THE LIFE OF LEONARD ROSENMAN
PART SEVEN: THE FINAL SCORES, AND THE COMPOSER SPEAKS
ABOUT HIS CRAFT
(All sources for Rosenman quotes are listed at the bottom of this
column. Paragraphs in italics are contributed by the editor)
In 1990 Rosenman collaborated with his old friend, director Irvin
Kershner, on ROBOCOP 2:
Now that was a case of throwing pearls to swine, because that picture
had a superb script which was really screwed up during shooting. There
were some brilliant scenes, but no story.
There's that scene where the kid points the gun at the screen and says,
"Take that, mother___." I told Kersh the audience was gonna kill him for
that; he pushed it too far beyond the boundaries of good taste. It was
corrupt. If you make a film about corruption, you don'tmake a corrupt
film. If you make a film about a boring person, you don't make a
boring film. That's the difference between art and reality. People don't
want to see reality unless it's a documentary. That's the problem.
I thought the score [by Basil Poledouris] for the first film was so
absolutely dreadful. There was no sense of the orchestra, no sense of drama.
It was just a dopey, lousy score and it just didn't work.
I'm not a fan of Poledouris. The end credits, which is the best opportunity
for any composer, was just pasted together. My end title is a real
piece of music, and the middle part is something very different from most
I try to enter directly into the movie's plot and tell the audience
something about the story that they can't possibly perceive by just watching
the film. For example, if I write a scene for two people kissing and I
write some horrendous music, you know more than just a kiss is happening.
I'm always interested in participating that way. Just to write sad music
for a sad scene, sure, I'll do it, but it doesn't offer me a great challenge.
The most interesting dramatic problem in writing this score deals with
many of the same problems the film itself deals with: the robot vs. the
human being. How does music show human feelings of a mechanical and electronic
entity? How does a composer thread the line between the mechanical and
the human, in the context of such a project?
The problems were (I hope) solved by a combination of live and acoustic
instruments, mixed with the sounds of computer driven electronic instruments.
To make sure that the thoughts and memories of RocoCop were human in character,
I also used the voices of four sopranos, sitting with the orchestra. The
voices gave the score an edge of feeling that, in my opinion, nothing else
Thus, aside from the drama of fights, chases and physical confrontations,
I attempted to add to the score a basis of the internal conflicts indigenous
to the plight of a robot who remembers that he was once a human being,
and that memory serves to provide the internal conflicts of the film. [R2]
The interesting thing in that score was that I was writing a violin
concerto that had been commissioned. I was starting to sketch it, and I
wanted to put four female singers in the violin concerto, but not like
a chorus. They were sitting with the woodwinds, the flutes and clarinets.
And they could not sing solos. They would sing in such a way that you would
wonder, "It sounds like a human voice." So I thought, "I may as well try
it out," and that's when I started to use four female singers. I thought
it worked wonderfully for the film, and it worked really well in the violin
During that same period, Rosenman began teaching a music history
course to some of his close friends, in the house he shared with his fourth
wife, Judie Campbell:
I started with 14th Century chants. Now we're going into the 20th Century
and I'm going to invite some of my composer friends to join us. That should
No cost (except to me, my wine bill has gone up considerably), no credit,
no attendance-taking, no homework, just pleasure and maybe a new way of
listening to music.
I played the last Beethoven quartet and carried on about the two themes.
One of the women said, "I think you're wrong. There's only one theme and
a variation." I said, "My God, you're right." [LAT90]
Rosenman continued to remain physically active in middle age, taking
up tennis at age 50 and skiing at 60:
It seemed to me that the way I going, I was using my head more and more
and my body less and less, and if I kept on my body was going to shrink
and my head would expand so I'd end up looking like a Martian. [LAT90]
Rosenman scored the indie thriller AMBITION, starring
and written by Lou Diamond Phillips, and two TV movies the medical
docudrama AFTERMATH: A TEST OF LOVE, and the cable thriller
KEEPER OF THE CITY, with Louis Gossett Jr. as cop chasing
a mentally ill killer who's targeting gangsters:
This score consists of two themes that are developed throughout the
film. The first theme, at first stated by the full orchestra under the
main title, has two functions. One is to give the stylistic ambience of
the big city and the other is to support and give another dimension to
the main character, the detective, Dela. Thus Dela, as characterized musically,
is both a noble and lonely product of the big city.
The second theme, using four female voices singing in Latin, is the
musical idea that surrounds the character Vince. I have found that the
easiest thing to do in films is to write "crazy" music. Generally this
usually dissonant practice is a form of naturalism that doesn't add anything
to what one already sees and hears on the screen.
In this case, I wanted to echo musically the functioning of Vince's
mind, as well as to musically establish and develop the religious motivation
of his insanity. Such a practice ends up in establishing a larger dimension
of understanding for the character on the screen. Moreover, it is the constant
development and variation of the musical material that constitutes any
successful overview of a filmic musical score. [KC]
I tried to use a kind of church chant, so I'd be able to distort it,
because I was dealing with a crazy character, he was a kind of killer in
the film. [S55]
Among Rosenman's final scores were the indie drama MRS. MUNCK,
pairing director-star Diane Ladd with her ex-husband, Bruce Dern, and the
video documentary series CHARLTON HESTON PRESENTS THE BIBLE.
His final feature score was for 2001's JURIJ, a European
drama about a violin prodigy and his father, and though the film was unreleased
in the U.S., the score is available as an import CD from Rai Trade. Rosenman
died of a heart attack on Tuesday, March 4, 2008 at the Motion Picture
& Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California,
at the age of 83.
Perhaps more than any other film composer of his generation, Rosenman
wrote and spoke frequently and eloquently about his craft. To close this
series on his life and work, we present a further selection of his thoughts
on film music:
Reality is, in films, an interpretation of naturalism. The image of
the film, vastly larger than life, is by itself not real. It is often the
musical statement in the film that gives it its reality. This is somewhat
paradoxical because music is, within the filmic frame of reference, its
most unnaturalistic element...film music has the power to change naturalism
into reality. Ideally, the musical contribution should be to create a supra-reality,
a condition where the elements of literary naturalism are perceptually
altered. In this way the audience can gave insight into different aspects
of behavior and motivation not possible under the aegis of naturalism.
Film music must thus enter directly into the 'plot' of the film, adding
a third dimension to the images and words. It is an attempt to establish
the supra-reality of a many-faceted portrayal of behavior that should motivate
the composer in the selection of sequences to be scored and, just as important,
the sequences to be left silent.
There is a symbiotic catalytic exchange-relationship between the film
and the music that accompanies it. I have personally had the experience
of hearing musically unenlightened people comment positively and glowingly
on a 'dissonant' score after seeing the film. I have played these same
people records of the score without telling them that it came from the
film they had previously seen. Their reaction ranged from lukewarm to positive
[Film music] has all the attributes of music -- melody, harmony, counterpoint
-- but it is something less than music because its motivational pulsation
is literary and not musical. Unlike other mixed-media forms, such as opera,
the composer has no control over the text, over the mise en scene; he is
writing to a circumscribed form. The challenge for me is extra-filmic,
it's a question of dramaturgic talent. Either a person is talented dramaturgically
or he isn't -- you can have a marvelous composer write a score and it might
not fit. You're dealing with two arts that are very similar -- sight and
sound -- both move in time and both require memory for the perception of
organization. For instance, you may feel the reemergence of the theme in
Beethoven's Eroica is thrilling, but that's because you remember
what it is at the beginning. If you conceive of the Eroica as a
series of isolated musical events, it isn't thrilling. The same thing in
film -- if the villain finally gets punched in the nose, it's thrilling
because this is reel twelve and he's had it coming since reel five.
The film composer has to bear in mind that we are a visually oriented
society. In fact, it's biological: more of our brain is given over to vision
than to hearing. Film music must be an analog to the action of the film,
and likewise, the film should become an analog of the dramatic action of
the music. This is the value of a director and a composer working together
in the construction of the film.
I think Mozart and Beethoven would have given their eye teeth to write
for films, because of the opportunity it gives to write something and hear
it played the next day by fifty or sixty crack musicians. These are the
optimal conditions in which to study orchestration and to try out musical
Unfortunately, in America we have the opinion that if a composer works
in film, he can't write good music. This isn't true in other countries.
I'm a better composer now than I was before I started film scoring, yet
before I started in films I had less trouble from the critics than I do
now. Recently, a chamber piece of mine was performed at a concert, a quite
serious composition, and a critic said "It sounds like Alfred Newman."
Everyone's entitled to be a snob, but this man must have either fallen
asleep or been deaf. All you can say to these people is what Brahams said
to Hanslick when that august critic told him his first symphony sounded
like Beethoven's Tenth -- "Anybody can see that." However, I think this
kind of snobbism will disappear in a generation. Film art is growing fast.
This is the kind of technical mythology of the twentieth century, and the
kids taking film courses today seem to have -- pray to God -- open minds.
Film and concert music entail entirely different processes. With film
one is given an a priori construct. It is a very sophisticated version
of seeing an array of numbers from one to 100, connecting them and winding
up with a picture of George Washington. The point is to fill up space and
the work is dictated by literary considerations. With concert music --
even in opera, the most literary form -- the composer's task is to shape
any text into a fundamentally musical work. [NYT]
I learned a great deal about music from film, and I learned a great
deal about film from music. They're quite similar, simply because they
are art devices that move in time and involve the use of the temporal lobe
of the brain. That is to say, they involve memory, interpretation, and,
more important, they deal with two kinds of time. They deal with real time
and psychological time. There may be two pieces of music that are five
minutes long; one seems interminable, and the other seems too short. The
same with film. One has to know to some degree how one functions with the
other in order to become a catalyst for our emotions.
I feel -- and this is a statement that might be considered controversial
-- that music has no emotions at all. Films have emotions because they
deal with the pictorialization of emotions that we feel and see and hear
about in our every day experiences. Music is a series of vibrations, of
sounds organized rhythmically, that tend to engender emotions in you, but
it's the context of the entire thing that causes something to be expressive
or inexpressive. It's the context of your experiences and what you bring
to the experience of listening to music that makes you feel it as emotional
in a certain way.
You'll find two things happening. One, music takes on the protective
coloration of the film. If the film is disjunct the music will seem disjunct;
if the film is smooth, no matter what the music it will take on this character
of the film, because the film is a much stronger stimulus in our society.
In Western culture there is nothing more vital in our experience than visual-literacy
information. The Chinese say that one picture is worth a thousand words.
Well, if one picture is worth a thousand words, it most assuredly is worth
a million notes. On the other hand, another thing happens reciprocally.
The music causes the film to seem slower or faster or smoother or more
disjunct in some way. So there's an interaction between the two which influences
A good case in point is The Third Man, a film with a great deal
of dramatic intensity. There were chases and love scenes and killings and
God knows what else; yet the music was one theme played over and over again
on one instrument, a zither -- a pop tune which became famous at the time.
Somehow this pop tune, not developed or elaborated but repeated over and
over again, took on the same intensity as the scene. It was chase music
or love music but it was exactly the same thing.
I generally feel [music under dialogue is] not necessary. If the actors
are doing a good job -- even if they're not doing a good job
there's nothing that can help them. If the actors are really doing their
stuff, really interacting, that's a kind of chamber music of its own. You
understand the interior monologue and you don't need music. Modern scoring
of films involves the listener's being able to hear the music. It used
to be that they'd score an entire scene between two actors on the grounds
that the scene was dead, that the music would liven it up. You'd ask them
what kind of music they wanted, and they'd say something very neutral --
and dead. Very often the scene wasn't dead, but the filmmaker did
not trust his product enough to stand for any kind of silence.
Why something doesn't work and why something appears to work, I think
certainly has to do with subjective aspects. But there are certain kinds
of underlying precepts which, as a student, one can deal with. The primary
factors are consistency and style. The composer for films is really not
a note writer; he is a dramatist in his own right, and it is how he sees
the dramaturgy or how he sees the mise-en-scene musically -- in its larger
sense -- that determines whether something is going to work. What the composer
is trying to say along with the filmmaker should in some way achieve the
same consistency. Now, the consistency may not be literally what the filmmaker
is talking about. Ideally speaking, the composer should make you see something
in that film that you couldn't have seen without the music. The music enters
the plot directly.
For example, you have an opening shot, which you've seen many times,
I'm sure -- a helicopter shot of New York. This helicopter goes down into
the canyons of New York, and you see people rushing around, cars; it goes
smack into the so-called concrete jungle. You have several options with
the soundtrack. You have the option of having it silent, which would create
a certain kind of mood. You have the option of the sound effects of the
city, which would be a kind of realism, a documentary style. You have the
option of writing the kind of big-city music you used to hear in the old
films, a lot of xylophones, a la Gershwin, musical sound effects which
don't really add to anything you've seen on the screen except reinforce
it to some degree.
Then you might have another idea. Suppose the filmmaker says, "Is there
any way for the music to say that the city, for all its tremendous crowds,
is a very lonely place?" If the composer took a lonely saxophone line with
a lot of echo and played a long, slow, plaintive tune against this terrific
melange, you would get an idea of the city you couldn't have gotten without
the soundtrack. In other words, the soundtrack would tell you something
about the scene that the image itself couldn't tell you. This, in my estimation,
is the role of music in movies.
It has to do with the communication between the filmmaker and the composer.
The composer has to be interested enough to get into the film at the very
beginning, before the script has even jelled. Generally film composers
are not that interested; it takes too much time and they don't make enough
money. Step two, if the scriptwriter knows enough about music to understand
its nature and its relationship to the drama he's creating, if he can say,
"I think the music can take the place of the written word in this scene"
-- if he can do that, a real collaboration begins. It would seem to me
that the only way to communicate between a filmmaker and a composer is
verbally, and that is extremely imprecise. The only advice I can offer
to all potential filmmakers in regard to working with a composer -- and
I have to resort to the language of the young -- is that the vibes have
to be very good. There has to be a sense of trust. There has to be a mutual
understanding of what the music is trying to say in the film. That's the
most important consideration.
The filmmaker should know something about music and what music can do,
or else be modest enough to ask "Can music do this?" rather than tell me
what music can do. I think most people who are making films know absolutely
nothing about music.
The next question is, "Well, what can music do?" If he understands
his film, he will ipso facto understand the components of the film
-- that is, music. Kazan understood his film and what he wanted to say
In film it really seems to me that the more toward art it is, the more
of a one-man show it is. You take the great filmmakers of all time -- Fellini
and Bergman, people of that kind -- and you know damn well that there's
no decision being made by committee in those films. They are the final
arbiters of taste in their films. I know Fellini quite well because I lived
in Italy for four years, and even in the scoring sessions Fellini is in
complete control. It's his film; he knows what he wants. The idea of the
compartmentalization of art may perfect it in some sense, but it perfects
it in terms of industry and not in terms of art. I just don't think the
twain can meet. Of course you can say, "The Sistine Chapel was made by
70 people who worked for Michelangelo." But Michelangelo dictated every
I prefer to see the film before it's finished so that I can get some
ideas. For a major feature film they spend about a year, and then the composer
comes in and is given about four weeks to match this conception, which
I think is unfair and generally doesn't give the filmmaker his money's
worth. It's ideal for the composer to have as much communication as he
can with the filmmaker. When I spot a film I try to see the film as often
as I can, and then I'll sit down with the filmmaker and we'll run the film
on a stop-go projector; I'll say, "Well, I think music should do this and
that. I think it should go from here to there." Sometimes there'll be questions
or arguments: "I don't think it needs it there," or "Well, I would like
to say so-and-so there." Let's say that a man and woman are kissing: "I'd
like to show the poisonous element in this in some way because three reels
later he kills her." In other words, we talk about dramaturgy. We also
find out where we can orchestrate with silence.
Most filmmakers are terribly afraid. They don't know whether it's good
or bad. I've known a lot of filmmakers over the last twenty years. Some
of them are very literate, but they all seem to have no communication with
music at all. They've never been to a concert. They don't listen to classical
music on records. I'm not saying they should listen to classical music
as opposed to popular music, but I think they should familiarize themselves
with that kind of stuff too. I probably know as much popular music as they
do, but they don't know anything of what I know. This is a product of their
lack of imagination, even with regard to film. It's like a person who says
to me, "Well, I'll tell you, I don't like avant-garde music. Just give
me Beethoven." I would maintain that that person really doesn't understand
My favorite scores -- not including mine -- are Benny Herrmann's score
for Psycho...Jaws...I think Gone with the Wind is fabulous,
even though these scores have several different styles, they really are
sensational scores. Jerry Goldsmith's score for Patton -- I think
he's one of the best composers in Hollywood. And I like [Rosenman's score
for East of] Eden, too, myself, I must say! [S55]
of this series can be accessed on the website.
Composer in Hollywood by Christopher Palmer; published by Marion
FF: Filmmakers on Filmmaking: The American Film Institute
Seminars on Motion Pictures and Television, edited by Joseph McBride;
published by Houghton Mifflin, 1983
Music: A Neglected Art, by Roy M. Prendergast; published by W.W.
Norton & Company, 1992
KC: Liner notes by Leonard Rosenman for the Intrada CD of Keeper
of the City
LAT90: Los Angeles Times,
October 9, 1990: "Composer Does His Homework in Music History," by Charles
for the Movies by Tony Thomas; published by Silman-James Press,
NYT: New York Times,
August 29, 1982: "A Composer Seeks Artistic Prestige After Hollywood" by
R2: Liner notes for the Varese Sarabande CD of RoboCop
S55: Soundtrack vol. 14, No. 55, September 1995, interview
by Wolfgang Breyer
SL: Starlog, November
1991: ýComposer of the Fantastic,ţ by David Hirsch
Edited by Scott Bettencourt