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Cue the Composer

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

At the age of 5, Jerry Goldsmith sat in the last row of the Hollywood Bowl, listening to Jascha Heifetz and the Los Angeles Philharmonic play Brahms’ violin concerto.

This week, he’s a lot closer to the action, conducting the Philharmonic in an evening of his own music--scores from such films as “L.A. Confidential” and “Chinatown,” TV themes from “The Waltons,” and “Dr. Kildare,” plus the world premiere of a classical piece commissioned to accompany fireworks and celebrate his 70th birthday.

The Bowl event, says Goldsmith, is a watershed, of sorts. Although he has conducted locally, this, in his mind, is his Los Angeles coming out.

“I’ve conducted to sellout crowds in London, Glasgow, Seville, Yokohama,” says the composer. “Now, at the age of 70, I’m getting my hometown debut. After leading the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Disney’s ‘Mulan’ premiere last year, I told my wife, ‘I want more.’ ”

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An odd statement coming from a guy so prolific--someone with 180 film scores to his credit and 200 CDs on the shelves. And despite Hollywood’s current hunger for song-based soundtracks, Goldsmith’s symphonic compositions underscore four 1999 movies--"The Mummy,” “The Haunting,” and the upcoming “13th Warrior” and “Reindeer Games.” A survey quoted in a Gramophone magazine CD guide said that during any given minute, “a film or TV show accompanied by Goldsmith’s music is being shown somewhere in the world.”

The ponytailed composer chalks up his success to a mix of flexibility and pragmatism.

“I’m a chameleon,” he observes, delving into a salad at a Beverly Hills hotel. “My longevity comes from my adaptive skills. I let the picture dictate the style. And I accept the fact that there will be gunshots and dialogue over my music. Movies are a director’s medium and I’m not center stage.”

Goldsmith’s refusal to repeat himself is admirable, says writer-director Michael Crichton, who’s worked with the composer on six films, including “Coma” and “The Great Train Robbery.” But it makes it harder to identify his work. Crichton found that out when Goldsmith was unavailable for a project and he was desperately seeking alternatives.

“I watched the video of ‘Air Force One’ and said, ‘That’s terrific--maybe I hold Jerry in too high esteem,’ ” recalls Crichton, whose “13th Warrior” is due out in August. “The credits rolled: ‘Jerry Goldsmith.’ I look at Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Edge.’ ‘Pretty good [music],’ I said to myself. The credits rolled: ‘Jerry Goldsmith.’ Jerry is the most varied and inventive film composer of our time--a real pro who does what the picture calls for, which is a vanishing breed in Hollywood.”

L.A. Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen approached Goldsmith to participate in his “Filmharmonic” project, in which leading composers and filmmakers collaborate on original pieces. And, in 1998, he conducted “Music for Orchestra,” a classical work Goldsmith composed in 1972.

“I don’t know anyone, regardless of genre, with Goldsmith’s stylistic versatility,” Salonen observes. “He’s obviously influenced by the greats of this century: Schoenberg and, of course, the athletic rhythms of Stravinsky.

“People who came to last year’s concert expecting to hear Goldsmith’s nice movie stuff didn’t recognize him in that rather austere 12-tone [‘Music for Orchestra’],” he adds. “I’m fascinated by the idea of a very famous film composer who has this other, totally unknown, side.”

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Goldsmith works out of a two-story renovated guest house in the backyard of his Beverly Hills Tudor-style home. Lining its stairwell are movie posters--graphic testament to the hours he has spent in the studio while Lois Carruth, his longtime assistant, holds the fort downstairs. A certifiable workaholic, he composes from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. seven days a week, when he’s working on a film. Typically, he turns out two minutes of music a day for four or five pictures a year.

“I no longer work nights--and I’m trying to get out and play golf,” the composer says with a visible lack of enthusiasm.

Goldsmith’s studio contains state-of-the-art equipment: a mixing console, a Macintosh computer and his flat-topped Yamaha GS-1 keyboard--flat-topped so he can jot down the notes with old-fashioned pencil and paper. Before sitting down to compose, he confers with the director.

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“If you haven’t worked together before, it’s like a first date,” says Goldsmith, stylishly casual in a white T-shirt, navy blazer and jeans. “Everyone is so proper--it’s a strange dance.”

The two of them watch the movie set to a temporary score. Directors often become attached to this preexisting material, says the composer, which can be a “pain in the ass.” Working together, they decide where to insert music. Cue sheets are drawn up, describing the action and dialogue down to 1/100th of a second.

“Now I’m at the starting gate,” Goldsmith says. “It’s ‘poor me!’ time. Every artist wakes up in the middle of the night filled with fear. We want to create something everyone loves, which is why most of us are neurotic.”

Using a metronome to set the tempo, Goldsmith plays the material into the Yamaha, which transmits it to the Mac. The computer reproduces the sound in the manner of various instruments, simulating an orchestra.

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Adding to the pressure, says Goldsmith, is limited post-production time. He used to have 10 weeks to come up with a score. Now, he often has five. Crises turn up the heat even more. The music for “Chinatown” was composed in 10 days after an earlier score was rejected.

And scores are getting longer, the composer points out. Horror, sci-fi and action films (what he calls “E-rides”) order up wall-to-wall music to keep people in their seats. The composer turned out 65 minutes for “The Haunting” and 98 minutes for “The Mummy"--in contrast to only 30 for “Patton” and 45 for “Papillon.”

Putting a band together is the next step, handled by freelance contractors in consultation with the composer ever since in-house studio orchestras were phased out in the 1950s. Goldsmith is a loyal sort who has worked with the same principal players for years. Shorthand comes in handy since rehearsal time is tight.

“I was very intimidated going in,” says harpist Katie Kirkpatrick, whose Goldsmith films include “Mulan” and “The Haunting.” “Jerry is very focused on his work, which is off-putting until you know him. And the density of his writing is frightening--the pages look almost black. Still, you soon realize that arrogance doesn’t compute with him. He’s just one of the guys.”

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Every musician thinks he can write a movie score, Goldsmith says. But, contrary to public perception, film composition is a “serious art.”

“I make no apologies for working in movies,” he maintains. “But I’m tired of being referred to as a ‘Hollywood composer.’ The term is annoying, a slight. No one called Puccini or Verdi ‘opera composers.’ Andre Previn took a beating for years because he wrote out here.”

Alex North, whose photograph hangs on a wall in Goldsmith’s studio, is a mentor of the composer. North’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” film score incorporated elements of jazz into a symphonic motif--revolutionizing film composition, he says.

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“Prior to Alex, Hollywood relied on 19th and early 20th century European composers such as Strauss, Wagner and Debussy,” Goldsmith explains. “His dissonant ‘Streetcar’ created American-style film music and gave those who followed him license.”

People react to melody and rhythm more than anything, says Goldsmith, and it’s important to be accessible. And the composer’s classical training often finds its way in: allusions to Wagner and Strauss can be heard in the “Boys From Brazil” and Gregorian chants in “The 13th Warrior.”

“It’s so nice working with someone whose limits of knowledge aren’t Buddy Holly or the Doors,” says Crichton. “Last year, I attended a Carnegie Hall concert at which he played a cue from [his score for] ‘Planet of the Apes’ which had this unworldly sound like [John] Cage or Edgar Varese, an early electronic pioneer.”

Goldsmith is an advocate of less is more. He and Crichton decided that no music would be introduced until 30 minutes into “Coma.” Goldsmith knows the power of silence, says Paul Verhoeven, who teamed up with him on “Total Recall” and “Basic Instinct.”

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“Jerry will stop the music for 10 or 20 bars, so when it starts it will be new again,” says the director, whose “Hollow Man” Goldsmith will score next year. “Another thing I notice is his simplicity of orchestration. Jerry won’t use four oboes if two are enough.”

Goldsmith is drawn to intimate movies such as “A Patch of Blue” and “Rudy"--and to emotion and character, in any case. (“I saw ‘Poltergeist’ as a love story and ‘The Haunting’ as the story of a person coming home,” he says.)

“Jerry gives emotional context to the images without making them cheap or hollow,” says Verhoeven. “There’s nothing ‘on the nose.’ Instead of accentuating sound effects, he goes for the soul of a film.”

Fans from more than 25 countries belong to the 17-year-old Goldsmith Film Music Society and, in the spring, BMI, a performing rights organization, set up a Jerry Goldsmith film scoring scholarship at UCLA. But the composer’s public profile isn’t as high as it might be considering the scope of his credits. Blame it on the lack of a breakout hit soundtrack, such as John Williams’ “Star Wars” or James Horner’s “Titanic.” Disney’s “Mulan” is Goldsmith’s only gold record, and, despite five Emmys (for programs such as “Masada” and “Star Trek: Voyager”), 1976’s “The Omen” is his only win out of 19 Oscar nominations.

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The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross maintains that at least a couple of Williams’ Oscars should have gone to Goldsmith. The composer, he says, has brought “various modernist devices into film music” (references to the ‘60s Polish avant-garde, atonal passage work, exotic percussion) “while pulling off the basic melodic seduction that a potential blockbuster requires.”

The good-natured Goldsmith takes a philosophical approach. “With that [Oscar] track record, I’m the Susan Lucci of the film composing world,” he says. “Still, it’s a blessing in disguise. The worst curse that can befall you is having a platinum CD. It’s easy to rest on your laurels.”

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Goldsmith grew up in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District, the son of a structural engineer and a schoolteacher. Although he wanted to be a classical pianist, he realized at the age of 12 that he didn’t have the temperament or the “fingers.” He continued studying piano with Jakob Gimpel and music theory and composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in the hope of becoming a composer. At the age of 16, Goldsmith saw Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” falling in love with Ingrid Bergman--and movies.

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“To make it in the classical world, you can teach, you can live on grants and commissions, or you can marry a rich man or woman,” he says. “I chose the weak way out: writing for movies so I could continue my classical composition.”

After graduating from high school, Goldsmith took a course at USC with “Spellbound” composer Miklos Rozsa while enrolling in music classes at Los Angeles City College. (“I spent three years at a two-year institution--and still managed to fail.”)

At 21, he got a toehold in the creative world, getting a job typing scripts at CBS. After befriending a music department secretary and writing scores for a weekly employee show, Goldsmith began composing for network radio drama and live TV. When shows such as “Climax” and “Playhouse 90" were taken off the air, however, his option wasn’t picked up.

In 1961, the composer headed for Universal TV, where up-and-comers like Dave Grusin, Williams, Quincy Jones and Lalo Schifrin were in residence. Simultaneously, he tackled his first major movie: 1960’s “Lonely Are the Brave.” “Freud,” “Lilies of the Field” and “Seven Days in May” followed in quick succession. Movies provided a good income for the composer, who was supporting a wife and four children at the time. (He now has a fifth child with his second wife, Carol, to whom he’s been married for 27 years, and is a grandfather five times over.)

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The work also enabled him to compose chamber music and art songs--most of which he kept to himself because he considered them “imperfect.” Still, three dance companies, including the San Francisco Ballet, choreographed pieces to his music. And in 1972, Goldsmith wrote the 13-minute “Music for Orchestra,” first performed (“to scathing reviews”) by the St. Louis Symphony and, four years later, by the Minneapolis Orchestra.

Salonen, who included the piece on a Philharmonic program, recalls a mixed response to the 1998 performance. While some loved it, not everyone has a fondness for “music in the modernist camp that’s pretty atonal and acidic,” he points out. The Los Angeles Times was upbeat: “Goldsmith knows his way around an orchestra and the players and Salonen seemed to enjoy getting around this music,” critic Mark Swed said. “The audience clearly sensed that this was music about the darker side of the city it lives in, and loved it.”

Goldsmith’s plan to support his classical habit through film composing didn’t pan out. “Music for Orchestra” was his last classical piece until his current Bowl commission. “I was writing so much film music, and I can’t shift that quickly,” Goldsmith explains. “Besides, movies are a crutch for a composer. Creating something abstract becomes a daunting task.”

Classical composition may be on the back burner, but Goldsmith is conducting more these days. He’s scheduled to appear in 11 concerts this year and is booked into 2001. “Live concerts are a shot of adrenaline--but like a Chinese meal, in a way,” Goldsmith says. “Unlike writing music, which is there forever, you eat it then you’re hungry again.”

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Goldsmith is paired with Verhoeven in the Philharmonic’s “Filmharmonic” series. (Temporarily on hold until a corporate sponsor can be found--which may be in the offing, Salonen hints.) Down the road, he’d like to write an opera, a medium with fewer time constraints and greater control for the composer. (“Since movies are larger than life, I’ve been writing a form of [opera] for the last 40 years.”) The composer also wants to complete a trilogy--following “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential” with another Los Angeles-noir film.

First, however, there’s the Bowl project. Goldsmith’s piece was commissioned by former Philharmonic managing director Willem Wijnbergen as a new backdrop for the weekend fireworks finale. Titled “Fireworks (A Celebration of Los Angeles),” Goldsmith’s piece has a Latin feel.

“I’ve had my share of writing for noise--special effects,” he concedes. “But if Handel and Stravinsky can compose for fireworks, I can do it. While I’m grateful for the opportunity, I’m also a little nervous. I don’t know if the audience will be saying, ‘Show me!’ or if they’ll be in my corner.”

And facing a new orchestra will be scary as well, the veteran composer points out.

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“There’s no way you can fool them,” he says. “By the time you give the upbeat and the downbeat, they know if you know what you’re doing--what you’ve had for breakfast, in fact. Getting up there is the moment of truth--especially in your hometown.”

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“Movie Music Magic,” Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jerry Goldsmith, Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave. Friday and Saturday, 8:30 p.m. $3-$100; (323) 850-2000.


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