Inside Studio Della Morte, the Los Angeles compound where Danny Elfman spends much of his professional life, antique dolls, skulls and leering puppets coexist with deranged fairy tale paintings by Mark Ryden and mesmerizing Diane Arbus photographs. The haute sideshow décor might be an effective visual representation of Elfman's gleefully ghoulish sensibility, but it also serves as a catalog of the inspiration and influences that have helped shape his prodigious musical output.
What you won't see, though, is a shrine to his own creative past.
"If it's something I find in a flea market, I might preserve something very old with great care and love — but not my own work," Elfman said. "It's never occurred to me to try to preserve anything. Anything I've created seems to have no value to me."
Yet Elfman, 60, the master craftsman of music-box lamentations and carnival-inspired revelries, has found himself in the strange position of reflecting on his legacy with a new orchestral performance that will celebrate one prominent aspect of his career.
For the first time in the U.S., Elfman will present a live program of the 15 movie scores he's penned for longtime collaborator Tim Burton. Beginning a three-night run at the Nokia Theatre on Tuesday, "Danny Elfman's Music From the Films of Tim Burton" will even see Elfman take the stage to sing selections from the soundtrack of the stop-motion animated fable "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
Conductor John Mauceri will lead the 87-piece Hollywood Symphony Orchestra through the three performances, which also will feature the 45-member Page L.A. Choir.
Since 1985's "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," Elfman has composed the scores for every feature Burton has done but two ("Ed Wood" and the Sondheim adaptation, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"), in addition to working at a prolific clip on scores for projects from other A-list directors including Paul Haggis, Ang Lee, Gus Van Sant and Sam Raimi.
For Burton's loyal fans, though, Elfman's whimsical symphonic accompaniments have become a hallmark of the viewing experience. But the composer insists that, despite their close rapport, each venture arrives as a puzzle needing to be solved.
"I'm frequently asked, 'Oh, you guys must have a great shorthand,'" Elfman said. "We don't. It's the same process as it ever was. It's very often roundabout and circular. Some directors hear something and go, 'That's it!' Tim's not like that. He's just not wired that way. I expect to have to work to get inside his head. His head is a complicated and fairly elaborate place. Occasionally it goes quicker and easier than that, but then I'm surprised."
The idea for the concert performances grew out of a recent boxed set that celebrated Burton and Elfman's 25-year partnership, a 2010 project that required the composer to pore over boxes of audio cassettes that for decades had been gathering dust in storage. The experience gave Elfman a better idea of what selections he might include in an orchestral concert, but he also knew the music would need to be tweaked in strategic ways.
"In recording, you can have a piece that's driven by nothing but the piano and one melody instrument," Elfman said. "In a live concert … one player playing with an electric piano is not going to feel very powerful. You really have to adjust things and figure out how will this play."
Collaborating with his orchestrator Steve Bartek, Elfman worked intensively over three months to determine the order in which the music should be presented. Then he wrote musical transitions to ensure the pieces from the 15 films would flow seamlessly during the performance.
He also created new passages to bolster some compositions — the up-tempo Gypsy number "Edward the Barber" from "Edward Scissorhands," for one, was extended for the performance. But Elfman wasn't necessarily interested in updating the music, especially the older material, to sound more contemporary.
"I tried not to take an approach of modernizing everything to be as I would do now. That would take away some of the charm of some of the earlier stuff, and I didn't want to do that."
Although he remains one of Hollywood's most sought-after composers, Elfman has continued to write orchestral music for the stage, including Cirque du Soleil's "Iris," which closed at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood in January. He's collaborated with Mauceri on "The Overeager Overture," which was performed at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006, and on "Serenada Schizophrana," a 2004 classical piece that premiered at Carnegie Hall and was recorded and released two years later.
"Serenada Schizophrana" is enjoying a robust afterlife — four selections from it will be featured in the first act of a dance program at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts, "Diana Vishneva: On the Edge," choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot and set to open Nov. 6. The program also features two pieces from Elfman's "Rummy (Not Edited)," taken from the score of Errol Morris' documentary "The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld."