Respecting the Images: Interview with Alan Silvestri
Originally published on Colonne Sonore-Immagini tra le Note N.15 - November/December 2005 issue - Interview taken on November 2005Taking a break from the scoring of Disney’s The Wild, film composer Alan Silvestri offered Colonne Sonore an in-depth, exclusive interview about his career and his artistry: from the jazzy early days - on the way to be-bop touring with Wayne Cochran & the C.C. Ryders - to his personal beliefs about composing, orchestrating and conducting as one of the most influential film composer in today’s Hollywood. With his next Zemeckis project, Beowulf, still far to come, the Back To The Future composer - now owner of a quality wine label - explains his approach to the medium, his profound respect for the inside communication central to the director/composer partnership, and his dialogue with images. The audio-visual dialectics of “a filmmaker who writes music”.
Colonne Sonore: The recent release of Judgment Night from Intrada has been really a happy surprise. How did it come out?
Alan Silvestri: The way that came about was: there is a man who is a music publisher but he’s also worked as a music supervisor, he’s name is Joel Sill - he was the music supervisor for instance for Forrest Gump. Anyway, he was involved with this company that had obtained the rights to a number of different films and, I think, one of this was Judgment Night. Once the rights, the musical rights to that film had been purchased by this company, they have turned back to see if they might release some soundtrack albums from some of this films. Judgment Night was one of them and they called me and asked what my thoughts were, and of course I was fine with that. So that’s how it came about. I never would have expected about that, it was a surprise for all of us; but, you know, that’s ok: I like surprises!
CS: Over the years, have you virtually compiled a wish-list of your scores still unavailable that you would like to see released?
AS: Well, you know, I’ve been thinking about that but I think if there was maybe one film that I don’t have a soundtrack album for that I would like, it would probably be Back To The Future. It’s interesting that one was never made, I think that always came down to a financial consideration. You know, here in the States when you record music for film, if you then take a film music and put it on a record, you have to pay quite a lot of money to all of the orchestra, all over again, and so if you do a film with a very large orchestra sometimes that cost can be so high that it would make it impossible for anyone who wanna release a soundtrack album. So I think that was part of happened there. But that would be the one I would say: that would be nice to have an actual release - and you know maybe someday it’ll happen…you never know.
CS: So you can confirm that no BTTF score release is on the way at the moment?
AS: No, not that I know it. Nobody has said anything to me about it.
CS: Did you also have a personal wish-list of best film scores during your childhood , when you simply used to “listen” to film-music?
AS: Boy! I don’t…you know…I kind started out as a child wanted to be a jazz guitar player and so I didn’t grow up wanting to score film, it wasn’t something that I even thought about. So, you know, I mean, now there are kids who when they’re very young they wanna write music for films, and just the way I wanna to be a jazz guitar player, so they’re very immersed in that world as young people, I was immerged in the jazz world as a young person…I don’t have recollections like that, of curse there were the obvious icons, things like Psycho, I remember some of the David Lean films, Maurice Jarre, I remember the early James Bond films, where music really had a great presence. And then of course when we started to get in the world of John Williams, with some of his earlier scores: I was not a young child at that point, I was a young man though and his things always seemed to be so amazing. There are a number of things like that that was very influential for me.
CS: During your youth, you studied clarinet, sax and guitar. But you’ve also played drums: how much do you think the practice of this instrument influenced your rhythmic style?
AS: That’s right, I actually started off as a drummer. I have always kept that sensibility and I think it had a tremendous influence. I mean, I think I always have a very strong rhythmic component to the way I see music and write it, and so I think it had a tremendous influence on me. When the situation calls for it I have a very strong rhythmic component to what I do.
CS: In an interview you remembered your high school band director G. Donald Mairs as a mentor for you. Did he infuse you the love for jazz and bebop?
AS: Yes, absolutely. He had been a player, he was just a wonderful musician, wonderful teacher and most of all a wonderful friend. It was very important at that stage of my life, as I was in the school system but I knew that I wanted to play music and it was good to have someone who was very encouraging with all of that, because school was difficult for me because I just wanna to sit in a room and practice, and write, and yet I had to be in school all day, every day, like everyone. Anyway it was great to have somebody who was a player, was a great musician and kind of understood that and kinda help me through those years.
CS: Did you left Berklee College of Music after a couple of years because of the need to experiment other musical forms and contaminations (evident in your successive film-music career)?
AS: It was a very kind of spontaneous decision, I mean I’ll tell you literally how it happened. I was at the end of my second year, I was very fond of a man who has since passed on, but he was the head of the guitar department back then. I walked in his office one afternoon and he was on the phone with an ex-student who was working in a band in Las Vegas, and the student was leaving this band in Las Vegas and was calling to see if he might have a suggestion of someone who had wanna take place. And I decided right there, I said: “I’ll go!”. It was like at the end of the school year but we were still in school and I literally went home, packed up all my stuff and flew to Las Vegas. That was it!
CS: You’re talking about Wayne Cochran & the C.C. Riders…
AS: Yes! And that’s what had happened, I mean it was so spontaneous: whatever possessed to do that, I just felt at that time that I wanna to go and make that kind of move, so I did it. And all worked out okay…
CS: During 80s’ first half, you concentrated on synth-scoring, focusing much of your score on Synclavier-based music. Was it just a matter of limited budget or sometimes was it something of a “conceptual” choice? For instance, I’ve always thought that your score for Flight Of The Navigator matched so perfectly the film’s innocence and its pop-esthetic that probably an orchestral score would have resulted excessive - and also your radical electronic score for Clan Of The Cave Bear seemed to react in a kind of “opposition” with the primitive, naturalistic movie‘s scenario…
AS: Well it’s all of the above that you have said. There’s certainly at that time has been a finical component: sometimes if you’re doing a film that doesn’t have any budget speak up for music, you can get a lot done on a synthesizer; whereas if you only have enough money for five musician, you know, it’s not gonna really give you the effect you’re looking for, you’re better off with this other tool. There’ve also been times where it has really seemed to be the appropriate sound for what being attempted, whether it’s through the actual capability of sound effect, timbres or any other numbers of technical things. I’ve always have a love for that technical side of music, so I always look at it as another tool in my tool-box and, as you probably know, on a lot of films, for instance the Preadator films, I used the synths as part of the score in the way it’s conceived just like I used the orchestra. I really don’t see one is being competitive with the other, it’s another range of colors that the composer has to work with. So I always stay up to date and I always welcome having that resource.
CS: What were your orchestral experiences before Romancing The Stone and Fandango? Were there some classical composers you’ve particularly admired that in a certain way defined your style?
AS: First of all, in terms of scoring, I think the largest ensemble I had used, before that films, was maybe something like on the Chips show: ten or twelve musicians. I had no orchestral experience. I was a rhythm section player, I was a drummer and a guitar player and so in pretty much everything that I’ve written the rhythm section had always played a prominent part. So that’s why you may have seen in an interview when I talk about Fandango that was kind a groundbreaking advent for me. I’ve studied scores and studied the works of the great composers for years prior to that, but I had never written anything for orchestra, so that was just a big advent for me. In terms of my favorite composers, I mean, the classical literature is just unbelievable…it’s just impossible to choose, it’s such a tremendous body of work and continues to be elaborate to these days, and so I’ve tried to listen to as much as I can and study scores and continue to do that, continue to learn.
CS: One of your most significant musical characteristic is the perfection of your main-themes. Often in binary form, with the two section of the statement regulated by a tritone gesture, they always provide a general and essential idea of the entire movie with just a bunch of bars, summarizing the screenplay’s dramatic dynamics with the best of instinct. For example the main-theme of Judge Dredd, with the first, fanfare-like part proclaiming the integrity of Dredd as a superhero and the second, descending part underlining his drama as a man. How much time does a similar conceiving of a theme takes you while composing? Is the main-theme(s) always your starting point?
AS: Well, when there is a main theme it usually is the starting point. And what I try…I think you’ve described it beautifully. You know, in terms of sound film can be a very competitive environment. It’s not like concert music, you’re competing with dialogue, you’re competing with ambient sound, competing with sound effects and so you’re part of this large sonic picture in a sense in film. So when I do have a central theme or central themes I usually do start with those and you described very well, I look for things that with minimal amount of material will be very identifiable. And in a sense I think that’s something that you can look to and you can learn from some of the great composers, that they can take a very kind of identifiable but small motive and then proceed to write an enormous amount of music based on that. So I kinda look in those direction, I look for something that would capture the sense of what the film is saying and that would also be a good resource for me to then develop the material for the score.
CS: Another wonderfully developed theme is the one for The Abyss, through which, prior to Dredd, you confirmed your extremely congeniality to science-fiction. What do you remember about the genesis of that score? Was your experience with James Cameron troubled as it was for actors and crew during shooting?
AS: It wasn’t troubled at all. Jim have done an amazing thing with the conceiving of that film. It was very difficult physically for those people to make that film, but as these images started to arrive they were just very inspiring, wonderful images that he created. Jim is a very demanding filmmaker but above all demanding on himself, and so for someone who is looking for something inspiring to write he provided an enormous amount of motivation and inspiration for me. That in one way makes the composer’s job a little easier when you have such a richness of imagery to write to.
CS: Talking about themes it’s impossible to not mention the legendary one for Back To The Future. How much time did it take you to mould the motif? Was it your first choice or did you select it from other alternatives composed during the score‘s conceptualization? And did you start writing the music knowing that it was going to be performed by a 98-elements orchestra?
AS: Let’s start at the beginning of all that. I originally talked with Bob Zemeckis that we wanted a score for the film that would in a sense bring some scope and some size to the screen, because he was concerned that many of the images he was going to have would not gonna be big-big images because so much of these took places in a small town, it was that kind of film. When I sat down to come up with that theme – first of all, it came out relatively quick – I knew that the main theme of this film had to be heroic, because that’s ultimately what that film was all about: Marty was a hero, the Doc was a hero, and so I knew that there would have to be this heroic aspect, I knew that we were gonna use a large orchestra because we were gonna be looking for the music to bring a size and scope to the screen, that the imagery might not have, and so that’s kinda of all that happened and it was the first, very first thing I did and it came very quick.
CS: Another relevant characteristic of your music is its melodic inclination . You’ve provided chilling and uncomfortable backgrounds for such films like the two Predators, Ricochet and Identity, but always writing in tonal registers - or by their boundaries. And although some passages can be exposed to aleatorism, rarely you digress in pure atonality (Yoshi’s impressionistic theme for Super Mario Bros can be an example). Is it because of the singular necessities of the movies you have worked on till now, or does it refer to a precise way to intend film music?
AS: Once again I’m looking for some material that would give a kind of continuity and resonance to the score, only because in many instances you can achieve interesting results if you have thematic material that is identifiable. For instance: you could see a ship on the water, coming toward you, if the main character of the film has a theme and you start it very softly and quietly bringing in that theme, even though you’re not seeing that character you know that character is on that ship now, and that is something that you can achieve musically that you really couldn’t do the another way. I think I’m very much aware of those kinds of possibilities when you start to put music along with a piece of film, and there are all kind of ways to imprint a theme or a motive on an audience: sometimes it could just be rhythm, sometimes it could be the quality of a string section playing a clustery sound, that could be associated with a character or with a situation. But certainly when we start to talk about emotional moments melodies can be very, very powerful and I think that’s why I’m so attracted to them.
CS: With Beowulf you’ll score your twelfth movie for Robert Zemeckis. Is your friendship now an element of facility in producing the best score or you still discuss the picture exactly like you did for Romancing The Stone?
AS: It’s exactly the same! And it actually is one of the most fun times we ever have together, because it’s a chance for Bob to talk about his movie, and for me to talk about his movie, and it’s like any other kind of relationship when two people begin to talk on subject and they make reactions, and they see things the same way, and they see the same things about the situation. It really is a great experience to have. It is exactly the same way as on our very first film, the way we relate to each other when we talk about the film.
CS: Recently, you and Zemeckis have proved to be one of the most scrupulous and careful duo composer-director when spotting a movie, bringing back that attention to silence that dominated ’60s and ’70s pictures. A film like Castaway and the decision to leave unscored the bathroom climax sequence in What Lies Beneath demonstrate this sensitiveness. Can you explain these choices? Does contemporary Hollywood’s wall-to-wall scoring risk to weaken the movies instead of reinforce it?
AS: I think one of the things that really is remarkable about Bob is that he invests all of this time in his film, but he always looks at the film from the audience point of view, he has just this amazing gift to do that. He has a really wonderful sense of objectivity when he comes to doing anything with the film. We kinda learned over the year that there are a couple of very powerful moment connected with music in a film. The most powerful, maybe, is where you start music; second most powerful, very often, is where you end music; and third most powerful is whether you have any there or not. I think you’re absolutely right, sometimes people use music like ketchup or parmesan cheese: “Put it on everything, every note is better!” So that’s kind of something that’s hard if a filmmaker became insecure about a scene, that they feel that isn’t really working very well: “oh,oh,oh, we’re just gonna put some music there”. Bob just doesn’t do that. First of all he gets his film to work and then he doesn’t place that responsibility on music, he never ask music to make it work, he ask music to enhance what he has already done. So that’s really kinda how that works out and there’s no doubt that in a thriller the absence of music can be very powerful. Once again, we didn’t go into that film, for instance What Lies Beneath or Cast Away, we didn’t go into with any kind of psychological game plan. We just sit and watch the movie and we go: “We don’t hear any music yet, we don’t hear any music yet…Why should we play music if we don’t need to?” Simplicity is the key: why would you do it? It’s just like a chef: why would you put a spice on a dish if it doesn’t need it? It doesn’t make any sense. And that’s the way we spot the film: when the film need music we play it.
CS: Castaway is really a masterpiece of intelligent and scrupulous moviemaking, with the score debuting only in the picture‘s last part. During a lecture for ASCAP, sometimes ago, you insisted on the importance of the entrance of music in a scene. How did you choose, in the case of Castaway, the starting point for music?
AS: It’s a very critical point…
It is, it is. That was a very interesting film for a lot of reasons. First of all: it’s a film, it’s not real life. But that being said, you wanna to try to communicate a level of desolation, a level of reality in that film, that wouldn’t have worked at all if you turned it in some kind of glossy pop-corn movie, it would have not wok at all. However was still a film, it wasn’t real life and so that was really a case where I kept watching the film and I kept feeling. We have this big plane crash, and he’s out on the ocean and it’s all terrible and all… but are we really gonna start playing some big kind of orchestral score like in a disaster movie? We would be taking everybody ride out of what we want them to experience there. And so then of course we get on the island and we keep thinking: “God, we really gonna go all of this with milieu, are we gonna play the high strings pad on the island when there’s nobody there - are we gonna do all these things that you’ve seen in thousands of movies because everybody is gonna be waiting for it?” We just kept going: “No! We are not gonna doing it! It’s not the moment…” And then, all of a sudden, he’s escaping or getting off of that island, all of a sudden it seemed appropriate. If you look at that film as one man’s journey, up until that time, up until he left that island, he was a victim, everything that happened happened to him: he got on that plane, he didn’t want to go to work, but he had to go to work, to do this job, he didn’t wanna leave his girlfriend, he gets on this plane, the plane crashes, it happens to him, he’s the only guy who get to this land and he’s trying to stay alive there - but he’s a victim. At some point he makes a very profound decision: he decides that he’s going to take an action over himself. It is an enormous gamble, because chances are by the very taking of this action he’ll die; because he doesn’t know if there’s any place to get to, he can barely take any food on his raft, but he does know that he doesn’t any longer want to be a prisoner, and that he would rather die than spent one more day as a victim, as a prisoner. So what happens is that when he brakes over that last wave he has just freed himself from being a victim, and then when he looks back, you can see that he understands the price of his decision, even though that island was his prison, was the non-world, it was land it was food, he could live there, although a prisoner, he could live there. And so that really was for me the biggest, most important turning point, most important moment in the film - now he’s freed himself, he’s faced his own death - and so I couldn’t think of a better place for some music to in a sense celebrate that turning point in his life. And as you know, I did it with a very pure, simple orchestra - it was just strings and an oboe - and not a big gigantic string orchestra, it was all modest, and basically the five or six times we used music from there on was the same theme, very much performed in the same way, because it always was about the connection with this part of himself that has understood something and has kinda turned towards his hope and his own sense of himself for what will come next.
CS: Did you prepare any ’emergency music’ for the bath scene in What Lies Beneath when Michelle Pfeiffer is immobilized, in the case the scene wouldn’t have worked without scoring - like Herrmann did for the shower scene in Psycho?
AS: Absolutely not. Never even occurred to put music there.
CS: In the movie you’ve paid homage to Herrmann’s music writing some pages that resembles not only Psycho but also Vertigo and North By Northwest. You’re one of the few composer who is not afraid to quote extensively from your colleagues: Morricone in The Quick And The Death and The Mexican, Bernstein in BTTF III, Rota in some pages of Mouse Hunt. Always remaining Silvestri and without being overwhelmed by others’ style. Do you consider film-music a form of art capable to be used through the various languages that emerged during its brief history?
AS: Yes and I think that brings up an interesting point, what I would call “associative aspect to film” and it has to do very much with imprinting of styles. The instances you speak up and the great composers you speak up all were connected in defining important musical styles in cinema: Bernard Herrmann with his works with Hitchcock, Morricone, these people really defined some very clear styles. Very often it’s fun, for a luck of a better word, to evoke some of that styles: if you noticed there’s something very, in a sense, tongue in cheek about What Lies Beneath - Bob was painting a tremendous homage to Hitchcock and we were having fun, in a sense, with a lot of this stylistic icons. The same thing in The Quick And The Death, there was something fun about evoking some of that style, because everybody is so aware of it and has loved those style of filmmaking so much. So, I just think it's a tremendous gift that has been given by these people who have defined these styles so clearly, and we all know them. In a sense, the styles create a language of their own.
CS: About film-music as an art: you have always concentrated your artistry to the medium, apart for some few things like the recent work for Disney’s Park Anniversary (still a movie related subject) and you have never turned to “absolute music”. Something really coherent considering that you defined yourself more a filmmaker than a musician…
AS: I have said about myself that I’m a filmmaker who writes music - but you are absolutely right, I have never wrote absolute music and it doesn’t mean that I won’t attempt to do that at some point. However I’m also aware of the fact that they are very different things and I take that seriously, that they are very different things, and I think that some people think that they are not. I think they should be careful about running out to the concert stage with a successful film music, because it’s an all different world. I don’t find it to be curious in a sense, that I have not attempted any absolute music. I feel that is completely different activity from what this is I’m being doing. But, at some point I may or I may…not. I really don’t know.
CS: ...seems like it eventually won’t be a “Back To The Future Suite” or a “Judge Dredd Symphony“...
AS: I really don’t know at this point what direction I will go in in order to have a purely musical expression of myself. But it may happen at some point, I may try that.
CS: When you sit down at the piano to compose a new score, do you already think in terms of orchestration?
AS: Oh yes. In a sense you have to. I think especially in film you have to have a real sense of what the sonority of what it is your writing is and how it will weave in the film.
CS: Are you still very detailed in sketching for your orchestrators?
AS: It really depends. It’s always different. It depends on who the orchestrator is, whether we worked together before, the style of the music, it depends on an enormous number of things. It is a matter of communication and so I use whatever form I need to clearly communicate what that is I need to communicate. Always very different.
CS: You always conduct your scores. What do you think is the importance of conducting? Is a composer who conduct his music to-the-picture still ’writing’ in a certain way?
AS: Well it’s not “writing“, obviously, because writing is writing, however it is still a communicating to the performers, because in the end there’s a tremendous amount to be communicated to the performer in terms of the person standing in front of the orchestra. And that’s not just got to do with the note, it’s got to do with the spirit of the notes, it’s got to do with the energy level, it’s got to do of course with balance of all of those things. But there is a way, I believe, to communicate this spirit of what it is your trying to say in the music and in a way I think the composer has a tremendous advantage by standing there, because when a player asks “what did you mean by this ?”, you know exactly what you meant by that, and you know what you meant by all of that. It create a very possibility for the orchestra to understand what the intention of the music is.
CS: Your orchestral writing has always been considered one of the most hard to perform. Has this limited you in choosing the orchestras to record with? For instance, for Predator, the score ended up to result too complex for an Hungarian orchestra and you had to come back in L.A. to re-record it…
AS: I think especially when we talk about anything involving action it’s certainly very physically demanding - that’s just the fact. I think all music is demanding to perform but certainly a lot of this things I’ve done, just on the physical side, they are very difficult: they require a lot of very strong flame for a long period of time and you’re not gonna find that every orchestra is able or willing to play that way. And in a lot of things, if that energy is not there the writing won’t make sense. You can’t kinda be slumped over your chair, just getting through and have the clock tower sequence in BTTF work, it just not gonna happen. The Predator score was just a very interesting situation. That was very early on, in Hungary they were trying to attract work form United States and that just didn’t work out. We went to coming back and recording the score in the U.S. But yes, I tend to not go to a lot of different place to record. I think really, for the most part, if I’m not in L.A. I would go to London, but that’s pretty much where I’ve gone.
CS: Recently Patrick Doyle complained about modern film composer’s tendency to imitate temp-tracks as a detriment to originality. Can this also be referred to the impressive increase of rejected scores, that in some occasion could force the composer to stay close to the temp in order to protect his score from an eventual rejecting?
AS: You are hired by the director to assist the director in achieving his or her vision of the film. This isn’t the composer vision of the film, not the composer’s movie. So, if you agree to that concept than it really comes down to a question of communication between the director and the composer. A temp score, for a director who maybe doesn’t have a tremendous musical vocabulary, can potentially be a tremendous kind of tool for communication. So why would the composer not want to know what the director is thinking? It really would not make any sense, because, unless you’re talking about a completely desperate filmmaker, if director doesn’t like what you’ve done musically it’s not gonna be in the movie, so there’s no reason to not try to have all the communications and the best communication possible between the director and the composer. Sometimes a director would put a piece of temp in the film and say “I just like the pace of this”. So I like the way he can move me through the film. Other times a directors will say: “I love this peace of temp music, if I can buy it and put it in the film I would do it right know”. Now that’s another different kind of communication to the composer. So now, should the composer really go out there and try to do something completely different? It wouldn’t make any sense. So you then try to hear – of course you do have to write original music – so you try to really understand what it is the director is responding to in this music. So you have a chance of giving him or her what they’re looking for.
CS: What of your contemporary colleagues do you most admire?
AS: I kinda see writing for film as listening to a composer’s speak and when a composer has good ideas, and speaks well, it’s always entertaining and educational. In terms of my fellow contemporaries I enjoy the work of all of them, I mean John Williams, Danny Elfman, James Newton Howard, James Horner, David Newman, Ennio Morricone - all of this people who are out there responding to film, solving the problems. It’s amazing to sit as a film composer and watch a film someone else has done and to see the difficulties, see the problems, see the challenges and then see how they worked through them; it’s a tremendous things to experience and all of these people are masters of film music, and to see how they address the needs of the film is always fascinating.
CS: Can you tell me something about The Wild and Beowulf? Are you composing for both films?
AS: We have a bunch of “on camera” material, little source music that have to be performed in Beowulf and so that stuff has be written and for the most part has already been recorded. Nothing score wise yet. I’m really staying open about where the score will go. The film’s gonna take a year and half to make from now and so I have plenty of time to start to see thing and see where I go. And in terms of The Wild, we’ll start recording on December 12th and I’m right in the middle of that know, I’m working every day on that know.
CS: ...and what about your vineyard - “Silvestri Vineyard“? Do you take wine making as film music? A satisfying ‘craft’ that passion and love can turn into ‘art’?
AS: Yes I really do. It’s one of the things that Sandra and I are having a lot of fun with and it really is a blending of art and science. We’re just beginning, we’re building actually the winery now: we have a Pinot Noir, a Syrah and a Chardonnay, and they’re doing really well. We’re really looking for to every year improving the wine and watching all of this develop like everything else we’re trying. We had a tremendous time and we continue to have a tremendous time.
CS: Thank you very much.
Very special thanks to Sandra Silvestri for her indispensable collaboration and her kind support. Thanks also to David Bifano, Emile Brinkman, Tiziano Toniolo and Nicola Carbone for making this article possible.
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