He’s written a Catholic mass and two books. In his career of over five decades he’s composed the music for over 100 films, including A Nightmare on Elm Street, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds. And on his car radio, the shortcut button to the hip-hop station is right in the middle. Film composer Charles Bernstein might have a soft spot for Beethoven, but his insight into hip-hop, sampling, and beats is as sophisticated as it is downright dope.
Interview by Casey Brown
Can you talk a bit about the process of composing film scores?
Each picture, like a human being, has its own identity, and it’s part of the job of the composer to try to mirror that identity in music when we create a musical identity for the picture. The greatest film scores are often the ones in which music captures the main character(s) of the film. Think back in history to the movie like To Kill A Mockingbird. Even though the movie was made a long time ago, people still revere the music because it captured this childlike world as well as the social issues that made that movie special. When you think of any movie that you love, there’s some musical identity for it. I’m not just talking about the songs that are included in the movie soundtrack, but the way the actual score somehow creates a flavor. So that’s my approach. I try to figure out what’s special about the movie. Then, I try to figure out what musical elements will enhance and identify that.
How did these ideas play into what you composed for A Nightmare on Elm Street?
A Nightmare on Elm Street, among other things, is a genre movie. It’s a “horror” movie. So that already places it in a certain realm. And then it’s a movie about young people. There are scenes in school. There’s a child-parent relationship issue. Also, you’ve got a main character who is female and a main villain, Freddy Krueger, who is, of course, a big part of the identity of the picture. It also has a nursery rhyme built into the movie itself: “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you.” So the music had to create this world, to take that nursery rhyme element and also to capture the flavor of the main character who ends up confronting the villain. So those were things that were in my mind when I was creating the music. That also informed a certain kind of pop beat element that you usually don’t find in film scores. It’s also a creature of the time the movie was made, which was back in the ‘80s.
Do you have a signature to your compositions? Is there something about your work that is distinctly “you?”
There are usually two kinds of actors. There’s the actor like, say, John Wayne, who plays the same basic character in all the movies he’s in. Then, there’s the actor who, every time he pops up in the movie, you don’t even recognize him until halfway through because he immerses himself so much in the film. As a composer I face the same issue—how much of my personal identity do I want to come through the music and how much do I want to totally lose my personal identity in the identity of the film itself. In some films I disappear. In my horror movies I try to be edgy and original at least in the context of the story and the period. But it all depends. I would probably leave it to others to say if they recognize me and my musical identity in the films.
Musically, what compositions are you most proud of and why?
I don’t think of the scores I’ve written as compositions, oddly enough. I think of them as elements of another composition, which is the film. It’s a little bit like choosing your favorite kid. You love them all in different ways, or at least, you should. I feel that way about the scores I’ve written. I gave birth to all of them and feel attached to all of them in one way or another. Having said that, I did write a world beat mass based on the Catholic mass but applying it to different cultures—Middle Eastern, Native American, Greek, Persian, etc. That was one of the few times I ventured outside the film music world and did something of my own. I’m pleased with it because it gave rhythm to this ancient set of syllables that we call the Catholic mass. It did what I wanted it to do, and I’m proud of it for that.
Where’d you get the idea to take these world beats and make a Catholic mass out of them?
First of all, I don’t look upon it as a Catholic mass as much as an ecumenical application of the catholic liturgy. I try to look upon it as a world mass, rather than a mass of any particular denomination of masses. I got the idea because I’m a great lover of the music of history and every composer that I’ve ever loved—from early on to the present day—has written a mass. Benjamin Britten, Bach, Beethoven—even Leonard Bernstein did a really interesting mass in the 1970s. All through history every composer that has mattered to me has taken a shot at it, so it was on my radar. Not that I’m comparing myself, mind you.
A few of your songs from Gator (Flight In the Night and Laying the Trap in particular) have been sampled by artists across the globe of many different languages. What do you think it is about this soundtrack that makes it so universally resonant to hip-hop?
I’ve given this some thought, and I’ve given this a lot more thought after stumbling on WhoSampled.com. I wrote that score in the 1974-75 time frame. That time predates hip-hop. I was kind of surrounded by a certain beat. I’ll actually get technical for a bit, starting with ragtime in American pop music. Ragtime had a particular rhythmical element to it, namely even eighth notes. That is to say, the division of the rhythm into eighth notes was divided such that each eighth note had the same duration. This became very standard. And then the swing era began. In this era (also known as the jazz era) those eighth notes began to be called swing eighth notes rather than even eighth notes. That is to say they weren’t equal. Every two eighth notes was longer than the second (based on triplets). This was the popular beat in the swing era (through World War II and up through the ’50s). That swing beat permeated jazz, pop, and R&B. When the 1960s came in (I was a drummer) I remember how bored we all were and how old-fashioned triplets had begun to sound. So we gravitated toward even eighth notes but we added even sixteenth notes within the eighth notes. We divided the eighth notes into two sixteenth notes. So we got a very even grid in the ’60s. We moved into the disco era in the ’70s and we retained the even eighth note feeling. However, it was in the ’70s that I wrote the score for Gator. And the pop and funk hits (for instance Elton John’s Benny and the Jets was a hit that year) were all even sixteenth note-based. So I’m writing the score to Gator, (I’ve already done White Lightning and Gator is the sequel to it) and I’m thinking, “Can’t we do something a little interesting with the beat here?” We’re down in the swamp country in North Florida. The movie’s set in the South. Maybe what I’ll do is keep the even quarter notes and the even eighth notes and swing the internal sixteenth notes, which hadn’t really been done a lot before. So I swung the inner notes in triplets but left the outer notes even. So I just thought, “Wow this is cool. I think I’ll do a lot of my chase scenes and tension scenes in this new beat.” It was new at the time and it didn’t sound painted with the clichés of the 1960s or the disco beat. Fast forward to the end of ’70s into the ’80s. A similar beat began to catch on in different areas, and that very beat became known as hip-hop — for the first era of hip-hop that is. Hip-hop now doesn’t rely exclusively on that beat. It’s gravitated toward more even eighth notes, and I hear more even sixteenth notes coming back in. Listeners got tired of that swing. But I think rappers and hip-hop artists who came across the Gator vinyl not even knowing that it predated the movement probably thought, “Hmm…this feels comfortable. I know this beat.” It’s compatible with the original hip-hop beat feeling. I think that might account for why a number of artists think, “I know this feel” and use these tracks.
What are your thoughts on sampling? How do these sonic references contribute to songs that sample them?
I think it’s a tribute and an honor when someone selects your music and includes it in their work. Quentin Tarantino has included my existing music in Inglorious Basterds and Kill Bill. Quentin has taken music that I’ve written for other things and more or less done in his films with my music what a hip-hop artist might do, and that is take a bit of it and put it into their project. I look upon it as an honor to be included. I’m glad people keep bits of my music alive.
You mention in your book Film Music and Everything Else that music for film should sound familiar. How do you go about building score that sounds familiar? How do you borrow familiar elements to create something new?
I don’t actually borrow elements the way a sampler would or the way Quentin Tarantino does. A film composer has to approach these things a little differently. There’s also much more of a copyright issue in a film score if you quote something. You really have to account for the rights. Because of fair use, I believe, samples in hip-hop can be included to a certain degree. When Quentin Tarantino uses my music in Inglorious Basterds, he of course has to license it from the owner, who is the publisher. So having said all of that, when I write film music, I can’t just borrow music from other places. In order to sound familiar, it’s a much different process. And the reason film music needs to sound familiar is because it needs to evoke certain periods of time or certain geographies. If I’m writing something like Gator or White Lightning that takes place in the southeast United States, I have to do certain things to sound familiar to the region and to the period without actually borrowing the music itself. What I’m doing is adopting a style. So familiarity in film music often involves evoking something by employing stylistic elements. Film music is a mix of the familiar and the inventive when it’s at its best. So when I’m writing a horror score, I need to be familiar enough to scare people and inventive enough to not sound like the last score they heard that scared them. Writing music for film is a very challenging profession for that reason.
What music do you listen to? What are some of your favorite genres/artists/songs?
I once asked that questions of all my favorite composers I had access to, including Henry Mancini. And it was always shocking the kinds of answers I would get. First of all, composers when they’re writing music tend not to listen to music a lot for two reasons. First, they don’t want to be too influenced so that what they’re listening to doesn’t show up in their writing. And another reason is that they’re just so fatigued by listening to and writing music that sometimes it’s very restful to enjoy silence or some other activity that doesn’t involve listening. Also, composers tend to listen very intensely. Unlike people that just have music playing in the background, composers usually tune into that background music in a restaurant. It’s hard to listen passively. Having said that I do listen and love music deeply. I have a special love for Beethoven, particularly the late quartets, Bach, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and great orchestral music conducted by a master. In pop music, anything that comes along that’s good and grabs my attention.
What are your thoughts on hip-hop?
It’s an absolute explosion of creativity and invention, and particularly poetry and personal expression. I think it’s a phenomenal and explosive creative force that swept across the pop landscape. I think a lot about hip-hop because I know that it has permeated the culture so widely that I need to be tuned into it and think about it. One of the lessons that I draw from hip-hop is how comforting it is. This may sound odd to some people. They think of it as edgy or dangerous, even offensive. But actually there’s a certain comfort in the rhythm and in the fact that people are saying what they’re feeling. I know it’s not often thought of as stabilizing or comforting, but there is something very grounding about the music, the repetitiveness, and the way the language is rhythmically employed. It grounds and creates stability in a way that has made a big impression on me. I can’t say that I’m stylistically influenced by hip-hop, other than by some of the production techniques. I always think, “How did this artist achieve that effect electronically?” and so forth.
For more information, check out charlesbernstein.com