ALEX NORTH INTERVIEW

(From Los Angeles Free Press, November 27, 1970)


By LESLIE ZADOR with DAVID CLOUD
(reprinted with permission)

 

Twenty years ago, Elia Kazan's film of Streetcar Named Desire was premiered to the ecstatic response of both critics and audience. Of the elements which accounted for that picture's artistic success, Alex North's unique score stands out. The first jazz score ever composed for a motion picture, it broke tradition with the nineteenth century, tone poem style of film composition that had completely dominated Hollywood's scoring stages up until that time. Streetcar's director, Elia Kazan, had first become acquainted with North's talents when he commissioned the latter to score his Broadway production of Death of a Salesman. Their association continued through the film version of Miller's play, Streetcar, and the celebrated Viva Zapata.

North, an "Eastern" composer, was essential in broadening the scope of serious music in films. He brought a contemporary sound to film music which has all the earmarks of the best of twentieth century American music. Thanks to his precedent, a number of other talented New York composers followed him to Hollywood where some of them are still working today.

In 1959, North began work in association with Stanley Kubrick on the latter's film of Spartacus. The result, a combination of period authenticity with contemporary composition, emerged as one of the most subtle and beautiful pieces of American music. Because North felt that "the struggle for freedom and human dignity, the theme of Spartacus, is pertinent in today's world," he succeeded in capturing "the feeling of pre-Christian Rome using contemporary musical techniques."

Several years later, Kubrick called North in New York at the Chelsea Hotel and asked him to score his newly completed 2001: A Space Odyssey. What happened to the music for that film together with much else that is equally fascinating is related in the following conversation that David Cloud and I had with Mr. North in his Westwood apartment last Saturday.

DAVID: A score for a dramatic play isn't something that you hear very often. In what ways is it different from writing film music?

NORTH: At the time that I was writing for the theatre, unless the producers were willing to pay union fees that were exorbitant, you had to limit yourself to less than a half an hour of music and four instruments. Consequently, I scored Death of a Salesman for alto flute, trumpet, cello, and clarinet.

Not only is it much more difficult writing for four instruments than it is for eighty, but you have the additional problem of an actor varying the length of his speech each time he performs. I therefore had to devise a sort of score that was collapsible and expandable so that if a particular section of dialogue went beyond the length of the music l had written, the musicians would get a cue and continue with some additional music.

DAVID: Was this technique of writing expandable music for the theater common practice at the time?

NORTH: No, I don't think so.

LESLIE: But if one stops to consider, it could have helped so many plays. The work you did for the film of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? helped so tremendously.

NORTH: But the play was different. Music possibly would have been awkward there, because it had "wall to wall" dialogue, whereas the picture had interludes, moments of reflection, where the actors stepped outdoors and the composer had an opportunity to make some sort of comment. The assignment was a challenging one. Because of the amount of dialogue and because I had to write behind dialogue for most of it, I took a purely subliminal approach. That is to say, to try to describe in music the thoughts and motivation of the actors rather than the action.

LESLIE: Spartacus provides us with another example where you succeeded with this sort of thing. I am thinking of that sequence where Laurence Olivier is trying to seduce Tony Curtis by impressing him with his might and his wealth. Using only a few instruments, you evoked a very eerie but yet most subtle sound, an understatement in scoring if there ever was one. Rather than using so obvious and blatant a device as the theramin to suggest Olivier's madness, as has graced so many film scores, tinkling bells suggested that things weren't quite in their proper place they didn't fit somehow things were out of order.

NORTH: Yes, the subliminal approach again, perhaps even a "mental aberration approach" if you like.

I am rather pleased with the way I did it because I managed by using an orchestra rather than by relying on electronic instruments. While I wouldn't dismiss electronic music, I find it more challenging to write for orchestra and to simulate what you'd achieve from electronic instruments. In Streetcar Named Desire, for example, there was a scene where Vivien Leigh is chased by Marlon Brando and I tried to evoke from the orchestra what sounded like the wail of all women suffering, the women of the world, and I think I achieved it.

DAVID: What in your personal opinion should be the function of music in a film?

NORTH: To add another dimension, just as lighting or costume does. The composer should try to probe the consciousness of the characters, to say something, if he can, about them in addition to what is revealed by their words and actions. In certain films I try to treat a sequence like I would an aria in an opera. I attempt to make a statement which will heighten the emotional experience by delving beneath the surface of the character relationships.

LESLIE: I take it, then, that you don't subscribe to the view that music in pictures is good when it isn't noticed?

NORTH: No. Music is either good of it isn't. It is there or it isn't. If it is played down to the level where it sounds like Muzak, then I say, take it out. It should make a comment or not be used at all.

DAVID: In other words, your idea is very similar to that of Wagner in whose operas all the elements, the words, the music, the lighting, the staging, and everything are melded together inextricably, each with its own function to contribute to the whole.

NORTH: Exactly.

DAVID: I see that you have a score here of the organ works of Bach.

NORTH: He is my favorite composer. His is the most pure kind of music. It has everything. It's dramatic; it's romantic. For me it has therapeutic value. I listen to him whenever I can.

DAVID: What's so intriguing about Bach is his universal appeal. I've talked to many different types of composers, and almost invariably you find that no matter how divergent their artistic expression they very often share this universal admiration for Bach.

NORTH: Yes, and that's because Bach always manages to say something which can strike every human being if he will let himself be exposed to it. I went to Leipzig last year, to a church, St. Thomas' Church where Bach is buried; and there was a very simple slab marking his grave which had only his name on it, and I stooped over and kissed it.

LESLIE: Has Bach influenced you as a composer?

NORTH: In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I wrote a score that I thought had a quasi-baroque feel. It wasn't pure baroque, but it had a certain kind of baroque essence. Basically I'm an optimist, and I felt that despite the fact that this man and his wife had problems, they loved each other, and that there was something beautiful that kept them together. So I aimed at the baroque, because the best of it, which is Bach, is the most uplifting music of all.

LESLIE: Do you prefer the smaller film assignments like Virginia Woolf? over larger pictures?

NORTH: Generally I do. For as much fun as it is to do Spartacus, Cheyenne Autumn, and the others, where you can use sixteen French horns and twenty-four cellos, I still prefer the little film like Member of the Wedding or The Rainmaker, fragile things, the more intimate pictures.

LESLIE: But yet Spartacus is both intimate as well as spectacular.

NORTH: That's true. Because the story itself makes a comment. It has something to say about the world which existed then and which still exists. It's the kind of picture that was done about ten years ago in large form. Today we do it smaller.

I would like to do a contemporary "Spartacus," something that has to do with today.

LESLIE: Yeah. They're trying to do just that with this flood of pictures about campus rebellion, and that film about Che Guevara.

NORTH: Most of them are copouts. You can't get that sort of picture that I'm talking about in this country in a commercial field. Only in some off-Broadway plays do you get this idea of the need for change which is evident in that we're approaching a semi-police state here. The establishment can't be too daring when they've got to consider all those dollars and all those cents.

DAVID: If you had the opportunity to score that type of picture, how would you do it?

NORTH: That's very difficult to answer ... I would like to write a very compassionate sort of score, a very simple score. It would be one without violence. It would have to communicate. Above all, I would want a lot of time to work on it. Not just three or four weeks as has been my most recent experience, but an opportunity like I had on Spartacus where I had over a year to compose the score.

LESLIE: Well, then you were working with Kubrick.

NORTH: Yes, he's a very inspiring director and he has an extensive knowledge of music. Because I had all that time I was able to work out some very intricate details in the score, but if you have only a month, you can't be as self-critical and picky.

LESLIE: I think that part of the problem, a problem which confronts not only you but all serious composers, is that serious music in films has lost the respect it once had, where a lot of scores have degenerated to where they are nothing but about ten pop songs thrown together.

NORTH: I know what you're talking about. Indeed, the situation has gotten to where I've found it difficult to get work lately. There's even an outfit downtown where they compose a title song for a picture before it comes out. If the studio likes it, they can buy it. A couple of weeks ago I saw a film for which a title song had been written. I was invited to score it with the understanding that I would use the song as thematic material. I declined.

LESLIE: But yet when a gifted director like Stanley Kubrick, who knows what good music means for a film, gives you an assignment, you don't have to put up with this sort of nonsense.

NORTH: No. Both times I had the opportunity to work under ideal conditions with Stanley. On Spartacus, as I already mentioned, I was brought in early in the film to discuss the music, so that a certain scene, if necessary, could be expanded, lengthened. I've had a few good experiences in that respect, but I don't think that that exists today. For purely financial reasons they won't bring in a composer until the picture is finished.

It's unfortunate, because the composer needs to develop a relationship with the director just as the actors and cameramen do. In certain unusual cases, the composer can benefit the film in more ways than one. For Spartacus, I had even written a temporary track for a number of sequences, including the final battle. It was suggested that I do this so that the film editor could use the rhythm that I had established to cut the film. Thus he could use the music, temporarily scored for two piano and two percussion, to help him design the form of the scene in accordance with the form of the music. Afterwards, I took the same music and enlarged it for full orchestra.

DAVID: Your association with Stanley Kubrick on Spartacus was obviously a very beneficial one for both of you. What happened on 2001?

NORTH: I was in New York at the time that Kubrick called me. He was honest with me from the beginning. He made it clear that he had been listening to Ligeti (which was used for the "light show" at the end) and that he was very impressed with it. I also knew how set he was on the "Zarathustra," and so I wrote a piece the equivalent length, only more contemporary, dissonant, harsh, and brassy. After I had finished the first half of the film, he said that he was going to use sound effects, mostly the sound of breathing, for the rest of the picture, and so I was through and I returned to New York. At the premiere I discovered that not one note of what I had written had been used. I guess that Stanley, after having worked for three and a half years on his film, had become convinced that the temp tracks, the Strauss, Ligeti, etc., could best serve his picture. I regret what happened, of course; but I bear him no ill will. He just did in good conscience what he thought was the right move artistically.

DAVID: But I think he was wrong. 2001 is constructed very ingeniously, both the film and the book. The three portions into which it is divided, the ape sequence at the beginning, the discovery on the moon, the trip to Jupiter (or Japetus, a moon of Saturn in the novel) are each of them exactly the same story told three times. It seems that this would have provided a marvelous opportunity for a film composer to bring this point across.

NORTH: Perhaps.

LESLIE: What has become of the music you wrote for 2001?

NORTH: I'm reworking it into a symphonic piece that I'm dedicating to the three astronauts who were stranded in space. It should be ready sometime next year.

LESLIE: In addition to this project, what have been some of your other more recent experiences with concert hall music?

NORTH: They have been very few, unfortunately. It's very tough to get a symphonic work performed. The field is very competitive, and you have to do a lot of socializing, meeting the right people at the right time, so forth. It's just not my particular cup of tea.

Of course, I hope to get my third symphony performed eventually. I have a symphony which I wrote three years ago, and Previn seems pretty excited about it. But, again, because I scored it with extra percussion, it would need an extra kind of budget.

Writing for films, while it can be very frustrating, what with all the compromises you have to make, at least gives you the satisfaction of knowing that it's going to be played and heard.

DAVID: Whom did you study with?

NORTH: I started at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Then I went to New York to study with Bernard Wagenaar at Juilliard, after which I studied for two years with Anton Weprik in the Soviet Union. When I returned I worked with Ernst Toch and later Copland. At that time I was doing a lot of work for ballet, for Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, and Agnes de Mille. Afterwards I went to Mexico and studied with Revueltas, who was a truly marvelous man. We would discuss our scores in a bistro over drinks.

LESLIE: Many of your scores, particularly the ones you have written for film which take place in the South, are essentially jazz. Could you elaborate?

NORTH: Jazz is very important to me, has always been. Whenever it's appropriate, I like to use it. When you write a score about contemporary America, it usually is appropriate. After all, it is our most indigenous form of music and is preferable generally to folk melodies, which don't quite sound as American but more English or Welsh.

LESLIE: What other plans do you have?

NORTH: To continue writing functional music whenever I can of the sort that I believe can stand on its own as an independent work. After all, it's bread, and a lot of it's good.