Breaking the silence – Interview with Carl Davis

Composer Carl Davis specialized himself in a specific genre of movies. His best-known for composing new scores for silent films, his filmography includes titles like D.W. Griffith's Intolerance and the films of Charlie Chaplin. In this interview, we asked him about his silent film scores as well as his other distinguished works in film and television.

Could you tell me some words about your musical education? What were your earliest musical influences?

I was born and I grew up in New York City in 1936, so my main musical influences derived from what was going on in New York, a great artistic centre at that time. While the rest of the world was struggling during World War II, this was a period which was very positive for the arts and the economy in the United States. It was a height for Broadway musicals, a centre for dance, wonderful ballet and contemporary dance, simply everything was available. There were major orchestras there and I really enjoyed all these things as a child and a teenager. I was able to see and hear people like Leonard Bernstein – in particular, he was the central figure of excitement for me during that period.

What were your earliest compositions?

I wrote things when I was a child, but then I abandoned them and thought I would drop it. Between the ages 8 to 12, I wrote things, then I stopped almost completely until I was 16, then I began writing again.

How did you get involved in composing for films?

It really started for me when I moved to London, which was in 1960. I came to London from New York in a way knowing that this would be a better place for music and to develop as a composer. To me, film was part of a bigger world, the world of theatre. This included not only live theatre, radio, television as well as working in the theatres on musicals. Film was a part of all this, one of the art form that attracted me. So I was here and I had things on the theatre, than the radio, that lead to television, than from television to films.

Your debut score, The French Lieutenant's Woman has a very strange storyline with parallel stories. How did tackle the task of writing for a fragmented picture?

I followed the film, the film came first. It was a situation when music had already been laid on the film. There was a temporary track because people like to show their films even in the very early form with some music on it. They had already placed some contemporary music, rock music as well as some Beethoven, Mozart and Schönberg. When I was brought into the film, the first idea had been to see if I could manipulate a Schönberg piece to lengthen it or shorten it. It was more about being a music editor than a composer. I thought to myself that the estate of Schönberg is extremely controlling of the material and they will never allow this. Turns out, I was right. Because I was influenced in my own work by that particular piece, I offered them that since this is the kind of music I'm very sympathetic to and I can play you some things that are really in this mode. That worked, that's how I got the job.

Could you tell me a bit about Brian Gascogne, who wrote additional music for the picture?

Brian worked with me and helped me arrange all the popular music, the things that were meant to be contemporary for the part of the film that was the story of making the film of the actors who were involved in the production. Brian is an interesting guy, he is principally an arranger and keyboard player. He works mostly in the commercial world and I felt I need to have someone who could give it the right tone. That proved very successful, we're still working together today.

In The Far Pavilions, you use ethnic instruments to represent the India-set of the story. How do you work with instruments of which you know little about?

I had done a television play called Staying On, which was done by the man who went on to write the other big Indian series that came out at that time, The Jewel in the Crown. What I did was that I really sought some advice. I knew I wanted to mix both, I wanted to have East meets West. I tried to find what the parallels were, looking for instruments that could sound Indian or actually came from the Indian world. The chief area which is unique is the sitar and the modes of Indian music. For that, I took advice from a sitar player. So I had regular sessions with the orchestra (the Philharmonia) and at the same time, I had an Indian sitar player and his family. His son was a drummer, while his wife played sort of drone instruments, which could only play three notes. Then this family used to come to the recording studio, we got them a carpet to sit on. I remember they brought their dinners with themselves in plastic containers. They improvised a lot for me, we showed them scenes from the film and I told them what I thought the character, the nature of the music should be. They watched the movie and had several attempts at playing music while watching the film. Then I took that improvisation, and created a background with Western instruments. It was a looser arrangement than what we usually have, but it was a very exciting experience.

The Champions is a very moving and emotional score. Do real life events inspire you a lot?

Well, it is of course a very humane story, but is one that is still very moving because it was about both a gifted jockey and a gifted horse who were really going to be destroyed – one by cancer and one by a bad accident. It was a national story here in England in the early 80s, because both recovered from their illnesses and won this tremendous race, the Grand National. The story which is about hope, struggle and eventually triumph is a marvellous story. Of course it couldn't help being an inspiration.

One of my favourite scores from you is Frankenstein Unbound, which was of course the last movie of the legendary Roger Corman. How did you find the sound for an off-beat story like this?

Frankenstein is a highly romantic novel. But in this particular adaptation directed by Roger Corman, it had a sci-fi element to it. A space traveller arrives on the shores of Lake Geneva in time to witness the events of the Frankenstein story unfold. I really didn't pay much attention to the space side, because the bulk of the film was going to be a re-enactment of the Frankenstein saga. I really just treated it as a romantic symphony – I was like a bad student of Schumann.

Did Roger Corman had any mark on the musical score?

He was almost absent from my side of things, he seemed to trust me. Once he had made the film and edited it, he had very little to do with the music. I was really quite free to express how I felt about the subject. I had some compliments reported back to me, but after working out the score should sound like, I had very little contact with him, which is really quite rare. Usually, the director would see through the film till the very end, but somehow he either wasn't interested or he just took a different view.

That's strange. I imagined he would be more "in control" of the picture.

No, the music wasn't effected in that way, but it was in fact a rare film for him, because I think he had a larger budget. There is a very amusing story I was told by the producer when they were location scouting for a house for Dr. Frankenstein, which was meant to be quite luxurious. He was shown one house and he said, "Oh, that's fine." But there were some more. They showed him the second house and he said "Oh, that would be absolutely fine." Than they asked "Would you like to see the third house?" "Okay." Than when they showed him the third house, again he just said "Fine." In his world, it really wouldn't have mattered.

In 1991, you worked together with Paul McCartney for a special project that celebrated the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. How did you meet the ex-Beatles member and how was your working relationship?

It was a really long process. The thing that started it was the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra were celebrating a 150 years anniversary. They started in 1841 and the celebration was in 1991. I was working with them a lot and at the same time my wife was a very well known actress in England. She had a very important role in a television series which was written by a friend of the McCartneys. Though somehow all this was together in my mind and I was asked if I had an idea for something special for this anniversary. And when I asked who is Liverpool's most famous composer and musician, it was naturally Paul McCartney. I used my contacts via the television series to meet him and see if he would be interested in collaborating with me on a work that would be specially suited to the occasion and to Liverpool. We met very often and we found a remarkable way of working together and I think it really came out very well. In fact, I believe a very early performance of it was at Lake Balaton.

In 1995, the BBC filmed its acclaimed adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. How did you get involved with this production?

It was somehow in the air. Oddly enough, I had been trying to create a ballet of Pride and Prejudice. While I was meeting with the people talking about the ballet, someone said "Oh by the way, the BBC is going to do it." I though that by now I know this novel very well because of my ballet. Than I found out who was producing it, a woman called Sue Birtwistle. I had worked with her before on another beautiful project called Hotel du Lac. Since we did very well with that, I rang her and asked her if they considered me for this which is quite rare from me. So I got the job, I talked to them, contacted the director and Sue again. I already formed in my mind a very clear idea on what the nature and the character of the music should be. I knew that it was going to be a very literal production. It was set in 1810 and since the BBC does everything very throughoutly, it was going to look perfect with wonderful locations and costumes. In a way, the music also had to have a powdered wig, it had to go with this and sound like as if it belonged to this style of production.

The central instrument of the score is a very powerful piano. How did you select that instrument to be the central character of the music?

The main instrument we used was between the harpsichord and the piano called the forte piano. We had to get a real soloist for this, so we got a man called Milton Tan, who specialised in the forte piano. This was going to be the central area of it and for the rest, the themes had to have the character of the book. It had to have a pursuit element, women pursuing men to be husbands, pursuing wealth and position in society. There also had to be something very romantic, plus something that was somehow related to gossip and the ditzy life of the ladies. In the end, I had all these characters to it and it was like writing an opera in Mozart's style.

Did you use parts of the ballet in the film score?

I hadn't actually gotten that far, but oddly enough, after the television series was made and filmed, I had the chance to create a section of the ballet, and then I went back to the television score. For the early ballet, I haven't actually written anything until I got to the television series, I was only working on the synopsis.

How was the schedule for the television show? Many American series have a hurried schedule, but what about the British system?

My memory of it is that it wasn't very hurried. There was a lot of music, but I wasn't especially rushed in it. There was another series I worked at that time, which had so many episodes, that sometimes it was on the air before I finished work on the next part. Episode one and two were already running and I haven't finished episode three. Almost like current events, where the music is going to be very fresh.

How do you choose your film scoring projects?

First of all I hope it will be a subject with which I'm in sympathy. It's very hard to work on something when you look at it and say "I'm a professional, I'll try and do it, but I don't really like it." It's really tough for me. So I hope that I can do a project with which I'm in sympathy and I will always go deep down into the work to look for the human aspects of it. What are the struggles, the conflicts, the joys and sorrows... I try to find that in a subject. I base it less on illustrating, but I'm going deeply into the character and try to find an inspiration there.

Now I'd like to ask some questions about your silent film scores. Could you tell me a bit about your first score, Napoléon?

Well, there have been many scores for it. Initially, in 1927 when it was premiered, there was music by Honegger in it. He wrote about seven or eight pieces, then he also borrowed, because the film was very long. The version we are doing now runs for 5 hours and 30 minutes. I think Honegger never did the whole film. There is music that exists for it, but his score of how he handled he brought in and the placement of his own music has vanished, so it's very hard to know too much about it. A situation arose when there was a restoration of the film in the late 70s by a film historian named Kevin Brownlow, who had a childhood obsession with the film. At that point in 1980 he had a version which was just under 5 hours. I have been working with Kevin Brownlow on a series called Hollywood, which was about the history of sound film produced for Thames Television. In early 1981, there was an early, shortened version, that didn't adhere to the principles that Kevin believed in terms of projection speed.

So Napoléon was prepared for a theatrical release?

Yes. There was going to be an American premiere of it and here we were with a complete version which was as complete as it could be. He asked me if I'd do it and even though I knew I was in for a lot of trouble, I thought it would worth the gamble. It was as long as it needed to be, the projection speed was going to be adapted as well, so the montage would look and not become a caricature. This was a big job, I knew there was some trouble ahead of us, but it was an amazing premiere. I was fortunate in doing it because it made such an impression that it launched a whole new career and a whole new way of seeing these films. Instead of silent films belonging to the world of clubs and museums, film societies or university classes, we began to create scores and restore some of the great masterpieces, like Greed and the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, Griffith's Intolerance and so on. This was our big catalogue, as well as the works of comic geniuses like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. It began a whole new life for me: conducting and creating music for these films.

Some of your most important works were composed in the mid-80s. How was the presentation of silence films resurrected at this time?

This was all sparked up by a great man in British media called Jeremy Isaacs, who was the head of a new television channel called Channel 4 for five years. He said "I'll get new scores and restoration of these films for my new channel." In the mid-80s, I was creating three new scores a year for full-length feature films. So I had my own private catalogue as if I had my own private opera house or a ballet company. This really developed enormously and I've been all over the world with Napoléon: London, Paris, Lausanne, Luxemburg, Findland, Athens and it just all shut down. The people who had the American rights claimed they had the English rights as well. Legal steps were taken and we had to stop doing it.

How did you get to score more silent films after this Napoléon experiment?

In the first year, there was this chain of commissions from Channel 4 by a sort of triumvirate. There were three of us: there was me, Kevin Brownlow, than there was David Gill, who unfortunately died in 1999. They came to me, the initial ideas were theirs and they always had something interesting to do. The idea was to cover the whole range. We would have romantic films with Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo, odd films like Greed by von Stroheim and Intolerance by Griffith, comic films like Buster Keaton's The General or Harold Lloyd's Safety Last. The whole range of cinema was really the idea, from which we could put together seasons. Then I started to travel around the world and show these films. I haven't been to Hungary, but I've been to neighbouring countries in Austria, Prague and Ljubljana. I've surrounded you, but haven't gotten to you yet.

How many silent films have you re-scored by now and which is your favourite?

I think there are nearly 50 now, including short films. I'd say I have many favourites, for a romantic film it would be the romantic film Flesh and the Devil, which was Garbo's first big success – it's great fun. There's a really rare film with Lillian Gish called The Wind by the Swedish director Victor Sjöström. Absolutely remarkable. From the comedies, I think The General and Safety Last were marvellous. Now I've been doing some short films of Chaplin that he never scored himself, some films from 1916 and 1917. There were 12 in the cycle and I've just performed all twelve across the weekend here in London.

Who makes the musical decisions in the case of re-scoring silent films?

It was really only with these two other people in the 1980s. Then there was a successor to David Gill called Patrick Stanbry and he took over his role. If there is a commission by a television company, they decide. Then there are estates like the Harold Lloyd Estate or the Cecil B. DeMille Estate for whom I wrote my last score called The Godless Girl. We work on it together, they supply me with a print, I study it, I show my ideas and drafts to them.

How would you describe your role as a composer for silent films. What does your work add to the pictures as opposed to the silence or the original scores?

The situation now is different from the time they were made. It wasn't about recording, it was about live performance and in a way it was like current cinema. There were big elaborate theatres which employed large orchestras, there were small orchestras which worked with small ensembles with a piano or an organ. Today, we're looking back on films that were made in the 1920s, so we have to appreciate the distance of time. Also, people's responses to music are much more developed now and this was really before the universal spread of the broadcasting. There was a recording industry , but in a sense musical education was more limited if you weren't in a major city. For instance, when you're using popular music now, you have to be careful because they'll have previous associations with this music and it can easily become a caricature. At that time, it wouldn't have mattered. Music has a different function now when we re-score a silent film now, because we do our best to make it acceptable and to give the film a value, because there are many stylistic hurdles one has to overcome. First of all, there was never going to be any dialogue or sound effects, so everything has to be made in the music, as if you were hearing them speak or hear the sound effects. The other thing of course is the style of acting, which might seem very exaggerated or unnatural today, whereas other silent films had great acting and you were swept away with the story. So in a way I try to make these movies more accessible for a receptive audience, but I also hope that my scores are really faithful to the intentions of the original directors. 

If there is an original score surviving for the silent film, to you make use of it?

I've used some of them, but it's really the question of availability of it. The other matter is if it stands out. There's no point reviving an early score if it's no good, except in case of curiosity. But yes, there have been circumstances when a score has become available for me, and we've tried to use it.

When writing music, do you still use paper and pencil or do you take advantage of computers?

Being the age I am, I was brought up to write music down myself. Of course the big shock is when people begin to use their computers to write music or use it as a sort of musical typewriter. I haven't learned that yet, I'm just over learning how to use my PC, but for the last ten year or so, I employ someone to take my manuscript and put it on to Sibelius. I still write by hand, but now I'm used to get my scores but to computer – it's absolutely necessary.

Your score to The Thief of Baghdad largely builds on the works of Rimsky-Korsakov. Why did you choose this particular composer?

This was one of the cases where there was a possibility of conflict, because there was a score written for it at the time by an American composer. There was a possibility of getting that score recorded. I heard it and thought to myself – well, this isn't just very interesting. When we had the Hollywood series, I experimented by putting some Rimsky-Korsakov to one of the scenes, because this was a frequent practice of the period, where the turnaround was so great that you could fall back on a library, which contained all kinds of music that could be shaped like a film score. In a way, the whole look of The Thief of Baghdad was like a Russian version of the Orient – it looked a lot like the Seherezade ballet. So I had done some research, I had hundreds of Rimsky-Korsakov scores and I decided I should limit it to that and see if I could create a film score out of Rimsky-Korsakov. Anything I couldn't find in that I would create myself. My personal contribution to that was the Chinese music for the Mongol prince. It is a kind of compilation score, but all derived from one composer, related to the particular style of the film.

Another important film in your filmography is the 1925 version of Ben-Hur. Did you ever think about referencing Miklós Rózsa's score?

It would have been quite hard because of the publishing copyright. But I had another source, because I could get the original score, issued by MGM. Also, I had my firm ideas on what I wanted to do, and I wanted to base it on a famous musical phrase, which is called the "Dresden Amen", which is a cadence, supposedly composed by Martin Luther. Wagner also used it, Mendelssohn also used it in his Reformation symphony. I thought that there was a good reason in using it. Everything believed I quoted Wagner, but I quoted what he quoted.

Your biggest project must have been D.W. Griffith's Intolerance which tells four stories in three hours – with wall-to-wall underscoring nonetheless.

I set myself a goal – if you couldn't see the film but could only hear the score, I wanted the audience to knew which story they were in. Even though I had a large orchestra with over 60 players, I kind of divided them into groups, so there would be one type of orchestration for the Babylon scenes, another for the New Testament scenes, a third type of sound for the scenes in Catherine de Medici's court and a fourth kind of orchestration for the contemporary story. For the latter, I used the popular music of the time, ragtime and jazzy things. As the plots evolved as they all had a huge, tragic climax where Griffith cuts from one to the other, I stop mingling all the styles, which now get unified in an Intolerance-theme I composed which goes through them all.

What's the latest news in the world of silent film scores?

I just had some very good news, because the film that is perhaps most important for this canon, Napoléon has been locked in a legal struggle with Francis Ford Coppola and his estate. I've just heard that light might be at the end of the tunnel and we're going to be permitted to perform my score to Napoléon again, so this was a very happy day.

What's your latest project prepared?

I'm starting a kind of family business with my older daughter, Hannah, who is a film producer, director and writer together with her husband. She had just made a wonderful new film and I'm just about to record the score in Prague on Tuesday [25 September]. It's called The Understudy, which was shot in New York. I have high expectations for it, I believe it will do very well. For the next project, I'll be reunited with the producer of Pride and Prejudice for the dramatisation of a novel that is more obscure, Cranford, which is a novel about a village of women. It's a kind of amazon village in Victorian England – it's very charming, funny and moving at the same time. I'm just starting to compose that, it will be screened towards the end of the year.

To know more about Carl Davis's work, please visit the composer's official website.


Photographs from: Carl Davis
Special thanks to Penny Hopwood
December 06th, 2007

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