John Barry interview extracts from The Score

edited September 2014 in Music Posts: 154
Here are some Bond related extracts from John Barry's interview with Michael Schelle found in his book "The Score, interviews with film composers". The interview was at his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, conducted sometime between summer 97 and summer 98. Not one to mince his words, he's quite critical of Lazenby and Rigg and also gives a different perspective to Eric Serra's hiring -to what's found in Jon Burlingame's book.

The book with the full interview is still available on Amazon:

Your High Road to China score embraces broad, soaring themes to accompany the soaring airplane and the sprawling scenery. But the airplane is so loud it drowns out your score. What kinds of problems need to be worked out in balancing sound effects and music in the final mix?

This is the big fight, always. The prime examples I can give actually refer to the James Bond movies. At the time we did Goldfinger, certain movies had exaggerated sound effects. But with Goldfinger, they really, really did it—with the hits and the screeching car sounds and the runaway trains and the fist fights—everything was just way over the top, very noisy. I was frustrated, so I asked if we could have the senior sound editor involved with the music score. For one car-chase scene, as an example, I suggested that the sound effects could be at high volume for the first part, but then we would find a given point where something changes in the action—another element of danger or an imminent escape—where the effects would then dis-solve into my music for the second part. The music would lift the emotions and the effects would be subliminal, except maybe for the last five seconds, where everything effects and music would crescendo to a fevered pitch. So, on a lot of the Bond movies, I would work side by side with the sound guys. And the formula worked very well. If you ask people why the Bond chase scenes worked, they don't really know. But I believe it's because of this careful blending of effects and music. When I get a movie nowadays, and we enter into that "action" area, I use the same approach: find out what the sounds are, and fade the music in and out of the effects. In the five-minute buffalo hunt in Dances With Wolves, for example, they initially had laid a very loud temp track over the entire scene, but I pushed for beginning it with only the sounds of the buffalo, which were such terrific sounds by themselves, without music. Let’s give the audience the feeling of what that must have been like if they were there — let’s give that to them first, and then I’ll come in when some element changes and the effects can fade into the background.

Many recent action movies mix high-volume effects and loud music simultaneously.

And that makes me scream. It's just a jumbled mess—incredibly loud effects and loud music at the same time. You can't tell the difference between the two sound sources. When the effects are that loud, there’s no way you can work around them. Seriously, you can't. Range extremes—adding high piccolos, xylophones, bass trombones, tubas, contrabass clarinets, that kind of thing—is really the only way to try to find a register that's not being eaten up by the effects. But it's still too much sound. A lot of composers will write a loud, full-orchestra tutti against the effects, and then nobody wins. Even worse, now they throw synthesizers into the mix—synthesized effects, synthesized music—all with the orchestra and the natural sound effects, which produces just a huge fusion of way too much sound information. You can't tell who's doing what. It totally loses its dramatic impact. It's supposed to be very exciting, but it becomes boring. It becomes too "Johnny One-Note" or, actually, too "Johnny Million-Notes! " [Laughter]

You've composed the scores for the majority of the Bond pictures. Were you asked to do the recent GoldenEye?

I was asked to do that picture, but I was committed. I had too many things to do already, which was maybe too bad. Because of the nostalgia element, it might have been fun to return to the series. But I actually thought that I'd done enough of that - that was the past, just too many years had gone by and the theme wasn't right anymore. Also, I didn't think the movie was going anywhere at all. So they asked me who I would recommend. I'd recently heard an Eric Serra score, a synthesized score, but a very attractive score, and I suggested that maybe this might be a new way to go for the contemporary and image. When I finally saw the movie, nothing worked. I was confused. I truly don't know what happened. It should have worked, I believed that the idea was a good new direction for Bond. But he didn't do anything close to what I had heard in his earlier score, the score that prompted me to make my recommendation in the first place. He just went off on another tangent.

Critics seized the opportunity to reminisce about the good old days—the John Barry/James Bond tradition.

That's true. And I received one of the best reviews of my life for not doing it! The New York Times review, in the first paragraph, said something like, "The real James Bond audiences are going through epileptic fits because there's no Bond music in the movie," or something to that effect. And I thought, "Great, you don't do a movie, and you're praised." If I had done the score, the critics would have said, "Oh, John Barry's doing his same old Bond shtick." [Laughter]

You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty's Secret Service are two very aggressive Bond scores—more tension and suspense music than in many of the other movies—but not quite the good-natured, "wink-of-the-eye," matinee-hero action implications of the others. Were the changes in your Bond scores inspired by the scripts, the directors, the changing 007 actors?

You Only Live Twice was an Oriental thing. [Barry whines an augmented second-heavy motive.] So that was obviously a huge directive. It was also one of the first times in a Bond movie, if not the first, that a character that you liked died. Usually, when they kill somebody, it’s like “Ah ha!” which can almost be a musical invitation to a laugh line. But this time, the emotions were more dramatic. There was a lot of sympathy in that movie. The composer can’t play that lightly. And Sean Connery’s playing of it was straight, too. This was very serious. You can do two or three cues in a movie that have a slightly different tone and everyone says, “Oh, the score is so different,” when it actually isn’t. If you hit two or three areas where dramatic impact is different, it gives the impression of different music, something radical. But that’s the nature of the beast. The music I write adapts to the situation, based on the intensity level of a scene.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?

That was another "first time" problem—a new face! To help the audience through the change, the entire opening sequence is very tradition-heavy. It establishes everything that had gone before, everything that was very "Bondian." The movies before it always moving away or moving ahead, but this was a giant step back, as if to say, "Listen folks, it's okay, this is James Bond, James Bond,
James Bond." There were first-class action sequences in that movie, technically. Also the song was a new idea that I liked. That movie didn't move you as it should have done when she dies at the end. The chemistry just didn't work. I wrote what I thought was one of nicest songs I've ever written, "We Have All the Time in the World." I wanted it to work like "September Song." I wanted the irony of an old man singing around this young girl's death—and that's why I wanted Louis Armstrong. I could think of no one else but Louis Armstrong from the start.

That breaks with tradition as well. Previous Bond songs were recorded by such popular, sexy young artists of the time as Tom Jones and Nancy Sinatra.

Right. When I went to them and asked, "How about Louis Armstrong?" they were surprised, they weren't sure what to say and asked why. I explained my reasoning, and they said, "Great." If that same theme had been for Sean Connery and a really great Bond broad, for want of a better term, it would been an entirely different picture! I hate to use the words, but it's like "shoveling shit against the tide" when you feel a strong chemistry by reading the script, but on screen it's just not working. You can play just about anything against it—you can play Rachmaninoff, you can play a Bartok piano concerto—but you're still not going to get anywhere emotionally because it just does not work. When directors say, "This isn't really working here, but once the music is over it . . ." I say, "Wait! No, no. It actually makes it worse." And, in a strange way, it actually does make it worse because the audience subconsciously senses a cover-up. They know it's not working, they know you're attempting to cover up for what's missing between the actors. It almost makes it laughable, it almost becomes a parody or a send-up.

Many of your movie themes are in F major.

Absolutely. I love that key. It just sings so beautifully. There's an openness and a romantic richness and fullness of depth with the string orchestra in that key. The chord progressions rarely stay in the same key—they usually detour off into some other area but then often return home.


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