Danny Elfman has composed or produced scores for more than 100 films, including blockbusters such as “Batman” and “Men in Black.” He’s composed themes for TV hits, as classic as “The Simpsons” and as recent as “Wednesday.”
He was at the Library this week to present something more subtle: the world premiere of his latest classical work.
“Suite for Chamber Orchestra” debuted Thursday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill as part of an evening concert by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, honoring the legacy of composer Andre Kostelanetz. The Russian-born Kostelanetz moved to the U.S. in 1922, where he became hugely popular during the middle years of the 20th century. The Library has his papers and commissioned Elfman’s work along with the Andre Kostelanetz Royalty Pool, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland.
“The beautiful thing about concert music is that you can always go back and develop it more,” Elfman said in an interview earlier Thursday with the Music Division’s Paul Sommerfeld, while touring some of the Library’s musical treasures. “With film music, you write it, it’s recorded and it’s gone forever.”
“Suite” is Elfman’s ninth major classical piece, with commissions coming from entities such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. His first classical piece, “Serenada Schizophrana,” debuted in 2005 at Carnegie Hall in New York and was commissioned and performed by the American Composers Orchestra.
It might sound like heady work for a guy who started out fronting the rock band Oingo Boingo and whose first film composition was for “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” but Elfman’s classical interests run deep.
He grew up in Los Angeles and didn’t take any interest in music until his parents moved across town when he was in high school, meaning that he had to make new friends. One of those was into classical music and played some recordings by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
It opened up a “whole new world,” Elfman said. Stravinsky led him to Dmitri Shostakovich and Béla Bartók and finally to Sergei Prokofiev, his true inspiration.
“The first time I heard Prokofiev, I just felt like this was music from my blood,” he said. “I have Russian roots, but knew nothing of Russian music. I was connecting on this deep, almost cellular level.”
Still, he had little formal training – he didn’t finish high school, only getting a diploma later, he said – and fell into a musical troupe in France while on a youthful travel jaunt that was intended to take him around the world on the cheap. Instead, after months of travel, he was back in L.A.,playing in a surrealist music group his brother was putting together, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.
Elfman later became the front man as the group transitioned to being a more straightforward rock group just known as Oingo Boingo. The band was more of a cult favorite than a mainstream attraction, but one important fan was an aspiring film director named Tim Burton.
Burton asked Elfman to score his first feature film, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” in 1985. A film/musical partnership was born. “Beetlejuice,” “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman Returns,” “Big Fish,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride” among others followed.
He’s also done dramas (“Good Will Hunting,” earning one of his four Oscar nominations), and any number of superhero films, from “Spider-Man” to “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”
It’s this work that’s won Elfman, now 69, a host of younger fans.
David Betancourt reports on all aspects of comic books culture for the Washington Post and teaches a course on the subject at the University of Maryland. There’s a scene in “Batman” in which our hero (Michael Keaton) is driving his Batmobile with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) through Gotham that he always plays for students.
“I always tell the class to listen to Elfman’s score in a scene with few words and feel how impactful it is in pushing the tension, mystery, fear and suspense,” he says. “I want them to know that Elfman’s score is a strong supporting character in the movie that helped it become a classic.”
Given all this success in a high-profile industry, why pursue the hard work of composing classical music, in which the audiences and public attention are but a fraction?
“I love writing for film, but you can’t write what you want to write,” Elfman said. “You have to write to serve the film.” Besides, he added: “I’m just trying to challenge myself. You keep yourself moving or you die, artistically. You become a relic.”
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free!