Soundtracks Live! An interview with Mikael Carlsson
Soundtracks Live! An interview with Mikael Carlsson
The summer season of La Verdi Orchestra was focused a lot toward music written for films, as we deeply documented on our website. Three of these concerts – namely Superhero Symphony, A Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock and Space Symphony – were prepared and produced by Soundtracks Live!, the agency of Swedish producer Mikael Carlsson.
Journalist (he collaborated for several years with many magazines and newspapers, including the film music specialized magazine Music for the Movies), record producer (he’s the owner of MovieScore Media, an independent label focused on film music by up-and-coming composers and music for non-mainstream films), concert producer and composer as well (his new concert work, “Requiem” for chorus, piano and orchestra will debut on November 5 in Haga, Goteborg), Carlsson is a multi-talented person with a deep love and knowledge of film music and all its nuances. His activity as concert producer is particularly interesting, mostly for his very careful programming and selection of what’s being performed by orchestras around the world. We met Mikael last August in Milano, on the eve of the Space Symphony concert (where a newly arranged concert suite of Jerry Goldsmith’s masterful Total Recall score got its world premiere) and we talked about his activity as concert producer and all the intricacies of bringing film music outside the film and putting it into the concert hall.
CS: According to your experience, what are the main challenges of putting together concert programs like the ones you presented here in Milano with La Verdi Orchestra? What’s the idea behind your choices?
MC: I would say that the idea is to combine musical quality, with a few surprises, and the commercial thought as well. A good example is the Superhero Symphony concert, which is a trendy concert to do thanks to the current success of the superhero films. Almost all of the most successful blockbuster films recently are comic-book movies. In this concert there are quite a lot of famous superhero themes like Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, but there’s also music that people who are not into film music have never heard live. The goal is to bring film music to regular concert halls. It’s one thing to have this music performed in film music festivals or special events, but bringing it into the classical symphonic environment is the road I like to travel first and foremost. If one day we could have a concert with pieces from the classical repertoire and then the suite from Close Encounters in the same, I think that would be really interesting.
CS: We’re probably getting closer to that format, at least concerning music by some of the greats like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann and a few others.
MC: Yes, it’s about time.
CS: How important is to work with the composers themselves (or their estates) to acquire and get authorizations to perform some of these scores in concert?
MC: If it’s possible, I like to collaborate with them. For instance, I have been working with Elmer Bernstein's son Peter on a tribute to his father's music, and I’m working now on a Michael Kamen program with his estate. For current music, with very few exceptions, the music comes directly from the composers. On a general note, I think there will be much more music available from current films because I think film companies, composers and libraries are starting to see there’s a market for it, so at least they don’t toss the music away. For example, I’m having a program devoted to current films which will be conducted by Ryan Shore in Winnipeg, Canada, next year. The idea is to perform music of what’s in cinemas now and in this case I’m working directly with composers such as Brian Tyler, Dario Marianelli, Marco Beltrami and others to obtain the scores. So I can help orchestras like La Verdi to build a program and helping them to find music that’s actually performable and that could work without pictures. This way I can also try to commission new suites, like Total Recall, and have them ready for any orchestras to perform. What’s been available so far from that score is the Main Title, but that arrangement completely avoid the electronic parts and doesn’t fully capture the spirit of the original score. And of course it’s a shame that a piece like “End of the Dream” has never been performed live until now. As a film music fan you always have these little Holy Grails of yours that you’d love to hear live, so I’m glad that we’re doing this suite here in Milano.
CS: Talking about the Total Recall suite, how did you work on it? Did you have access to the original manuscript? Did you work with an arranger?
MC: Yes, I did work with an arranger. I was initially gonna do it myself, but the deadline approached too quickly so I only had six weeks to prepare three full length concerts. We worked from the original scores stored in the archives in Los Angeles. As the first step, I did an audio edit from the soundtrack album with the pieces I wanted to include. Originally it was a 20-min suite with two more pieces, but it was too long for this concert, so I ended up with three movements (“The Dream”, “End of the Dream”, “A New Life”). They’re basically the pieces as they’re on the soundtrack album, without any cuts. So I worked closely with the arranger and we exchanged ideas back and forth, specifically pertaining to transferring a lot of the electronic sounds in the original orchestra to the orchestra. I think it works very well. La Verdi is such a great orchestra and I’m thrilled they’re premiering this suite.
CS: When it comes to film music concerts, as you were saying before, it’s always a matter of choosing the right pieces and constructing a program that has a narrative or a musical logic of its own. According to your experience, what is the best way to present film music in concert setting?
MC: It’s different from case to case. If you’re doing a tribute to a specific composer you can construct the program in segments devoted to different genres. Or if you’re doing an overview of a film genre, like the Space Symphony concert, you can do it chronologically—it begins in the 1960s with 2001 – A Space Odyssey and it ends with Avatar from 2009. You can even have someone standing there and telling the story of science fiction cinema. In other cases it’s just a matter of balance, like you would program any concert of orchestral music, for example opening with an overture, then having something a little more intimate and then having the big piece at the end and so on. You can do that for film music as well. So there are different ways to do it, but what’s important is to give a shape to the concert.
CS: Do you think film music needs to be specifically arranged, or reshaped, to be performed in concert? Or can it be played as it’s written for the film itself?
MC: It depends very much on the quality of the composer and the quality of the music. I think any John Williams action scherzo would be totally thrilling—I mean, wouldn’t be great to hear the full 8-minute truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark live? That’s not probably what Williams would like himself, because sometimes in film you do things that are motivated by the drama and not by musical logic, so you wouldn’t change that bar from 6/8 to 5/4 musically, but you need to do it by the cut of the film. Sometimes you can do such kind of adjustments for the concert, but I mean, basically you could have any Goldsmith piece and make it work for live performance. For example, you could take the entire Poltergeist score and perform it live. What kind of genius writes music like that? It’s such fantastic music. Of course you have to be careful about what you choose because not everything is like that. Another thing I have to mention is that there’s a lot of film music that is written to be performed by very big orchestras of 100 players, so in many cases you have to downsize the orchestration because not every orchestra has that number available.
CS: And that also brings out the problem of balancing the sound between sections, especially in case of film music with lots of brass and percussion.
MC: Yes, in film music concerts you have this problem with acoustic balance because it’s usually a lot of brass, so there’s the tendency to go for a big brass section, but then you need a big string section too and then you need triple woodwinds all over to balance the sound. So that’s kind of difficult and you need to think about that. Film music is often about balancing everything in the mixing booth and sometimes it’s not easy to exactly reproduce that kind of sound you hear in the film or on the soundtrack album. A harp solo on a recording may sound great with the orchestra, but be difficult to hear live.
CS: In the last few years there’s been a real surge of film music concerts all over the world. What are your views about film music concerts in the future? Do you think they’re going to be more and more accepted by worldwide audiences?
MC: I’m hopeful. As I said at the beginning of our conversation, I think the area I hope to contribute the most is the combination of the commercial aspect, artistic value and some surprise element for the audience (and the players as well). One of my mantras, even in my activity as a soundtrack-label producer, is that some of the best film music i s not written for the best-known films, so in the Superhero Symphony it’s nice to have something like Alan Silvestri’s Judge Dredd, for example, because even though the audience might not remember the film very well, it’s a truly great piece and it’s not performed that often by orchestras. It’s an opportunity to achieve what the box office is looking for - reaching new audiences, good ticket sales, a great experience, happy people, nice music - but also to show what film music can do and what is really about. We all know that now orchestras around the world have eyes open on film music because it shows them they can have a new audience. In my opinion, it’s a win-win situation because orchestras can nurture a new audience and then maybe bring them to hear Strauss or Mahler. But it also shows them that the very best film music can be as good as anything else.
Webmagazine Director Massimo Privitera, Mikael Carlsson and chief director Maurizio Caschetto at Auditorium 'Giuseppe Verdi' in Milan
CS: What is very interesting in our opinion is that it’s also a fairly new and recent repertoire of orchestral, symphonic music that can be performed regularly.
MC: That’s correct. We’re seeing such big movement now everywhere with film music being performed in places where it was never performed or even considered before. Even orchestras that were considered high-brow institutions, like the Berliner Philharmoniker, are now doing film music concerts.
CS: Speaking about your role as a soundtrack album producer, you have put out a lot of music written by up and coming composers. What do you think of the current film music landscape? There seem always to be two different camps with very different views about it: one that laments that says “film music isn’t as good as it was” and another that says “film music has never been as diverse as it is now”…
MC: I think there is great film music written nowadays, but I think that a lot of this music isn’t written for the mainstream films. Some of it appears there as well, but there’s no such thing as an equation involving big budgets and inventive film music. It’s quite the opposite, actually. On the other hand, some of the big budget film composers that work out there are incredibly skillful. They are at that level for a reason! The problem is that film music in mainstream films become somewhat streamlined and - like argued in the recent Marvel music viral videos discussing the impact of temp tracks - sound all the same. However, these arguments are hardly new. They have been out there since forever in any art form, be it music, architecture, literature. That's why it's always important to encourage originality in any art form, film music included!