Music à la Melle, Part 2 -


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Music à la Melle, Part 2

We conclude our retrospective interview with Gil Melle, a leader in electronic music and jazz, who passed away on October 28.

By Randall D. Larson     November 18, 2004


For nearly five decades, Gil Melle had made a mark in the world of jazz as an outstanding saxophonist, composer, and also noted as a painter. In the world of film and television, his work has been extraordinarily notable if not that well preserved on records and CDs. His TV-movie music in the early '70s included a trio of high-profile films for television: MY SWEET CHARLIE, THAT CERTAIN SUMMER, and FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. His most well-known film score was THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN but as an innovator in the use of electronic music in films of the 1960s, Melle contributed to a great many science fiction, fantasy, and horror television and feature film scores including NIGHT GALLERY (theme and episodes), THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (original TV-movie), A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH, THE QUESTOR TAPES, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, STARSHIP INVASIONS, WORLD WAR III, and many others. Melle's efforts preceded almost everyone else's experiments in electronic film music, and resulted in the first true electronic film score.

If you missed last week's Soundtrax which contains the first part of this interview, you can still catch it here.


The Fantastic Film Music of Gil Melle: Part 2

Q: What can you tell say about THE NIGHT STALKER TV series? (1974)

Melle: I was called in by Darren McGavin twenty minutes before they were shooting the Main Title. He called me in and he said "Listen I've liked your work, and would you be available for this? What do you think a good concept would be?" So we talked, and I [IMG2R]asked, "When do you need the main title?" He said "We're going into film it right now, in twenty minutes!" Well, if you remember the beginning of NIGHT STALKER, Darren McGavin walks into the room whistling, and then the orchestra comes in behind his whistling, actually supporting him and then the orchestra takes over, and then we go into the Main Title. Well, how can they film the Main Title when you don't have a theme?

So in twenty minutes, and I'm serious about this, there was the maddest dash you ever saw in your life to put together a theme, and to find something, and I played it for him on the piano and he says "I like that, it sounds terrific. Let's use that." We brought down the head of the music library at Universal and he sight-read the part I wrote for him and whistled it and put it on a cassette recorder. The tape was rushed over to the stage with Darren, he's listening to it on the way over. In twenty minutes the theme was written, was taped for him to commit to memory, and then when he got over to the stage they shot it. That was unbelievable! But it was important that the whistling matched his mouth movements.

Q: You also scored Gene Roddenberry's short-lived series, THE QUESTOR TAPES. (1974).

Melle: I thought QUESTOR was a marvelous show. It was written by Gene Roddenberry, and that year Gene had done three different shows, and this was the pilot, with Robert Foxworth, and I loved it. I thought it was such a beautifully literate script, and imaginative, and I really liked working with Gene Roddenberry very much also. Anyway, the pilot was sold and they went into production on it, and do you know that they couldn't get anybody to come up with a script that was viable to support the basic story that Roddenberry had completed? By that time Roddenberry was off on other projects. It was about an android who replicates himself every two hundred years and his function is to remain totally low profile and influence humanity for its good. That's a helluva a concept to come up with on a weekly basis! The pilot was sold but they never could make one show!

Q: What was your musical approach to that pilot?

Melle: Because the script was so literate. I didn't treat the android like a monster. Just during the formative periods of the show when the creature was being created there was a lot of electronic synthesis and a lot of musical imagery, but after that, once the character of Robert Foxworth became crystallized, I started emphasizing the show's philosophy.

Q: Another great orchestral horror score you did was for THE SENTINEL.

Melle: THE SENTINEL was quite a large orchestra. I believe it was eighty players. It was recorded at Warner Bros. I also used voices, which I don't do very frequently. The interesting thing about the score, a lot of times, if I'm on a project and I hear a sound that I want and it's not possible to get it with the synthesis that is currently available or with a standard orchestra, I'll build instruments to accomplish what I hear. I did that on ANDROMEDA STRAIN, in fact. I built an instrument which was, incidentally, the world's first percussion synthesizer. Now, percussion synthesizers are all the rage, but I built the Percussotron III. If you've ever seen the ANDROMEDA album, if you open up the lotus on the front of the album, inside is a picture of me playing that instrument. That was the third generic instrument, the first one was built five years before that and the second one about two years before. I never bothered to patent it or anything, because I built it just to accommodate myself with something that I wanted to do, and since it didn't exist I created it. I've done that over the years, like the low orchestra bells for FRANKENSTEIN. On THE SENTINEL, I invented two new instruments, one was probably the world's largest string instrument at the time, it was a 28-foot long string instrument called the Tubo Continuum, and it was a very different sounding instrument completely. The other instrument I designed for it was called a digital modulator, which enabled me to perform "co-solos" with musicians. A "co-solo" would be where you have a soloist, in the case of THE SENTINEL, the soloist was my dear friend who died two years ago, Edgar Lustgarten, the cellist. He was the primo cellist here for many years, on literally I guess every important score that was done. I wrote quite lengthy solos for him on THE SENTINEL, and while he was performing them, I had a special attachment made for his cello and that's no small task, because he used a Ruggieri, which was worth about a hundred thousand dollars at the time, and he wasn't too fond of people modifying it! But, nevertheless, I was able to connect this device that I built and designed, and as he played the solo, I interacted with his solo, and also played it with him. The two of us played the single solo, that's why I've coined the term "co-solo," because that's what I did.

Q: You were playing an electronic instrument while he played the solo on the cello?

Melle: While he was generating the basic frequencies with the cello, I was modifying and processing his solo, so that what came out was not what he was playing but what I was processing through the digital modulator. At the same time, I was reliant upon him for what I was doing.

Q: How about STARSHIP INVASIONS (1977)? That was quite a good score.

Melle: That was a really happy experience, and it was a turning for me. That's [IMG3R]the first score that I ever wrote where I wrote all the things that I feel I'm good at into the store. FRANKENSTEIN was a purely symphonic orchestral score, ANDROMEDA STRAIN was purely an electronic score, and THE ORGANIZATION was purely a jazz score. Everything I did through those years was either one or the other or the other. I decided one day that the thing that makes me unique is that I can do any of these things as well as the other, so I was going to change any style of writing, and in STARSHIP INVASIONS I indeed did that. It's risky, all of the sudden in the middle of a symphonic piece you hear something that's got a pulse with it, that's got a pulsation with the energy of electronics or jazz or both. You don't know how a producer's going to react to that. I'd imagine that, if in the middle of SUPERMAN, John Williams started getting jazzy, or suddenly in the middle of one of James Horner's scores it suddenly goes totally electronic, you're kind of asking for trouble, and yet conceptually I think it's a very valid way to write. I feel I'm good at integrating and shifting gears from bar to bar or even within a bar, going from one to the other, so I really had a field day with that score.

In the course of your life as a musician, you run into a lot of people who say "Yeah, I used to be a clarinet player," or "I used to play trumpet," or play piano - we hear that a lot, especially from producers and directors, and what-it really translates out to is "I had three lessons on the trumpet twenty-five years ago." Well, everybody did that, that doesn't make you a musician, it's almost like wearing a uniform or saying "I was in the Marine Corps" when actually you were never in anything. It's an affront, really, to a musician who's paid a lot of dues in trying to master his profession and trying to survive in it with so much non-music in the world today. Anyway, the producer on STARSHIP INVASIONS was Norman Glick, from Canada and his brother Earl owned Hal Roach Studios and he told me this - "You know, I used to be a musician," and I said "No kidding?" He said "Yeah, I played clarinet." I said "Oh, great." And that was the end of it. So, on the recording sessions that we were doing, it was a Canadian company but we were recording in Hollywood, and one of the clarinetists on the sessions asked me if I knew who he was. I said "Yeah, he's the producer." He said "No, this guy was a classical clarinetist, he played with all the opera companies and symphonies for years!" I said "You're kidding!" He says "No, do you know when Buddy DeFranco goes to Canada, do you know where he goes?" I said "Where?" He says "He goes over to this guys house because this man is such a master of the French Flaxinger technique that DeFranco loves to go and play duets with him!" And this is the guy I'm working for!

Well, because he was the musician that he was, he backed me to the hilt on that score. He was so encouraging and so helpful, and if we needed more time to record something and get it really right, we did it. You don't find a situation like that very often, with someone who not only truly loves music and recognizes the importance of it in a film but especially that is an accomplished musician himself and understands the problems you're having. I mean, sometimes on a score you have a problem in the middle of a cue, a technical error that's glaring to a musician, and a producer will say "I'm sorry, we've got to go on to the next thing, we can't spend any more time with it," and the thing goes out in the picture like that. It does happen quite frequently.

Q: 'that can you tell us about the score you wrote for BLOOD BEACH? (1980)

Melle: Did you see the movie?

Q: Yeah.

Melle: I thought it was quite good. I didn't like the title too much, but I thought it was very well done, and that movie was kind of different, too. That was the same approach that I used on STARSHIP INVASIONS, and I was getting better and better at it. The more I combined all the things I was good at, the better it seemed to work out. The thing I liked about it was the man who directed it and wrote the screenplay, Jeff Bloom, had thought very carefully throughout the movie of where he felt the music should be. It's one of those very rare occasions in filmmaking where the music is not an afterthought. The man actually shot a scene with the idea of music in his mind. There aren't many people that do that, and when we went to spot the thing, which is the moment when you actually decide precisely where the music is going to go, he had copious notes. He had thought of the concept and the feeling and the texture he wanted and even the duration. Maybe some composers would feel he was encroaching upon their creativity, but I didn't. I liked the idea that a man had really thought about my role in what he's doing.

When you score a picture, any scene can be done many different ways. The basic concept for the score could be twenty different directions, and because I'm a composer and I like writing all sorts of music, I welcome direction. Then I feel more integrated into the picture, I have more of a clue as to what's behind what I'm looking at, the philosophies and the ideas and whatever. I must say that Jeff is one of the most thorough and accomplished filmmakers I've ever worked with.

Q: What was your musical approach to that film?

Melle: To scare the hell out of the audience, but to do it in a different way, and to combine electronics as a fifth section of the orchestra, with the strings, brass, percussion, and woodwinds. To think of the orchestra as a five-way entity and also to put as much fusion (by the way, when I say "jazz," I want you to understand, all through this conversation that I'm not talking about Dixieland or bebop, I'm talking about, essentially, fusion, because that's the music that I love very much and am very much involved in), and I wanted a lot of that in the score, and I was able to accomplish that.

Q: THE LAST CHASE (1980) also seemed to be in that vein.

Melle: LAST CHASE was another example of that concept of composition. The scores, from STARSHIP INVASIONS to BLOOD BEACH to LAST CHASE, we're talking about a maturity of my style as a composer. We're talking about, after many, many years of writing in a lot of different directions, suddenly crystallizing my life's work. The scores are very dissimilar, but the philosophy is he same - to have a very full palette and to use all the colors where required and when needed. If a picture calls for a score that is purely electronics and that's what works best then fine. But that may not be the case. I don't feel that a composer should limit himself to that if actually there are moments that really would work much more efficiently with other musical concepts.

I'm working now and these years with a very full palette, all the colors, and I'm not talking about musical exhibitionism throwing everything in like I'm saying "Look at this" and "Now watch this!" I'm talking about having all of the colors available and using them if and when required and being able to do it. That's my philosophy. That's my thinking about film scoring, and that's what I'm doing, and I feel that all the pictures I've done commencing with STARSHIP INVASIONS have been farther and further into this. Have you seen WORLD WAR III [1982 TV-movie] yet?

Q: Yes.

Melle: Okay. Now that was performed by five men, and it was my group, which is called Siren. That is as different as night and day from any of [IMG4R]the other pictures that you've mentioned, a completely unique score in the way it was done, with its sonorities and concepts, and yet there is a lot of jazz in that. One of the interesting things about that picture, there was a nine-minute battle sequence in the final encounter between the Russians and the American troops, and we were rehearsing the music. The director, David Green, is also a man very sensitive to music and who thinks in terms of music long before the picture's even shot. We were rehearsing the music for that battle sequence, and of course, as you remember, it's very linear, there are no jagged moments, there's no agitato, and it sounds like anything but music for a battle. Most war battle music is lots of percussion and lots of brass, all playing at a breakneck tempo, and very staccato and unnerving. This was long, flowing, dark philosophic lines, and while we were rehearsing it at the studio, he looked at me and he asked "Which scene is this for?" And I told him, and he raised his eyebrows. He didn't think it would work. Well, we recorded the music to picture, and when he saw it, he never stopped raving about that cue. In a sense, it was like FRANKENSTEIN, which was another subject that's been done over and over by people, and was usually done with old-fashioned monster music, big dissonant chords. Battle scenes have been the same they're always pyrotechnical percussion and exploding brass.

But in WORLD WAR III, this was me saying "Here are these people killing themselves. This is the saddest sight you'd ever want to look on." The music was philosophic it was saying "War is insane!" I was not scoring what you were looking at, I was scoring the proper mental attitude of what you were seeing.

Q: Yes, I noticed that in a sense even in the main theme, with the snare drum beats over the synthesizer throbbing, maintained that almost pessimistic ominousness underlying what was really behind what was going on.

Melle: Yes, that was it exactly.

Q: A lot of your work has been for TV. How do you find working in this medium?

MELLE: I would say that some of the best things, and I realize that it sounds like such a bromide, "some of the best," but a fine project is a fine project whether its for television or movies. Financial considerations are greater in movies, but that shouldn't enter into it, I would say that my television experiences have been very rich. I had the honor of doing MY SWEET CHARLIE which won loads of awards, and that was a chamber music score, very conservative. THAT CERTAIN SUMMER with Hal Holbrook, was one of the finest experiences I've had in scoring, and that was a television movie. ATTICA was another wonderful experience for me. There are problems in television but they're technical problems, they're not creative problems. You have less money, smaller orchestras, less time to record, so you work faster, and you have tougher deadlines. But I've always been an extremely fast writer, and the deadlines don't bother me. I don't think of great music as sheer weight of numbers - for a capable composer working with ten or thirty or a hundred players, or just one or two, it doesn't matter. The idea is to write viable and original music. Television does impose the fact that you rarely use over thirty players, but that's not a problem. They have fine studios to record in, and I like working in television, very much.

Q: What's your current project at this time?

Melle: I'm working on a show called VOYEURS, with David Soul. It's a fascinating project, very challenging. It's about a classical flutist who lives in Chicago and in his immediate area there are a [IMG5R]series of horrendous murders and he becomes a suspect. The picture's interesting to me because there are a lot of themes that had to be composed and recorded before the picture was shot, of David practicing on the flute, rehearsing and performing with the orchestra, and these things are really challenges. I had a chance to write a truly romantic theme for the picture. I generally get to score pictures about monsters and psychopaths, but I do like to write a beautiful, pretty theme. As I said before, there's so compartmentalizing of personalities in Hollywood where you get known for doing a certain type of picture and that's all you get to do. Most musicians are capable of a much greater spectrum than they're called upon to exhibit in the music of a film, but they don't get those opportunities. So I welcomed the chance to write this score.

Q: When you're given an assignment to score a film, how do you prefer to proceed with its composition?

Melle: I don't like to preconceive a score. In other words, to read a script and then while the movie's being shot, determine to use this theme and that type of orchestra or electronics. What I like to do is not even think about a movie, even if I've read the script, until it's shot and they've got a cut that's pretty close to what's going to be released. Then I like to sit down and look at it and get a gut instinct of what will work best in the movie. I like spontaneity. You have to remember that my background is as a jazz musician, and improvisation. Thinking on the spur of the moment is what I like to do and what I think works best for me. So I look at the picture and conceptualize it at that moment.

I like to write it fast, I don't like to spend forever on a score, because of all the interruptions. You know, you begin and you find yourself immersed in the work and you have a thread of thought and you're pursuing it, and all of the sudden you go to a party with your friends and you're talking about God-knows-what. When you get back to the music, it's very hard to back to where you were before. Consequently, interruptions in your creative life, I believe, create a kind of a patchwork approach to music. What I like to do is get on the picture, concentrate totally on it, with no distractions, arid continue from the very first note right to the end, with an occasional time out for a cup of coffee and a sandwich, and maybe a catnap. I like to work straight through so the music has a unified whole to it, and is a unified concept rather than a lot of cues strung together. It's just like conversation when you're talking to someone and you have an idea. You say what's on your mind and you get it over with. If you're interrupted and then you come back to the conversation an hour later, you're on a different level. It could be a deeper or a lighter level but it won't be the same level, and that is very, very true in music.


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