There are some filmmakers whose work is linked to the music of certain composers so inextricably that it’s almost impossible to imagine the moving images without the accompanying scores. Think of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Think of George Lucas and John Williams. And think of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman.
Elfman has scored more than a dozen of Burton’s movies, and, according to conductor John Mauceri, it was a match made in audio-visual heaven.
“Tim Burton, in his dark genius and his sense of humour—because even with all the macabre things that go on, there’s a tremendous sense of humour; there’s a twinkle in the eye of the skeleton—he found the perfect composer to represent acoustically, or aurally, what he’s doing visually,” Mauceri told the Straight in a recent telephone interview.
Mauceri will be in town this week to conduct the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music drawn from the 28-year (and ongoing) creative partnership between Burton and Elfman. The program includes repertoire selected and arranged by Elfman himself, who has also contributed new pieces adapted from his original scores. The concert spans from 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure to last year’s Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie, with inevitable stops at The Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Corpse Bride. The show’s visual component includes clips from select films and projections of Burton’s original pen-and-ink conceptual drawings of some of his iconic characters.
Mauceri has known Elfman for, by his estimation, “about a decade”. In 2006, he conducted the composer’s Serenada Schizophrana for the Sony BMG Masterworks label. He said that, after working almost exclusively in a recording studio throughout his film-scoring career, Elfman expressed some reservations about bringing his work to the concert hall. Ultimately, though, Mauceri won him over.
“He just trusted that when we got in front of an orchestra and he got to hear this in different acoustical environments, it would be okay, and that he could trust that, although it would never be the same as it was in the studio, that was even more than okay, because that’s how music lives,” said the conductor, who added that, even though some of this music dates back almost three decades, Elfman sees it all as very much a work in progress.
“So that would mean that you sometimes get a note at quarter to 7, before a 7:30 concert, that he wants to change a glockenspiel note or a chime note and wants a chorus to come in three beats early or something or other,” Mauceri revealed. “And that’s also part of the process, because he’s still working on all these pieces. No composer ever really signs off on his music.”
Elfman got his start in the skinny-tie era as a rock ’n’ roll musician, most notably with the twitchy Los Angeles–based band Oingo Boingo, whose signature songs included “Weird Science” and “Dead Man’s Party”. Mauceri credits this background with the strong rhythmic pulse that drives much of the composer’s film compositions.
"If you ask what it is about Danny’s Oingo Boingo period that informs his music, I think it might be that he’s comfortable in using the beat,” Mauceri explained. “The beat is what he hears, but he transcends that. Danny is so brilliant that when he was exposed to Shostakovich and Stravinsky and Prokofiev in college, he wanted to hear that music and he wanted to write like that. He wanted to go there. He wasn’t just studying the Beatles and the Stones and Jim Morrison; he actually aspired to this. It doesn’t matter that he was doing rock ’n’ roll. What matters is that he’s a brilliant musician, and once he locked into his own native talent, he saw what the expressive potential of music was.”
And that, the conductor said, is precisely what audience members will walk away with—along with, perhaps, a serious case of goosebumps.
“There’s no question that when you hear this concert, you will hear a wide embrace of possibilities here, from kind of silly carnival-like music to the most profound Americana,” Mauceri said. “And in Batman, he touches something that is quite dark and Russian-sounding, but very heroic. When that march starts shortly into that suite, you can just about feel the entire audience fasten their seatbelt.”
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performs Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday (November 23).