A Moving Image of Elliot Goldenthal

Cinema vs. The Concert Hall

FRANK J. OTERI: Are there dos and don’ts for film music that don’t apply to music for the concert hall and visa versa?

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: I wouldn’t know. Because every time I think I know something someone comes along and does it right. I don’t know anything about dos and don’ts.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is there something you’d write….

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: (laughing) Don’t make people bored!

FRANK J. OTERI: (laughing) In either one?


FRANK J. OTERI: Are there things you’d write in a film score that you wouldn’t write in a piece for concert hall?

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: Well, there are times in film music where you have to create tension, or you have to suspend time, and do it in a way where it’s completely unobtrusive. So much so that the content of the music has to be so spare that there can’t be much that is intellectual or bits of complexity. Sometimes at the concert hall you might want more to elapse within a timeframe, sometimes. But there are times when you still have to clear the palette for more dense information as well.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting because in the concert hall you don’t have a film image accompanying the music, so basically the music is all you’ve got. The music has to be one hundred percent of the sensory information to the audience members. Whereas in film your eyes are being activated, your ears are being activated, your sense of narrative flow is being activated. Lots of different parts of your brain are being channeled at the same time. Yet, there have been composers, yourself included, who’ve written really out-there, sophisticated, experimental music for motion pictures. You know this has been going on for over fifty years. Leonard Rosenman was writing twelve-tone music for film in the ’50s. Jerry Goldsmith wrote twelve-tone music for film…

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: Don’t forget Takemitsu!

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. His film music is really wonderful…

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: Well, Takemitsu also is someone that you can really aspire to want to have a career like. At times his film music and concert music were indistinguishable.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think only now audiences in America are aware of just how much he contributed to films because a lot of those films did not get circulation in this country. We didn’t realize. We know these concert works of his. I think actually a lot of his work are getting attention now that he’s dead. This is the terrible thing that happens to so many composers; now that he’s dead his music is getting out there in ways that it never did…

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: It gives us composers something to look forward to.

FRANK J. OTERI: (laughing) For me personally it doesn’t sound like a good gamble, but….

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: Don’t forget Shostakovich. He also wrote over forty film scores. I mean tacky love stories, stupid documentaries. I mean he tackled a lot of dumb projects and he did it with grace and vigor. His music is quite captivating but it’s servicing the movies.

FRANK J. OTERI: And he actually had a theremin in one of his scores before Rózsa did. Everyone said that Rózsa was the first one to use a theremin in a film score….

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: That makes sense.

FRANK J. OTERI: It was a Soviet invention. Certainly after talking about Shostakovich and people of that earlier generation, the palette for writing for movies then was much different than it is now. It was really this kind of expanded post-Richard Strauss orchestra. Now, there are also electronics and world music influences. I know a lot of that figures in your own work. It’s even elements of rock, pop, rap. It’s anything goes. It’s not just so-called classical orchestral music. It’s all part of the vocabulary of writing for film. So in a way it has almost morphed into a separate genre whereas earlier in the century, film music was kind of a subcategory of orchestral music, to some extent.

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: To some extent. I think once the Americans started forgetting the European and the Europeans started discovering the Americans, interesting things started to happen. For example, in the 1930s and the early Berlin films you had a lot of German composers experimenting with jazz, bringing them into that— also in the French cinema, as well. I think post-World War II opened the floodgates for so much more experimentation, which also went along with the improvement of recording techniques. When you look at movies post-World War II like The Third Man for example, just using the zither with a cimbalom as the major component of the score. Some of the neorealist filmmakers, Rossellini, De Sica, Fellini, and Pasolini— the work that Morricone did with Pasolini is really startling, some of that early stuff.

FRANK J. OTERI: One of the things that’s so interesting about writing for film as opposed to writing for the concert hall is you’re dealing with fixed form. You can do things in the studio. You can create effects in the studio with electronics that you might not necessarily be able to pull off the way you want it to sound every time in a live concert hall setting. So in a way it kind of allows you more room. But, at the same time, it also constrains you because it locks the score— cues have to be a certain length of time.

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: I don’t find it constraining. I don’t disagree with you but I think both concert music and film music thrive on constraint and thrive almost on human accuracy that needs to be either reproduced on the spot or recorded. Certainly if you look at the scores of Penderecki, everything is clicked out according to seconds. It doesn’t have to be, but that’s his method. Even the desire for Beethoven to use the metronome

FRANK J. OTERI: Well it’s interesting. There are certain kinds of aleatory processes. You can certainly experiment with them using a stopwatch, as Penderecki does in his early scores. But you can’t really experiment in an aleatoric, free form way temporally with music that you write for film because you always have to be aware of what the music is supposed to be serving, I would think.

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: Well, I use a lot of aleatory techniques of writing in film. In the score for Alien 3, for example, I pre-composed the electronics using homemade samples and different sounds ranging from scissors to stretching strings, to clangorous sounds, etc. I basically had the electronic score. I had this orchestra score in mind, but not a typical European orchestra sound. I wanted the orchestra to sound like the musique concrète that was already recorded. In order to do that one had use a lot of aleatoric techniques; boxes with clusters of strings and smears across the page. You have to coax and coerce the musicians not be as logical as they would. So I found that technique very, very effective— with a click, aleatoric. Going from letter A to letter B, not counting measures. Just cueing in what the next event will be.