An Interview with Stanley Myers by Matthias Büdinger
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.10/No.37/1991
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Matthias Büdinger
Stanley Myers belongs to the rare species of prominent British film composers who are still very busy, and who are still living in England. John Barry and John Addison went to the States. Richard Rodney Bennett only occasionally writes film scores. Ron Goodwin unfortunately seems to be a composer few directors and producers remember. Carl Davis and Michael Kamen, who live in London, are Native Americans. So only Stanley Myers, along with John Scott and George Fenton, seem to represent contemporary British film music. So, when I learned from a friend that Stanley Myers was in Munich to record his score for HOMO FABER (an adaptation of the famous novel by the Swiss author. Max Frisch), I hastened to the recording studio to talk to him about it. When I arrived at the Bavaria Studio, Stanley Myers just finished recording his last cue. The piece seemed to satisfy him very much since he euphorically exclaimed, “Volker, this is just fantastic!” It seemed a good cue at which to begin discussing his latest work.
I was just about to hear that one cue, the meditative one with solo cello and piano. Does the rest of your score also belong in that category?
Oh no. We had a 65-piece orchestra. Though there are some lyrical moments, it’s completely different from this sort of piano scene which is supposed to be at the end of the movie.
I know about the book by Max Frisch. But what about the movie?
It’s very closely based on the novel, but the movie is not as philosophical.
Had you read the novel before hand, and if so, did the reading give you some inspiration for your music?
No. It’s been a long time since I read the novel. Volker (Schlöndorff) sent me the script. But I had no idea until seeing the movie what sort of music to do for it. It’s actually the physical look at the film that inspires and affects you much more than reading the script. The hero in the movie is an American (in opposition to the book – MB) played by Sam Shepard. There is something very American about Sam. The film is set about 1955/56, so some of the music has a slight American jazz, almost Gil Evans sort of tinge to it.
A friend of mine who worked on the movie as a script supervisor told me that you played your themes for Volker on the piano.
Yes, some of them I have. Volker loves to know what he is getting. A lot of directors do, of course. It’s very helpful to be able to give them some kind of rough idea. But I could only play him the very melodic cues. The end title, for instance, has some 35 different strings all playing different things in cross-rhythms. You can’t give an impression of that on a piano!
This is your fourth collaboration with Volker Schlöndorff. How did this all begin? It seems unusual for an English musician to be the favorite composer of a German director…
Volker is a great friend of mine; we’ve known each other for over 20 years. I met him in London in 1968 when he was doing an English-language picture for an American company. I wanted to meet him as a possible composer. He is a true and proper filmmaker who cares about every aspect of filmmaking. He is very much involved. We spent quite a lot of time in Munich looking through the film and spotting the music. There is not a great deal of music in the movie – about 30 minutes – but it’s very important in the development of the story. The opening scene of the film is quite ambiguous. Volker said to me that the function of the music is to make it quite clear that the viewer is watching a tragedy.
The story takes place in different locales around the world. Did you try to color your music according to these locales?
I haven’t written any travelogue music, as such. There is one sequence in Greece where we necessarily used a collage of about 20 different Greek records.
Another famous literary source you wrote the score for is James Joyce’s ULYSSES. Do you remember the movie?
That was directed by Joseph Strick. I did another James Joyce movie with him called PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN. The film ULYSSES could never be more than an introduction to the book. It was not a terrifically filmic film but it was interesting for me because it was the second movie I ever did. KALEIDOSCOPE (directed by Jack Smight, starring Warren Beatty – MB) was my first film and ULYSSES came right after that. There was a good opportunity for music in this film. So it was a great trip for me.
Do movies with such literary backgrounds pose special problems for a composer?
In the novel ULYSSES there are some musical, leitmotivic ideas. When we used that in the film it was just a song at twilight. It was a Victorian ballad which recurs. We used that in various parts of the score.
One “classic” film score you wrote is NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY. I especially liked your main title with its female chorus.
That was piano and just two women. It was my idea. I liked to use some wordless voices. I had never used that combination before. It just seemed to fit the film because it was pretty bizarre.
Your career in film music started in the 1960s. Although this wasn’t a good time for movies or film music, you seemed to have done well.
My main luck was that at that time, at the end of the ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘70s; a lot of American movies were produced in London. But that dried up pretty soon afterwards.
Do you live in London?
Well, mostly. But I am quite often in California.
You never thought of moving there, like John Barry or John Addison?
As long as they stay crazy enough to fly me over there, that’s fine with me. I’ve done three films this year, two in California and one in New York. I wouldn’t like to live there permanently in California but I enjoy staying and working there. The longest time I’ve been in California was about four months. I found that I miss not so much England, but Europe.
Your film scores are all quite different in character and style, from jazz to classical textures to Stravinsky…
Yeah, eclectic. There is a lot of different music in HOMO FABER. For instance, some dance band music in the style of the ‘50s. It’s just required by the nature of the movie.
You said “eclectic”. Is this a word with a negative connotation for you?
No, not particularly. There are quite a few film composers who are eclectic. Richard Rodney Bennett is a very good film and concert composer in a wholesome range of different styles, from 12-tone writing (in his early orchestral music) to some light music, jazz pieces and songs. You mentioned Stravinsky: He was certainly as eclectic as perhaps any composer has ever been. So I don’t think it’s a negative word at all.
You write a film score, you finish the recording session, the movie is out for distribution – is this then a job you have completed so that you don’t think of it again? Or do you still listen to your film scores?
No, I don’t listen to my own film scores. I But there are some movies where I had the good fortune to work with fine directors on some very good films, like Nicholas Roeg and Michael Cimino. So I care a lot about my good movies. I’ve also done some pretty bad films.
You like to use electronics in your scores.
Yes. There’s quite a lot of electronics in my HOMO FABER music, but I love it mixed in with the orchestra.
Do you also write concert music?
I’ve done a couple of concert commissions which interested me very much. But I find films more satisfying to work in.