A Conversation with Multifaceted Film Composer Johnterryl Plumeri
The following mid April, 2005 conversation was recorded at Johnterryl Plumeri's composition studio in his spacious Santa Monica condominium on a quiet, lush, tree-lined street. The author is grateful for Mr. Plumeri's hospitality and his willingness to spend considerable time on the project. Beyond the interview itself, Terry was kind enough to expose me to a significant amount of his film music, some of his interesting chamber works for strings, and his wonderful improvisations on the koto and the string bass . Since the early 90's Terry Plumeri has composed 55 film scores for full-length motion pictures. He has developed a strong following for his extension courses on Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," on Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," on Bernard Herrmann's legendary string orchestra score to Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," and on Film Music in general. He has a second career as director of the Terry Plumeri Jazz Trio. Terry recently released a jazz trio CD entitled Blue in Green, and featuring his imaginative and innovative bowed string bass playing of well-known jazz standards. Mr. Plumeri is a fascinating individual with strong convictions, and many interesting ideas about music and modern life. Any errors in form or content are the author's own. (1)
JP: The tape recorder seems ominous to me.
RR: I really think that using a tape recorder is an incredibly artificial thing, but I know from working with Karel Husa on his interview that having the tape was invaluable. I got one of the secretaries at the university to transcribe it, and then it was published as an interview and it really made some impressions. Especially with his background living through the Nazi era in Prague, and more or less keeping a low profile in the Conservatory studying music, it was intriguing to ask him some questions about what it was like. (2)
JP: Oh, I can imagine.
JP: It's funny, that I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry, you know, and on a dirt road. Never had hot water until I was 12 years old. It's interesting tracing from that point to conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.
RR: Where exactly did you grow up?JP: In Florida, actually. In central Florida in a rural area. It's no longer rural, but at the time it was.
RR: What was the area like?
JP: Country, like much of Florida. Sand. Sand every day.
RR: Sort of like Holland. I bet it grew things really well. So what did your father do?
JP: My father, my grandfather, actually, came from Palermo, grandmother and grandfather, and so my father was first generation American-Sicilian. He actually made a living all of his life, after 20 or so, as an entertainment agent. The first well-known individual he handled was Bunny Barak, who was very famous in the big band days. He managed Bunny until Bunny's death. At one time he actually lived in Hollywood and was involved in representing some Hollywood performers. Donald O'Connor was one of them, and some others. . .I actually never met my father until I was 17 years old. My mother and father were separated when I was, I think, around a year and a half old. I had no contact with my father until I was graduating high school. My grandmother suggested an address which was the address of my father's mother in Trenton, and advised sending a graduation announcement. One afternoon I came home from school and an individual, who had been a phantom my entire life, suddenly was actually on the phone when I was 17 years old.
RR: Oh, my!
JP: And told me he couldn't come to the graduation, but sent me a plane ticket, and I actually took my first plane ride and went to Trenton, landing in the Philadelphia airport at 10:30 at night on the third of July, 1962. From that time on we always had the ins and outs that fathers and sons go through, but in general, we were good friends until his death. During all that time, he had represented individuals. At one time he was representing James Brown, and the Stan Kenton band, and different people like that. In later years, there was a black singer named Arthur Prisock, who was really great, and he represented Arthur exclusively. Arthur was a very lovely person, great talent, beautiful singer, and always gave you something to learn every time you heard him.
RR: Did you have a Dad raise you?JP: No, no. I grew up with my grandmother on my mother's side. My mother was in and out of my life, and my grandmother was really essentially like my mother.
RR: Okay. And that was the Native American side?
JP: Yes. Scots-Irish, and part Apache, I'd say.
RR: I teach a course on Native American Music with an Anthropologist colleague who is also part Apache. We are very good friends, but he also seems to value his privacy very much.
JP: My grandmother was actually like that, you know. She was incredibly exclusive; stayed to herself in that way. It was a serious problem engaging socially. She was very introverted in that sense; not really introverted. Introversion is not a good term for her because she was very outspoken.
RR: She wasn't shy, but at times she wanted to be left alone.JP: Yes. She made the choice not to take part in an exterior social life.
RR: So, when did you first start to get interested in music?
JP: I began playing trumpet when I was ten years old. I had an accident running up the stairs at the age of ten, and I fell and broke my front teeth. They were broken half off. Playing the trumpet was difficult. The interesting thing about my history as a brass player is that, when I first started playing the trumpet, it was incredibly natural for me to play the trumpet. It was as if I had played the trumpet before in another life. Within a week or two I could actually play the instrument quite well, and my first experience playing the trumpet was very positive, because, if one knows anything about brass instruments, it takes a little while until you can get a musical sound out of them, and that happened immediately for me. The whole vocabulary as far as fingerings and so forth was as if I had experienced it all in another life, because once I could hear the tune in my head at the age ten, I could play it. But then the injury to my teeth was really rather devastating, since there was always a problem. The outcome of that was, when I was fifteen years old, I began playing the string bass, and that was, in a sense, a very great thing that happened. The bass brought a whole arena of playing experiences that would have never taken place, I don't think, as a trumpet player. As my first teacher said to me (he was a very Southern individual), "you'll never want for a job playing the bass, because they have a bass in everything from a hillbilly band to a symphony orchestra."
RR: You have to have a bass.
JP: And he was really right, and playing the bass led to a simultaneous experience as a jazz player and also as a symphonic player.
RR: That's great.
JP: My jazz playing has taken me to days of playing with the Woody Hermann band, playing also with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Carter Prisock, Les McCann, lots of jazz players like that. As you know, my symphonic experience was some years in the double bass section of the National Symphony Orchestra. I studied double bass at the Manhattan School of Music with Robert Brennand, who was at that time principal bass in the New York Philharmonic, an amazing teacher as well as individual, and became basically almost like a father to me, given the fact that I had really grown up without any kind of father figure. Brennand was an incredible person, and very encouraging. When I think back, one of his greatest contributions as a teacher was not only his ability to give you an accurate and clear fashion of the best way to play the double bass technically, but he was also a very encouraging individual in the sense of always appreciating both your growth, and appreciating and showing a belief in your ability to grow in the future. And that was worth millions.
RR: He sounds like a natural teacher. You're lucky to find someone like that.
JP: Yes. I feel very grateful and extremely fortunate to have had him as a teacher. So that was the beginning of it.
RR: Karel Husa was like that - very encouraging. He would never remonstrate with a student. We had a composition class, and we were starting to get tired of a particular student never having anything, but the student brought two measures, and Husa found something nice to say about the two measures. He was very encouraging; not that he didn't have standards - he had plenty of standards, but he was very concerned with not discouraging anyone under any circumstances.
RR: So that sounds like you had a lucky break to study with Bernan.
JP: Very much so.
RR: And that was in New York.
JP: I was on scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music, and one of the things that happened with him at the very beginning that always amazed me, was that he was required by the school to give a half hour lesson once a week, and yet I never, ever, had a lesson less than two hours in length. My lessons were always on Sunday at 11 o'clock in the morning, and I never left his house in Queen's, Jackson Heights specifically, before 1 o'clock in the afternoon. There were some days where actually I remember leaving his place at around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, you know, and coming at 11. Because he was one of those individuals who would just get going . . .
RR: And find it hard to stop.
JP: Exactly. And I was always amazed. One of my greatest memories of him was my very first lesson that I ever took from him, which was prior to school beginning. I wanted to get going, and I called him up to study the summer before I began school at the Manhattan School, and I went over and began on Sunday morning. That was the first lesson, because that was when he had time, because he was so busy with the Philharmonic. The first time I ever heard him play, my reaction to his playing - I mean he was a great player, to this day I have still never heard anyone play orchestra music as well as he was capable of doing - and his playing was so amazing to me that my whole reaction to it was I just started laughing. You know. I'm that way. Sometimes when I see something that is outrageously beautifully done, I just laugh, in appreciation, total appreciation. The funny thing was I always remember laughing, and he understood, and never reacted negatively. I'll never forget he had a smile on his face, because he knew that I was so astonished by his playing. He totally understood my gesture.
RR: That's great. Those kinds of relationships are very precious. So how long did you study with him?
JP: Well, my days at Manhattan were from '63-'67 and those were really great years. The remarkable thing about him as a teacher was that there would be weeks where I would go to the lesson not as prepared as other weeks. Some weeks I would be practicing 6-7 hours a day, and other weeks I would get in 1-2 hours a day. No matter how prepared you were for the lesson, it would always be a great lesson. I never had anything less than a great lesson with him. That's what was amazing, because you could go unprepared into the lesson, let's say a specific piece that you were preparing for him for your lesson, if you were not that prepared, he would be immediately be aware of that, and then move right over to something else, and get going in such a way that you would walk out of the lesson learning so much, never having expected to have covered that material. That was one of the really incredible things of studying with him: his flexibility, his refusal to be held back by the fact that you didn't prepare your specific lesson. There were always a lot of conceptual things that were involved. So if you didn't prepare the specifics, or if you were not working on something specific, he would always spend a good amount of time with concepts, things that were very, very valuable. I think, years later, because his voice was always such a strong voice, that you would be still getting that clarity from those moments that happened maybe twenty years before.
RR: Would he talk about a piece that he had been playing, or would he say "there's a similar thing in the Tchaikovsky Fifth?"
JP: Sure. Lots of times it involved excerpts for double bass out of orchestral masterpieces. He was amazing. Probably he knew easily 80% of the major orchestral masterpieces from memory, all the bass parts, and he played them, I mean ripped them off, in a dazzling fashion. It was just impeccable, and you would always sit with your mouth open, your jaw dropping at his ability to do that. But what actually existed quite often were these conceptual aspects of playing that you could work on. And lots of times they were rudimentary things. At this point I have played the bass for forty-five years, and I remain a very strong believer in the rudiments, because, no matter how advanced you get as a player, you always improve when you go back and get rock-solid in the rudimentary aspects of the instrument.
RR: My wife is a violinist, and is always saying that if she is going to perform, and hasn't been practicing enough for a couple of months, because she has been teaching or something, she goes back and she starts practicing scales. You need the physical, tactile feel. It's not merely a question of having a good ear. Your fingers have to go to the right places, and that's what makes string playing unique.
JP: Moreover, it is the bowing aspect of string playing. Bernan's belief was that bowing was about 75% of your playing, and if you could bow it, then you could play it. And I believe that also, because your bow is the essence of what you produce, because your bow is your sound. It's like your breath, you know, if you are playing the trumpet. If you have no breath, I don't care how rapidly your fingers move. You will never really be able produce anything, because the breath is the absolute guts and support of what it is that you are pronouncing to the listening ear.
RR: Yes. What fascinated me about bowed string instruments is that you have this sizeable length, and you could play an attack where you cover a really intense forte-piano, or a very loud sound, where the pitch is produced by a foot and a half of horse hair. So the amount of gradations is incredible. In this sense string instruments are like the human voice.
JP: Yes. That is something that always interested me. I've never been bored by playing the double bass, and one of the reasons is that ability to play in the cracks, you know, that flexibility with the pitch. It's an incredible thing, and the longer you play, the more acute your awareness is of all the specifics in between the pitches. Because obviously, at fifteen, you are not aware of those increments that exist from half step to half step. But later on, you become aware and then you utilize those much, much more so, and they become much more fun, and you are more conscious and appreciative of your freedom, of your pitch freedom actually that exists. It doesn't exist on fixed-pitch instruments.
RR: The great players lean towards the leading tone and back to the flat six and manipulate those gradations.
JP: It's really directly affected my sense of composition, because it keeps certain keys, knowledge of the string orchestra, and how the string orchestra sounds this way in that particular key and in another key. In the last 10 or 15 years, I've actually become very fond of those darker keys, like E minor, and those keys that I wouldn't even have touched when I was a fifteen year old, because when you first approach them, you think of their technical difficulty, but then you get to the point where you're not aware of their technical difficulty any longer. They just happen to be another environment.
RR: I believe Barber's Adagio for Strings is in a key with many flats.
JP: Yes. It really very seriously colors the musical personality of a passage.
RR: There are no open strings.
RR: It's gorgeous. That's really a stunning piece.
JP: It is. It's amazing that he wrote the piece at 19, because it's a very deep piece, and has so much to say. It's one of those pieces that wears beautifully. You never get tired of listening to it. For me, I can't listen to it regularly, because it's a very deep experience hearing it. It always touches you very deeply.
RR: At what point did you feel that you wanted to be a professional bass player? How did that evolve? Was that already in Manhattan?
JP: No, no. That was during the time I was in high school, and I'd only been playing the bass for six months or so in the high school concert band, and I had this opportunity to play in the South Florida Community Orchestra. They were playing the New World Symphony of Dvorak, and prior to that I was very serious about becoming an architect. I'd always been placed in advanced mathematics classes. It was one Tuesday night, in a very funky, out-of-tune community orchestra, and I came away from it completely wowed by the experience of playing with the symphony orchestra , and the next day realized that that was exactly what I wanted to do. I remember saying that to one of my classmates who played flute in the concert band in high school, and telling her that I was going to play in the New York Philharmonic by the time I was thirty years old. That was a serious goal at the time, but when I was twenty-five or twenty-six, I was actually playing in the National Symphony in Washington. By that time I had become so involved with wanting to become a composer, that I actually wanted orchestras to play my music, rather than to play in an orchestra. So that was the serious turning point from wanting to be an architect. The funny thing is that, probably in my mid thirties, when I started to get developed and having written some pieces, I started to become aware that the set of structures that had so attracted me to architecture, had now translated itself and transposed itself into music, because, as you all too well know, composition is very, very much built in structures and all sorts of sets of materials. But the state of mind is actually very similar in lots of ways. Lots of architecture goes on whenever you are writing music. It's very interesting that there is that parallel, and, actually, I am a kind of proof of it, in the sense that the state of mind never really changed, only the materials changed.
RR: Right! One of the things that you absolutely need to be a composer is that sense of structure, and the ability to conceive an a priori form or a shape that you are going to insert your piece into, so to speak.
JP: I think that playing the bass also is a great teacher, because playing the bass in a symphony orchestra, especially Beethoven and Brahms, is a great lesson in architecture. The bass really has the fundamental architecture of the piece. It's essentially the bass melody that supports the harmonic rhythm, and is a harmonic melody in a sense. When I think about my favorite pieces playing in orchestra, they were definitely Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart, and other composers, but Beethoven and Brahms were really, for me, the great architects. You can love playing a piece by Debussy and sit in the middle of an orchestra like the National Symphony and enjoy all the colors and everything, but something seems to be missing. The same is true of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, a piece which I know in serious depth, and I love as a composer, but as a bass player, is not a lot of fun to play, because somehow that foundational aspect that the bass section often carries is not really consistent in some of the twentieth-century composers. There is a journey that exists in the bass section that is always constantly in touch with the journey of the composition itself.
RR: In Handel and Bach also.
JP: Very much so.
RR: That sense of harmonic rhythm, the sense of control, of the foundation of the music, is really, truly amazing. I think Mozart is uneven in some respects. I mean some pieces are much better than others. The piece that I sent you, my Double Concerto, the inspiration for some of the formal decisions was from the Mozart Twentieth Piano Concerto, which is as great as any of Beethoven.
RR: That's a great piece. As far as concertos go, it doesn't get better than that for the piano. It has always struck me as a composer how people like Mozart and Schumann come up with so many different ideas, and how those ideas work in succession. There's a magic that goes beyond just thematic connection, because sometimes there aren't thematic connections, and yet they have this continuity. And that has always been fascinating to me. Can I do something like that? Can I stretch six ideas in a row and still make the flow seem logical and inevitable? It's hard.
JP: The Rite of Spring is probably the greatest example of that, because the essence of that piece lies in a tremendous amount of diverse characteristics all going on at times simultaneously - lots of other times in dialogue or in interaction with each other, but lots of times simultaneously. And it all works, and it works really beautifully, and it's probably one of the greatest examples, and it did in fact open a tremendous door for that particular state of mind in composition after that point - simultaneous interaction of notably diverse musical personalities.
RR: L'Histoire was later, but it applies some of the rhythmic complexity to a mixed ensemble.
JP: You're talking about L'Histoire du soldat?
JP: Well, that was a seven piece ensemble, and some of the harmonic vocabulary and melodic vocabulary exist in L'Histoire, but The Rite of Spring is such an extensive, very highly-developed work - you know, he spent two years writing the piece, which is roughly around thirty minutes long.
RR: And it starts off where his teacher Rimsky Korsakov stopped, so to speak, in terms of the orchestration and the sophistication.
JP: Yes, but actually a bit beyond Rimsky. He had already written the Firebird, and Firebird was highly influenced by Debussy. So he had already stepped into that really serious twentieth-century realm, and he established the standard for the twentieth century realm in The Rite of Spring. It is truly twentieth-century music.
RR: Yes. We tend to forget how early Debussy fits into that picture.
JP: For me, Debussy is the true father of twentieth-century music, because there would be no Stravinsky without Debussy. The music that we know of Stravinsky that is the most popular and well known, definitely stands on the shoulders of Debussy. I have read Stravinsky definitely stating that Debussy influenced him.
RR: Yes. The King of Stars, that piece was a sub rosa homage to Debussy - that early string quartet. It's quite funny that Schoenberg was quoted as being annoyed about Debussy - the fact that he wrote a Pelleas and Melisande first. Schoenberg learned some of the things in the Chamber Symphony, the chords and the harmonies, from Debussy, but didn't like to admit it.
JP: When you consider the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, being when it was, 1895 you know, that was a serious turn there coming out of Wagner and Brahms; a serious elbow in the path of music of the day.
RR: But you can see connections with Tristan, one of Wagner's most chromatic pieces, yet it goes beyond the tritone relationships, and it's really one step beyond. It's an intriguing period. I think the Berg Sonata, which was under the influence of Schoenberg, but with more tonal interest, is an amazing piece, because it has some of the same harmonies, yet starts and ends in b minor. That's a piece which, I think, could be orchestrated. It never has been. It's beautiful. That had a deep influence on me when I encountered it, because it had so much of Tristan in it, and yet it was the new style of the twentieth century. As a composer I responded more to Berg than to Webern initially. Now I appreciate what Webern did.
JP: I did also actually. That whole school that revolved around Schoenberg and Berg, without a doubt. . .I was very much more strongly inclined to listen to Berg. I really enjoyed it, very much so; still do.
RR: Like the Violin Concerto, where he manages to use a Bach chorale, "Es ist genug," and in Wozzeck, where he has honky-tonk piano. He seems to encompass a wider range of styles, and yet still remains a unique personality. You hear it and you say "Oh, that's Berg."
JP: Flexibility. It's a difficult thing for some people to achieve.
RR: To me that kind of eclecticism is very important. One of the things I found early on was that Bach wrote in a whole lot of styles. He wrote the Coffee Cantata for a performance in a coffee house that was secular, with no religious connections; he wrote the Capriccio on the Departure of his Brother for harpsichord in the style of English renaissance music with descriptive titles in each movement, and it's obviously influenced by the English renaissance; the Italian Concerto, French Suites, the Mass in B Minor, the Magnificat, everything is different stylistically, and yet his genius just shines through like a searchlight. If anybody was an eclectic composer, he was. Then we talk about Beethoven writing absolute music, yet the Sixth Symphony is a program music piece. I was pushed when I was at school to write like Schoenberg, but I wouldn't do it. I said "I'm going to go my way, because that is what I hear. I write what I hear."
RR: I push actually towards the French, towards covering Honegger and Milhaud, and people like that, when I teach now, almost to compensate for the monolithic way they pushed us when we were in school. It's gone almost completely the other way now. I guess I feel deeply about these things, because I became a teacher.
JP: Well, sure. I understand.
RR: You obviously enjoy the teaching aspect. It's a little bit like conducting, it's. . .what's the word? It's an affliction. You enjoy it. It's fun.
JP: Yes. I've always enjoyed it. For close to ten years I've had these classes here in Los Angeles that were in-depth analyses of twentieth-century masterpieces. There was also a class on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. That's the only piece outside the twentieth century that I did, other than the Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun, composed 1895. That is almost a twentieth-century piece. But I did a number of pieces, all pieces which were beat-by-beat, bar-by-bar, in-depth analyses. There was no superficial analysis. Every note in the piece was covered. Why was it there? Exactly why was it there? And it actually became my greatest composition teacher, because I had the good fortune a few times to study briefly with a few people who were aware of what was going on in the game of composition. I never had in-depth analyses, as it were. After I had done those classes, I studied all those pieces, which were my greatest teachers. But, explaining the pieces I love became an even greater teacher, because of the necessity to actually pronounce it straight into the conscious mind, and hold it out there, in terms of explaining it consistently to everyone on a daily basis. Actually, it came out of a period where I wrote a two-volume composition book, a college textbook. It never has been published because I made the choice to leave it unpublished. One of the reasons I never published it is because it tells all secrets - everything I always wanted to know as a student about composition is in that book. So, I'm always very glad to teach, because I've never taught for a half hour that I didn't learn myself.
RR: That's why I love to teach.
JP: It's really a great thing. And then there is an equally great reward actually to see someone who walks away with understanding. . . because I'm a great believer in music. Music is like my religion. I believe in music so strongly, and I am always, always so glad to be able to give music to someone else. I am a strong believer in anyone else's ability to do music, and do it really beautifully, because I know I came from a point, as we originally said, grew up in a family who listened to the Grand Ole Opry and Elvis, living on a dirt road. There was a time when writing music for orchestra was like a complete dream, and now I have actually achieved some sort of fluency in doing that. I am so grateful for it, and I'm always believing that anyone who really wants to can do that if they desire. Very possibly your greatest talent is your ability to persist.
RR: Perspiration and persistence.
JP: Yes. It's one of the things that I feel so grateful that I have been given, this persistence and desire. You know, your desire to continue and continue and continue, refusing each day if its not working today, then tomorrow it will be better, if not tomorrow, then the next day, if not the that day, then the next day, if not this week, then next week, if not this month, then next month. . . It's going to happen. It's going to happen as long as you stay with it, and I feel so grateful that I was allowed to have that kind of quality.
RR: I feel the same way.
JP: That persistence, because it's one of the greatest things that you could actually be given, it's an assurance that you will truly grow if you continue every day. And continue in a loving way, because it's very important that you have a relationship with yourself, so you don't beat yourself down on a daily basis. When you can't do it tomorrow, or the day after that, if you have a positive outlook within yourself… Sooner or later you are going to do it. You are going to work it out. It's going to happen. And the amazing thing is that when you believe like that, it does. You always achieve that point of clarity, and you always achieve that point where the door opens and you step into the next room.
RR: I tell the students, if you don't enjoy the process of writing - when you sit down and six hours go by, and you have forty measures, and something towards what you imagine in your head, and you feel like no time has gone by, and you know, that its been such a joy to be doing it. If you don't have that, then you probably shouldn't be a composer.
JP: Yes. I think part of the process of writing, and you really have to enjoy this - you have to experience, "no, it's not there; no, not there; no, not there; oh, here it is." It's a constant search, and it's a beautiful search, because search always is its own kind of education - just the search itself. And then, when you accumulate all those new elements of your search, you ultimately make the choice to combine them into the conglomerate that you allow to represent yourself as your composition. Then it's an incredible journey that you've actually gone through, because you have searched 1472 items and maybe only 923 items fell into place and ended up being part of the thing. Those other items, even though you choose to edit those out of your composition, they're also very, very important because it's part of your journey. Bernan used to say, "You always learn something from everyone," and sometimes it could be the fact that you just know that you never want to play like that, which is a great lesson unto itself.
RR: You don't want to use that idea.
JP: But you've spent time on that idea, so you know the value of it. But it's not as if you just throw it away because of nothing. You've acquainted yourself with this particular personality, and you think "this doesn't represent me, and I don't want this to be part of my piece," which is a very, very important part of arriving at the last day of your journey, whenever you've completed your piece.
RR: When I teach composition, one of the things that I try to get across to the students is that there are whole levels - first of all, we are dealing with art, which is artifice or trickery, and we are trying to influence the listener's perception of time, so we are organizing time for the listener. We must be aware of that. We have to be aware of how much time we are playing with, right? I am thinking that in film music, this is a critical point. . .
JP: Well, it's constant, because the length of the music that you write is constantly dictated by the film itself, and also by the choice you and the director generally, or sometimes the producer, have selected.
RR: If you don't have a flexible sense of form, where you can function in different environments like that, I think it would be very hard, I would suspect, to do film music.
JP: Well, a lot of film music is very eclectic, and you would need to have a lot under your belt in order to write for films. This includes being aware of lots of different styles and flavors. That's probably one of its greatest things. Month to month you change shoes. One month you could be wearing 1942 period shoes; the next month you might be in renaissance shoes in the 1500's; and the following month you may be in New York City in 2005. That's actually a great thing, because life never gets boring.
RR: So like John Addison, who wrote music for Tom Jones. It's a wonderful score. The film is set in the 1700's, but he uses an out-of-tune honky-tonk piano in it. He had the imagination to be writing early music, but added many unusual colors to it, which is very imaginative. He had a chamber music approach in that piece. (3) I also like Alex North, especially the way he used a variety of styles in Streetcar Named Desire, moving from jazz to music supporting characters. (4) Is he still around?
JP: No, he's been dead for quite a few years, probably around fifteen. He's one of my very, very big favorites. To answer your question about time and film, the specifics of music and film is that it's consistently locked into the time, and this regularly happens all the time. That is, you may begin a piece of music for a particular scene, and it may be going along for maybe forty-seven seconds in that particular character, and then there is an absolute shift and change in the character because of what takes place in the film. And that takes place very, very precisely in film, because you give everything against time and you are hitting the film within less than two tenths of a second off of the cut. I mean, I can actually see when things are two or three frames off in a cut, which is real split-second timing. In concert music, that forty-seven seconds may end up being two-and-a-half minutes in order to be truly fully developed, but in film music, you actually don't have that choice, because, you are, in truth, an accompanist to the visual.
RR: Prendergast makes the point that it's a lot like opera. You have to deal with the plot. (5)
JP: Actually, opera is something in which you, as a composer, can actually delineate the extensiveness of the development in time of each subject, but in film you can not do that, because someone else has already laid that out, and it's your task to color that specific amount of time - which could be forty-seven seconds. You could have the most beautiful idea you ever wrote in your life, and you are given 19 seconds for it. Very quickly you learn how to state it, and to state it in such a way that ultimately it's perceived properly before you go on. On the other side of time in film, there are cases when it is very necessary to know how to tread water, and in concert music you never tread water, but in film you do. Under dialogue, at times, you need to tread water.
JP: And I try never to lock into that realm of being a carpet. I hate that. I really hate that,
because it's ugly, mediocre, very bad, and ultimately it gives nothing.
RR: You might be better off with no music.
JP: True. I believe that is better than having that mediocre carpet, that bland kind of carpet
background. In all films, in older films in the thirties and forties and so forth, it was countlessly
proven that you could have a beautiful theme going on behind dialogue, and people can still
listen and hear everything that everyone is saying, but still on the subliminal level hear that
theme, the journey of the theme, and also the character of the theme. Nowadays a lot of film
makers seem to think that people are idiots, and maybe the people are limited like that, but I
prefer not to think so.
From time to time you encounter film makers who refuse to allow any personality behind dialogue, or anything like that. For the good film makers, that's not true, but I am talking about the mediocre film makers who seem to think that people don't have that facility for listening to someone talk and also hearing music simultaneously. They are either listening consciously or subliminally, whether perceiving consciously or subliminally, and the result is superior, as we have seen in those thirties and forties films, because the powerful, beautiful theme makes the dialogue become stronger, because the theme provides subtext at a subliminal level. It's almost like a counterpoint, because it doesn't have to be in sync with everything that's going on in the picture. It's got its own kind of counterpoint, like a character that can be in agreement, but still has his own face, his own room. The result is that the composite experience is much deeper, fuller. The result of dialogue with this bland, mediocre, nothing, no personality kind of carpet behind it, the result is that all you've got is the dialogue. You have no real subtext whatsoever. You don't have any kind of subliminal, subconscious experience, any kind of depth to the dialogue.
I've always heard subtleties in movies in the thirties and forties. There are composers who are not as well known as Max Steiner and Bernard Hermann, and people like that. It was the style of the day, and people accepted it and the directors, I think, asked for it. You see, ultimately, film music, and film in general, when you think about its real, true origin, is opera. Opera became film. Opera always had that.
RR: That's what Prendergast said. (6)
JP: Opera always had simultaneous dialogue and thematic ideas, so that it was a full experience. It allows you to go back and view, and listen to the opera repeatedly, and it's always full. A film that is just dialogue, and a bland, no-personality carpet, amounts to a "one-trip pony." You hear the dialogue and you don't want to hear it again, because there is no subtext. When a film has dialogue and also has subtext in the music and so forth, then you can have repeated viewings, and still have a progressive and enjoyable experience, and have a feeling that you get a little more every time you go back there.
RR: John Williams sometimes had instantaneous success and has made a lot of money, but the Harry Potter movies are the best he's ever done, because - I'm just saying what I think - he stopped sounding like Vaughan Williams, and started sounding like Prokofiev, who I think is a better composer.
JP: I like to learn from Prokofiev. There's a lot in Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Displaying information in time is probably one of your most important jobs as a composer. Given the fact that your canvas is time, and irrespective of whether or not you make the choice to throw in all kinds of simultaneous colors, or whether you actually display the flow of the entrance of colors and the entrance of characters, you can learn great deal from Stravinsky, from Stravinsky's pieces which are very theatrical, aside from the fact that they are written for the theatre. When you assess Stravinsky, the musical character is very play-like in the sense that you have characters in the character dialogue. The diverse character dialogue, is always on display. Beethoven is the greatest example of character dialogue and how beautifully measured it is in time. The ultimate achievement is one of the artist's perception, understanding, and clarity, so that you can actually finish the piece, and the piece is not a big mish-mash of character interaction, but it is actually a legitimate progressing character dialogue in time. I feel that Stravinsky stressed that in The Rite of Spring. You have these moments where there are all kinds of characters that are happening simultaneously, but it's a great experience, because, the effect of those things is like general overload, which is great, especially living in the twentieth century. There are lots of times we get overloaded. Because of all the achieving and all aspects of technology and everything, there's tons of overload.
RR: Your child is playing a rock station, and you have a Brandenburg on your own station at the same time.
JP: But it's also like being in a car or walking down Seventh Avenue - the same kind of thing. It's serious overload. Stravinsky exercises that display of overload. In The Rite of Spring, the opening section, there's this massive contraction down to one individual character, back to the original bassoon that actually began the piece by itself. And that beginning of The Rite of Spring is very play - like in a sense, because it's as if the main character comes on stage and has a little monologue before all the other characters start to enter, and this is very, very important to the understanding of the action of the plot. There is the main character that steps up and makes his full statement before everyone starts to enter after that, and that sets up the spray of information that communicates to an audience. It's not that you're trying to placate the audience or anything like that. It doesn't mean that you have to say mundane, crass, mediocre things, but saying something with clarity is a very, very important thing to do when composing.
RR: When discussing the Pastorale Symphony slow movement, Tovey, the theoretician, points out that only Beethoven could manage the sonata form so beautifully, and still have that little touch of birdcalls, and then finish. I tell my young students that Beethoven could have just as easily used A B A as sonata form for this, but made an a priori decision. So I say to the student "bring me a plan for a movement, and bring me two or three germ ideas, and see if you can actually calculate the time that each section will be." If you are in a meter, there are obvious mathematical calculations that you can make. With changing meters it is harder, but you can work with real time or you can work with numbers of measures. The ability to relegate certain decisions to the arbitrary a priori level makes it easier to face others during the actual compositional process, and helps you to meet deadlines.
JP: That is one reason I came to this town, because I was seriously committed to being able to write for orchestra as best I possibly could. I knew that with the deadlines that always get laid on you in this town - and they're horrific deadlines, like an album of music in three weeks, an hour of music in two weeks - it's an amazing thing in making me feel creative, or have this flexible state of mind, and the ability to be facile when necessary.
RR: Boulez is the other side of the coin, as he serializes everything in a rather deterministic way. When he got that $175,000 Award, not long ago, he basically said that he deserves it because his type of music is the best. I found that rather arrogant.
JP: You know, I feel the same way, because the reality is that we are all here on the earth, and as a composer, I always felt the need to give some sort of beauty, functional beauty, and I'm not talking commercialism . . . .
RR: Well, Messiaen is a complicated composer, but he wrote for the church. He always had a listener in mind. He was Boulez's teacher, and yet I think there is a deep dichotomy there. People could describe some of the things he used as contrived; he used number series, he used serialization, he used all kinds of games and things, but there's a controlled musical force. In the Turangilîla Symphony, you hear a movement from here to there and you can only be impressed. His music has real personality.
JP: I met Messiaen once, you know. I'll never forget shaking hands with him. He had the softest hands. It was on his birthday and he had a piece performed by the National Symphony. I went after the concert to say hello to him, and show my appreciation. He had the softest hands that I have ever shaken. But, I feel that exact same way. Boulez I have the greatest respect for as a conductor, but as for the compositions, I have decently - sophisticated ears as far as listening goes, and I never enjoy listening to Boulez' music.
RR: That's what bothers me. Especially Structures, the two-piano pieces. It seems almost as if he wants to shock you more than anything else.
JP: Yes. What I always question is the motive in terms of "is it music?" The essence of music goes to a very, very basic level. The essence of music lies in the voice, and the essence of music lies in folksong from a very primitive level of voice. And that is truly the essence of music. There is nothing commercial about that whatsoever. It could be the simplest thing in the world. It's not commercial; it's not cheap; it's not mediocre.
RR: There is an aura in folk music that is magical. That's why I've done a lot of transcriptions where I've written counterpoint to folksongs and try to steal the listener away with my invertible counterpoints. I don't care about style. What I care about is that minute to minute it has quality and shape, and I think that the great composers wrote in more than one style, and I think that we got so hoodwinked with the serial thing - I mean Berg was smart enough to write in more than one style and still be serial. Sometimes he turned off the serial techniques and did something else. That was a bad time for composition, not so much because of Schoenberg, as much as for the monolithic approach that took over academe.
JP: I agree totally, because I personally believe that whole school, and that academic state of mind, probably did more to than anything to destroy the public's association with the orchestra. I mean it seriously destroyed it, and it's just now starting to come back a little bit.
RR: And it's killed the National Endowment. Those bare-chested performance artists and the "Emperor's New Clothes" kinds of pieces. I had a National Endowment Grant and I wrote a concert band piece that had some folk songs in it, and yet it had sound mass, but you could still recognized the tune, and I really struggled with what I should do and took it very seriously. And then you have people doing things like the Piss Christ. I think getting a grant is different from academic freedom. It's a privilege. You are asking for support, so you want and need to satisfy somebody. How long could you write film music, if you said "I don't feel it that way; I want to write a piece attaching contact mikes to the furniture?" That kind of approach is too nihilistic.
JP: Yes. There was that whole school of thought, and also performance that actually alienated. Of course, there is always value in expansion of the mind of the audience, and so forth, but it was done with total abandonment and with no care whatsoever. It went to the point of where there became this massive gulf between the audience and the composer.
RR: Wanting to be an enfant terrible is more important than reaching the audience.
JP: Exactly, or actually being a musician.RR: All my life that was alien to me. I remember bringing a piece to one of my teachers that was a duet for two clarinets and having descriptive titles, and he said "You can't do that today. You can't have those comments," and he made me expunge them. He insisted that I expunge them, and now the piece is published, and people play it, and I can't remember anymore what they were. I wish they were still there.
JP: The general statement that "you can't do that today," is nonsense. That ability to stand up and say "I know what you can do today, but you can't." It is the sign of an individual who is extremely short sighted, and not an individual who has the facility to look back a hundred years, or look ahead a hundred years, or two hundred years, or whatever. To say "you can't do this."
RR: What I should have said is "if I want to write something expressive in the style of a Bach Cantata, and do it with original themes, who's to say that's no good?"JP: Exactly.
RR: Aesthetically, from a philosophical standpoint, there is absolutely no reason.
JP: Right. If you have written a well-crafted, beautiful piece of music, what does it matter, what vocabulary you chose? It's only individuals who have an intellectual need to categorize and to limit. It's always the idea to limit. Do you want to hear a funny story?
RR: Is this the one about Brahms that you told me? Yes, I do want to hear it again, very much so.
JP: Copland was very . . .you know I played in the National Symphony when he came, and some of the players in the orchestra, especially the timpanist, were always very insulting. I couldn't even believe it, because I allowed him his place, and I always appreciated him for who he was and so forth, but the timpanist would tell Copland how badly the timpani part was written, and he actually said it to him, and obviously Copland was angry with him, and there was a very bad scene. One afternoon at rehearsal I mean there were serious words. I always felt he should have just let it be.
RR: At the time, Copland was the most powerful figure in America as a composer.
JP: Yes. Well, anyway, I was just getting serious about writing music, and I was doing a lot of studying. At the time I was living in Washington, not playing in the National Symphony, but had friends playing in the orchestra, and I would go every day to every rehearsal. I mean I showed up every day sitting in front of that orchestra. Also I would go - the concerts were every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday nights, maybe every three or four weeks there was a Friday afternoon - to every concert I could possibly go to. There were great seats in the fourth tier right above the stage - with the exception of when wild percussion was playing - it was like having the greatest set of headphones you ever had on, sitting up directly above the orchestra, and the seats were two dollars apiece. They were the cheapest seats and the best sound. So every concert I could possibly get to I was there. I filled my ears with the sound of symphony orchestras during about a two year period. I just never missed them play.
There was a situation at the beginning of the season, I think it was around '72 or '73, something like that, and there was a gala opening in October in which there was the Copland Third Symphony, Roy Harris Third Symphony, and Schuman Third Symphony all being performed.
RR: William Schuman?
JP: Right. All the American giants. That was the opening of the series, of the year. And so around 10:00 Friday in preparation for the afternoon concert, there was this seminar with Dorati as moderator and Copland, Roy Harris, and William Schuman sitting around the table and answering questions. So everybody asked - you know how those things are - a lot of trivial questions, and some people really ask some serious questions. So I got up - it's in the Kennedy Center, on stage at Kennedy Center - there is a microphone about half way towards the stage, and I get to the microphone, and I ask my question. And that question was "I wanted to know what makes the orchestra sound big and full? What creates that special full sound? Is it way you voice the chord? Is it your doublings? What is it actually?" The question went to Copland, and Copland acted as if I had asked some sort of idiotic, stupid question. And he said it in such a way that it immediately put me on the defensive, because it made me look like I was an idiot for having asked the question. And if someone asked me that, there are a lot of answers, and I could talk for hours on that question.
RR: He could have said this is a subject for a book, but I'll say a few words now. That's the proper answer.
JP: He was so unfriendly in his answer, in his refusal to give even one specific answer to it, that he made me really angry. This is on Friday. All that week the orchestra was playing Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights, but in the morning there were rehearsals of the Brahms' "First". So all week long I am listening to the Brahms, and Brahms has this big fat sound to it. You know the Brahms "First". And at night I'm listening to these American pieces, all of their third symphonies, so there is an obvious difference, and that's the reason why I asked the question.
But I didn't go on about that in the beginning. I just asked the question, and they forced me into what I said later. When Copland talked to me that way I said, "Well, the reason I asked this question is that all this week I have been listening to the Brahms First Symphony, and it sounds really big, full, and resonant, and so satisfying to listen to, and then every night I've come to the concert of the orchestra here, and I listen to all of your pieces and they all sound very thin and unsatisfying to listen to." I thought Dorati was going to have a coronary. He couldn't believe that someone would say that to three American icons.
Copland never said a thing. Roy Harris attempted a very sleepy answer that had something - he talked about how slow Brahms' development was, and I thought to myself, "you should never talk about slow development," but I didn't say it. Actually, William Schuman attempted to answer the question, but I was amazed because I always had a lot of respect for Schuman's compositions. I was amazed at his inability to zero in on the specifics of what it takes to make something sound full and resonant. Right away, in terms of them in comparison to Brahms, you just have the doubling of the basses. One of the main reasons is because the bass in Brahms is in octaves, you know, the cello and the double bass. That's one of the things that makes the overtones set up in a much fuller, more resonant way, because Brahms orchestrated his chords more in adherence to the chord of nature, just the basic voicing -
RR: The harmonic series.
JP: Right. And their harmonies are not orchestrated in that way. The thing that generated my attack of them was the fact that they refused, Copland specifically, refused to even acknowledge the question as being a legitimate question. And it was a very legitimate question, and he refused to even acknowledge the question.
RR: It's even deeper than that, because Brahms had the gift of phrasing and long melodies, Rachmaninov also, and this music of this period was not like that. They should have said so, right?
JP: Yes, it was really simple. And it actually really backfired on them, because I actually made the statement in front of an audience of individuals who were there to give praise. I criticized their music. That wasn't my intention. I didn't set out to criticize their music. I asked a technical question about the specifics of composition. These guys were the composers, you know, the composer icons of America, and you would think they could answer one question.
RR: And Copland wrote some pieces like Appalachian Spring that have that kind of resonance. If he wasn't so caught up in the moment, he probably could have given you an answer. Not all pieces have the same intentions.
JP: That intellectual eliteness is an ugly thing that exists in academe, because I can tell you this, one of the beauties of teaching and being asked questions is that every time you get asked a question and you really have to think about it, what happens to you afterwards? You learn something, because it requires you to dig into a little corner, way off in the corner someplace, where you generally don't spend time, and someone asks you the question and you get a more in-depth understanding yourself by the fact that you actually take the time and energy to explain to them as best you possibly can what the correct answer is. You have walked away a better and more knowledgeable individual, because you took the time to answer the question.
RR: I mentioned about Husa trying to find something good to say about a recalcitrant student. He was able to see in the little idea the student wrote, things that could be done, and he talked about them, and he was not willing to discourage anyone under any circumstances, and you have to admire him for that, because he is a very impressive individual, very self assured. He refused to discourage that student. It was ironic, because my first year there, he won the Pulitzer Prize, but he was not allowed to teach the graduate students. I took a conducting class with him, and then I wanted to take special studies in orchestration. They said, yes. He's an expert on that. He ran the university orchestra, and so I had composition with him, under a different rubric, and I didn't have to make a fight. A year or two later, a grad student made a very big fight and then it was possible for him to teach graduate composition. But that's the negative side of academe, the smallness of it.
JP: Returning to Copland and the others, I would have never publically made the comparison to Brahms, except for Copland's disdainful reply. He actually forced me into making the comparison in order to clarify why I had asked the question.
RR: Well, he was a strange person. Do you know that from 1972 on, he never wrote another note? The last piece was the flute and piano piece. It was done that year at Cornell when he came. He didn't have a nice word to say to any of the composers, and there were some talented composers. Looking back now, one realizes that he was probably losing his facility to write, and later in his life he had to go and give graduation addresses, honorary doctorates, and Sam Adler would go with him and have to read his remarks. He couldn't even read. So I think the bitterness of the experience to have come so far and done so well, and having twenty or twenty-five more years of life in which he couldn't compose, this was why he had such negativity.
JP: It would be very frustrating.
RR: It really colored my perception of him as a composer. I still believe that his best things are his light pieces like Appalachian Spring.
JP: Without a doubt. That's a true masterpiece in its own right.
RR: He had a gift. There's no question that he's a very important figure.
JP: Most everyone that works was influenced by that music.
RR: And Koussevitsky championed his work early on, and he was in that first generation that went to France. He had all the successes.
JP: The thing is if you can get behind the façade of his music from a vocabulary point of view, there is a tremendous amount of conceptual extraction from Ravel, and Beethoven, and even Stravinsky. It's like he takes the concepts and translates them into a more common folk vocabulary of America, but the essence of it really lies . . .
RR: ..... in the tradition.
RR: And when he wrote his Piano Variations, which is a more experimental piece, I don't think it was as successful. I don't get as excited by it. He certainly was the most powerful American of the Twentieth Century, possibly in terms of his status and the measure of respect that he got. I had a piano teacher say to me that Hindemith was a great composer, but he was the Carl Maria von Weber of the Twentieth Century. We still like Weber. We still listen to him, and we still respect him, but he wasn't the very top composer; but he was a wonderful composer. Some of his pieces are really magnificent. Yes, the sort of bitterness that Copland had, colored my perception of him because I didn't know him under other circumstances.
JP: You have to question that on account of the success that he had. Some individuals would be very grateful for having been allowed to occupy a position in time that gave them such world-wide recognition, and influence. You are the individual who has the position of giving beauty. Appalachian Spring, and even Billy the Kid, and those pieces give a lot of beauty, so there is an enjoyment aspect of listening to them. So you occupy the position of giving people enjoyment. I have always felt that this is something to appreciate. It's a privilege, and when someone comes to say, "Wow, I loved your piece," and so forth, no matter how many times you have heard that, because you are in that position, you need to be gracious. I know that experience from the internet. I've gotten e-mails from all over the world, and I'm amazed that people have actually heard stuff that I've written in films. And I am doubly amazed that they would actually write and say, "I love this theme and that theme, and I can't find it on CD, and is there any way to buy it?" That astonishes me, and I never, ever throw those e-mails away. No matter how busy I am, I always return those e-mails, and lots of times I've actually made copies of music that people asked for that wasn't available on CD, and actually sent them to foreign countries. Someone wrote me from Australia once about two years ago and cited a film I had done about ten or twelve years before, that I had totally forgotten about - I always liked the music I wrote for that film, but after a string of films you have to keep moving - and told me the theme for that film was their favorite piece of music in life, and the only way they had to listen to it was to run the film, and they ran the film back and forth, but it was so touching. Of course, I immediately answered, and I made them a CD, because it had never come out on CD, and I sent it, and once they got it they were very grateful and thankful for getting it. But it was a great experience; just that one individual from way off on another side of the earth.
RR: I discovered this when I taught my Film Music Class. There are a lot of people who love
film music seriously, and there was a fellow in our town who was an art teacher, a high school
art teacher, and he had a massive collection with double copies of many film score recordings,
and he was retired. He donated a whole hunk of that collection to help me get the course
started, and I still use those recordings, and I put some of them on CD. It was so incredibly
kind and such an altruistic gesture to support learning, I was very touched by it and I never
forgot it. Those pieces remain the core of my course even though I have other things that I
use. The whole nature of the fact that people develop a collection, and they love it as listeners
is something. He had Heindorf. He had that, and he had everything. He said "Ray Heindorf
doesn't always do the score himself, although he has on occasion, he's also been music
director on movies, and done records later on," and he really knew the subject well.
JP: My experience has been that for a long time, having come from a concert background, film music became a way to make a living, and also a way to exercise the craft. It's been beautiful, because it's provided me a living as a composer. It's also provided a laboratory in which I can consistently exercise my craft and improve it. If I sit down to write a concert piece today, my writing is definitely better for all my exercising of my craft in film. Of course, I don't have any illusions about film music, because film music has got its limitations, but the amazing thing, and what actually happened in reference to what you were just saying, because of the internet and having the website, is that some people have been able to contact me. I've found that there are so many people from lots of different places, who really love that music. I always thought, "Ah, it's film music; it's just background." They don't hear it like that. They hear it in the best possible way, and they really enjoy it.
RR: It's strange, but it's possible to lose your faith in music. You can lose your faith in the importance of what you are doing, and in the importance of music.
JP: You can lose your faith in the listener too. It happened a couple of years ago that there was a Terry Plumeri compilation of about 38 tracks. There were people I knew in town who always enjoyed my music and so I gave it to them, and I said "you might enjoy this, it's just film music." They came back and said "what do you mean this is film music? We really like this," and they started cited different pieces of music, and it was one of the first times I said "you do? You enjoy it, and you like it?" I like it because I wrote it. Even though it can be the dullest film in the world, but I always write the best I can. That's the one thing I can honestly say. I do my absolute best, and try my best. I cannot short change it, because I know there's somebody out there listening. Somewhere there's some kid 10 years old watching deliberately, and so I have an association with the music, and so I'm thinking I like those pieces when I listen to them. They have their own kind of accomplishment, even though they are for film. The fact is that someone else actually listened to them and said "Hey, I enjoy this." This is a legitimate enjoyment as far as music is concerned, whether it's film or it's not film.
RR: Well, I think that's really important. I enjoy the Film Music humanities class, because not everybody reads notes in there, but they get really excited about something. I get them to write a paper, and I say "take one page and spend some time talking about the notation, or the form, or the way you perceive the shape of the piece," and they do it. And they get out of it something that's important I think - more thought about how they listen to music. The first time I did it was at a little college outside Chicago, and it was so much fun. I got the quarterback from the football team, who was an A student; an engineering student; I got science majors, and they all were much better than the music majors, because the music majors are afraid they would look stupid if they asked questions, and these people want to know. It makes a nice foil to teach other things. It makes for variety in the schedule.
JP: I always think it one of the real serious accomplishments for musicians, for professional musicians, to surpass that technical fear that you can't say this or you can't say that, because it's one of the greatest drawbacks.
RR: It's the same thing with the empty page facing the composer.JP: We were talking about saying "Oh, you can't do that nowadays," because it's all the same kind of state of mind. You have to feel free, and feel that you come from the heart. Otherwise you are short changing yourself, and very possibly short changing everybody else. A great example of that for me was a piece that I wrote for string quintet when I was 33. When I finished writing that piece, one of the first pieces that I wrote, I said "This piece is okay. I actually accomplished what I needed to accomplish here, but I can't really write anymore, as I really have to do a lot of studying before writing anything else." And I had lots of pieces, lots of pieces in my head at that time, and when I listen to that piece now, it is a legitimate little piece. It's not the greatest thing I ever wrote... I committed the greatest crime against myself by my self judgment, instead of not judging myself and just doing. Write another piece like this, and another one, and another, and then write them, and write them, and write them.
RR: Evidently Milhaud was like that. He was very prolific, and he would say, "don't worry about whether it's great or not. Write another one!"JP: Yes. I could have written so many similar pieces during that period. That whole vocabulary was constantly running in my head.
RR: That's the Schoenberg influenced period. Many people spent all the time agonizing and torturing themselves instead of writing music.
JP: Right. It's just outrageous the amount of energy you spent, wasted energy, on nothing, except self judgment, and criticizing yourself, and refusing to allow yourself to move forward.
RR: But I really think that academe was hurting creativity at that time.
JP: Very much so, really, because it was essentially a negative act rather than a positive act. It was not about being unafraid and doing. . .
RR: Which is so much the case in the Five Pieces for Orchestra of Schoenberg, because he just wrote the piece, and he really blazed some trails. He did some original things. As soon as you start overriding the system that could give you some freedom, its problematical, and I think Messiaen somehow got around that. He had systems all the time. He kept changing whatever it was he was using, but it was quite strict. He managed to subsume that under the general flow of the piece, and was a composer, a real composer. I think that was true of Tchaikovsky. The really great ones write in many styles. Romeo and Juliet is quite different from the symphonies, for example.
JP: That's a great overture, though.
JP: I enjoy it. The energy that comes out of the orchestra! Also March Slav, I think, could very possibly be one of my first orchestral influences. I heard it when I was six years old, and it was a student orchestra playing. It was orchestrated in such a way that, even with kids - this was a grade school orchestra- they could play it rather convincingly. I'll never forget that theme. It's such an incredible theme, and it's so strong and so Russian. I can't help thinking about it, because of all my recent journeys to Russia with my association with the Moscow orchestra. Isn't it an amazing thing - music's ability to travel? There I was, six years old in 1950, and Tchaikovsky had been dead basically some 50 years, and his music had made its way to America, and some six-year-old kid heard it, and felt this joy, and ultimately Tchaikovsky became a way of life. Isn't that incredible? Music's ability to cross national boundaries always amazes me.
You stand and conduct the Kiev Orchestra, and you can't carry on a philosophical conversation with anyone in that orchestra in Russian, but yet all of you can stand there and can make some really great music together. What an incredible thing! It soars above the limitations of individuals, and their cultural backgrounds. Whatever it is, music surpasses and stands way above all of those things. It's truly a spiritual thing.
RR: Or at the very least, it's its own language. It has its own syntax, and you learn the syntax at school, you learn from listening, and you learn to make judgments about what you like and what you don't like.
JP: Well, I think the syntax is just the façade, because beyond syntax is the spiritual aspect, what really transcends any national boundary, or, who knows, maybe the boundaries of other worlds. We have yet to see if our music may be the true ability to communicate with some sort of alien intelligence.
RR: My wife says to me when I mention that I love slow movements, they're my favorites, she says, "that's because you're Russian. You always want to be sad." Well there is that element in Russian music, that suffering, that Dostoevsky thing. I don't know if it crossed when the family came over, but I do love slow movements.
JP: Sure. I agree with you actually.
RR: It might be where I'm most successful anyway. I think it does transcend. Suzanne Langer said that it's a symbol, but it's not a specific symbol. It has its own language. But I think that's just an academic way of saying it works.
JP: It does have its own language. Musical gestures are not parallels to English gestures or Russian gestures. They have their own kind of gesture to them. Essentially I always feel they are more extensive and deeper than what the spoken word is.
RR: There is some commonality in the process of learning; Beethoven wrote Fux counterpoint, Mozart wrote Fux counterpoint; everybody in Russia has probably heard some of the American music; everybody in America has heard Prokofiev and Shostakovich; and so some Russian music sounds American to me. Have you experienced that? Shostakovich sometimes.
JP: Prokofiev too. There are places in Prokofiev that definitely sound American.
RR: I think it is partially, communication being so extensive now.
JP: I wonder if it's because our composers were influenced by those composers, and we heard it in film. You hear a lot of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in film. Or were they truly influenced from America?
RR: Yes. That's an interesting question. I think there was nobody here in the nineteenth century of the stature of Tchaikovsky, or even Rimsky-Korsakov, so that's something that gives us pause for thought. There's got to have been a lot of music that came here and influenced Americans.
JP: Sometimes Rimsky-Korsakov sounds American, but he was so much imitated in American films, that by the time we grew up and knew who Rimsky really was, we had heard a lot of watered-down Rimsky in films. There's a tremendous amount of films that have that.RR: As a child I had heard and saw the horror film, The Mummy's Tomb, with parallel augmented triads or whole-tone chords, before I heard Debussy.
JP: That's the sad thing about films in that sense: the watered down use of those masterpieces. I'll tell you a great example, and I hate it. Everyone who ever studied composition or went through my classes knew you never, ever bring up the subject of using masterpieces in film, because, for me, it is a serious crime. Here is a great example in a little more modern context: the movie, The Shining. The Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste is used in The Shining. And even a piece of Penderecki, but it's possible that Penderecki was hired to use it, and at least Penderecki was alive and may have allowed them to use it. But they used Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste, which is a magnificent piece of music and a beautiful piece of art, for a horror movie. Here is ultimately what it comes down to, and I have seen the inside of it. The director is always looking for a piece of music that's going to jam right out the door, because you would not believe how much film media depends on music to give it some guts; and also, believe it or not, to give it some psychological underpinning, to give it some sort of psychological journey. So, the choice becomes, that the director feels the music is not horrific enough, and the piece that really fits as far as he's concerned is Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste. But please, do not ruin the piece, because now the audience will hear Music for Strings as frightening! It was written in 1938. Europe was a very dark place in 1938, but the piece, notwithstanding, is not hardened.
RR: No, it starts with a fugue.
JP: There are a lot of beautiful moments in it, and a lot of intimate little moments in it.
RR: A lot of wonderful harp passages . . .
JP: They're not all dark. So now you as an individual have associated this beautiful piece of art with a horror movie . . .
RR: With Jack Nicolson making that horrible face.
JP: Isn't that a crime? I think it's a serious, serious crime. One of the most beautiful things about music, music without words, music without pictures, is its freedom. Music without words is one of the freest things that we have on this earth. You and I and 25 other people can listen to a piece, a piece of music without words, without pictures, and have 27 different ways of having perceived it. We all have our own individual freedom. We get 27 people to watch a film and hear the music in the film, and right away we are locked in. Yes, there's some flexibility, but basically we're locked in. But the music with no words, no pictures is the most free, because of its abstract qualities. In fact you can't touch it, you can't see it, and every time you hear that music, you have your own personal journey that goes on with it. When you hear it in a concert hall with hundreds of people, every individual has got his own place to experience that music. That's a beautiful freedom, and when some idiots put it in the middle of a film, they kill the freedom, all because of trying to make themselves look strong, and make their own work look effective, when in reality, all they did was stand on the shoulders of Bartók.
RR: They're pirating.
JP: Exactly. Stanley Kubrick's a great example. I can respect Kubrick from a film-making point of view, but there's a whole other part of him as a film maker that I disdain.
RR: Eyes Wide Shut, that last film, was very creepy. . .
JP: But I'm talking about his use of concert music, in Clockwork Orange, for example. The association of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with that horrible stuff - a great piece of music, and associating that with a psychopath, is that an ugly act or not? Such a negative act against the music! I don't care who you are or what you say, that is a serious, negative act against the music. Why do that? And Kubrick has done it in other movies with other composers. (7)
RR: In 2001 he helped make Ligeti's career. In fact, when I met Ligeti, in Darmstadt the first time, he asked for my scores. Then he disappeared for a while with the music, and was very formal. I thought "Gee, I had written my thesis on him and everything," and later he came back and said very formally, "you are welcome in my seminar anytime." I thought, "why does he act so self important?" Then I found out he was getting 50 letters a week from all over the world asking to study with him, and for the wrong reasons: 2001.
JP: It's like the Strauss piece, you know,
RR: The performance of Ligeti's Atmosphères they used in the film was a travesty. On top of the fact that it made his career, it was a bad performance!
JP: But it's like Also Sprach Zarathustra. Kubrick uses that piece because anybody is going to sound powerful using that piece. Look at that piece! It's the ultimate in "macho." The truth is it's a beautiful piece of music; a really beautiful piece. It goes on and on with all kinds of things, including divisi in four in the double basses, which is totally forgotten about, all because of its use in film, and to extend on the shoulders of that music. Do you want to hear a really ugly story? Did you ever hear the story about 2001? This really did well for Kubrick, because Alex North wrote a score for 2001, which Jerry Goldsmith recorded about four or five years ago. It's a very good score. Listen to this! It's the ultimate low act. Alex North wrote the whole score, because, remember, Alex wrote the very successful score for Spartacus. (8) So in 2001, Kubrick hired Alex, and Alex wrote the whole entire score for 2001. Alex came to the screening of 2001 with his family, and there was none of his music in the film. Kubrick never told him. He came to the cast and crew screening of 2001 with his family, and there was none of his music in the film.
RR: Every thing he labored over!
JP: Could you imagine how ugly that would be? That would be devastating!
RR: It's inexcusable. Here is the story about Ligeti: it was Morton Subotnik who put together the music for Kubrick, and Subotnik did not do the publication clearances, did not get permission. I don't know if you knew this. Ligeti went to the movies I think in Hamburg, and he walked in and his Lux Aeterna was coming out of the speakers, and he nearly passed out.
JP: I would imagine. Did I tell you I had that experience in a film? Flashdance.
RR: Oh, really?
JP: I had ghosted some of the music in Flashdance, and actually played solo double bass in this one scene. I never knew what it was for. I actually never got paid for it. Someone in the National Symphony told me, go see this Flashdance. There is a wonderful bass solo. So I go and I'm listening, and I had this double experience. I thought "Wow, I've heard that music somewhere before," because this was six months later. "Wow, I've heard that music, and that's me playing the bass," and "they never paid me." And I had no credits.
RR: Did you ever get anything?JP: No. Never got a dime. Never got a piece of credit or anything! So they actually took the music from a potpourri and used it, and I never even got credit. So I know exactly how Ligeti felt.
RR: He got a big settlement, but they promised him also that they would use his music in the sequel, and they never did. I think that may have been part of the settlement, and they never got in touch with him. But the irony is - and it shows you what a crazy world we're in - that made his career. I mean, he was already successful, but when that happened, people from Japan, Korea, the United States began writing to him to study with him, and it shows you that being notorious, and being in the right place at the right time, that's all that seems to matter. That's what will get you in front of people. It doesn't matter how good it is.
JP: Yes, it's a bizarre society.
RR: And we complain that the President of our university is making $250,000 dollars, part of which is a housing allowance, and yet Michael Jordan now is making probably $60,000,000 a year for his endorsements five years after he retired!
JP: I know that whole sports thing is really pretty absurd.
RR: Speaking of commercialism, I'm not a big fan of Phantom of the Opera, to tell you the truth.
JP: Neither am I.
RR: Rodgers and Hammerstein were great people, creators of beautiful songs. Hold that up against the smoke and all that stuff in the recent musicals. The guy even steals some themes from classical pieces.
JP: Right. I know. I'm in the exact same state of mind. That stuff is a joke to me.
RR: And he makes millions every year.
JP: When you compare the guts of those Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes to those tunes of his, his are gutless. You can hear the gutlessness of them. They have no substance. His melodies are all candy melodies - no serious personality.
RR: When I taught the appreciation class, I took one class a week where the students could bring me things that they like. They would bring it in on Thursday. I would take it home on the weekend, and react to it the following week. It was like an assignment for me. They brought me Jonathon Livingston Seagull. Do you remember that monstrosity?
RR: Don't tell me you ghosted it? Here you have an example of some of the finest studio players in Hollywood playing junk. It sounds beautiful, but it's still trash. I think I reached the students, because they saw how strongly I felt about it. They also sent me home with Cat Stevens, who was very interesting. Now he's become rather eccentric, but they sent me home with music I never knew about, and for that I was eternally grateful. So having an open mind is . . .you never know what you're going to meet.. To me, the period where I studied with Ravi Shankar transformed me forever, as I told you.
JP: Yes, you did.
RR: And it changed my life. Because George Harrison and the Beatles studied with him, suddenly Ravi Shankar was a big name. City College brought him for six months as a major University Professor. I was one of 14 people allowed to take the class. My life changed as a result of taking that class, maybe for all the wrong reasons, but it was the right thing for me at that time to have been there - an auditorium with 350 auditors in the class with beards and long hair and smoke rising, and we 14 were on stage like in a fish bowl. But I suddenly discovered that there are other cultures that are that deep, that profound, and that beautiful. When the course first started I couldn't understand it, but my room mate, who was a professional cellist my age and very talented - I think he is in Phoenix now with the orchestra - said "listen to this Indian music cut five times, and if you still don't like it, you shouldn't take the course, because you are not absorbing it." By the third or fourth hearing, I understood that the melody was different, that there is no harmony, and that the rhythm is different, and it changed me forever. That's something I discovered early on, that you have to listen to music more that once. We're not taught that in America, are we?
JP: No. I almost feel that there is a part in The Rite of Spring that has this tonalization, a kind of foundational tonicization on top of which tremendous energy takes place, so you have to simplify the complexity of harmonic progression, and increase the rhythmic and melodic character interaction.
RR: Yes, there's an analogy there.
JP: Of course they are very, very different, but there is an essence that lies in both of those that is definitely related.
RR: In Ravi Shankar's course I chose to concentrate on North Indian Rupak Tal, the seven-beat rhythmic mode. I remember listening to Shankar and his drummer improvising in class. In the elaboration section, they would play complex melodic and drum patterns (thekas) against the prevailing meter, and then land on the downbeat several minutes later, when they haven't been there all that time. It's one of the most unbelievable things.
JP: Yes, it's stunning.
RR: That's probably the most significant thing I learned in my four years of college.
JP: It's a serious matter, you know, because I think that one of the greatest things you can ever learn from expression is just how to unleash. I learned that from a Baptist preacher, who was one of the most amazing people in my life. Growing up, my grandmother was Baptist. I have a very deep belief, spiritual belief, but I am totally not denominational, because I feel like I don't have one moment of being able to criticize anyone. I don't care how excessive someone else's religion is, or where it comes from. It's their religion. One of the beauties of how I grew up was not ever to make fun or light of someone else's religion or someone else's belief. I truly am that way, because everyone's religion is their religion, and it's as valid as anyone else's for them. I am incapable of feeling any kind of religious superiority to anyone else in any way whatsoever.
RR: That's when things get dangerous.
JP: Yes, that's when it's ugly. It's really ugly, that thing, when "my way is right and yours isn't." and that can lead to a war causing millions of deaths. But this Baptist preacher was one of the most amazing people I ever encountered in my life. He was like Coltrane. Every Sunday morning, because I went to that church every Sunday until I was around sixteen when and I started working in clubs late on Saturday nights. He was an incredible individual with absolute sincerity and honesty. It was in a friendly little country church. In the summertime it would be so hot they would use hand fans. There was nothing cosmetic about the place.
RR: How come you don't have a Southern accent?
JP: I had a Southern accent when I left Florida, but I lived in New York City for years and Washington, and so it left. But he always had this incredible oration that would happen from around 11:20 until 12 noon, and it started with a very calm talking bit about what he had to say that week. Then there was this long, wonderful crescendo, this 30 minute crescendo, that lasted till it came down to the point where, in that religion, it came down to the singing from the hymnal and giving the opportunity to the congregation members to accept Jesus. But the progression was just amazing, and very deep. Recently I spoke with my aunt about that, and that was from years ago when I was a child, if there was ever a place where we were . . .(and we never talked about this for many years until about ten years ago.) We both had had the same experience, and that was that we felt that if we had ever been in a place where the presence of God was there, it was in that church, and in the church, whenever he was delivering the sermon, because there was this absolute sincerity. You know everybody's got their own way to make that connection, and he had his way, but he definitely had this facility for opening the door to that power, and he was an astonishing individual. I heard it for years. It was incredible, and it really affected my music. It's definitely in the music.
RR: I wonder if he was conscious of the crescendo, or if it just got more intense as he went on.
JP: No, I really don't think so, because many times I saw him not just crescendo, but I saw him emotionally upset to the point where he would be crying. You don't just start crying with tears rolling down your cheeks in some sort of make believe performance. You've seen all those evangelical performances that are such fakery. You don't reach that state of mind without some sort of severe, serious deep conviction, and so the crescendo was really - it's like us when we play music, or write music, or whatever - you just get into it deeper and deeper, and as such, expression takes over, and then, yes, it comes out in this wondrous display and propulsion of your energy; the energy you are in contact with, because I think (I truly believe this), when you write a really fine piece of music, I really, truly believe that you are in touch with something else beyond yourself. When I see it, it could be the simplest thing, but it's hard for me to believe that I did that. It really is.
RR: It's harder to see something like that in organized religion.
JP: But I think beyond that - the problem with organized religion, no matter what the religion is, is that there's always these individuals to create little scenes and all this nonsense. The funny thing is, no matter what the religion is, it's the same thing. They may wear a different hat, or a different style, or whatever, but it's the same fakery. I truly believe that organized religion has created another great example of limitation and confinement. It's all about someone who makes rules laid out that you can't to this, and you can't do that, and when you think about all those ritualistic doctrines, how do they come about? They go back hundreds of years, and are seriously superstition based. In recent years I have started really to consider a lot of those doctrines from the point of control of the tribe. No matter where it was, or who it was, you lay out rules of this, or that, or anything, and what do they ultimately accomplish? From the elders' point of view, they establish control. Don't step over here, don't step over there, because what that does is help keep the tribe together.
RR: In the Jewish religion, they say that being kosher was because of trichinosis, but, nevertheless, when you read the scripture and the exegesis, it says that it's "a law that you have to follow without question," and you don't ask about it because you have to take a leap of faith. I just have trouble with that whole approach, and especially when you see the hypocrisy. I was in high school in Brooklyn, New York, and I was running for office, for treasurer of the school, and the Principal/Rabbi said "now Rollin, I'm not going to hold this against you, but rumor has it that you are not that religious. Tell me the truth, do you turn the lights on Saturday sometimes?" I looked at him and I said, "Yes, I do sometimes." He said "then I'm not going to let you run." So I looked at him, smiled, and said "try and stop me. I want you to try and stop me."
JP: Really?RR: If there is anything I can't stand it's injustice and what I would call evil. He never pushed it.
JP: I can't believe you said that. That's great. I think you have to see to the spirituality, but not to organized religion. That word immediately means confinement to me and it ultimately is almost anti-spirituality in so many ways. Religion can be synonymous with anti-spiritual. The true spirituality is something that is there, really, but beyond that. Spirituality, itself, is not even about the small man, and all of his rules, and the confinement. It is so far beyond that.
RR: I'm always grateful that I learned the Hebrew language, the laws, and ritual, because I understand what my background is. I am eternally grateful and proud of it, and that preserves simple things like the customs and the food, and things that you don't want to lose, and yet I can't stand the extremes.
Let's talk now about a little more history. How did you get from Washington to Hollywood? What happened exactly?
JP: I stopped working in the National Symphony, and actually started again spending more time in New York playing, and writing.
RR: Jazz at that time?
JP: I was always playing jazz. I was always working as a jazz musician and always working in classical music. That period of time playing in the National Symphony became serious emphasis on playing in orchestra, because of the fact that it was a serious job with many days of the week involved. But it actually started to really constrict something that I loved about music, and that was the spontaneity and freedom of improvisation, as well as my composition.
RR: And you literally felt the need to leave?
JP: Yes, I did, because I started to feel burnt out inside musically. I wasn't looking forward to it.
RR: You weren't looking forward to the rehearsals and things.
JP: Yes. A couple of years after that I was asked to be Music Director of a jazz band in Baltimore, and I worked there for a year and a half in a well-funded program - one of the best jobs I had in my life, because all I did was play. I wrote for the band as well as conducting rehearsals, and then on certain days of the week we played after the mayor's speech, and nursing homes, and the Maryland penitentiaries, and city jails, and we would play jazz concerts.
RR: How big an ensemble was it?
JP: Twelve piece. That's really decent. Then all that ended with a change of administration.
RR: A lot of government-sponsored programs disappeared at that time.
JP: It was so ridiculous. There were a lot of people who had worked for years to get those government sponsored art programs, and they axed them out like nothing. In a matter of months they were all gone, and they put all that money into military spending. It was a bizarre time.
RR: They actually emasculated the Endowment. It doesn't do anything for composers any more.
JP: During that time I had my first major orchestral performance, because I wrote a piece for the Baltimore Symphony, a piece for orchestra and jazz band, big band, and that was my first orchestra piece.RR: You have a lot in common with Gunther Schuller.
JP: That's true. I'm a big fan of Gunther. I love his music and always appreciated his whole history. That performance was memorable to me, because ten minutes before the first rehearsal, I had never had a piece performed with live orchestra like that, a legitimate major orchestra, and I remember thinking, "God, this is going to be one of the biggest fiascos in my life." I was frightened to death thinking that this was the Baltimore Symphony, and Baltimore Symphony was a very good orchestra.
RR: Was Zinman the director at that point?
JP: It was just prior to Zinman. But I remember thinking that they would all laugh at me, laugh at the music, and the opposite happened. Afterwards, the conductor told me, anytime I write something new to call him. Let him see it. I never did, but it was very successful, which amazed me, because I am always not thinking that the music sounded very good. It was very successful, and that was the beginning, because I had a good friend from Manhattan School days, who was already actually writing for films, and he was getting too much work, and he needed a ghost writer. I think that probably having that performance by the Baltimore Symphony and some other things, and he said "why don't you come on out here, and I can definitely give you some work?" So I came in Fall of 1981, and within a week or two was actually working on two network television shows. So I was very fortunate like that in one way, to be able to start right away, but very unfortunate in the sense that ghost writing is an ugly thing to do ultimately. It's a living and you exercise your craft, but psychologically it's very difficult to take on a long term basis.
RR: Everything comes out under somebody else's name.
JP: Yes. You write music, and no matter how good it is, it has somebody else's name on it. Ultimately, it doesn't serve your future at all, because you can't say that you did this work.
RR: I suppose to some extent, you can, because the guy is not going to deny it, but it's not a
credential that is formal. You can't put it on a website or a c.v.
JP: I remember once we were at MGM at a screening for a television show we had done for MGM, and I went to the screening, because I was always writing half the music. The producer of the show, who was actually a very well-known television producer at the time, came up to us and called him by name, I won't mention names here, and said, "you know, the music for this particular part of the film is great. I love that." I had written all that music, and I was standing right beside him, and he could have saved face and said "This is Terry Plumeri, and he did the orchestration on it," or something. He didn't even say that. He said, "Oh thank you. So glad you like it." It's a no-win situation. I can never go back to that producer, and say "remember when I was working on the Chicago Story?" So it serves your future in no way whatsoever. Flashdance was like that too. I did some of the music in Flashdance, but I could never use that credit. I used the credit a couple of times on resumes and people told me, "don't put this on here. I don't care if you did ghost it, because it looks like you are trying to take credit."
RR: That's what I was saying. It really isn't fair.
JP: You have to shut it down. It took forever. It took me from 1981 to 1988 until the first time I got a job in my own name. Seven years of doing that, and ultimately it came from my doing it. There was this one director for whom we did a number of jobs, and he knew that I was ghost writing, because we worked enough for him that he got on the inside, and he knew that I was there. He was doing a feature film (we had done a number of documentaries for this director), and it was one of Jean Claude van Damm's first films, and he called me in, and so I submitted some work, and, actually, this other composer I ghosted for also submitted. I won the job over the guy I was ghosting for. It was a special kind of glory of actually achieving a job over someone whom you were in the shadows of. It had become a situation with him, where his work would seriously improve when I was ghosting for him, and I think that it made him uncomfortable. There were times when we had a studio where we worked and that was his, and people would call up for jobs and he would say "I don't think I will be able to do that" and I would say "I'll do it." He would say, "You don't want it. It only pays $10,000." With him it actually came to the point where I refused to do it any longer, because for two years there was very serious scuffling, making a decision if you could buy a dollar jar of jam. I watched every penny, scraping just to get by. And then all of a sudden that one job came, and that was the beginning of this. Once I started working under my own hand, it was still about three to four years, where it was still tight. Then, all of a sudden, everybody discovered me and I started working regularly.
RR: So it was about a dozen years altogether before you really were established.
JP: It was around 1990 or 1991, and then I started just knocking them off. There was one place that I lived in Manhattan Beach from around 1989-1998. I wrote the music for 43 movies in the course of seven to eight years.
RR: That's like Max Steiner. He did over 30 films in one year, I think.
JP: So I had two films to do in 2 1/2 weeks, and both films had over an hour of music - basically around seventy minutes of music. The choice was either to do both films at the same time, or do one film in one week, essentially eight days, and the other film in another eight days, and that's what I chose to do. It was one of the most insane times, and that was the only time in 55 films that . . . .there was one cue in one of the films that every time I went to . . .because when you write fast, the absolute necessity in writing an hour of music in a week, or two weeks, or even in three weeks is to go to the film, and it plays in your head when you look at the scene. Then you put it down. If it doesn't play in your head, get off of it.
RR: You go to something else.
JP: You have to trust that the improvisational inspiration will ultimately activate in all scenes in the film, as long as you keep looking at them. And it always has for me. I'm very grateful and amazed that it has activated. I've been able to write large quantities of music in short amounts of time. Sometimes you go to the rear of the film. You could start writing at the rear of the film, because it plays in your head once you get your theme and so forth, and that's the way to do it. There was this one scene in the film. It wasn't a very good scene. Every time I went to it I just could not hear the music at all, and it was long too; it was 4 1/2 minutes, and here I am writing two hours and 25 minutes of music in 2 1/2 weeks, and those four minutes started to drive me crazy, because every time I went to it, it was not playing. Every thing else would play, except for this one place. So about two days before the recording, when I was severely backed up, because you are always behind - you know how it is with the deadlines. Have you ever not been behind? Everyone who is trying to do their best will always be behind. You always seem to pull it out at the last minute, but you're always behind.
RR: My Double Concerto was that kind of a push.
JP: So that was the one time where I actually called up someone and got them to write one cue, but other than that, the entire 54 movies, I wrote every piece of music in them. But, like I said, that's unlike most of the major films that you see. There is a team generally. Some composers, without mentioning any names, there are a few composers in town who do really big films, who actually don't write music. Do not write music. They are conceptual people - almost contractors in a sense. Then guys like me, the nuts and bolts kind of composers, who sometimes improvise something on piano, and give you the improvisation, and then take it and make something out of it, and it may only be a theme. As a ghost writer I did that lots of times. Sometimes you just get a theme, or other times you're hired to ghost because you have a special milieu. I was always very good at taking small groups and making them sound very full. So I got known for doing small orchestras, and making them give the illusion.
RR: Saving money.
JP: Right. Exactly. Ultimately that was a detriment to my income over the long run, but I have written a lot of music, and I am glad to have done that. I seriously exercised the craft of writing.
JP: So I got out of ghost writing, and started being hired under my own name, which ultimately has led to the 54 movies under my name. I have probably turned down roughly 20 movies, which I could have done, but chose not to do. Probably the most critically well - known film that I wrote was a movie called One False Move, which was Siskel's and Ebert's film of the year in 1992, and now on the New York Times list as one of the thousand best films ever made. It is a nice credit to have written the music for one of the thousand best films ever made. I was nominated for best score for the Independent `Spirit Awards, which is like the independent films' Academy Awards.
RR: That's very interesting. It's quite different from the classical environment.
JP: Sure. I always maintain the classical environment within my own head though, because if you listen to film music that I've written, it definitely has that traditional background to it - underpinning so to speak.
RR: But that was a very gutsy move to be willing to, first of all leave the orchestra, even if you were making a living as a jazz player too. To get up and move to Hollywood must have been a major decision to make.
JP: It was, but it was all driven by the desire to write music for orchestra in Hollywood. It presented a situation which was very enticing to me - that I was going to get to write music for orchestra regularly, and not just once a year. And that was the enticement. Even when I was working as a ghost writer, I was still writing all the time, and I was hearing the things. As you know, you always improve every time you write a piece. Your composition gets better. You extend your vocabulary, not only your harmonic, melodic, rhythmic vocabulary, but once you have a real orchestra there, you extend your orchestration vocabulary, because there are endless possibilities, and if you don't consistently exercise some of those possibilities, then they get rusty because they more or less have to start all over again. I think my composition has been at its best when I am doing a string of films, because you are consistently thinking in the right place.
RR: It's like when you are practicing.
JP: Right. Exactly. It's one of the reasons that, during times when I'm not working on a piece or something, I generally really study scores, or actually copy a score, because it keeps my mind in that ballpark of making those choices - what sort of instrument to use, especially orchestration choices. What to use here, what to use there.
RR: Karel Husa told me that he would ride the streetcar in Prague with miniature scores in his hand, studying them wherever he would go, and he would go to the rehearsal with the score and watch the conductor. That's how he got his best conducting training.
JP: I remember during the time when I lived in Virginia, in between working with the National Symphony and coming to California, in my bedroom, at any given point there were easily 10-15 scores open to different pages all over the floor. It was like an obstacle course to step out of the bedroom without walking on them. I would, of course, never walk on a score, because that would be a lack of respect for the scores. There is that bookcase there that houses all the scores. You constantly read out of scores, and its necessary to do that to think with the score. In one of my few composition lessons, there was actually a pianist named Russell Willis, who was with the National Symphony, and Russell was a composer, who had studied with Piston. One of the things I got from Russell was that you should always work with a full score in front of you, because when you see the emptiness of the full score, that gives you absolute clarity what you need to add to that emptiness. It may be only one line, or a page absolutely dark with notes where everyone's playing. Working with a full score is even better than working with a sketch just because of that fact. There you have all the possibilities right in front of you.
RR: But you can do a sketch more quickly. You just jot it down.
JP: Later on you can do without doing the full score, but in the beginning it's a very good way to proceed, because your palette is right in front of you, all the colors are there, and you can chose them or not chose them, but you don't forget about your palette. When you are doing a piano sketch, you are not totally aware of your palette in the beginning. I can work from a piano sketch, now, and I am very aware of my palette. I can make notes as to what instruments I want to use, but then it's not a really good way to start.
RR: It also depends on time constraints, when you have to do it in a quick way. I guess I learned some of that when I was writing for theater, and when I worked for people who needed it in a certain time, and that whole experience was a revelation to me - that music is not written in a vacuum. It's got to come when it's needed, and that's when I came out with a system for organizing the time, the a priori formal aspect, and also the ideas. Keep in mind that they're not the same thing. There's a typical thing that occurs: the student comes in with ten measures of an idea for string quartet. Then he comes in the next week and says "No, no, it's for symphony orchestra." You need to know what it's going to be from the start. That film that you said was one of your most successful, what was it called?
JP: One False Move.
RR: And what sort of a film was it?JP: A crime story. A really deadly crime story - very violent. It actually became very well known with serious critical acclaim.
RR: Any big name actors?
JP: Billy Bob Thornton wrote the script and acted in it, and also Bill Paxton. It was perhaps their springboard to the success that they've had. That was one of my best scores. I'll play some of it for you.
1 See also Plumeri's authorized web site at http://johnterrylplumeri.com
2 Robert Rollin, "An Interview with Karel Husa in honor of his 75th birthday," Ex tempore, Spring, 1997.
3 See Roger Hickman, Reel Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), pp. 199-200.
5 Ibid, pp. 40-41.
6 See Prendergast, pp. 30-42.
7 See Louis Giannetti, Understanding Movies (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999), pp.
3 See Roger Hickman, Reel Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), pp. 199-200.4 Roy M. Prendergast, Film Music; A Neglected Art, 2nd edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992), pp. 104-7.
5 Ibid, pp. 40-41.
6 See Prendergast, pp. 30-42.
7 See Louis Giannetti, Understanding Movies (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999), pp.