Danny Elfman: It's weird. My classical roots, because I didn't grow up on classical music. I don't know Vivaldi. I don't know Haydn. I really don't know most of Beethoven or Bach at all. And so it's weird, later on I would get asked when I would finish a score, they said, "Oh, do you listen to Mahler?" I go, "No, but I listen to the film composers that listened to Mahler." So, I do have roots in this classical period, but not directly, it's all secondhand.
Kristy Geslain: Hi! I’m Kristy Geslain and welcome to Episode 3 of This is Lincoln Center, a podcast featuring the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's stages.
Composer Danny Elfman has written some of the most recognizable film and television music of all time, including this...
[Theme song for The Simpsons]
...and the scores to nearly all of Tim Burton's films, like Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. The playfulness, zing, and mystery of his scores have made Elfman a Hollywood legend, and, to a lesser extent, a cosplay hero.
But New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini heard something else when he was reviewing Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton at Lincoln Center Festival back in 2015. Tommasini compared Elfman's score to Pee Wee's Big Adventure to Shostakovich. Describing Elfman, he wrote "Imagine Prokofiev in Hollywood." What Tommasini was hearing was not random. Elfman, a self-taught composer, spent a lot of time internalizing the snipped marches, clanging percussion, and massive narrative arcs of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Their ghosts loom over his music, along with Duke Ellington, Erich Korngold, and many other composers. I had the pleasure of sitting with Danny to talk about these musical influences and the challenges of creating music for the concert hall. This is Lincoln Center with Danny Elfman.
KG: I had done a bunch of research on you before when we were doing the Lincoln Center show and then I went back and was reading some more interviews and videos and things and in every piece that I came upon you sort of noted a little bit about the orchestral stuff and then the conversation would go back to the movie music, so I'd really love to give some time to explore your orchestral pursuits right now.
Danny Elfman: Thank you. Okay.
KG: So, what are you working on?
DE: Right now, at this moment, I'm working on a piano quartet, it's through the Berlin Philharmonic, this quartet. I just met with the orchestra master of the Philharmonic, and he said "You know, we have two possible commissions we could offer you right now, one is for twelve cellos, and one's for a piano quartet." And I thought to myself and said, "Okay, piano quartet."
DE: It seemed less daunting than twelve cellos. (Laughs) And I don't think in the end it is less daunting. It's just incredibly hard, harder than writing full-on orchestral music for me.
KG: Why do you think that is?
DE: Because I've been writing orchestral music for 34 years now and I'm so conditioned to—"Okay, now I’m gonna bring in the basses. Oh, I have no basses. Now I'm gonna bring in… oh, I don't have any of those. I just have three strings. And a piano." And it involves a different kind of discipline than I've ever done, but, I mean that's kind of what I was after. That's why I wrote a violin concerto, because I didn't know anything about violin concertos, either. So I guess that's the whole point, and I'm having fun.
KG: Have you gone back and just really done a deep dive into violin concertos?
DE: I really just started my education with, "Okay, I've gotta do this. There's a deadline coming up, I better learn what they are." And I realized, weirdly, after I accepted the commission, that I'd never listened to a violin concerto. I listened to a lot of Shostakovich, a lot of Prokofiev, and a lot of Stravinsky, and I knew all of their piano concertos, and I'd heard a few cello concertos, but always the piano concertos was what I gravitated towards growing up, and never the violin concertos, so I didn't know why, so I started listening and realized, "My God, there's a lot of them." So I started. Sandy Cameron, the violinist, gave me, started aiming me in different directions. I started with a list of about twenty concertos, that narrowed down to about ten, then down to about five, and then I just started relentlessly listening to these four or five concertos that I was really loving, and just trying to understand what it is that makes it work.
It's, again, so different than writing for film, but I think that's just what I've been hungry for is a chance to challenge myself, because in film music, I've been getting great audiences all over the world, playing the music for Tim Burton, and doing movies live to sync like we're doing tonight. But people are still coming to hear the music of a film. They love the film, they love the music to the film. It's fantastic and I love doing this, but the challenge of writing music that has no connection, that anybody who comes to hear it knows nothing about it. There's no movie to go, "Oh, I love that movie." That's just an incredible challenge, and one that I needed to get my teeth into.
KG: I know, I was thinking, we were talking on the train about this and I said, "You know, Danny's gonna play, just like at Lincoln Center to these packed houses, these really young fans who are coming, so excited, and in costume. Wouldn't it be incredible if that's what our classical, more traditional presentations looked like at some of our concert halls?"
DE: But that's what motivated me. As I was watching these concerts, and then I go to Lincoln Center and Disney Hall and concerts for classical music, and they're very different-feeling audiences. When I go to Disney Hall, a lot more of the audiences is white-haired, they're more my age. When I go to my own shows, and I look in the audience, I don't know why, but the audience tends to be much younger. And I realized that there is a way to bring the two together, and that was part of the challenge that I wanted to do, was to write music that was not film music, and didn't sound like I was writing down to a concert audience, that it would be challenging for a film music audience, but not too challenging to be alienating. That there's an area in between. In my view, somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, classical music split apart.
Film music went one direction. Classical music became much more difficult to grasp, if you were not educated in the music. And so it became an audience that understood and was nurtured with that music or studied that music, like certain types of modern art. You have to develop your appreciation for it to understand it. There is an intellectual level that one sometimes has to grasp, especially the music that's atonal, that's twelve-tone, that is tone poems, as it were, where there's not melodies, where one who understands film music, which is much more connected to neoclassical music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in terms of melodies and the use of structure, there's nothing for them to grab hold of, so to speak.
So I started trying to imagine, what would my own kids or my nephews or nieces or relatives, what could they hear? Well, obviously, I go to modern music concerts both at the REDCAT in Los Angeles, and at BAM, out here in New York, all the time. And I hear stuff that's exciting, and I hear stuff that's boring. But I go, "Where is the disconnect?" And the disconnect to me is in melody, the use of melody.
What I've learned in film music is that if I give something of a melody that one can grab hold of, that you can do incredibly strange things with orchestration, with texture, with what's around it. But it still gives their ear something to hold on to, and I probably, ultimately learned this from, in fact, Shostakovich and Prokofiev and Stravinsky, because in film music, you tend to just lay your melody out there, and then you do your orchestration, and it's going back a little further in time somewhere between Wagner and Mahler and Tchaikovsky, and that classical era kind of defines what Korngold and Steiner, the original film composers, established as their vocabulary. And it's easy for an untrained ear to listen to it and follow it and go, "Oh, I understand that. That's like listening to Tchaikovsky, or listening to something that I recognize and know." But then what Shostakovich and Prokofiev and Stravinsky and these composers, Ravel, they were still using melody, but they were doing really strange things with and around it.
So my favorite piece of Stravinsky, L'Histoire du soldat, I realized, my son, when he was five, was listening to The Rite of Spring, and he'd listen to it over and over again, that there was a solid base rhythmically, and bits of melody that was pulling him in, so all the cacophony around it was okay, because his ear was following these things that were very simple to follow. And so I started kind of applying that to some of my own music in film. Like having a bit of fun, stretching it out here and there, where I'm still carrying the melody through, but putting some dissonance and things in and around it, that's a little more on its own, a little stranger, or a little more modern in a certain way. And found that audiences were fine with that.
So taking that a step further now in concert music is learning from that lesson, trying to find something ... In the violin concerto, for example, I'm using melody all the time, but I'm doing really strange things to... that film audience will seem very strange in terms of rhythmically, harmonically, that a concert audience that's used to modern music might find "Oh, that's not strange at all. That's perfectly fine."
But it's looking for that hybrid to bring them in. So I'm writing stuff that if you're coming and hearing The Music of Tim Burton concerts that I've been doing all over, if you listen to my violin concerto, you will hear my personality's still there.
I got an early lecture from another violinist named Ray Chen, who was touring in Los Angeles. He came in and listened to some of the first bits of work. And he cautioned me. He says, "Don’t make the mistake other film composers have made when they write their concert works. They're like suddenly becoming modern composers and there's no connection to what an audience might recognize as them. Make sure you're in there."
And it was good advice because I backed up a few notches and I started again, and I made sure that it's not too serious too much of the time, there's bits of humor, and bits of my personality come through. So that's what I'm trying to bring to this concert music. It's mine, but it's nothing I could ever get away with playing in a movie, and yet it's not me being like, "Oh, God, he's just being deadly serious and this is boring and we understand Danny's gotta go do his serious stuff on the side but we don't wanna listen to that. We like it when he's being more crazy and kind of fun in whatever ways we're expecting." And so I really tried to put this all together and I'm still searching for this language that's a hybrid of these elements.
KG: It's exciting to hear you talk about it, because you get that sense in hearing you talk about it that it's kind of activating on a bunch of different levels as you're explaining it.
DE: Yeah. And the real joy was—you know, I've had these moments in these last years with these shows that have just been really shattering and defining for me in terms of not knowing what to expect. I mean, the first being at Albert Hall, for the Elfman/Burton show. I had no idea, putting together fifteen suites, spent three months putting together these fifteen suites of Tim Burton films into one concert, whether they were gonna work in any way, shape, or form. Because it was real daunting. Half a dozen suites, yeah, would have been more sensible, but fifteen is a lot. And I didn't want them to feel like just the "best of," main title hit parade. I tried to find things in at least, seven or eight of the suites that were more obscure, buried deeper in the score, things that I liked, and also writing fresh material, things that were—if somebody was a fan of the score, that they'd find something new, that "Wow, I never heard that," Because I just added it.
So I tried to make it so, if somebody just knew the tunes, yeah, they're gonna hear those, but if somebody knew the scores really well, they'd find, "Oh, wow, I remember that part, yeah." And they can get deeper into it. But the show went so well at Albert Hall. It was such a surprise. It was just so terrifying that it was such a surprise that it was really gratifying that it's possible to do this thing.
And in the same sense, a year plus ago in Prague, the violin concerto, no idea what to expect. Here's an audience coming in, filling the opera house that has never heard the music before. There's no way they could have. There's not even like a YouTube snippet to tune into. There's nothing. And they knew my film music. So this is a film music crowd. And they were fantastic, they were rapt, they were really listening. And watching them listen to that piece of music was one of the best moments I’ve ever had, because they got it, they were really getting it. And it was kind of a vindication, as it were, that it’s possible to do this. Then we played it again in Hamburg recently, and the same thing happened. It was a very different kind of audience, but their reaction was really great. And so it’s very encouraging. So I wanna just keep doing this every year. It’s my goal right now, is to do one concert piece every year.
This year is a little crazy because I started the year with a concert piece and I’m ending the year with another concert piece with three films in the middle (laughs) not the easiest year. I would've preferred that things be spread out a little more, but I'm such a commission slut right now (laughs) when I'm sitting with an orchestra and somebody says, "Yeah, we're interested in the possible commission of…" I go: "Yeah." You had me at the word commission. I don't care what the commission's for, I don’t care if it's for ten dollars." The point is, "You want a piece? I’m in." It’s kind of like, I've really been behaving in a very slutty way in terms of like, so hungry for yes, that as soon as the words start forming in their mouth "We’re looking for a piece that.." "Yeah." (laughs) "Oh, well, do you wanna hear what kind of instrumentation?" "Sure, but it's yeah."
KG: Well, it really comes through how much care you have for your audience. What about the audience that's coming into this with less knowledge of your film work? That are more steeped in the classical tradition. The subscription holders who are going to the opera hall, going to the concert hall.
DE: Well, my feeling is that, they will find there's moments when they go "Okay, this is a little conventional for me," and then there will be moments when they're going, "Oh, I wasn't expecting this." You know, it's interesting, because it's all about the audience. I was talking with a violin teacher who trained some very famous violinists after a concert once, and I was explaining that I was writing a concerto, and he said, "Please, give us a melody." And I said, explain yourself. He goes, "Look, everybody's coming here and they're hearing the first half, the first part of the set, they're looking for some really wild stuff. But the second half, what they're really here to hear is the Tchaikovsky, the Sibelius, the Mahler, the Brahms, that's always how we're closing these shows, we're starting with something modern twentieth century and we're closing with a classic. So the audience loves the modern, they're very respectful. They really enjoy it, they're clapping, they're enthusiastic. But really, they're settling into the second half and they're going, "Aaahhh...thank you."
And so his feeling, and I took this to heart, is that there is a hunger out there to connect these worlds, that they don't have to be completely apart from each other. So it's all about the audience, I think, a classical audience, look, if they're totally die-hard modern twentieth century, there's nothing you can do, it's just like jazz or anything else. There's gonna be people who, they don't want to listen to anything, "I only listen to jazz from 1959 to 1968, and anything after that I’m just not interested in." I understand that.
For many years of my life, I did old jazz, that's how I started out. I was doing Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt, that's how I learned to write music, was transcribing Duke Ellington pieces. And I didn’t want to listen to anything after 1938. That was it, that was my cutoff. It's like for me, the prime years were from 1931 to 1938. That was it. The Cotton Club, 1935-6-7. That was it. So I totally get it, there's gonna be a niche audience, "No, no, no, we need a certain type of atonality, and a certain type of modern attitude." And I understand, and I even appreciate that. But there's also an audience out there that appreciates modern music but still appreciates the music of Prokofiev, of Tchaikovsky, and other composers.
And I think for them, they will find what I hope they'll really enjoy. It's weird, it's challenging, there's a bit of humor, and sometimes I go, "Is that okay?" and then again I go back to Prokofiev and Shostakovich and I go, "Of course it's okay." You know, Prokofiev did funny things, and Shostakovich, actually, was such a serious composer but occasionally was absurd. The second movement of his first violin concerto which is like, that's the bible for me. I listened to that so many times that I had to stop, because it was killing me, because it's so absolutely wonderful and brilliant.
But it reaches a point where it becomes almost like a whirling dervish dance, like cartoon music. It gets so crazy, and then suddenly, it's dead serious again, for the third movement, and you feel the weight of the Russian nation on his shoulders. But he could get really crazy. And I had to keep reminding myself, if Shostakovich can get crazy, I can get crazy.
And right now, working on the piano quartet once again, I return to Shostakovich. He didn't write a quartet but he wrote a piano trio. And once again, the fourth movement of his piano trio, it gets real silly. You know, it's like I could almost imagine Bugs Bunny (laughs) moving around to this music for the first couple minutes. He was not afraid of that. So, I have to be fearless to be absurd at moments, and have fun.
And so for better or for worse, I've tried to balance that out. Now, I can't ever get as heavy and as gorgeous as Shostakovich. That's why I said if I listen to it too much, it destroys me. Because it's at a level that's like so high, it's like climbing a mountain, and you get to the top of the mountain and you're feeling good about myself, and then you look at Everest, and you go, "Oh, I guess this is just a little mountain." And that's what Shostakovich is for me.
But on the other hand, I don't wanna be so awed by that that it keeps me from doing. I have something to say as well. It's just not as awesome, in my mind, as Shostakovich, but it's Elfman. So if anybody out there has ever listened, or liked, or appreciated anything I've written, they will find something in here. And a classical music audience that's not die-hard modern will find something in there. And a film music audience that's ever listened to me will go, "Oh yeah, I’m following it. It's a little weird, but I'm following, I'm with it."
KG: All of this makes so much sense to the audience that's in the hall, but how to get these young people actually through the door?
DE: Well, I mean, what I'm trying to do is…I'm going out there and trying to market this thing and get performances and say I'll show up and I'll do press and I'll bring my people in. I'm saying let's go to every city… Look, we've been all over the world and got thousands of people in all these different cities. Those are the people I'll be out to try to reach and say, "Come on in, check this out. It's really…You will have a great time. It’s entertaining."
I guess that's the weird bottom line. I know that's a weird word to use and I don't want it to be mistaken "entertaining" to think I wrote something "writing down," because, again it feels like, yeah, it’s an entertainment. But classical music used to be an entertainment, it used to be entertaining for great quantities of people. When Mozart wrote, he was writing for quantities of people that were not just the educated musical elite. And that goes straight up to the twentieth century. These pieces were being written for just everybody and anybody to come in and listen, and it was an entertainment. That doesn't mean they didn't make it artistic. But it was still an entertainment.
And then that changed in the twentieth century. It became, "No, this isn't an entertainment, this is serious." And it’s a different ballgame now. Now, there are composers that I love that have bridged that gap. I mean, most famously amongst them for me, John Adams and Philip Glass. See, they have found ways to express themselves, just like I'm talking about with Rite of Spring. I think a five-year-old can listen to Powaqqatsi and just love it.
I was just at Nixon in China, John Adams. It was so engaging to me, it was just so entertaining and engaging. I mean, they have found different ways to find the language and the way they do was with rhythm. Like Stravinsky was doing in 1916–17, using rhythmic designs that anybody can just just fall into it and get hypnotized by it. It's not using melody as your hook to pull you along, but it's using rhythm. And that’s a brilliant way to do it, and it works.
So to me, like Philip Glass has found a way to communicate with just about any audience. There are certain pieces of his that I think anybody could listen to, and just be overwhelmed with how great it is, and easy to follow, and it's been an inspiration for my film music. He has hugely. But this is just a different way of doing that same thing. It's trying to say "this is not for a small audience, this is for... a wider ear can absorb this."
KG: Let's talk about your non-musical influences. I know you've gone back to the concertos and you're listening to those voraciously. Are there other things? I would think that when you're making a film, the film is a big part of the inspiration. But when you're kind of starting on a more blank canvas, do politics come into play? Visual art? Books you're reading? Are those other things on your mind as well, or does it all go back to the musical influences?
DE: It all goes back to the musical influences. Politics doesn't yet play into my music. I had to explain to my 12-year-old when Trump was elected. He was crying and upset, I took him and his friend up in the room and I said, "Look, my idol, Shostakovich. You know that I'm writing a violin concerto. When he wrote his first violin concerto, he finished it and he put it in a drawer for seven years." He says, "Why?" "Because his president was a man named Joseph Stalin. And if he played it, he was afraid that he might go to a concentration camp." And, I said, "It gets much worse. My biggest fear is that no one will notice mine (laughs), but I'm not getting sent to a concentration camp for writing this thing."
So politics was clearly on Shostakovich's mind, and he tried to subversively put political statements into his music, but I'm not at that point. I try to keep myself removed. If anything, since then, I've just tried to burrow myself deeper into art, like composers and writers and poets have done for centuries when things get really bad on the outside, you just dig down deeper and try to just concentrate on your own thing.
KG: This is kind of a more amorphous question, but just the idea of career trajectory, and how you decide. . . I know you were saying you were kind of taking any commission that's exciting to be working on that kind of music right now, but how do you balance that out with your film work and kind of the stuff that people have come to expect from you?
DE: It's really hard. Every time I take a commission, I'm taking myself off the market. I know at some point I'm gonna get a call about a movie, and I'm gonna go, "Oh no, I'd love to do that, but the next eight weeks I'm totally…"
KG: Do you structure it that way? It's like X amount of days, I'm doing this X amount of days?
DE: Everything is that way. Everything has a deadline. Whether it's a movie or a commission. If I didn't have a deadline, I'd never finish anything. I'd still be working on PeeWee's Big Adventure. So it's no different. Because on a film, you have . . . it could be five weeks, it could be fourteen weeks, and anywhere in between. But that many weeks, it is what it is, and that drives it all along. I tend to drift in the beginning, and I feel like I'm just kind of absorbing stuff, and then I start writing, and then it's like I've got lots of ideas and lots of ideas… and then I see the clock is moving, and that focuses me. Okay, I've gotta cut these loose and focus in on these pieces here, and really get myself going. And then there's inevitably a point where I feel like I'll never make it, and then there's the momentum of the last weeks, where I feel like I gain steam and make it to the finish line.
I've done about a hundred films, so this has happened to me about a hundred times. With the commissions, it's no different. I got the commission for the violin concerto a year and a half before I started it. It's like, "Oh, yeah, I'm doing a violin concerto… and then at a certain point it's like, wait a minute, when do I need to deliver parts? Uh-oh. Okay." Now, I gotta leave myself at least twelve weeks, and concentrate on just that.
KG: How much was the concerto floating in your mind though during that year and a half? Does it just completely go away and then come back? Or is it just sort of there?
DE: Every now and then, I would have like a little idea while I was writing something else and I would kind of write that idea down and tuck it away in a "for the future" file. And one of them did survive, just as at least a beginning, an idea. So yeah, sometimes I'm writing something for a movie and I get some kind of thing in my head, and as I'm putting it together I go, "All right, this will just never work for the film. But it's interesting." And I'll put it in one of two files: either future possible film thing, because it's that kind of melody or tune or piece of music, or this is orchestral. I don't know what this is for. Put this in the "could be a concert piece, could be something," I don't know. And then later, when I'm starting new work, I'll go into these files and see "Well, what did I have?" Sometimes there's something useful, sometimes there's not. I still have a dozen pieces I really like over the last three, four years that I don't know if I’ll ever find a place for them. I've got like kind of odd orchestral stuff, I've got a piece for like twenty guitars and a chamber orchestra.
KG: I hope all our programmers are listening right now. We have a piece for twenty guitars.
DE: Twenty electric guitars, all of which I played myself, and a chamber orchestra. Yeah, I gotta get that one of these days. And I've got a bunch of things, "I need to get to that, I need to get to that, I need to get to that."
KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell and Rob Schulte.
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