This interview took place in a recording studio in Kensington. London, not far from the Portobello Road, on the 27th of June. Having watched Michael Kamen during the rehearsals and during the concert he had given at the Royal Academy of Music the week before, I knew I was in for a treat. Michael was busy writing music for the 1996 Olympic Games and he met me very informally, in shorts.
An Interview with Michael Kamen by Daniel Mangodt
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.15/No.60/1996
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
You have been busy in the film music world for about 20 years. Having scored some 60 films, how do you feel about your “career” so far?
I would not feel comfortable predicting a career for anybody, mostly myself. I’m a musician, I’m really happy with everything that I wind up doing. It is true: a lot of what I’m doing is exactly what I hoped to do.
What kind of changes have there been in those 20 years?
I keep going back and forth musically from one idiom to another and finding there are shared characteristics of style, very distinct similarities, however distinct the musical language is. It has really been – as it should be – a discovery of my own abilities and peculiarities.
You seem to get a lot of fun out of conducting?
I think there is a lot of fun in it. It is partly why I went from playing the oboe in the orchestra, which delighted me each time, to singing and playing in a rock’n’roll band, because the opportunity of a direct relationship with an audience is very important. It inspires musical ideas.
During the concert last week something unusual happened: you started a piece, there were some problems, so you stopped and started again.
It was a concert with a student orchestra. It’s O.K. The public didn’t mind, I hope. What the public is there to see is music being made. They can also go home and listen to a record, which is the result of maybe 40 takes for each 3 minutes that they listen to. I guess there are some situations where you wouldn’t want to stop and start again, but in this situation I felt entirely comfortable. A concert should be as informal as possible. A rock’n’roll concert is. We all know what it is to begin or even end it together. There’s sometimes a problem.
You always conduct your own scores?
Yes, always. I’m convinced nobody else can read my writing. It’s a pleasure I reserve for myself.
I’m sure that you also find a lot of fun in composing…
I have a lot of fun in making music. It’s what I have been doing since I was two and I haven’t stopped making music since then. I don’t want to do it if it isn’t fun. It sometimes becomes similar to a lot of work: if, you are in the middle of a movie score, if you have already made the music, if you have already convinced the director and the producer that this is the best thing they have, you record it, you perform it and you mix it. Let’s go on to the next one. The process is not always excruciating fun. It’s sometimes really excruciating.
Composing is a very lonely business and you are a very social person.
I like life. I enjoy making music as part of enjoying life. Sometimes music becomes such an overwhelming force, it demands all my time and I don’t have that much time in a lifetime, but I’m lucky to be doing what I do.
You’re a very lucky guy! But after all you got into film music entirely by chance.
If you believe my first statement, I got into everything by chance. I got into film music when it was offered and I saw it as an opportunity to do things that I love doing. A few films in, I was still doing rock’n’roll and one evening one of my friends said to me: “You should write film scores, you are as good as any of those people, you should be doing that all the time.” So I did. I didn’t intend to only do films. I don’t like the idea that I ever want to get a job. A great benefit of being a musician is that you almost never feel that you are on the job. What a job is this? They are paying you to play with the model trains they say. That’s a good job. I was listening to Mel Brooks the other day talking about 2,000 years ago: hitting a tree with a stick was a good job.
Your first film credit was ZACHARIAH…
This was my first job in movies. It wasn’t scoring, it was playing with a rock’n’roll band a song called ‘Grave Digger’, which was a necrophiliac love song, while John Rubinstein made love to Pat Quinn in a bed, in a big airplane hangar filled with pigeons and we performed the song around the bed in the nude.
Let’s turn to somewhat more important films: ROBIN HOOD. What was it like to work on that film?
I spent months brushing up on my already decent knowledge of early music and I started collecting as many performances as I could. Of early music there are astounding groups (some of them in Belgium: Harmonia Mundi, for instance). The real joy of doing ROBIN HOOD was being asked to do this movie score for a hero of mine and then learning what this hero of mine – if he lived- might have been listening to, and what kind of music had been made in reaction to that period of his.
The music went through wonderful stages of development. Music from the eleventh and twelfth century was wonderful music. Musicians then were just like musicians now. There was no concept of classical music. They wouldn’t bother, there were some great players and some stinky players and they played together. The things they came up with were remarkably like the rhythmic fields and the human proclivities for melody and vibrancy. The necessary qualities of being a musician seemed to come out in that music. I really enjoyed that part of it.
Making the score, I was faced with the reality of being involved with a major Hollywood production. The producers of the film took my idea too literally. Their notion of twelfth century music was this light airy-fairy gossamer thing. They wanted lots of horns and strings and drums and I could do that too. I came up with tunes for the characters and with textures that suited the scenes and this was a very intense period of creativity after a very relaxed period of discovery. That was ROBIN HOOD.
You wrote about 2 hours of music and you used some 15 orchestrators. People are still wondering about it…
There was more than 2 hours of music and there were more than 15 orchestrators. I’ll address it, because I always wondered about it too.
My first comments on movie scoring when I did films was realizing the effects of textures in the orchestrations. I did everything myself. I didn’t know there were orchestrators. I heard that they did exist in Hollywood and I didn’t know how people did that, because it seemed that the decision on a movie is as much about the texture and the feeling of the instrument as it is the actual mechanics of the music. When I was stuck on LETHAL WEAPON I at the end, I was in Hollywood. I had just finished my next-to-last session and the copyist came to me, because we had one more session the following morning, and he said: “How much more music is there to come?” I wasn’t finished and I said: “About fifteen minutes.” “What are you going to do?” “I’ll just go back to the hotel and write it.” This was about 8 o’clock in the evening and most Hollywood guys think you can write about 2 minutes a day. I know I can do more.
Dennis McCarthy says he writes about 7 or 8 minutes a day.
You can. For HIGHLANDER I had to write 20 minutes in one evening, all the big scenes of the movie. So the copyist said: “Are you going to kill yourself for a movie?” I looked at him like I wanted to say, “Yeah” and then I realized, “Well. No!” You know, it is only a movie. If it is a saxophone concerto, or if it is a piece for Eric Clapton, I will invest every ounce of my heart and soul, I’ll die for it. That’s what you do, it’s worth it. There are bits and pieces in my music that I insist on taking from cradle to grave. There are cues in all my films, including ROBIN HOOD that I’m guilty of. Things that I didn’t want anybody else to orchestrate. I knew exactly how it went and I took the time, but it meant that I couldn’t do another one. There’s always attrition in Hollywood, the schedules, the deadlines are real and I take on a lot. I keep waiting desperately for someone to call me and say: “Would you do my movie score, we’ll give you all the money you want and you only have 10 minutes of music to write.” I know guys who get those movies. 10 minutes of music in a movie plus the fee, that’s a good job!
The decision to write that much music was yours?
The film needed it. I saw it without the music. It needed that color all the way to suspend your tension into the fantasy of ROBIN HOOD.
Whom did you have to deal with, the director Kevin Reynolds, or the star Kevin Costner?
No, I dealt with the film. The film was produced by Jim Robinson and Morgan Creek. I worked with Jim before and I desperately wanted to do ROBIN HOOD and I called my agent and I told him they were doing ROBIN HOOD. I was really happy to do it and Jim very conveniently fired Kevin Reynolds before I had to get to work with him and we shared input about the 12th century scores. He liked that idea and I respected him. He did a great job. If he had been involved in the scoring process, we would never have gotten it done. It would have taken too long. Maybe it would have been a better score.
The Korngold tradition…
Absolutely. I never really studied Korngold’s scores. I don’t think I like his score for ROBIN HOOD very much. The little bits that I’ve heard, I thought, is that what the fuss is about? He was a great composer. I like his cello concerto. I’m sure I love his film music, but the impression of those period dramas is that you can hit the same kind of emotional highs that people are used to associating with that kind of film; you just need to hit the right button. That’s my theory.
Your music in THE THREE MUSKETEERS moved the film along…
Well, thanks. (Laughs)
You also used period music, harpsichord, dulcimer, etc.
Stephen Herek, who has really become a close friend (I worked with him on MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS and I will start on 101 DALMATIANS next week) said something about the harpsichord. Again I began with period research. That’s what I love doing. At the end of the day, music is a wonderful part of my life. I can’t help making it and sometimes I’m asked to do it at the exclusion of everything else. I love listening to music and being able to sit and listen to the great composers of the period of The Three Musketeers was a godsend. Finally I thought I could use my favourite piece of music by François Couperin, ‘Les Barricades Mysterieuses’ (The Mysterious Barricades). I loved it since I was a child and then I found out that Couperin wasn’t born until after Richelieu was killed. What a drag, I couldn’t use it. So I didn’t use François Couperin, but I found out that his uncle Louis was a court composer before him and was an astounding musician.
You’ve used some of that music…
You bet! Again, it’s what I said about the stylistic things. I identify with things that were happening at the time and I could make music in those styles.
You called some pieces gavotte, passecaille, courante…
I originally tried to base the score on a large French dance suite and used the movements of a dance. I found some other forms, there is a bransle, which is spelled wrong (it should be branle). It was a cool form, an attack music of that time, very aggressive.
You also used the recorder.
I also did use it in ROBIN HOOD. I also used crumhorns. I did have instruments in the orchestra that were anything but conventional. There is a battle scene where we used some very bizarre drums and the entire horn and trombone section played on cone shells. They didn’t play horns or trombones, they played these shells that the individual players had found in their careers, that could play like French horn or even high trombones and the woodwind section, the flutes had this bag of old wooden flutes. I’m not the only one who’s nuts. I got collections of weird things, like oboes… (General hilarity). I was able to recreate that spirit, to make them feel right at home, without the restrictions of convention. A horn player playing the French horn is desperately worried he is going to crack and screw up the take, but a French horn player playing a seashell doesn’t give a damn.
You were more or less typecast as a composer for action movies, but the last couple of years you have been trying to change, for instance CIRCLE OF FRIENDS is a different kind of film.
It’s not different to me. This kind of movies I worked on sporadically and I knew I enjoyed making them more than I enjoyed making DIE HARDs. I don’t mean to do more action films, I don’t like action films. I don’t even go to see them.
CIRCLE OF FRIENDS has an Irish feel to it…
It’s a very beautiful film, a very simple score. I used The Chieftains and some stuff like that. I made all the melodies. I’m not Irish, but I may have a bit of i t in me. A lot of the music is me playing. I play everything: the oboe, keyboard, Kurzweiler, the harp.
You also played the Kurzweiler on THE RAGGEDY RAWNEY.
That’s all Kurzweiler, so that’s all me.
For DON JUAN DE MARCO you became Spanish.
My older brother is a classical guitarist. I grew up as a five year old with an eight year older brother playing the classical guitar and he played all the classical Spanish composers. So I knew the literature, because he also listened to records by Julian Bream. When I started doing DON JUAN I realized the guitar was very apt. I had never written for the classical guitar and the thought came that I’d write a piece and send it to Julian Bream and see if he would play it, and he said yes. I was so happy and I called my brother and flew him over from New Jersey and he came to London. I said: bring your guitar. He showed up and we went to the studio and there’s Julian Bream with his guitar and we played together for two days. It was an incredibly meaningful period of time and he played the shit out of my music. I was really happy.
For MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS you wrote a symphony. It must have come as a shock when your agent called you and asked you if you could write a symphony?
It’s not an every-day call in Hollywood, but it was part of my decision not to do any more of these action films and see if he could find some interesting projects. There was also Stephen Herek who had asked for me. The film was a labour of love and the idea of writing a symphony was very intimidating. You have to know the characters from the script (the music was composed before shooting), which is something I don’t do very often, but I recognized the lead character. I had such a teacher and I was able to invest him with my music and his personality.
There’s only 3 minutes of the Symphony at the end of the film.
Not really, because the entire symphony is used throughout the film. The actual symphony that was recorded for the film was broken into the last movement, which sometimes appears into the film, but finally at the end you recognize as a culmination, which was the idea. The idea was to spread the themes of the symphony all over the film and Mr. Holland talking all the time about making a symphony and his life becomes these themes and finally at the end of the film, when they do come to you, you say: Oh!
The original idea was to have the complete 8-minute symphony at the end of the film, but they couldn’t shoot it. It would have meant too many shooting days, so the director’s decision was to leave the first movement out and make sure that that front movement was exposed all through the film with a little bit of exposition of the last movement. You hear it at the beginning of the film (the credit sequence) when he is first thinking of it, you don’t hear any drums, or guitar or bass. What you see in the course of his life is how important rock’n’roll has become to this composer of music in the late twentieth century and that sounds suspiciously like myself. So we had a rock’n’roll version of the last movement at the end of the film.
If I were to write a symphony – which I’m not about to do – I would of course include the instruments of the twentieth century, not to make a stinky point about it, but to make use of that powerful effect of drums, base, keyboard, guitar. In many ways the concept of taking orchestral music into the next century depends on the ability of orchestras to absorb players that are currently working in other idioms and vice versa. Players that are playing rock’n’roll or jazz should be getting afluency in orchestral mould, because it’s a wonderful parallel, not just for a scholar, but by the fact that you’re involving so many other beings who play music, and that’s the pleasure of making music. I’m not making it all for myself, I make it for an orchestra and I love conducting and the result of having a hundred people playing music.
It sounds trite, but harmony is about people working together; if they are working it generates harmony and to take the orchestra into the next century is an important hope for me. The orchestras are all in trouble financially, in every country. They’re viewed as museums. They are not. The orchestras play a body of music and we aren’t going to know it if we don’t go and listen to it. I’m sure when Brahms was conducting his symphonies or Beethoven was playing his piano concerto or Mozart was leading an orchestra, it wasn’t the formal affair that it has become. There were people who were formally dressed but the orchestra members were not upper class, they were working men and I don’t think that those affairs were musically as rigid as they are now in their reconstruction and there’s no reason why orchestra concerts can’t be informal.
Do you see yourself more as a John McClane or as a Mr. Holland?
What a choice! I’m not Mr. Holland and I’m not John McClane, but I suppose there’s a little bit of both of them in me. I try to remember that I am a real person. It’s not hard to do; I behave very much like a real person. Some guys are pretend. Music isn’t pretend, though some guys get away with it.
At this moment you are producing CDs of your own work with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for BMG. Were you dissatisfied with some of your albums?
No. I like the idea of working with a great American orchestra. They are a constituted group rather than free lance players. Frankly, the New York Philharmonic is too expensive and I didn’t want to work with the London Symphony, because they do too much recording work. I had to choose an orchestra to make the record and it seemed a good idea to make the record with the Seattle Symphony. I’m looking forward to establishing a more long-term relationship with that orchestra. The record is – I hope – filled with my best and most melodic bits of music, some well-known pieces of music like the ROBIN HOOD overture, and a version of DON JUAN. They won’t be in suite form as in the concert, they will be individual pieces. The representation is really melodic pieces, not necessarily hit films, and for example I included music from ROBINSON CRUSOE…
That piece was played at the concert last week and I think hardly anybody has ever seen the film.
It was a tune that I had invented earlier and used in ROBINSON CRUSOE. The film sadly didn’t enjoy a release. I really like that melody. I will also put the Olympics music on that album…
I thought John Williams was doing the music for the Olympics…
There is a lot of music in the Olympics. This is for the closing ceremony. There are two pieces: ‘The Rag Lowering’ and ‘Wings of Victory’, for skate-boarders and surfers.
The music on your albums is always dedicated to “Sandra, Sasha and Zoe”.
Sandra is my wife, Sasha is my first daughter and Zoe is my second daughter. Sometimes that’s all they ever get to see of me, that’s the album. For WATCHING YOU they did the vocals as Sashazoe.
You also sing…
Yes, I do. I may wind up singing on this album. I may sing the song from CIRCLE OF FRIENDS, because it was not done very well. The original idea was to do a series ‘Kamen Goes to the Movies’ with other people’s music, but now it will only be my music. On the second album there will be music from my ballets, including ‘Rodin mis en vie’.
Someone did a bootleg of DIE HARD…
I keep hearing about it. I’d just like to hear it, what collectors are listening to. It’s a backhanded compliment when they bootleg your music.
You have worked a lot with Eric Clapton.
Eric was always a hero of mine, he was always my ideal what a guitar should sound like and when I finally met him, I was thrilled to play with him and we became friends. He asked me to do ‘Edge of Darkness’ with him and it became a big success and when he heard about the David Sanborn saxophone concerto, he asked me to write a guitar concerto for him. That developed into a guitar concerto and a musical evening with his music in an orchestral setting. We did it two years running at the Royal Albert Hall. By the time we finally got to record the work, Eric’s heart wasn’t in it so much any more. I have to respect his attitude, so we never recorded it properly. I will record it properly eventually with a Japanese guitarist and it will be part of the BMG series.