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David Torn: Making Records, Film Composition, and Working With David Bowie

Mark Sullivan By

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It is not about me not being out there, it is about how the business has changed, I knew it when we left L.A., I didn't know how we were going to be affected. I did a film for example—finally did another film after two years of no films at all—and then a film at the end of last year. It premiered at South by Southwest, and won the festival. It hasn't come out yet but I haven't been offered anything by anybody, so it's kind of a rough time for me. It's not a bad thing in one way, I hate missing it but I do miss it. I would really like to do something with a little more resources or beef to it than the last film although I loved doing this one that that won this award. But you know I'm working on so many records that I love that, can I complain? A little bit, you know I'm pretty good at the film composing thing. It might be that maybe somebody thinks I'm a pain in the ass, but I generally think I'm a pretty nice guy: I have a sense of humor.

On the bigger scale, I think in the blockbuster scale it's been affected a lot. And I don't know about the automation, but the lack of individuality...I mean scores are being finished by music editors not by composers. Composers delivering less and less music, and music editors are putting scores together out of what they've delivered, whole scores. So there's something weird about that, I know it's effective like business-wise for a blockbuster but I don't give a shit about blockbuster films anyway, I never wanted to work on one. I only wanted to work on stuff that I thought I could do that felt like something to me. I mean I like blockbusters as entertainment. I did an arrangement of the final song [on The Lord of the Rings]—the Annie Lennox song—that didn't get used, but I have a rough mix.

I like a healthy amount of time to work so you have time to actually come up with a concept: it used to be that it was important to have a concept. And now they just want it to sound like this here and like that there and like this score there...yeah, I did a temp score with all those pieces of music just do something like that: that's real boring.

I mean Kubrick could pull it off with real pieces of music but when you ask an original composer to not have an idea about filmmaking then they're no longer a filmmaker. An original composer for film is a filmmaker, you're involved in the story—it's not about the provision of music to fill a space, it's about the provision of music to make the film better. Make it feel more, or whatever its effect is meant to be. So it's like, it's a weird world and right now it's as dicey as the record industry is for composers. Back in 2007 I just couldn't stop going. I did like it when I was doing four or five films a year, and I liked them, even the indie ones, the little ones. The score to La Linea (The Line), it's a great score, electronic score. It's a beautiful score.

Asked about the original plan to do an orchestral project for ECM, and other recording plans:

I've done the thing [the orchestral project]. I've done it, and I haven't finished putting it together. It needed some patching together: edits, a lot of material. Mike Baggetta, who was here tonight from Knoxville, was one of the players in the string section. It's a six-piece string section, two of the string players are playing guitar with volume pedals. And me and [saxophonist] Tim Berne, Craig Taborn on grand piano and synthesizers, and Ches Smith playing drums, vibraphone, timpani, and I think he plays some Haitian percussion on it. It will be finished this year, it will be delivered this year, I can't tell you when it will come out for sure. I don't think that's going to be on New Series, I think that's going to be an ECM record.

It doesn't have a title: the working project title is "Spartan," even though it's nothing like that. It's a combination of fully composed material that leads into fully improvisational material. Most of that improvisational material is without the string players. The written material follows my version of a Romantic bent; most of the improvs came from feelings engendered by the pieces that the improvs came from. And then there's some completely free improvs that we did at the end, for a day and a half. I brought some things I might consider more typically emotional from my film writing over to a band context which made it so kind of difficult for me to get these two worlds to work together. I will be mixing it fairly soon, and that's the final decider, when I mix.

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