Elmer Bernstein Speaks with BBC Glasgow

Interviewer: Well, a real star has descended upon Glasgow up in Scotland, this in the shape of Elmer Bernstein, and welcome to Glasgow.

Elmer Bernstein: Thank you. It’s always lovely to be here. I’ve always loved this city. I’ve always had a good time here, that’s why I like it.

BBC: Well yes I mean the last time you were here was for your seventy-fifth birthday.

EB: It was indeed.

BBC: The Royal Scottish National Orchestra must throw a great party if you want to come back.

EB: It was the most amazing evening. I mean I’ll never forget when they rolled that cake out at the end. Totally unexpected and I have a recording of the audience singing “Happy Birthday.” It was just an amazing experience.

BBC: So you’re here to perform with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in the concert hall for your eightieth birthday.

EB: It’s amazing how the time goes by. As I got off the plane last night, I thought to myself, my goodness it’s been five years. It didn’t seem that way at all.

BBC: Well, probably the fifty-one years of your career probably has gone by in a flash as well. Do you feel that?

EB: I do indeed. People ask me about that, of course, and it is very, very strange.

BBC: Can we look back a wee bit over the fifty-one years?

EB: If you’d like, yes sure.

BBC: Yes, and talk about your earliest childhood memories of the movies.

EB: I was brought up in the movies in a very, very funny way. My grandmother loved movies. Now my grandmother was not an English-speaking person, but in her day they were silents so it didn’t make any difference. People didn’t speak, and I can remember her taking me off to the movies when I was about seven, eight years old, you know, to see these silent movies, and I was absolutely fascinated by them. I always loved the medium. By the time I got to high school we had one of these, you know, Friday night go to movies nights. And it didn’t make any difference what the movie was. You just went to the movie on Friday nights.

BBC: How did you get into music in the first place?

EB: Well I came from a family where the arts were very, very much favored. My father, who was a teacher of English, really basically would have liked to have been a singer. And my mother actually started in life as a dancer with the Isadora Duncan Company, until her father went to see a recital and saw how scantily clad the girls were and that was the end of her dancing. As a child, at the age of nine, I was given piano lessons. We lived in Europe for about a year when I was about eleven. We were living in Paris and, having nothing better to do because I wasn’t really going to school at that point, I started to play the piano in earnest. By the time I was about fourteen I had really sort of made a choice among the arts, and at that point it was to be a concert pianist. My piano teacher, she instead of slapping me on the wrist and saying, “Play your scales and arpeggios. What are you doing?” She decided that I was so consistent with that, that she took me at the age of, I was twelve at this point, and she took me to meet what she considered to be a young colleague who was not at that time very well known yet. He was I think thirty-two at the time. It turned out to be Aaron Copland.

BBC: Right.

EB: It was a very funny thing. I don’t remember how she put it to me, but she put it to me in such a way that it all seemed like a fine adventure. I wasn’t frightened about anything and I didn’t know who he was. We went into this apartment, a nice apartment in downtown New York City. Eventually she said, “Well just play something for this man.” So I played a little thing I had composed and played it and he said nothing. My piano teacher, her name was Henriette Michelson, said to him, “Does this kid have any talent?” Aaron said, “I don’t know. Let’s give him some lessons and find out.” That’s how it started.

BBC: So then did he teach you then?

EB: He sort of followed my career, but I had to learn everything, you know, kind of nuts and bolts.

BBC: Sure. So how long did it take you from that earliest nuts and bolts time?

EB: For years and years and years. I started harmony, counterpoint, sight readings. It was in my head that I would compose music, but it would be music for the concert hall. This went on to my twenties.

BBC: You worked on a score which was going to change all cinema music forever.

EB: I did the score for “The Man with the Golden Arm.” That turned out to be a real turning point in my career because without realizing necessarily what I was doing, I did something which changed the face of motion picture scoring, by the inclusion of vast tracks of jazz in this score. The film was quite a sensation, as was the score, because it was so different.

BBC: Now that was one seminal moment, right?

EB: Oh it was indeed.

BBC: And you put down as a second one “The Magnificent Seven.” You changed the view of music in cinema with “The Magnificent Seven.” You did a template for westerns to come.

EB: Well I think Aaron Copland and I did “The Magnificent Seven.” Yeah, that was very Copland influenced, that score.

BBC: The hoe down and all that sort of stuff.

EB: Well yeah, but I think what caught people’s imagination, there had been a sort of, what we may call a kind of commercial western music, which had existed for years, which was not folk based. It was just inventive. What I did was folk based. It therefore had a different kind of strength and a different kind of energy, but I think what really caught people’s attention was the energy. It had terrific energy, forward going energy. In fact the theme, “The Magnificent Seven” has become a sort of signature theme for me. And I think I’ve ended every concert I’ve done with it, you know, in the last five years.

BBC: Yeah, because you say once you play that you can’t think of anything after.

EB: No, no. That’s it. That’s the end. I just did three concerts in Barcelona and it had a tremendous reaction in Barcelona.

BBC: The movie that I love and the music I love is the one that comes just after that. For me that has more Coplandesque feeling to it which is “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

EB: Oh, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

BBC: You really changed gear there didn’t you? I mean musically.

EB: Yeah.

BBC: Your input into that.
(“To Kill a Mockingbird” theme plays.)

EB: Well, you know, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is unique among the works I’ve done because it was a unique film. I think first of all, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is probably one of the greatest films of all time. And I think in surveys that have been done, it shows up on all the fifty best films of all time now. That was an interesting job. It was probably the most difficult job I’ve had because I couldn’t figure out what to do about the score because there were certain things that were obvious, but they were too obvious. For instance, it was a film about really serious themes. Racism, big theme. The bringing up of children, you know, was the other big theme. But while those things were obvious, oh and there was one other very important thing. It was the South, which geographically leads one some place musically. Like South, blues, things of that sort. So there were a lot of obvious things, but they were kind of too obvious, and I didn’t want to go there instinctively, but I didn’t know where else to go for a long, long time. And it took me about six weeks actually. I laugh now because six weeks today you’re expected to do an hour and a half score. But one day it suddenly hit me that what really the film was about, it was about all those things. It was about racism. It was about poverty. It was about the farmers. It was about bringing up children, but it was all these very adult issues seen through the eyes of children. That was the thing. Once I got that in my head then I started to think about, you know, this piano being played one note at a time, you know, that kids do. Uh, childlike sounds, a lot of harps, a lot of bells, solo flutes.

BBC: Solo flutes, simple melodies.

EB: Right. And once I got that in my head, I knew where to go. So it was very, very, very difficult to start, but once I got the idea that was fine.

BBC: Now we touched on the westerns. I’ve got to talk about the Duke because I grew up in a family of four boys, and John Wayne was king. Whenever he got killed, which was very rare in his movies, we were all in tears. Now you had a very close relationship.

EB: I did indeed.

BBC: With John Wayne. He came looking for you, didn’t he?

EB: Well it’s very funny you know. The thing that was great about him, in my relationship with him, was obviously he was a great presence. I mean, there are some actors that just can’t be replaced. I mean Gary Cooper was an actor like that. It was only one. Duke, John Wayne certainly was an actor like that and there was no way of replacing him.

BBC: No.

EB: None at all. The interesting thing about him was that he wanted me to do the music for his films, but it was a very behind the curtain kind of thing. He never interfered with the process, never talked to me about music. Never talked to me about music at all. But somehow or other if he was in the film, I was going to do the score. That was toward the end of his life, which was when I knew him. Interesting thing about John Wayne is, and we never discussed this, and it’s very interesting. I had done a lot of films for him. He then did a film called “The Green Berets,” which was about the Vietnam War. Now I, like very many Americans, was opposed to the Vietnam War, to our involvement in the Vietnam business, and I wouldn’t do the music for that film. Nothing phased. The next time he had a film he asked me again. So while he had different political opinions he was, in the sense that we like to think, a good American. It was okay for me to have my opinions as well.

BBC: You talked about the fact that he didn’t come into the process of it. The reason that you’ve done work with Scorsese, and you’ve said that every film composer should get the chance to work with him. Now why is that?

EB: Well, first of all he’s an artist. He has the soul of an artist, so therefore he understands other artists, and you’re dealing with him as a colleague artist. More importantly, he has a great appreciation of what music does in film, and not an appreciation from listening to it. He has an appreciation that is based on knowledge. It is not an annoyance to have to change things because his ideas are really interesting, because he really knows what he’s doing. That makes the collaboration really interesting.

BBC: We’re going to play something from “Age of Innocence.”

EB: “Age of Innocence” is a model of how composers and directors should communicate and work. Of course it was based on a novel, a famous American novel, which both of us had read, so before there was even a full script, we were already talking about the character of the music. We’d have conversations on what like, you know, shall the music faithfully represent the period. And we said yeah it probably should because it was very specific in the look of the film. 1870.

BBC: 1870 right.

EB: If the music should reflect the period, what class of music so to speak? Should it be popular music, salon music of the time or serious music of the time, and we went to serious music of the time. It was going to be serious music of the time. How would you represent serious music at 1870? Well we’ll leave out the operatic composers because we’re not going to sing through it, so that eliminated Wagner and Verdi, so it left Tchaikovsky. It was a great light, and Johannes Brahms, the other great light. Well, which way do we go because they’re rather different? There’s a rather different sensibility between the two composers, and the decision was Brahms. It wasn’t anybody making the decision, any one of us, it was us talking together.

BBC: It evolved.

EB: Yeah. But I mean, he knew enough about music. He started to talk about Brahms, he started to talk about arcane things like, “How about the Brahms Sextet,” you know, things like that. So at some point I decided that maybe he should hear some themes, and I went over to London and I remember, it was very funny because I don’t have a place in London, a studio. I could stay in a hotel, but I didn’t have a studio. I remember writing this stuff in the kitchen of a friend of mine who has a studio in London, and then had a small orchestra, very small orchestra. I composed four themes, one of them played two different ways. I Came back with that and he picked two of them instantly that he really liked. Now he likes to have music as he’s editing film and right away started to put the music, you know, in the film. He had no other music to begin with. When he was about half way through the edit, I suggested a procedure which I wish we could do all the time. I said, “You know, for a relatively small amount of money, I could go over to Ireland also with a smallish orchestra. Let’s pick about twelve pieces, you know, in the film, and I’ll go over and we can find out how it’s all working.” And we did that in the middle. The company said okay, much to everybody’s surprise, and we went over and did that. So this film, the film and the score were evolving at the same time. It was absolutely ideal.

BBC: Do you think that the future of film music is rosy?

EB: No.

BBC: Or do you think it’s going in a downward spiral?

EB: You know, these things are very cyclical. I mean I can remember a cycle in, oh I guess it must have been in the late fifties, sixties, when every film had to have a song in it that had the name of the film in it. And that eventually stopped. What has happened now has a lot to do with mass communication. Mass communication has brought basically children into the film world, in the United States at least. The demographic of the box office is twelve to twenty. Those are the people who buy the tickets to go to the movies. So in effect, we’re making movies for fourteen-year-olds. Now if you make movies for fourteen-year-olds then you’ve got to have music to match the fourteen-year-old taste. I think that at this moment in time the outlook for film music as an art, which indeed it is, is not a good outlook because composers are being asked to crank out things that are going to sound good on a CD rather than what’s really good for the film.

BBC: Sure, but as you said it is cyclical because before you had the teenybopper movies.

EB: Yes, yes, and it is to be hoped this will go away. I mean in this fog which exists, there are bright lights. I’m not saying that they’re aren’t talented people. There are bright lights shining through. Thomas Newman is one of them, he’s a wonderful composer. So there are, you know, lights in the storm.

BBC: And are you still finding time to compose because you’re jetting all over the place doing more and more of these concerts.

EB: I’m doing more concerts and I’m doing more writing for the concert hall partially because the kind of film that I like to do is rare now. I mean I really enjoy doing films and I really enjoy the process. I don’t enjoy it now as much as I used to because of the atmosphere, you know, which exists. My only concern, if I am writing a score for a film, it’s going to sound funny because so many things I’ve done have become popular, but my real concern on doing a score is what’s best for this film. What’s going to make this film go? I never think of the CD because that’s not what this art is about. It’s about helping the film go. Well you know the minute you’re directed to worry about the CD, the art goes out the window, you know. Luckily again I’m at the stage in my life where, you know, that’s not a big problem for me because I don’t have to do it, but it makes the jobs that I want to do fewer and far between. Generally speaking it is known in the business that I will not look at a film that has a temporary score in it. That’s a practice that now happens all the time. When they are editing a film, they’ll put a temporary score in it so they can show it to people right away. If somebody wants me to see a film they want me to be associated with, they have to take the score out. I don’t want to hear any music. I just want to see the film. My agent called me about a month ago and says, “I’m going to ask you to look at a film that has a temporary score in it.” So I said, “Why?” He said, “I think you’ll like this one.” I said, “Why am I going to like this temporary score?” He said, “It’s all temporarily scored with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.'” Anyway…

BBC: Well, it’s been a huge thrill for me to meet someone whose music’s been through my life from the earliest days. Thanks very much for coming. You’re not only a Hollywood star, but you’re a real gent. Thanks very much Elmer Bernstein.

EB: Pleasure, pleasure.

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