A Conversation with Lalo Schifrin by Dirk Wickenden, assisted by Ken Newberry
Originally published in Legend: Issue 26/1998
The Official Jerry Goldsmith Film Music Society Journal
Text reproduced by kind permission of the author, Dirk Wickenden
“What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive.” – The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges.
1932 saw the birth of one Boris Cladio Schifrin in Buenos Aires, Argentina and the world has come to know him of course as Lalo. This consummate professional is equally at home in jazz, classical and film music and the many permutations thereof. The film world has been lucky to have him score its movies with his eclectic music, ranging from the driving jazz of BULLITT, to the bluegrass music of COOL HAND LUKE, to the symphonic THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. I caught up with Mr. Lalo Schifrin in the plush surroundings of the Inn on the Park Hotel in London in April of this year, the day after he had arrived from Los Angeles, to record with the London Symphony Orchestra. I found the pipe-smoking composer, conductor and musician to be a very personable gentleman who, despite being jet-lagged, allowed me to conduct an extended interview amidst the ambience of the busy cocktail bar of the hotel.
What project are you working on with the London Symphony at the moment?
I’ve done three records called ‘Jazz Meets the Symphony’. I’m doing the fourth now.
What sort of works will be on that?
Two original compositions of mine. One is called ‘The Invisible City’ and the other is called ‘Sanctuary’ and then I have ‘Rhapsody for Bix’ – you know, Bix Beiderbecke. James Morrison is going to play it. This was commissioned by the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Memorial Society and we did the world premiere in the place that Bix was born – Davenport, Iowa. Four cities together have a big auditorium with twelve thousand people. They all came – it was a very emotional experience and also we played it in Europe in several festivals, but now we are going to record it. Also I’m doing a tribute to Thelonious Monk called ‘The Miraculous Monk’ – I think he’s one of the greatest composers of America in this century and then I’m doing a piece by Gil Evans who was the arranger and composer for Miles Davis [the jazz trumpeter] who did ‘Sketches of Spain’ and ‘Porgy and Bess’ for Miles. He wrote an original composition called ‘La Nevada’ – it was on an album called ‘Out of the Cool’. I’m doing ‘La Nevada’ with symphony orchestra, so it’s going to be interesting.
So which label will that be on?
Well, this is a new departure for me because I’m having my own label now.
Oh, yes – ‘Aleph’ Records?
What was the reason behind calling it Aleph? I know it’s the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet…
We wanted to call it ‘Alpha’, which is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, but our legal research found out that there were several companies called ‘Alpha’ – we couldn’t use that. The idea came to me, not only ‘Aleph’ as it’s the first letter, but there is a short story by the Argentinian writer Jorges Luis Borges called El Aleph, in which (I don’t know if you’ve read it) ‘all things come together’, which is what Jazz Meets the Symphony is about.
So will that be your inaugural release?
No – we already have one release called ‘Film Music Classics’ – I was commissioned by French television several years ago to celebrate 100 years of cinema. The concert lasted three hours – I even put my own music to the first two scenes that the Lumiere brothers shot – you know, the workers coming out of the factory and the train arriving at the station, so in a live concert, I kind of synchronised the music. That is not in the album – the concert lasted three hours, the television show one hour and twenty-five minutes, which I produced. It was the first time [he had produced] and it was fun. It was a live show and we had to bring in digital equipment and luckily everything went well in the concert. We didn’t need to do anything, only the remix in a studio, and I had guest artists to do the songs from movies. I had Dee Dee Bridgewater and Julia Migenes and they did several songs individually, not only in English but in French and Spanish. [Also] the movies from Pedro Almodovar that became very popular in Europe. We did ‘Autumn Leaves’ in French. It was from a film that died in one week, a French film. THE GATES OF THE NIGHT but Yves Montand sang it and the music became a classic. We did ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’ by Johnny Mandel and also we did a medley of the two of them coming on one by one like ‘The Three Tenors’ – I already have some experience in terms of these kind of shows. At the end they sing together the medley of eight songs. Plus some things that I did on my own. I did a special arrangement called ‘The Western Medley’, with three classics – HIGH NOON by Dimitri Tiomkin, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN by Bernstein and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY by Morricone. Then I did also a music classic suite: it starts with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, then it goes to the theme of THE THIRD MAN, which was very interesting to orchestrate for symphony orchestra, it was a real challenge and then DR. ZHIVAGO and it ended with ZORBA THE GREEK. [The concert had] also some of my own music of course.
With your label, I understand your wife Donna is heading up the venture?
I’m not involved with the business aspect; I’m not even a member of the board. There was a reason why I did this move. You know I move in different circles – jazz, film music and classical music. Several years ago, I did a concert in the Palais de Festival, where the Cannes Film Festival takes place. We had the symphony orchestra of Lyon – I did classical music, jazz – my guest was Dizzy Gillespie and I did film music and I had as a guest, believe it or not, Francis Lai, who I convinced to play accordion in A MAN AND A WOMAN. He doesn’t want to play in public and I really convinced him. So that concert was a symbol [of Schifrin’s diversity], I find that record companies say “Who is the real Lalo Schifrin?” In a way, Jerry Goldsmith has a little bit of the same problem, because he’s a very good classical composer. Not too long ago, I was not in Los Angeles unfortunately, but I know that a piece of his was played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, called ‘Music for Orchestra’. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted and I understand that the piece was very good and when I go back one day – he’s a neighbour of mine, Jerry, so I’m going to ask him to play me a tape. I know they record for the archives – maybe they’re going to record it also [for commercial release]. Esa-Pekka Salonen did a record of the music of Bernard Herrmann – we did Psycho in the Marseilles concert. So he [Jerry] has the same problem but I have it even more because of the jazz. It seems that they have a problem categorising you, so now I’m doing all of them [different types of music]. I’m going to release, in this year, ten records. I produce a young tenor whose name is Caesar Hernandez from Puerto Rico, who is a protégé of Placido Domingo. I did here [London], with the Royal Philharmonic, a record of arias of operas – that’s going to be on my label – I conducted, of course. This new ‘Jazz Meets the Symphony’ – I did ‘Gillespiana’, which I played not too long ago here in London…
That’s right, we were at the concert.
I did it with the WDR band in Germany and I brought Paquito D’Rivera and John Faddis as soloists and Alex Acuna (I don’t know if you know – he’s a percussionist). You know the record ‘Birdland’ by Weather Report? It was a big hit – he was the drummer there – he’s Peruvian and he lives in Los Angeles. Another thing I did recently with the WDR band is the ‘Jazz Mass’ with choir – that’s also going to [be on the label]. I’m now going to Cologne to mix the live concert again. I did a recital, piano alone, in a castle near Munich last year and we made a recording of that and it’s ready to be released. I’m releasing ‘The Best of Dirty Harry’ but not the one that was released by Warner Brothers at the time, because it included the music of Jerry Fielding. He did only one movie of DIRTY HARRY – THE ENFORCER – but I did all the others, so I’m going to do my own (album). So you see – soundtracks, jazz, classical…
Quite a musician!
I need to stretch myself in different areas.
I read recently that the album releases will be sold over the internet.
For the time being, yes but it’s only temporary because we are making deals with distribution companies. We’re getting a great result with the internet – the company’s doing very well. For instance, the day after I finish the recording, representatives of Warner Brothers are coming over from France and they want to release it. We have offers for distribution from Germany, Australia, United States… So we are going to be very selective in who’s going to receive it and how. In this case, it’s very good to have the company because I call the shots now. I mean, my wife does.
I’m going to be very selective because financially, we cannot go crazy. Also if I do an album, I like to promote it well. It’s not only the manufacturing and production, which is already expensive and then the post production and the marketing and all that.
When you first became involved with jazz, what was it about this particular type of music that appealed to you?
To tell you the truth, I don’t know. I come from a classical music family. My first piano teacher was Enrico Barenboim, the father of Daniel Barenboim. My father was the concert master of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic for thirty-five years. My father’s name was Louis Schifrin, my Uncle Roberto was the first cello of the orchestra and they played string quartets on weekends or chamber music. Enrico Barenboim came to play the piano – Schumann quintets or whatever. My father also had a master class in the Argentinian National Conservatory of Music, so he was an authority. When I was going through the streets, he was ‘Maestro Schifrin’ – I was a little intimidated. I’m trying to give a Freudian explanation why I like jazz, which is not really right because you cannot like jazz because of Freud. I felt I never could overcome; never surpass his [Louis’] level. When I was going to second high school, some people started to bring jazz records and that appealed to me. It was like a religious conversion.
The music of the time almost, then.
Well, no – I didn’t care about that because I was studying the music of Schoenberg – that was also the music of the time. I was studying composition with one of the disciples of Schoenberg, the only Argentinian; I know that he went to study in Vienna with Schoenberg – Juan Carlos Paz. He was a great teacher and he introduced me to, not only Schoenberg but Boulez, Messiaen. I studied so much with him, so that was the music of the time. It was nothing snobbish about my embrace of jazz. It was a true passion. I found that jazz, you cannot explain it and you have to feel it. I think Louis Armstrong said something like that – I don’t remember exactly the words he used but if you have to explain it, it means that you don’t get it and also, Duke Ellington wrote a piece called ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’ – you know? So, I understood it very well – now they’re teaching jazz in schools and conservatories. The only way I could learn was through records.
So it’s not really something that can be, ideally, taught – the idiom can be taught but you’ve got to feel it.
It’s something metaphysical, although I’m not into the occult or anything – I am very pragmatic. But in terms of the spiritual aspect of music, for instance, I think that Jerry Goldsmith, when he did the main title of PATTON with all these effects with the Echoplex, he was doing something that of course can be analysed – I can analyse it. I am not a teacher but if I had to give a class about music composition for films, I would give this as an example and I would analyse it. But there is something more than that. He had an inspiration and that inspiration came from somewhere – that was the magic touch. Most of the things he does [have that touch] but we composers are human beings and human beings are subjected to waves. I mean, sometimes you’re in the peak of your inspiration and sometimes you do the best you can, according to your technique. Sometimes you solve problems by just technique and knowing what is going to work or not work. I’m never going to forget the premiere of the ‘Songs of the Aztecs’ that we did with Placido Domingo, a classical composition of mine -I don’t know if you know it…
I’ve read about it.
There is a record of that and it’s a cantata for soprano, contralto, tenor, bass, mixed chorus and orchestra. We did the premiere for twelve thousand people in the Pyramids of Teotihuacán. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life and there was a blue – I mean full moon – I was going to say blue moon! – and it was really a very, very emotional moment.
I can imagine. Changing the subject slightly, when Dizzy Gillespie visited Buenos Aires, who besides Quincy Jones was in the band at that time?
Oh, yes – alto sax.
I think he’s one of the greatest today, you know? I played recently with him the ‘Gillespiana’ at Carnegie Hall. John Faddis did a tribute – it was a celebration of the eightieth birthday of Dizzy Gillespie, if he would be alive. The alto saxophone was Phil Woods and I think he played amazingly. There was Benny Golson [in Gillespie’s band], who is a composer also – he had a jazztet with Art Farmer. They were all stars in the band that Dizzy brought.
At that time he asked you to join him in America…
Well, I had my own band and one night we played for him and he heard me playing the piano. He heard my arrangements and he said ‘Did you write these charts?’ and I said yes. ‘Would you like to come to America?’ – I thought he was joking. I thought they called him Dizzy maybe because of jokes. But no, he meant it. He was a great guy, really very generous… besides being a great musician, a real revolutionary, in terms of evolution. I don’t believe in musical revolutions – too violent of a connotation. But he contributed to one of the most important developments of American music in the Twentieth Century, together with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Ray Brown, who by the way is the bassist in my Jazz Meets the Symphony. So at least I have one of the real McCoys!
How did you become involved in music for film? Did Quincy Jones influence you at all?
I’ve been a film buff all my life. I remember in Argentina I became a member of the ‘Cinematheque’ and a film society. I was seeing some of the classics. Also I like commercial films. Sometimes I went to see B-movies fourteen times because the score was better than the movie. I wanted to see it because I wanted to hear the score, there was no soundtrack and there was no way to hear that music. The same passion I developed for jazz I now developed for film music. In an interview I made an observation that I embraced two forms of music that didn’t exist before – jazz and film music. There was no film music in the nineteenth century and there was no jazz. When I went to France, I became a member of a cinematheque there and I went to see in the Champs Elysees the premiere of LES DIABOLIQUES, directed by Clouzot. It’s a thriller classic – he is as good as Hitchcock. That thriller is fantastic but I observed it has no music and it was the right thing to do because the film is done in such a way that if it had any music, it would destroy the very essence of the film. We know that music makes a contribution to manipulate an audience – to hypnotise them and to subliminally involve the audience into what the film is about. But in this case, it’s a thriller full of red herrings. So any use of music would be deceitful – not only that, what point of view are you going to take? It was very clever not to use any music in that film.
Ken Newberry: Perhaps that was why the remake didn’t work so well because that had music in it…
I haven’t seen it.
I’m going to talk about a few films you’ve composed. For starters, DIRTY HARRY: As regards the wordless female voice in the score…
In some places, there are three voices…
What was the purpose of using the voice – where were you coming from?
You notice that Scorpio, the villain – he’s a very incongruous character, obviously he’s deranged but for instance, he wears a belt with a peace symbol that all the activists used to have during the Vietnam War. Which, for a man who’s a murderer and so brutal, is incongruous. So I talked to the director, I said ‘This guy hears voices’ and that was the idea – but I did it in a very subtle way – he didn’t hear the whole chorus of the Ukrainian army, he heard just one voice, sometimes three.
To me, I had it completely wrong – this voice was the opportunity of this violent act calling to him like a siren.
In a way, it’s no contradiction – what you’re saying is what I am saying.
I noticed there was an increase in tempo of the drums. That was his growing excitement?
When he was running or on the move, then I had a whole rhythm pattern…
So mickey mousing then?
I wouldn’t say mickey mousing – I needed to show the danger of the guy. There were different aspects of the implied danger when he was sneaking on the rooftops. When you see him really running, it’s not a problem of mickey mousing, it’s a problem of showing the action or the score would be weak in comparison with what you see on the screen.
Something like KELLY’S HEROES, – why did you choose to use this anachronistic, contemporary music in the score? There are a lot of pastiches in it…
Because there is a character who is anachronistic. It’s Donald Sutherland who talks like a hippy of the Sixties and Seventies. As a matter of fact, we didn’t know what kind of music he would play in the tank. We couldn’t have him playing Glenn Miller because Glenn Miller was
establishment and [Sutherland] was anti-establishment but we couldn’t play completely rock and roll, so we found something like country music mixed with jazz.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR – you used children’s voices in the theme and it came a number of years before Jerry Goldsmith’s POLTERGEIST, which also used children’s voices for the main theme. Do you know if your music was used for a role model or temp track in POLTERGEIST?
Well, I don’t know. I was not there and I think Jerry has his own personality and his own ideas – he doesn’t need me to temp track.
Great minds think alike! Now, the PLANET OF THE APES television series. I think the theme for it bore a resemblance to Leonard Rosenman’s work on the film series…
It did?! It had nothing to do with it. In television you have to do something that when people are in the kitchen grabbing a cola and the television set is in the living room, they have to know that a series starts – it’s like a logo. I wrote something really dynamic with a contemporary beat, which Lenny never did [I think Lalo may have been referring to his 45rpm single of the theme, rather than that in the opening credits].
Do you wish you had done one of the films?
I am very content – I’m not the kind of guy who wishes to do the film that somebody else has done because I think that what is meant to be, is meant to be. When I was called to do THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, they gave me as the main title, visually, a still of a house against a Halloween orange background. So I had to come up with something, you know? Nowadays, they are using temp tracks which put the composer in a straitjacket. I was lucky to get a movie like that and Jerry was lucky to get the PLANET OF THE APES, the original – I think it was a breakthrough because he found the right sound. A composer has to find the sound of a movie, each movie has its own sound, like the thumbprint that we all have. It is the mission of the composer, not only to manipulate the audience – it’s very easy to write chases, suspense, tension or love themes – that’s easy. The main thing is to create an organic sound.
And he [Jerry] did it in the PLANET OF THE APES and most of the things he does. I am a great admirer of his – PATTON I think is a masterpiece.
So, temp tracks are an obstacle.
Are there any temp tracks which you feel have worked or do they just make your job much harder?
Well, sometimes I use the temp track as a point of departure to talk to the director and tell him ‘this temp track doesn’t work’ for this and this and this reason, ‘I think I can do better’. Once I told a director ‘Stop going to Tower Records’. Every day he was changing the main title of the movie, based on existing records. I said ‘Why don’t you let me do my thing?’ and he did and finally he called me and he said ‘Thank you, it seems that you were right’. You know, sometimes the temp track is good because whatever it is, now they have a thing called ‘music supervisors’. The guys who basically make temp tracks, which is the composer’s score based on existing music, either classical or rock or other film scores that have been done before. The thing that really bugs me is when they say to me ‘We are going to temp track the movie with your own music from other movies’. ‘Wait a second, how the music of COOL HAND LUKE can fit this movie has nothing to do with it’.
It is conceived as being the score for that film…
But again, in Cool Hand Luke I could do my own thing and I came with a mentality which was unique, with two guitars only and a very haunting melody. So, these are the kind of things that I like to create, which is very similar to doing jazz with James Morrison [and so on] – you create something, it’s spontaneous. It comes from inside – your creative juices are working but I think that this is the situation in your Hollywood now and maybe it’s a necessary evil. The companies are afraid of showing the picture in sneak previews without music and they all want to play it safe.
I think there isn’t such a risk-taking…
I like to take risks. Don Siegel as a film maker liked to take risks and that’s what makes the whole thing. I can fall on my face sometimes, I’m not saying that one hundred percent of the time I’m right but I like to take risks.
Which film scores, both older and more recent do you like, of other composers’ work, other than what we’ve talked about, PATTON and PLANET OF THE APES?
All of the things that Jerry Goldsmith has been doing lately, from – what was that movie that was similar to FATAL ATTRACTION?
That’s a great score because he keeps that cold feeling with the strings. One thing about Jerry that’s amazing is he never repeats himself. I don’t know how he does that because all the composers, even from the history of music – you hear Mozart or Hadyn, wherever they left the last sonata or string quartet, they have a stylistic imprint and they cannot deny it. I mean, it’s a continuity. They all do it, Brahms, Stravinsky… sometimes you can break with a period. It happens in art also – Picasso decides to become a cubist and rejects all the things before. Stravinsky decides to break with the Russian ethnic period and starts a new kind of music – neo-classical and then, he goes into twelve-tone because he’s curious. But still there is, even in the twelve-tone period, Stravinsky has a piece called Agon… I mean, if I didn’t know it was Stravinsky, it’s all the trademarks. But Goldsmith is somebody who is like a chameleon.
I believe you describe yourself as a chameleon as well.
Not so much. He’s a real chameleon -I am trying to be, which is not the same.
Any other composers, from film or otherwise?
I like Lenny Rosenman, I like James Horner, James Newton Howard, I like Morricone…
What about someone like John Barry? He did a concert on Saturday at the Albert Hall.
Oh, I like John Barry, yes.
The concert was superb.
Superb, eh? He played all his music?
A lot of Bond stuff, other things like OUT OF AFRICA, SOMEWHERE IN TIME…
Oh yes, the big…
If you’d have been there, you’d have enjoyed it!
I met him in Beverly Hills a few weeks ago and he told me he was coming.
We’re glad he did. What do you think of the current state of cinema, whether in relation to the music or as a whole?
Oh, I don’t think there is a current state of cinema – we were talking about chameleons before and cinema is an incredible creature, it has many, many heads. It is like alien, you know? Jerry Goldsmith could score the situation of the movie industry today. Alien, it comes from all over, it has no shape, I don’t think there is a style – some people like Quentin Tarantino, it seems like they’re going to establish a style and they do, for a while. But in general what they’re trying to do is, they are trying to play it for sure. You know, the disaster movies (John Williams is another of my favourites, I forgot to mention) – John Williams, he did EARTHQUAKE and THE TOWERING INFERNO, he’s one of my favourites, definitely. And there was a period in which… film music also has something in common with the fashion industry – wide lapels, narrow lapels… This thing about disaster movies, then they died because they keep doing it and people are tired. Now they came with a new disaster movie. TITANIC and that’s a big hit now, because a new generation of people have never seen a disaster movie. I have two movies coming [out]: One is TANGO and that’s going to be opening at the Cannes Film Festival in May but in that one, I didn’t have any images, I had to create everything from scratch. I wrote it with choreographers. Carlos Saura is a director who tells the story by dancing. It is not a musical in the sense of singing, there’s very little singing. So I had to work with him in the spotting session – I didn’t have any film, he read the script very much like Fellini, not in the form of a script but all handwritten and loose papers but he knew exactly what he wanted. That spotting session was three choreographers and me, him and somebody taking notes. So then I went and I wrote the music. A great part of the music is not mine, it’s traditional tangos because the nature of the story is that, there are a lot of ballrooms in Buenos Aires today and in those ballrooms they danced the traditional tango. But anything that had to be for the storyline, I did it [wrote the music]. So I would say that about forty-five percent of the movie is mine, the rest is source music, basically.
And the other film is SOMETHING TO…
SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN.
What sort of style have you gone for in that film?
Oh, that I did here with the Royal Philharmonic. It’s a classical piece, basically. As a matter of fact, the main character is a classical pianist and he has to participate in a competition and he plays a piano concerto I wrote – I don’t know if you knew that…
So, it’s a love story, which I needed to do; I was tired of chases. In both TANGO and SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN, I could do something a little more expressive, rather than mechanical, you know? IN MONEY TALKS, which I did last year, that is more what they expected from me.
Are there any future films you are looking at, at the moment?
Yes but I cannot say anything yet because I haven’t signed the contract yet, so I do not want to… You know, in Hollywood you meet a lot of producers who say ‘I am doing this movie – not true. The only thing they did was to buy the rights of a book or a screenplay but that doesn’t mean they are making the movie and you read a lot of things in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter that are not true, I know that. Also there is another reason – Placido Domingo said to me ‘I am not superstitious because it might bring bad luck’ and because of that, I am not saying the film titles.
This might be a touchy subject – have you ever had a score rejected?
Well, there is the famous story of THE EXORCIST but that was not rejected because I never recorded it. We had a disagreement with Bill Friedkin. I did record the music of a trailer, which he liked but then we got into the disagreement.
He’d been to Tower Records, had he?!
No… It was artistic differences.
Have you ever been called on to replace a rejected score yourself?
Are you at liberty to name any films?
I don’t know, because I don’t want to… you know.
In the same way that Tony Bennett is always going to be associated with I Left My Heart in San Francisco, how do you feel about being remembered as the composer of the Mission: Impossible theme?
Not bad! I don’t feel bad about it. It opened many doors in many, many fields, including classical, believe it or not. Because everybody knows who I am so it gives you some kind of identity. When I go to airports and I have to go through immigration – in any country, I have no problem, because they know who I am and that’s an advantage! Besides, I feel satisfied… to say proud would be too pretentious but I feel satisfied with the work I did for Mission: Impossible. When people think about that theme [and also] the background music, when I did episodes, you know, I did not do all of them. That secondary theme [sings] ‘Taaa, taa, taaa, ta’, which is a paramilitary march. The producer wanted a theme for each one of the characters and I said no, that’s wrong, because you have quick cuts and each one of them is working for the same goal to accomplish the mission and everyone had a speciality. What I was doing with that theme was the suspense and also the feeling of ‘Let’s go, let’s go for it’ and it was a binding element.
Ken: Can I just ask, it would be rather interesting to know, how did you feel about the remix for the recent film of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE?
Do you know, the funny thing is, they called me to do it but I had to be in France to do the very thing I told you at the same time and I felt that I wanted the challenge of producing a spectacle for TV and also a record album. But it was okay. To tell you a story, I was in London for one month and Zubin Mehta called me, asking me to go to Salzburg. I was recording with the LSO, also producing this young tenor and also doing my guitar concerto, a new flute concerto and another piece, so I was exhausted. They asked me to go early in the morning to Austria. I was tired and my wife was with me and they were waiting for me to go and read something at the press conference at the Salzburg Festival. So finally the conference came to an end and when everybody left and I was alone, a young lady asked ‘I would like to know how Mission: Impossible came to you in 5/4’ [the tune is written in five crochet beats to the bar]. So I was tired and I have a little bit of a naughty sense of humour. So I said to her ‘Well, you know when they did the experiments in New Mexico, the Manhattan Project, there were a lot of explosions of atomic weapons and of course the soil became contaminated. After the war was over, many mutants started to be born and they had five legs. So they came to the age to go to discos and they couldn’t dance. So I wrote that for them – I was thinking about them’. So she’s writing and I said ‘As a matter of fact, you here in Austria, you had the same experience in a way because at the end of the last century’ – I kept going, you know, I start improvising like a jazz musician – ‘At the end of the last century, there were sightings of aliens coming in spaceships and they had three legs, so that’s why Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar came up with the waltz, so actually, you did it before I did’. You know something, she wrote it for real and I didn’t know that she was the most important music critic for the most important newspaper in Vienna. So when she published that, my booking agent for Europe (he’s now in town because he’s coming to the recording) said ‘You are out of your mind, do you know what you’re doing?’ So what I have told you today is for the people who have two legs!
What do you think of the sheer volume of film music recordings being released these days – do you see it as a good or a bad thing?
Why should it be bad?
You’ve caught me on the hop, here!
Ken: Well, some have said that it can bring down the quality because practically everything gets released but, we feel as you do, that it’s a good thing. What we have found is, in this country anyway, film music doesn’t seem to get the audience that it deserves. The only film score in recent years that has got into the top twenty is James Homer’s TITANIC, which is good. We hope that that might produce more enthusiasm for film music. But have you found as well, that film music doesn’t get the audience that it deserves?
On the contrary, I’m doing a lot of concerts, all over the world. I did a tour, the BBC Big Band, then I went to Cologne to do the Jazz Mass and I did a concert in Barcelona [Spain], Italy and finally, I went to Argentina, it was summer there and I did a film music concert and one hundred thousand people came. I never had an audience that big and now I understand why pop artists and politicians go crazy. There needs to be an element of showbusiness in concerts. Classical conductors know this, they know how to programme. So there’s a secret to programmes and that’s how I put my jazz music and classics together. You know, Johnny Green had immense success in concerts. So did Hank Mancini. TITANIC is big now but so would Henry Mancini be, if he was still alive. You have to think of the order of the programme. I go for the jugular. You put in Ravel, so then maybe you put in PSYCHO’s shower scene because they know you’ve got Moon River coming up. I saw John Barry recently and he knows the secret – his concerts are also very successful.
Is there a musical form left that you feel you have yet to work in?
Well, how many are left?
Probably none, I think you’ve gone through them all!
Ken: Country & Western, perhaps?
I did it. I did it in KELLY’S HEROES, All for the Love of Sunshine, another big country hit. Hank Williams Jnr. – we went to record it in Alabama because there’s a studio there. They’re specialists, they know how to record country music. It’s the same thing when I went to Buenos Aires to record TANGO because the best tango musicians are in Buenos Aires. The interesting thing was that one guy came to me and said (because of my accent) ‘How is it possible that you write country music?’ and I said ‘Because I am more from the South than you are’. But you know, I am very curious and I always will be, I’m a musicologist and when I was at the Paris conservatory, I studied very thoroughly the music of Africa and India and Indonesia and I always believed in the recognition of other cultures. I recreated through documents and descriptions of the instruments that they were using in the music in Roman times (I didn’t do it in a movie). So this curiosity… for instance, the Indo-American culture, not only the music, attracted me so much, that’s why I wrote the Songs of the Aztecs. It was not just a whim, you know, a capricious thing where I said ‘Well, I’m going to write something and I want Placido Domingo to do it’. It was a work of love, a work of passion – it’s my curiosity. I read a lot, not only music books or film music books. Bernard Herrmann used to say there’s not such a thing as film music, it’s music and the same thing applies to jazz, it’s music and this is the philosophy behind the Aleph Records idea.
Music is music, no matter what it’s for.
When I worked for the Three Tenors, you know, this is the third time now I am going to, I did it in the World Cup of 1990 in Rome, Italy, then I did it for them in Los Angeles in 1994 and now I’m going to do it again. It’s almost like a re-orchestration, like when Ravel took the Pictures at an Exhibition of Mussorgsky, which is a piano piece and orchestrated it and the orchestration is a new work. So, what I’m doing for them, based on Neapolitan songs or popular songs, is a challenge – not to put them in a strait jacket. On the contrary, to make them feel at ease and to create an atmosphere that they are used to, I mean Puccini, Verdi, Bizet, you know, the operatic style and I love that. When I was a child, I wondered how these singers were singing and not being drowned by the orchestra, without a microphone. These same things I’m writing for them, big spectacles outdoors – they need microphones, they need loudspeakers. But they could do it in the Covent Garden without and they wouldn’t be covered, because I am very careful about that and I create my own material, so I love to do this.
Have you anything to say to budding composers, film composers and jazz musicians, through our magazine?
Well, who am I to say anything?
Well, you’ve got a wealth of experience, haven’t you?
Well, yes… experience is to learn from mistakes so I suppose they have to go through mistakes, in order to get their own experience. But I think that I don’t feel equipped to give advice to anybody. To jazz musicians, I would say ‘keep practising’. There is no magic. There’s a way to practice composition. Ravel every morning, he wrote four-part counterpoint, like it would be for a string quartet but not to be publicly performed but as an exercise before he started to really compose and I do that sometimes but I don’t have too much time to do it…!
Have you anything to say to your fans, i.e. our readers?
I send my great greetings and I appreciate their support and I hope I can come to England to do a [purely] film music concert so I can see them. Your readers are basically film music buffs…
We ‘II see what we can do!
No, no, I mean, you are not impresarios, I’m saying it’s a general hope.
We are currently planning a convention, which we haven’t had for a number of years. Depending on what you were doing at the time, where you were and so on and so forth, would you be willing to attend?
Yes. Also, I would like to tell you I’ve been invited by the San Sebastian Film Festival in September to do a film music concert and maybe (it’s so near, across the Channel) you can attend so you can see what I was saying about programming. I might include something of the movie TANGO. Oh, in the movie, I did it all with little groups and tango orchestras but there is one cue which is about the Repression. You know that during the fascistic government of Galtieri, they were taking people without due process of law, torturing them and killing them and during the tortures, they were playing tangos very loud, to soften up the screams of the victims. So there is a whole sequence, it’s a ballet, which is about this and it’s quite long and it’s very emotional. I did it without tango instruments with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic and a chorus of eighty women’s voices and you know something? The piece worked on its own so well that recently I was invited to do it at Carnegie Hall, this was last month. They did it in a concert of new music and it had an incredible reception – people were in tears over it. This is the same government that ended up during the disaster of the Falkland Islands, you know. And it’s proven that a fascistic government, they have to exploit like Hitler and in a strange way, Margaret Thatcher acted like Winston Churchill and thanks to her, there is democracy in Argentina today. There are elections and, I do not want to get involved in British politics because I’m neither Conservative nor Labour and I do not live here. What she did, the guts she had, to show this macho, fascistic government – she humiliated it and because of this, they had to abandon the government. You know, this is something I am never going to forget. Some of that is in La Represion, all my feelings about that era because I had intimate friends of mine, classmates, who were killed and they were not subversive. One of them was a film critic for a newspaper and the owner of the newspaper was suspected of helping the guerrillas, which was not true. They suspected even me of sending money to the guerrillas, because a cousin of mine was tortured – ‘Is your cousin Lalo sending money to the guerrillas?’ Why should I be sending money? The guerrillas were worse than they were because they were left wing, crazy also. So, it was a crazy time and I hope that the 21st Century is going to be more stable, and I hope we learned the lesson of the 20th Century.
Mr. Schifrin, thank you very much.
During the conversation with the composer, Donna Schifrin, otherwise known as Mrs. Schifrin (or ‘The Boss’) popped in to see us, along with the musician James Morrison, who played trumpet on ‘Gillespiana’ at the aforementioned London concert in January and it was a pleasure to meet them. Due to Mr. Schifrin’s detailing of the origin of the ‘Aleph’ title for his label, I am pleased to say he has introduced me to the writings of Jorges Luis Borges, initially with the short story ‘El Aleph’. Being an admirer of the works of American writer Harlan Ellison, I find that they are cut from the same cloth as Borges’. Both these writers are difficult to categorise in the literary sense, as is the composer himself in his chosen creative field.
The opportunity to converse with such a great musical talent is something I will never forget and I am pleased to be able share it with you, the readers. I would also like to express my sincere thanks to Lalo and Donna Schifrin, his assistant Nikki Du Wick and of course Ken A. Newberry for his valuable help.
Authors Afterword – Fifteen Years Later
Lalo was my first ‘big interview’ and I have met him twice more over the years. The last was about 2008, the year I got married (I actually invited Lalo and Donna but it didn’t pan out) – my ‘partner in crime’ for the interview, Ken Newberry was my best man! Backtracking to 1998 and my transcription of the tapes and referring to our notes made during the interview, it took me a whole week of evenings after work, listening and rewinding, to pick up some of what Lalo said, as his strong accent remains, despite years of being of living in the US. You’ll notice I started the article back in the day, with a quote from Jorges Luis Borges and it was in the Borges book, that I learned that Argentinians talk until they think you’ve got the gist, then tail out and change the subject (my wife does that all the time and she’s English!) and that explained Lalo’s speech patterns and the trouble I had transcribing!