Composer  David  Raksin

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


raksin


In the musical world, there are various camps with numerous participants in each.  Usually, those who inhabit one area stay there for most - or all - of their careers.  Light music composers rarely write symphonies and only a few operatic composers pen popular waltzes.  In the 20th century, a new breed emerged - the Film Composer.  A few notables from the established world are credited with film scores, including Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich, while a couple of film scorers also get heard in the concert hall, such as Miklos Rosza and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. 

My guest in this conversation is David Raksin, a very well-known film composer who also wrote several significant concert works.  He was always on my radar and in May of 1988 I called him at his home in California and we had a wonderful chat.  We spoke about music of all kinds, as well as other topics both direct and spurious.  This was the end of the LP era, so our mentions of recordings were of the 12-inch vinyl variety.  Naturally, many CDs of Raksin's music are now available, but at that time they were only a future speck on the horizon. 

So return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear . . . . .


[Sound of rotary telephone dialing, then the sound of a phone ringing]

David Raksin:  Hi.

Bruce Duffie:  David?

DR:  Is that you?

BD:  Well, it is Bruce Duffie, if that's whom you're expecting.

DR:  Exactly.  You remember the Fred Allen program?  He would say, "Why, Mrs. Nussbaum," and then Minerva Pious [Ukrainian-born American radio comedian and actress (1903-1979)] would always say, [in a Yiddish accent]  "You vere expecting maybe Elizabeth Taylor?"

BD:  [Laughs heartily]  The response I liked was, "You were expecting maybe Tula-lula-lula Bankhead?"  [American actress and radio show host Tallulah Bankhead, (1902-1968)]

DR:  Oh, yes, that's right.  You got it, kid!

BD:  Did you ever write for radio?

tvDR:  Yeah, a little bit.  I've also written for television, too.  As a matter of fact I did a half-hour program for Camera Three on Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), and then narrated it on camera.  It was interesting.  I got to use one of those marvelous little machines, the teleprompter.  In fact it was the one that Walter Cronkite used.  They were telling me I didn't need to worry about it.  I said, "Well, it's all right for him; he doesn't worry."  [Both chuckle]  So, where are we?

BD:  We are going to talk about music and composition, and about your concert works, et cetera, et cetera.  So we'll start with a real easy question:  where is music going today?

DR:  Well, now, what kinda music do you mean?  Do you mean concert music?

BD:  Let's first start by talking about the different kinds of music.  You've composed film music, you've composed some popular music, you've composed some concert music.  Do you actually separate these in your mind, or do you simply feel that you're a composer?

DR:  I'm a composer and I feel that it's my job to do whatever is required.  It may be just that somebody thinks I'm somebody worth asking for a piece of music, or it may be a job in films or television, or something like that.  Whatever it is, if you're the kinda musician I am, that's the nature of the profession.  They ask you for something, and if it's within your purview, you do it.

BD:  How do you decide if it's within your purview?

DR:  By the way it feels.  Sometimes take risks.  I've done all kindsa things.  As a matter of fact, I'll never forget, some years ago I did a kind of a "yeah-yeah-yeah" song for Jerry Lewis!  I even suggested the title.  We had to have a really idiotic song, and it was one of those things where he plays a goof who had to be trained.  [Lewis plays a bellboy in the film who had to be trained to replace a famous comedian who has died in a plane crash]  He had to sing a stupid song, and I figured I could use as stupid a title as anybody, so the one I suggested to Paramount was "I Lost My Heart in a Drive-In Movie."  [Used in the film The Patsy (1964), directed by Jerry Lewis]

BD:  Did they use that title?

DR:  Oh yes they did, and not only that, it was more impressive to my kids than a so-called "serious" work might've been.

BD:  To prepare yourself for a "yeah-yeah" song, did you immerse yourself in the whole style, or did you just try and come up with it and hope for the best?

DR:  The point about that is there's no need to immerse yourself.  The problem is to un-immerse yourself.  This stuff is in the air like a cloud.  As a matter of fact, someday we may have to evacuate the United States, and it won't be because of Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, it'll be because we're gonna die from fallout from fuzz-tone guitars.

BD:  [Chuckles]  So you really think there is a lot of noise pollution.

DR:  There's no doubt about it.  Yes.  The world is in a situation which aurally - A-U-R-A-double L-Y - is approaching intolerability.

BD:  Is there any hope?

DR:  Of course there's hope.  There's hope because if one is so naive as to place hope in human beings to which there is no real alternative, then you hope for the best.  Not only that, a lot of the kids who are writing music today may not be doing things that I care about, but some of 'em are obviously very talented young people.

BD:  Coming back to this "yeah-yeah" song for just a moment, did you accept it gladly, or was it something that you accepted with great trepidation?

DR:  No way.  I was delighted.  I love to do just about anything, you know.  There are some things I won't do, but when there's something which has its own interest...  For instance, one of the things I enjoyed doing very much was a series of interludes for a television program many, many years ago, in which I had to write in the styles of about a dozen different composers.  There was no time to study anything.  I had to sit down the day after I heard about it and start writing.  And it's interesting to do that.

BD:  So you called upon the vast resources of your own history and imagination.

DR:  [Facetiously]  The vast resources, yes, which, when they're really extended to their bitter end, go at least one inch.

BD:  [Chuckles]  Oh, come on, they've gotta go from ear to ear!

DR:  Well, that's from ear to ear, but that's not a helluva lot longer, you know.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Let's come back to this now.  Are there really big lines of demarcation between "popular music" and "serious music" and jazz?

DR:  I don't really think so.  You can draw them if you're so disposed, but when you consider all the trouble that comes from borders the world over, I can't imagine why anybody would want to add more of them.  Almost a year ago, as a matter of fact, on June 21 (1987) in London, Michael Tilson Thomas, who's the new conductor of the London Symphony, was doing a really remarkable and diverse concert.  One of the things he played was the main title of one of my movies, The Bad and the Beautiful [directed by Vincente Minnelli and released in 1952].  It's the version which you have on that record.  And the last number on the program was Arnold Schoenberg's transcription of the Brahms Piano Quartet.  You see?  I don't think anybody bothered to make little striations in the sand separating the people above the salt from the people below because it was all music and it had a purpose.  There was a certain mutuality about it.  I won't say it was a unity, but it was there.  It's music.  To make phony differentiations is for people who are spiritually deprived.

BD:  Then let's head right into the philosophy of all of this.  What is the purpose of music in society?

raksinDR:  The purpose of music in society is manifold, and I have an idea that there's no way in which I could really capture it all in one nutshell.  But I will say this:  the purpose of music is expression of one kind or another to the extent that it expresses a noble soul, or even an ignoble soul doing something wonderful.  There have been such people who wrote gorgeous, glorious music, who were villains of the first water, maybe the second water, too.  Maybe something has been expressed which, despite this, has been kinda wonderful.  Aldous Huxley, whom I knew well, used to say that there is no one-to-one correlation between goodness as we know it and think of it, and the production of works of art.  [English writer Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) lived in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death]  So you're expressing something and you're hoping that somebody else will listen.  Maybe there's a message in it.  The message in it is not gonna be something that Western Union can carry, but it's gonna be a message.  It's gonna say things to people which in such a way that it can actually penetrate their defenses which are rigged against speech and sight much more than sound.

BD:  And you take aim, with your music, to penetrate all of these?

DR:  No, all I do is write it.  All I do is write it.  Since I am mostly a film and television composer, I take aim at the purpose of what I'm supposed to be doing.  At the same time, the entity which is working on this is a complicated thing, which happens to be me, mentally, physically, and everything else.  It's a nice thing to talk about yourself almost in the third person, and fairly ridiculous, but that's what's happening.  Somebody tells you they want something and you start to generate music.  You generate it in your own terms and it reflects your own attitude toward what is required, or what it was you started out to do.  Sometimes people dig that, other times they don't.

BD:  Is all of this conscious, or is some of it subconscious?

DR:  I think most of it is subconscious.  But once it comes out, you have the duty, if you're any kind of an artist, to monitor it, to look at it.  It's a kind of a self-monitoring situation.  There are several complex names for that, but you actually look at your work and you say, "Is this it?  Does this work?  Is this right?"  I've been telling my students for years that sometimes, when I'm working on a score, even when it's one of those things where you're working 18 or 20 hours a day, a thing wants to go its own way.  I start out a piece, let's say, for a scene in a film, and I get to a minute.  Then the thing takes off in a direction which I know does not apply to the scene.  Unless I'm in terrible straits for time, I don't abort that.  I let that go and see what happens.  Then I come back and I say, "Well after one minute it's no longer useful in this scene, but I'll keep it, because it might be useful somewhere else.  And very often it turns out to be a development of the thematic material that fits somewhere else in the picture.

BD:  I see, and then you use it later on.

DR:  Absolutely.

BD:  No waste at all.

DR:  Oh no, there's a lotta waste.  In a way, one is thrifty.  The best composers I know are or were persons who were thrifty with their material.  This stuff that you produce has a value, or you must be able to persuade yourself it has.  Without this activity there is no such thing as getting anything done.  You have to have a capacity for self-delusion, otherwise you're in big trouble.

BD:  Can you put some of the material that you don't use in, say, a concert suite?

DR:  Rarely.  The suites I've made of my film music, and I've made a number of them, have always been because people said to me, "Gee, that's a nice piece.  It might be good to play it in a concert."  So I'll make a suite.  A couple of 'em are big ones and some are small ones.  I don't think I've ever dug out anything that I didn't write in the film.  Sometimes there are sequences which you lost in the film because they cut 'em out.  In The Bad and the Beautiful, there's a sequence called "The Acting Lesson," which was cut out of the film after I composed and recorded the music.  I used that in my album 'cause I like it.  It's kind of a nice piece which is based on the music of composer Anton Arensky (1861-1906).  It's not his notes at all, but the kind of Russian style.  I'm gonna change its name someday, and call it "Perestroika Papa, Don't You Try to Glasnost Me."  [Chuckles]  It might make a great popular song in the Soviet Union.

BD:  You'll have to make sure that all the DJs can pronounce the title.

DR:  Oh there'll be no problem, because what I'm gonna do is have Gorbachev personally translate it into Russian.  I'm sure you know the origin of that... There used to be this thing which, as a young man we always said, [in laughable wannabe "hipster" voice] "Las Vegas mama, don't you try to cheat on me," or such garbage.  And that's what I'm playing around with.

BD:  [Chuckles]  You're always playing around with something.

DR:  Indeed I am.  That's right.  Sometimes it has a double reed, sometimes a single reed, sometimes it wears a skirt.

BD:  A man after my own heart.

DR:  Oh well, natch.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Coming back to the music a little bit.  When you have just a few minutes, literally, to compose something, does it ever occur to you that you might not get it written?


laura theme


DR:  Yes, of course it does.  But the point is that you learn, in a way, to try to submerge that.  Anxiety is a kind of a useful stimulant, but it often works against you.  It can render you inert.  There've always been times when you say, "My God, will I ever get this done?"  And there are other times when you say, "My inspiration is gonna fail me."  But the strange thing is that when I've had to call upon it, it's always delivered.  Now I'm not saying it's always delivered absolutely the right thing, because you're never gonna get two people in the art of filmmaking, or in any other art, to agree every time.  There have been times when I've worked with wonderful people who have totally misunderstood what I've been doing and who have hated every note of it.  That doesn't mean that they're right and I'm wrong, but there's no way in which I could be right all the time or wrong all the time.  So mostly what happens is, if you're a composer you reach out it and it better be there.

BD:  Then if you're going to compose a piece for a concert and there's no deadline (or one months in the future), does that change your compositional process at all because you're not sweating bullets to make sure it's done by Thursday?

DR:  Well, there is a big problem for guys like me.  Sometimes the pressure to create something is necessary to break out of the bondage which sometimes overcomes you.  You're sitting there, you know you've got a recording at 10:00 the next morning and you've got a sequence to write.  You better write it!  That's all.  Sometimes the film does not inspire you, or you're not inspirable, or you're not inspired, and you come out with something which is less than your best.  But more often than not, considering the circumstances and the pressure, it's amazing what my colleagues and I have been able to do!  When you're working on a piece and you don't have a deadline, and I'm on one like that now, you tend to pamper yourself a little, which I think is not too bad because there've been times when I've been working on a film and I've said to myself, "Oh, boy, would I love to put this aside and start on it fresh tomorrow," and there's no way of doing that.  So I kind of humor myself and try not to do something that I'll look at tomorrow and say, "I wonder what the hell you were thinking of when you wrote that!"

BD:  Then do you impose a little bit of a deadline that you must finish it by next month or two or six weeks down the line?

DR:  Sometimes I do something like that, but I still don't want to accept something that I think I would be ashamed of.  The one I'm working on now is a very, very difficult thing to do, and I'm struggling a bit with it.

BD:  Obviously the film scores are on commission.  What about the concert works, are they also on commission?

DR:  The concert works are on different kinds of commission.  The one piece that I've written recently, which I think is a somewhat important piece, was commissioned by the Library of Congress.  They have a commission called the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953) commission.  She's the lady who endowed that marvelous concert hall they have, and she's also the lady who bought most of the Stradivarius and Guarnerius and Amati string instruments that they have which the Juilliard Quartet and others use when they play there.  And she endowed this wonderful commission, and it's a very elegant one.  To give you some idea, previous holders of it have been Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, Maurice Ravel and Aaron Copland.  You know, guys like that.

BD:  Very major names!

DR:  Yes, absolutely!  And so, you know, that's a very prestigious commission, and when you get one like that, which happens once in a lifetime, that's big stuff.  So that brings a certain amount of opportunity with it because it goes with a performance at the Library, which we did a year and a half ago. 

BD:  Was it a string quartet?

DR:  No, no.  It's a kind of an oratorio called Oedipus Memneitai, which is a word which means "remembers."  Oedipus was formerly King of Thebes, and they found out that he was the source of the plague that the gods had visited on Thebes.  He was dethroned and he blinded himself, and when my piece starts he's been in exile, in his blindness for many years, and knows he's dying.  It's the last day of his life and he remembers some things about what happened to him.  It's a piece for a solo bass-baritone singer who's also the narrator, and there's a six-part chorus of 24 and an orchestra of 17.  [The work was premiered at the 511-seat Coolidge Auditorium on October 30, 1986, conducted by Raksin]

BD:  Did it work out the way you expected it?

DR:  Yes, I think it worked out rather well.  We were absolutely most fortunate.  People are always complaining they never enough rehearsal, but n this case, because of the great intelligence of the guy who was overseeing this, who was acting head of the Music Division named Jon Newsom, we had plenty of rehearsal.  It was really great to get up there and conduct this thing in the Library's concert hall without the fear that something would go wrong.  There were still plenty of places where we could've faltered, but it didn't happen because we had a lot of rehearsals and we had superb players and singers.

BD:  How long a work is it?

DR:  It's almost forty minutes.

BD:  Could a company pair it with Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex [an "opera-oratorio" composed in 1927]?

DR:  I don't know whether that could be done.  To begin with, that uses a huge orchestra and a huge chorus.  I love that work very much.  You know, the Library of Congress has the original sketch manuscript.  I got them to photostat a page for me and I put it up on the wall because I loved him very dearly.  He was a wonderful man and I knew him well, and I, of course, admire his music.  Very near the end of my piece I quote one bar from his.  People who know Oedipus Rex of Stravinsky will recognize that bar.

BD:  Like tipping your hat to him.

DR:  Oh, absolutely.  Sure.  There's no way of composing a thing about Oedipus without knowing that you're treading somewhere near the footsteps of the great man, and he was really a great man of our time.

BD:  Then let me ask another philosophical question:  what constitutes greatness in music?

raksinDR:  [Thinks for a moment]  Greatness, I think, has to do with authenticity, talent, insight and the ability to express all these things in a way which is palpable.  To whom it's palpable is something else again.  Years and years ago, when I was trying very hard to think of myself as a dangerous radical without too much success, I was asked to come and address a bunch of people who were left-wing types - moreso than I - and one of the people there fed me a question which was designed to elicit a reply that would suit them.  They wanted to know about [speaks slowly, in caricatured "dopey guy" voice] "What is this fellow Béla Bartók?"  You know, who understands his music?  And I said to this guy, "If you are really faithful to your alleged political precepts, you will know that the fact that you don't understand what he's writing doesn't mean a thing, nothing at all.  He's a guy writing something which may not be understood for years, and if you stand in the way of that, you're impeding progress, so get outta the way.

BD:  [Chuckles]  Did that shut him up?

DR:  Well, it didn't shut him up.  He just sorta grumbled, you know.

BD:  When you write music for films, it's got to be immediately accessible.  Do you write your concert music to be accessible a little farther down the line?

DR:  No, I write 'em all the same.  I think, in a way I'm freer with my own music than in my film music.  I've done a lotta things which were sufficiently confusing to the people I was working with to give me heart.  I mean, sometimes you work with people who, if they understand your music, you know you must be doing something wrong.  I'm saying that as a joke, but sometimes the only way you know that you're doing something worth doing is when you're misunderstood, and that's not a happy situation.  You're writing in areas where you are often working with people who do not understand what it is that music is doing, and whose acquaintance with the vocabulary of music is really stilted and ancient.

BD:  But I assume that this vocabulary of music is always expanding.

DR:  Of course it's expanding, and there's no way in which the vocabulary of music, as it's used in films - generally speaking, maybe a rather large percentage - is ever going to accommodate the latest advances in concert music.  Some of these advances are worthless, others are wonderful.  But you're not going to be able to do something terribly avant-garde in a film because most of the audience will never begin to understand it.  And besides which, if it has to be explained, rather than to be absorbed through the ears and the pores, then you're in bad trouble.

BD:  But aren't you a little more hampered in that kind of thing in the films, because you've got something going on on the screen which will, in essence, distract from your music?

DR:  No, no, that's not how it works.  It really works the other way around.  I don't think what goes on in the film distracts, although I've actually had one critic say he wished the guys in the picture would shut up so they could hear my music.  But I'm sure that that's not the ideal situation, because what happens is that there is a result which comes from the interaction of what you see on the screen and what you hear on the soundtrack, which is a combination of dialogue, sound effects, and music.  This is an amazing phenomenon, but a result is produced which is beyond the sum of the parts.

BD:  I was being facetious a little bit, but the point I'm driving at is that in the film, are you not following what's on the screen, whereas in the concert you can lead the listener directly?

DR:  Precisely, yes.  Of course you're not exactly following, you're going along a parallel line with what goes on on the screen.  You're not supposed to be diverging from it, but there are times when you don't say what people are seeing, you say something else 'cause what is intended is not what you see, but rather what exists in the mind.

BD:  Has there ever been a case when a director has come to you and said, "I wish I had heard the music before the shot because I would've had the action be just a little different?

DR:  Yes, there've been a couple of times like that, but it's not likely that you're gonna be able to write the music before, except in a rare case once in a while.  When you do a picture which involves music, you sometimes have to write your music ahead of time.  That was the case of a picture I once did with the director John Cassavetes [Too Late Blues (1961)], in which I wrote about 14 pieces before we started, all, by the way, within, lemme see - Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday - so that's eight days.  We needed music first.  Sometimes, as in the case of Cleopatra (1963), Alex North (1910-1991) wrote pieces and they photographed certain sections of the picture to what he wrote.  I mean they actually edited it to what he wrote.

BD:  That must be a wonderful luxury.

DR:  Oh, absolutely.  It's a luxury for them as well as for us.

BD:  There are a couple of pictures now with music by Philip Glass where there's no dialogue; it's just sound and music, but no words.  Is this something that you feel is a good idea, a good thread, or is it something almost unique that won't be carried on?

DR:  Well, actually it's nothing new.  It used to be done all the time in the days of silent films.  My father conducted for them.  There was music and there was nothing else, and I sometimes think that they were ten times as eloquent as anything we can do with all our fancy-shmancy machinery.  As for Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Powaqqatsi (1988), I find that eventually my best intentions, which are not to dislike what I hear, are inundated by the incredible repetition that goes on there.  Philip Glass is an interesting man; I don't begrudge him his success.  But when I was in Paris last summer, I had a visitor who was a Dutch journalist, and he's very pro-Glass.  And at one point he told me that Glass had said to him he does not like being thought of as a minimalist, and wishes to be considered in the same realm of composition as Beethoven.  I told him this is not conceit; this means that he wishes to be thought of as a mainstream composer!  This journalist thought that was very generous of me.  Of course it's not my province to be generous about somebody else.  He's his own entity.  But this guy said that, and I said, "Well, on the other hand, maybe he didn't mean Ludwig van Beethoven, he meant Harvey Beethoven, inventor of the repeat sign.  [Both chuckle]  That's malicious, but I needed to say it.

BD:  Well, of course, Philip Glass, or any composer's music is going to be mainstream for them!

DR:  That may be very true and I'm not the custodian what is or is not mainstream, and sure as hell he's a lot more mainstream than a lot of the rest of us, because his music is so widely accepted.  I begrudge him nothing, as long as I don't have to listen to it.

BD:  [Chuckles]  Well, maybe for two minutes?

DR:  Well, actually there's more to it.  There are some highly creditable people who like what he does, and more power to 'em.  I just was in a theater the other day to see a movie which I should've seen months ago.  A lady and I wandered into one of those complexes of several theaters and we were in the wrong theater.  We heard some of the music from the new Glass film, and I listened, thinking, "Well, what's this?"  I've listened to a number of his things with that hope.  After a while I thought, "This is stultifying.  I gotta get outta here."

BD:  We're talking about "mainstream."  Is there "a mainstream" or are there several "mainstreams" and lots of little tributaries, or is there no stream at all?

DR:  Oh, there are several mainstreams.  That's the easiest answer, and it may very well be the correct answer.  Remember, the mainstream, especially in our country, is directed by a power as strong as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Everything is in channels which are controlled to a large extent and manipulated by advertising people for a common purpose, which, when it's at its best, is not greed.  But that's only a very small part of the time, because the rest of the time it is greed.  And, you know, everybody's manipulated.  The mainstream is something that Time magazine tells you it is, or Newsweek magazine tells you, or Elle, or Ms, or something like that, God forbid.  That's what happens.  People go around thinking this, you know?  They talk about jazz, but do they put one of the great jazz guys on the cover?  No!  They put some pop-jazz figure on.  When occasionally somebody who really is first-rate is accepted, that's a glorious moment.  But it doesn't happen very often.

BD:  But then we have these phenomena known as "crossovers."

DR:  Oh, yes.  They're wonderful.  I like them.

BD:  [Surprised]  Really?

DR:  Sure.  I don't mean I like all of 'em, because some of 'em are gonna be garbage.  There aren't very many diamonds in this world, nor are there very many really important or good talents.  But when somebody loves music, he's gonna be all over the place.  I have friends who are guys like that, and I think I'm a crossover guy myself.  I write concert music, I write film music. . .

BD:  . . .I was going to ask if you fall into that.

DR:  Yes, I think I do. . . only when I'm not looking.

BD:  [Chuckles]  Do you consciously try to be on one side or the other at any one time?

DR:  I don't try to be anywhere except where I am.  When I'm writing something, I generally know what it is I'm trying to do, and if I don't, I'm struggling with it trying to find out what it's all about, letting it have its head and seeing if it makes sense.  You see?  When I was working on that film for Jerry Lewis, when he asks me for something for this guy to sing in this "quack-quack" voice, which he's required to do, I'm not gonna run around trying to produce Oedipus Memneitai.  I'm gonna be writing him a song called "I Lost My Heart in a Drive-In Movie," and having girls holler, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!"  Which, on the other hand, is not all that unpreferable to "No, no, no."

BD:  [Laughs]  But are you trying to put just as much artistry into the "Yeah, yeah, yeah" as you are into Oedipus?

DR:  I'd be a fool if I did.  But I'm trying to have fun with it.  I'm trying to do what is required, and as long as what is required does not involve going up in the air and dropping something that's gonna kill 275,000 Japanese in one moment, then I think I'm on relatively safe ground, and might go so far as to be accepted in Heaven.

BD:  Earlier you said it's all a job, so do you look at music as just a job?

DR:  Lemme tell you something:  a job can be a very honorable thing.  Music is an art.  Art happens to be my life's work, and my job!  And I do it.  There's something nice about pretending you're a working stiff.  There are some composers and some artists of various kinds, like Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), the dramatist, who used to wear overalls.  He thought that made him a working stiff.  But, you know, I like that.  Sometimes when I'm working I enjoy wearing rough clothes.  I only wear my tuxedo when I'm composing music like "I Lost My Heart in a Drive-In Movie."  [Both chuckle]

BD:  You bring up the word "art."  In music, where is the balance between art and entertainment?

DR:  That differentiation is something I would like to leave to the people who usually take on such things.  The reason they take them on, I suspect, is because they have no talent for anything else, and therefore they become big authorities on the subject.  When Mozart was writing those dizzy little waltzes he sometimes wrote for the court, or little ländlers and things like that, he was being Mozart.  But that's not the same Mozart as the guy who wrote the Piano Concerto in A major or the Clarinet Concerto or Symphony no. 40 in G.  When he wrote those works he was a divine personage.  If you know those works, it is almost impossible to believe that they could've been achieved by a human being.  But it was the same guy who loved to use dirty words and wrote filthy letters to his sister, and ran around chasing broads.

BD:  [Chuckles]  My kinda guy.

DR:  Absolutely.  Whose wouldn't he be?  I don't think Gloria Steinem would've liked him, but I do.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You've given some lectures in composition.  Is musical composition something that really can be taught?

DR
:  There are things about it that can be taught.  What cannot be taught is talent and flair.  But there are things a composer needs to know.  We are in a time now where kids look around and see who's having trouble deciding which Rolls to drive to work that day or which yacht to pile up on the breakwater.  They say, "Gee, this guy doesn't know anything, why should I know anything?"  So you have a kind of a sad generation of uninformed Philistines and some of 'em are people who could benefit from knowing something about music.  There are some who do know a lot about music, but you gotta know how to deal with form, you gotta know how to deal with the orchestra and all the rest of that stuff.  It's still important to know that.

BD:  Where is the balance, then, between the inspiration and the technical ability?

DR:  The point about that is you can have inspiration without technical ability, and the other way around, too.  If I have to choose, and I'd rather not have to make the choice, between a person who has wonderful technique and no damn talent and some guy who looks like an idiot and has talent, I'd have to choose the latter guy, because he can be taught what he's missing, whereas the other guy can't.

BD:  Is there any chance that we're getting, perhaps, too many people wanting to write music these days?

DR:  [Takes a deep breath]  Well, this is a really fascinating time, in a way.  There has never been a time that I have been aware of, except maybe the Middle Ages when they had troubadours and trouvères, when there were that many people, as many people as we now have, who are all over the place writing music.  It's incredible and wonderful, and to some extent, an art like music, or any other art, will only produce a given percentage - or some mysterious percentage - of value.  There's only a certain amount of platinum.  When a lotta people are writing music, there's a chance that something good will be produced.  The problem today is the money is in the repetition of "yeah yeah yeah," or "bay-baa" [pronounces "baa" rhyming with the "a" in "band" to mispronounce "baby"]  You know, if we wanted to legislate against rock and pop music, we'd forbid the use of the word "bay-baa," for at least a year.  Things would subside, but it's kinda sad.

BD:  Well, would they subside or would they go underground, like Prohibition?

DR:  I'm kidding, of course, because nobody's gonna ban the word.  It's just that the repetition is what's so terrible.  The other day I got tired of listening to my regular stations out here, which are stations that play concert music, mostly, and I was switching around.  Sometimes I'll find a good station which is playing jazz or fusion, or my favorite:  South American music.  But this time I was watching a television program.  I was waiting for the news and they had a young guy from England who's a great new star, and he was singing the same old garbage:  "I want you to understand me," and "Are you gonna understand me."  [Probably the song "Hold Me" by the British/American rock band Fleetwood Mac, which appeared on the band's 1988 album Greatest Hits; the lyrics go:  "Can you understand me/Baby, don't you hand me a line"]  All I can say is, if there is a tribe whose souls and intellect are nourished by that kinda stuff, they're beyond hope.

BD:  What I was really asking was:  are the kids committed to this music, or are they just being led around by the nose, and if it wasn't there they'd be led into something else and they wouldn't care what they were listening to?

DR:  I think that's to some extent true, but I gotta tell ya, don't sell the kids short.  Sure, there are a lot of 'em who listen to music I can't bear.  But my own two younger children, when they were growing up, were very intelligent about what it was they liked, and very often it was something I didn't like at all.  My younger son, Alex [a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times], who's now 27, would occasionally try to redeem me by giving me cassettes.  He'd play various things on 'em which he'd take from his records, and then he'd talk in between, which of course delighted me.  I used to take 'em with me on my walks and listen to 'em on my Walkman.  He'd say, "Now listen, Dad, when you hear these lyrics, they're gonna make you want to throw up, but don't give up because there's something in them you're never gonna hear anywhere else.  And I loved that.  I got to know the pieces, and I realized there was real stuff in them.  I just had a ball!

BD:  Speaking of recordings, there seem to be rather few discs with your music.

DR:  You know, I have very few records.  I have been very dilatory about promoting myself, and the reason is not for any modesty at all, it's just that for the most part I have always done it very ineptly.  You know, I get some idea and I think "This is just great," and "I think I oughtta do this," and then I don't do it well.  It's not that I lack belief in what I do, it's just that I hate the whole thing.  In fact, that RCA record you and I were talking about, which is the one with Laura, [directed by Otto Preminger and released in 1944], The Bad and the Beautiful and Forever Amber [directed by Otto Preminger and released in 1947], if it hadn't been for Frank Zappa (1940-1993), that record would never have been made.

BD:  Well, thank goodness for Frank Zappa, then.  How did he get a hand in it?

RCA LPDR:  We had become friends.  I brought him down to USC to talk to one of my classes - not one of my music classes, but a class I teach in the School of Public Administration.  He was down there and we became friends.  I find him a very remarkable and interesting, a wonderful man.  Anyhow, I had been asked by a young record producer to do some stuff.  He said, "You can have any orchestra you want, so get busy and write some stuff.  I've been listening to your music and I think it's wonderful."  Well, you know, there it was.  So I sat down and started to write, and I was about two-thirds of the way through, when all of a sudden he was killed in a dreadful accident.  It was really sad.  So there I was.  I kept writing.  I said, "Well, I'll do this, that's what I'm here for."  And then I said to myself, "I should really make some kind of an effort to do something that would not be out of my way of doing things.  I'll tell a few friends."  So the first guy I ran into was Benny Carter (1907-2003), the saxophonist and composer.  He was a wonderful, wonderful, dear man.  I told him about it and I said, "Benny, if you ever run across anybody who's interested in doing an album of this kind, just let me know."  Well, the second guy was Frank who wanted me to come over.  I can't remember what it was we were talkin' about, but he said, "What are you doin'?"  So I told him about this thing, and I said, "You know, this guy has been killed."  He said, "Yes, I heard.  That's too bad.  What're you gonna do about the album?"  I said, "Well this is what I'm doing - I'm talking to you!"  He said, "Well that isn't good enough," so he said, "I'll take care of it."  And he called up a guy who was then president of RCA and told him about it, and this guy came out here and saw me.  I didn't know who he was.  I just went to see him, and the first thing he said to me was, "If you think you're gonna have to do any convincing, forget it.  I was around when Percy Faith (1908-1976) made a recording of The Bad and the Beautiful, and I've never recovered.  You've got it, carte blanche."  Later I wondered if this guy could do it so I looked at his card and it said, "Kenneth D. Glancy, President, RCA Records."  [Both laugh]  So then I finished the thing and of course I'm mighty grateful to Frank for it.  There were still many battles ahead which had to be taken care of.

BD:  Is the record still in print?

DR:  Nope, it's outta print.  They promised me it would never go outta print.  They said, "This is really masterful."  High Fidelity called it, "one of the ten top records of the year in the pop category," which just fractured me.

BD:  Maybe it'll come back on compact disc now.

DR:  Well, it would be nifty if it did.  I would love to see that, but you never can tell.  The people in charge of ineptitude are in control.

BD:  Isn't there a horn piece on another LP?

DR:  Oh, yes.  That's a piece I wrote for the Horn Club of Los Angeles, which is a group of the finest horn players in this area, who, as you know, are some of the top guys in the world.  They were making a recording and they needed one piece to use the entire ensemble.  They had pieces for quartet, for sextet, for octet, and stuff like that, so they asked me.  I was busy working on a picture, so instead of starting work at seven I'd start work at four or five, and that's how I wrote the piece.  It is for a very unusual ensemble which consists of two antiphonal groups of six French horns each, four Wagner tubas, a baritone horn, two contrabass tubas, and seven timpani.  [The piece is called Morning Revisited and was released on a Seraphim LP Music for Horns in 1969)]  [Facetiously] You find this on every street corner, so it gets lots of performances! 

BD:  Yeah!  [Chuckles]  Get 'em to play it during intermission of Tristan und Isolde.

DR:  Oh, why not?  Sure, they'd love that.  But the point is, it does get played!  Universities where they have lots of horn players get together and they play this thing.

BD:  The only other piece I know of is a harp piece.

DR:  Oh, there's several others.  The harp piece was one of a set of nine little four-minute films I did for a religious organization called the Family Theatre.  They had this brilliant, wonderful woman in charge of a certain film which I did, which I still think is one of my very best things.  It was, unfortunately, not a good film, but I did these nine little films for them for nothing, with tiny little groups.  They had no money, so I said, "If you just raise money to pay for a few instruments..."  The biggest orchestra I had was six.  [The film was called Prayer of the Ages, and was directed by Maria Luisa DeTeña]  There were four or five of these that I did for one instrument each, and one of 'em was this harp solo, which was about King David.  They were all various Psalms.  This was the Psalm of David, so I did a harp piece, and that was recorded as a solo.  Then there was another for solo clarinet, another for solo cello, another for solo alto flute.  And there have been a few other things, a few other film scores I've recorded...

BD:  Is there anything religious about the music, or is it just that they accompanied the Psalms?

DR:  No, no, nothing religious about the music at all, I would say.  The pictures are most unusual.  They have some kind of a little situation in them and there's very little said.  It's mostly music and then at the very end, about the last minute, one of the Psalms is read.  The relationship between what you are seeing and what you are hearing is very odd, and sometimes imperceptible.  But the music was kind of nice.  I rather like those things.

BD:  I interrupted you.  You said there are a couple of other recordings?

DR:  Well, there's a recording of music I did from a Western film called Will Penny.  [(1968), directed by Tom Gries and starring Charlton Heston and Donald Pleasence]  That has some rather nice things in it, including a sequence I wrote in honor of the marriage of my colleague Bernard Herrmann to his third bride.  [Norma Shepherd, who was married to Herrmann from 1967 until his death in 1975]  I should've used a lotta thirds, but I didn't.  [Chuckles]  But anyhow, it was a nice piece, and Benny liked it.  And then on the other side is music from two other films.  One is called Too Late Blues - that's the one I did for Cassavetes, and another one was called Sylvia (1965).  Sylvia, which was a film made after Too Late Blues, was a film in which the producer asked me if I would use a lot of the pieces I'd written as source music - phonographs, and radios, and stuff - for Too Late Blues.  So I used a number of those in his picture Sylvia, too.

BD:  What label is this record on?

DR:  That's on Paramount's label, Dot.  [The LP was released in 1968]

BD:  I also haunt the used record stores, so when I find these things, now, I'm gonna grab 'em.

DR:  Oh, yeah, you can find 'em.  I just had to buy a copy of one of my albums.  Somebody had run away with all of the ones I had, and I went out to buy it.  I think it cost me 50 bucks!

BD:  Oh, gee!  [Chuckles]  

DR:  You'd be amazed at what these things were selling for.  For instance, a little three-record album of 78s, which was the first album I made of Forever Amber, was selling for over 200 bucks.  This was before I made my LP.  But that's nothing, 'cause Bernard Herrmann had a score which was selling, I think, for $250 or $275 - just a couple little records.

BD:  And you get nothing from that, of course.

DR:  No, I don't, but it doesn't much matter.

BD:  Does it do your heart good to know that people are paying this amount of money for you?

DR:  I think it's a big kick.  My friend Hugo Friedhofer (1901-1981), who was a wonderful film composer, was a kind of a troll, and he had a wonderful expression for things like that.  He found it very difficult to accept praise, and when somebody praised him, I'd say, "Isn't that rather nice, Hugo?" just to see what he would say, and he'd say [in a morose monotone], "It's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick."

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  I assume that you keep up with at least some of the developments in film music and concert music.

DR:  Of course I do all the time.  I go to more concerts than any film composer out here.  People are always asking me, "Where are your colleagues?"  And the answer probably is, "Working."  But I go all the time to all kinds of concerts of avant-garde music, and I go to concerts of regular music, you know, the regular repertoire.  I go wherever I am.  When I was in Europe I went with one of my friends, who's a marvelous composer and one of the world's half-dozen best, Luciano Berio (1925-2003).  I went to a number of his concerts. 

toruBD:  Does he ever come to the States?

DR:  Oh, yes, sure.  As a matter of fact I'm gonna be seeing him the second and third week of June, in New York, where he's conducting some of his own music.  And then Pierre Boulez, who's another guy I know, is conducting some of Berio's music as well as some of his own concerts.  I'll be there for the rehearsals and the performances.

[Photo at right:  with Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu]        

BD:  I've met Boulez a couple of times.  He's a very interesting man

DR:  Oh a fascinating bird, one of the most fascinating men alive.

BD:  What about Berio - does he speak English?

DR:  Does he speak English?  He's fabulous!  Don't ever tangle with this guy in Scrabble!  He's deadly in about five languages.  He's really a wizard, and is a very charming, funny, wonderful man.  I love him dearly.  You probably know that Sinfonia of his (1968-69) which is a terrific piece.

BD:  Yes.  Yes, and several other pieces, too.  I'll come back to the concert music in a minute, but I want to pursue one other thing about the films.  When you go to new films, are you encouraged by what you're hearing in film scores these days?

DR:  In some of them, yes.  In some of 'em.  There are a number of very good composers running around loose.  There was one guy for whose music I had no fondness for a long time, but I heard he had done a wonderful score on a picture and I went very eagerly to see it, and he sure as hell had.  I think it was The Mission [directed by Roland Joffé and released in 1986] and the composer was Ennio Morricone (b. 1928).  The Italian composer had done a brilliant job.  And there are a few other guys.  I can't remember who did the score, but the other day I saw, belatedly, Manon of the Spring, and whoever did the score of that did a wonderful job.  [Directed by Claude Berri and released in 1986, the composer was Jean-Claude Petit (b. 1943)]  And the guys who did The Last Emperor, I thought did a stunning job.  [Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and released in 1987, the music was by Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne, and Cong Su]  And then, of course, there are some guys here:  Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004), who's first-rate; Johnny Williams (b. 1932), who's a marvel.  Johnny, you know, gets to do those great, huge scores for guys like Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas, and they're more or less taken for granted.  But what they add to the film is enormous.

BD:  So Lucas should be very thankful that he's got John Williams.

DR:  He is!  He is!  He thinks very highly of John, and so he should.  And then there are a few other guys.  A couple of my students are doing films and one of 'em has won three or four Emmys.

BD:  What advice do you have for youngsters coming along who want to write, specifically, film music?

DR:  Well, I think what they should do is watch a lotta films, watch a lotta television, learn about the craft of composition.  It is not enough to learn how to do calculations and use a synthesizer and everything like that.  In fact, at one point I told the head of the department of Theory and Composition at USC he oughtta change it to "Theory and Computation."  I teach there and also at UCLA.  But they should learn something about music because music will go on and eventually the computers and the synthesizers will recede into the body of music and will become another instrument.  Much more varied, but in a sense like the organ or one of the other instruments.  They cannot really be an end in themselves.  If they can't be integrated into the production of music, then they don't mean a helluva lot, and will not last.

BD:  What advice do you have for directors and producers about film music?

DR:  I think they should pay attention to it, and they should stop being guided by guys whose primary purpose is to produce record albums, or CDs, because that's really what's happening.  They have guys running departments who are really A&R men and what they're thinking is, "Is this gonna make a good record?"  And when they hire people, that's what they've got in mind!  So you've got this ridiculous situation where, instead of doing what the film requires, they're having a little LP concert or a single concert.  When I was feeling rather mean, the kids would ask me, "What goes on here?"  And I'd say to them, "The only way you can explain some of these pieces, some of these things which are in films, is that everybody in the movie has a transistor radio in his navel and is tuned to a Top 40 station."  And there is a serious side to that, too, because you say to yourself, "How is it that these people who produce and direct pictures, are not intelligent enough to know that when you have a subject which deals with adult feelings and adult situations, you cannot express the musical demands of such a thing adequately with music designed for teenyboppers."  What they have to do is stop trying to be au courant, and make things for intelligent people.  There are a lot of them who are just about as talented as they can be and very often they make good choices.  But this is an excessively pop-oriented world.  If Jesus came down today to make his pitch, they'd say, "Where are you in the Top 40?"  And it's a pity.

BD:  Are these A&R men just looking to make more bucks out of their investment?

DR:  No, I think what they're doing is serving the purpose of the studio, which is to make money, and they know they can make big money with pop.  And that's what they do.  They put stuff in the pictures that doesn't belong there.  Of course there are a lot of pictures which would never want to have any other kind of a score, and that's the way it oughtta be!  But in other pictures you have intelligent directors who do things  about real love, and they have something playing there which sounds as though it was done by the equivalent of finger painting.

BD:  You've also written some television scores.  Is there any great difference between writing a film score and writing a television score?

DR:  I really don't think so, except that the forces you generally use are much smaller in television and the circumstances are more stringent.  The people in charge of not doing anything right, you find more of 'em in television than you do in films, and God knows there are enough of 'em there.

BD:  [Chuckles]

DR:  But films generally have a much larger canvas.  You do something and it can have tremendous size.  You can't imagine something like Star Wars, which has this absolutely gorgeous, enveloping sound, coming out of a one-inch speaker.  It ain't gonna happen.

BD:  So you tailor your music, then, to make sure it will have the desired effect.

DR:  Yeah.  You try to tailor it to what's required, which sometimes is a rather large emotion and then you have to deal with that.  The fact it's gonna be shown on a small screen doesn't mean all that much when you have to do fairly big stuff.  I have a number of friends who can do that marvelously well.

BD:  You don't tailor anything to the one-inch speaker?

DR:  Well, you really can't.  No.  What you do is the best you can.  God knows there are plenty of circumstances in which you can't do anything.  It's beyond your power.  So when it's within your power, you have an obligation just to work like crazy and do the best.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Now let me cross back to the other side.  What advice do you have for composers who want to write concert music?

DR:  [Takes a deep breath]  Same thing!  It's the same old corny story as the guy on 57th Street who stops a man and says, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?", and the guy says, "Practice."  You know?  You gotta learn, you gotta learn.  It's a joyful, wonderful thing to know and not to have to call in some other guy to write down your effusions.  You learn about music; there's a helluva great reward in it even if nobody ever plays anything of yours or nobody ever puts it in a movie.  It's great fun to learn how to write it down and to expand it, to develop it, to make stuff out of it, to try to search out your own spirit and originality.  That's the thing to do, to write pieces and think of ideas which have something that you want to say to others that you think has value.

BD:  [Pauses for a moment]  Words to live by.

DR:  Well, I don't know.  The guy who told me that was Jimmy Swaggart.

BD:  Oh, gee!  [Both chuckle]

raksinDR:  You gotta be careful with me.  I think that the ideal was expressed by George Burns (1896-1996).  I once went to Las Vegas at the invitation of a marvelous group of guys called the American Society of Geophysicists.  These are guys who find out where the oil is so that Standard Oil can steal it.  They're a wonderful buncha guys and they invited me to one of their big meetings.  I was up there, and George Burns was there for their entertainment.  He said a great thing, "People ask me, how did I make the transition from being a comedian to a serious actor.  The essential ingredient is truth, and if you can fake that, you've got it made."  Isn't that wonderful?

BD:  [Laughing]  I like that.

DR:  Yeah, those are words to live by.

BD:  One last question:  is composing fun?

DR:  Well, does it sound to you that I would be doing it if it wasn't?

BD:  I would hope not.

DR:  No, no, there are a lotta times when it's utter misery.  When you're looking at something and it's not working and you're battling it and it's battling you to a standstill.  You know that you're in a kind of crazy circle where the more tension develops the worse it's gonna be.  Unless you could break it in some magic way, it can be agonizing.  And your self-respect is on the line, too.  So it can be tough.  But I can't think of anything I'd rather be than a composer and a parent.  Not even President. 

BD:  It seems like you've succeeded in both of your ambitions.

DR:  Well, nobody succeeds totally; you succeed partially.  The only people who succeed totally are those who shouldn't.  No, I don't mean that.  That's more nonsense.  Mozart succeeded totally.  Bach, Haydn, guys like that, they did it.  But those were gods.

BD:  Do we have composers writing today who are on that level?

DR:  I think we have composers who if they're not on that level are so close it doesn't matter.  Berio is one of them, Lutoslawski's another, Boulez is another.  There are guys who write absolutely stunning stuff.  There's a friend of mine named Bill Kraft [William Kraft (b. 1923)], who's a wonderful composer; there's a guy who lives in New York named Jacob Druckman [(1928-1996)], who's a marvel.  Those guys are doing just incredibly wonderful stuff, and I love to listen to it.

BD:  I assume that you're still working very hard.

DR:  I'm working all the time.  Sometimes I do other things.  I've just finished writing liner notes of a very unusual variety for a new album which is music of George Gershwin recorded in the Soviet Union with the Moscow Philharmonic and a Russian conductor named Dmitri Kitayenko and an American pianist named Lincoln Mayorga.  [The CD came out in 1990]  The producer asked me to write notes for it and I said, "I don't wanna write commentary notes, you know, notes about the music."  So what I did was write a reminiscence of George Gershwin and the part he played in my life.

BD:  You've had so many famous people playing big parts in your life.

DR:  Yes, that's true.  I'd like to think that they were all less the featured artists, but actually it is I who was the less featured.  The ones I've met, like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Berio, Boulez, people like that.  I've been thrilled to know them.

BD:  Right now you're working on some concert music?

DR:  What I'm doing now is making a few very small revisions and extensions in that Oedipus piece.  I've concluded that some of the interludes are too short.  One of my friends who's a wonderful conductor named André Previn (b. 1929), saw the piece at his request.  It's an enormously long piece, 714 bars long, and he told me he thought that the interludes were too short.  I said, "André, what are you talkin' about?"  I was worried that this thing has already overstayed its welcome [chuckles] and he said to me, "When was the last time you heard a director or a conductor tell you to make something longer?"  I realized that that was what was nagging me, so I'm now trying to get into that same groove.  I've written a number of 'em, and I still have a few more to go.  I'm gonna leave 'em alone for a while and see if I think they're any improvement.

BD:  Is that with a performance in mind?

DR:  Well, I hope there will be another performance.  I think that eventually there may be.  I think somebody will find this work sufficiently interesting.  It certainly is a most unusual kind of a piece and I'm hoping somebody will listen to it.  Undoubtedly somebody in Chicago will hear this radio broadcast and call me up in the next five minutes and say, "Guess what?  The MacArthur organization has just offered you $250,000, and you could give a concert."

BD:  [Chuckles]  With the encouragement from André Previn, he should certainly try and schedule it there in Los Angeles.

DR:  Yes, he's in Los Angeles as the conductor here, but at the moment, he's in England where he also has an orchestra, as you know.

BD:  Right.  He's music director in a couple of places.

DR:  That's right.  But actually, it's just not the sort of piece that you could do with the L.A. Phil, because it's only 17 instruments in the orchestra.  But they do have a contemporary music series and maybe it'll wind up on that.  I'd like to see it happen.

BD:  Well, there you are.

DR:  Well, there I ain't because that's not the sort of thing where you can exploit a friendship.  I don't do that.  And he knows his interests far too well not to pursue them honorably.

BD:  You're lucky to have someone like that, then.

DR:  Oh, sure.  He's an all-around wonderful guy.

BD:  I mean someone who would offer you advice that's from the heart, but not self-serving.

DR:  No, no.  He would tell me the straight truth.  That's why I'm delighted that he thinks as well of it as he does.  I know damn well that if he did not like it, I'd know it.

BD:  This has been wonderful chatting with you.

DR:  Well, I've enjoyed it a lot.  It's kinda nice.  This is not something I do every day. 


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David Raksin, the film score composer whose theme from the 1944 film noir Laura became one of the most recorded songs of all time, has passed away on Monday, August 9, 2004 in Los Angeles, CA. He was 92.

     Born on August 4, 1912 in Philadelphia, Pa, Raksin grew up in a musical household. His father was a music shop owner who also composed for and conducted music for silent films. Growing up Raksin studied piano and was taught how to play wind instruments by his father, who had played with the Philadelphia Orchestra as a clarinetist. At age 12, Raksin had his own dance band and while he high school he taught himself composition. He worked himself through the University of Pennsylvania by playing a number of radio orchestras. Following graduation, he moved to New York City, where he worked in radio and on Broadway and arranged music for various record companies.

     In 1935 Raksin headed to Hollywood to work Charlie Chaplin on his film Modern Times. Although Chaplin had ideas for the music that he wanted in the film, he lacked the training to write them down. Raksin was hired to transcribe and expand upon Chaplin's themes. He would receive a co-arranger credit for the movie.

     raksinRakisn worked first on the composing staff at Universal Studios and then Columbia Pictures before landing a job at Twentieth Century Fox. Raksin worked on 48 films throughout the 1930s where he never received credit. As was the custom at the time, screen credit was usually reserved for the studio's music department head, who often oversaw teams of composers on individual films. He did receive a shared credit with four other composers for 1939's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Since Raksin had studied with Arnold Schoenberg at the University of Pennsylvania, his music was often considered avant-garde by others in the studio system and so Raksin would often by assigned to lower budgeted horror films like the 1942 werewolf picture The Undying Monster. Some of his early credited work includes the films Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942), Something To Shout About (1943) and Tampico (1944).

     Raksin's received his break when he was offered the opportunity to score director Otto Preminger's 1944 film Laura. Studio scuttlebutt said that the film had had a troubled production and Alfred Newman and Bernard Hermann had already passed on working on the project. For the film Raksin wrote a haunting melody which plays repeatedly on the film's soundtrack to emphasize the lingering impact a murdered woman (Gene Tierney) has had on those whose lives intersected with hers. Dana Andrews played the detective investigating the woman's murder who finds himself falling in love portrait of the object of his investigation. Many attribute the power of the score to the fact that Raksin began his work on it the day after his wife had left him. The film was a hit and Johnny Mercer was enlisted to write lyrics for the main theme. The resulting song "Laura" would go on to hit the top spot on the Hit Parade. The song "Laura" would go on to be recorded over 400 times, with Hoagy Charmichael's "Stardust" being recorded more.

     Oddly enough, Raksin would not receive any Oscar recognition for his most famous piece. He would receive two Academy Award nominations for Forever Amber in 1947 and for Separate Tables in 1958. Raksin also wrote scores for such films as The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947), Pat And Mike (1952) and Suddenly (1954).

     However, for all of Raksin's success, he still encountered some instances of "artistic differences" with the directors and producers he worked with. In 1952, when Raksin first played the theme from The Bad and the Beautiful for the film's director Vincente Minnelli and producer John Houseman, they were less than enthusiastic. However, he found two champions for the music in the form of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the screenwriters for Singing In The Rain, who convinced Minnelli and Houseman to use the music.

     In 1951, Raksin appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee due to a brief membership in the Communist Party in the early 1930s. Although he supplied the committee 11 names of party members who were already dead or had been named by other witnesses, it was an action Raksin later regretted. In a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Raksin stated, “What I did was a major sin, but I think I did as well as most human beings would’ve done under torture. It wasn’t an abject capitulation. I told the committee they should leave the Communist Party alone, not to try and crush it. But there I was, a guy with a family to support and a fairly decent career about to go down the drain.”

     Raksin also worked in television supplying the themes for Wagon Train, Ben Casey and Medical Center. He served eight terms as the president of the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America from 1962 to 1970. He taught composition for film at the University of Southern California and has composed several concert pieces which have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Pops and the London Symphony.





© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on May 24, 1988.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1992 and 1997.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2008.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.