LALO SCHIFRIN (2008), Part 2

October 20, 2010 | By

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With the 2007 publication of his autobiography, Mission Impossible: My Life in Music, by Scarecrow Press, Lalo Schifrin has involved himself in another discipline – book writing – although this should hardly come as a surprise to jazz and film music fans well acquainted with his fascination for art, literature, music, and history.

Schifrin will always be best-known for his jazz music and the Mission: Impossible theme, but even a passing familiarity with those endeavours show a man who has consistently been a part of contemporary music history – as an innovator within popular music forms like jazz, samba, and fusion – and as a dynamic voice in film scoring, applying ideas from classical  and ethnic music to craft some memorable scores for films like the Dirty Harry series, the original (and far superior) Amityville Horror, and the searing dissonance in his rejected music for The Exorcist(released as a bonus CD with the old Warner Bros. boxed VHS set).

The composer has also been involved with the work of son Ryan Schifrin, most notably in providing a straight-faced, menacing score for the sasquatch film Abominable (2006), and themes for the comic book Spooks (2008).

For jazz and film fans, there are actually two ways to read about Schifrin’s lengthy career: his autobiography, and for those with a decent command of French, Georges Michael’s seriously persistent Q&A session with the composer, Lalo Schifrin: Entretiens avec Georges Michel, published in France by Rouge Profond in 2005.

(Schifrin is quite fluent in French, having learned the language in high school in Argentina, and later when he studied for four years at the Paris Conservatory.)

One book doesn’t take material away from the other, and together they form what’s probably the most complete, candid, and often quite funny portrait of a musical life that began in Argentina, was formatively schooled in France, toughened by earning one’s keep through live performing and composing, and achieved diverse success by exploring the purity and marriage of elements from jazz, classical, and film.

One senses that with Schifrin, music is music; the labels “jazz” and “classical” are there for convenience, if not for marketing music to whatever groups need a name to recognize what they like. Schifrin’s Jazz meets the Symphony series was a daring an attempt to open the minds of musicians as well as audiences, but it’s still about bringing music to people, and he clearly thrives on the energy he conducts in live and studio concerts on smaller scales like jazz combos, and massive events like Cantos Aztecas at Mexico’s Teotihuacan ruins.

Georges Michel’s book delves heavily into Schifrin’s influences, teachers, professional associations, and film scores, but his early years remain anecdotal, and it’s that period under Juan Peron during the forties that Schifrin wanted to expanded upon in his autobiography, and where our edited interview begins.



Mark R. Hasan: I found the early years under Peron really fascinating, and I think most people don’t really know that much about Argentina, aside from (and maybe it’s unfortunate) because of just Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1978 stage musical Evita; they’ve heard of the musical and its leading characters, are probably familiar with the tango, but they don’t know very much about the political history.

Lalo Schifrin:  Argentina is a very interesting country. It has many cultures, almost like the United States; the only difference is there’s no British influence. There’s the Spanish conquest, the indigenous Indian population, and the mixture of Spanish and Indian, especially the gauchos. Like the United States, very many Europeans migrated and came to work the land and develop industries. It’s a very interesting country.

MRH: I wonder the arrival of all those different cultures during Argentina’s recent history were one of the reasons you were so fascinated with world music?

LS: Well, first of all, my father was the concert master of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, and since I was a child, he was taking me to concerts and to see opera, and for me, I couldn’t consider any other life without music. Then when I was in high school, I was exposed by friends to American jazz, and I embraced that immediately, so I had classical music and jazz.

MRH: You described in your autobiography the way in which you acquired jazz records at the time under Peron’s regime, and it’s probably hard for us to relate to a world where there was only one major kind of music or a certain style of music (the tango) that was acceptable, and everything else was more or less forbidden.

It’s kind of funny, and at the same time kind of frightening to think that you were risking a little bit of your neck when every few months you were picking up jazz LPs from an American naval officer on shore leave, and your efforts to smuggle the records under a raincoat, whatever the weather.

LS: Oh yes, but you have to realize that Peron came to power in 1943 during the Second World War, and he was helped by the Germans. If Germany had won the war, Peron was assigned to be like the representative of the Germans in Argentina, and this was very serious.

What happened is that in 1943, I was eleven years old, and in 1945, when Germany finally lost the war, United States in particular started to put pressure on Peron, so finally he had to call for elections. Because they were supervised, he couldn’t do any fraud, so he had to make very clean elections.

However, the opposition presented two candidates for president and vice president that were discredited for political reasons. (There were other politicians that were a big danger to Peron, but they were not elected through the democratic process, and were not elected to be candidates for the presidency.)

Peron very demagogic, but he was also very popular, and he had married Evita. The masses liked them, and they didn’t care about fascism or Nazism; the majority of the population voted for them, and they won the election.

MRH: There’s one episode where you describe having to get your passport by going to a government building where some very scary things were done to people, and the scenario you recount recalls a similar memory David Korda wrote about in his book about the Korda family, when his father or uncle had to pass a chilling interrogation in order to leave Hungary, and it’s frightening to think that an artist like yourself had to use his wits to avoid the dangerous whims of a government bureaucrat who had the power to prevent your ‘escape’ to France.

LS: Well, it was a legal escape, because I had to do it with a passport. First of all, at that time in Argentina, Peron was so much in charge that it would be suicidal to try and do something against the government, including trying to escape, so I had to do it legally, and it wasn’t easy, as you can read in the chapter of my book, but finally they let me go; they gave me the passport and then I could go to the French consulate and get the student visa.

MRH: There’s a very telling moment in a recollection from your youth in Buenos Aires, where you write about playing one half of the piano with an extremely gifted colleague, and you saw a look on his face during the performance that not only signalled his appreciation of your own skill, but make you realize jazz was the music you had to play.

LS: That colleague was none other than one of the greatest pianists in the history of music, Friedrich Gulda, who was an Austrian pianist. He was one of the masters of classical music, and one of the greatest interpreters of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and all the great composers.

There were friends of his who told me that also played jazz, and one of those times he came to Buenos Aires to play a classical concert (he was very young, maybe a little bit older than me), they made a jazz jam session, and they asked me if I wanted to go, and I said ‘Of course!.’

They told him that I played good piano, and he invited me. He was already at the piano and he invited me to share the keyboard and play four hands, and that moment when I played a solo he looked at me with great admiration – I could tell – and for me that was like winning an Oscar. It was then that I made the decision to become a jazz pianist

My father, obviously being a classical musician, didn’t oppose it, but he didn’t want me to get into that…‘If don’t you want to get into classical music, then you should get into law or some other degree in university,’ but I decided for jazz.

MRH: Was there a moment when you similarly realized that film composing, like jazz, was something you had to do?

LS: Well, since I was a child, I’ve always been a film buff, and I always listened to the music scores. When I came back from France in the fifties, I had the opportunity to write the music for a short film, Venga a bailar el rock (1957). Then later on, the film industry in Argentina started to get the idea – especially with new producers – that I was the right guy – so I was hired to do a long one, El Jefe / The Boss (1958), a film which won the equivalent of an Academy Award [the Silver Condor]. This was right before I came to the United States.

MRH: And I guess from that experience, you thought this was definitely something that you wanted to pursue, because you thought it was invigorating and exciting.

LS: Oh yes. The chemistry between the visual and the music was very, very fascinating. It still is.

Now there are schools where they teach film composition (as a matter of fact, I taught for two years at UCLA, here in California), but in those days there was no schools where one could study this art form, and I learned it by instinct. Also, when I was a child, my father exposed me to opera, and opera [has] an audio-visual counterpoint, which is what happens in film.

MRH: I’m impressed that you’ve been able to balance film scoring and jazz music and concert work during the course of your career since the sixties, and I wonder if you have any thoughts on how you’re able to maintain the stamina? Is that energy level something you learned to exploit when you were very young, traveling and performing throughout the world?

LS: That’s a very good question. Nobody has asked me that kind of question. I’ve done many interviews, so congratulations for that question. You forced me to think of something new.

The reason why I do so many things is perhaps because I need to express myself in different areas. I do have already the technique of composition, orchestration, counterpoint, and harmony (it’s like talking or writing a letter or something), so I feel very comfortable in jazz, I feel very comfortable in movies, and I feel very comfortable in the so-called classical music.

As a matter of fact I don’t even understand why they have to make such a sensation between them. I have a series of records I’m doing called Jazz meets the Symphony, where I bring a group of virtuosi soloists and put them together with a real symphony orchestra, and it’s having a great success.

Classical musicians say, ‘Hey wait. I didn’t know I could swing!’ and the jazz musicians feel a different kind of stimulation from the atmosphere of a symphony orchestra. I’ve been lucky and fortunate.

MRH: Did you find it difficult to write your autobiography, because you had to establish a timeline for your entire life, and map out pivotal moments?

LS: No, I didn’t find it difficult. After I finished, I asked a friend of mine, Richard Palmer, a professor of English at Oxford in England, to help me to pull the book into better shape, but basically what I wrote is there.

First of all, you have to realize that I’m a writer of music, and I don’t write books. I mean, this is the first book that I’ve ever written, and I don’t know if I’m going to write more books because I don’t write fiction. I was excited by the idea of writing this autobiography, [and while] I didn’t have any publisher at the time, I had to get it off my chest.

MRH: And my last question is about a specific anecdote in your autobiography, where at a press conference you gave an extremely elaborate answer when a music journalist asked you why you composed the Mission: Impossible theme in 5/4 rhythm.

LS: That was at the Salzburg Festival, which is one of the most prominent classical music festivals. I was very lucky and very thankful to do jazz music with the symphony in Salzburg.

[Schifrin’s explanation, in its most distilled form, goes like this: his choice of rhythm was in tribute to the five-legged babies born after the atomic tests in New Mexico, so they had something to dance to. Seriously. Both the Michel and Schifrin books retell this delicious moment of whimsy spiced by the composer’s serious need to get a decent breakfast after a long, long day without food.]

LS: I said that, and she wrote it like it was real, and when I came back from Europe it was published in one of the most prominent music magazines in Austria, and my European booking agent said, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?’

MRH: Your explanation was very elaborate and very detailed. I think that’s one of the reasons she was convinced. In reading your reply, there is a certain ‘logic’ to it, even though it’s completely crazy. It’s very detailed.

LS: Well, I have a strange sense of humour.

MRH: It’s a good sense of humour.

LS: Thanks you.


. would like to thank Lalo Schifrin for his generous time, and Beth Krakower at Cinemedia Promotions for facilitating this interview.

To visit Lalo Schifrin’s website, click HERE.

To hear samples of Lalo Schifrin’s music for Spooks, please visit the official website HERE.

For a detailed discography of Lalo Schifrin’s massive canon, check out Doug Payne’s wonderful website.

To read Part 2: October 2008, where we interviewed Lalo Schifrin regarding the publication of his autobiography, Mission Impossible: My Life in Music, by Scarecrow Press, click HERE!

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2008 by Mark R. Hasan


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD:  Abominable (2006) —  Enforcer, The (1976) —  Magnum Force (1973) — Sudden Impact (1983)


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