SOUNDS AROUND TOWN ELMER BERNSTEIN : A First in His Career : Composer: From ‘Cape Fear’ to ‘The Grifters,’ all of his film scores this year are different. On purpose.


Rumor of the youth-obsession in Hollywood may be exaggerated, at least where certain veterans are concerned.

Take the case of Elmer Bernstein, one of most prolific and accomplished of American film composers. 1991 has been a year of living productively for the 69-year-old Bernstein. And for many years, he has done much of his work in his Santa Barbara home.

For the first time in his 41-year career, Bernstein scored six (count ‘em) films in a single year. He began the year auspiciously with his critically acclaimed “The Grifters,” which opened in January. The savvy air of irony and Kurt Weill-like sound matched perfectly the bittersweet dramatic tone of director Stephen Frears’ saga of con artists.


There followed his music for “The Field,” “A Rage in Harlem,” “Oscar,” “Rambling Rose” and, most recently, “Cape Fear,” for which he adapted the score by Bernard Hermann from the original 1962 thriller. The only connective factor in this list is its diversity.

It’s not only numbers that impress: This has been the best qualitative musical year for Bernstein since 1963, when he did “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Hud” and “The Great Escape.”

“The fact that the projects are all different is on purpose,” the affable and expansive Bernstein explained last week, taking a break from work in his studio. “I basically will select them that way. I got stuck in comedy for awhile, from ’77 to ’87. Finally, in ’88, I said, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to take another comedy, because I’m stuck here. If I keep doing this, I’ll never do anything else again.’ Then, starting in ’89, I didn’t work for a year and a half. I kept saying, ‘No.’

“Finally, what turned it around for me was a friend who I had promised to do a film for, who had no money. It was “My Left Foot.” I said ‘Oh, wow, it’s not a comedy.’ ”

“Cape Fear” is also decidedly not a comedy, and it amounted to one of Bernstein’s most original assignments in that it didn’t involve his own music. Martin Scorcese’s film is not so much a remake as a revision. The characters of the original have been radically altered and expanded upon.

Interestingly, the element most directly lifted from the original is the music, although it too was altered and reshaped, while respecting the Hermann-ian sources. A few of the passages were written in the appropriate style by Bernstein himself. Some of the additional material came from the discarded score that Hermann wrote for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain"--an infamous “lost” score.

“The nature of his music is much better in this film than it was in the original,” Bernstein said. “It just seems to live much better in this version. In the original, the musical statements are too strong. The film doesn’t have the strength of this film. Outside of an extraordinary performance by (Robert) Mitchum in the original, it’s very pale in comparison.”

Bernstein got involved because of his deep respect for the work of both Hermann--"one of the best film composers ever"--and Scorcese. What was required was to create something new from the old.

“Although in a sense we were using the Hermann music as a kind of bank from which to get the stuff we needed, none of the cues are in the same place and do not relate in any way to where they were placed originally,” he said.

“So it was a question of using this stuff to start with: What do we do with it? What we did with it ultimately was just to create a score. The only difference between that and me writing it myself was that I didn’t have to write the themes. But the process was the same, only I was doing it with somebody else’s music.”

The late Hermann, who was a friend of Bernstein’s, was chief composer to Alfred Hitchcock. His final film score, fittingly, was the edgy pastiche for Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver.”

Perhaps Hermann’s most instantly recognizable contribution to film music culture was the nerve-grating violin glissandi that symbolized terror during the shower scene in “Psycho.”

Likewise, the music for “Cape Fear” revolves mainly around a few tense, memorable motifs.

“The Hermann technique was always based on doing a great deal with very little,” Bernstein said. “The seminal material in the ‘Cape Fear’ score is virtually almost nothing. But what he gets out of it is absolutely amazing, which, of course, is what great composing is all about.”

While a mainstay of Hollywood for more than four decades, Bernstein prefers not to be in Hollywood. He lives in Santa Barbara’s affluent, quasi-rural Hope Ranch area on a large property, with an unpretentious ranch house and an ocean view from the front drive. He works in a separate studio, equipped with a grand piano, VCR and TV, two drawing boards, an organ and a cheap synthesizer. Out one window is a view of the horse corrals.

Notably missing are the standard accouterments of the digital-era composer. There is no elaborate computer music program, nor are banks of electronic gear to be found.

Which is not to suggest that Bernstein is an anti-electronic crusader who hides from the tide of digital progress behind a piano and an orchestra. In the early ‘50s, he began experimenting with various electronic instruments, including the Hammond B-3 to the Novachord.

“I experimented with them on a couple of films,” he said. “One of them is a cult film generally considered to be possibly the worst film ever made--'Robot Monster.’ That was followed by another one called ‘Cat Women on the Moon.’ I experimented on those films a lot.

“Now it’s commonplace, really. My feeling about them is that they are useful as tools and as just another instrument.”

Throughout his career, Bernstein has struck a keen balance between upholding tradition--the kind of tunefulness that won him an Oscar for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in 1967--and innovation.

His music for “The Man With the Golden Arm” in 1956--the score that kicked his reputation into high gear--was the first to rely principally on the language of jazz. But in the same year, he also delivered the heroic overtures of “Ten Commandments.”

And so it has gone for Bernstein, whose versatility has enabled him to tackle films as disparate as “The Magnificent Seven,” “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “True Grit,” “Ghostbusters” and countless others.

Far from being a star-struck, Hollywood-bound musician in his youth, the New York-born Bernstein studied music at Julliard with composers Roger Sessions and Stephan Wolpe.

“My goal in music originally was to be a concert pianist, which was the way I started,” he said. “I did concertize until I was in my late 20s.”

During his stint in Special Services during World War II, Bernstein got a last-minute job scoring a dramatic radio program when the original composer went AWOL. With that unlikely introduction, a long and fruitful career was born.

Bernstein has written concert music all along, including a song cycle performed by the Santa Barbara Symphony three years ago. But it is his film music--and his fresh ideas therein--that are his real hallmark. He hasn’t looked down on film music for decades.

“If you sit at home and write, say, a large symphonic work, the writing of it is gratifying,” he said. “But then you have to persuade somebody that they ought to perform it, even if it’s a commission. You write a symphonic work and it gets a performance--or even four performances, on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Goodbye. Hopefully, somebody will pick it up.

“What was so appealing (about film scoring) was the immediacy of it--writing it and then hearing it immediately. And then, of course, there is the idea that what you’re doing is heard by millions of people. It seemed like great fun. Also, going from project to project, where no two projects are exactly the same, tends to keep one’s interest up.”

Needless to say, Bernstein has no immediate retirement plans.