A conversation with Les Baxter
DAVID KRAFT & RONALD BOHN, 1981
Even in the age of electronic media, some historic moments go unrecorded. Such a turning point occurred in early 1956, when Les Baxter shared a TV variety show billing with a young Elvis Presley. Here was the immovable object meeting the irresistible force.
Ultimately, the irresistible force won out. Today we know all about Elvis, right down to the peanut butter and bananas and pain killers. But we don’t know much about Baxter, who in the mid-fifties was a pop sensation, bigger than Elvis and peering straight through this world into places far away.
And then -boom- Baxter met Elvis, and Elvis extinguished everything that came before him. Les Baxter made rock & roll records -in a career spanning seven decades, Baxter made every kind of record- but he is rooted in a world pre-dating rock & roll. We know him best today as the composer of the oft-covered 1951 “Quiet Village”, but as the tune gave way to the global village, Baxter slowly disappeared like a vapor trail in the night.
-RJ Smith, LA, 1996
The death of Les Baxter on January 15, 1996, at the age of 73, closes a unique era in exotica music as well as in film scoring. A virtuoso master of low-budget scoring, Baxter worked for fifteen years in the music department of American International Pictures, scoring a variety of films from biker movies to bikini movies.
But he made the greatest mark in horror films, providing inventive and effective scores for pictures with miniscule budgets -many of those films have mercifully faded from memory. But plenty of them remain classics of a kind -AIP’s Poe films like The Fall Of The House Of Usher.
The low-budget horror films produced by Roger Corman and American International Pictures in the 1950´s and 60´s, despite their low budgets and cheap effects, often maintained an effectiveness through moody set design, noteworthy direction, memorable performances by actors such as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, and through a highly effective musical scoring, more often than not penned by Les Baxter.
Baxter´s music, calculatingly quirky, brooding, ominous or terrifying, provided the final ingredient that gave these films life, and in some cases was the only memorable element of some of these forgotten features.
Baxter was born in Texas in 1922, and gained an interest in the piano at an early age. He studied at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and later at Los Angeles´ Pepperdine College before working as an arranger for famous bandleaders in the 40´s, and ultimately in radio and films. Baxter´s career has been as varied as the films on which he has worked.
In addition to scoring movies, Baxter recorded a series of exotic and easy-listening albums for Capitol Records and arranged the recordings of many other artists, notably Yma Sumac.
He has also written show music for theme parks and sea worlds, all of which has provided him with an arena for his penchant toward musical experimentalism. This inclination was particularly suited to science fiction and horror films, and it is with these films that Baxter´s reputation is linked the strongest.
How did you first get into film scoring?
I was offered a film through an agent who was interested in my music. It was a sailboat travelogue, but it initially gave me the chance to do my first picture TANGA TIKA, 1953. I had done a number of albums and I’d studied composing at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and then at Pepperdine College who gave me a Doctor degree… and so I was really a serious concert composer at the time I got waylaid into popular music. If you know any of my albums - ‘Le Sacre du Sauvage’, ‘Tamboo!’, ‘Ports of Pleasure’ or ‘La Femme’ - they are not like popular music.
I really did not know what popular music was at the time, but they were my attempts being a concert composer to do little suites of music for the pop field. Mysteriously, they started hitting and then I had a lot of pop singles, and that waylaid me off the serious composing which I’m able to do more of now. So… films enabled me to compose the sort of serious music I wanted to do. I gradually got into film scoring from that first little movie and went on from there.
People often regarded American International as a much commercialized exploitation studio, although they provided a wonderful range of subjects for film composers to tackle. Were they always sympathetic towards the musical aspects of each picture? Did you consider them a studio where a composer could really develop his art? Did you enjoy working for AIP?
Indeed they did provide a wonderful range of subjects to score, although at that time I was very happy to be offered any sort of film, quite frankly. You see, Hollywood is made up of a number of cliques: the Academy has a clique, the major studios have their cliques, and anyone connected with records is even more of an outsider than most people. As a matter of fact, record artists are suspect. It’s assumed that anyone who has hit records cannot compose, and I could only get work from independent producers of small pictures. I would very much like to have done large pictures with large orchestras.
Some of my scores, CRY OF THE BANSHEE for instance, have passages I think that are really unlike anything being used for films. A major film might have given me the opportunity to come out with a really respectable suite of music. But the only films I was offered were small pictures. It’s a fact that I was respected far more in Europe and South America than I was here, but I could only get B-pictures, always with a very, very small budget, and I learned to perform miracles with small orchestras.
Most of the orchestras were 30 musicians or under. We went in a hurry, monaurally, recording directly to the soundtrack, and nobody really thought of or took much interest in running off a quarter-inch protection. Neither did anyone think of preserving the original tapes for any sort of purpose. As soon as the film was recorded and the music tracks dubbed in, then they were erased or dumped into the garbage can.
The fact that now people think some of those scores were valuable is unfortunate, but didn’t seem to matter at the time. Of the 100 or more films I have scored, only a handful of the original tapes have survived.
How long did AIP normally give you to score a picture?
Two weeks! And we did the actual recording of each score in 4 to 6 hours. The major studios were taking weeks to record, some of my friends were taking all day to do a main title, but of course I would finish an entire score in half a day.
I move more quickly than a lot of people because I trust the orchestra and I’m not as concerned with perfection as a lot of other people are. I have rarely found that the orchestra makes mistakes and I find one balance as interesting as another. My things are written to balance in the Stravinsky style.
I like emotion in a performance and I think you lose that if you go over it and over it. The musicians that I used were outstanding, I had the best musicians’ in the world and I always insisted on certain people.
I had 4 to 6 concertmasters in my orchestra - Felix Slatkin was one. A lot of the Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmasters and top men from all the major studios were there, and the orchestra was never a problem, although the fidelity in those days was not so hot. But the orchestra always played beautifully, they played very well for me, they liked me and responded to my music. I use humor, which helps keep a pleasant atmosphere.
Were all AIP movies scored in 2 weeks, even MASTER OF THE WORLD?
Officially I was supposed to get 4 weeks, but the way things ran at AIP I barely got half that time, except in a few instances. The way it works… I see a script, the film is run for me, the producer does the ’spotting’ and the music editor very quickly breaks down the cues and starts sending them out to me.
I start composing immediately because I never know whether I’m going to have 4 days or 2 weeks or whatever. (If it’s television it goes on the air Tuesday night whether you’re ready or not!). So you have to work fast. I ask them to please not cut me down to less than 3 weeks, but they keep cutting, the cue sheets still aren’t coming out, and finally I get 2 weeks or less. I learned how to work very fast.
Did you work well together with Ronald Stein, the other composer at AIP? You’re co-credited together on WARRIORS FIVE. Which sequences did you score, also what additional scoring without credit on Stein’s PREMATURE BURIAL did you do?
AIP was a totally different set-up from, say, Warner Brothers where Korngold and Steiner were friends, or MGM with Rozsa and Kaper, etc. Things were done at great speed there and the fact is I never even met Ronald Stein! I was there 15 years, so was he, and I spoke to him perhaps once on the telephone. Offhand I don’t recall working on WARRIORS FIVE or PREMATURE BURIAL, although the studio sometimes used my left-over cues or took my cues illicitly from other pictures.
I don’t think I worked on SAMSON AND THE SLAVE QUEEN, but if you watch the film you can hear practically half the music from GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS. Actually, some of the titles in my filmography are things I could never dream of scoring… DAGMAR’S HOT PANTS, INC… what on earth’s that?
Presumably they used my cues from another film and played them in the picture. And maybe another reason I don’t recognise some of my film titles is they get re-titled. I did TAMBOURINE for Nicholas Ray, but some genius decided to call it HOT BLOOD, which sounds more like a vampire picture.
A film composer must presumably have to plunge himself into the mood of each movie he scores. Did all those Poe exercises ever begin to have a morbid effect on you?
Not in the least! It depends on one’s attitude whether one considers them morbid. I found them stimulating and I loved the Poe stories. Today they do much bloodier and more terrible things which I would not find morbid, but I would probably not enjoy scoring. Really it’s my profession. People ask do I have to be in a mood to compose or when do I do it. I do it in the daytime in a very businesslike manner because I know how to do what I’m doing. I have an enormous “bag of tricks” like most composers.
Going back to Beethoven and others of that period, I don’t believe he waited for lightning to strike. I think Beethoven knew symphony form so thoroughly that he could in a very businesslike manner put together an exquisite work based on his skill.
Certainly, the themes we would hope come from some kind of marvellous or mysterious inspiration; but I do think composers, if they are quite knowledgeable or skilled at what they do, can create themes and compositions of much greater quality through their ability and their knowledge than people who are not as skilled and well-trained who are, shall we say, waiting for lightning to strike.
Do you feel you scored too many films in the horror genre? Or in the western genre?
Not at all. The more you do in one genre, the more opportunity you have to be different and experiment. Bach wrote a lot of fugues, but after he’d done a few, people didn’t ask if he was a spent force. No, he carried on and wrote lots of others, brilliantly. The reason I did a lot of westerns is they were very big in the 50s. But horror films, in actual fact, present far less restrictions to a composer because of the extreme range or orchestral color at your disposal.
The hardest films to score are those like BORN AGAIN where nobody turns into a monster or develops X-ray vision, where there are no ghostly houses sinking into the swamp, etc. Straight movies are more exacting, one cannot be too indulgent in the instrumentation, and the drama and the situation have to be scored very accurately. One cannot have all storm or all loud. Loud is only loud if preceded by calm; soft is only soft if it follows loud. That’s a very basis principle that some of the newcomers are missing.
Do you find working with the same director over a period of years (like, say, with Roger Corman) has a particular benefit on the end product?
Roger Corman never took any interest in the music, never attended a recording session. I think he was more of a businessman than anything else. Roger and I were hired separately and we worked separately. He would make a picture at breakneck speed; I would score it quickly while he went on to the next one.
Even so, I do like to feel that I take a serious interest in every work I do, even though pictures I’ve done were quickie pictures. Every note that I write I’m very serious about. I feel that it represents me and it’s an original composition. So I took every movie no matter how small very seriously and tried to write a very good and original musical work.
How do you please a producer and retain your integrity?
A legitimate composer doesn’t complain about restrictions. Perhaps an inexperienced, concert composer with an enormous ego who only wants to shoot off his lilted fireworks might complain about restrictions, but I don’t. Sometimes I would pretend to give a producer what he thought he wanted, but in actual fact would work in a better idea or treatment.
Once James Nicholson (executive producer, AIP) called me into the dubbing room and said, “You know, Les, this isn’t what I asked for… it’s better!” He was an extremely kind and useful producer, and always said nice things about my work. But I was always sufficiently confident in myself to never be intimidated by any producer.
Do you like to research the music before composing the score?
Yes, absolutely. I would never want to be guilty of errors of authenticity. Fortunately, I have had a very wide musical training (I even studied Chinese music in my teens), and I know a lot about music of other countries. In the exotic album series, for example, I brought in actual African or South American or Cuban source music, and ‘La Femme’ was mainly French melodies. But it would be appalling to tackle something and not know what you’re doing.
Why did AIP go to all the expense of having those Italian epics rescored? Your scores were excellent, but the original Italian scores were good also.
The feeling of James Nicholson was that the Italian scores were dreadful. The ones that I heard were really quite terrible and the ones I rescored almost unacceptable, both from a fidelity standpoint and a picture standpoint. I don’t know how much improvement I made because I had such small orchestras, but at least we improved the fidelity.
The performing credit on GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS - Sinfonia of London conducted by Muir Mathieson - is a little surprising. Was that one of those dummy credits? (In 1953 Miklos Rozsa scored KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE in Hollywood, but the credits gave “London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Muir Mathieson” to get round a union restriction.)
I was sent to London to do GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS, and there was a union problem. Things that were done in London had to be conducted by an English conductor. It was very difficult in some of the foreign countries, Italy as well, to bring in a composer from the States to conduct his own work, owing to union restrictions.
I was delighted to have Muir do it, he conducted the music beautifully and I enjoyed working with him. He was a very strong-willed person and even changed the tempo of certain things in GOLIATH, which was startling because I wrote the music to fit the picture. But we had many wonderful conversations together as he was Scottish and I am Scottish.
Do you prefer to conduct your scores? It’s noticeable that Al Simms was credited as “musical supervisor” or “musical co-ordinator” - whatever that means - on all your 57 scores for AIP.
I’m trained to conduct, I studied it for many years, and I think I’m best qualified to conduct my own work. In Hollywood I conducted all my scores. Al Simms sat in the booth and did his musical supervising from there. Meanwhile, outside, I conducted… quickly.
The only places I wasn’t allowed to conduct were England and Italy. I did THE GLASS SPHINX in Rome, for example, but they made me sit in the booth while an Italian conductor (Franco Ferrara) conducted the music.
What about Mexico? Were there any problems there?
When I went there to score THE SACRED IDOL in 1959, I was flown in, ensconced in a hotel room and, without a piano or any instrument whatsoever, I sat down and wrote the whole score just sitting at a desk. Sounds difficult, but a composer if he’s a composer can do that. Anyway, then we had trouble recording the music.
We found we could hire a Mexican orchestra and a Mexican recording studio, but never both together at the same time. Finally I had to bring the movie back to the States and score it here. But I do love the Mexican people and would never decline an offer to score a Mexican movie.
Do you still conduct your own orchestra or has it been disbanded?
Well, here’s what happened. I was going great guns until rock’n'roll came along. Then, when they discovered they could sell a lot of records with just four or five guys in a rock group, they became disinterested in strings. Then, after a while, strings became more acceptable again, but rock was still king. So more and more, composers and orchestra leaders made use of session players.
These days I work a lot with the 101 Strings in England. They’re a large and beautiful orchestra, we do a lot of both commercial and non-commercial albums together, and so where in the past you had ‘Les Baxter and his Orchestra’, now you have ‘Les Baxter and the 101 Strings’. I’m mostly a composer now; only occasionally am I the artist.
Why did you score ALL THE LOVING COUPLES under the pseudonym ‘Casanova’?
I simply never turn down anything. Once I made the mistake of turning down FANCY FREE for Jerome Robbins and recommended Leonard Bernstein to do it… It was the first great success of his career and since then I’ve never turned down anything. However, if the picture is of the nature of ALL THE LOVING COUPLES, I may use a pseudonym.
We’re sorry to hear there has been a disgraceful rumour going around that you had some of your better scores “ghost-written” for you. Can you tell us how such a rumour could have started?
It is something believed only in Hollywood by members of the Academy’s music branch, and by some of those cliques going around in the major studios. It was very easy to pick on Les Baxter because I was a “lone wolf”, I was hired from outside the business, from records, and I was not a member of or had any friends in those cliques. And so I was under attack.
A disgruntled orchestrator, who emulated my style note for note, started spreading the rumour. He wanted more credit for himself, he wanted more jobs, and in the end he got more jobs. But the rumour, which started in a small way, gradually snowballed into a truly infamous scandal. The music departments at the major studios - the cliques - they really loved the story and for years I became the pet whipping boy in film music. If my name came up at MGM, for Instance, it was always with the greatest disdain.
They delighted in dismissing me as some sort of cafe orchestra leader with a violin under one arm, his back to the musicians and smiling at the customers. And the fact that - horror of horrors - I had hit records merely aggravated the situation. Suddenly, Les Baxter is the worst of those guys not doing his own stuff… he can’t hold a pencil, he can’t write a note, he can’t read the scale, he knows nothing about music (but I had an honorary L. L. D. !).
Once, I was selected by MGM to do a big picture, GREEN MANSIONS, which they thought I was perfect for. But the staff there said, “No, no, don’t use him.” Bronie Kaper, a good friend to me over the years, had to do it and told me personally he would rather I had taken the commission.
But MGM would not give me any of their big pictures, only THE INVISIBLE BOY. I have handed out work to an orchestrator. It’s common practice even by those composers in the major studios who have criticised me and supported the rumour. In such cases I have been uniquely fair and never taken due credit away from anyone. THE BIG DOLL HOUSE is credited solely to my orchestrator Hall Daniels.
But, one cannot just hand out some cue sheets to an orchestrator, a copyist, and say, “Go away and write me the whole score for GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS!” If an orchestrator could do that he’d be selling himself short to ridiculous lengths. No-one in the business sounds like I do.
My friends say they can always recognize my music even though I’ve done so many styles. CRY OF THE BANSHEE, for instance, is so vastly different from MASTER OF THE WORLD. I think too I’m unique in the business in that I have orchestrated more of my scores myself than any other composer. In 1972 I worked entirely on my own and did both FROGS and BARON BLOOD single-handed. The orchestrator I’ve used most often is someone I’ve known from childhood whom I taught to orchestrate; he knows that my work is completely original. He’s never “ghost-written” for me.
(Hall Daniels, Baxter’s leading orchestrator for over 25 years, confirms: “It’s just sour grapes! All too often here people who are envious of the success of others try to undermine it. But no one, try as they may, can ever sound like Les.”)
Isn’t there a sort of hierarchy at work where classical composers all look down on those who compose film music?
And, by the same token, many film composers look down on those in the pop field… Don’t forget that a number of film composers have become concert composers and vice versa, and that there is no longer such a strong distinction. Some of the great masters such as Wagner and Mahler occasionally sounded like movie music, even lesser movie music. People generally conclude all of Beethoven’s works - I happen to believe Beethoven was the great composer of all time - were without exception brilliant.
But the truth is like all composers he had great works and lesser works and sometimes composed inferior stuff. It’s not all good. Some of Mahler’s lesser works sound like very bad film music, in my view. My own music is distinctly my own and in my own style, and there’s no difference in style between my film scores and concert works.
That’s why, for instance, the TV-score AN EVENING WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE was so easily adapted into The Edgar Allan Poe Suite. The subject matter writes the music and dictates the form, irrespective of whether it will be heard in the concert hall, in the cinema or on television. Coming back to why concert composers look down on film music…
I do feel that many so-called concert composers would dearly like to pick up the revenue from films, but in truth their avant-garde music is totally unacceptable in any field: unlistenable, evasive, and unpalatable. I’m especially proud of the concert commission I did for the Wilmington Symphony (The Movies: A Satirical Essay for Orchestra, 1973).
It was commissioned to open an opera house there and was a half-hour work, the last piece of the evening. They put on a very distinguished programme: Beethoven, Rodriguez and Baxter! The audience loved it and the critics loved it, but all that’s left is the critical reviews, unfortunately. Nobody thought of recording it.
Of all your musical activities (films, records, concert works, theme parks, etc), which medium do you most like to work in?
I like to write music, never mind the medium. Fortunately, most of the films, records, theme parks, concert commissions I’ve done have given me “carte blanche” so I’ve done pretty much what I want to do. I like to work in all media, and I like to write for any size orchestra.
The Vincent Price TV-special, for example, used only a very small orchestra, a double string quartet. But like I said, I never turn anything down. I have to make a living. I wouldn’t say I’d be happy to starve in an attic and just write what I believe in. It would be very self-indulgent to do that, to say I’m too good for this or that, or pretend I don’t have to work like everyone else does. I have to work and I do work, but I try to do the best I can.
Even the rock music I’ve written I think has a certain elegance. I think it is foolish to compose for one’s contemporaries out of embarrassment music that is safe and beyond criticism or is so weird that if a person criticises it, they supposedly don’t understand it. I think there is new music that is accessible to the ear and which people will recognise as good music and like.
Can you explain to us your musical approach to FROGS?
We thought it would be a very interesting experiment (and I’ve always been daring in my scores or tried to be) to score the film entirely with synthesised sounds, in this case recorded frog sounds.
I taped frog sounds, slowed them down and used them I think intelligently and effectively. It was a one-man score all the way through - I composed it, arranged it and I played it on the synthesiser with no assistance from anyone. So it was marvelous later on when the Academy, who were always keen to get down all the music credits on each picture, asked me who collaborated on the score. I was delighted to be able to reply, “It was just me and the frogs!”
Does the effects dubbing by the sound department ever spoil your music?
Dubbing can ruin a score. When I did the gang picture series like HELL’S BELLES I would usually say if a cue included motor cycles revving away… forget it. I don’t see any reason for composing music to get buried by things like that. Unfortunately, in my experience, the sound effects man and the composer have rarely got together to work things out. Both want to do their own thing.
What can you tell us about the row over A WOMAN’S DEVOTION?
In all these years I’ve never known anything about a row over A WOMAN’S DEVOTION. The director was very polite to me and no-one ever hinted that there was a problem. I think I read something in the Soundtrack! articles (prior source Media Montage) that the director objected to the use of a guitar. I did use an unamplified guitar as a solo instrument behind some of the scenes, but the director never at any time discussed with me what he wanted or did not want.
I had a great deal of respect shown to me at the time I scored the picture, anything I wanted to do I was allowed to do and no-one questioned it. For once I used a very large orchestra and I thought it was quite a good score. If anyone was displeased, I wish they’d have mentioned it.
May we know what your company Bax Music does? We noticed the credits for SAVAGE SISTERS gave “music composed and conducted by Bax”. Is that another pseudonym?
Bax Music publishes all my albums and I run it together with Hall Daniels from a head office in Torrance. Any fans who want to write to me may write there. I was the only record artist for many years who did original suites, others did just standards, and Bax Music still publishes the music from my oId LPs even though they’re not in release. ‘Bax’ is a rock name I’ve used from time to time whenever I’ve done rock scores.
Do you like having other people do the songs for pictures you’re scoring?
I did a lot of successful rock movies and the BEACH series made a lot of money, but I always felt capable of writing a rock song myself if I was asked. I’m only sorry more of my music didn’t get on the albums. In WILD IN THE STREETS - a fine, futuristic movie - I wrote a for then ‘current’ piece of music for the Sunset Strip sequence, which was a prediction of disco, progressive jazz and so on.
But they left it off the LP which is a pity… Sometimes a producer of a non-musical picture would try to persuade me to use somebody else’s theme song, but I generally fought against that.
Coming now to television work, why are so many composers brought in to score TV-series these days?
Gerald Fried said he was usually given 2 weeks to score a STAR TREK episode. What sort of time is allotted on the current BUCK ROGERS series per episode?
2 weeks is still about average, but I must tell you there is a lot of “weekend scoring” going on. See it on Friday, write it over the weekend and it’s on the air Monday. I must say I can tell and don’t like what I hear when people work too quickly.
AIP was a very economy-conscious studio, and I learned how to work very fast. However, I never write faster than I can work. And I don’t believe in repeating cues over and over like some. I know my own style of music so well, I’m uninhibited, so I can do things quickly, but not all composers can… and not all TV-producers are obsessed with speed.
I once did an episode of something in 2 weeks, the next composer took 4 weeks over his, but he still got re-hired. On CLIFFHANGER last year, a series that had a lot of music, about 40 or 50 minutes music per week, they needed 3 composers working on alternate weeks. I wrote a new score every other episode by myself. On the second to last episode, I did the score and the producer came to see me and asked if I was tired after such a tough schedule. I said, “Not at all. What’s on your mind?”
He asked if I could do the last show as well, since all the others seemed to be sick. This would mean two hourly shows in a row, a week apart. I said I’d be delighted. In the last segment we got to kill off Dracula, and I must tell you the orchestra really loved playing that last score.
I was staying in the Universal hotel, to be nearby if needed, when one of the executive producers called me from the dubbing room and said there were 10 people in the dubbing room, including the mixer who was very blasé, and that all 10 people were in tears and with cold chills. She said it had never happened before and it was my music.
At the end of the recording session, the orchestra had stood up and applauded, which is exceptionally rare in TV-scoring, to say the least. What I did, I simply threw in everything from my “bag of tricks” (including a little Tannhäuser!) into that last episode. I just pulled out all the stops and let the orchestra go.
Happily for me, something like that happened the previous year too. I did BORN AGAIN at Warner Brothers studios, using a good-sized orchestra. And people came out of the booth, the recording engineers and so on, to applaud the music, and ask me why this music isn’t being heard more.
The session players get very blasé too, usually, and even fall asleep during sessions because it’s so boring playing synthesised Ravel and Stravinsky every day. But one of the violinists stood up and said it was like a breath of fresh air. What more can a composer ask?
On the darker side, I suppose one must say that your concert works tend to stay in the piano bench, your hit records get all the attention, your movie scores get some attention sometimes, but your TV-scores just fly by one day in a week and nobody ever hears them again. It’s like throwing music down the drain.
Are there any other film composers you particularly admire?
I love Jerry Goldsmith’s score for THE OMEN. And David Raksin I think is wonderful, although I don’t think he knows my work. Very few of them know my work… they haven’t taken the time to listen. All they do is just say nasty things. If they went through the bulk of my work they’d realise it has to be the output of someone pretty serious.
Unfortunately, I have been what might be called a “lone wolf” or “loner” most of my career, even “outcast” might be appropriate, although I have acquired a number of friends in recent years, mostly in the concert field. Almost all the unpleasantness is forgotten now. There are certainly some megalomaniacs among film composers, but there are many sincere people also. Now I find many orchestras giving me a great deal of respect, and so do the composers I meet.
Are any of your closer friends noted film composers?
John Williams and I have been friends since our record days. He’s really something special. Pete Rugolo has been a friend for years too, and André Previn and I were quite close in our teens before we went off in opposite directions.
Which would you say was your best film score?
I like MASTER OF THE WORLD, and I like the first long cue in CRY OF THE BANSHEE. I think HOUSE OF USHER has some certainly innovative sounds for a motion picture score, and I’m fond of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM by the way.
There’s some atonal music and experimentation on the main title that people are doing today and thinking they’re doing something vastly new, but PIT AND THE PENDULUM was early sixties. It was a modern score for the time and I think I did some very interesting writing on that one. Playing against the picture was unusual then and came in very much later.
The Japanese feature cartoon ALAKAZAM THE GREAT was a’ real wall-to-wall score, almost like a full-length ballet. The orchestra played really well for me that day, but don’t ask me how I managed to fit new songs to Japanese lips mouthing Japanese melodies!
Unfortunately, the ALAKAZAM album had little to do with the movie proper. It was really just a little pop spin-off, and you have to see the picture itself to get the full effect. Howard Koch, a respected producer in the business, told me he thought my first score for him, YELLOW TOMAHAWK, was the best score he’d ever heard. It was Stravinsky-esque, but with voices, so rather bold for a B-western in 1954. It was a very good injun picture and I wrote an unusually modern score. A lot of people seem to like my end-titles, and I’m delighted. However one of the best I wrote was for a, rarely seen little movie called MACABRE.
Do you recall your Capitol albums with equal satisfaction?
Yes, there are a number of “original suites” I find particular satisfaction in recalling. I used colors that the average arranger was not using at the time; also I introduced Latin rhythms, African drums or Afro-Cuban drums to concert composing. When I went into a studio, everyone would say, “Well, it’s Les’s usual combination - a cello and 12 drummers!”
And sometimes that was true… my combinations were unusual at the time. People were used to just one drummer sitting at one drum-set, but I would come in with 4 drummers or maybe 12 Africans, and that was a little bit of a Puzzle to the people at Capitol Records, at first.
Yma Sumac was an unusual phenomenon too. It was during the Elvis Presley heyday, but who would have thought an Inca Soprano would have hit number one? There were at least 4 Peruvian folk albums out with Yma doing her thing before I did “Voice of the Xtabay”, but those albums sold absolutely zero. Subsequently, she took on another musical director and her sales went back to zero.
Are there any recent films you would have liked to score?
My friend John Williams gets all the prize commissions these days… STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, etc. I would like to have scored ALTERED STATES as I admire Ken Russell and love his films. And I could do some interesting scores for any of the current crop of horror films. It’s a matter of luck very often whether one scores a successful film. The luckiest guy in town is the one who happens to score the movie nominated as Best Picture. So often he gets the award.
Can you tell us about your most recent activities, also what your plans are for the future?
I’m moving back closer to Los Angeles and perhaps then I’ll do more films and television. The recent musicians’ strike caused a lengthy lay-off for most of us in that field. I’m intently studying Beethoven, primarily to get the clarity of symphony form as he used it. Also, I’m going through the Bach fugues again, continually studying counterpoint (fugue-writing). It’s the counterpoint, by the way, that helps make the scores I’ve done recently, like BORN AGAIN, a little stronger.
Right now I’m doing yet another show for Sea World which will be recorded at the end of this month (February 1981). Actually, they’ve taken quite a liking to my songs there, so much so that last year they commissioned me to do an entire musical. It’s a light and amusing work, the same kind of musical they would open on Broadway, and I would give anything if it were on Broadway instead of playing for whales and dolphins down at the park!
Originally published in Soundtrack! Magazine. Used by permission.