Paul Buckmaster has died at age 71 in Los Angeles. His musical life began in London, the city of his birth, with his taking up the cello at age four; he went on to study in Italy at the conservatory in Naples, and then back in London, at the Royal Academy of Music. He won a Grammy Award (2002) and early on, as arranger, met musicians like David Bowie, Elton John, Chi Coltrane and others, for whom his work helped to launch their careers. In the interview with Christian Dueblin he talked about his early years, his love for Italy, and how his music career started. He talked about famous people in music history, such as Miles Davis, Angelo Branduardi, and Eros Ramazzotti. In addition to his many other achievements Paul Buckmaster became famous as the composer for the movie Twelve Monkeys, a Terry Gilliam cult movie starring Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeleine Stowe. Read below how a great musician discussed his work and allowed us a glimpse of music history and behind the scenes in the music business.
Christian Dueblin: Paul, very early you worked with some musicians and artists who have since become very famous, such as Elton John, David Bowie, Celine Dion, and others who were already world-famous, such as Eros Ramazzotti or Miles Davis. But before we talk about your relationship to these titans of music, I would like to ask where your musical interest and skills come from and what your early memories regarding music are.
Paul Buckmaster: I was born into an artistic family; my mother, who was born and raised in Naples, was a concert pianist, and had attended the Conservatorio there as a piano student. In Italy the conservatory system is different to what we have in England and in the U.S. In those countries you enroll in music college or conservatory after you have completed your regular high school studies, but in Italy the starting age can be even as low as seven. (At age ten you usually have finished your primary education). Then you can enroll as a student at the conservatory; regular high school courses are given at the Conservatories and must also be attended.
At age four, I started attending a small private school in London called the London Violoncello School, and continued studying cello under several private teachers until I was ten, in 1957, when my mother took me to Naples together with my sister and brother, where I was given a one-month-long audition with the cello professor, Willy la Volpe, during which he assessed me as eligible for a scholarship.
In Italy the conservatories are public, and thanks to my professor’s help, I gained a state scholarship. My tuition fees were covered by that scholarship; all travel expenses, room and board, were paid for by my parents. Between 1958-1962, I returned to the Naples Conservatory every year for eight months; the other four months of the year I was obliged to attend my secondary school in London, to complete my regular high-school studies and to obtain the standard General Certificate of Education. Upon graduating secondary school (high school) I auditioned for, and obtained a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where I attended as a cello student, graduating, with a Performer’s Diploma, in 1967.
Back then did you come into contact with film scores or with musical arrangements? What got you interested in becoming an arranger yourself?
During my years as a cello student, I did not attend any composition classes, nor did I study orchestration. I had played in student and semi-professional orchestras and chamber ensembles, but had no conscious interest in being a composer or arranger; I had been following my mother’s intention for me to become an international concert cellist. However, rather than follow my mother’s direction, during my early teen years and throughout my years at the Royal Academy of Music, I developed a passion for 16th and 17th century music, the so-called Baroque music — in other words, early classical music, and played in a number of 15/20-piece semi-pro chamber groups. My interest in that music was so great that, in August 1967, I auditioned for a French chamber orchestra, but sadly was not successful in becoming one of the two cellists in that group. My life would have taken a very different direction had I become a member!
So, back in England, one month later, Vivian Joseph, my cello professor at the RAM, phoned and asked me if I would like to play cello as part of a small backing orchestra in a package tour with some pop and rock bands. I said yes, and found myself touring England with Paul Jones, one of the famous pop singers of that time, who, shortly before, in 1966, had “gone solo” after having fronted Manfred Mann’s band. The show opened with the comedy trio Scaffold, featuring Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike, followed by the Hollies, with, as the solo act, the main attraction, Paul Jones.
(At that time, I did not know anything of, nor had I yet developed any interest in arranging.) One of the violinists in the orchestra was also a contractor, and after that tour he invited me to tour Germany with the Bee Gees, which I did, and again found myself playing cello in a slightly larger backing orchestra. That tour lasted the two months of January and February, 1968. Getting to know the musicians in that band, led to me being invited, by one of the trombonists, upon our return to London, to attend a recording session, where I got to meet the producer, Gus Dudgeon, and the arranger, Tony Visconti, who later was to produce and arrange many memorable and brilliant recordings with David Bowie, T-Rex, and Marc Bolan, among others. The artist on that date was Marsha Hunt, who at the time was performing nightly at the London production of Hair.
As you know, Gus was later to become Elton John’s principal producer. During the session Gus asked me about my musical interests, and as a result of that conversation, he invited me to his office. There I met the man who later became my first manager, Tony Hall. Tony at this meeting asked me if I had done any arranging, to which I replied that I had not. He then asked me if I’d be interested in “having a go”, to which I replied, Yes.
Did you have the skills from your conservatory studies such as being able to write musical notation or did you teach yourself the skills required of an arranger?
(Laughs) No, I did not have any arranging skills. Of course, I could write notation, and had studied very basic harmony but, as I said, had not received any tuition in composition or orchestration, which, in the case of serious composers, are one and the same. Nor did I know anything about arranging, although I knew the most basic rules of classical harmony, so accepting Tony Hall’s offer to write some arrangements was definitely a big challenge. For this “audition-test”, I was given three songs to arrange, and as part of the materials needed, I was given the lead-sheets, and a tape of demos or original versions (two of the songs had already been released commercially, so these were to be “covers”).
When I got home, and sat down, the enormity of what I had taken on hit me, as I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be all that easy. So I rushed out to the local public library and borrowed two symphony scores, Beethoven and Haydn, took them home, looked at them and asked myself just how the hell am I going to manage this. I borrowed those two scores in order to see how they were laid out, but did not do a deep analysis. Also, I was not properly equipped with score-paper, so had to write it all out on parts-paper and draw my own bar-lines.
Not having developed any skills or techniques also left me with no knowledge of short cuts, which would have helped, as I was to be present at EMI Studios, Abbey Road, at 9:30 AM for a 10:00 AM downbeat. Meeting Tony Visconti a couple of weeks later and showing him what I had done, he showed me where I could have saved some time and trouble.
So, as it was, I burned through the night, and turned up on time for the recording session, which consisted of a basic rhythm section, small string and wind sections. Everything went fine, and everyone was very pleased.
I was thrown (or should I say, I threw myself) in at the deep end, and had to sink or swim … and managed to swim (laughs).
I then went on to do more arranging work, and had a couple of minor hits with the British band “Arrival”, and did some enjoyable arranging on two albums by British folk artist Mike Chapman, which received very favourable reviews.
Then, at a meeting with Gus Dudgeon and Tony Hall at Gus’s office in June 1969 I was introduced to a young guy, David Jones, better known as David Bowie. They played me a demo of "Space Oddity” and asked me to do the arrangement for it.
The recording session took place a week or so later, and the rest is history.
What can you tell us about David Jones alias David Bowie back then in the Sixties? What are your memories of him 40 years back?
David was not very famous at that time, but was well known in the greater London area and where he lived in South London. He was a prominent figure in what were known as “Arts Labs” (Arts Laboratories), where different artistic and experimental arts events took place. Arts Labs served the local communities; smallish gatherings of people with similar cultural interests, which included, but were not limited to painting, sculpture, theatre, music and dance.
David and I got along very well, and liked each other right from the beginning and had lots of good times.
Here’s something your readers might find interesting: Space Oddity was a big hit in the U.K., and thrust David suddenly into the limelight, but it was not released in the US until after the successful and safe return of the Apollo 11 Mission. Knowing that that Mission and the concomitant First Moon Landing were occurring at the same time as the release of Space Oddity, in July 1969, RCA did not release it in the US, because, as you know, the text of the song is about a space disaster. It would have been wildly inappropriate for listeners to hear that song, until the Apollo 11 crew had safely returned to Earth. Thus, it took a little bit longer until it also became a hit in the U.S.
How did it come about that you had the chance to work with Elton John?
That is interesting: I had become very attracted to jazz when I was nine and had avidly listened to all styles, including the music of the post-war period, which as you know has several identifying names,: Bebop, “Modern” Jazz, “Cool”, etc. During this period, I discovered the music of Miles Davis, and became a devoted fan. When we first met, and during the first few months of getting acquainted, Tony Hall did not know of my love for Jazz, and Miles Davis’s music, nor did I know of his close friendship with Miles.
Now, Miles was due to play, in November 1969, at the Hammersmith Odeon (London), today called the Apollo. I had tried, in late summer, but was not able to obtain any tickets; the concert was apparently sold out.
At that time I had been involved as arranger, composer and conductor, on an instrumental album project for Parlophone (EMI) called Sounds Nice, featuring pianist/organist Tim Mycroft. Gus was the producer, with Tony Hall as the executive producer. The album consisted of various major and minor hits done as instrumentals; and both Tim and myself contributed some original pieces. One of my pieces, called Summer’s End, was inspired by Miles Davis’s music, and when I told Tony Hall this, he said “I didn’t know you were that interested in Miles — do you want to go to his Odeon concert?” It was at that moment I discovered that Tony was a close friend of Miles, who would visit him every time he came to London.
The day after the concert, Tony and his wife Billie took me to meet Miles at the hotel; Tony was to pick up Miles and his companion, Marguerite Eskridge, and take Miles to meet Ozzie Clark, a leading fashion designer at that time. Later, Tony and Billie were our hosts at their apartment, where he told Miles that I had been doing some interesting experiments with musician friends, and asked Miles if he would like to hear some of this music, to which he replied, go ahead, Tony!
The piece he heard, Joint Effort, was recorded at a late-night session at Polydor Records’ studios on Oxford Street, London. I was there as part of a quintet backing band for Blues singer Chris Farlowe. Chris did not turn up for the recording, so finding ourselves with three hours’ free studio time, I suggested we record some of our own music, and said that I had some basic ideas for riffs and themes, so we played free over these themes and motifs I gave to the musicians, and recorded a non-stop piece, based on the general tonality of C. That is, the bass riff and the “drone” tonality was C; this turned out to be a special feature of the whole piece: “C” was discovered, during the unfolding of the improvisation, to be a very special and meaningful tonal colour. We recorded 30 minutes of that stuff, and that was what I played to Miles that afternoon at Tony’s place. He sat beside me and listened to the whole piece, and at the end of it, he was silent for a few moments, then said, in his husky voice: "Buckmaster, you’re a son-of-a-gun” (laughs).
He said that he had recently been doing something like this; he was actually — without naming it — referring to Bitches Brew, which was not released until March 1970.
When finally I heard Bitches Brew four months later, I realized only then how amazing it was for Miles Davis to make a comparison with that jam, but I knew why he had heard a certain correspondence: it had to do with the way I had set the tonal center of C, and how that factor assumed a particular emotional significance in the sense that can be aroused by certain kinds of tonality — I was mind-blown! He had also developed the tonal concept of C as the most important musical feature of the title track in the most incredible compositional way, and with a far more complex and interesting harmonic structure; one aspect being the use of the scale C-Eb-E natural- G-Ab-B; and another, the following 2-measure chord cycle: Measure 1: C; (2 beats) B; (2 beats); Measure 2: E/G#(8th-note)-E (4th-note)-B (anticipated 8th into beats 3 and 4). This, as everyone who is familiar with the piece, is the continuously repeated motif, or riff (that great bass part is the motor), throughout the piece, except for the extraordinary intro and interlude, which is bookended as the finale.
I’d just like to add here, that I consider Bitches Brew to be, so far, in the realm of music in general, one of the most amazing albums ever recorded, and, for me, one of the greatest. It is music of fierce beauty and intensity, and cannot be categorized. Miles himself, who was unerring when it came to all things to do with music, directed the label, and the sleeve-designers, to place, above the title, Directions in Music by Miles Davis. All those who like to describe this unique work using meaningless clichés such as “Jazz-Rock” or “Fusion” absolutely have no idea what they’re talking about. One more thing: in the forty years since its recording, nothing has been heard — at least, by me — that even remotely approaches its astonishing brilliance.
That evening, after we had spent the afternoon at Tony’s, Miles’ quintet was due to play at Ronnie Scott’s Club, and Tony, Billy and I were guests at his table. During the dinner interval, Tony introduced me to Steve Brown, who in turn introduced me to a quiet young man, Elton John. Steve asked me if I would be interested in listening to some of his demos, to which I replied, yes. That was the beginning of the musical partnership which, as you know, was to result in many wonderful recordings.
By the way, that Miles Davis gig at Ronnie’s was one of the first color video recordings, shot that night by the BBC. John Altman, a British saxophone player, somehow obtained a copy of that gig — thank God somebody made a copy, because the BBC, in order to save money, regularly wiped the tapes and used them again.
Elton John was not famous back then. Where did he play at that time and what finally launched his terrific career?
He was really mostly known, I think, in the London rhythm and blues circles. There were a lot of people playing that style in pubs, just as the Rolling Stones did. As a skilled piano player and also a blues organist, Elton was playing in some bands at the time, such as that of blues musician and singer Long John Baldry. There were lots of blues bands like this playing all over the U.K., mostly in the London and South East area of England, playing local gigs in pubs.
Elton had already made one pop album, Empty Sky, released, I believe, in 1969, but it sold few copies. It became of greater interest after the next album he recorded, which was the first I arranged and directed.
The following day, demo tapes were messengered over to me, to which I listened. I recall hearing the three songs on that tape: Your Song, Take me to the Pilot, and Sixty Years On.
I immediately called Steve Brown and expressed my enthusiasm, saying these were great songs. Steve Brown had already approached the highly respected producer and arranger George Martin, and had asked him if he would produce Elton’s next album, to which George replied that he would, but only on the condition that he would also write all the arrangements. Since Steve and Elton wanted a separate arranger, they decided that a different solution was needed.
Both Steve and Elton had become aware of my work over the previous year, so they called Tony Hall, who invited them to Ronnie Scott’s that evening. Subsequently, they asked me which producer I would prefer to work with. At that time I only had worked with two or three producers, one of which was Gus Dudgeon. Since I loved working with him the answer was easy, so having mentioned his name, they asked me to approach him. I took a meeting with Gus during which I played the demo tape; he was reluctant at first, but within minutes I was able to convince him of my enthusiasm and conviction that because of the quality of the music, I knew how great it we would make it sound. The rest is also history.
How was this process working with Elton John? Did he have some very specific ideas or did you have total freedom?
Gus and I were given total freedom to do what we wanted. Elton told us, “You do what you like; I trust you completely.” That was fantastic, because it gave us, and me as arranger in particular, the freedom to be creative, and to make our visions and ideas come true. Our approach at that time was to work for the songs; the song came first above all else; any consideration of the singer — apart from obviously working to make the song sound as good as possible — was secondary. The principle was: The song comes first! That was our approach to the art of recording music back then. We treated each song as an individual personality and character.
You are half Italian, half English and you became US citizen in 2003. Your roots influenced your lifetime’s work obviously looking at your career. You worked with superstars like Angelo Branduardi and recently also with Eros Ramazzotti. It must make you very happy to go back to your roots with something you really love doing: composing, arranging and producing. How would you describe your feelings for Italy?
I am forever grateful for that influence and my roots. Among my earliest memories is the music of the great composers my mother played, and my childhood visits to our relatives in Italy. Among the major musical influences of my early life were of the liturgical composers of the High Renaissance, such as Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd, Orlandus Lassus, and then, even more profoundly, J.S. Bach, (some Vivaldi and Handel), Haydn, Mozart, the Prometheus Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Dvorak … in short, all the Classicists. Later, I was to rediscover Purcell, and earlier composers of viol-consort music, like Lully, and especially Marin Marais. Italy was central to all this in my life; for instance, Bach was inspired by Vivaldi, and Handel resided for a long period in Rome. That influence is very strong, right through Beethoven and of course Mozart. The melodic sensibility of those musicians and composers has in it a strong element of the Italian, and all of those giants took that knowledge and elevated it to an even higher level of brilliance. I personally very much adore Beethoven’s music; he was the man who, like Prometheus, stole the musical fire from the oligarchic Olympian gods, and brought it down to humanity. For me, he is a little bit like Wilhelm Tell in Switzerland, who brought the concept of the republic, and democracy or democratic thinking, to the people - at least it is what Schiller wrote down (laughs).
Later still, in my late teens and early twenties, I began to explore the moderns, and the “avant-garde” composers.
I produced and arranged Angelo Brandudardi’s first album in Italy; recorded for RCA Italiana in Rome, at their great studio, which alas does not exist anymore — it was also the studio where Ennio Morricone recorded all the music for Sergio Leone’s westerns. Working with Angelo was great, and that first album launched his successful career.
I also worked with Toni Esposito, the funky and very original Neapolitan percussionist, producing and arranging his first record in 1974. In the early eighties I worked on two albums with celebrated singer/songwriter/pianist Riccardo Cocciante, and in 1986 I worked with Teresa De Sio, on an album of Neapolitan songs of the early 20th century. Having total creative freedom from both Teresa and her producer, Marialaura Giulietti, it gave us a nice opportunity to completely rethink these songs. Also contributing to the arrangements in a fundamental way, was pianist/keyboardist Ernesto Vitolo. That was for me an incredibly enjoyable time in Italy!
This year in February I wrote the arrangements for five songs on Eros Ramazzotti’s new album, Ali e Radici. The producer, Claudio Guidetti, invited me to London to conduct the recordings, with a London orchestra, at Abbey Road Studios, in the big room, Studio ‘1’. That was my first time back in the city of my birth, since 1998. As you know, Eros is among the top three Italian male vocalst/songwriters, and is also very successful Spain and in Latin America.
At a certain moment in your life you came in contact with the movie business and you composed the scores for several film productions. The most famous, I would say, is your music for „Twelve Monkeys“, a cult movie with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, directed by Terry Gilliam. Before we speak about that movie, I would like to ask you when you first came in contact with the movie music business.
The first film score I was asked to compose was for the movie Friends, in 1971, for which Elton John was commissioned to write two theme songs and three source songs. Let me explain: Your readers may like to know that, in movies, “source” music is what comes out of a radio or TV, or a cocktail bar, or in an elevator, or supermarket, or a marching band, or street musician — that is, music as part of the ambiental scene. It is not part of the dramatic underscore, although, it could be cleverly used as such, by the director/writer. The three “source” songs by Elton were to be heard coming from transistor radios, and of the main, thematic songs, one was Friends, and the other, Michelle’s Song. There was a third song, called Seasons, which was mainly a reworking of Friends. The director, John Glibert, wanted the “Elton John sound”, which, at the time, meant that he wanted that orchestral style, which led me getting the gig, arranging the songs and composing the underscore.
With my not having had any preparation in writing for film, Gus Dudgeon, who produced the soundtrack album and the songs, took me to meet the famous film-composer John Barry, who explained one or two things about scoring for movies, but what could I learn in a two-hour meeting? Again, I was dropped in at the deep end, and just about managed to swim!
What was your next step then and what brought you finally to Hollywood?
Elton’s second record, called Elton John, for which I had composed the orchestral and rhythm-section arrangements, was a huge success in America. Initially, it did not do very well in England, but as soon as it became a big hit in the U.S., it bounced back home and took off there as well. This generated a lot of interest in Elton, and this success then launched his stellar career. I subsequently worked on a number of albums for Elton: Tumbleweed Connection (1970); Madman Across the Water (1971); Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano-Player (1972); Blue Moves (1975); A Single Man (1978); Made in England (1994); and Songs From the West Coast (2002).
Then, in April 1972, I got a phone call from Miles Davis who asked me to come to New York, so I booked myself on a flight the very next day, and stayed in New York, first in a Mid-Town hotel, then at Miles’ house. I worked with him for about the next three months; we went in the studio with an extended ensemble, and recorded several sessions of music, which later were released as the album On the Corner, which was later to become, for a whole new generation, an important, seminal record. None of us who worked on those recordings foresaw that! After spending the rest of the summer in Los Angeles, I returned to London, where it was Son of Dracula, starring Harry Nielsson, that was to be my next score work, a strange, odd movie that was produced by Ringo Starr.
Could you tell me a little bit about how you composed the scores and what the challenges are when you do a score for a movie?
As far as I can recall, VHS machines did not exist yet; certainly not at the time we did Friends. I also did not have any kind moviola or means of viewing scenes at home, so I could only go to the editing room of the movie production offices, to watch the sections of the movie and take notes. The music editor also took notes during the spotting sessions, which would then get typed up, with every detail of what was said by the director, editor, music editor and myself, included. Of course this is all standard operating procedure. Those ”spotting” sessions with the director, and editors, to decide where music starts and where it ends are a very important step towards the final score. I also took notes there, went home and wrote the score “from head-to-paper”, with the spotting notes and a copy of the script on the table next to the score-pad. I had no access to a piano when working on Son of Dracula, and had to be sure of what I was writing!
I also wrote some themes for some successful British TV shows; one was called Nature Watch, which was a long-running series about various kinds of disciplines in zoology and botany. I think there were about 36 episodes; the theme music was very distinctive, so when it came on at one of the prime-time slots — around 7:30 PM — people knew that it was time for Nature Watch when they heard that music in the living room or in the kitchen. I also wrote and performed the music for several single TV documentaries.
Of course, I continued to work, as arranger/conductor, on various recording projects, with such artists as Judy Tzuke, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, Burton Cummings, Chi Coltrane, Eric Carmen, Leo Sayer, Rodney Franklin, and so on. One of the more interesting projects was the large, symphonic-style arrangements I was engaged to write, on The Grateful Dead’s epic Terrapin Station.
You are also the composer and arranger of the score of "Twelve Monkeys“, a famous movie with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis. How did you come to get that opportunity?
I was recommended for that work by Terry Gilliam’s music consultant, Ray Cooper. He has been a friend – if a “long-distance” one - for many years, having met while we were both students at the RAM. Sometime during the 70s, Elton’s office called me and asked if I would recommend an all-round percussionist – that is, one who could read, and play not only all the “non-specific pitch” (non-tuned) percussion, but also all the tuned instruments,: xylophone, marimba, vibraharp, glockenspiel, timpani, etc.
Well, I couldn’t think of anyone better than Ray, so I gave them his name.
By this time, I had become a permanent resident in the U.S., residing at Los Angeles, and had been working in a music-production studio on Sunset Boulevard, run by my friend the record producer/music supervisor, Steve Tyrell, who had invited me to come to L.A., and write the music for a film he was the music-supervisor on, Midnight Crossing, starring Daniel J. Travanti, Faye Dunanway, Kim Cattrall, and Ned Beatty (that movie was pretty awful, but was a chance to develop my skills). I flew over from London and at Steve’s invitation, stayed at his place while, together with Al Gorgoni, who composed about half of the score, I wrote and performed the score, using samples, synths, and working with MIDI-sequencing on my, by this time, third Mac computer.
I remained in L.A., obtaining my permanent residency (“Green Card” — which is actually pink), and working with Steve seven days a week on such TV series as Frank’s Place, Snoops, the animation series Peter Pan and the Pirates, Jake and the Fat Man, Matlock, and others, several movies-of-the week (MOWs), such as The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, and Captive. In 1992, Steve went back to record-production and I moved my gear into an office next door, and was then commissioned to write the music for four episodes of Eerie, Indiana, which was great fun.
I then moved out of those offices, and set up studio in my apartment, continued writing arrangements for record dates.
The call from Ray Cooper to meet the producer of Twelve Monkeys, Charles “Chuck” Roven came sometime early 1995; I took the meeting, just up the road from me at Chuck’s offices.
Chuck Roven showed me some stills from the production and some of Terry Gilliam’s production-sketches. I also read a brief synopsis, and realized that the movie was based on Chris Marker’s extraordinary 1963 short, La Jetée. As a fan of science fiction, I was very excited to discover this, as I was familiar with the story, and told Chuck about how I felt when I first saw it, in 1965.
Twelve Monkeys is basically the same story with the time loop, but with a brilliantly conceived extended development. Chuck also asked me if I was familiar with the music of Astor Piazzolla and I said, “Yes. I love Piazzolla’s music and his compositions!”
So within a few weeks I was back in London where I spent late summer, till November 1995, collaborating with Terry Gilliam and Ray Cooper on that movie. We decided to use one piece of Astor Piazzolla’s in the movie, taken from a suite, Punta del Este. As soon as you have a rough cut of the movie you want to see it with music. It is very common for the director to find music that already exists in order to get a feeling of how any given scene or sequence plays. The director and the editor take music from different sources and lay it in to picture to see how it goes together with the movie. It can be any music from anywhere, and you soon find out if it works. This is called a "temp” score, in other words, a temporary score.
It’s a great idea to mock-up a temp, and everybody does it, but it is also tricky.
When the composer is called in one of the things he asks the director is how married he is to the temp. If you come up with something like the temp they would say: “But it’s like the temp!”; if you do something different they might say: “But it’s not like the temp!” Sometimes the director — or even the producers — can never be pleased; some of the greatest film composers have had serious clashes with directors … you can imagine that it does not always work to convince the director and film team. The great Jerry Goldsmith got fired from the sound-stage in the middle of recording a score with a large, 80-piece orchestra. I understand that John Williams, the multi-Oscar-winning composer of movie scores like Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the Indiana Jones series, the Star Wars saga, Schindler’s List, and many other famous films, also got fired once. You have no right in the music industry to call yourself a film composer until you got fired once (laughs). I have had that dubious honour as well.
Pro Tools operator Aaron, Walter Afanasieff, Paul Buckmaster, Chris Man and Jay Landers in the control-room of studio ‘B’ at Capitol studios, Hollywood, January 2009 (from left).
(c) Paul Buckmaster
I suppose that the work together with directors can be very difficult, because they have their own specific view of things and a vision they would like to realize.
That is true! The director is the person who decides and rules. The producer might just love what you do, but finally it is the director who decides. If he does not like your music, you are off, so you had better follow and support the director’s vision. If you have a good relationship with him it can be great. I had a certain amount of freedom with Terry Gilliam, and when we listened to the temp with Astor Piazzolla’s music I said to him that I would not be able to compose anything better, and that this music was perfect for the film. It is like you asking an artist to do something like the Mona Lisa: that is generally not possible, so regarding Piazzolla’s music I could not come up with anything better. I said, “Terry, let's license it; I will rearrange it for the large orchestra we’ll have at our disposal, and make it sound fabulous.”
So, with his blessing, I went ahead and wrote a new arrangement — pretty much like the original, but expanded for the larger group, which turned out to be a 70-piece orchestra, and it sounded fantastic. The other piece of music which was temped in was the slow movement from a violin concerto by Jacques Loussier. I had a state-of-the-art home-studio set-up where I was living in London, and was able to try all kinds of different things. So I wrote something similar as wished for by Terry — we call this a “soundalike” — but soon realized there would be a problem with the copyright, as what I had written was fairly close to Loussier’s original, close enough that I knew there would be a problem. Jacques was contacted, we had a legal-musicologist expert take a listen, and indeed, this was confirmed. Jacques was not very happy with the situation; the musicologist determined that my reworking of it was sufficiently original that Jacques was agreeable to evenly splitting the writer’s share. That is another part of the story but it shows you what the problems and challenges can be when writing a score for a movie.
You were also involved in a James Bond score project. How did that come about?
I had produced and arranged an album of traditional Persian songs for an Iranian singer, Shusha, who lived in London. Very sadly, she died last year from cancer. I had toured with her in Iran, as part of a five-piece band, in 1978, only a few months before the revolution, which was very interesting. After returning from that tour she asked me if I wanted to help her with an album. We recorded about ten or eleven songs, and it turned out okay, and received some very good reviews.
This recording was somewhat of an experiment and, we both wanted to do another, having learned a lot from the first, but unfortunately that was not to be.
I had also worked, in L.A., as arranger/conductor, with Carole Bayer Sager on an album of her songs, and during that period, she had gotten engaged to Marvin Hamlisch, the great classic Broadway composer. I got to meet him, and a little while later, back in London, he was there to compose and conduct the score for the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me.
I had dinner with him and Carole one evening, and had occasion to give him a copy of From East to West, the album I had recorded with Shusha.
A few days later he called and asked me to compose two pieces in that style, which was a blend of Iranian, North African, Egyptian, and Arabic styles, for a couple of night-club scenes in downtown Cairo or wherever, some kind of belly-dancing type of source-music. He gave me the tempi, and of course he attended the sessions, made sure he got exactly what he wanted, fitted exactly to picture. He also asked me to compose a “Theme for Anya” (Bond’s “love” interest), which not in the movie score, but Marvin needed a piece to fill out the album, as there wasn’t enough music from the film itself.
So, there are three pieces by me on the album; two appear in the movie.
2002 you were awarded a Grammy. Did this affect your career in any way?
It was very nice to receive such widely accepted recognition, and it meant a lot to me. However, it did not change my circumstances nearly as much as you might think. I received that recognition for the string arrangement on the song Drops of Jupiter by the U.S. band Train, and I’m very happy with how it sounds. It was a big hit in America, where it remained in the top twenty for a year, and although it did not reach number one in the USA it was in the top five for several weeks. We would say here in the USA “this song has long legs” (laughs).
Dear Paul, thank you very much for your time and for this conversation. I wish you all the best and I look forward to listening to your next projects in the music movie business as a composer and arranger!
Bassist Mike Valerio, Paul Buckmaster, and singer Mig Ayesa at Matthew Wilder’s studio, June 2006. (c) Paul Buckmaster.
- Paul Buckmaster on Wikipedia
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