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Battle Plans

John Frizzell and Randy Edelman marshal their musical forces for Gods and Generals

By Daniel Schweiger

It's as daunting a task to score the Civil War as it is to film it. Just ask John Frizzell and Randy Edelman, the composers who've been entrusted with giving musical voice to producer Ted Turner and director Ronald Maxwell's gargantuan (and still ongoing) epic that depicts the war between the states through the people swept up in it -- both statesman and citizen.

Edelman took the first volley when he wrote three hours of music for Gettysburg, a TNT miniseries that was later released to theaters as part of Turner's glorious hubris. Now with scheduling difficulties dealing him nearly fatal blow in terms of joining the next Civil War epic, Edelman has passed the scoring flag onto John Frizzell, who picks it up with honors for Gods and Generals. Weaving about a half dozen of Edelman's themes into his own score, Frizzell has written a majestic, epic tapestry whose tender melodies, choruses and ethnic music show war as a tragedy in the most devastating, personal sense. If scores like Glory and Gone With the Wind are about blood and thunder, then Frizzell's sweeping Gods is about the very human toll of war, striking his point home with melodic restraint.

FSM: How did John come on board Gods and Generals?

Randy Edelman: I've always had great enthusiasm for John's work and funnily enough we had lunch a few months before Gods and Generals came around.

John Frizzell: It was when you called me up after you saw James Dean.

RE: And I watched it twice in a row! I called John out of the blue,which is not a thing that composers do, especially when it's someone they don't know! I was supposed to score Gods and Generals, but when it became apparent that I couldn't do it because of scheduling, I thought of John for the job. I felt very comfortable recommending him. And John took off with it. Now everyone's happy with John's score, which makes me feel great. So this worked out well.

FSM: Had you started writing for Gods and Generals when you found out you couldn't score it?

RE: Ron showed me some footage, and I did about a half dozen themes, which I gave to John to use at his discretion. I'd admired John's work, and he was given complete freedom right from the beginning of the project. So I never felt uptight about what he did with my music. Once in a while I'd check in to see where he was using my themes, and I could tell that John was having fun with them.

FSM: How did you decide where you wanted to use Randy's themes?

JF: I was fair about where I'd use the themes that I'd written as well as Randy's. It's definitely easier to use your own stuff, but there were some great scenes where Randy's themes worked well. A couple of cues had both our themes in them. "No Photographs" is a particular cue that's a weird hybrid between them.

FSM: What do you think you got from employing Randy's themes?

JF: A composer using another's themes has a long history in film, and I enjoyed using Randy's themes when it was appropriate. You almost get inside of the other composer's brain and see how it works. But it's not until you tear the music apart that you understand how it's structured and what makes it tick. And it's a treat to see how Randy's music works.

FSM: John, how would you describe what you were after with the score?

JF: The main thing that Ron Maxwell wanted the music to project was the emotion of the individual characters, without any judgement of their morality of their political affiliation. If you saw someone whose house was being burned down or invaded, you invoked the emotion they were feeling rather than the political motivation of what was going on. The most important thing was playing what the people were feeling, and most of them had no idea what or whom they were fighting for. All wars are extremely complex, and I wasn't trying to deal with any political issues, other than to create music that would make you not want to fight. I wanted the score to make people feel the pain of war. That's more important now than ever.

FSM: How much music did you have to score?

JF: Three hours.

RE: I had to do approximately the same when I scored Gettysburg, which was a miniseries that was later released as a film. And in both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, the emotion dictates where the music's going. Three hours of music sounds like a lot, and it is a lot. But once you get into the characters, it's not like you're sitting around forever trying to decide what the style's going to be. You settle on the music you're going for, which John did beautifully for Gods and Generals. He did a great job of continuing the emotion that was conveyed in Gettysburg.

JF: Absolutely. I watched Gettysburg to see the techniques that Randy developed there.

FSM: What was your orchestration for Gods and Generals?

JF: We had 95 players and 40 singers most of the time. Then there were our soloists. I tried to give every soloist his "moment," whether it was a horn, a cello, clarinet or the choir as a section. I hope these solos kept the score fresh and interesting. I had to map out how to play three hours of score across a film that will ultimately be six hours, which was extremely daunting. You get a cut of the film that comes in two boxes of videotapes! It took a day and a half alone to get the footage in the computer, and then I had to figure out how many times to play the themes and where the emotional climaxes were. The spotting was really intense. I spent a couple of weeks just thinking about it. That was one of the most important aspects of the score, and Ron had a really great idea of where the music was supposed to go.

FSM: How did you pick and choose your musical opportunities?

JF: I didn't want to use a particular theme for a particular character rigidly. That would have been a hokey approach.

RE: The themes in Gettysburg weren't about the characters at all. They were about emotion. The other thing that's different about these films is that they're made completely outside of Hollywood, even though studios might be releasing them. Ted Turner operates completely on his own, which is wonderful for a composer. You don't have to deal with a committee or test screening. These films come from Ted Turner's enthusiasm and Ron Maxwell's vision. And that's a great way to work.

JF: It's almost like the way they made films 30 years ago.

FSM: Do you think your score had to serve as a "narrator" to the film?

JF: Yeah, I definitely contemplated that. The music acts as a guide to where you are in the story, especially in the relationship between Stonewall Jackson and his wife.

FSM: Could you talk about the use of Irish music in your scores.

RE: There were characters in both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals who are Irish, which is the basis for that. John magnified that in Gods and Generals.

JF: One of the most moving scenes in Gods and Generals is when opposing brigades of Irish soldiers encounter one another. It's one of the most moving, powerful and devastating moments that I've ever had the privilege of scoring. I thought it would be great to get the Chieftain's Paddy Maloney to play on the scene, which he did with a uillean pipe. He played Irish theme with a penny whistle on other scenes that conveyed a gentle tragedy. The Irish left their country to escape tyranny, and came to America where they ended up killing each other. I was also very priveleged to have Mark O'Connor playing on the score in addition to Paddy. His staggering ability to procure emotion from his fiddle is one of the strongest points of this score and a great part of making these melodies come to life.

RE: I think Gods is a more "realistic" score than Gone With the Wind. It uses different colors and textures, but continues its tradition in the best sense. John also uses a choir in a very effective way. Gods and Generals is also a much more acoustical score than Gettysburg, which is what Ron probably wanted for it. But that was a different situation.

See the complete story in FSM Vol. 8, No. 3, on sale now...

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