Tell us a little about your background, both personally and professionally (in terms of film music). How did you first discover film music?
I was born on a sunny day in March in Athens, Greece, where I still live and work. At the age of 8 I took my first piano and music theory lessons, and at my 18 I moved north to Thessaloniki, to study Musicology at the Aristotle University and Music Theory (harmony, counterpoint, fugue), Orchestration and Music Composition at the State Conservatory, where I also received my Piano Diploma with honours. Afterwards I moved to Germany for 2 years, to pursue further piano studies, and came back to Athens. I’ve spent my first 25 years of life teaching classical piano and music theory as well as giving solo piano performances and chamber music concerts. That was my first life, if I can say this. To counterbalance my ‘heavy’ classical past, a second musical phase started at my early 30s, when I started discovering other music genres, popular or not, experimenting with mingling classical with electronic, and being interested in the connections between music, literature and mixed media. During that period I started betraying the piano keys with pens and my laptop and had my first job as a music journalist for numerous magazines.
And then… film music invaded my life! To be honest – it was always there, as I was into music and films since my very early childhood. You see, I grew up in a family where music and films, each on its own, were basic elements of our daily life. My father was (retired now) a cinematographer, painter and photographer. We were spending most of our summer vacations touring Greece and following him at his shootings, mostly documentaries. The sound of his cameras, our 8mm camera “toys”, and the smell of the films are part of my childhood’s memories.
My father shared with me and my siblings his passion for Italian Neorealist films (I was a teenager when I felt in love with Nino Rota’s music for Fellini’s 8½ and La Strada) and his addiction to Roman Polanski. Krzysztof Komeda’s scores for Rosemary’s Baby and The Fearless Vampire Killer had a huge influence on my film musical taste, as I was quite young when I first watched those films.
Movies were firing my imagination as a child and they were always the channel guiding my fantasy. I was fascinated by Steven Spielberg’s films (particularly Jaws, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and there was a period in which my dream was to become an astronaut – that was the Superman and Star Wars effect! At that time, I couldn’t realise film music’s vital role to my love for movies, but this love was growing inside me, as I was trying to play the main themes at the piano, while imagining the movie scenes as well.
Apparently, I had a subconscious lifelong fascination with film music, before realizing its meaning as a concept. To make the long story short: I was 15 or 16 when I started connecting the composers with the movies that had such a huge impact on my childhood (John Williams and Danny Elfman were my superheroes as a teenager), and 18 when I realized the power of film music. I remember standing at a bus station in front of a record store when Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music from The Last Emperor (actually the melodramatic strings of “Open the Door”) froze me suddenly. I stayed there listening to the whole album, missed many buses, bought finally the LP and became familiar with an unknown (for me) film composer.
Film music was once again an extension to my limitless imaginary worlds. My classical past and my daily avocation with piano and orchestral music helped the blooming of my love for film music, where I was also to find a pleasure extra to sound per se: the visuals. From that point on a big journey started, and I knew that a whole new musical world was out there, eagering to be discovered, growing and transforming. It still does so, and this is my biggest joy lately: discovering its ever expanding palette of sounds and emotions.
Closing my flashback, I should mention another vital aspect of my film music life, that is, silent films. Of course, as every kid, I was mesmerized my Chaplin’s, Keaton’s and Lloyd’s films. But there were two pivotal moments in my life that affected my appreciation for silent film music and helped me understand its function more. The one was the first time I watched Metropolis as a teenager. I remember watching the film in a loop, closing my eyes and just listening to Gottfried Huppertz’s music, opening them and staring at Brigitte Helm as the robot. The other one was a few years ago, when Michael Cacoyannis, the greek director and founder of The Cacoyannis Silent Film Festival, was looking for a music editor to create a new industrial-rock version of Wiene’s masterpiece Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. Tempted by the idea of creating a new musical world for one of my beloved films, I tried to create an audiovisual work that one couldn’t have heard back in the silent era. Cacoyannis trusted my ideas and since then I have edited more than ten silent films, mostly focusing on the German Expressionism.
How did you begin your website? Tell us a little about its history, and what you do now in terms of film music journalism.
People say that if you truly love something, you ought to share it with others. This is what I did and what I keep on doing. Having a mixed musical background and scattering from classical to experimental electronic and indie genres, I’ve always had the feeling that film music was there for audiences, which needed guidance to understand or create bounds with it. As a result, I decided that I should totally devote myself to three areas, namely the love for films and film music, the love for silent films specifically, and the continuοus research on and promotion of them.
My film music history and journalistic activity in the last 10 years consisted of film music radio shows, writings on various local publications and postings at my earlier film music blog. Additionally, I worked as a silent film music editor at the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Silent Film Festivals in the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation in Athens, Greece (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari by Robert Wiene, Nana by Jean Renoir, Mother by Vsevolod Pudovkin, The Merry Widow by Erich von Stroheim, Le Retour A La Raison and Les mystères du château de Dé by Man Ray, The Man Who Laughs by Paul Leni, The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein, and Leaves From Satan’s Book by Carl Theodor Dreyer among others), gave lectures on the history of soundtracks and on music accompaniment and re-scoring of silent films, and moderated panels, that were really inspirational to me (on Abel Korzeniowski in Film Music Festival Cordoba 2014, for Music Society 2012 in Athens and more).
For the last 6 years I have been promoting film scores and soundtracks on my personal radio show, City Lights. It is a 2-hour weekly film music show featured on the Innersound web radio station (http://innersound-radio.com) and on my personal website, Kinetophone. It’s funny, because at the beginning I was wondering: “Are you crazy? How are you gonna compile a weekly 2-hour film music show?” But then, the ideas and the audio material seemed to be inexhaustible! My radio shows focus on newly released scores and soundtracks from films, TV, or video games, and have broadcasted many premieres thanks to their composers, the labels and IFMCA, of course. I have also established the Composer of the Month series (featuring audio excerpts from interviews), the Cinemas of the World (for example, the German, Scandinavian, and Asian ones), the Scoring for Directors (Theo Angelopoulos, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and others), many ‘Best Of’s’, thematic ones like the Scoring for Fear (Halloween Edition), For Sci-Fi Movies, For Godzilla (a journey from 1962 and Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla to 2014 and Alexandre Desplat’s one), Hotel Edition (a strange summer idea to gather soundtracks from movie sets at hotels), Scoring for Film Noir, Arias in Movies, Bands Scoring and a very special one, Reconstructing Jerry Goldsmith, presenting some of his reconstructed scores with special guests, such as James Fitzpatrick, Leigh Phillips, and Nick Raine. This season I’m establishing the Rising Composers series and, of course, there are many more thematic ones to come.
An important step in my journalistic career was taken last year, when I decided to polish my older film music website, which I was running for almost 10 years and created from the beginning a new one: Kinetophone (http://kinetophone.com). It was a tough, complex but finally wise decision to abandon the Greek language for the English one, as I realised that my audience was global. The speed in which my audience is growing is that big that starting next month, I’ll have the joy of collaborating with two more IFMCA members, who will join me as editors. My website focuses on spreading news about film, TV and video game music, festivals, and industry-related topics. It also features my interviews with film, TV and video game composers (Alexandre Desplat, Dario Marianelli, Gustavo Santaolalla, Rachel Portman, Rahman Altin, Laurent Eyquem, Abel Korzeniowski, Rolfe Kent, Jeff Russo, Murray Gold, Steven Price, Cliff Martinez, Johann Johannsson), reviews, my radio shows, and my silent film music editings. I’m also trying to support worthwhile events, thus I was a media supporter this year of the Cordoba and Krakow Film Music Festivals, The 5th Michael Cacoyannis Silent Film Festival, the International Pharos Contemporary Music Festival, and the 14th Festival of Sacred Music of Patmos among others. Finally, Kinetophone was also a supporter of Oticons Faculty, an international film composers’ competition.
I see my website as something alive and not only as a reviewing and static one. It is my base and starting point for serving worldwide the promotion of film music – through my writings and radio shows, seminars, concerts and hopefully the organisation of a film music festival in Greece. Admittedly, my biggest plan and ambition is Kinetophone to become a crossroads for film music fans, composers, directors, festivals and the film music industry. I know that this thought can be sometimes very scary, especially as I realise that this daily devotion is taking a rather big part of my personal life. But as people say: “if your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough!”
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
That’s the toughest question to answer just in a few lines without making first a specification of the respondent. For example, talking about myself, I already have three identities: a radio producer, a film music critic and a viewer/listener. If you ask a composer, you’ll probably get the answer that there is only one criterion, to serve the film and follow the director’s vision. If you ask a producer, the answer will include the word money. If I had to answer as a radio producer, then I had to talk only about the soundtrack album and it’s musical content as a standalone listening experience, existing away from the cinematic image.
Answering as a listener and overall receiver, I would say that there is a mysterious and rather complicated synergy between music or sound and the cinematic image, that includes five words: interaction (between elements of a movie and the audience), understanding (of the vision of the director and the needs of the picture and vice versa), balance and inventiveness (in the musical content), alchemy (between the composer and the director). And sometimes, luck! No one can deny that since the silent era, when music had the practical use of covering the noise of the projector and keeping the audience quiet and soften their fears, it was obvious that it had a subconscious effect and still plays, in a different way, a vital role. It’s the emotive power that has to deal a lot with the psychology of music, it’s perception and cognition. Quoting David O. Selznick: “The purpose of film music is not to be noticed for itself. Its great usefulness is the way in which it performs its role without an intervening conscious act of perception. It is most telling when the music registers upon us in a quiet way, where we don’t know it’s actually happening. If the audience is even conscious of the score, it defeats its own purpose”. Therefore, I strongly believe that the most effective scores are the ones that operate below moviegoer’s consciousness. We should never forget about the close connection between hearing-vibrations and mind and consider that the aural sense is that one that deeply agitates our emotions. I couldn’t agree more with D.W. Griffith: “Watch a film run in silence and then watch it again with eyes and ears. The music sets the mood for what your eyes sees. It guides your emotions. It is the emotional framework for visual pictures”.
Talking as a critic and about music’s emotional impact on a scene, there is always the risk of detracting from it. We can recall moments when composers wrote, from a technical point of view, the most inspired music, that didn’t work with the film, ignoring the narration and being inconsistent with movie’s vision and it’s overall philosophy. Therefore, whatever the musical medium, the instrumentation, orchestration or even programming, a composer must never forget that the balance between the aural and visual elements and understanding of the needs of the scenes and movie are crucial and that his score can bring a distinct significance and a new dimension to the movie. Or alter it completely. Vice versa, although there is a huge difference in how directors accept the insertion of music into film, they should evaluate more the fact that music can serve the film in many levels. They should also, both, directors and composers, appreciate the use of silence and have the courage to admit that sometimes, the partial absence of music (I would forgive that absence in Haneke’s films) is quite effective and the most intense scenes remain so because they have their own life. And here is where the alchemy between the director and the composer comes. When the two of them succeed to work in tandem, understanding and respecting the aesthetic and narrative elements of the movie and each other, they can achieve genuine and great results. There were remarkable partnerships between Steven Spielberg and John Williams, Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini, David Cronenberg and Howard Shore, an adventurous affair between Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, but there was a synergetic and metaphysical connection between Federico Fellini and Nino Rota, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, Werner Herzog and Popol Vuh, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Zbigniew Preisner, Hayao Miyazaki and Joe Hisaishi, Theo Angelopoulos and Eleni Karaindrou. It’s always a matter of interaction between talent and intelligence. What a good score can never do, is to magically transform a bad movie into a masterpiece. There is a beloved phrase by Bernard Herrmann who once said: “I can dress up a corpse but I can’t bring it back to life”.
Finally, it’s the luck issue. As we don’t share the same visions, defining a good score, is many times a matter of perception and appreciation.
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today, especially in Greece?
Actually, I’m very happy and optimistic, and certainly not sharing the inauspicious opinions of people stuck in the glory of the past, although I respect and admire that past, as I think that film music is gaining nowadays the lost ground of significance and appreciation. Despite the trends, the lack of originality and differentiation, the continuous use of the same temp-tracks, the poor quality of sampled sounds, the uniformity of the music language and standardization dictated by the Hollywood film music industry, there are some bright exceptions. Think of the abundance of different musical approaches and styles, from glorious symphonic scores, to electronica or pop/rock/folk driven ones. Think about the burst of film music concerts, the festivals and the competition between labels in releasing or reissuing soundtracks. Think of all the individual talents, mostly deriving from the independent scene, who, although they carry some of the past’s heritance, they seem to have their own scoring voice. Think about how music of excellent quality is invading TV series, video games, how neglected forms like the documentaries are gaining with scores’ help a new glory. So yes, despite the problems that every era is facing, and although a past lover myself, I’m quite optimistic about what future reserves for film music.
I only wish I could be that happy and optimistic for film scoring in Greece. Despite the bloom of Greek cinema over the last few years and the huge impact of Greek “weird wave” directors like Giorgos Lanthimos and Athina Tsangari that boosted the interest in Greek cinema and are considered the great hope of national cinema, the situation concerning Greek film music is rather disappointing. There have always been great composers in Greece, like Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadjidakis, Kyriakos Sfetsas, Nikos Mamangakis, Vangelis, Eleni Karaindrou, Giannis Markopoulos, Stavros Xarchakos, Kostas Kapnisis, Jannos Eolou, who worked with great directors. Unfortunately, the case today in Greek film music consists of two elements: the lack of film education and film music education and the lack of trust or knowledge by contemporary directors in what music can do for movies. Certainly, there are some exceptions like Kostas Christides and George Kallis (having Hollywood careers), Alexander Voulgaris, Katerina Polemi and few others, but the mapping of Greek film music is really challenging and it’s an action still waiting for it’s explorer.
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you?
Like I said, I grew up in a classical music environment, therefore, the symphonic idiom has a strong impact to my musical taste. Historically, I would start with Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner and Miklós Rózsa. Herrmann was, in my opinion, a great inspiration and potent role model for a new generation of later film composers. He created his innovative compositional style and experimental orchestration techniques (e.g. the two theremins in The Day The Earth Stood Still, or the electronic sounds on the mixtrautonium for The Birds), away from the Golden Age compositional traditions and gave a psychological depth to their music, finding a unique way in conveying the deeper emotions of the characters. The scores of numerous Hollywood’s composers, have Herrmann touches. John Williams, Danny Elfman and James Newton Howard mention Bernard Herrmann as one of their favorite composers and a major influence and there are scores echoing his work, like the love theme from Vertigo in the last reels of The Artist by Ludovic Bource, or another Vertigo reminiscent in A Variation on Scotty Tails Madeline for A Single Man by Abel Korzeniowski. Then Max Steiner, the “father of film music”, that although some may find his music full of predictable stereotypes and old fashioned melodramas, he established conventions like the leitmotif, giving his scores a unique narrative music language – James Newton Howard and John Williams are again two examples for how Steiner’s score for King Kong affected their music. Finally, Miklós Rózsa had the ability to transform feelings to music in a deeply emotional way, combining his dark melancholic Hungarian folk traditions with modern idioms and giving to film music a new role.
Then, moving to time, I was always mesmerized by Gottfried Huppertz’s silent music visions, Danny Elfman’s dark visions, Jerry Goldsmith’s intelligence, Elliot Goldenthal’s symphonic idiom, and the veterans John Williams, Georges Delerue, Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone. I deeply admire the musical aesthetic and language of Polish composers Wojciech Kilar and Krzysztof Komeda and their heirs Abel Korzezniowski and Bartosz Chajdecki, for the poetic beauty and genius counterpoint of their scores and lately I’m ecstatic with the Spanish magic of new composers like Alberto Iglesias, Fernando Velázquez, Roque Baños, Federico Jusid, Javier Navarrete, Victor Reyes, Oscar Navarro, and Zacarias M. de la Riva. I always follow with the highest interest the scores by Dario Marianelli and Alexandre Desplat and I’m fascinated by numerous composers like Angelo Badalamenti, Gabriel Yared, Thomas Newman, Claudio Simonetti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Johan Söderqvist, Atli Örvarsson, Henrik Skram, Ernst Reijseger (his score Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a reason for everyone to love film music), Gustavo Santaolalla, Osvaldo Golijov, Ilan Eshkeri, Bruno Coulais, Shigeru Umebayashi, Laurent Eyquem, Lalo Schifrin, Wim Mertens, Philip Glass, Byeong-Woo Lee, Nuno Malo, Marcelo Zarvos, Tom Tykwer, Howard Shore, Rob Simonsen and more…
Finally, I’m always excited and amazed with what the alternative and indie scene is offering lately to film music with names like Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Clint Mansell, Cliff Matrinez, Ólafur Arnalds, Jonny Greenwood, Owen Pallett, Joe Trapanese, Mica Levi, M83, and Daft Punk.
Read Eleni’s writing at Kinetophone, listen to her radio show City Lights, or follow her on Twitter at @kinetophone.