The Red Violin was only the third film score you've written - you are primarily a concert composer. What drew you to this particular film?
quote-leftI had a disappointing experience on Revolution. It wasn't Hugh Hudson's fault; but neither the production nor the music came out the way I thought it would, and the film wasn't a success. I'd still had many offers, but I was just going to leave the film music scene and not come back until Peter Gelb from Sony came to me with the script for The Red Violin.
There were two reasons why I was drawn to this film. One was the subject matter. I thought I could really contribute something unique to this project. It wasn't just that it was a classical music subject, but also that the structure of the film needed music in a unique way.
It's the story of a violin over 300 years, narrated through five somewhat related stories in five different languages, shot in five countries: the only thing in common over those 300 years was this violin, which would need a good bit of music played live on camera--music that I needed to write. So the musical thread had to be really strong. The second reason was that I found the director, Francois Girard, to be a serious and satisfying collaborator. Once I liked and agreed to the script, I then told Peter Gelb that I really had to like and be able to work with the director. Film is a director's medium, and if the director wasn't someone I could work with and reason with, I wouldn't do the project. I met with Francois Girard, who had done 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and was an extremely musical - and reasonable - person. We could talk and come to conclusions - and that's not always the way it is in films. So the combination of the script and the director persuaded me to say okay.
You were very active on The Red Violin before they even started filming…
quote-leftRight - I had to write music that needed to be pre-recorded and synched to camera. It was a good thing that I got involved early because then I had time to plan and build all the musical themes which you normally don't get until the very end of a film project - and then you only have a few weeks to write it! For me it took place in three different stages, and each one supported the next one.
The first stage was when I read the screenplay and made some musical decisions that Francois agreed to. Number one was I would compose all of the period music---the faux-Classical, Baroque, and Romantic music-- it wouldn't be source music. The second thing was that it would all be orchestrated in strings, since the film itself is string-obsessive. Once those decisions were made, I devised a chaconne - the seven chords that govern the whole musical shape in the somewhat fatalistic way that Cesca the fortune-teller governs the dramatic one. So then I wrote all the themes-- Anna's theme, the death theme, - based on these seven chords. Then I wrote the virtuosic etudes for the Vienna sequence. Then shooting began.
Once the etudes were composed, violinist Joshua Bell recorded them and Francois took the tapes (and Josh) on the set to aid the filming. Of course, the boy whom they filmed was a real violinist--- he could actually play those pieces, even though it was synched to Josh's pre-recorded performance. The other sequences, like Pope's, were actually takes of Josh's hands shot from over the actor's shoulder.
Meanwhile, Peter Gelb over at Sony had already commissioned me and scheduled dates that fall for the first performances of a violin and orchestra piece based on The Red Violin. So during the summer while they were filming, I was in my studio writing "The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra". In November, we had the premiere with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and Francois attended, bringing with him the first cut of the film. Then, in composing the actual cues of the film score, I was able to take the orchestral piece and meld some of those ingredients back into the underscoring, since they were developed from the original material. So everything cross-pollinated everything else. I was lucky that I had the time to think of the new ideas, write a violin and orchestra piece, cross-pollinate that and add new material, then write the film score, which we recorded in London around Christmas and New Years. It was a very nice way to work, and I was much luckier than most composers for scoring a film. When you symphonically develop something, you extend ideas in interesting ways and then they can come into the underscoring and you've had time to season them and make sure they really work. I wanted to have this developed idea so that even if you're not conscious of it, you can feel the arch of the music from the beginning to the end of the film. That was important because, as I said, in all that diversity of story, the only common thread is the violin.
You are first and foremost a concert composer. What are your thoughts on that argument that film music is "less valid" an art form than concert composing?
quote-leftBoth serve a function; but, in film composing, you're not in full control of it the way you are in concert music--so the risk of compromise, or dilution of idea or structure, is great. In film, it's the director's vision, even of the music, which prevails, whereas in concert composing, it's your own vision. Opera is somewhat in the middle. It's interesting for me, having created an opera for the Metropolitan (The Ghost of Versailles,) I found that the work experience in opera partakes about equally of film and concert work. Because of the theatrical as well as musical nature of an opera, all the cutting and changes that would never happen in a concert piece happen in opera, as they do in film. What's key is whose vision it is. In absolute music, it's the composer's alone; in the theater, it's the composer's, and others'; and in film, it's the director's.
You have established yourself as a very successful concert composer who has branched into film music. But for film composers, it seems to be hard to branch into concert composing. What are your thoughts on that?
quote-leftEsa-Pekka Salonen has been involving film composers with the concert world more and more. He has commissioned works from them, and he's trying to get the film composing community involved in his orchestra since he wants to get the barriers broken down.
I have tremendous respect for film composers. They're so damn good at what they do. That's why I don't do most films - I only work when I feel I can contribute something. The structural thinking I use in the concert hall is unnecessary to most film projects, and most film composers make better use of the enormous range of pop and other materials and techniques required of them than I probably would, faced with the same challenge. The range is what's critical; I'm always amazed at the variety of different worlds they're asked to--and do-- portray.
You say that The Red Violin was better experience for you than on Revolution. Are you more likely to consider other film projects?
quote-leftNot unless it was this special. If it came along, fine. But I have so many commissions and so much work to do in my own world that I'd turn it down unless it truly blew me away. And, as I said earlier, I'd need as well a director with whom I could work - that's very important to me.
What do you think of your former pupil, Elliot Goldenthal, and his success?
quote-leftElliot is a major talent, and he has successfully bridged both film composing and concert composing. It was I who recommended him to Mike Gorfaine and Sam Schwartz, saying quite baldly "You should take this guy - he's amazingly theatrical and sensitive, and you really must try him out." I'd never recommended anyone before to them, so I'm very pleased and proud they took him.
What upcoming projects are you working on?
quote-leftI'm doing, strangely enough, a set of songs for soprano and piano for Carnegie Hall for Sylvia McNair and Martin Katz, on the words of Bob Dylan--yes, that Bob Dylan. It will premiere on March 15. As it happens, I don't know these melodies--all I have are the words-- so I'm setting pieces like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Blowin' in the Wind" simply as a contemporary concert composer approaching American poetry. They will be completely different from the originals, obviously, because my world is completely different. But the poetry was vivid and intriguing-- it's not Whitman or Dickinson, but it has a real sound and its own imagery--and I like working with a contemporary sensibility. Dylan knows about and has given his consent to the project, but he's not involved at all. I imagine he'll be very surprised! It'll certainly be interesting both for him and for the audience, experiencing songs made up of elements both completely familiar and utterly unexpected at the same time.
About: The soundtrack to The Red Violin is available from Sony Classical, and is highly recommended. The Carnegie Hall's commission (the Bob Dylan project) was performed in March 2000, when this article was written, John was working on a second symphony for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.