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Interview with Joel Mcneely - Second Part


Gifted both for scoring a film and cooking a tasty meal, Joel McNeely first drew the attention of a larger audience as the man providing a distinctive voice to a younger version of everyone’s favorite hero: Indiana Jones. After winning an Emmy, Joel McNeely helped expand the Star Wars universe long before prequels became a serious talk. He further dared to try the terror and action genres, ended up working twice with James Cameron and, most recently, he sucesfully mastered Disney´s turf. As a conductor, Joel McNeely is best known for his priceless re-recordings of many Bernard Herrman´s treasured works. Please meet the talented man behind the recipe!

2º Part

BSOSpirit: Now, turning to your role as conductor, if we recall correctly the first ever re-recording of another composer’s score you worked in was Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo. This was meant to be the start of a very long series of collaborations between you and Varèse Sarabande’s producer Robert Townson. How did the two of you come to get so closely involved in these projects?

Joel McNeely: Well, the first CD we did together was the Farenheit 451 score with the Seattle Symphony which was not a complete recording of the score as it was coupled with The Ghost and Ms. Muir and… I don’t remember exactly what else. Anyway, I think that there was also some other score on that CD, too. Then things didn’t work out with the Seattle Symphony and Bob Townson found the Royal Scottish Orchestra, and in this way Vertigo became the first recording we did with them.

That was a very special recording! I’m really proud of that record… you know, so much work goes into these records in trying to get them to be as true, not so much to the original, but rather as true as I can get, based on what I see on the page, to the composer’s original intent. A lot of times what happens when going through the filmmaking process is that the director will go and say: “It’s too fast or it’s too slow, let’s cut it here or let’s put this cue with this other, etc.” So, this way, the score gets changed and what I was interested in doing with these recordings was to bring to light what the composer originally wrote.

The good thing is that Bernard Herrmann was incredibly specific in his scores about what he wanted, so if you really open your eyes and read the scores you’ll find every clue that you need to what he truly pursued to achieve with his music.

As you can imagine, each one of these recordings has been a huge project since it’s not your own music but somebody else’s. So, there is this process of just trying to assimilate of what he was going for. Believe me if I say that this doesn’t happen overnight!

When I’m conducting my music I know exactly what I want at all times. With this music it was a mystery, a puzzle that had to be solved. And this always takes research, it takes looking at things and then letting them sit for a while, then coming back to them and right after also going to the movie and checking there what he did, etc. It’s a very different thing to what I do in my film work.

BS: How did you get involved with Bob Townson in doing these re-recordings?

JM: Well, one day Bob came up with this idea which was a project that he always wanted to do. He needed folks to conduct and so, after having released my Iron Will score and having seen me in the recording sessions, he just told me that he thought I was a pretty good conductor and asked me whether I’d like to participate in this other project of his. And I agreed instantly!

This lead us to make this first record in Seattle and now it’s over 50 records that we have done together with Jerry, Elmer and a couple of other guys! So, it’s something we are all really proud of.

BS: A particularly interesting effort of yours was the re-recording of Herrmann's music to no less than seven episodes from the television series The Twilight Zone

JM: Wow, those are great!

BS: Yes, they are! To what extent was Herrmann writing for TV different than the one he used for his feature films? Did this pose any special challenge to you at the podium?

JM: Yeah, absolutely. He was really having fun with those. Obviously, there were budget limitations on occasions so he could only have from 6 to maybe 10 musicians a show and therefore he'd find crazy combinations of instruments like, say, four base and three harps or 6 tubas, etc. That’s why these scores are totally unique and, furthermore, very effective as they do exactly what they need to do.

The funny thing is that it never occurs to you while you are watching the show that the whole score is like a celesta, six clarinets and four flutes… A really weird instrumental combination that you only realize once you sit down and study the actual score.

I loved that, I loved him taking chances with orchestrations. Moreover, I have to admit that I’ve learnt so much from working in these records. In a weird way it was almost like getting to study with him because in order to conduct this music you really have to know it so deeply. You can't just stand up there and go like: "O.k. it's in 4/4, I'll be in 4/4 all the time."

Here you really need to know it almost as well as if you had written it yourself which means it takes hours and hours of just assimilating the music, i.e. reading the score and playing it over and over and over until you know it well enough. And then you can stand up in front of a group of musicians and say: "I know what's going on. Follow me." So, in doing these Herrmann records I've had my nose in his scores for hundreds and hundreds of hours. It's been very educational.

BS: Watching movies is obviously part of the process as you stated earlier on. How often do you do that?

JM: I do always watch the movie; usually several times, though it depends on the movie, too.

For all of the Hitchcock movies like, for instance, Psycho I watched the movie many times and then I made a CD of all the cues from the actual movie itself. Then I did like tempo maps; I would break it up with the metronome and say: "O.k. he is between 61 and 66 beats per minute here." And so when we are recording I have a metronome on my stand and I'm constantly checking my tempi against the metronome to hopefully be pretty close to what's in the movie.

I'm not really worried about being exactly the way it is in the movie and sometimes I'm not even worried at all because I just feel that maybe he had to do this in a certain way to match the picture which certainly I don't have to. So, I do it a little more free. However, I generally tend to stay true to the picture without being a freak about it. It’s just it's always good to have it in the general vicinity of the original tempo.

BS: By your words one might say it does really take a huge effort to get ready each one of these scores?

JM: Oh, months and months of work. My God! Do you know the recording we did for Franz Waxman's Rebecca?

BS: Sure.

JM: That one took six months of work! What happened was that the scores and the parts had been badly decayed and much of it was reconstruction, i.e. going through them and the original film and trying to rebuild them again. In some cases, there weren't even scores and we had to transcribe them.

So, you see it's not like going to a recording session, standing up and conducting the score to Rebecca. By the time I get to that recording session, I've been working on it for six months.

BS: Indeed we heard that something similar happened whilst preparing the album to the Twilight Zone score. Apparently,it was found that the original music for the episode entitled Where's Everybody was actually missing. Consequently, there was a need to recreate the whole score from an old recording that occasionally included dialogues and sound effects. What was your involvement in this process?

JM: Those processes I have not. Only because I don't have enough time to. That's a job that any skilled orchestrator can do, and it's also kind of a tedious one which I'm not particularly interested in doing. So, I let other people do that.

BS: Which one is the most difficult Bernard Herrmann score you've worked at? Why so?

JM: Hmm, they are all difficult but I guess the most technically difficult one to work on -and also for the orchestra to play- was Citizen Kane. It was his first real score for Orson Wells and so, I think he was trying really hard to impress. Thus, it has like millions notes on it and a lot of tempo changes. It's very virtuosic music and so, in terms of sheer preparation that one was certainly difficult.

But he does have many difficult pieces like, e.g., The Day the Earth Stood Still just because of the whole crazy theramin use in there. Theramins are incredibly strange and cranky instruments. They are difficult to play in tune. That was a difficult record to produce from a sonic standpoint.

Oh, and there's also Torn Curtain! That was really the toughest one! It was tough because of this strange orchestra with this massive brass section. Plus we had not been able to get Abbey Road to record it, so we went up going to this, well, basically it was a dance hall outside of London and it was really the wrong place to record the score. I mean, it was like a gym and it really sounded wrong in there, very echoic. We couldn't get the sound we wanted and I guess to this day Bob and I are the least happy with that record… you know, sometimes… we only had one day to do that record, so it was not like you could get out there and go: "Oh! This hall is not the right place to record this." And then go to another place to do it. Simply because you don't have the money. Therefore you got to deal with what you've got and try to do the best you can with what you have.

What I would like a lot of people to understand is what a large undertaking it is to do these re-recordings, i.e. how expensive they are for the record company and how the potential of making the money back is very small. Bob Townson is really doing this as an act of preservation. He's a conservationist indeed, and he knows that chances are he's going to lose money on this. Therefore, as he is doing it out of love, we have to do these things incredibly fast. Maybe there's an opportunity to do two takes, but a lot of times it's just one take. So, now you know that if you listen to it and kind of go: "Hmm, maybe the playing was here and there a bit shabby"... Well, it's because we recorded 50 minutes of music in just six hours! At the end of that session you are just covered in sweat by trying to get it recorded.

BS: The good thing is many people like these re-recordings.

JM: Yeah. Me, too. We are trying to do some more. Indeed, we have done several outrageous concerts with this music. It's kind of a documentary. The producer had many film clips with Hitchcock and Hermann talking, audio clips with Herrmann, interviews with Elmer Bernstein and Martin Scorsese, plus they had an actor onstage reading many of the letters between Hitchcock and Herrmann.

BS: After having conducted so much of his music would you see an influence of his output in your own writing?

JM: Well, sometimes I write something as a tribute just for fun. For example, I recently did a ride for the Tokyo Disneyland and there I did some references intentionally to Citizen Kane and to Vertigo. Just little things that slip in for time to time.

BS: What's your favourite Bernard Herrmann score?

JM: I guess I have to say Vertigo; also because I love the movie so much!

BS: And finally, one last question! As conductor, you've also been involved in re-recording the works of some other major film composers such as John Barry, Elmer Bernstein, Franz Waxman, John Williams and Danny Elfman to name just a few. Their styles are obviously quite different one from the other, so we’d like to know if you ever feel it difficult to wear all these different hats?

JM: No, no at all. It’s like a conductor going from Brahms to Beethoven to Mahler. They all are very different, but once you’ve understood their music, you could conduct it.

The main thing about conducting a John Williams score is… he is like a Swiss watch maker. He makes these incredibly detailed, crafted compositions, with all this incredible attention to detail put in! So you look at the page and go: “Oh my God, this is difficult! This is going to take forever!” Then you stand up there and you start conducting it, and it sounds amazing the first time through! So there you go asking yourself the question as to why is that so. It took me years to understand why.

The reason is John Williams has taken the time over the years to learn every single instrument in such detail that he knows exactly what he can write for a particular instrument that may sound incredibly difficult but, actually, because it lays so beautifully on that instrument it is quite easy for a performer. For instance, with a very difficult passage in the violins he is not just writing something on piano that sounds cool, he is looking at the strings and the way they are laid out on the violin itself and the strings crossings, i.e. how does this one finger move from this string to that string in a certain position. So then, he is asking himself from that position where the finger is, what does he have to write next to jump to the next string, but maintain that position!

That level of care and of accomplishment in knowing all the instruments of the orchestra to that degree means that he is free to write these things that look as though they were incredibly complicated, which indeed they are, and yet they take no rehearsal time whatsoever! They just lay perfectly on the orchestra.

That was a revelation that happened to me many years ago, when I was conducting one of the first things I did; maybe, the Jaws album. And I thought: “This is extraordinary!” This is a whole level of craft that you really need to be a composer to understand. He is so much beyond even what most people know of his ability! It’s just scary!

That was actually a nice revelation because it made me understand how much I still had to learn in terms of writing. So, I’d say this really inspired me to really go out and think more about these things and really to learn each instrument as well as I could possibly learn it.

Having the opportunity to conduct great composer’s work is a real gift! To conduct To Kill A Mockingbird, which I think is one of my favourite scores of all times and one of the reasons I wanted to be a film composer, was a great joy.

And Waxman was unbelievable! He was an amazing conductor, writing incredibly difficult pieces with all these changes in tempi, with very little indication in the score about what he was going to do. Sometimes no indication at all of these changes in tempi, and then you listen to the score and go: “Wow!” He was such a great conductor that with no indication he could step up and lift this stuff off! It’s been a great project.

BS: Well, thank you very much Joel for all you time. We hope to hear from you soon.

JM: My pleasure. I hope to meet you soon. Take care.


Interview performed and transcript by Sergio Gorjón

Questions by Sergio Gorjón, Asier G. Senarriaga and Juan Antonio Martín Martín

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