“The past is the key to the future…” – an interview with the great Michael J. Lewis

May 29, 2016

A few weeks ago while writing my latest post about the soundtracks of Michael J. Lewis; I decided to write him an email. I heard from some film music friends that Michael is very keen to keep contact with his fans, so perhaps he might also answer some questions from a film music fan sitting in Germany? And, I was lucky! I really have to say: Thank you Michael J. Lewis for the effort you put in answering my questions. So, please have a look at the following interview:

 

Stefan:

Thank you so much for your kind words and your willingness to answer some questions of a fan.

 

MJL:

Thank you Stefan, for your intelligent and stimulating questions. It is my pleasure to provide answers to the best of my ability.

 

S:

It was highly enjoyable to read your interview with Rudy Koppl (http://www.runmovies.eu/?p=6994), so I do not want to repeat questions he already asked. I hope you do not mind that I will ask again about “The Medusa Touch” even though I know you do not like this movie and the score very much.

You said in the interview the greatest gift that a composer can have is the gift of melody. Is there a special way you approach a melody? I discovered that most of your themes are very lyrical and have a sense of solitude.

 

MJL:

The only approach I know to composition is making a daily attempt to overcome the fear that I may not write today as well as I did yesterday.  The desire to better myself keeps my feet very firmly on the ground. One of the greatest melodists of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, said “Melody is the essence of music. I compare a good melodist to a fine racer, and counterpointists to hack post-horses; therefore be advised, let well alone and remember the old Italian proverb: Chi sa più, meno sa—Who knows most, knows least.”

 

Many people have commented on the ‘solitude’ of my melodies. Some observers refer to the ‘longing’ feeling of my tunes. Others refer to the ‘elegance’ of my melodic lines. I have no problem with any of these comments. All I care is that people hear my tunes, whistle them, hum them, remember them and enrich their lives with them. For me, the art of composition is without doubt a solitary occupation. I do not want anyone near me when I write. It is essential that I am alone. No distractions. If that is reflected in my melodies, then that is the truth manifesting itself.

 

S:

One of my favorite scores is “The Island of Adventure” and “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.” Can you tell me a little bit more about these two movies and your approach for the musical score? The second one is an animated movie, and I heard that composing music for animations might be more difficult than for feature movies. What is your idea about this? (Here is the “Opening Titles” of “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe”:

MJL:

“Island of Adventure” was an attempt by a producer friend of mine to establish a film franchise based on the very popular British novels “The Five.” Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, the result was not very fruitful, unlike the Emmy winning  “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which gained great popularity all around the world and still generates a considerable volume of appreciative fan mail that I enjoy. Now parents, who as children, grew up on the score for ‘TLTWTW’ and thereby discovered orchestral music are introducing their own off-springs to my work. Very rewarding to know that my music makes a considerable contribution to peoples’ lives far and wide. For me, scoring an animated film is no different to scoring a live action movie. Both genres have stories to tell, emotions to explore and sync points to catch.

 

S:

Is there any musical influence from perhaps a classical composer? I assume you are not a big fan of the modern and atonal style and prefer more the classical or romantic areas such as Beethoven, Schubert or Bruckner?

 

MJL:

Sorry to tell you Stefan, but your assumption is not entirely correct! First of all, what is modern music? Is Stravinsky or Bernstein or Britten or Menotti modern? If so, I am very much a modernist. If Webern or Berg or Schönberg are your idea of modernists then I am not such a fan.

 

We all learn from each successive musical period. Baroque led to Classical, which in turn became Romantic, leading to Neo-Classical. The late Romantic European music tradition of Mahler and Wagner certainly was a major influence on the early Hollywood film composers such as Tiomkin, Korngold and Steiner. Their influence is still very much alive in contemporary film scoring, no matter how disguised and diluted it may be.

 

Wagner would have been an awesome film composer but I am not sure how much work he would have got. Like many other great, true talents, the ‘Hollywood experience’ would have not have had much appeal  to the independent, Bavarian master.

 

If modern music is The Stones - great. But, they are not film composers!

 

S:

Because I am a big fan of “The Medusa Touch” can you tell me something more about your musical approach for this movie? It is one of the few scores that do not have a melody as a theme. In the track “Vibrations”, did you use some electronically instruments to achieve this haunting effect? And perhaps you can tell me also more about composing the track “Destruction Of Cathedral”. I know you did not like the movie and the score very much, but I very much like the action music here.

 

MJL:

If I said I do not like “The Medusa Touch” then I apologize for misleading you. What I meant to say is that it is not my favorite film, but I did have great fun writing the score. I felt that my principle task in scoring ‘Medusa’ was to give the film much needed energy, spirit, vigor. The driving bass line of low strings, timpani, bass drum and pipe organ pedals went a long way to achieving that. Six of the finest London French Horns were an enormous help. Wagner and Berlioz used eight but in the studio six work very well. However, some years ago I did a Lowenbrau commercial that allowed me eight Wagner Tubas (plus over a hundred other fine orchestral players). I did use a synth in the “Medusa” score but I am not a fan of electronics.  “I very much like the action music here.” Thank you Stefan. Please note. Not a drum kit to be heard on an action movie soundtrack - :-)

 

S:

Of course, I have to ask about “Theatre of Blood”. The main theme is very lyrical, and I was surprised that you compose such a great theme for this kind of horror black comedy. Again, I think it is a musical expression of solitude? How did you approach this score?

 

MJL:

I am so glad that “I was surprised that you compose such a great theme for this kind of horror black comedy.”  All composers and writers seek to surprise the audience. The obvious can be so boring. If you regard the melody of ‘T of B’ as ‘a musical expression of solitude,’ I am very pleased, because Lionheart, as an actor, would certainly have known solitude and loneliness. All creators do.

 

I heartily recommend Randall Larson’s notes to the recent CD re-release of ‘T of B’. Randall knows more about my music than I do!

 

Your readers may like to know that a book devoted entirely to ‘T of B’ is being published in London in September. I participated in a Q and A for the postlude.

 

S:

What is your opinion about the generation of film music composers that are working today? In my opinion, Hans Zimmer changed the way of composing music and now we have these heavy electronic scores that sound for me like a musical wallpaper. You really cannot separate the scores anymore because they all sound so similar. I attended a concert of Hans Zimmer in Mannheim, Germany, a few weeks ago; it was fun, but he is more a rock music guy and not a classical composer, but I also remember that you said you love his score for “The Lion King.” Patrick Doyle is perhaps the only guy left who is composing in a more classical way with melodies and themes and not relying on heavy electronics.

 

MJL:

I do not wish to comment on the work of others. However, I will express my opinion about the era of “heavy electronic scores” and scores that are generated by direct use of electronics i.e. composition by keyboard rather than composition by traditional pencil and paper. I have done many recordings of my works by direct input via keyboards. The results can be amazing, but they frighten me because I truly believe something very essential is lost by by-passing the magic of deliberate thought that is then communicated by manuscript rather than a spontaneous, mental, almost improvisational method that is recorded instantly via the keyboard. I have a suspicion that the end result can be very clever but lacking in emotional essentials. This question is also at the heart of the digital/analogue debate. Purists believe that good old fashioned magnetic tape has much more depth than the brilliance of digital. We all need to remember - the past is the key to the future.

 

S:

And finally, I remember that Jerry Goldsmith said that he always wanted to compose the music for a Robin Hood movie, but never had the chance to do it. Is there any movie that you would love to compose the music for but did not have the chance to do it?

 

MJL:

I have been very blessed in scoring a wide variety of movies. But I do have a short wish list for the future and at the head of that list is my desire to score a superbly well-made, highly inspirational, very human film with a director and producer who fully understand the role and power of melody in film. Thinking of  “Gone with the Wind” without its great melody is inconceivable, or “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” without “Moon River”, “Exodus” without its soaring  melody or “Zhivago” without “Lara’s Theme.” One could almost be forgiven for crying out “Bring back music.” As I said earlier -  the past is the key to the future.

 

S:

I am also happy to know what your plans are for the next weeks or months. I read about “The Romantic Splendour of Wales”, but had not chance to buy the CD so far, but I assume you moved away from film music scoring and do now something like writing the music you want to listen for? In earlier interviews you have referred to composing for film as catering to your ‘mistress’. I still think you need a “mistress.”

 

 

MJL:

Thank you for your generous suggestion, Stefan. Very interesting indeed.  However, a composer needs to choose carefully, avoiding associating with one too big to have any energy , too thin to have any substance or insufficient intelligence to excite. Sometimes one just has to be patient and wait for the perfect opportunity to emerge and thrill.

Actually, I have never moved away from film scoring; it’s just that I have not received the right offer, creatively or financially for some time. I am a composer. Film is just a part of my creative repertoire.  Each and every day I compose, and recently write as well. I find both activities madly addictive and all consuming. My plans for the future have never really changed. Very simply: every day I sit at my Bechstein Grand and search for the perfect melody that will be remembered for a thousand years.

 

Additionally,  I have been working for some considerable time on an original animated film musical with story, music and lyrics by myself. The initial anthropomorphic concept has now grown into a novel as well as a film.

 

When my brain gets weary I go into my woods to be enchanted, invigorated and restored by the beautiful songs of my feathered friends in deepest Mississippi as I labor to reclaim open, peaceful, lush parkland from wild, dense jungle and reflect that – the past is the key to the future. 

 

S:

I hope these are not too many questions, and I discovered that writing and even asking questions about music is more difficult than I expected.

 

MJL:

My pleasure. Thanks for asking.

 

S:

Thank you so much for your time, and, please, be well and safe!

 

MJL:
Appreciated. I will try.

 

 

 

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2016, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the amazingmoviemusic.com site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

 

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