Judging by his resume, David Newman’s last 25 years have been chock full of accomplishments that most composers and/or conductors only wildly dream about. His more than 100 film and TV scores (War of the Roses, Behaving Badly, Tarzan, as well as a slew of works for top-grossing comedies, animated features and dramas) have garnered him award after award, including an Oscar nomination. His immense conducting skills have also landed him all over the world with the vast majority of leading orchestras. So, anyone reading his “done that” list could determine that this gifted musician could easily sit back and let the music play. But he never will. Newman is much too passionate about music for that – he lives and breathes to create it, conduct it, preserve it and mentor others to do the same. This is one of the reasons he received BMI’s Classic Contribution Award at this year’s BMI Film and TV Awards.
Newman has spent considerable time unearthing and restoring film music classics for the concert hall. He even headed the Sundance Institute’s music preservation program in the late 1980s, and as a tribute to his work in film music preservation, he was elected President of the Film Music Society in 2007, a nonprofit organization formed by entertainment industry professionals to preserve and restore motion picture and television music. He also currently serves on the Board of the American Youth Symphony, a 52-year-old pre-professional orchestra based in Los Angeles, where in 2008, he launched the three-year “Jerry Goldsmith Project,” which explored the film music of the legendary composer in context with symphonic music. Newman then did another three-year project devoted to the film music of Danny Elfman.
All this he does while still composing and conducting live film scores for other composers at venues everywhere, like the Hollywood Bowl, where he must keep in time with the mammoth screen on which the film is viewed. BMI is proud to have presented its Classic Contribution Award to this busy music creator/conductor/advocate, and privileged that he took time out from the whirlwind ride he’s on to talk to us about his career.
You received BMI’s Classic Contribution award at this year’s Film and TV awards. Tell us what this award means to you.
I believe in the power of film music - not only in its function to help tell the stories of our film makers, but to also tell about our film music history in Los Angeles (Hollywood). Film music is heard vis-à-vis movies by billions of people around the world. Essentially film music is “concert music” - an orchestra (mainly, not always) plays in front of a screen (or video monitor) LIVE to a narrative image. It’s a profound endeavor if you love music and believe in power of the art form to “give back” to people. I don’t think our community fully realizes the power for good this has. Musical training is not just a spiritual project but can be an agent for social progress as well.
Tell us about your life as a conductor and how that relates to your career as a composer. Would one exist without the other?
Conducting was a first love for me. I have always been really interested in the technique of conducting. It’s not easy to find a “technique” that is rigorous and all-encompassing, but I believed I had found it in my early 20’s. I was playing violin in the studios, for film and television gigs, for about eight years before I caught the “composing bug.” It was very unnatural to me at first, but because I was a well-trained musician, and seemed to have a fairly tough “skin,” I was able to eventually figure it out. I don’t think the conducting and composing are related, but I do think in the Uber “film music world” that composition without adequate performance doesn’t work. Someone must be able to bring out the composition from the players. That is basically going to be the conductor. I think this belief is because of my father, Alfred Newman. The collaboration between composition and conducting was a huge part of his artistry.
You conduct the annual movie night at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as other concert venues all over the world where the score is played live while the film is screening. Tell us about that process and how you got started doing something that seems so daunting in terms of making sure you’re in synch with the film from both a visual and audio perspective. Is it now second nature to you – are there any tricks you’d care to share?
The live movie events, and the movie nights are basically an extension of scoring movies. It’s essentially the same concept with a few notable exceptions. But the technology is really the same. In reference to Alfred Newman, that is the artistry of film music: composing + conducting. Making music in the highest sense and staying synchronized. They both have to happen to make it really work to its full potential. I always ask for help from the musicians.
You’ve conducted so many orchestras from LA and NY to Chicago, Boston, Vienna, Germany, Switzerland, England, Sydney, the list continues to grow. How are these experiences the same and how do they differ from an artistic and a personal perspective?
It’s a bit different conducting orchestras that play together all the time. The great orchestras have a certain DNA that you have to deal with or involve yourself with. They are really all very different. They are in different communities with different histories and issues. For a conductor, it is infinitely fascinating to be involved in. It’s so Intellectual and visceral at the same time. How you move, conduct, talk, etc., has to be organic to the particular orchestra you are conducting. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s a very interesting part of this kind of life.
How does conducting your own music compare with conducting the works of other composers? Do you try to put your own spin on how you hear the orchestra execute the work?
Conducting is completely different from composing, so you try to look at your own compositions as a conductor and not as the “conductor-composer.” You have to study it, figure it out just like any other piece of music. It’s something you learn very quickly if you conduct your own music for film.
How did you get interested in film music preservation and what does that entail? Does the music have a separate identity from the film and what makes that so?
I have always been interested in film music preservation. Foremost for me is the “sloppy, chaotic” state that it’s mostly in. It offends my sense of order. Also, it’s very hard to take stock of an art form without any primary material. Film Music is an indigenous American art form. There needs to be primary materials for scholars and performers to look at. It’s crazy that our community has not assisted in this endeavor.
You are passionate about helping the next generation of musicians. Tell us about your work with American Youth Symphony and your goals in being on the Board.
I love AYS (The American Youth Symphony). It’s a young orchestra that sounds like a great professional orchestra - ages 15-27. They love playing everything and they are incredible with film music. We have done seven years of exploring film music, mostly by composers, but last year we did a full movie. I am looking forward to more exploration with this fantastic orchestra.
Two of the projects that you launched through AYS were about the music of Jerry Goldsmith and Danny Elfman. What made you pick these two composers and what was the purpose of the projects?
Jerry Goldsmith was one the icons of the 20th century. It was a no brainer. Danny is part of the second half of the 20th century. Both have great orchestral scores that are really fun and intellectually thought-provoking for our musicians. We are playing music that no one else would play. The “off the beaten path” and the “hits.” It’s been really terrific.
You also speak with students around the LA area about film scoring. How do you go about the mentoring process?
I am not so much into the mentoring process as I am in trying to show the students the wonderful history and legacy of Hollywood film music. It’s a fantastic feat. From 1930-present!
How has BMI helped you in your career?
BMI allows us to monetize our efforts. And that’s not a small feat. In a shrinking market, BMI has our backs in terms of us getting paid for our work. BRAVO to BMI!!!!