Elliot Goldenthal is "ambling in from this fabulous flamenco concert'' when I call
him in Spain, where he has been discussing an upcoming music project with author Robert
Coover. For a composer as eclectic and impassioned as Goldenthal, an interest in this
tempestuous Iberian music ("an amazing art form") is no surprise. His
magnificently stirring scores - the latest is for Titus, directed by his wife, Julie
Taymor - reveal that rare animal: the movie composer whose scores are just as striking
outside of their film contexts as within them.
"building a reputation"
Based in New York like his contemporaries Howard Shore (Silence of the Lambs; Crash)
and Carter Burwell (Fargo), Goldenthal has been fast building a reputation as one of the
finest - some would say the finest - of the younger breed of US film music writers.
He wrote his first film music for Stephen King's horror story Pet Sematary (yes, with
an S) but he prefers to think of Gus van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy as his first movie score.
He now has credits for directors as diverse as Michael Mann (Heat), Neil Jordan (Interview
with the Vampire, Michael Collins, The Butcher Boy, In Dreams), David Fincher (Alien 3),
Barry Levinson (Sphere), Joel Schumacher (Batman Returns, Batman and Robin, A Time to
Kill) and now Taymor on Titus, the first film to be adapted from Shakepeare's gory piece
of juvenilia, Titus Andronicus.
His strikingly wide-ranging score for augmented orchestra encompasses Western choral
music, Tibetan gongs, circus music, swing and heavy rock, and is likely to be this
problematic film's enduring legacy. That's not to overlook his theatre music, nor his
reputation as a serious concert music composer. Having studied under Aaron Copland,
Goldenthal has written a series of highly regarded works including the moving Fire Water
Paper, an oratorio commemorating the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam
"blend orchestral resources with unlikely
One of Goldenthal's strengths is his ability to blend orchestral resources with
unlikely traditions - Irish folk lyricism in Michael Collins, avant-garde rock for Heat -
whilst rigorously avoiding cliches and sentimentality (the latter always a danger with
Irish influences - viz. James Horner's sticky Titanic score).
I run past him some of the possible influences I hear in his Titus score (Sony
Classical, CD catalogue number 89171): Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (which he queries
without quite denying) and the massed electric guitars of fellow New York composer Glenn
Branca (a nod of recognition).
First of all, Titus's art direction, which leaps between Ancient Rome, 1930s Italian
Fascism and a contemporary pool hall, "suggested the paths that I take,'' he says,
citing a lithograph depicting a performance of Titus Andronicus in Shakespeare's times as
evidence that the film's dislocations are not as radical as they might appear. "Some
(actors) were in Elizabethan costumes and others in Roman togas even then - there was a
real mixture of styles. I was doing the musical equivalent.''
If you go to Rome today and stand in the ruins, he continues, referring to one of the
film's locations, the Colosseum amphitheatre, "you're going to see some guy in front
of it, some Elvis impersonator, you see a car with a guy listening to Puccini, guys in
stupid roman togas.'' All kinds of cultural eras come together.
Expanding on this postmodern approach, Goldenthal says that if he had been born in an
African village in the 1880s, he would only hear music from his own tribe and maybe from
one or two other neighbouring tribes. Now, however, things are different. Even Mozart
travelled widely and incorporated different influences - some of his music was considered
by some of his contemporaries to be a hangover from the baroque period, for example.
"He would jump from style to style to style.'' Today "it all sounds like Mozart,
but to the ears of his contemporaries it could sound pretty strange.''
"an Oscar nomination"
His score for Interview With the Vampire brought Goldenthal an Oscar nomination but it
was the intense and innovative soundtrack for Michael Mann's thriller, Heat - orchestral
writing by Goldenthal plus a collection of tracks from Brian Eno, Lisa Gerrard,
Einsturzende Neubauten and others - that forced people to sit up and take notice.
Ironically, the experience of working with Mann left a bad taste in his mouth.
Although Mann encouraged him to experiment - here Goldenthal first deployed the massive
electric guitar distortion he'd heard in Branca's work - their working relationship was
less than straightforward. Mann, he says, would "get very excited about something I
was doing and would try to mix it himself ... he'd just maul it. It was really not a very
good professional situation." Especialy galling was that Mann would ask Godenthal to
write a piece of music for, say, the climax, then hire another writer to score the scene
behind his back. (Moby's music plays over the final credits). He made a DAT recording of
his complete score for the film - mixed by himself - but not only has no plans to release
it, he does not even know where it is.
Every other film he has worked on has been "a really wonderful experience, both
personally and professionally,'' he says. "But don't get me wrong - I don't
disrespect Michael Mann as a human being or as an artist.''
Working with Taymor - previously best known for her stage work including an adaptation
of Beauty and the Beast - has its advantages. "When we do work together and have a
hard day and things aren't going well.... she knows I've been fucking up or something and
she's sympathetic,'' he says. She knows he'll be coming out of his dry spell. But as a
prolific composer, he does not have many of those, surely? "I do have a technique I
can fall back on ,'' he says. "I really don't need inspiration for most of the
time.'' He works at night - from 9pm to 5am - when there are "less distractions,
you're just there in front of your keyboard or pencil or eraser.''
"When he does need inspiration, he looks at paintings
or watches sport"
When he does need inspiration, he looks at paintings or watches sport rather than
listening to other music. "You can identify with great athletes, you watch them fail
and you watch them succeed, and I suppose that is inspirational. Also there is so much
great music out there that it tends to nullify itself from inspiring you.''
Come again? "It's already achieved its greatness,'' he explains. "If you're
looking for a kernel in the production of greatness, you have to find it from within
yourself - I don't think you can find it from other things. "I hate to do it
sometimes, its easier to put your feet up, but you also have to face your demons sometimes
in order to come up with something really significant artistically.''
Trying to excel is "never about `am I good?', it's more about can you go down
there and drag it up, can you go into the (mine) with a pickaxe and do what you have to do
- get that nugget of gold. It's not a question of good-bad, talented-untalented; it's more
a question of the devotion ittakes to get where you need.''
I mention that there is often a darkness and doominess to his work - by no means a
criticism - and detect a slight defensiveness, as if he's heard this one a few too many
times for his liking. "Butcher Boy wasn't so dark,'' he immediately offers. "If
other people look at my things and see dark, that's (their) choice. I don't understand
dark. I know what light is, I don’t know what dark is. I know what comedic music is -
(music that is) light-headed and belly-laughing and, let’s say, coke-headed and
capricious. You can suggest the feelings of a love of a woman, of an idea, a spiritual
love, you can express all these things in music and people will say that's dark, when it's
searching. I will say it's much easier to create a dark mood than a light mood. It's
really easy to be dumb and stupid in romantic comedies etc., but to create light music
that is not dumb is hard."
"his experiences on the two most recent Batman
So what about his experiences on the two most recent Batman films – the second of
which is widely regarded as a turkey? "It was satisfying working on Batman Forever
and not on Batman and Robin," he says. "The former not only had a better script
and cast but was incredibly enjoyable to work on."
Having grown up reading comic books, he loved the spirit of play involved in the
creation of a piece of disposable culture. ''It's not as if you're trying to create a
monument to forever, so you just have fun. It's not like Shakespeare, where one character
is all these things at the same time.''
Writing music for the Bard (he has also written the music for a ballet version of
Othello) can "drive you nuts'', especially the tragedies, he says, "because you
don't know who's the innocent one." In Titus, he sometimes had to be deliberately
amibiguous in terms of the moods he was
helping to shape.
Writing for film, theatre, ballet or the concert hall is different according to the
medium in terms of the approach to time, he says. "When you write for the theatre,
it's going to be different each time the music and the play are performed, whereas in
film, the exact moment at which an
event happens is fixed."
The effect of a score on the film it is accompanying can be radical. When he was hired
by Jordan for Interview With the Vampire, it was to replace a score by the film's original
that was felt to make the movie seem too slow. His aim was to make the film seem faster.
Of course, he says, it's ultimately more satisfying to write a piece of music like the
Oratorio, which has to be conjured out of thin air, yet there's also tremendous
satisfaction, in writing for film or theatre, "in being part of a community."