Denny Zeitlin: Nothing Halfway

Dan McClenaghan By

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Electronics: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

"And then I got a real hunger to investigate what was happening with the possibilities of electronic music and integrating it with acoustic instruments. I wanted to explore what was possible in this electronic area, but to do so I knew I would just have to withdraw from public performance for a while and find engineers to build me stuff. Back in those days there were no pre-packaged synthesizers you could take on the road. What there was around then was a Fender Rhodes, I had a clavinet, an organ and a melodica, and then a lot of sound-altering equipment that I had engineers build me—ring modulators and a doomsday machines, then gradually it was possible to get some synthesizers.

"Then 1978 rolled around and I got a call from Philip Kaufman, the filmmaker and director. Saying he would very much like for me to do the score for the remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

The original 1956 movie of the same name was adapted from the novel Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. The movie's story line is one of alien plant-like pods taking over and becoming replicas of their human hosts. It is considered a science fiction/horror classic.

Zeitlin continues: "I met with him [Kaufman] and talked to him about it, I was very excited about the prospect, because for years I had hoped that I might get a chance to do a film score, but I thought that it would be very unlikely, because typically to get a film score you have to live in Hollywood, you have to knock on doors for years, finally, if you're politically adept enough you might get a chance at a movie, but it probably be something on a shoestring budget, and all you could afford is a kazoo player. So here I stumbled in once again, via the back door, a la Columbia Records, to a film that I sensed was going to be a classic of its genre, by a filmmaker I had admired for years."

Kaufman had previously directed Goldstein (1965), Fearless Frank (1965), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), and White Door,. Post-Invasion of the Body Snatchers he directed The Wanderers (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Henry and June (1990), Rising Sun (1993), Quills (2000), and Twisted (2004).

"The lead male, Donald Sutherland," Zeitlin continues, "was to be an avocational jazz man, and Kaufman wanted a jazz score. But the script morphed. Donald Sutherland's character became a deputy public health inspector, and the jazz score receded into the background, and now Phil [Kaufman] and his producer, Bob Solo, wanted a 20th century symphonic score with lots of electronics.

"The electronics I could supply with ease, and I had plenty of credentials for that, but I had never written for a symphony orchestra, even though I think I had thought orchestrally all my life. So I had to convince both Phil Kaufman and Bob Solo that I could do this, and after some arm twisting, they accepted me on the team, and I began one of the most intense musical adventures of my life."

At this point, Dr. Dennis Zeitlin, closed his psychiatric practice for the first time in his career, and had his psychiatric colleagues cover for him to take care of his patients. For someone as committed to medicine as he is his music, it was not an easy decision. Speaking with Dr. Zeitlin about this juncture in his career, it becomes obvious that Psychiatry is not something he does halfway; it was/is not the "day job" that allows him to do his art, but rather it was/is a consuming passion for him, as is his music.

"I was so immersed in this music I was spending 18, 19, 20 hours a day in the studio working on this score, and my wife would have to come down and scrape me off the piano stool and plunk me in the hot tub to reconstitute me, put me in bed for a few hours, and then I would get up and do the whole thing all over again. And what was making it so complex, other than my naïveté, was writing for a symphony orchestra and working with the Profit Polyphonic Synthesizer that had just come out, and all the electronic keyboards, to try to produce a music that was often weird and scary but also organic, because what was happening was not an invasion of metal ships from outer space, but an invasion of another alien life form, so Philip Kaufman wanted the music to have an organic feel. So it was complicated."

After five weeks of working non-stop in his studio, the moment of truth arrived.

"Finally we got to the point where I'm down in Burbank, on the sound stage with a full symphony orchestra, and I got the chance to hear the symphony orchestra explode into the music I had been working on all those weeks. It was one of the high points musically of my life. I was exhilarated by the experience, but also utterly exhausted, having been pulled away from everything I hold dear in my life—music, psychiatry, my wife—we've together now forty years—I saw so little of those sectors of my life during that [ten week] period."

The entire project turned out to be a huge success. The 1978 version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers met with near-universal critical acclaim. Philip Kaufman was named Best Director by The Academy of Science Fiction and Horror Films (Saturn Award, 1978), and the movie received a coveted Hugo Award as Best Dramatic Interpretation. The project was, Zeitlin agrees, a near perfect work of art: the acting, directing, the script, the special effects, and, though he doesn't say so himself, the soundtrack, that captures the eeriness and grim gathering dread, and even, in the case of his perfect composition, "Love Theme From the Invasion of the Body Snatchers," a wistful, tender moment of beauty in the face of impending doom.

In light of the success of the project, Zeitlin replies to the question of why he has not done another soundtrack with: "Well, it was one of the high points of my life to have that experience, to see that both Bob Solo and Phil Kaufman were delighted with the music, but knew I could never get a situation as remotely as good. I had some offers but I said to myself: 'I'm quitting while I'm ahead.'"

The Return to the Acoustic Sound

After the satisfying but intense and all-consuming experience of composing the electro-symphonic work for The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Zeitlin had a desire to return to his roots of the acoustic sound. His Soundings (1750 Arch, 1978), a solo piano record, went back to what the pianist calls "my earliest musical roots, when as a young child I would sit at the family Steinway and improvise music from moment-to-moment, without any preconceived structure."

Time Remembers One Time Once (ECM, 1983) found Zeitlin in an intimate duo outing, recorded live at the Keystone Corner in San Francisco, with bassist Charlie Haden.

Several more albums followed, all critically well-received but slipping under the radar, perhaps, on smaller labels, until a profile revival of sorts came about in the new millennium, when Zeitlin began recording for the MaxJazz label.

Slickrock (MaxJazz, 2004), featured Zeitlin's in a trio setting with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson. All About Jazz's John Kelman       called the disc ..."one of [Zeitlin's] strongest recordings to date." Zeitlin's second MaxJazz release, 2005 's Solo Voyage, mixed solo piano tunes with an electric/acoustic suite of piano backed by synthesizer orchestration.

2009 found Zeitlin with a new label, Sunnyside Records. His first CD release for Sunnyside that year was Denny Zeitlin Trio in Concert, Featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson. It is a live recording that opens with an extended workout on John Coltrane's "Mr. PC," then moves into an aching beautiful ballad, "The We of Us," (written for his wife Josephine), followed by one of the most vibrant and in-the flow pieces of music imaginable, a magically rousing take on Cole Porter's "All of You" "That was a lot of fun," Zeitlin enthuses. "I think that really is an example of that particular trio at its best. The way the interplay goes, and the sort of breathing as one organism. That's something I really love about playing with Buster and Matt is that it's wide open; the music can go where it wants. There's no ego involved in it; we're all just into in serving the music and allowing it to emerge and be just delighted with what happens, and we often have that sort of merger experience where I don't know who's playing what. I'm hearing sounds and I don't know if it's coming from the bass or piano or the drums. We're just immersed in music. It's almost like we're a part of the audience listening."
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