A Necessary Consequence of Literacy
Danny Elfman enters the concert world.
Interview by Doug Adams


Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan wasn’t thinking of Danny Elfman when he stated that, “Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy,” but he well could have been. In early 2005, at the behest of the American Composers Orchestra, Elfman took his first swing at the world of concert music, and landed a palpable hit with Serenada Schizophrana, a freewheeling six-movement composition for full orchestra that forever teeters between the worlds of scowling academia and impish rebellion. And yet, the Serenada manages to emerge perfectly balanced, thanks to Elfman’s ever-evolving self-realization, skill and, yes, musical literacy. Newly recorded for CD, Serenada Schizophrana sparkles with orchestral color and energy, and the same pundits who once falsely labeled Elfman a charlatan, supported by a league of unnamed ghostwriters, may hand the composer his most challenging label to date: critical darling.

DA: Congratulations, first of all, on the Serenada. It’s getting a really warm reception in the early press.

DE: Thank you. I’m not really too attuned to that. I always expect the worst, and if it’s anything better than the worst, I’ll be pleased.

DA: Well, I think the worst has been avoided in this case. People really seem to like the fact that it still sounds like you. It sounds dumb to say this, but when many film composers get into the concert world they seem to suddenly say, “Now look at me, I’m actually this guy. The things you heard me do before, those aren’t really me.”

DE: I got involved with this originally because it was going to be a small venue. It wasn’t for Carnegie Hall, it was for the hall under Carnegie, Zankel. So I said, “OK, small ensemble, off the radar. Great. Small, I love it.” And then I got bounced upstairs and it magnified the whole project into something much more than I wanted. I didn’t want to do something big. I knew that I was not going to try to present my magnum opus.

DA: Was that liberating in a way?

DE: Yeah, I mean, that was my fear—that I would be perceived as saying that. “This is the real me.” All I wanted to do was to show myself untethered to image. There are things that I’ve always wanted to do, but maybe I’ll get a chance for 30 seconds in film, or 45 seconds here and there, but then I have to stop because the scene changes. Or I’ll try to get to a level of intricacy in the composition and the arrangement that the film just won’t support. As much as I love a certain level of intricacy, sometimes it just gets lost. You just can’t do it.

So that was really my goal—to cut loose. But I didn’t want to get caught in the world of, “I want to be taken seriously now, so take me seriously, world!” In fact, it became a really schizophrenic experience, which was why it evolved this title, because these movements were all evolving on their own. They seemed to have nothing to do with each other. I was totally thrown by that because, as you know, I tend to be a very melodic composer who keeps themes running. I expected that I was going to be doing a thematic thing, and that themes were going to be carried from movement to movement. And they weren’t! At first I didn’t understand it. Then I saw that this was a battle between the two composers that live inside my head. One wants to be taken a little more seriously and likes things a bit more sublime… somewhere between sad and dreamy.

DA: Melancholy?

DE: Yeah. And the other one wants to be taken anything but seriously and to mess it up. When I get serious for too long, that’s the one who messes it up with a bit of this or that. But I suppose it keeps things interesting. These two were battling for my attention, and each movement seemed almost to be a reaction to the movement before it. It kind of sprung up in a way that wasn’t what I was expecting.

DA: So a lot of it was tossing the pendulum back and forth between this guy and that guy?

DE: Yeah, and sometimes within movements. One would take over, then back to the other, then back to the first. It got to be a real battle. But then there was that point where the movements started to take their own lives and run on their own, and ultimately that’s where I have the most fun.

DA: So do the two sides make friends by the end of the piece?

DE: No, they never do! But at least they’re up and running, and as long as they’re running and the notes are coming out, there’s a certain point where I start getting surprised. If you look at it, the beginning of each movement portrays this tremendous effort to get something going. It’s really like trying to lay the track and then push a train that just doesn’t want to budge. Somehow or other, it starts rolling—then there’s that point, somewhere around the halfway mark, where I’m going downhill and just holding on for the ride. That’s the part I look forward to because then the music is doing stuff that I’m surprised by.

This Way, That Way: The two sides of Danny Elfman’s creative brain battle it out in his Serenada Schizophrana.

DA: This is your first non-narrative orchestral work, right?

DE: Yeah, this is the first.

DA: In terms of the form of the piece—and that’s another of the great charms of this work, it’s not a knock-off of an off-the-rack classical form. It has its own little internal structure where everything feels in balance. Everything commingles and it still makes sense. How did you deal with the form? When you were working through the material, how did you know when you had gotten to that destination where you could say, “Okay, this one has said what it needs to say, let’s move on”?

DE: I didn’t! I just wrote and wrote, then finally got to the point where, “All right, this one seems, now, to be winding down.” And I was aware of the fact that I could only keep it within a 45-minue framework. There were a few cuts I made here and there, but not many. I figured if it ever really became a problem I would drop a movement, which I didn’t want to do. I figured I’d have to, but then it clocked in close to 45. They wanted it 40, but you know, we cheated a few minutes.

DA: Close enough.

DE: So it was just a weird evolution. And like I said, nothing is ever what I expect. I set out to do something a little more traditionally co-joined, and ended up with something that was more like a six-headed monster. I wasn’t expecting that, but on the other hand, I got to the point where I said, “That is what it is! If I start trying to force it into another form, it’s going to not be true to itself anymore. I’ve just got to trust that on some weird level, this makes some kind of sense.” Whether it was subconscious of not, the pieces, as I was writing them, always played in the same order. I figured there had to be a reason for that. They weren’t random. I was always playing these pieces exactly in the same order. If I changed the order, it wasn’t feeling correct to me.

DA: Right. Now the piece on disc is slightly longer than the New York premiere, right? You’ve added a little bit to it?

DE: I added a little. There was a flute solo that we had to cut from New York. And there’s a bonus track we added at the end. And in the second movement, John [Mauceri], as the conductor, slowed it down. He played it slower than we played in New York, so it was actually two minutes shorter at Carnegie.

DA: You’ve worked now in everything from the concert world to the film world to video games, rock songs, TV music. You’ve covered so much territory, is there ever going to be anything where you’ll sit back and say, “I don’t want to dip my toe in that pool. I don’t have anything to say there”?

DE: At this moment, if I was asked to do an opera, I would say no. I don’t understand opera; I don’t have an ear for opera. I don’t feel like I have a feel for it. But I have been approached, here and there, to talk about ballet. Ballet is something that makes more sense to me. I feel like I’ve always been inspired by rhythmically propulsive music. Much of the music that inspired me when I first started listening to music was ballet. From Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev to The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. These were all ballets. So that might make sense. But opera would be the thing that I would say no to. I don’t really get extended opera—how that’s put together, or the structure. I suppose if I did it, it wouldn’t be an opera. It would be something else.

DA: There’s nothing wrong with that, either.

DE: Well, perhaps. But all I’m saying is that that’s the most distant to my instincts.

DA: What’s going one with your upcoming projects? I know you’ve got Charlotte’s Web.

DE: Yes, Charlotte’s Web comes out in December. I’m in my first Disney computer animation movie right now called Meet the Robinsons. That’s for the beginning of next year. Then I go right to an edgy, intense Middle-Eastern thriller called The Kingdom. I’m excited. It’ll be fun going from a children’s movie to something that’s quite the opposite.

DA: A little bit more schizophrenia for you.

DE: Oh yeah! I like that!

Also in this issue: Two Serenada Schizophrana album reviews!