Lee Holdridge on The Mists of Avalon

An Interview with Lee Holdridge by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.79, 2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson

Lee HoldridgeLee Holdridge has been scoring films going on three decades. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Holdridge studied music initially in Costa Rica before moving to Boston to finish high school and study composition. A move to New York City in 1962 brought him into the world of theater and an association with songwriter Neil Diamond, which eventually resulted in the two of them scoring JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL in 1973.

Since then, Holdridge has scored more than one hundred TV-movies and mini-series since the mid 1970s, including THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN, TEXAS, and EAST OF EDEN, as well as such notable features as THE BEASTMASTER, SPLASH, and OLD GRINGO. He wrote the music for the comic TV series WIZARDS AND WARRIORS, theme and episodes for MOONLIGHTING, and shared scoring duties with Don Davis on the popular fantasy series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. His music has been heard in such documentary films as INTO THIN AIR, THE LONG WAY HOME, and INTO THE ARMS OF STRANGERS.

With a gift for melody and romantic lyricism but only a handful of recordings archiving his prolific output, Holdridge has written some truly memorable music. His recent score for MISTS OF AVALON, a TNT miniseries based on the Marion Zimmer Bradley book, examines the King Arthur legend through the female heroines of Camelot. The CD soundtrack, released on Varese Sarabande, represents Lee’s score very nicely. We interviewed Lee in June, shortly before the broadcast premiere, and discussed his musical experiences amid THE MISTS OF AVALON.

How did you get this assignment?
I was recommended to producer Mark Wolper and director Uli Edel by the music department at Warner Bros, especially by Roxanne Lippel. I had recently done the score for INTO THE ARMS OF STRANGERS for Warners. An audition CD was prepared by my agent and submitted to the producer.

When did you start work on the score? How much time did you have to do it?
I started work at the end of November 2000. I had 10 weeks to compose and orchestrate 2 1/2 hours of music… Yes; I did all my own orchestration on this one! I had to, in order to make the budget work. I would have loved to have had some help from my brilliant colleague Ira Hearshen, but alas I could see where that wasn’t financially going to be possible. I just strapped myself into the “saddle” and “went for it.”

What were your initial impressions of the film when you first saw it?
I thought that this was a composer’s dream assignment. It was epic, dramatic, lyrical, and pagan, all juicy subjects for a composer. I could see that it would need a lot of music. It definitely called for a big orchestra in places as well as some small chamber moments in others.

What type of music were you initially inspired to write?
Though there were discussions about Celtic music and pagan music, I saw those as elements of the score but not the be-all and end-all. I wanted the drama and the emotions to dominate. I thought that I should have several themes I could re-visit from time to time, to underscore the different characters and plot lines.

What were your initial thematic/instrumentation/sound design concepts for this score?
I met with the producer and director and viewed the film over and over. From these meetings I started to develop thematic material for the characters. I planned on a large percussion section with not only traditional orchestral instruments but with various world ethnic instruments included.
I felt this would add to the pagan and more exotic aspect of the film. Instruments like Japanese Daiko drums, Middle Eastern drums, Egyptian drums, African log drums, tablas and the like. Alex Penthin, the lead percussionist in the Munich Symphony, loved this challenge and was extremely helpful and creative with it. Included in all this was the centerpiece, which was the largest single bass drum I have ever seen in my life. To all of this we added the Esraj, which is a beautiful Indian bowed string instrument, the Celtic and Bolivian flutes, played by the masterful Tony Hinnigan and some Scottish pipes. The most significant choice I made was to use a solo woman’s voice as part of the orchestra, to be the inner voice of Morgaine. I was lucky to find Aeone, who did beautiful vocals, some solo, and some layered in various colors. I feel this adds a real centerpiece to the score. The only part I was not crazy about is that the folks at Turner insisted on adding a song ‘The Mystic’s Dream,’by Loreena McKennitt to the score. It’s a beautiful record, but I felt it intruded upon the integrity of the score. However, in this day and age of films and the record “biz,” these things happen. In the end it all seems to work.

How closely did you work with the director or producer on developing the musical score for this film?
I worked pretty closely, especially with Mark Wolper, the producer. Mark and Uli Edel, the director, had some very specific ideas about what they wanted and what they didn’t want, so it was important to get at those parameters. I did re-write some cues after they heard them at my house on my synth mock-ups.

How did the epic sweep of the story, its setting, and its sense of fantasy – not to mention the length of the miniseries – affect your music and its composition?
Actually, I love writing for a mini-series. You get to stretch out, like you are writing a symphony or an opera. You can develop themes and introduce new elements to the score way down in the proceedings. It is like having a giant canvas to paint on.

How long did you have to write the music, and how large of an orchestra were you able to use?
I wrote and orchestrated for 10 weeks. I planned 3 orchestras. The largest group was about 80. I did some sessions with 45 and some with about 14 instruments. I used some choir in places, but mostly I used Aeone’s voice. I did one separate session just with the 5-man percussion section. This wild session of just percussion added a lot of electricity to the score. It was something to see these normally refined and dignified symphony percussionists actually being primitive and un-contained. On one great take of one long percussion cue, one percussionist actually broke his mallets. He just simply grabbed another set and kept going. The take was too good and we didn’t want to stop it!

How were you able to divorce yourself from any previous filmic tellings of the Arthurian legend, on television and screen, to offer a new musical approach to this film? How did you musically characterize the film’s more feminine approach as it focused on the women in Camelot, yet stay true to the harsher drama of the story?
The film is not the traditional “Arthurian” type of film, just in the way it looks and tells its story. The women are very powerful characters and very independent. They wield their mystical powers, they fight, they love, they argue, they plot everything! It is not your usual Camelot.

The picture was filmed in Prague but recorded in Munich. Did that offer you any logistical concerns during the scoring and recording process?
The film was shot in and around Prague and originally the company had planned to go back there and score. As I got into the complexities of recording this score with all its layers, I wanted a more technically advanced facility along with a much more versatile orchestra. Paul Talkington advanced the idea of Munich to me because of the facilities available at Bavaria Musik Studios and the ability of the orchestra. He sent me a CD of the score for URBAN LEGENDS that had recently been recorded there. I was impressed by the playing and by the recorded sound of the CD. I made a decision to recommend Munich over Prague to the producers.

Was any kind of a temp track used – if so, did that post any complications?
There was a temp score, but it wasn’t very strong, so I kind of ignored it. However, there were some spots that helped illustrate the approach desired by the producer and director. This is the editorial shorthand of our age of movie making, like it or not.

How much of your music made it into the Varese Sarabande CD?
We of course couldn’t put all two and a half hours of music on the CD, but with Robert Townson’s thoughtful help we arrived at a juicy 70+ minutes of music. We didn’t include too much of the battle music on the CD. We hoped to create more of a good listening CD.

What’s up next for you?
More movies, a new concerto and a new opera! No sleep for this pilgrim!

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