Today Friday September 23rd, Fimucité festival starts, and it does with a special concert dedicated to maestro Lalo Schifrin.
A few days ago, SoundTrackFest had the opportunity to interview Lalo Schifrin in his home in Los Angeles, and talk to him about his life, his career and his ongoing projects.
As you will see throughout this interview, with 84 years, Lalo Schifrin is worthy of the most enormous admiration, and why not, some envy also, as it is a pleasure to see how the spark, the enthusiasm and the vitality of this great pianist, conductor, composer and jazz musician, has not diminished over time.
Just the opposite, it has increased, as did his curiosity, his desire to learn, and his desire to continue embarking on new projects.
But enough talking and let’s get to the point, with this long but interesting interview, that great Lalo Schifrin had the kindness to grant exclusively to SoundTrackFest.
Hello Mr. Schifrin, we know you are a busy person, so first I would like to thank you for very much your time and for attending SoundTrackFest.
No need to thank me. I like helping to spread the word of film music and music in general, and especially in Spain, a place I love very much. I’ve been there many times. I have conducted orchestras everywhere; I was in Madrid, I was in Barcelona and in many other places.
Thank you very much. Talking about Spain, a film music festival begins soon in the Canary Islands, in Tenerife, called Fimucité, that is having its tenth anniversary. At the festival, a jazz concert will be performed as a tribute to you, under the title “Lalo Schifrin’s Jazz Goes to Hollywood”. What do you think about this?
Yes, yes, I know. In fact, not only I know it, but they asked me to adapt my film music for a Jazz orchestra. It is an honor to be present there with my music.
Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about your first steps in your native Argentina, and how is your approach to music.
My father was the concertmaster of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, called that way because the first violin in a symphony orchestra is perhaps the most important musician.
It was not easy for him. Well, it’s not easy for anyone, because you have to take a test, an audition to get in, and in his case he had a jury of three conductors: Arturo Toscaninni, Victor de Sabata from Italy and the maestro Heitor Villa-lobos from Brazil. Now, when my father took the exam, he entered directly as first violin, and that is difficult, very difficult. So it was him who began to get me into the world of music.
When I was 5, I started studying piano with a friend of him. My father also played the piano. He had a chamber orchestra, they played classical music, and the pianist of that orchestra was my first piano teacher, Enrique Barenboim, Daniel Barenboim‘s father. That was my first piano teacher.
You were lucky to have as your first piano teacher someone as talented and that has had such a brilliant career as Maestro Barenboim, right?
Well, my whole life was luck (laughs). You know who Jorge Luis Borges is, right? One of the things he said is that luck and destiny are synonymous. Luck and destiny. And that applies to me. I understand it very well, as I was lucky and also my fate/destiny made me the musician I am today.
That’s a good way to see life! And speaking of your life, being young, you left Argentina and traveled to Paris. I guess that was an experience that changed you completely.
Yes, because, when I was 16 I started to like Jazz very much. Jazz is the classical music of North America. I was interested in the nature of its harmony. Jazz had a different harmony than the classical music I knew at that time. But not now, as jazz and modern classical music are very similar.
Well, when I finished high school in Buenos Aires, my father didn’t want me to be a musician; he did not want me to continue the music career, because he knew how difficult it was to become something or someone there. So even if it sounds strong, he forbade me to continue studying music. He wanted me to get a diploma, as a lawyer or a doctor. I resisted, but yet I had to go to law school. And there I did 4 years. It was 6 years in total to get the diploma, but I only did 4.
At the same time I was in college, without my father knowing, I began to study composition with one of the greatest Argentinian teachers, Juan Carlos Paz, who had studied with Schoenberg in Vienna and returned to Argentina, and was composing music that was too modern for the public at that time.
Juan Carlos Paz was amazing and a great composer. I have scores and books he wrote that are fabulous. So, he was my teacher and gave me music lessons in a cafe in downtown Buenos Aires.
What a curious place to receive music lessons, outside a conservatory, right?
He said that you have to study composition away from the piano; you need to have it all in your head and listen to the music within, but without using the piano. As if the piano was some kind of crutch, and you can’t have crutches to walk.
He was aware of everything that was happening, and one day, sitting in the cafe in one of his classes, he said “The National Conservatory of Music of Paris is awarding scholarships. You have to go to the French embassy or consulate in Buenos Aires to do all the paperwork. Tell them I am the one who’s recommending you. “
Then, without my parents knowing, I went to the consulate and after a week, I received a sealed envelope, filled with forms and questionnaires, plus a very difficult written exam.
I told to Juan Carlos Paz, my teacher, “Do you think I have a chance? ” And he replied” You have nothing to lose“.
So I went and took the exam, and a week later, I was watching the mailbox, because I did not want my parents to know yet, and that was when I got an envelope that said “Congratulations, you have been accepted into the National Conservatory of Music of Paris and your photo and name will be displayed in the lobby of the conservatory for a week.” That’s not something they did just with me, they did it with everybody, just as they did at the time with Ravel or Debussy.
And then you had no choice but to tell things at home.
True. That’s when I had to tell my parents that I was leaving. They were very sad, sure, but they were also proud that I had that possibility. That was how I came to Paris, and well, all began there.
I was lucky enough to study with great teachers, even with the director of the conservatory at that time that was Olivier Messiaen, one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He gave me many, many new technical tips that helped me a lot, and that have even served me to write film music.
I had already studied fugue, harmony, counterpoint and composition with Juan Carlos Paz, but there I studied orchestration with the great master Olivier Messiaen, who had been a pupil of Ravel himself, one of the greatest orchestrators of world history.
Olivier Messiaen gave me all those secrets, that are secrets in fact, because not many people know them, not many composers know them, and that has helped me a lot in the rest of my career.
How was your student life in Paris?
There I had a double life. During the day I went to the conservatory and at night I played Jazz with Jazz musicians in Paris, where Jazz concerts were also brought from the United States.
Many of the greatest Jazz musicians of all history came to Paris theaters to give concerts there.
At the same time, I went to the cinema as much as I could, as I have always liked the movies. There was no television yet, but there was cinema, so when I could, I went to the movies. One night, I began to pay attention to the background music of the film, to what happened with music. For example, horror movies, terror movies. I told myself, in my thoughts, without music, this movie would not be so scary, right? I was curious, and that started to lead me to the career that I embraced later.
How did you decide to return to Argentina and then move to the US?
When I returned to Argentina three years later, I founded a Jazz orchestra, seeking opportunity to make music for movies, because I already had the idea of cinema in my head. But I did not know anyone. It was very difficult. Producers and the film industry did not allow anyone from outside like me to get in.
I was young and there were no possibilities, so what I did was find a person who had a lot of money, and that I knew that liked my Jazz music. Then I told him I wanted to have a Jazz band for radio and television, and that person gave me all the support and indeed I began to present my Jazz Orchestra everywhere, a big band of 16 musicians.
I composed all the music, all the arrangements, and it was very successful because we started touring not only in Buenos Aires but in Argentina, that if you know the place, is a big wide country. Then I also went to Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, Chile… and what happened next was a coincidence.
So we’re back to luck and destiny coupling again….
That’s it. We’re talking about coincidences once more. It was the era of the cold war, and suddenly, the United States Department of State was sending cultural ambassadors to seduce audiences around the world, to make propaganda for the United States. And this did not happen only in America, I think it also was happening in Asia (countries like Pakistan as I recall).
Well, in this context, the great American trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie came on one of those tours to Argentina, and one night, because my orchestra was pretty good, a person arranged for my orchestra to play a concert for Gillespie’s musicians and his wife.
The style of my orchestra was very similar to his orchestra. He came on tour with an orchestra of exactly the same size: 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 5 saxophones, rhythm section, piano (I conducted the orchestra from the piano), bass and drums.
One night they were not playing (they had a matinee but they were free at night) a soiree was organized for Dizzy Gillespie, his wife, and the whole orchestra. Curiously, Quincy Jones, who was at that time the fourth trumpet of Gillespie’s orchestra, came too.
Well, when my orchestra finished playing, John Birks Gillespie (which was his real name), came to the stage where I was playing and said “Who wrote this music? Who wrote these arrangements? “ And I said “I did”. And immediately he told me “Do you want to come to the United States?”
So you were invited to the United States.
Yes. I came to the United States and I started playing with him. I spent three years with him, and while I was here, finally the question of film music was solved in a very curious way.
I toured with Gillespie worldwide, and one night going to Europe, Scandinavia I think, to some festivals where there were musicians of all kinds; trios, quartets, and where the only large orchestra was Dizzy’s, we met with Jimmy Smith, who had a trio. Jimmy played the electric organ and played Jazz amazingly.
While we were at the airport going to the plane (I think we were flying to Denmark), Jimmy Smith’s agent told me “Did you write The Gillespiana Suite?” which is the first piece I wrote for Gillespie, a work for a very large orchestra, but where instead of 5 saxophones, I put 4 horns and a tuba, keeping the rest.
There I also played the piano, but this time, the director of the orchestra was not me, it was Dizzy Gillespie. Someone whom I have respected very much, because with him I also learned about harmony. He had a way of looking at the chords from within, and that helped me a lot, even to write film music as well.
It’s funny how one thing leads to another and how you learn a little bit of each person you meet.
Exactly! So returning to film music, what happened was that this man, who was the representative of Jimmy Smith, gave me his card and said “When you get back from this trip call me, and maybe we can have lunch together“.
When I got back I called him, and having lunch in New York, he asked me if I wanted to be with Dizzy Gillespie forever. I said no, that I would like to write music for film and television. And then he told me “Aaaah, that’s easy! Do not worry“.
He knew the music director of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who was in charge of the music publishing department of Warner, Arnold Maxim. This man gave me a film right away, that is not very known now, but that was my first film, Rhino! (1964).
But as I recall, that is not your first movie right?
Rhino! Is my first American film, but the first music I composed for a film was in Argentina, shortly before coming to the United States.
I do not know if they heard Dizzy Gillespie was bringing me to America, but suddenly I was called because they needed a composer who had a suitable rhythm for the youth of that time, and that way, in 1958, the year I came to America, I wrote music for a film in Argentina called El Jefe, with Alberto de Mendoza and Graciela Borges.
I still didn’t have the image and sound synchronization technique that later I learned in America, but I composed the music of the movie, and they liked it very much. In fact, it won the acceptance of film critics, and I got an award for best film music of ’58 in Argentina.
Going back to the story, in the United States, Arnold Maxim knew nothing of El Jefe and he gave me my first American film, Rhino!, that was not a big movie, but gave me the chance to be there and be seen.
It was about Africa, about people who buy elephant tusks and ivory traffic. It wasn’t a very important film neither a great success, so after finishing it, I had to wait to see what projects arose next.
And now listen to what I’m going to say, because maybe you’re not going to believe me, but the evidence is there.
There was a film that MGM wanted to do, they had the money and everything, and it was a film with Alain Delon and Jane Fonda, called Joy House (1964), which was to be shot in Paris.
The French producer Jaques Bar spoke English, but the director, who was René Clemént, only spoke French, no English, so he asked for a composer who could speak French to communicate with him.
Then they asked everywhere, and I was the only one here who spoke French, for the years I had lived in France. Fortunately, all the greatest composers here did not speak French, so I got the film, and that helped me a lot.
I went to Paris, I composed the music for the film, and I think that was my launching point. So as I always say, I was very lucky.
Let’s talk about composing music for films and television, both genres in which you have worked hard. What are the differences you see when addressing a project?
Interesting question! Let’s say you have to send a message to your family. Then, film music would be an extensive letter where you can say many things, and the equivalent of television would be a telegram, where you have to say the most important things but with less words.
Following with television, this year 2016, particularly now in September, is the 50th anniversary of a mythical series like “Mission: Impossible”, with a fabulous main theme that has been used on countless occasions. How do you get the assignment from the producer Bruce Geller? What was the process you followed to compose the main theme, an icon of television and film music today? How do you decide to approach it that way?
First, I had no idea what the project was about, because they did not even give me a script to read and know what it was. Producer Bruce Geller was interested in my music from other films I had done, and called my agent to ask me to go the shooting. I was invited there to get the ambience and atmosphere of the series… but … I did not understand anything, because I had never been in a shooting. Everything is very slow, and everything goes in different order, and of course, without the script, when one of the characters said something, I did not understand anything. Now, when they put it all together, then is when I understood.
The main theme for me was not the main titles, which is well known now. There are two themes. If you pay attention, especially during the series, in chapters I did, you will see that there are two themes.
The main theme, the titles theme, had not been figured out yet at that time. First I thought of a topic of suspense, because you never know if the agents are going to win or not, and there is always planning and tension. The theme for when they make plans and do not know what will happen. That is the main theme for mel.
Then Bruce Geller told me, “You have to write a theme for the titles, a theme that if people are in the kitchen drinking a soft drink, and the television is in the living room, when they hear it from the kitchen, I want them to identify it and make them know Mission: Impossible has started“. So, it’s like a call. And there it is when it occurred to me to write this piece, that is so well known now.
So the first theme was the suspense theme, making the plans, the preparation of the mission, and then came the main titles. But of course, I had to deliver all together because when we recorded the first chapter, I had to record everything.
Interesting story! What other television works do you keep good memories from?
The same producer began a series called Mannix the following year, that also had a very interesting, very dynamic, and different main theme.
And then there are others like Petrocelli, which I also liked.
Let’s change subject now and talk about your work for cinema. There are some movies that are already legendary and generate a lot of memories in people, such as Cool Hand Luke (1967) with Paul Newman. What can you tell us about it?
This movie is my favorite of all! It was so amazing! Because, I do not know if you know it, but it was very difficult for me to get hired. There were two composer agents / representatives at that time. Only two in Hollywood for everyone, and my agent told me that all the composers wanted to make that movie.
What happened was that from that moment on, the producers and the director knew that everyone wanted to compose for the film, and did a kind of test. They cited composers. The film still had not been filmed, but they wanted to see who could be the composer, so they were calling us one by one.
They gave us the script to read, I read it, and I was part of that test. In the meeting I told them, “You have two possibilities here, either use a composer who can make popular music, country music, because the film does not happen in the city, or use the classical American symphonic music, Aaron Copland style. That is the other possibility. But you also have a third possibility, which is to do both, mixing country music and symphonic music, in the same score, alternating or combining. “
And that was when I was hired. And hence my career went up, making more and more films.
I personally love Bullit. The main theme is wonderful with a combination of rhythms and sounds, that really convey the feeling of thriller and tension.
Thank you very much. If you look carefully, Bullit, Mission: Impossible, Dirty Harry… almost all those scores have a Jazz background, a Jazz rhythm section, because I could never completely leave the Jazz.
Whether I have done operas or symphonic scores such as The 4 Musketeers with Richard Lester, where I tried to compose music in my style but looking like music of the seventeenth or eighteenth century, when there were musketeers, the Jazz is part of me and my life.
Listen to what I say, and this is already a personal reflection. I’ve had a very nice life, and I still have it because I keep writing. Not much for film, but today I had a letter and a phone call from an Argentinian director, a young director, who told me he has a film ready, and he wants to send me the script. I asked him to send it to me early December, because now I have no time.
Speaking of young directors, I have seen that you have also worked with your son, Ryan Schifrin. How is working father and son together?
He made a movie called Abominable (2006), a horror movie, a very good movie. He’s very talented and I really liked the movie. What I told him is “I’m not going to work with you as if you were my son, I will work with you like you’re a professional film director and then you’re not my son. We are talking professionally from one to another“. And then, there I had respect for him, but if he already had respect for me before, I think that after this work he has respected me even more.
Let’s go back some time and let’s talk about a curious project, also with a young filmmaker at that time, George Lucas, who was in his early film works with THX 1138 (1971). How was working with him on this project, so different on those days?
It was a curious film, but it was a very good experience, because he was looking for a composer who could perform, and there were very little options, because it is emotionally very difficult to perform. What I did first was to use a chamber orchestra instead of using a symphony orchestra. Few musicians and plenty of space between instruments, because there was too much space in the image also.
Another film that I consider very important in your career, and that I know people who have been greatly influenced by it, is Enter the Dragon (1973). How did you get to that project and what was your experience working in that movie?
Bruce Lee really liked the music of Mission: Impossible. He practiced in Hong Kong, where he lived and had his gym, to the music of Mission Impossible, to the rhythm of the main titles. I did not know that, but he knew who I was. I mean, I knew who he was, and I liked his work, but never met him in person. He wanted me to be the one who scored the music of the film, so he asked for me and thus I entered the project.
When I was at the Conservatory of Paris I studied ethno-musicology, so I was able to compose the kind of music that was required in the film. But I’m not showing off, on the contrary, I consider myself quite humble. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize how much is left to learn.
So, having studied ethno-musicology, I knew the music of the East and as I did in Cool Hand Luke merging styles, here I combined oriental music with orchestra and Jazz. I know oriental music’s scales, the sounds they use, and when I don’t find oriental or ethnic instruments here, what I try to do is imitate them with what I have. It’s like a painter who seeks a color mixing other colors. So did I, but musically speaking.
Besides from music, I also put Jazz rhythms, although doesn’t look like, and large orchestral colors and a symphony orchestra. So with all that I could deliver the music of the film.
Warner Brothers, the producer, liked the music very so much that Bruce Lee came to the recording. He liked very much what he heard, and in a conversation we had, he said “What kind of exercises are you doing now?” And I said “Tennis“, and he answered, “No, you have to do martial arts“. And so it was that Bruce Lee came to my house and made me assemble a Dojo at home. Fortunately, I have a very large house.
I was lucky to buy a big house, a mansion, a house that belonged to Groucho Marx, by chance again, because I did not know it was Groucho Marx’s house when I bought it, but that’s another story and I do not want divert much.
Returning to Bruce Lee, he came to my house and gave me the first lessons of martial arts, without charging anything, as a friend. And then, when he returned to Hong Kong to make other films, he put one of his assistants, who was not oriental, was Hungarian, who was very good and continued teaching me.
That’s how I became a black belt. Moving from the lower belts till brown and black belts. Now I can’t practice martial arts, because I have 84 years and I don’t have the same balance, but I’m happy I have lived that experience in my body and in my mind.
Not many people can say that he has been Bruce Lee’s student! Let’s talk now about your extensive film career, which has also come to Spain, where you have worked with directors such as Carlos Saura. What memories do you have from this collaboration?
Yes! Tango! Carlos Saura is a genius of cinema and a genius in general. I send my best greetings and hugs to him from here, just in case he reads me! I worked with him and I loved it. He knows so much …. he knew music, he knew choreography, he knew everything. The only thing is that at the beginning of Tango he said, “I do not know anything about tango. My mother danced the tango, but I know nothing. I do not know how to make this film. I want to do it but do not know how to approach it” So I said “Why don’t you do what Fellini did in Eight and a half? And you start to make the film as someone who knows nothing about tango and then you progress… “. He listened, and he did, and if you see the movie Tango now, and look at it from that point of view, you will realize it’s that way.
And, to close this interview …. you have a very long career, in all areas and genres, with lots of music that will be there for remembrance, but, is there anything you have not done yet that you would like to do? Have a rest perhaps?
Noooo! Resting is boring (laughs). On August 2nd, at the Hollywood Bowl, there was a world premiere, a concert for guitar and orchestra that I had written for that particular moment, the Friendship Concert, with great Spanish guitarist Angel Romero as soloist and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Earlier I could conduct, but now I can’t, anyway there I was, backstage, and when it finished, I did go out and it was amazing, there were 15,000 people applauding in there. Something very special!
This week, here in my house, in my studio, a recording sponsored by Yamaha pianos is going to be held with an Argentinian soloist called Miriam Conti. I wrote a sonata for solo piano for her, a suite, a theme with variations, one hour long, which will be recorded in two days.
And I have more things going on. Now I am writing a concerto for tuba and orchestra, for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with a tuba soloist. This is very rare, because there’s never been done a concerto for tuba and orchestra.
And after that, I have to compose a string quartet. And then, there is this young Argentinian director who wants my music in his movie, do you remember?, the one I mentioned earlier, who is going to send me the script in December, because now I have a lot of work.
So I’m not retired! I want to be busy, but of course, in things that are worthwhile!
I think it is a great philosophy! It has been a real pleasure talking to you, and has been very instructive to know all the details you have told me about your life and work through this complete interview.
I would like to thank you again for your time and kindness, and I wish you continue composing fabulous music, for a long long time!
Thank you for your interest!
Lalo Schifrin, because a “Maestro” is not only the one who knows more than the rest, but the one that explains and transmits in the best way, as he did throughout the interview, with patience, dedication and affection.
Beth Krakower (The Krakower Group), for making possible a far-fetched idea that was echoing in my head.
Óscar Salazar, for his help with the research and development of the questions of this interview.
Interviewer: Gorka Oteiza