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20 Questions

An Interview with Mathieu Alvado for TraxZone

1. You studied music at USC. Was the musical teaching oriented by the proximity of the movie industry?

At the time when I was a student, the USC School of Music was a traditional, academic music school and was not at all oriented towards any sort of commercial music. In fact, the school at that time very much discouraged any sort of commercial writing at all. The university did, however, offer a film music class that was taught by David Raksin, and I took that as my introduction to film music.

2. Your music is often careful for the brass players. Is this a consequence of your childhood and the Salvation Army ‘s music program you were involved in?

It’s probably safe to say that my brass background shows in some of my compositions, and especially in scores like Silverado. Although I’m essentially a pianist, I also played horn, and, as a result, was certainly better acquainted with the brass instruments than woodwinds or strings, and understood the technique better. However, no one who writes for orchestra can afford to be single-mindedly biased towards one group of instruments, so I, like many other composers, have had to work over the years to become familiar with and understand how to write effectively for all of the instruments. I still study scores and try to find better ways of making my music sound as effective as possible. Playing in bands and orchestras, however, was very useful experience for knowing how to write for instruments.

3. As soon as you finished your studies, you got a job at CBS television as a music supervisor. Was it your choice to approach the TV shows more than classical music’s world?

I decided that I wanted to compose music that would move people emotionally. I decided on film music because the music was generally on a scale that interested me – the cues could be very long, emotionally and stylistically varied, unlike songs, which are very short – and because a performance of such music would reach a great number of people. After leaving CBS, I continued working in television and gradually moved into theatrical features, but I never lost my desire to communicate emotionally.

4. From selecting music for Wild, Wild West, Hawaii Five-O in the late 60’s, composing for Dallas or Quincy in the late 70’s, for Amazing Stories in the 80’s, for Tiny Toons in the 90’s or JAG in the 00’s, your career seems really bounded to the TV world. From these 40 last years, what do you think about the evolution of the music in this medium?

To my mind, music in TV has on the whole become musically simpler, less emotionally involving and, just as in movies, rather tediously overused. Much of this has to do with the influence of the digital age. Television shows now have temp-tracks; composers have to submit mock-ups of their cues, which means that producers have become more involved in the composers’ creative process and that composers therefore have to spend a lot of time rewriting and tweaking what they’ve written, even though there’s little time (or money) for the process; the budgets for scores have become less, forcing the composers to create their scores in a home studio as well as to become their own music departments.

Television has always been a very quick medium, but with the added pressures of the producers being involved in the actual process of composing, there seems to be a lot less opportunity for originality than there was several years previously. I think this is true of movies, as well. There is an incredible sense of sameness and redundancy in film scores.

Having said that, there are a few composers working in television who are very skilled musically, and who are able to deliver strongly dramatic scores, whether acoustical or electronic.

5. Two of your first big movies were Young Sherlock Holmes and Harry and the Hendersons. The two movies were produced by Steven Spielberg. Was there some pressure on those two projects?

The pressure in composing Young Sherlock Holmes was primarily that there wasn’t much time to write the score, although by today’s standards I had a very long time (4 weeks). Harry and the Hendersons was a difficult film to score for other reasons.

6. From Silverado to your concert works I find a link to Aaron Copland and his famous “americana” sound. Is he a strong figure for you?

Not really. Copland invented a unique Americana style, and it’s easy to go to that style when something has to be done that conjures up that mood. If you look in Hollywood’s film scores of the last fifty years, you’ll find lots of composers who have written in a Coplandesque style, especially in westerns: Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein among them.

However, many countries have similar stylistic associations, even when they’re not entirely accurate to the overall style of the country’s music. It’s common to hear beer hall polkas to represent Germany; a musette accordian to conjure up France; or Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” to stand in for England.

7. In 1990 you composed the music for the second Disney animated movie without song: Rescuers Down Under. After Spielberg, you worked with another well-known producer, Jeffrey Katzenberg. How did this collaboration happen?

I worked with Jeffrey because he was the head of Disney films at that time. I was asked to do Rescuers Down Under because I was the composer of Silverado. They wanted a big, energetic adventure score for this movie and thought that I was the guy to ask. They weren’t sure that I’d want to do an animated film, but when I was a boy, my ambition had been to be an animator and Walt Disney had been my hero. So, I jumped at the chance to work on this movie.

8. In 1998 you worked on another big movie: Lost in Space. How much time did you have to compose this epic score?

Two-and-a-half weeks.

9. You’ve worked on many “family movies” like Homeward Bound and Homeward Bound II, Honey, I Blew up the Kid or Baby’s Day Out. Some people could think that’s movie making without artistic ambition, but I think it’s really hard to find the right “tone” while composing interesting music.

A director told me once that I should not work on comedy, because “no one will see your talent.” In general, people don’t understand that comedy is very hard to do, and, as my director friend implied, whatever art there is in it remains invisible. Many great comedians are actually fine dramatic actors, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true. Whatever art there is in comedy has much to do with timing and, as you say, finding the “right tone” for the piece. It’s easy to ruin comedy by being too heavy-handed, too light or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If a film composer believes that the point in composing music for films is to draw attention to one’s “artistic ambition” and have the public notice what one does musically, then such a composer should stick to romantic dramas. In general, a good theme in a romantic drama will be noticed much more than a dramatic or comedic score.

10. You’ll come to the Ubeda film festival this year. What is your opinion on that type of event?

I’m very much looking forward to the Ubeda experience. It sounds like a good opportunity for the public to interact with the composers and their music. I like the idea of a live orchestra performing good film music, but I also like the idea of the film composers being available to speak with the people who really appreciate this kind of music, an audience who otherwise would never have personal access to the creators of the music they enjoy so much.

11. You began your career and worked many years before the appearance of the computers and their domination on the music movie industry. How did you adapt yourself to this new way to compose?

It was sort of like learning a new instrument, except more tedious. Actually, I loved my first experience with computers, because it was the first time as an adult I really had to learn something completely new. I found it very exciting. It was (and still is) often frustrating, but it’s a great tool in the process of composition. I find, however, that if computers are used as the only tool for composition, they’re quite limiting. Often a pencil and a good imagination will get me farther.

12. As an experienced composer, how do you deal with the American tradition of the orchestrator?

In films there are generally two reasons why composers are not their own orchestrators. The first is that there simply is not enough time to compose the music and orchestrate it, too. The second is that some composers aren’t very knowledgeable about the orchestra. This has been true since the beginning of film music.

Having said that, I generally do my own orchestration when I have the time for it. I’ve devised a short score format on which I can orchestrate my scores directly as I compose. My “sketch” and my final score are the same piece written on the same page. I’ve done it this way ever since Tombstone, with the one exception of Lost in Space, in which there wasn’t enough time. There were several people who worked on that with me, and I didn’t do any full orchestration at all.

13. For many years, you’ve been commissioned for concert works. Is it important for a composer who mainly works for movies working without any image? I mean, to find oneself a form for a music which is not imposed by someone else?

It’s certainly important for me to write such music. All film music is accompaniment, which means that in films music is only a part of the total creative experience. Concert music is different in that it is entirely complete and self-contained.

There are many demands and restrictions in film music that one does not find in concert music, and vice versa. For instance, in film music the film itself always determines the form of the music. The scenes dictate not only what sort of music will be composed, but also what the length of the phrases and of the piece itself will be. Additionally, in America, because of the Work for Hire restrictions, the film composer does not have the final aesthetic decision on his own work. In a concert piece, however, the form of the music, as well as all other creative choices, are left to the composer, and all decisions as to the composition are solely his. Film music is a collaborative medium; concert music, with the exception of opera and ballet, generally is not.

I think of myself as a composer, not solely a film composer, and I like to work in as many media as possible. Working for so many years in film and television, I have acquired a substantial compositional technique. In concert music, I have to learn how to put that technique to work for the best expression of my musical ideas. I find that film work helps my concert work and that concert work helps my film work.

14. Do you think that classical musicians are still condescending to people who work on movies, or is there an evolution of this kind of opinion?

I think that most composers tend to be appreciative of other composers who write well, regardless of the sort of music they compose, and although one may find some condescension or envy at times, there is a greater recognition of the value of film music now among composers than when I was a student.

I think that that estimation may be, however, less true of some (though certainly not all) symphonic musicians, and not necessarily true of some music critics, who often tend to dismiss film music as being artistically inferior to concert music. There are, however, many symphony orchestras in the United States and Europe that have begun including motion picture music in their concerts. The influence of John Williams, who always packs out an auditorium regardless of the orchestra he is conducting, cannot be underestimated.

The truth is that, although there is certainly a lot of very bad music in films, there’s even more bad music (whatever that is) in the concert world. Critics aren’t always very good in admitting that.

15. You seem to have similar interests as Joel McNeely in recording the music of old masters like Miklos Rosza and Bernard Herrmann. Is it for you, as for Mr. McNeely, a way to remind us of the genius of those composers?

I really haven’t asked Joel what drives him to re-record or conduct the music from other composers’ films. I think he simply likes and appreciates the music and wants to make other people aware of it. Jerry Goldsmith, of course, re-recorded some of Alex North’s scores, and I know that Alex’s film work was a big influence on Jerry, as was Bernard Herrmann’s.

In the case of my Rosza and Herrmann recordings, I was asked to conduct these scores by Intrada Records, and thought it would be an interesting project. I liked the music to Ivanhoe and to Julius Caesar, and still do. Some of it is very similar to his concert music. I wasn’t so enthusiastic about the music to Jason and the Argonauts, but the unique and unusual orchestration really intrigued me. It was certainly the loudest score I ever conducted!

16. Another common point with him is your attachment to teach film composition. What do you think about all these young composers you meet at USC and UCLA? Do you recognize yourself in them?

Although I like teaching, I don’t particularly like teaching film composition, and, except for some occasional exceptions, I try to avoid it. Over the years, I’ve found that the main question young film composers are most concerned about is how to get a job, but they don’t want to find out very much about music.

I’ve noticed also that in the last ten to fifteen years the styles of these young composers have switched from the primary influence of John Williams to that of Hans Zimmer. This doesn’t say too much for their own musical interests, which in my opinion should be much broader. The major advantage in taking a film music course is in learning to adapt one’s music, whatever the style, to the very specific demands of film, which have to do with timing, drama and emotional tone. How to find a job, on the other hand, is a two-minute conversation.

Do I recognize myself in some of these students? Sometimes, especially if they seem particularly confused or naive, but have a great desire to learn something about music.

17. What advice do you give to those young composers?

The advice I give is to learn as much as one can about music and become the best, well-rounded composer possible. A film composer will never have enough skill without having to constantly learn something new, because film makes so many creative demands. And then I advise that they take a few courses in psychology. Film music has much more to do with dealing with people than it has to do with music. As difficult as writing music is, it’s often the easy part compared to dealing with the people.

18. Traxzone will celebrate its tenth birthday. I would like to know what has changed, from your point of view, in film music in the past ten years.

We’re in an emotionally cool period, and music isn’t asked to support the drama in the way that it can. For me, film music isn’t as exciting or as musically involving as it once was. In addition, there’s often far too much music in contemporary films, which deadens the impact of the score. The music itself has become very, very simple, often nothing more than either a series of drones or just a mass of big chords depending on cross-relationships and percussion effects: major, minor, minor, major, boom ta da dum ta da boom ta da dum ta da.

There are a few composers who write very, very well, but often, licensed songs compromise the effectiveness of even their scores. I watched a film recently in which the score had been both skillfully composed and well placed, but the effect of which was almost entirely overwhelmed by the numerous songs that had been inserted all around.

19. Have you some projects for the next months?

I’m working on a couple of Disney theme park shows. Projects like these are usually always creative and different, and the composer is brought in as a creative associate, so I particularly look forward to doing them. In addition, I have a couple of concert commissions to work on that have to be finished by spring.

20. Do you want to add something else we didn’t mention in this interview?

No. I think you asked some good questions.

Mathieu Alvado is a composer, arranger, and regular contributor to