Listen Magazine Feature
Lalo Schifrin, a composer for all seasons, at eighty-five
By Ben Finane
COMPOSER AND STEINWAY ARTIST LALO SCHIFRIN has written more than a hundred scores, including those for the television shows Mission: Impossible, Mannix, and The Fox and film scores for Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, Dirty Harry, The Cincinnati Kid and Amityville Horror. Schifrin has no regard for genre and is at ease scoring for film and television as he is writing for a symphony orchestra or a jazz ensemble. His father, Luis Schifrin, was the concertmaster of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Buenos Aires at the Teatro Colon. Lalo Schifrin continued his formal music education at the Paris Conservatory during the early 1950s. Simultaneously, he became a jazz pianist, composer and arranger, playing and recording in Europe. When he returned to Buenos Aires in the mid 1950s, he formed his own big concert band. It was during a performance of this band that Dizzy Gillespie heard Schifrin play and asked him to become his pianist and arranger. In 1958, Schifrin moved to the United States and thus began a remarkable career. Schifrin spoke to Listen from his home in Beverly Hills, a day after his eighty-fifth birthday.
Happy belated birthday.
In honor of the passing of Roger Moore (1927–2017), I did a ranking of the James Bond theme songs, which got me thinking about sound worlds that certain film composers create: John Barry and his spy-music landscape, Enio Morricone and his Spaghetti Western palette. But when I think of Lalo Schifrin, I think of a chameleon, one that is able to span so very many different sound worlds and musical lexicons. For me, your calling card — regardless of genre or orchestration — is a real assertiveness, a thrust, a forward movement, I would even use ‘aggression’ here, in the best of ways. Is there an immediacy that you always seek out when you’re writing music?
That’s a very good question. First of all, I want to tell you that there was a Polish writer who wanted to create a universal language. And he created Esperanto. Do you remember?
I do — L. L. Zamenhof.
He failed, because there was already a universal language: music. Music is the language that everybody can understand. We can touch people’s emotions. We can laugh with music; we can cry with music: we can do anything. Music has everything that is necessary. That is why there is music in cartoons. That is why there is music for funeral marches. And there is a whole spectrum of feelings in between that we can experience.
I think there’s only one style. There may be different music, different combinations of musicians. I’ve been playing for more than fifty years now; I’ve tried many different things. But I think you can always recognize me, whatever I do. Of course, too, whatever my style is at the present moment is the one I feel most comfortable with — otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Over the years, you get ideas: ‘I want to play with African musicians, I want to play with American musicians, European, Asian musicians.’ I like that. This gives you experience, and when I go out of this world maybe I will have found the essence of the whole thing. That’s what I’m working on: to play better music until I drop.
Lalo Schifrin at the piano
I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t realized you wrote the music for Cool Hand Luke, which is both one of my favorite films and favorite scores. Again, you disguise yourself so well from project to project — I hadn’t known it was you! I play piano, but I remember one of the things I first tried to play on guitar was that beautiful theme from Cool Hand Luke.
Oh! You are talking about one of my own favorite scores! In fact, if you ask me which of scores is my favorite, that’s the one! This is because, again, it had all the feelings within. Paul Newman’s character: he laughs, he is persecuted by the system, by this ‘failure to communicate,’ remember that?
Absolutely! ‘What we got here is failure to communicate. There are some men you just can’t reach….’
I was very touched by this. It was a well directed movie, well acted, with this spectrum of feelings — and possibilities. And I was very lucky to get this assignment. There were many composers — and many agents of composers — hunting that movie. And I was new to Hollywood. And there was a director and a producer at a table and the composers came up, one at a time. And they said to me: ‘We need a composer who can write country music and symphonic music, and it seems like no one here can do both. Can you do both?’ And I said, ‘Yes, why not?’
You have a classical background. You understand jazz. You’re able to do funk, and country. You are able to tell stories in all these different idioms. What is the secret of being able to make these transitions?
Well, for Cool Hand Luke, I knew this banjo player; he played a five-string banjo, like they have in country music. I asked him to play a free line, like almost an improvisation around anything. And he played: ‘dun-ka-dun-ka-dun-ka-dun-ka-dun-ka-dun-ka-dun-ka-dun-ka-dun….’ I said: ‘Play it slower.’ He played: “Duuun, dun-ka duuun, dun-ka duuun….” And I said: ‘Oh, that’s great!’ And the accompaniment to the theme, you remember, is: ‘Duun, dunk-a duuun da duun…’ and that’s that one banjo accompaniment, slowed down on acoustic guitar. And then another acoustic guitar on top, playing the melody: ‘Daaah dee dah dah daaaah….’
When you sit down to compose, maybe it’s a jazz orchestra, maybe it’s a classical orchestra, a string quartet maybe it’s a studio orchestra for a film score. Of course those are very different projects. But are the musical priorities the same or do they change depending on what you’re writing?
I think the answer to that comes from my schooling. I studied piano with Daniel Barenboim’s father, Enrique Barenboim, who was a friend of my father, and he gave me lessons, when I was five years old, on his Steinway. And that was my first training. And then I began watching orchestral rehearsals at the Philharmonic Orchestra of Buenos Aires. I got to meet Arturo Toscanini in person; he came to Buenos Aires. My father introduced me to him. I didn’t even know what a conductor was. I slowly became acquainted with all the elements of classical works. Later on, as a teenager, through radio and records, I got acquainted with American jazz, modern jazz: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk. And I knew the music of Fats Waller and the music of Louis Armstrong, Jell Rolly Morton, and the great old jazz. And I became blinded by this music. And I had to play it and I learned it by ear because there was no printed music. I played records over and over to get melodies and harmonies. That was the way I did it.
You of course would go on to write the Gillespiana Suite for Dizzy Gillespie, which is incredible.
Oh, thank you. I’m glad you like it. I think it’s one of my best compositions in terms of anything — jazz, classical…. As a mater of fact, the first movement is a Prelude and the last movement is a Toccata.
Le tombeau de Couperin by Ravel also starts with a Prelude and ends with a Toccata. But I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t do it purposely. It was a coincidence.
It seems natural to borrow the operatic tradition of Leitmotif when you’re scoring a film. Is that something you think about? When a character returns to the screen, do you bring his music with him?
Before film was invented, opera was the form of entertainment that people had that included music, drama and comedy. Film gave us the opportunity to combine all of these elements with immediacy; the art of filmmaking is the opera of the twentieth century. Opera and ballet, too, hand an influence on me.
With all of the styles that you compose, is there an idiom in which you feel most at home?
I am at home in many languages. I am versed in this tradition of European composers. I was lucky enough to have studied not only Spanish, back in Argentina, but also mandatory French and mandatory English where I attended college, and also six years of Latin. That helped me to understand — or even speak — other languages, like Italian and Portuguese. American, this is another language! And I was lucky that this was part of my education. At the time is seemed like too many obligations, too much homework. Now I realize it was so useful.
Do you compose at the piano or do you write without an instrument?
No, I used to write at the piano. But in the conservatoire I was taught ‘When you write, write away from the piano.’
Is that so you don’t fall into familiar shapes?
You write the music in your head, and put it exactly on paper without the piano. Look, if you have to send a letter, say from here to Paris, you and don’t have to think or be clumsy…. You tell your friends in Paris ‘All is well; we’re having a good time,’ you don’t need a piano to do this. And this is exactly what I do with music.
Before film was invented, opera was the form of entertainment that people had that included music, drama and comedy. Film gave us the opportunity to combine all of these elements with immediacy: the art of filmmaking is the opera of the twentieth century.
Who are the film composers who influenced you when you began writing music for film?
First, Alex North was a film composer who influenced me. And then, a colleague I refer to often was Jerry Goldsmith.
Ah, yes — he did the score for Patton.
I think that Patton is a brilliant score. Because Jerry Goldsmith had a very difficult assignment. The hero of the film, General George Patton, lives in the past. He believes in reincarnation. He has been in battles with the Roman Empire — according to him! And beyond that, he is caught in this dramatic moment in a war between the Allies and Germany. And he is locked in battle not only with the enemy but with his own officers, who don’t believe in the ideas that he has about how to fight that war. His tactics. His fantasy. The British officers, the staff of Colonel Montgomery, don’t believe in his military ideas. So he’s in an extremely difficult situation: stuck in the past, grappling with the present, and thinking about the future. Once he says: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Remember that?
Yes, I remember.
Yeah! So I think that Jerry Goldsmith actually solved all these problems, including not only the echoes of history that he used… I learned about the instrument after listening to that score, it’s called an Echoplex [sings trumpet part]. And that was juxtaposed with marches [sings the march], uniting the past and the present. It’s a fantastic score!
What do you have planned for your next eighty-five years?
Well, I’m now writing mostly what you call ‘classical music.’ I would call it ‘music,’ because for me there is no difference. Jazz, swing, tango — it’s all music. I just finished a concerto for tuba and orchestra that will premiere soon. The soloist is amazing, plays the tuba like it’s a trumpet and then again like a French horn. We’re used to the tuba playing ‘Bap, bap, bap, bap.’ It’s much more than that. So dynamic!
Thank you so much for speaking about music with me.
Well I hope I was able to answer at least some of your questions.
It’s all I can ask for.
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.
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