So Danny Elfman Walks into Carnegie Hall...
by Jessica Lustig
Film composer Danny Elfman is writing a concert work called Serenada Schizophrana for American Composers Orchestra, which will be performed at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 2005 at 8:00 pm. Mr. Elfman is well known throughout the world for his award-winning scores for Batman, Spider-man, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mission Impossible, and the theme for The Simpsons, among many other memorable scores. This new work represents Mr. Elfman's first foray into the world of "abstract" concert music. He spoke with Jessica Lustig about his ideas for the work, his compositional techniques and his classical influences.
Q: What inspired you to compose a symphonic work?
DE: The American Composers Orchestra asked me; it came into my head because they asked. I hadn't given the idea of writing a symphonic work a lot of thought. I had begun a ballet a while back - which I still hope to finish, but for this piece I didn't have a particular agenda of what I wanted to do.
Q: How do you feel about having a performance at Carnegie Hall?
DE: I find it very intimidating. Having the concert upstairs [rather than in Zankel Hall, as originally planned] gave me about a month longer to write the piece, but it also ramped the pressure up about a hundred fold! It wasn't until I flew out to New York and heard a concert in Carnegie Hall that I realized the gravity of the situation. I thought to myself, 'this is the playground of the big boys'. It was as though my first film were Batman instead of Pee Wee's Big Adventure: I had nine films between Pee Wee and Batman, and in this case it felt as if I was skipping a few steps. I found it paralyzing, but I had an idea about what I wanted to do. I had this idea for two pianos and orchestra.
Unlike many composers, I'm not used to writing for smaller orchestra. For me this is a smallish orchestra. I'm used to about 105 players, and this orchestra has about 89. Even though the big hall is very intimidating, the size of the orchestra is more what I'm used to, compared to the size I would have had for a performance in Zankel.
Q: What is the form of the work? How many movements does it have, and how is it structured?
DE: I started writing stream-of-consciousness short compositions, and I came up with 12-15 short compositions, each about two to three minutes long. They are blocked-out, short pieces. Writing this way clears my head, and every day I start fresh. I might write anywhere between one- to three-minute pieces, then the next day I erase my memory and start again. It's just a technique I use of trying out different things before I get locked into an idea and it becomes difficult to disengage. I want to try a lot of different things before that happens. By doing this 'one piece a day' thing, I'm not allowing myself to get too locked into any rhythmic or melodic content. Then I go back and see which of these little pieces start to evolve. After looking at 14 of the pieces, seven of them started expanding and then six expanded even more. I'm not approaching this project in a substantially different way than how I would approach film music.
At first I was worried about coming up with 30 minutes of music, but now it's a suite of six movements. They are not linked in any way. I liked the contrast. I am hoping that the pieces will reflect where my mind is at this point-like a slice of my schizophrenic brain. This is not meant to be my grand masterpiece. It's very jerky. It was my intention that the totality of it was neither going to be too serious, which I wanted to avoid, nor did I want to keep it light and whimsical. It's heavy to whimsical to absurd to intense. As the pieces were coming together they also fell into an order. I let things evolve themselves.
I work super hard to get an idea going, and at a certain point the engine is running and I know where all my themes are. Then it just starts driving itself. It's very much like starting an old car. There's a huge amount of pushing at the beginning, but then it starts to go and the breaks don't work and I just have to keep steering and making turns with it. Sometimes I like where it goes and sometimes I don't. These pieces are similar. I intentionally contrast each piece with the one that preceded it. I just let these six children run amok in a room full of toys. I wanted to let it all go where it wanted and create an entertaining though baffling serious of events.
Q: How does composing an abstract piece of music compare with writing for a film in which you have visuals, characters and a story-line to work with?
DE: The big difference here was that I didn't have pictures. That was constricting for me, not freeing. It's easier to let the picture dictate things when I'm getting started, and then I'm off and running. My agent and friend Richard Kraft was encouraging me and suggesting that I take some old movies, put them on without sound and start scoring them, but I refused to do that. When I see pictures I come up with music; there is no question about that. But I didn't want to be influenced. And I'm very happy that I didn't need to do that.
The hardest part has been getting myself started: I'm very deadline driven. I would still be working on my first film score if I didn't have a deadline! I do have 20 years' experience of this kind of discipline. I know I am capable of turning a certain amount of music out per day. I haven't even seen my next movie, but the due dates are already booked. I will be ready with music for orchestra day. I'm used to that sense of panic, of being desperate for more time. No film composer can survive without a certain discipline. The lack of time is horrible. Those of us who do survive are just better at functioning in a short period of time and being creative during those periods.
Q: How do you compose? What equipment do you use?
DE: I use a lot of samplers. In my studio I have one keyboard and a lot of gear. A lot of it is in another room because it's noisy. I compose at the keyboard and I have a work table with a big keyboard and screen with a sequencer. I'll create these huge templates and use a program called "Performer", but then I send it out to a guy who puts it into Sibelius for generating the parts. It just looks like notes with no dynamics or anything before it is put into Sibelius.
Q: How did you learn to compose?
DE: I just taught myself over the years. For Peewee, I just banged things out on the piano. I knew how to write music but not read it - or at least I can only read it as fast as I can write it, which is not very fast. My musical training came from seven years of being in [the rock band] Mystical Knights of Oingo Boingo. Everyone had to play three instruments. I played trombone and guitar and everyone played percussion. We had this crazy ensemble with a homemade percussion ensemble. We built our own gamelan in the style of Lou Harrison. We were interested in jazz and I started transcribing Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and others. There was no way to create the arrangements other than to write it all out, so I kind of learned by rote. As time went on, the band shifted towards musicians who could read. I got to the point where I could write but I couldn't read. I could only read as quickly as I could write. It's like someone who can write the letters of the alphabet but can't read the words. I learned to write as I learned to read. But I did learn that I had a really good ear and I could freeze anything I heard and write it down.
Q: Have you written any other concert music?
DE: The last piece of concert music I wrote was a piano concerto for Oingo Boingo. It was a very complicated little piece. This was during the late '70s and it was a very ambitious 5 ½-minute cue. That piece was really kind of inspired by Prokofiev and Stravinsky.
When Tim Burton approached me to write the Pee Wee score it had been five or seven years since I had written any music down on a piece of paper. I asked the guitarist in the band, Steve Bartek, whether he had ever done any orchestrating. He said he had once taken a class at UCLA but that was it. So it was Tim Burton's first film, my first score, and Steve's first orchestration. For the last ten years I've been doing midi transcriptions, which are so much simpler. With the deadlines I'm under, it's really impossible to do it any other way. To write 70 minutes of dense music in 90 days, you have to have a system. The sketches I provide are very detailed, so it's really just a matter of the logistics of doing the midi translations.
Q: Do you listen to much classical music? What do you like to listen to at home?
DE: I don't listen to classical music nearly enough. My influences go back to my teenage years. Stravinsky, Orff, Satie, Bartok, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, and Philip Glass. I am forever attached to the music of the '20s and '30s, and that is where my primary influences come from. That period was also the birth of jazz. Between the late teens and the 1930s there was this incredible period in music I'm always going to be attached to. A lot of my classical music associations are filtered through other film composers. Waxmann, Herrmann and other film composers have influenced me. I'm told that a lot of the early film composers were influenced by Wagner, but I've never listened to Wagner, even though I've been told that some of my scores have parts in them that sound like Wagner. My film music education came through paying a lot of attention to film music as a teenager: especially scores by Bernard Hermann, David Tamkin and Korngold.
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