vendredi 18 février 2011

Carl Davis Interview (Part I)

Meeting Carl Davis in Paris, as he prepares for a performance on Sunday of The Gold Rush and The Immigrant, is a huge pleasure. He is still enormously enthusiastic about silent film music. He told me about his first attempt at silent film scoring and the difficulties he had to face. Being a silent film composer requires multiple skills like knowing film history, musicology as well as being a composer.

As a film composer, how would you define your music? Do you consider yourself a follower of the great Europeans from Hollywood like Korngold or Rozsa?

Probably. I’m nearer to that than any other thing. But it’s not my consideration. The thing about film music is that it has to help the film. And you have to be able to recognize what kind of film it is. So you are on the side of the film, so to speaks. You see the film and you have to think what is the appropriate music to go with these pictures. It’s also what the whole film is about, because music has such a strong effect on the subconscious. It can actually suggest in itself a colour and change people’s perception of the story or the effect the film is going to have. If you have music, which is doing the wrong thing, it actually changes the actual nature of people’s perception of the film. So there is really a lot of emphasis, always was and still is, on how important music is for films. To get the right sort of music, I’m always searching for a solution. It has to be not only right for the picture as it comes, but also right for the whole film. It has to be right because most music appears generally – not always, but generally – at the beginning of a film, a TV programme or a documentary. So that’s very important because that’s sometimes the first sound experience the audience is going to have. It must tell the right story.

Kevin Brownlow, Carl Davis & David Gill in the 80s.

When did you start writing music for silent pictures? It’s for the Hollywood series, isn’t it?

Yes, my first major project involving silent films was the Hollywood series, which we started researching in about 1974. I had just finished a series for an English channel called Thames TV called The World at War. And the the producer who made it, Jeremy Isaacs, went on to produce Hollywood. The source of it all was Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By… Jeremy had read the book and had said immediately this would make a great series. And he commissioned Kevin and a colleague, David Gill to do it. They formed a very strong partnership, very creative and very happy until David’s death. I think he died in 1997. This was very tragic for the ongoing story. But still by then, I had been personally involved in a very large number of films and thought of himself as if I had created a unique repertoire. I felt like I was a one-man ballet company or an opera company with these grand œuvres, hours and hours of music. But the first sort of education in this was really doing the Hollywood series dealing with comprehensive studies of Hollywood. But what it did do was to make me aware of the very special world that existed when people were using live music. There was no sound coming from the screen, no dialogue and no sound effects, all the things that people expect in a contemporary film. Everything had to be produced manually, had to be reproduced by live musicians. And I was just learning how to do this… The other aspect was the range of films. It was massive: from Keystone Cops to westerns, romantic films of Garbo to epics like Ben-Hur, the odd films like the Von Stroheim’s… So it was very interesting, like an education. Then, in 1980, at the very end of it – it had already been screened – I said: “Now that I have done about 300 clips, shouldn’t we do a whole film? Shouldn’t we show what we have learned?” I didn’t think any of it. Then the idea arose: let’s do Napoléon. And the funds had become available. The series had been an enormous success. It sold worldwide – to over 50 territories. They were very happy and decided they would support a single performance of Napoléon and donated the money. I think it was something like £20,000, which at that time –we must remember it was 1980- seemed a lot. But, of course, that may have been for the music alone (Laugh). Anyway, at a certain point, in producing this score, someone said: “Did I have any idea of how much it would cost?” Absolutely not, I had no idea (Laugh). Very unprofessional in a way, but I couldn’t actually work it out. I had no idea what was coming next.

Kevin told me you wrote the waltz for the opening credits of Hollywood in fifteen minutes in a taxi cab. Is it true?

No. (Laugh) But… Well, I may have worked on the waltz on a cab… You know, I don’t drive, so I spend a lot of my time in taxis. Kevin, at first, was very against this. I said I wanted to start with a piano and in five seconds go into grand orchestra. It was our first meeting and he said: “Absolutely not!” (Laugh) At that point David Gill came in to calm him down. (Laugh) But it was a waltz and it was very deliberate too. We’re used to a very jazzed kind of idea of Hollywood, very hot, very souped-up, with big brass, huge things with a lot of energy and show biz and things like that. So, I thought the initial stirring of music, the initial creation of music for these films, comes from something more diverse, more Europeans, more kind of family audience oriented and so on… So that red-hot show biz really started when they started to make musicals on sound. So I thought we could do something unexpected, which is a symphonic waltz.


Hollywood-Main Title

About Napoléon, it was your first silent film score. It must have been daunting to write 5 hours of music, even if you borrowed classical themes. How did you work on that one?

Again, I learned doing the Hollywood series when I had a chance to interview people. We are talking about the mid-70s, so there were still some people – of great age – who had actually worked at that time and were still playing for college performance or for film clubs or societies. They made free use of references at the time because there was a big turnover of films. If something wasn’t drawing an audience, they would change the film, which meant the score had to change. So it was a very hard working environment. I thought the deadlines were very short for me. Decision was made in the middle of August – the go-ahead – for a performance on the 30th of November of that year. So that’s three and a half months. So I thought, well, I’m never going to write five hours of music. And so I fell back on the idea that one would write some of it and then incorporate other music. But, the idea from an artistic point of view was not to make it seems random. It’s not any music from any time. It has to be the right music again.
And there was this very famous relationship between Beethoven and Napoléon. Beethoven was enthusiastic at first. And later, he crossed out the dedication to Napoléon on the front page of the 3rd Symphony when Napoléon crowned himself emperor. He was deceived. And then, there is this story about Napoléon bombarding Vienna. Beethoven, who lived in the suburbs, was crawling under a table, trying to hide from the cannons… And then there are some other letters about him and notes. One of them, from quite late in his life, where he said: “I never understood that bastard.” (Laugh) Something like that, you know, quite rough. (Laugh) I thought as the film ends in 1797 with the invasion of Italy, the conquest of Italy or the liberation of Italy… It depends on your point of view! (Laugh) All I know is when we showed In Italy the scene in which Napoléon invites the troops to plunder Italy, there was booing… (Laugh) The Italians didn’t like it. So I thought, there is this relationship. As we are ending when Beethoven would have been supposedly on his side, as he saw him as somebody who could throw over the absolute monarchs of the countries, then there would be a way to look into it. Let’s take the concept further. So if the whole film is a biography, a portrait of Napoléon, it could be also be a study in the music of Napoléon’s time. So who else was there? If we are going to broaden it out. Some pretty good people like Haydn and Mozart. No bad. And a lot of secondary figures, which were interesting, like Cherubini, Gluck (he would not have been alive by then, but played), Grétry. There were a lot of interesting more minor composers like Dittersdorf.

You used also a little piece of music that Napoléon was supposed to be very fond of.

Yes, this is from an opera called Nina by Paisiello. It’s like a transcription of a folk melody, a very simple folk melody. It wasn’t like a baroque opera at all. Having discovered that, I researched and looked at the score of Nina. I thought there could be only one thing that he might have loved, something that might have been a Corsican song.
This can’t be the only story. We can look at Beethoven and it’s very interesting like the Eroica theme which Beethoven did four versions of. There’s the symphony of course, also a set of piano variations, the Eroica variations. He then incorporated into a ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven’s only ballet and also in a contredanse. He couldn’t get rid of it. It was an ‘idée fixe’ for him. And I looked also at all the jobs Beethoven did, like today’s composers have to survive on commissions. We used Egmont. We used his music for plays, ballet music, marches, minuets… Then I thought there are some elements Gance brings into it which are not purely historical. The concept of the Eagle is a kind of romantic figure, romantic image that goes through democracies like the US… I said: “This is such a romantic idea; I am not going to find this in Beethoven or in XVIIIth century music. So I would write my own. There won’t be this idealization of Joséphine either so I’ll have to write a sort of highly passionate love theme.” And then, of course, once you have those themes, you have to develop them in some way. They have to change according to what’s on the screen. So they may not only be as Beethoven wrote them, but them would have to be adapted. I had my idea of what I was going to do. I just began and I realised one really had to treat it as one would for a contemporary film. The music who have to fit. It had to be conceived in such a way, that musicians would have music, I would have the score and the score would be related to the film. Whether I would be in a studio or live, it would have to be the same process. It had to be measured and shaped to be with the film. And that’s how it began and every film I have done ever since. What is now a long history in a long list, has been based on that.


'The Eagle of Destiny' from Napoléon

But I have to do it live. I, then, had to develop a conducting technique that is specifically going to synchronise with the film as well as conducted it well. So it was hard enough to conduct it well. Now not only it has to be conducted well, but it has to fit the film. And I had to – which is something I had not rationalised – is to be able to work with an orchestra. My life, up to that point, had been entirely spent in the studios, so I was not dealing with the process by which somebody works towards a life performance. My life had been: “This piece is one minute and a half. Did we get it right? Does it fit?” And then we go on to the next piece. This is something else. Tonight, I’m meeting an orchestra for a concert we are doing on Sunday. I have four days of rehearsal to build a performance, without driving them crazy. I must get the best from them and it has to fit the film.

When you have to write music for a silent, sometimes you can have access to the original score such as Gottschalk’s score for Broken Blossoms. How do you decide to use it or not?

It simply depended on the quality of the music. Broken Blossoms was one where I was lucky to have a score. Then, they were instances when there was a score, but I decided we would do it better in another way. I’m thinking of The Thief of Bagdad for example where there is a score in existence by a house composer for Fairbanks called Mortimer Wilson. And I heard some of it. But, when we made the Hollywood series, we had some clips from the Thief of Bagdad. I had used some Scheherazade of Rimsky-Korsakov. And it was fantastic. It also fitted into an interesting concept I had about the film that it had been inspired by the Ballet Russe by Diaghilev. We could make it a Rimsky film score.

I noticed you also used pieces of Sadko for the film.

Yes, for the underwater sequence because there is an underwater act in Sadko. And also when someone sings a little lullaby when the princess goes to sleep.
Going back to Broken Blossoms, there is not only Breil attached to it, but they were melodies supposedly by Griffith himself. I don’t know if the main love theme for the girl was really composed by Griffith. I don’t know if he did Chaplin’s style. [singing: La la la la !] And somebody wrote it down, possibly that. But they were nice. They were very simple melodies and I thought they contrasted very well with the sort of quasi-Chinese music there was. I thought we could do something with it. And I thought again, if it doesn’t work I’ll write my own. And sometimes, I had to stretch things. But a very interesting thing happened in this film where the score told you something about the cut of the film. Griffith was always tempering, he was recutting and recutting. And so we had what was in fact for Broken Blossoms what was his final cut –i.e. he didn’t touch it anymore. And then, you found very often the shape of things conflicted with the score. The score was obviously written for the first cut of the film. So working through when matching music to picture, I said: “Wait a minute! This music doesn’t work. The scene stops. And then it comes back. We’ll have to cut that music at a certain point, play the music that’s after and then come back to this music.” It was a process like that…
In Le Joueur d’Echecs too. There is a printed score published by Max Eschig. We had for the first reel different versions. One had come from East Germany and one had been in Holland. One was damaged and one wasn’t. The score had been very well prepared by a marvellous French composer, Henri Rabaud, with a lot of synchronisation points written into it, just as I do. It tells you what should happening at that point in the film. There was a scene, near the beginning of the film, when I was playing the score looking at a video of the film with Kevin and David, I said: “Wait a minute! There is shot indicated in the score – a close-up – , but it’s not on the screen.” We removed the video and put on the other version and that had the close-up! (Laugh) We really had a frisson, a revelation. Suddenly the score, written for the first performance, tells you what was missing.
In the same way, I have a story about the reconstruction of Metropolis. About 15 years ago maybe, I was called in, by a man called Enno Petalas. He works in Munich and he was trying to find those missing things. He gave me the score. There was something missing in the full score. We had a discussion on how I could build it up again though nothing came of it. So I was handed a score and with large sections blocked out in yellow pen. This is the music for all the sections that were cut, therefore missing. I said: “Here is your map to the reconstruction! It’s in the score. It’s telling you what’s missing, because that was written for the complete film.” Oddly enough, all the music that looked like a lot of fun was always the music for the underworld, that sort of Chinese café or bar where everybody went down at the lowest level. That was the stuff that was cut. (Laugh) This is always very odd when you get to the climax in the old version, when you get to the end of the film, and there is this enormous flood, and suddenly people are running in from all sides. And you suddenly see a whole cast of characters you’ve never seen before, (laugh) realising they’ve all been cut, but they are reappearing at the end.

Is it better when you can start with a blank page, like for The Crowd?

Yes, because I can create my own shapes. If it’s an existing score then it’s more like a puzzle. How do I get all this to work? In fact all this shaping of Chaplin’s scores to be shorter or longer depending on the projection speed, that’s hard work. That’s really what we call graft. Whereas, in fact, if you are going to create your own score, you’re making the major decisions about where things should start, where things should end and you have the interesting aspect of exploration. You can experiment and again have this thrill of bringing out the characters of the film.

Recently, you conducted your new score on Karl Grune’s Waterloo. Do you plan to conduct it again in the near future or to record it for a DVD release ?

This was a funny small cinematheques’ view. They did it quite a while back in 1987, I think. It was a co-production between the Luxemburg Cinematheque and the Belgian Cinematheque to make a good print of this very interesting version of the Waterloo story. We did it, but we never recorded it. And still haven’t recorded it. I revived last year a very interesting collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra, a terrific London-based orchestra but making many appearances here in Paris. They became interested in it. But, There are still no plans to record Waterloo.They want to do Napoléon which I think they plan to do in 2013 in London.

The German Film Museum is planning to release Waterloo on DVD. It’s been on their webpage for quite a while.

I hope they let me record my score!
Generally, they have piano scores.
For the DVDs? Phew! People don’t understand. But this was the great principleof what we were trying to do and succeeded in doing in 1980. The lowest level of film performance when there was silent film, the poorest, the most suburban idea that everybody had, was a piano. If you had any sense of stature, it would have an orchestral score or certainly instrumental… and certainly not a pianist or an organist. To reach its fullest effect, I firmly believe you should be treating this as a major ballet or as a major opera score in that sense. But it’s expensive… It’s all in the economics !

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