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"And unfortunately," Schifrin continues, "there are many directors who work like that these days. But you can't blame them. It's an industry problem. There's a lot of pressure because movies are so expensive; they don't want to hire a composer, musicians, a recording studio, engineers, mixers, because it might flop and the costs are so high."
For Schifrin, another industry practice that limits creativity is that of directors or producers handing the composer the "temp tracks" (works under copyright that are used temporarily for editing purposes) and telling him or her to imitate them. "Thus the composer is not a composer anymore — he is just a vehicle to copy the tracks with just enough variation to stay within copyright regulations. He ends up producing a kind of parody," Schifrin states with the contempt of someone for whom all music, from Beethoven and bebop to karate soundtracks, has always been a serious matter.
"I don't want to be the old guy who keeps complaining," he clarifies. "But I once had to tell a director: 'Stop going to the record store. Stop buying music. Let the composer compose.' "
Schifrin always knew he wanted to compose for the screen. He was born Boris Claudio Schifrin ("Lalo" is a childhood nickname for Claudio) in Buenos Aires in 1932, the son of a violinist in the world-famous Teatro Colón orchestra, who, like most Argentine parents of immigrant stock, insisted he get a law or medical degree, along with a smattering of Eurocentric high culture. "When I was about 5 or 6," Schifrin reminisces, "neither my mother nor my father wanted to take me to see the movies I really wanted to see — horror movies. I liked Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man. And my grandmother — my mother's mother — who liked nothing better than to spend as much time as possible with me, would buy me chocolates and sneak me into the horror movies. And I clearly remember going back to school after one of those outings and telling my classmates: 'I saw a horror movie and I can assure you it wouldn't have been as scary without the music.' I already had my antennae set on soundtracks!"
After returning from the French conservatory in the late 1950s, Schifrin had no trouble putting together a versatile jazz band to play popular radio broadcasts and television transmissions. This led to his first soundtrack commission, for a prestigious local film, El Jefe (The Boss). All this work built a solid reputation, which put him in the right place at the right time for a momentous encounter.
"Dizzy Gillespie came to Buenos Aires, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. He played for a week to packed houses with an all-star orchestra, including Quincy Jones. It was a big jazz orchestra and I happened to have the same setup in my group. So Osvaldo Fresedo [the famous Argentine tango conductor] owned a ritzy nightclub and wanted to organize a dinner to celebrate Dizzy and his group. He asked me if I wanted to play two or three numbers after dinner. I asked my musicians and they said yes, so we went and played. At the time, I conducted from the piano. When we finished, Dizzy came right away and asked me, 'Did you write these charts?' and I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'Would you like to come to the United States?' I thought it was a joke. But it wasn't."
Schifrin arrived in the U.S. in 1958, and two years later, his breakthrough came when he composed and arranged a million-selling suite, called Gillespiana, for the bebop legend. "It came out on Verve," Schifrin remembers, "which was ancillary to MGM Records, and the head of MGM Records sat on the board of MGM Inc., the biggest studio in Hollywood. He got me the first commissions for MGM films. It was all like a chain."
A chain that leads all the way to 2010, with Schifrin feted by obsessive soundtrack lovers all over the world (he's scheduled to play Prague this summer), and by the coolest arbiters of hip culture (Dan Ubick of soul funksters Connie Price and the Keystones profiled him for Wax Poetics), releasing his past masters on his DIY label, Aleph Records, and still very much a working composer, scoring blockbusters like the Rush Hour and Mission: Impossible franchises.
His recent scores suggest someone current on today's sounds, but Schifrin says this is not so. "I don't have to," he replies. "I do what I want. I don't have to compete for employment. I do what I like.