Jazz Professional               



My approaches to the film score

A Third Sream Triumph
Each Film has its own sound
My approaches to the film score
A musical alchemist
A new direction
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976

Photo: Dennis Matthews

I’m becoming a Londoner lately, almost. In the process of doing a movie, you have to come once, sometimes twice, to see it; then go back to Hollywood to write it, and come here again to record it. So that involves several trips. And I really like it here. The facilities are on the same level as those we have in California—fine engineers, first–class musicians.

I just finished a movie called The Voyage Of The Damned, with Faye Dunaway. Orson Welles, Max Von Sydow, James Mason, Oscar Werner, Malcolm McDowell, Lee Grant—a big cast. Then I have one coming up, which I have to score next, called The Eagle Has Landed, with Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland. They haven’t finished shooting it yet, but I’m going to see a rough cut. As you can see, I’m quite busy.

I do the scores of about four or five films a year. I pick those that appeal to me, but sometimes it’s a problem of time; they call me, I’m busy doing another picture, and I have to turn it down. Like, Clint Eastwood called me—1 did Dirty Harry and Magnum Force, the two in which he played the detective from the San Francisco Police Department. Now they’re doing a third one, and I cannot do it because I’m busy with these pictures. I wanted to do that very badly, but it’s impossible to be in two places at once.

Each subject needs to enable me to use a different approach. I couldn’t do two Westerns in a row, for instance, because they would be too close to each other. I try to select subjects that are totally different—at least, for a while; until I come back, after I’ve had time to search for new ideas and different areas.

I look for unusual sounds—but never as gimmicks. I like always to make them functional, organic parts of the music. It can be percussion, it can be bizarre or ,exotic instruments, or it can be electronic instruments—but I look for that musical quality, that can be combined, and be organic to the film, to the orchestra and to the music. I don’t look for gimmicks per se.

Recently, I was reading an article by Emil Richards. He plays all the time for me, and was talking about what I did on The Hellstrom Chronicle. I had an eighty–piece orchestra; there were fifty strings, and I had fifty wire brushes played on the strings, like percussion, while the percussionists were playing with bows on different cymbals and vibraphones, and sustaining. So it gave a very interesting effect. Everything was sort of written out; I mean, it was not only a wild idea—it was sort of organised. Organised chaos. It worked out.

I’m glad you were able to organise a showing of the film The Score. Quincy Jones and Jerry Goldsmith were in it also, weren’t they? I was overweight at that time! I’ve lost twenty–five pounds since then.

I was seen looking for instruments. I went to a place in London, which is similar to Emil’s, to see what is available, for when I come to do films here. And I was pleasantly surprised—they have quite a few things here, too.

Hunt’s Drum Shop—Nat Peck took me there. I did the same kind of research, and I made a whole catalogue of all the instruments. Another meeting I had was with a man who plays all kinds of plectrum and plucked stringed instruments, like zimbaloms, sitars, zithers, the Persian santuri, the Japanese koto, the Chinese cheng—all the family of the famous Biblical psalteries. Which are so interesting, and have strange sounds. We call it ednomusicology—investigating into unusual musical instruments from all over the world. Emil Richards also creates his own—he invents instruments.

Also, I have an electronic laboratory at home—a studio where I have all kinds of electronic instruments, that I use a lot in my movies. I don’t like to use them too much alone, but I use them combined with regular instruments. It adds something, but you never can tell exactly what it is.

I’m not too fond of what we call “the science fiction sound”. Unless I would have to do a science fiction movie, in which those sounds would be called for. What I do is to organise them in such a way that they are integrated inside the orchestra; you really cannot tell where they are. No, I would never leave out musicians they’re always necessary.

Except for the Arp 2600 and some of the Yamaha electronic organs and synthesisers, there’s something very cold about most of the electronic instruments. You need the human element, always. But there is no limit to the field of electronics; it’s getting better and better. It’s becoming like photography, because once you buy an instrument like a synthesiser, the next year it’s obsolete. The research on the new models is going on so fast that the obsolescence is incredible. Just as when you become a hi­fi addict, there are always gadgets to add, new things to buy. Many companies all over the world are bringing out new instruments, particularly in the United States and Japan.

I like the work of Tomita very, very much—although I’m not wholly in favour of it. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to do it, since, for instance, Ravel orchestrated Moussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” very well—for orchestra. So there is nothing creative or really original in what Tomita is doing, as opposed to what some of the electronic composers like Luciano Berio or Stockhausen are doing; or some of the younger ones, like Morton Subotnick in California and Mario Davidovsky at Columbia University in New York. They’re doing new things from zero—not trying to duplicate anything. Tomita and Walter Carlos are in the category of duplicating Bach, Moussorgsky, Debussy or whatever; what they’re doing is very interesting, and I like it. But the really interesting thing is to create new works from the electronic medium itself—that’s where the possibilities are infinite.

I’ve used a lot of electronics in movie scoring, but never exclusively. Of course, they’re being used in all kinds of media. Even in jazz it’s happening—Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis are using a lot.

As for my limited use of jazz in my film work—jazz is such a pure idiom that it’s to be listened to, and I’ve found that it doesn’t work too well as a counterpoint to the image, most of the time. It has been overused in detective shows; sometimes the detective is in a room, all of a sudden he opens a door, and it sounds like there is a jazz band playing next door. I’ve used something in the periphery of jazz myself—not really jazz, but some jazz–orientated scores, like Bullitt, the picture with Steve McQueen. And a little bit of jazz in certain other movies. But jazz doesn’t need anything to be seen, while film–making is made up of many components. There are the dramatic, the visual and the audio elements: they have to be all integrated, and be part of the one thing.

When Prokofiev and Eisenstein worked together in the famous Russian film Alexander Nevsky, this was one of the points of departure of film scoring. It was one of the first attempts at really using good music for a film. The director Eisenstein came up with a very interesting concept: he was the first one who talked about “audio–visual counterpoint”. If you start to think in those terms, then they should complement each other: the music should enhance, and add one more dimension to the film. But it shouldn’t be obtrusive; it shouldn’t interfere. And if the music is overpowering, or too good, or too interesting, you start to listen to the music, and you forget about the film.

If the film is bad there is no way that it can be saved by the music. If the film is good, the music can make a great contribution—if it is good. And even if it’s bad, if the film is good, it can survive. If it works well, the impact of the music is a subliminal one.

Away from film scoring, I’ve been maintaining my involvement with jazz—not too much, but here and there. I put together a group with Ray Brown occasionally, to play a week in some club in Los Angeles.

And there was a “Tribute To Dizzy Gillespie” concert at the Lincoln Centre in New York, in which I was invited to play. I practised three or four weeks before I went there, because I wasn’t sure about my technique at the piano—but it’s amazing how it came back. This concert represented all the various cycles of Dizzy Gillespie, with small groups, with a big band playing things like “Things To Come”. In the different groups, John Lewis was one of the pianists, Buddy Rich played drums in one, Max Roach in another—it was that kind of a thing. When we did our set, with Stan Getz, James Moody and Dizzy, I must say that I was quite satisfied with my solos, and the audience reacted very well. Surprisingly enough, John Wilson, of the New York Times, gave me an extremely good review. I was very proud of that review, because he’s tough, and I was afraid that, coming from Hollywood after so many years, he would say I’d “gone Holly“. On the contrary, he said that it was very refreshing to see that I hadn’t lost my touch, and that my playing was very swinging, moving and so on.

It did make me realise I miss playing jazz a little bit. As a matter of fact, I’m going to try to see if I can organise my life in such a way that maybe four or five months a year I can form a group and go and play around. To tell you the truth, when I went to Hollywood I’d become a little tired of travelling; after a while, it becomes just the same airport, the same railroad station, the same bus, the same hotel room, the same backstage, you know. But now I’m ready to travel again: it’s a cycle—sometimes we want to go back to what we’ve done. Yes, it would be refreshing again—it’s about time that I started doing it. As I said, I have to organise myself, my agent, my work—it’s not that easy to change. If I do it gradually, though, I’ll be able to do it.

No, I haven’t done anything just lately like the “Jazz On The Mass Texts” or the “Rock Requiem”. Well, I was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to write a piece in which I combined them with a jazz band—Zubin Mehta was the conductor. And I put together a wonderful big band. Just to mention some of them—J. J. Johnson and Tom Mackintosh were two of the trombonists; I had Jack Nimitz on baritone, also Jerome Richardson and Bud Shank among the five saxophones; I had Conte Candoli among the trumpets, Howard Roberts on guitar, I played the keyboards myself, Ray Brown was on bass, Larry Bunker on drums. And the symphony. That hasn’t been recorded, but it was an attempt to integrate both.

Actually, it was like a Sinfonia Concertante, because I didn’t try to make the symphony musicians swing. They answer in their own idiom, and we play in our idiom—it was like answer and response. A little bit like I did in the “Jazz Mass”, where the chorus sings strict Gregorian chant, while the rhythm section is playing jazz; we did the same thing, in a more enlarged form. I call the piece “Pulsations For Jazz Band, Electronic Keyboards and Symphony Orchestra”. But I think it’s too expensive to record.

It wasn’t really like the Woody Herman collaboration. It was a little more exploratory. I don’t know if you ever heard the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, the things that Cecil Taylor has been doing, and all that—it was more in that idiom. See, the avant garde of classical music and the avant garde of jazz—they almost touch each other, and that’s where there is the possibility to make them organic. So it was quite an avant garde piece.

The second movement was based on blues shouts—like in the plantations. Both the band and the orchestra were doing shouts, and from there I had sonorities, textures sometimes; it was very interesting. And solos—Ray Brown had a solo based on the blues, but the textures behind were very avant garde. Sonorities, and what you call clusters. Sometimes I had the brass of the jazz band with Harmon and straight mutes, against the symphony orchestra with open pianissimo playing. In the symphony orchestra, four trumpets and four trombones were playing also: so when our brass abandoned something, all of a sudden it was taken up by the same instruments in the orchestra. Interesting colour; it was like a painting, you know.

Not all of it was dissonance; there were certain things that were consonant. In the third movement, I did a sort of up–tempo kind of jazz pulse, which started with the drums on brushes. But the strings started to play pizzicato atonal things, and all of a sudden the jazz band were playing riffs against this. With the atonality against an up–tempo Basie band sound, the whole thing starts to grow, becoming chaotic. Then, with the symphony, I started to take collages of different pieces of Bizet’s “Carmen”, Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” and other war–horses of classical music—sometimes two or three at the same time, playing against each other.

Something like Berio’s “Sinfonia”, the one that he did with the Mahler? No, this was a little bit different. I don’t want to compare—you’d have to listen to it to see that the effect that I got was absolutely different. I love Berio’s piece, by the way. In my piece, the jazz idiom was dictating whatever happened. The first movement of it was really antiphonal—you know, one played and then the other. There was very little playing at the same time. Each of the three movements of this piece were trying to solve different problems. I posed myself these problems, and then I tried to solve them.

Copyright © 1976 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.