Music Interviews
2:53 pm
Sun May 4, 2014

Composer Elliot Goldenthal's New Work In An Odd Key

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 10:31 am

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. What connects the films "Drugstore Cowboy," "Pet Cemetery," "Batman Forever" and "Frida?" You can skip Kevin Bacon and connect them all with just one name, composer Elliot Goldenthal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Here he's evoking a jittery sense of dread in "Alien 3." Goldenthal is like a wizard when it comes to creating distinct musical atmospheres. He won an Oscar for his Mexican tinged score for "Frida," but he's equally at home working on a cop drama like Michael Mann's "Heat."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: But Goldenthal has not abandoned his roots in traditional composing. This coming week, Goldenthal will premier a new work in an odd key, "Symphony in G-sharp Minor." The Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa, California will perform the symphony. Goldenthal told me that this key, G-sharp Minor, has held a kind of fascination for him since he was a kid growing up in Brooklyn.

ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL: Growing up as a boy, as a child 6, 7, 8 years old, we had a spinet in my apartment. And the best note on the whole piano was A-flat or G-sharp.

(SOUNDBITE OF A-FLAT NOTE)

GOLDENTHAL: All the other keys sounded flimsy to me. And also psychologically and weirdly enough we're used to hearing A natural.

(SOUNDBITE OF A-NATURAL NOTE)

GOLDENTHAL: When we go into a concert hall, the obo players tunes up the orchestra in A-natural.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA TUNING)

GOLDENTHAL: Everywhere else in the United States when we open up a refrigerator, stand under a light or neon sign, we constantly hear the key of around B-flat.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-FLAT NOTE AND NEON SIGN)

GOLDENTHAL: The cycles of the frequency is in that key. So you have B-flat all day...

(SOUNDBITE OF B-FLAT NOTE)

GOLDENTHAL: ...until you go into a concert hall and then you hear...

(SOUNDBITE OF A-NATURAL NOTE)

GOLDENTHAL: ...A. So hearing an A-flat or G-sharp...

(SOUNDBITE OF A FLAT NOTE)

GOLDENTHAL: ...it has a darkness and kind of rebelliousness and warmth at the same time.

RATH: Making things harder on your orchestra though, right. That's what, like five sharps?

GOLDENTHAL: Yeah. No, no, it's not that hard. They're not babies. You know, they're professional musicians.

RATH: I'm thinking of my own musicianship.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: You also have a couple of recordings out right now. One of them, Othello, it's an adaptation from your ballet. I'm wondering how exactly do you transform ballet music into a symphony.

GOLDENTHAL: Well, for one thing, it's not programmatic so all our narrative references to the story is discarded. And what we have left is a two-hour piece full of music rarified down to its orchestral components.

RATH: So with Othello you wanted to go a bit more abstract and just go with the emotions?

GOLDENTHAL: No, I wouldn't say emotions. I would say motives where the motific building blocks of the piece have more of a story to tell than Mr. Bill Shakespeare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: So the music that people might know you best is from the film "Frida." Of course you won an Oscar for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: You used traditional Mexican instruments...

GOLDENTHAL: Yes.

RATH: ...and were trying to evoke that place. I imagine that's got to be a tricky thing though trying to sound authentic but obviously you're not of that culture.

GOLDENTHAL: Well, I sound authentic until you play it for authentic musicians. They say, yeah, we don't do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "FRIDA")

GOLDENTHAL: It's through a lot of affection and admiration that I approached that score. It wasn't put on a sombrero and drink a margarita and think you can write anything authentically Mexican. Although it's authentically me admiring the aesthetic of Mexican regional music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "FRIDA")

RATH: And if you look over your work, and especially including the body of film work, you've composed in just about every kind of style I can imagine. I'm curious, when you're sitting at home, what kind of music do you listen to?

GOLDENTHAL: Well, I listen to world music. I don't center on a station.

RATH: But you grew up in Brooklyn. I have to imagine there were a lot of sounds, a lot of different types of music when you were growing up.

GOLDENTHAL: A lot of sounds. I lived in a multicultural environment. And my bedroom was on a court sort of surrounding by everyone who had a phonograph playing everything from soul to salsa to Haitian music and opera. So I was a world traveler in one small apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "FRIDA")

RATH: Elliot Goldenthal, thanks so much for being with us.

GOLDENTHAL: I really had a good time.

RATH: Composer Elliot Goldenthal's "Symphony in G-sharp Minor" has its world premier with the Pacific Symphony this coming week. He also has two new recordings out right now, "The Othello Symphony" and "String Quartet No. 1: The Stonecutters."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM "FRIDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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