Variations on the Musical Image (2/2)


JT: The theme of technology is another interesting dimension in relation to your work, I think. Your rapid ostinatos, the use of repeated arpeggiation in many ways seems to be reflective, paralleling that kind of technical idiom. And yet, you take that, which seems very much of our time, and push it into a dimension which is absolutely emotional.

PG: Well, of course, I suppose that could be true. I’ve always felt that the core of the music was not repetition but expressivity. That was how I looked at it. And I think that is how we experience it. Though in the early days of this music it appeared much more radical than it did today—and I think we have to remember that we’ve been hearing this music for twenty-five years—so when this music started appearing in the late sixties and early seventies, people would actually throw things at us and try to make us stop, and people got very angry at this music. What they were hearing was the mechanical-ness of it, and they weren’t hearing the expressiveness of it. And then eventually when they got used to the mechanical part of it they kind of forgot about that, and they began to hear the lyricism of it. I think it just took at while.

JT: On the note of expressivity, “Metamorphosis” is quieter than the large-scale textures that we’re so used to hearing. For me it’s a sign of a very different kind of expressivity that we find also in your music. Private, introspective, quiet, intimate. It sounds like romantic, western piano music in the tradition of Chopin.

PG: If only it did. I would love to sound like Chopin, but it doesn’t quite reach that height. I’ve talked about the ensemble writing and the theater pieces, and there are also five symphonies and string quartets, but in the end I wanted to have a music that I could play myself. While I was busily working with the ensemble, it occurred to me that maybe I should be working on programs of solo music, and I began doing that in the late seventies. At this point I have a number of programs of just piano music. Part of that was I wanted to explore what you call this more romantic, more lyrical style. I had become so associated with this motoric driving music, and I began to do this other music. By the way, I do fifteen or twenty piano concerts a year. I’m currently writing a series of etudes for the piano, which are different, but basically the idea is that they are pieces written for myself.

JT: A piece adopted by this has been used in film as well, in The Thin Blue Line (1988), and it gets orchestrated up into a slightly larger form in that film.

PG: I wonder which one I wrote first? I make up the dates afterwards. I don’t know. They are written about the same time—within weeks of each other actually.


JT: How did the Dracula project come about?

PG: It was an invitation from Universal Pictures, who owned a number of these kind of classic vintage movies, and it was their idea to start releasing them as videotapes, but they wanted to I guess kind of update them or upgrade them into something more contemporary; and when they discovered that they didn’t have soundtracks, they had the idea of asking for a composer to do a soundtrack. And the way I approached it, James, is I thought of it as a film that was never completed. And what I was doing was completing the film. Now of course Tod Browning the director wasn’t there to tell me I had done something wrong. It was really actually quite wonderful to work on. It’s rare that a composer gets to work with a film when there isn’t someone telling him what to do.

JT: Absolutely. A normal practice would be for a director and a music supervisor to come up with a temp track, which is often cobbled together out of music that the director and perhaps the producers really enjoy, and it can really be difficult for a composer to come in at that point.

PG: That’s such a shocking idea. I think we should explain that the reason they do that is that the editors, as any film editor will tell you, can’t edit a film without music. So they find music, and they hand this kind of Frankenstein monster, and you can’t believe what some of these things sound like. And the film is completed, in other words. That’s important. Well, in this case, the film was completed too.

JT: The strategy that often people use is to approximate either a historical period in terms of music, using baroque music for a baroque film, or trying to go for what one music supervisor has called not historic correctness, but demographic correctness. In other words, matching it to the audience, the desires of the audience.

PG: I did it a different way. I approached it totally from the point of view as a theater work, which is how I approach film anyway. As I looked at it, it looked to me like a play that was made into a film, which it was. Then I thought what would be the right size group to play with it, and then it looked to me like it should be a chamber piece. The idea was that the string quartet has both the intimacy that I wanted to indicate in the music, and also the dramatic depth which we associate with string quartets.

JT: But I was wondering, I seem to notice some slight de-tunings in Kronos Quartet’s performance of this piece.

PG: We took advantage of the string instruments for certain kinds of effects. Now my arrangement with them when I invited them to play the piece was they were available for one year. Basically we did about twenty weeks of touring together. The piece proved to be so successful that I decided to rescore it for the ensemble. And that was in itself quite interesting, because in fact the ensemble can do things the string quartet can’t do, and the string quartet can do things the ensemble can’t do. So the presence of the bass clarinetist gives the Renfield character, because that instrument becomes associated with him. And by the way, that’s another technique that I used, which I borrowed from the world of opera, which is leitmotifs, so that characters have themes that went with them. It’s rather unusual for film. But it became a way of helping to articulate the dramatic structure of the film by presenting musical analogues for the characters. So that you can sometimes you hear Renfield’s music before he’s on the screen, and you know he’s about to appear.

If you listen to the version without the music, what you’ll find is the pacing of the old film without the music is very lugubrious, it is very slow. The point is that I felt that what the music could do was to correct, well, really and truly, some of the dramatic flaws of the film, which was that the pacing was completely off.

Of course, we know that music gives you the dramatic point of view. But that’s normal, you would see that. But to actually be able to pace the film through the music. Well, it does that, too, automatically. But in a situation like this, where the film is this classic film, and it’s all done, and it was actually a big mess when I saw it, it looked like to me. But I had a chance to maybe, to kind of stage-manage the action through the music. So it became a tremendously interesting process.

JT: Now, there is a historical parallel or precedent for this. In the middle-twenties, the conductor at the famous Roxy Cinema in New York City would re-cut films in order to improve their pacing according to the score. So the conductors were putting together scores for the audiences. It would depend on the musicians they had available, and the taste of the conductor. And this particular conductor was known to actually reedit films once he had finished his scores.

PG: I didn’t know that. They’d skin him alive today.


JT: I’d like to move a little bit toward some of the large-scale cinema scores that you’ve done for narrative cinema, particularly Kundun I think stands out. It is widely appreciated as a great film score. It is very varied in its incorporation of all kinds of sounds. The problem in film of course is to combine dialogue, sound effects and score in an interesting way, or effective way. In Kundun we see this very effectively, including some chant, some percussion, all appropriate to the themes. And yet don’t seem to have a problem fitting in with your particular idiom at all.

PG: Well, first of all, I was working with Scorsese. Once we got started working together, he resisted it at first. He was not interested. He said you don’t need to work on the score for nine months, or ten months. I’ll be making the movie, and you can make the music afterwards. But I said, “No Marty, I have to start now, or I can’t do it.” And he agreed. And he got into this idea of working together. And it became an extremely interesting process.

JT: Scorsese is known to have been very exited to work with people like Bernard Herrmann, so his use of great film music goes way back. The thing I noticed in this film, though, is the way the image breaks out into a very formal composition, speaking of the sand mandalas. And all of a sudden you have this formal graphical element inserted into the flow of the film, and somehow the music accentuates perfectly the work perfectly with the patterning of the motifs.

PG: The film you know is about the Dalai Lama and his life, and he had really fallen for the visual aspects of the culture in a big way. He was totally in love with everything Tibetan at that point, maybe he still is, but at that point in his life he was totally into it. It was also a community I had known quite well already myself. When I went to see him, to talk to him about the movie, I had met the Dalai Lama in the early seventies, twenty-five years before, and I had been in touch with Tibetan musicians for a long time. So I knew I could work with Tibetan musicians, I knew what the music was like. I told him that the Tibetan musicians would create a door, passage, a doorway into the piece. Which I felt, and I urged him, I said that the material is very exotic for western audiences, and we have to ground it in something that is both Tibetan and also something familiar. And I suggested that the music would be the bridge.

JT: And I think it really works that way. There are some elements that are atypical from how I think about your music. A solo flute motif, kind of floating above the rest of the orchestration, and something that sounds almost like a folk motif.

PG: I know the one you mean. It’s the one with the white horse and the escape from India. I remember when that came about.

I think you’ll find, we talk about artists as having styles and this and that. But what is always interesting is when a musician or a painter, something unexpected inspires them, and suddenly they’re not doing what they did before. We always notice that, and we’re always a little surprised. And yet in a way, those are the moments, those are those wonderful moments in any work, whether it’s a novel or a movie, that you wait for, that captivate us, I think.

Let me tell you a quick story about the scene we call the escape from India, it’s a twenty-two-minute scene, which is longer than a reel, and Marty had to get permission from Disney to make the scene—he wanted to make it without a reel change. He told me later that it’s the longest single music cue in the history of film music. And Marty will know. If he said it, it’s got to be true, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was working with him on it, and I went to Europe on tour, and it is at the end of the movie, and I thought I’d be back in time to write this music, but he was ahead of me. And he called me up, and he said I’m doing this very complicated scene, it has flashbacks, it has dreams. He said, and this is what is really astonishing, he said I really need the music to cut with it. I went back to New York, I had a weekend free, and I went back and I sketched out something very quickly, which in many ways is similar, and I gave him enough so that he could cut, and it became enough so that I could finish it from this. But he came so far from wanting the music at the end that he even stopped until I brought the music back for that scene.

JT: And it’s a very rare relationship in the history of director-composer relationships. One of the themes that this film takes up is of course the exile—the film is a story of exile of the Dalai Lama. And one of the themes that reoccurs is that of changes, handling changes, as well as the question of resistance and the political crisis. And one of the lines that is given to the figure who plays the Dalai Lama is that nonviolence takes a long time. And there is something insistent about the music here. Both in terms of the matching of the formal elements—which I think the colors, and patterns, the flow, the rhythm—there is a lot of intermeshing on just the formal qualities. But on the level of meaning, I think that there is also a sense in which the changing of the music contributes to this.

PG: I should point out, which I don’t usually get to a chance to do so, but the themes of the music related to an earlier work, an opera twenty years before called Satyagraha, which is an opera about the transformation of society through nonviolence, and is the story of Gandhi’s life. So the theme of change through nonviolence, which is what you are saying, was something that I began to address in a theatrical form twenty years before. So when this came up, I was in very familiar territory. The themes aren’t the same. But let me say that the aspiration of the film was so close to the aspirations of the opera that I had done twenty years before, that I felt totally felt at home with the subject.


James Tobias

Assistant Professor of Digital Media Studies in the English Department and the Program in Film and Visual Culture at the University of California, Riverside. Research interests include music and musicality in visual culture, gesture in interactive media, and cybercultural studies. Recently completed a book manuscript on music and gesture in cinema and new media, and is currently working on a second book-length project on agency, interactivity, and network media. Lives in Los Angeles.