"Maximal" Music

An Interview With Michael Kamen

Michael Kamen

In 1998 in an interview for the book KNOWING THE SCORE, Michael Kamen talked about various theoretical and technical aspects of composing music for film, including how it came to play in Terry Gilliam's THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. This was Kamen's second film score for Gilliam following BRAZIL, a film which he deemed iconographic. "I have done 60-odd films, and I could, you know, count on one hand the films that have been totally absorbing in the last 15 years of my life. And one of them was certainly BRAZIL."

It was a tremendous loss for music, and for film, when Kamen passed away in 2003 at age 55.

Kamen:  I love film, I love collaborating with it but it's my viewpoint that my music has to have the strength of character to really define itself, and then it can add substantially to the film. I love the stark reality of theatre. If there's live instruments in the theatre that's one thing but if it's taped synthesizer it tends to make it feel like a soap opera on television.

The music that I made [for the stage play THE WINTER GUEST] was very minimal, unlike most of my bombastic and "maximal" [as opposed to "minimalist"] music, it was very gentle and very unobtrusive, which was its goal. The music in the film version was more fully rounded because it was a much more literal treatment of something. There was no abstraction in the film — if you were looking at a frozen sea, you were looking at a frozen sea; if they were walking across a field, it was covered with snow. Everything was frozen. There were wide spaces, there was an ocean, there were hills and fields and a town. All of that reality that you cannot do in a theatre is present in the film, and you tell the complete story musically, so the theme would show up in varying guises, and quite literally in the film became a character. There was a boy next door who played the piano — you never saw him but you heard him play — and the theme came from him playing. The characters comment on him.

When you talk about the music as a character — somehow sitting inside the film rather than outside commenting on it — it reminds me of the theatre scenes in MUNCHAUSEN where the pit orchestra of the Henry Salt & Sons Players is decimated by the war — the notes coming from them sound pretty threadbare!

I made a reduced group of disparate instruments, a solo fiddle played by Nigel Kennedy, a trombone, a trumpet, a drum, I think I played oboe, there was a bass but there was no cello. I don't remember what the instruments were but there was a conglomeration of percussion and very few brass players left — they were the first to go, they were drafted! It was really great fun. We had a wonderful session with this half-a-theatre orchestra!

I don't think we did play that literally but it was part of the action of the film that the music would stop and start, begin hesitantly and then burst in — that did happen — so yes, there were gaps. I did follow my instinct on that one.

Again, the fate of the film — I must say I helped unwittingly to contribute I think in an adverse way to the film. The score is beautiful and elegant and stylistically correct and all of that, [but] it's too detailed. Terry made a film that is so crenulated and crusted with gold leaf and florid curlicues of design that the music could have helped the film by being a little more stark, a little less baroque, a little less Period of Enlightenment. I think I was so motivated to be part of that rich tapestry that I didn't step back enough and just play a single note and allow the film to blossom on its own. It was an intense barrage of images and an intense barrage of musical images.

Can you give an example?

The battle scenes at the end of the movie. I did it twice as a matter of fact, I did them once in Germany in the original recording and then re-recorded, re-wrote in England. I made the ideas a little bit more resonant, I needed a little more spine to the idea because it had been too detailed.

The theme in MUNCHAUSEN was a good one and was interesting, but you know, perhaps I'm being unfairly harsh on myself, I know I did a great job, and I know that I really enjoyed doing it, but if I could critique my own work it would be that I was probably too busy, too intent on making The Real Thing.

It's like when Terry shot one of the scenes in the movie at Cinecitta, the craftsmen at Cinecitta who are without parallel in the world held him up because he had to raise a big gilded sun over the stage and he couldn't have it on time and he asked, 'Why not?' They said because they hadn't finished gold leafing it! And you know, in a normal film you'd paint it with gold paint; for a Terry Gilliam film, the craftsmen whittled it by hand and then gold leafed it by hand, put real gold leaf on it, because that's the kind of extent that you want to go for or go through for a director of his remarkable quality and his remarkable eye. His whole attention to detail inspires you to paint what in my case could have been too detailed a canvas.

Movies at the end of the day are meant to be viewed in a very temporal fashion. They are not a novel that you re-read, they are not books, they aren't paintings you can study; they grab you or they don't grab you.

His films are worthy of enough re-viewings that it makes sense there would be that much attention paid to the details.

Well, he is the only one who is allowed to get away with that, and there is thank God a fairly substantial market for his films now because his genius is recognized. But it is almost presumptuous of him — I think he'd probably admit it — to say, 'Well, fuck all that, I'm going to make what I want to make. I make this kind of film, I do study these films, I will sit and look at this again and again and again and again. And again!' So he feels justified, and those of us who respond to that kind of artistic delight, because it really is a child-like delight, it's the artist as a child, who can also articulate in a dazzlingly proficient and experienced way, but it's that child-like energy that inspires the rest of us to get on the bandwagon.

For Related Articles on THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN by David Morgan:

  • "MUNCHAUSEN At The Starting Gate" — September 1987 interview with Gilliam, before the madness set in

  • "The Mad Adventures Of Terry Gilliam" — On Location at Cinecitta (Sight & Sound Magazine, Autumn 1988)

  • The "Real" Baron — What do you do if you embezzle from royalty and flee the country? You write a book about a Baron who tells bigger lies than you do

  • Script Development — Analysis of Gilliam and McKeown's screenplay

  • "Shout For Your City!" — Even cities under siege need bureaucrats

  • Interview With Eric Idle — The fellow Python talks on the set about surviving a Gilliam shoot

  • Publicity — How do you sell a film about a character no one in the States had ever heard of?

  • Market Research — Audiences at test screenings gave their verdict: What happened to Sting?

  • Litigation — Losing millions of dollars at the box office is no guard against people suing

  • Essay — Cover notes for the Criterion Collection's 1992 special edition laserdisc

    copyright 1998, 2009 by David Morgan
    All rights reserved.