Editor: Ian Lace
Len Mullenger

It is most unlikely that the name Philippe Blumenthal will mean anything to you, but as his score to General Sutter, his feature film debut, shows, he is a composer of considerable talent and a name to look out for in the future.

Continuing the Tradition:

An email interview with

Philippe Blumenthal


Gary S. Dalkin

GSD: One of the remarkable things about email is that you can talk to people about all sorts of things, without sometimes even knowing the ordinary basics, where they come from, or really anything about them as people at all... So before we talk about film music, could you tell me briefly something about yourself? For example, I assume you are Swiss... but I might be making a mistake?

PB: No, you are right, I am Swiss. I was born in Switzerland in a small but beautiful baroque town called Solothurn. In fact, I saw the light of day on 31 December 1969, two minutes before midnight...! Anyway, I went to school with no intention at all to go to the music class, in fact, I hated music class because I was afraid of standing in front of other students, having to sing or perform an instrument - instead of that I played football.

Back home I often recorded my own songs on an old tape recorder. I called them "The Italian song", "The English Song" just because I was trying to sing in different languages. Believe me, it sounded very silly.

When I got my first keyboard, I put capitals on every single key, so that I could remember which ones I had to hit. That was my way of playing music when I was around 10.

GSD: So you hated music lessons, but obviously loved music. Did you eventually have some formal musical training, or are you self-taught?

PB: A bit of both. I did get piano lessons later on, but never played in public. After I finished school, I took private lessons in music theory. I'd had enough of school and didn't want to go and study. I am quite an impatient person, so I decided to go on with my life as fast as possible. I worked in a wine shop and as a projectionist to earn a living and did music in my free time for a while. As for writing film music, I am self-taught. Writing film music is so different from writing "just" music and in Switzerland there is no way to study film music, so I had to learn it myself. In fact, I'd say I studied with Williams, Goldsmith, Horner, Broughton and all the great composers of the 80's by listening to their scores - at home and in the movie theater. I went to see films only because the name of Jerry Goldsmith was on the credits.

GSD: You say you 'did music in my free time', what sort of music was this? Did you always want to get into film music, or was this something else? Working as a projectionist obviously must have given you the opportunity to see lots of films, but was this just a job at first and your love of film came as a result, or did you become a projectionist because of an already existing need to somehow be involved with film? In essence I'm asking: how did it all begin?

PB: I always wanted to do something in film. I wanted to be a director of photography and direct films. That was a kid's wish. Because I was such a big movie fan, I came in touch with film music pretty soon. Because I was not allowed to go alone, I took my grandmother in films like Star Wars. But especially Star Trek-The Motion Picture and later The Empire Strikes Back and E.T. - that's when I discovered that you actually can buy film music on record. I did drive my family nuts by playing film music all the time.

And I really thought, hey, this is the kind of music I want to write, but how do I get a film? And who would want to hire me? A friend of mine did a short film - that was around 1989 I think - and he needed some music. I didn't have a studio back then, just two keyboards and a computer, which I thought would help me with timings. Of course it didn't, and I had to sit there with my stopwatch, counting frames and notes. Well, I did the score in two days - the film won a prize and everybody was happy. So I did a couple of other short films, commercials and industrials. Finally I had the opportunity to score three films for Swiss TV.

I was really trying what I could do and what I couldn't. I was experimenting with all sorts of sounds and styles. Mostly I did orchestral scores, so called electronic imitations, and I always tried very hard to sound as authentic as possible. Not like the cheesy B-movies in the 80's with the pseudo electronic orchestra.

GSD: Apart from electronics, did the budget on these films ever run to employing musicians, and if so, what sort of forces could you use?

PB: Sometimes I had a small budget to use musicians. I did a big band swing score with 20 musicians for a black Science Fiction comedy called Virtual Reality. Choosing big band for SF was adventurous enough, but having to deal with bad musicians was even harder! The recording session was a nightmare. I do use soloists in a lot of my electronic scores as well. Oboe, flute, guitar or French horn, things like that.

GSD: I assume that when you were doing electronic scores you were doing everything - writing, arranging, sequencing, sampling, recording - yourself?

  PB: Yes, I did everything myself, except on bigger projects I went to a recording studio for mixing purposes and to enhance the sound.

GSD: Could you tell us just briefly what computer and synthesisers you were using at that point?

PB: Back then I did use an Atari 1040STE computer, which was the best computer for music ever - it just never crashed. The software I used was called Notator. And I did use Ensoniq samplers and Roland sound modules. Later on I built a huge sample library with a lot of orchestral sounds. Now I am using Akai S-2000 samplers and a lot of synthesizers (Korg, Roland etc.). I had to switch to a Pentium II some time ago and I'm using Emagic Logic Audio as timing, sequencing and notation software. Of course whenever possible I prefer musicians over electronics.

I did a score for a PC game last year called "Project: Goliath", which was great fun. I never did an all synth score before, but for this dark SF adventure it was just right. Maybe I shouldn't say this here, but I hate commercials. They are mostly stupid and the people behind these things come to you and say: "We want a hit!" Now, if I only knew how to make a hit. I probably wouldn't be sitting here... So I haven't done any of them for three or four years now.

GSD: So you were writing for television, not doing commercials - how did you make the leap to feature films, and what was your first feature?

PB: Actually, General Sutter was my first feature.

GSD: In that case I'm doubly impressed. It is a very good debut indeed. Could you explain how you came to be involved in what is quite possibly a unique project? It's something of a well kept secret so far, but General Sutter is perhaps the world's first Swiss Western...

  PB: You could say that. Anyway, it's not really a Western per se, it's more of a biography, a drama, a life story that plays in the 19th century. The film tells the life story of Johann A. Sutter, the man who kind of "civilized" California. His life in Switzerland never was quite satisfying to him, so he decided to emigrate to the USA. I guess that was around 1830. The film's main narration plays in 1866 in Washington D.C. where Sutter tells his life in long flashbacks to painter Frank Buchser, who did the now famous picture also shown on the CD cover and on the film's poster. Sutter became a very powerful man in California and lost everything because of the Gold Rush. It's a film about a man's dream that ended in a disaster.

GSD: How did it happen that you wrote the score?

PB: I was contacted by the director of the film, Benny Fasnacht, when he was editing a featurette of the already shot scenes to get some more money to finish the film. He wanted me to write some music for the featurette, but I didn't have the time and I thought, there it goes, my first feature. But he contacted me again and I did write 6 minutes of music. We talked a lot about how the music should be and I guess he liked my point of view, so that's how I got the job. First there was no money for an orchestral score, but I pushed every time I saw new footage. It was just so big, the landscapes and all. Then we had this larger than life character. I said, look, how can we score this with electronics? It just won't work. Finally, right before I began composing, they raised the money and I felt like I was in heaven.

GSD: Well certainly having heard the score, which is a big orchestral score, and knowing what the film is about, it would be hard to imagine it being done with electronics. Once they had the money for an orchestral score, how specific was the director about what he wanted? For instance, was there ever a 'temp track'?

PB: Unfortunately, yes, there was a temp score from the first minute on. Even the featurette had a temp. The whole film was temped with Dances With Wolves and when I heard it - and I recognised it from the first note I heard - I just thought kind of "thank you very much". I mean, how can you compete with a score like Dances? And at first they just wanted all electronics... think about that! So, yes, it was all Dances With Wolves with one exception where they had O Pioneers! (Bruce Broughton) for a particular scene. The director wasn't that specific about the score, he just loved Dances and I have to say, it fitted wonderfully. So he wanted that kind of broad and epic touch, a score that takes you on a journey. Dances most certainly was that kind of score, and I knew what the director was looking for.

When I began working on my score, we had one or two discussions about the main theme, Sutter's theme, and then the director just let me get on with it, which was great. I think when I played him the main theme, he knew that I was not going to hurt the film, and so he trusted me. One thing he wanted specifically was the use of traditional pieces played in the background in some scenes, so I arranged pieces like "Bonnie Blue Flag" or "When Johnny Comes Marching Home", things like that.

GSD: And one of the nice things about the album is that you've grouped these tracks together at the end so that they don't break the mood of the score 'proper'.

PB: This was very important to me, because I know how annoying it is to listen to soundtrack albums with songs or source music in between the score. It destroys it.

GSD: You mention O Pioneers! being used as part of the temp track, and one of the more unusual things about your score is that you actually incorporate the main theme from O Pioneers! into your music - on the soundtrack album it appears in the cue 'Going West'. I know that Bruce Broughton very generously gave you permission to do this, but how did that come about?

PB: To be honest, I was stuck with the temp here. I tried to find a way around it, but it just didn't work and Bruce's theme is just wonderful. I mean it has it all: the Americana, the country, the spirit of the pioneers, and Sutter was a pioneer. So when time was running out I contacted him and sent him my parts, my arrangement, but he was out of town at that time. I took the risk and recorded the track and finally managed to reach Bruce and he said: "This is actually the second time someone is using my theme. The other guy didn't even bother to ask and I'm glad you did. Go ahead, use my theme and thank you for liking my music." And I think it works just great.

I am a big Bruce Broughton fan, I love his work. Tombstone is one of the greatest scores of the 90's and the list goes on. He's a fantastic composer and conductor and a wonderful person. We met before, so I am not saying this because he let me use his theme...! He didn't even want to be mentioned on the CD, so I did put in a big thank you.

GSD: The score is recorded by an orchestra that is a very familiar name to film music fans: the City of Prague Philharmonic. Am I right to assume this was the first time you'd heard any of your music played by a full size orchestra like this? What was the experience like, it must be quite a thrill.

  PB: Yes, you are right, it was the first time to have my music performed by a 70-piece orchestra, which was just great. I can tell you, when my orchestrator Ross Care and I walked into the studio for the first time and saw all those seats and instruments, I became very nervous. I just didn't know whether it would really work or not. I mean, I did all the mock ups for the director, so he knew how it was going to sound. But with musicians it's always such a lift. Then the first bars were played and I was near to tears. I had a look at Ross and he just nodded and said: "Yeah, that's it. Your music!" I can hardly describe it. There's one track, "The Crossing" which is a full blown piece with a lot of fortissimo in the brass and I just wanted to hear it on stage, not in the booth, so I sat there at the grand piano and just enjoyed the performance. Yes, it was a thrill and it is one of the most beautiful things to hear music performed by an orchestra.

I have the highest respect for the musicians. To me, these people bring life to the music you composed. Before the recording it's all theoretical and static, sometimes you don't even trust your own sketches and mock-ups, but then it is played and you realise: it's alright, everything is fine. There's so much expression and emotion that only comes to life with real musicians.

GSD: So now you are a bona fide film composer, what will you be doing next?

PB: I haven't quite made the leap from TV to feature yet, but then I have to say that I immensely enjoy making short films, documentaries, art films apart from television. I hope to get more assignments for feature films with my score to General Sutter, but honestly, making a good score for a short film is sometimes even harder than anything else. How do you build a theme in a film which runs about 25 minutes? How do you let the audience know, that this is actually the theme without pointing with the fingers on it. There's so little time.

GSD: That's a very good point, especially as music for short films is something which is mostly overlooked, even by those of us who do pay attention to feature film scores. Writers often say that, word for word, short stories are far more demanding than novels. On a similar line, we've talked before about how 'less can be more' such that scoring which is musically impressive away from the film and sounds great on the soundtrack album, might not always serve the best interests of the film. Sometimes something much simpler and less musically impressive can serve the movie better, and so is actually better film music. Could you perhaps give an example of how this relates to your own film work?

PB: That is a highly philosophical and intellectual question. I try very hard to make my music sound "musical". I try hard to bridge from one motif or theme, or from a certain mood to another in a very musical manner, but never forget about the issue of film music: It is made for the film. So if simplicity serves a film better, I'll always do that. I tend to not over do it, to not write notes only because I have to use the bassoon. Every note, every instrument does have a certain role and if I don't need it, I won't use it. I did write scores for three instruments, bass, piano and drums - very simple and perfect for the film. It was what the film needed. Nothing more. There is one cue ("Gold!") in General Sutter which I think is musically very boring and I don't know why I put it on the CD. I mean, I had the basses and cellos play just one note for 5 minutes, accompanied by small bits of the violas, violins, bassoon, solo trumpet and horns. Very, very simple, but so effective in the film.

I remember one film I did three years ago, called Zone 4. The director wanted to have a very bombastic score and I felt it so wrong in some places. And I fought against it because I thought it would ruin the film. I don't go and say: "Yes Sir!" So we ended up having a good portion of music that was really big with choir and full brass where it was appropriate, but also had a lot of silent moments, sometimes no music at all where he wanted to have music, or just two or three chords changing.

Simplicity can affect people in very different way. Take Legends Of The Fall, it has such a simple melody, but it is so beautiful. I think, sometimes it is much harder to write simple music than to be bombastic or complex.

GSD: Finally, I know that you are a big science fiction fan, and we certainly share a love of the Star Wars films and their scores. What I'd like to ask in conclusion is which directors or genres would you most like to work with or in? What would be your dream project: if you could score any one movie in the world, real or imaginary, what would it be?

PB: Funny, as much as I love Science Fiction films, I do not really want to score one desperately. What I really would want to do is a real big western like Silverado or The Big Country. And I would love to do a big horror film or a thriller. I am a big fan of Steven Spielberg, but I think I'd be very nervous to score one of his films, but if I could pick one, I think it would have been Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Jaws. I guess I'd love to have had scored one of the first two Alien movies. And there is one big dream that certainly never will come true, but I would die to score a James Bond film. After all, after John Barry, David Arnold really is doing a fantastic job and I hope he will continue to score 007.

GSD: Philippe Blumental, thank you very much, and allow me to wish you ever success in the future.


Philippe Blumenthal is also the Editor of the German language The Film Music Journal film.music.journal@bluewin.ch which appears 3 times in a year, with one double (70 pages) and two single issues. It is distributed especially in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. The Film Music Journal features interviews in every issue and a large review section, composer portraits of the past and present and insight reports. Composers who have been interviewed include John Barry, Bruce Broughton, Jerry Goldsmith, Mark Isham, Patrick Doyle, Lee Holdridge, David Arnold, John Debney, Hans Zimmer, Michael Kamen, Maurice Jarre and many more.

 Gary S. Dalkin is Features Editor of Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association, and a freelance writer on film music, classical music, cinema and science fiction.

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