A conversation with Richard Rodney Bennett by John Caps
First published in Soundtrack Magazine No.7 & 8, 1976
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Richard Rodney Bennett holds the odd posture of being best known for his film music, while living and working outside of that world. In fact, he has become one of the very important concert composers of our time. He writes for film purely as a labor of love. I caught up with him first by mail, and then was invited up to his publisher’s apartment in New York City just the night before he was to fly back to London after an extensive American concert tour.
At 40, Bennett seemed much younger: tall, with the expressive accent and sculpted features of South Devon, lounging about in jeans and speculating on every art from novels to jazz; his manner seemed to belong more to the college “bull session” student than to an established artist. That is of course precisely the attitude that keeps genius fresh – the constant inquisitor, the perpetual student. He seemed very much satisfied with the life he has created singlehandedly for himself, yet there was a certain tentative anticipation as well – as if his dazzling gifts were even hard for him to keep up with.
We began in the gothic front room and later adjourned to the kitchen amidst old newspapers and unwashed cups. We talked about our mutual first-love, 20th century concert music, for a long while and where his own serial style fits in. Then we began to turn to film music. I asked him when he thought the real Golden Age of film scoring took place. Where are the laurels to which film music ought to be looking?
Well, you know, the composers who worked in Europe in the thirties.
I was trying to think of some in films.
Alright, (counting off on his fingers) Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Milhaud, Poulenc, John Ireland, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Hindemith… Something’s got to happen with that gang. I mean, when film music first developed away from the libraries and that sort of pit band thing, it was those composers who did it. There weren’t Hollywood composers as such in those days. Unless I’ve got my dates really screwed up and I don’t believe so. The Hollywood composers were much more in the late thirties and forties. You know, the big symphonic…
Max Steiner thing.
Yes. Because you see a lot of important European composers were doing scores for silent films; Satie and so on. That’s where I think it really happened. They could do anything; they were absolutely adventurous because there weren’t the commercial pressures.
Was it truly visual music though? Cinematic?
I’m sure it was and I think the composers in those days, particularly in France, had a closer relationship with the film makers than is often the case now, because it was all “the gang”. It wasn’t this sort of split.
(Just testing now) Do you think that the purest film would be the one without music?
I tend more and more not to want to do music, not out of laziness, but unless I can do something which isn’t on the screen, I won’t do it. Unless I can make the music speak about something which is unstated, I won’t do it. I turned down the DOLL’S HOUSE because I thought it was literally immoral to put music in that movie apart from the fact that technically it was impossible – there was so much soundtrack and so forth.
It had a theme in the beginning only.
They got Michel Legrand who did his shtick, you know.
Yes. Well, so it seems we have these two streams then: the Ingmar Bergman who works toward having no music at all in his films, and the Stanley Kubrick who wants control over every aspect of his work and so lays-in classical music. Is there any hope for the middle ground?
Well, I think there is really a good generation working in Hollywood now which doesn’t exist in England any more at all.
Because John Barry took it over.
(A look of mock disgust) I mean people like David Shire and Billy Goldenberg and John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and any of these composers you could talk to about contemporary music; they know what’s going on.
Have you heard the Williams Sinfonietta that’s been recorded years ago? A fantastic piece.
Is it? David Shire played me an album recorded I think before Williams started doing film music, some crazy title like “John Williams…Goes Wild” or something. But they’re really showy orchestrations. Rather like Michel Legrand’s early orchestrations.
Could that have been the old “Rhythm in Motion” album that he did? With a huge band.
I can’t remember. I don’t know his concert music at all. But Williams is a very intelligent, cultured musician, he really is.
JAWS included. Well, back to films. ORIENT EXPRESS. Is that the most recorded theme you’ve had so far?
I suppose so.
Even more than NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA’s love theme?
Well, that was done on a few film music albums but it just had that one pop music recording by Engelbert Humperdinck. (Unbelievingly) It’s called ‘Too Beautiful to Love’. They took, you see, the theme which was originally very long and had lots of key changes which was kind of nice to do, and they took about eight bars of it and put it in C major and left it there. (Incredulous laughter). They wrote a whole new bridge which I had nothing to do with… You have no control over that.
That’s the usual.
It’s like I gave Bob (Holton, his music publisher) the sheet music of the song they made of ORIENT EXPRESS.
There are no words to it, I hope!
Yes, there are… And it’s called ‘Silky’. (Highly sarcastic) It is something about ‘Silky, there is something in your eyes.’
You talk as if you have no control over matters such as this. How come?
Because I don’t have any. Maybe Henry Mancini has control but I don’t. They did a lyric on LADY CAROLINE LAMB and sent it to me, and I sent it back to them saying, “I know I have no control but I have to say this is one of the worst lyrics I’ve ever seen in my life, and I sincerely hope nothing will happen, to it”, and I never heard from them again nor did I see that lyric.
Do the film companies bring in their own lyricist?
Yes. Paul Francis Webster did a lyric to the theme from FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. It was awful. I mean it wasn’t suitable to be sung anywhere. If one day a good song comes out of a film for me I shall be delighted, but that’s the last of my worries. I’d love to work with a lyric writer, that would be something else because I like lyrics and I know about them but it always happens afterwards.
That must be why you did the solo piano album of Gershwin and Arlen songs.
Oh, yes. I’ve got a contract with Polydor and the first album I did – Gershwin original piano solos, piano songbook and some music by an English composer of the period – they promoted very well. But the second album they didn’t promote at all.
It was in Billboard and that’s all it takes. Back to ORIENT EXPRESS again. It seems to be written like a theater piece: the big flashy opening, stagey atmospheres, always sort of as if framed by a curtain. Did you see the film that way?
I guess, I think of it like that. Did you read where I said Sidney (Lumet) got me out to the studio, showed me the rushes; I mean, just maybe fifteen minutes of film, and because he originally wanted to have a score based on thirties’ tunes which I wouldn’t do because I don’t know how to do that kind of orchestration; I don’t believe in that kind of score. I was recommended to him by Sondheim and he was really testing me out. So he showed me the rushes and he said, “Well, watch, what do you think?” And it was a sort of make-or-break situation. You know, I could have said two words and I would have blown it. And I said, “Well, the main title has got to be theater music. It’s not a thriller opening, it’s curtain going up, you know, whoopee – exciting – funny.” That’s where it started from. What I do wish in film scoring – I was talking about this with David Shire the other day – is that it be possible to do a score which has certain period flavor like that and actually make it an integrated score so that when one did tension music, it was in the same stylistic pattern. You can’t do it. SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK, the picture I’ve just done, starts in a theater and a red curtain and the credit titles come up on the curtain. And I did a kind of really rather bad nineteenth century light opera overture as though it were going to go up and you were going to see…
A farce like the opening of EXPRESS.
Well, yes, but it’s nineteenth century, and I originally wanted to do the whole score in a sort of late nineteenth century style before melodrama. But you can’t do it with that kind of music unless it’s really caricatured which I didn’t want to do in this context. It doesn’t work because we all know that kind of mystery music so well. You can get away with a good tune in a period feeling but when you try to do situation music in a period style, it just sounds awful. And I’m sad about that because MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a terrible rag bag. You know there is a bit of thirties and then a bit of sort of serial and there’s a bit of Ravel. And in the context it’s alright because it’s a kind of kitschy film, I mean, in a nice way. So it didn’t matter.
Is the waltz something that struck you suddenly or did you work up to…
I took a long time to get it and I didn’t start with that idea at all. But that really was a good idea, I’m really proud of that and I’ve been doing waltzes ever since. You know, there was a waltz in the orangutan picture (ORANGUTAN: ORPHANS OF THE WILD) when they were swinging in the trees. And there’s a waltz in SHERLOCK HOLMES.
How about MADDING CROWD, does that incorporate a lot of folk origins or is it all composed?
Well, on the album there are four actual folk songs which are sung, whereas in the film they were sung live by actors. So I didn’t have anything to do with them, they were just sung on location. But all the rest of the material is mine, I mean, it’s kind of pastiche folk music. Because I wanted to stylize it to a certain extent, get slightly away. Oh, I think there’s one quote at the height of the storm.
Does the film theme have country origins?
No, when I saw that film, John Schlesinger had laid-in a bit of something by Gustav Holst because it gave feeling that he wanted in the music and so that was a very strong influence. That’s the kind of music I’m not close to, but I like it. I grew up with it. My mother was a pupil of Holst.
How about THE NANNY?
That was fun, I liked doing that.
Were you listening in that music to the sounds of the movie, the images of water and footsteps, little things? Is the music water-inspired for instance?
No. And I never go to dubbing. I never have control over the balance of music. But that was a very happy film altogether. Miss Bette Davis behaved very well, she liked doing it.
You speak so much of the experience of a picture as changing the way the music comes out. You know, the personal experience of the job itself. Why should that be?
I think it changes much more my recollection of the film. You know if I’ve done something which I know is a good score and yet I’ve had a horrible time doing it, then I can’t ever look back on either the music or the movie with any interest or affection at all. I don’t know why. You know, you can go through such traumatic times on films.
Ken Russell and a director I worked for called Robert Ellis Miller. I was terribly interested to hear just recently that he’s just done a picture with Henry Mancini; Mancini nearly went insane, he said, working with Miller because this man can’t make up his mind about anything. You know, if the lady who comes to clean his apartment makes a face when she hears something, he’ll change it. That sort of thing. I mean anything will change his mind and so you can never be safe from having your music messed about. And I did a picture for him called THE BUTTERCUP CHAIN. Everything was changed, everything was kind of toned down, and everything was made sweet and genteel. Of course, he can’t leave it alone. He did a movie on a Carson McCullers novel, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, with Alan Arkin. And he kind of sweetened that. And he did this picture with Mancini called THE GIRL FROM PETROVKA. He’s a bad director and I find it utterly demoralizing working with him in a quite different way from working with Ken. But you come out at the end really feeling dirty, messed up.
That’s how it feels coming out of those films too.
If I know that the director doesn’t trust me, I can’t work in that atmosphere. It’s like Kubrick basically, if he could do it himself he would, and so he never trusts anybody. What Leonard Rosenman went through on BARRY LYNDON – I was seeing him every day while he was in London – was just terrifying when you think of what he has done in films. It’s really degrading. You can’t help the project as a whole because you’ve got to safeguard yourself.
Yes, that’s what you said; it changes even the music that you’re writing.
It does. I think it gets sort of half-cooked, half-baked, you know, if you don’t feel you’re being trusted.
I guess that’s why Goldsmith just goes in and refuses to be suggested to, to a large degree. If someone tells him what kind of music is wanted, Goldsmith says he freezes.
Sometimes I try and stay away from the director… I mean, the producer I was working with on SHERLOCK HOLMES is an Englishman who works in Hollywood; a nice man who really knows all there is to know about film music, and is supposed to be working with me and so on. And I really wanted to play him my score because I thought he’d enjoy it and in fact, for various reasons we didn’t get together for recording and the moment (later on) he heard the main title, he just jumped to his feet and said, “That’s the best thing I ever heard”, and not one note, not one dynamic, nothing was changed in that entire score. It’s just like a dream. Extraordinary. We didn’t need half the time we’d set aside for the whole thing. Well, there’ are other films on the other side of that. Like one called THE WITCHES with Joan Fontaine, which is one of the real bombs of all time.
How about, and this will be cruel to say, the very real connection between your theme for NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA and the theme from EXODUS?
When they’ve mentioned it before, they mention a connection between ‘Windmills of your Mind’ and ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’.
I can’t see that one.
Well, actually there is. I hate the theme from EXODUS. But I know that was the kind of thing I felt I had to do. Sam (Spiegel) was the boss in that film, Frank Schaffner really stayed away from it, and Sam said he wanted a theme that suggests “all the Russias”, whatever that means. So I immediately went sort of… EXODUS not deliberately but very often if your mind is a blank, you have to model on something. I mean if you want a pretty lyrical tune which is going to work for you in the film, I would certainly think of some of Michel Legrand’s best tunes. Why not? You know he’s written some beautiful tunes. In FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, I was thinking of certain hits of English music… In ORIENT EXPRESS, the waltz I was thinking of, ‘La Valse’ of Ravel and ‘Valses Nobles et Sentimentales’ of Ravel, why not? But I can’t say that I was actually copying EXODUS because I can’t stand that tune.
They compare remarkably well when you work them out on piano.
Oh, really? Well, I wouldn’t bother to deny it. I wasn’t particularly worried there. But ‘Windmills of Your Mind’: C-C-C#-C#-C-C-F-F and ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’: C-C#-C-F.
I see. Is that all it’s about?
Well, listen, I’ve offered to be witness in court cases for less important things than that.
How is it that ‘Caroline Lamb’ sounds so French, by the way? First of all, there was that discussion on the back of the record jacket where Robert Bolt wanted two themes, one for each character but you said that would tear the film apart. And yet there seem to be two themes anyway, a romantic and a classic even so.
Well, there’s the main theme which comes in all kinds of versions and there’s a big sort of neo-classical theme beginning with the honeymoon scene. I like that tune. As a matter of fact, funny enough, that came quite late in the score. And that section was revised. Very often in films I tend to… um… what I did in THE GO-BETWEEN, why my score was disastrous, I conveyed so much in the music that went so violently against what you saw on the screen; I wanted to do all the kind of corruption and the black magic element and the way that this child was being used… And I remember in the honeymoon sequence of LADY CAROLINE LAMB, wanting to give it a sort of acid edge. Because obviously everybody in the cinema knew it was disastrous from the word go and that’s what I wanted to tell in the music. And it depressed the sequence too much and I rewrote it between two days of recording and made it rather more golden and beautiful than it was originally. It was rather more Stravinskian and neo-classical.
It’s Poulenc now.
Yes. Well, I love Poulenc, I really do. Let’s face it, if it hadn’t been for Stravinsky, Poulenc in that frame, in that style wouldn’t have existed. It’s purely anti-neo-classical Stravinsky. And that’s good, I like it.
But weren’t you trying to keep that film from being romantic? It seems to overflow almost embarrassingly so.
I wanted to keep a certain sort of elegance about it. Except at the end. Robert Bolt said he wanted it to go right over the top. When she starts reeling about in the moonlight. In fact her death was so much less romantic and so much sadder than that on account of some rather awful disease; she got all bloated or something like that and she didn’t die romantically at all.
Perhaps the viola performance is the thing that pushes it over the top, as you say. That whole score should have been for RYAN’S DAUGHTER. It would have saved that film.
Look what they got. They got Maurice Jarre using eight harps or something. When he did IS PARIS BURNING? in England, the guy who copied from him and worked with the orchestra is the same one who worked for me. And he said Jarre was considering using ten pianos. One of my best friends, with whom I once had a two-piano team, went along and did the Jarre session and she said it was unbelievable. I mean, they did about one and a quarter minutes music in four hours!
Because they had to fit the ten pianos together.
Well, yes, and I mean what you can do with ten pianos!
They used to have a whole fad for such things; monster concerts, they were called, with eight or ten pianos on a huge stage.
Well, on BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN on one or two sections I used three pianos to get the really sort of brilliant jangly sound, which incidentally came up out of something else and I wonder if you know what it was. You mightn’t.
(Frantically searching the repertoire) Three pianos you say?
I don’t know if it was three pianos, but there was a film with a score by a French composer who used a lot of pianos at the beginning all whirling about and I thought it was marvellous.
That’s what gave you the sound of the computer in BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN.
Yes. The picture – you might not even have seen it was called BAY OF ANGELS with Jeanne Moreau. It was a marvellous picture, about a woman who was addicted to gambling. And it took place on the Riviera. It was like one of those fifties movies, you know, like THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM about somebody who couldn’t get away from this thing. It was a very impressive picture and Michel Legrand had this music at the beginning, sort of neo-classical pianos.
Bach? He’s always writing Bach over again.
It’s a shame about him, I mean at one time he was one of the few composers whose scores I would go and listen to in the cinema. At one time, he did some marvellous scores.
Do you know LA PEAU DOUCE?
I’ve got the album which I don’t like actually. I don’t like the tune. And somehow he seems really to have sold out now. Do you know what he’s interested in doing now? He’s directing.
Called BLIND LOVE, isn’t it?
Well, he’s got a property and he produced and directed it. He had a lot of problems setting it up. They wouldn’t quite trust him. But he’s really worked him self out. I know for a fact that at one time he was Nadia Boulanger’s most talented pupil. She always said that. And gradually he sold himself out. But if I lecture on film music, one of the things I use is one sequence for THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. ‘The Chess Game’, do you remember that?
It’s called ‘His Eyes, Her Eyes’ on the record, I think.
Yes, that’s right. But the scoring is absolutely dazzling. Even if you explain to an audience what it is and they haven’t seen the film. You can say this is a very erotic chess game, it’s like the meal in TOM JONES and everything happens in the orchestra. Contrary to what one generally tries to do, every musical gesture illuminates something on the screen. And they get it. It’s all there, I mean it’s brilliant. But I can’t say I’ve been to hear a score of his for seven or eight years.
Did Joseph Losey know what he wanted to do with THE GO-BETWEEN?
Losey had been back here in America and got to know an avant-garde trumpet player named Don Cherry. And I remember going on location and they were filming in that extraordinary house and, standing in one of those rooms with him, Losey said, “I want avant-garde jazz and electronic music in this film.” Now I’ve known that novel since I was about fifteen, it’s one of my favorite novels in the world and I just looked at him as though he’d gone insane! And it went downhill from there.
Did you actually record anything for it?
Oh yes. I would have redone it, because I realized it wasn’t what he wanted, but there was no way I could salvage it, unfortunately; that was back when I was teaching in America and I had to come back and teach. Otherwise I would have done another score for him. It would have been so easy to do a beautiful commercial score for that film.
It got one.
I know. It wasn’t very musical; it was a very noisy score. Well, I couldn’t do it and I was very sad about it. But then he asked me to do DOLL’S HOUSE and I refused to do music. And then he asked me to do… to supervise the music on GALILEO.
The TV thing?
Yes, with a Hans Eisler score. I don’t conduct, so there was really nothing I could do. And then ORIENT EXPRESS came up. Next he did a picture called THE ROMANTIC ENGLISHWOMAN, which I’d quite liked to have done. And he got a boy called Richard Hartley, whom he brought in on GALILEO, who’s a sort of theater musician. The result wasn’t bad.
I’m always interested in what you are looking at in each film that suggests the kind of music you’ll be writing which brings me to THE MARK – which I know is one of those bad experiences again for you. And it strikes me there that the only music which really works in that film is the few minutes of jazz.
I can’t really remember that score very well, it was a long time ago. I didn’t see anybody but Raymond Strouss, the producer of THE MARK, until the music recording. Raymond came to me and said, “What we want in this film is Miles Davis”, which I thought was great because I was all hung up on those Miles Davis – Gill Evans albums at that time. And so I did this very “cool” jazz score. Sidney Butler came the first morning (he was the co-producer on that picture), heard the main title and said, “We can’t have jazz in this film.” And I had a big jazz orchestra there with strings and everything. So the result was a kind of mishmash.
It never seems to fit. But that’s another thing about THE NANNY, if you remember.
Yes, I know. I didn’t want to give it away. I wanted just to do something rather bland and rather eerie. I think there was a kind of music box theme in THE MARK. Well, you see, in THE NANNY, it was just an adamant looking lady walking through the park, as far as I remember. And I just wanted to play a little theme which could then appear in very strange contexts later on. A sort of surrealist juxtaposition of something quite bland. Sometimes I did two versions: one which is sort of sympathetic and one which is much more sinister, and I think they opted for the sympathetic one. There was one place where she goes to see her daughter, and I think I did a much scarier version of that. And you know, I know the business now. I did a sweeter version as well and they used the middle one. It’s like I’ve learned after all these years of working in films that it’s much better in the long run to really profile your music so they don’t have to play with it, so the dialogue will fit in nicely. There’s no point in thinking you’re going to overwhelm the dialogue with staggering music. You’re not. That’s all there is to it, and so I work out my cue sheets very carefully so I know exactly where I am and what I’m doing and what else is going to be there. I mean, it sounds utterly basic but it takes a long time to learn those things and realize that’s what you’ve got to do. It’s not a question of selling-out because one is already committed to something which is already in existence – the movie. But if I do a very offbeat interpretation of something I will tend also to do a more acceptable one.
For the producer’s sake, you mean?
Yes, because you can’t fight them. You can’t.
(After a moment) That’s terrible.
It is terrible. You have no control over the music. They can do anything, they can have it rescored, they can get somebody else in, they can throw your score out, they can fade it out, they can play it down so that nobody would know it was there. They can do anything.
That’s what they did in ON THE WATERFRONT, isn’t it? When Bernstein’s music came to a climax, they’d dial it out suddenly for a piece of dialogue right in the middle.
Well, that could have been to a certain extent his fault, that could have been a lack of experience.
Okay, yeah. They printed a cue sheet in Bazelon’s ‘Knowing the Score’, a piece of your SECRET CEREMONY which shows the very few players actually on that score and…
I don’t know why Buddy Bazelon used that particular section, because really nothing happened in the music.
It’s just a sustained tune.
It’s quite exciting, but I mean it’s nothing to look at on the page.
Were you the one who performed on that score? Have you ever? For instance, did you play harpsichord in THE NANNY?
No. I always have my friends on my sessions. I played one of the pianos in BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN. I played on some of the bigger sections of MADDING CROWD. In the storm sequence where there’s a lot of pianos tearing about. But I always get my friends; this is why I was scared of recording outside London. I always had lots of friends on my sessions. There’s a very distinguished composer friend of mine called Thea Musgrave who was playing harpsichord in SECRET CEREMONY. She later married Peter Mark who played the viola in LADY CAROLINE LAMB. She’s a really great composer.
So you’re not the one who plays the main theme when Mia Farrow sits down in the middle of SECRET CEREMONY to a piano.
Yes, I think I probably was. A friend of mine and I taught Mia, not to play, but to mime on that. And I had to teach her the little song which she sings on the soundtrack, and I taught Taylor a little song. Mia Farrow turned out to have perfect pitch which is very interesting. She always pitched the song in the same key that I had originally taught it to her. Then I got to know Andre Previn and he told me he was going to marry Mia and I said, “Funny thing, she’s got perfect pitch,” and he said, “You’re kidding”. I said, “I’m not. You’ll find out.” I played piano on the main title of ORIENT EXPRESS… I’ll tell you a crazy thing that happened on that. The main title, that tune which they turned into the song called ‘Silky’, doesn’t appear complete in the main title because there’s so many cadenzas and nonsense going on. And it’s only later in the dining car sequence that the tune actually has a climax and an end. The people who prepared the sheet music, the publishers, didn’t ever look further than the main title. And so they thought the tune had no end and so they just repeated the first half twice and then stopped. And they called me one day and said, “The sheet music is out, it’s terrific, come down and collect it.” And I went down, picked up the sheet music, got out on the pavement, tore open the envelope and nearly fainted to see that half the tune wasn’t there. I was so angry, I went to the head of EMI and I made the most colossal scene. They’re going to take half my royalties whatever I do, and if they can’t get out a 32-bar song copy of a tune from a film! And so the famous ‘Silky’ is only written to half the tune!
Does it have any shape to it their way now?
I was going to mention the Lenin theme in NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. (Seeing a look of puzzlement) You don’t remember it?
Oh yeah! It’s a little folk tune, isn’t it? I mean it’s like an oboe, it’s very sad.
It’s one of the two really Russian themes in that very un-Russian score. It comes again in the people’s revolt when they storm the grain warehouse.
I remember the sequence of film; I don’t remember the music, though. Then there’s a sort of festive Russian theme. I think there are helicopter shots in and out of church domes or something and there are bells.
With the brass calling back and forth like clanging bells? (‘The Romanoff Tercentenary’) It’s not a helicopter shot, just a photo looking out beyond a campanile over the fields or something.
You know these films a lot better than I do.
Well, I’ve seen that picture time and again. I don’t really respect that one but it’s a great boon to watch. It works just like a machine, the performance and camera grinding together with the music.
Yes. There were some sequences in that where I became very sad; they faded the music down so much. The sequence with the young princesses… They didn’t need to fade it down. It’s very soft-edged music and you can hardly hear it. A lot of the music was very well used. You really could hear it and they didn’t squander it but I think the music did a lot there to give it this sort of nostalgia.
Did you write that big title theme we mentioned before with the ‘Elegy’ sequence in mind? I mean the main title theme on strings alone, like a liturgy, while the whole family emerges out of the train, ushered by the Red Guard or somebody through the hostile crowds all around.
Yeah. (Recollecting). Well, that was a rewrite. Now that’s a typical thing. I did really a very frightening sequence of music there and I went absolutely along with the crowd. I mean it was incredibly violent music and it gave the sequence a kind of nightmare quality. And I didn’t do an alternative version and when Sam heard it, he said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m doing the crowd. I don’t want to sentimentalize it.” And he said, “Oh no, we can’t have that, we’ve got to have something sympathetic,” so that is what that elegy is.
It works though. It’s the best part really.
Is it? There was another thing chucked. They played down the Rasputin death music which was absolutely terrifying on the music sessions, so that you could hardly hear it.
That’s right. They’ve got the sounds of the chains on the stone floor…
Yes. Why do you have to hear chains as well as see them? If you’ve got 80 musicians going insane which is slightly more exciting.
Is that the whole cue on the record?
I think so. Always on my soundtrack albums I have a little trouble getting enough material.
You work to final prints then? Did you on MADDING CROWD? Or did they have you out there soaking up atmosphere in the shooting?
Well, John Schlesinger loves everyone to be involved from the word go. And I knew him, I did BILLY LIAR in ‘63 or something, and I knew him especially before that. And we’re very good friends. So by the time it got to MADDING CROWD, he was terribly anxious, in a very endearing way, that one should be part of his gang and really involved in it. That’s fine in principle except in actual fact I don’t like to do it. There’s nothing you can do on location. You have to do dumb things like supervising people singing down on location when they were shooting that sort of harvest supper. Remember? And Julie’s sitting inside the window… I was there that day. And I just sat in the field feeling terribly out of place and getting appalling hay fever because that’s my one allergy, to grass (laughs). I mean that kind of grass. And I didn’t get any inspiration at all. It was only later on that I started working. Because I can’t do anything, I can’t write themes in advance. I can’t do anything until I see that film finished.
You’re scoring the distance between the audience and the director perhaps; you score what the audience feels.
Maybe, maybe. I think you can be more objective about that than I can. You know, I just go in there and react sort of spontaneously to what’s happening on the screen. That’s why I hate to theorize and I hate to discuss and I even hate to read the script, because I want to have a spontaneous reaction. And the more people say to me about what the music should be, and the more I read the script, the less spontaneous my reaction is. And very often the phonier the music gets. It gets contrived. And I start to think along lines which are non-musical.
Can you go to films now without being distracted by your colleagues’ work?
Very often people will refer to film music and I simply haven’t noticed it. I don’t think it’s any compliment to the film music at all. I really do listen to music, but sometimes it’s so bland or it’s so much a sort of déjà vu you know, you really have heard it before. But I don’t notice it any more. I hate music in restaurants because I tend to listen to whatever’s going on and sometimes it’s so bland it really annoys me because you can’t hook onto it. Awful.
Do you think that the very use of music to support other media, other arts is hurting it? I mean, are we objectifying music by sticking it alongside other arts?
I think I agree with you. Absolutely. This is why I tend to use less and less music, because as I say I won’t do it unless there’s something I can contribute. I’ve found for example in CAROLINE LAMB where there were only twenty minutes music in that whole film, people noticed it. And I got more mentions in the press at that time for that score than ever beforehand. I think to a certain extent it was because each piece of music was so specific. Robert Bolt was wonderful in that way. He never made me write music if I didn’t believe I could write, that it wouldn’t do anything.
Do you think that with progressive composers coming into films and concert composers like yourself, that film music will develop any more, or can it only go on repeating the past just by virtue of its whole purpose?
Film music is an independent art in its own right but a secondary one… because it’s not generated from the start by the composer. I’m a concert composer first and foremost but… my only musical ideals in any medium are to keep on working and improve and to feel my music is liked and needed.