereo and I hope FSM or some other group can work it out so they can be released someday. We try to steer clear of things that we feel there is a good chance of original materials in great shape survive.
Are there composers who’s scores you would not attempt to re-record, and if so why?
No, but there are scores that we would not attempt to re-record. Scores that have elaborate electronic overdubs or tape manipulations we would shy away from as it is impossible to replicate those today. In cases such as Jerry Goldsmith, many of the overdubs were not written down and the electronic instruments he used then are mostly obsolete now. Also, scores that the original tracks survive in great sounding stereo sound, would be another category of scores we probably would not do. There are so many scores that have not had any kind releasable recording; I don’t think there is a big point in re-recording things like BEN-HUR, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, etc. And finally, scores that rely on musical personalities such as character singing, special jazz interpolations, special overdubs such as many of Henry Mancini 60s scores, we would also put on a back burner. Not that they aren’t worthy, but we feel we couldn’t do justice to with a re-recording.
What would you say has been the most daunting or difficult project you have worked on, and why?
All of them have been difficult to try and get right. For me personally, the ones I have to reconstruct-orchestrate are the hardest, but most rewarding. Things like KING KONG, the ROY WEBB music, Victor Young’s THE UNINIVITED, Friedhofer’s THE LODGER, the Universal horror music were difficult because of the music I had to recreate in full score form.
How do you think composers of today compare with, the likes of Korngold, Steiner, Newman, North, Bernstein, Goldsmith, Barry and Morricone?
Every era has had first-rate, brilliant composers writing scores. The big difference today is not in music talent, but producers making films. Of course there are always exceptions, but on the whole, music’s place on the soundtrack has moved to third place, behind dialogue and sound effects. The big operatic approach is considered old-fashioned. Producers want music to be hovering in the background as wall paper, rather than contributing to the drama in specific ways. The use of temp-tracks and the insistence of composers to ape the temp track has ruined creativity to a large extent. Having almost all orchestral scores being prepared on synth ahead of time for demos restricts a composer as what sounds good on a synth may not sound good with orchestra and vice-versa. Producers should go to the golf course and leave composers alone.
What is next on your agenda?
I have a couple of films I am up for to compose the music. We just got back from Russia where we re-recorded Steiner’s complete THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, as well as Korngold’s THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. We will soon be starting orchestration work for our next Tribute recordings which will include ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN by Frank Skinner, as well as a comedy album for two Warner Bros scores… Waxman’s THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT and Steiner’s ARSENIC AND OLD LACE.
Have you given concerts of your own music or the music you have re-constructed?
That is a dream we have; to do a big concert of some of the music we have re-recorded. Bill Stromberg did conduct a 25 minute suite from Steiner’s ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN back in the mid 90s in Berlin. It was very exciting hearing that music live, and the audience so receptive.
What non Hollywood score would you say is your favourite and for what reasons?
Impossible for me to name only one. The reasons are always the same, really fine music that is a joy to hear away from the film. So many, but off the top of my head, here are a few: Auric: Beauty and the Beast, Sainton: Moby Dick, Easdale: The Red Shoes, Bliss: Things to Come, Parker: Night (Curse) of the Demon among many, many more.