Michael Small on Mountains of the Moon

An Interview with Michael Small by Matthias Büdinger
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/No.35/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven


Meeting a film composer and having a conversation is never just a mechanical question-reply game – at least it never ought to be. Even when you’re asking silly questions, there are human emotions as well as artistic sensibilities involved. A film composer is a human being, as I am. So you always try to make a conversation as natural and relaxed as possible, depending of course on your mood and the more nerve-racking mood of the film composer. In the case of Michael Small, we instantly got along well with each other. He is a mild-mannered and warm-hearted man whose way of speaking and total behavior reveals a serious devotion to his profession along with a vulnerable and modest artistic personality. I immediately felt that with Michael Small it couldn’t be just a question-reply game. It had to be more, however silly or provocative my questions would be. And it was.

In July and August of 1989. Michael Small spent five days in Munich, recording his score for Bob Rafelson’s MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, their third collaboration after THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and BLACK WIDOW. The 70-piece Graunke Symphony Orchestra performed Small’s grand score, his first orchestral film music to be released on record and CD. MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON is a romantic drama depicting the ambivalent relationship between British explorers Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) and John Hanning Speke (1827-1864) who both explored Africa. The story is based on a book by William Harrison, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Rafelson.

Michael Small’s score has not only a specific English flavour, but also some subtly-incorporated African elements. Aside from some very exciting adventure cues (maintaining a native African feel), it’s an interior film score – a quality at which Small has excelled his entire career. There are some quite touching and expressive cues in the score (for instance, a very refined Irish song which really mists the eyes). Even Bob Rafelson was affected by the music, remarking, after a cue was recorded: “That was excellent. It really moved me, and I’m unmovable.” Having been a musician himself. Rafelson delivered some constructive and valuable suggestions to Michael regarding the orchestration and some other dramatic/musical aspects. The Cooperation between composer, director, conductor (Allan HELLBOUND Wilson) and recording engineer (Eric Tomlinson) was fine, something which is not always the case. But here the artistic “decentralization” worked. When Bob Rafelson found out that I was writing for a film music magazine, he trustingly told me, while pointing at Michael Small. “He’s a genius.” In what better words could a director demonstrate his appreciation of a composer’s work?

How much music did you wind up writing for MOUNTAINS ON THE MOON?
It’s about an hour-and-a-half of music.

How much time did you have to write the score?
I started collecting and compiling east African recordings about March (1989). So I’ve been working on this informally about three or four months. But I’ve only been scoring it about seven or eight weeks, which is very tight. I only just got a final cut to work with.

How would you describe this film?
The movie is based on the true story of Sir Richard Burton and John Speke in their travels to Africa to discover the source of the Nile in around 1858. It concerns not only their journey but their relationship which is a very convoluted one. So you really have not only a film about Africa and Victorian England but a film which is very interior. Bob Rafelson’s films have always been that way. The amazing part of the score was that it was almost like writing four different movies: (1) finding an English sound for Victorian England; (2) finding a way of scoring Africa and using African elements; (3) being a very romantic love story and (4) being a story which turns out to be rather tragic about the relationship between Burton and Speke. So there was a lot to do. The whole problem was to find out how to do it in one score.

So you had to write not only outdoor adventure music but interior, psychological music.
That’s right. Sometimes at the same time! There’s one cue, a battle sequence, that’s very fast, a million notes in the orchestra. But right in the middle of that you go into a scene where you’re right inside the character’s head; you know what he is thinking and what his fears are. So it suddenly shifts into an interior cue right in the middle. This is one example of the kind of shifts that this film does. You’ll have an outdoor adventure cue, and all of a sudden you’ll realize that the music is playing another part of the story at the same time.

comes-a-horsemanThis type of music must be a new category for you. I know you did suspense dramas and psychological thrillers, but nothing of this time. Is that true?
That’s true. It’s very remote, but the only other outdoor movie I did at all was COMES A HORSEMAN which was a Western in a totally different locale. MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON is the only real adventure film I’ve ever done. It’s very dramatic. Naturally, Africa is an element that most composers would like to tackle at some point. So that gave the whole outdoor thing a nice twist, finding a way of dealing with it. Probably because I was coming to a foreign city and because I didn’t know the musicians, I decided to record the African rhythmic elements in the States, and I brought the tracks over here. Having done that, I wrote the score with its basis on that rhythm, with the orchestra on top of it. At first that seemed to be a decision based on my own comfort, but it turned out to be aesthetically the right way to do the score. I’m happy I did that because it gave me a chance to spend time on the development of the African instruments and colors. The recording approach is like a record date – the rhythm is there, the orchestra is playing what we used to call “sweetening” – but in fact it’s more than just sweetening. It’s the whole score being played. At one point the two elements are together and you have a full symphonic-classical statement simultaneously with a very rhythmic African one. It’s quite an unusual combination.

When you were scoring Africa, trying to get into the rhythmic pattern and the right feeling – was it a problem to avoid clichéd African music, such as primitive drum beats and something like that?
Yes, very much so. In my research, I found African music so vast that I hadn’t even scratched the surface. So I concentrated on the exact locale of this film – East Africa, which was more interesting to me than the drums. That was an enormous Arabic influence in the music of this area. The drums themselves were different kinds. They combined African drums with Egyptians drums, for example. They also have native instruments that are incredibly interesting: a one-string violin, many different kinds of harps ranging from one to eighteen strings. I went up searching for someone to play them. Right at the last moment we found the man who played in the sessions in New York. He was an incredible help. He is actually West African, so he had to tune his instruments differently. But, in fact, the instruments are parallel all over Africa. He was able to play the feel that I wanted. The problem was not necessarily to create absolutely African sounds as much as to create an African element in the score. There were two or three moments in the film that I felt exact African music was needed. So I used field recordings with chanting and general tribal sounds, the vocal element which I couldn’t do in the studio.

You did not conduct the score yourself. Was there a certain reason for this?
This is unusual. It’s the first score I haven’t conducted myself. I got to Munich feeling that I had so much music to record in so little time. I had also heard that the orchestra likes to work with someone familiar. So I started off with Allan Wilson conducting, and I became fond of the way he conducted. I just let that go, and I found it useful to be next to the podium listening for everything as if I was conducting, and then making any corrections. It was a new experience.

Are you content with the orchestra?
The orchestra is playing better every day. They instinctively understand a lot of the elements that I’m using. It is kind of awesome to realize that you can write a score and bring it over so that it’ll be understood by musicians to whom you can not speak in terms of language. But on the whole, the communication has been excellent. I have found that the musicians became more and more respectful and involved. I can tell from their behavior that they are very attentive.

This is your third collaboration with Bob Rafelson.
Yes. We did THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and BLACK WIDOW. Those two are more like each other than they are MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON. This one of totally different, for Bob Rafelson as well, I believe. It was a real challenge for the both of us, but great fun because you are doing something for the first time. I’ve been saying for years that I wanted to do a period film. And here it was.
MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON is the kind of score I most enjoy, although I haven’t done many big symphonic scores like this. That’s the kind of score where you can stretch out and have a lot of feeling. The characters are big characters. They are not trivial. They are people who would listen to that kind of music. One of the things you consider is: what is this film about? Not everybody has a whole string section in his head. The difference between movies in the ‘30s and today is that people lived in a different musical universe. MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, being a period film, was easy to make the leap to big symphonic statements.

You seem to work together very well.
Very, very well. In this film we said less than on the other two films. A lot was communicated to Bob by my themes. The music has an important role in MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON because it tells the audience the Interior life of the characters. It was important to underline that. You think you are seeing an action film, but you are also seeing a very complex relationship. One character is betraying the other. The music, first off, has to make their relationship meaningful, and second it has to show the betrayal. That was the only thing Bob talked to me about. The other elements were self-evident. It’s a film about a friendship between two men who hardly ever speak, which is common if you are side-by-side in an adventure. The music has to show that they cared for each other.

Michael Small

Bob Rafelson used to be a musician himself, so I guess he can communicate with you in musical terms?
Bob plays everything on the piano in the key of F. When I played him my themes, he said, “Play it in F for me.” It’s good to have a director who’s a hummer. Bob is actually very musical. He has made specific music suggestions which work. Some directors are musical also, but then they get carried away with details that either don’t matter or are just impossible. They say, “Don’t you really like that trombone?” or “I hate the flute. Don’t use it.” I find Bob Rafelson quite constructive. It’s normal in a film to have some rewriting. We had two situations, but it was only a matter of a couple of bars.
One of the interesting things about this score is that it has a lot of underscoring of dialog, which Bob likes. I don’t know how common that is in films. The problem for me was to give that music a real shape. I don’t know, when an audience sees a film, what they are listening for or if they are paying attention to what somebody is saying. But they are going to feel the relationship between Africa and England, just because the same theme is being used. Something I learned working on MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON is that there’s a real cross between Islam and Africa in a lot of East African music. So my main theme has a touch of that in it. It has an A section that is English, an Islamic B section, and the rhythm track is Black African.

Did you have certain film scores in your head, or any other specific music or sound when writing the score?
It may sound peculiar, but first of all I did a lot of research in trying to make the music sound English. That was the only thing that could hold the score together. So I listened to a lot of Elgar and Vaughan-Williams, just for preparation. They used folk melodies. Strangely enough, Samuel Barber was very valuable, like Benjamin Britten. As I far as film scores – there really wasn’t anything. I But it’s a good question about the musical Influences. There is always a temp score in a film. This temp score had everything imaginable ranging from Peter Gabriel to Maurice Jarre. One of the things that was really difficult was to deal with this wide range of atmospheric elements, very romantic and very African, very sexy, if you want. The score had to cover all these bases. There is a whole part of the score that’s only percussion. We used some synthesizer samples which I worked on for a long time.

What kind of musical background have you had?
I was trained primarily In Liberal Arts Education in Williams and Harvard. I always had been kind of a natural musician. I was a jazz musician and wrote songs. But I had no serious training until I graduated college. Then I studied at the Manhattan School of Music with Mia Kupferman, who is a very fine composer and at that time was a film composer. That was my only formal training. Because I was a songwriter in the ‘60s, I was fortunate to get little jobs where I would arrange for various groups. My ambition had been to write for musical theatre; my father was involved in the theatre and I knew it very well. I used to go to every show. I even sat backstage or in the orchestra pit. When I started to study orchestration I did a few cues for films. So I became hooked on the whole palette of the orchestra. My attention shifted totally to film music. I got my first film due to four songs I’d written for a drama workshop; the producer heard it and recommended me to do music for the film. That was a funny bridge.
I still have a feeling that I’d like to do theatre work. MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON reminds me of an opera, and it makes me want to write an opera very much. This is one of the few films I worked on where I feel like stopping for a while and just enjoying what I’ve done and maybe taking a very different direction in film scoring. Having worked with an orchestra of this size really whets my appetite for more.

The list of directors you have worked with is striking indeed: Bob Rafelson, John Schlesinger, Arthur Penn, Alan J. Pakula. These are important directors of the “New American Cinema.”
All those directors make psychologically very real, very complex, and mature kinds of movies. I seem to respond well to such films. I like them myself. I don’t like trivial movies. I like to be entertained like everyone else, but I get much more out of working on a film that is trying to penetrate the human psyche a bit. One of the things that I love about Bob Rafelson is that he likes things that are very soulful and emotional. They can’t get too deep for him. I can’t say this is true for every director. But Bob is not afraid of emotion. I find that very refreshing because that, to me, is what music is all about. It helps me to have the freedom to be very emotional and beautiful at the same time. When directors are cold, you get into a realm where you can’t necessarily make a beautiful piece of music, at least in my case. That’s why I don’t do such films.

mountains-of-the-moonCan you say something about your work with Alan J. Pakula, for whom you scores like KLUTE, THE PARALLAX VIEW, and LOVE AND PAIN AND THE WHOLE DAMN THING?
It’s a long relationship; I’ve done six or seven films with him. I would say that Alan essentially discovered me. I was brought into his attention by Carl Lerner who was the editor on KLUTE and who was the supervising editor on my first film, OUT OF IT. He just said that Alan should listen to my stuff. I was a young composer with hardly any credits. So Alan took a real chance on me in KLUTE. That basically changed my life. I think of Alan as being my mentor in many ways. We communicate incredibly well. I like the way he uses music in his films. He calls it “another character,” it’s never just underscoring. It’s always an element or an idea. PARALLAX VIEW is one of my favorite films and scores that I’ve done. It’s a film about conspiracy, the music is that. Every time you hear the music you feel the presence of conspiracy. The score has a kind of almost patriotic sound – very seductive and effective. PARALLAX VIEW was one of the few scores I worked on where there was no idea what to do with the music. But suddenly I got into an idea, and it worked out beautifully.

You scored NIGHT MOVES with Arthur Penn. I imagine that he had a concrete vision about the way the music had to be?
He did. NIGHT MOVES Is a very interesting film because it seems to be a detective story, but, again, it has an Interior dimension to work with. The detective is looking for a missing person who is really himself. That was something Arthur Penn wanted to have in the score. I also liked the locale very much, the Florida Keys. So he wanted everything to have a Latin feel. My whole score has a Latin-Brazilian feel. It’s the closest I’ve done to a jazz score in many ways.

Would you like to do more jazz scores? Is there any type of music you would like to do in a movie?
I’d like to do a score that is all vocal, like choral music.

And you have to do a horror movie.
I don’t like to do those kinds of movies. But I would like to write music for a space movie. I haven’t done any science fiction.

That’s a genre where you can do almost anything, from music to sound effects.
That’s right. But, coming back to jazz, I have done jazz scores with a ‘20s or ‘30s feel, like GOING IN STYLE with George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. Although that was set in modern times, I wanted it to sound like their world, so I used old time jazz. BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS was a period film where I actually recreated a lot of 1936 Big Band recordings. My score was in the same genre. I like the ‘30s, I’ve done about three movies in that genre, and I’d like to do more. For America, the ‘30s is a classic era for movies, everything about it. You can do a lot with the ‘30s, I think, probably a lot more than people have actually done. The same is true with the ‘40s and ‘50s. You start with the basis of the ‘30s, but you can make it anywhere you want. I’d like to do a ‘30s score for a film that isn’t set in that time.

What is your view of the old big symphonic scores from the ‘30s and ‘40s?
I absolutely love them. But I never used to. When I first started out, my basic influence – believe it or not – was European film scoring. When I was studying in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, that was a golden era for European cinema. Fellini and Truffaut films were great, I loved their music. I loved Nino Rota and Georges Delerue. To me, they were so different from the Hollywood approach. That was my big influence. Also the jazz oriented scores by Henry Mancini and John Barry. I think my early scores have that quality, especially KLUTE, which has a very interesting small combination of instruments. Only later, when I got into films that needed a lot of underscoring, did I become interested in the old classic big orchestra approach. Now I really love them. Look at CASABLANCA and listen to Max Steiner’s score. That’s one of the great scores. It’s not self-serving. It fits the film perfectly. That very stirring music, and just absolutely right.

In former times, they used to over-score films so that their approach wasn’t that subtle.
Yes, but that’s all a matter of taste, and tastes change. Look at what John Williams introduced into film scoring with STAR WARS. It has totally revolutionized film music. Maybe even JAWS started it. Before JAWS there was no serious big symphonic score that I can think of that wasn’t like an old film score, which was considered very passé. I don’t think the scores of the ‘60s had that bigness. Spielberg brought back the taste for that, and now we are very much into an era of using big orchestras again.

It’s a shame that more of your film music isn’t available on record. Is there a reason for this?
I don’t know the reason. It’s just happened that way. Maybe the reason is that some of the movies just didn’t do well enough, and the deal wasn’t made in advance. So there was no way of getting an album out. KLUTE is out, of course.

But isn’t that a bootleg?
Well, it’s a Japanese bootleg. But it’s in fact the album that was going to be put out at Warner Bros, but they never did put it out. Strangely enough, that album sells fairly well. I get royalty checks every year.

One score and film I especially like is THE MARATHON MAN. Again, it’s a pity that there wasn’t an album.
Now there are these newly-recorded albums. I’d like to do an album with PARALLAX VIEW and THE MARATHON MAN; they deserve to be recorded. They are very unique, musically. John Schlesinger is a very musical director. Like Bob Rafelson, he makes valuable musical suggestions.

What is your view of the contemporary film music scene? Considering the orchestral and electronic scores written nowadays, are there still new musical frontiers to transcend?
One area that hasn’t been exploited enough by the younger composers is the idea of a whole score for a movie rather than independent musical fragments. I’d like to see someone take that Idea, even using synthesizer or pop textures. I don’t think anyone has really done that and has made it work as a whole score. If they do that it’ll be very new – a whole work in a certain style instead of just pieces. In general, my feeling is that film scoring has lost the idea of an architectural whole that they used to have in the older scores. If they can get that and use newer music that’ll be very exciting. I always try to do that. I always try to know where I am in the film.

I think there are many “composers” in the business today who don’t have the ability to think in architectural terms. Developing themes, interweaving them and so on. But somehow many films today aren’t that structured either. So what’s the point?
Yes. In a score you can only go as far as the film. I’d like to see films dealing more with the possibilities of man rather than dealing with trivial happenings. The movie of the ‘80s prototypically has almost become an advertising film. It takes a theme which may be a complete fantasy and then elaborates on it and fools the audience as if they saw some real life. Mostly, it’s rather cynical. I’d like to see films more real. By “real” I don’t mean depressing. There’s a lot of hope and depth in people’s vision in finding their identity. If films are made in that nature, the music can be a real voice. That’s the kind of film I like to work on.

How do you compose? Do you sit at the piano or at a desk?
I have found that I am very good at a kind of rough sketch at the piano, playing directly with the film. Usually take a musical idea, if I like it, and then go away from the film completely and try to write a real piece of music. But first, I play something with the film and see what tempo feels right, what chords. I start writing music then with those characteristics, or restrictions, if you want. It’s a little like the process of writing a ballet score. The rehearsal pianist improvises things to dance to, different feelings and tempos.
I have good theatre and film instincts. When you write a film score you become the ideal audience. You have to trust your responses to the film as being what it is. You can’t work if you take someone’s orders like, “Make this scary” – it’s harder, but naturally that happens. In MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON there were moments that moved me. I can go very far away from a film if I know exactly what needs to happen, without saying what the music has to be. If you just know what the emotion of the temperature of a film scene is, almost any kind of music that you write is going to work. That’s a mysterious thing. So, often you try little pieces of music against the same piece of film. They all have something to add.
I always wonder how a film would be changed if such-and-such a composer had scored it. I’ve been doing some teaching. I have a whole class take one scene and write music for it. Then we see how that all works. It’s a class of 12 to 15 people. I’ve also done some work for our local non-profit public TV station in New York. There’s a wonderful series called NATURE, and I’ve done a one-hour show recently on Japanese snow monkeys. I’m going to take this little film up to Maine with me for teaching purposes. I’ll have them all write for it. It’ll be delightful to see what music different people come up with looking at monkeys. I’m going to show the class how valid their own vision is. That’s something young composers don’t understand. You are not trying to copy something else. That’s true for art in general. You try to copy the excellent of something, but not what it is. Teaching is something I’m moving into more now. I’m also interested in pursuing Africa further. I’d like to do a whole album based on an idea of Africa, but not trying to do authentic African music.



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