Lalo Schifrin: The Cool Maestro

Lalo Schifrin, film-score genius who came to America at the behest of Dizzy Gillespie

Quentin Tarantino, Portishead, N.W.A and Bruce Lee walk into a bar. They all head for the jukebox at the same time. Since this is a fictional bar that caters to such an eclectic collection of cool customers, we must assume said jukebox's choices are pretty amazing. After some initial bickering, however, they all miraculously agree on one selection: one of the many, always assured soundtrack compositions by the one and only Lalo Schifrin.

Schifrin's oeuvre of more than 100 soundtracks for movies and television (plus the occasional video game and graphic novel) has inspired countless musicians, directors, performers, programmers and orchestras. Tarantino's latest, Inglourious Basterds, repurposes a military cue from Schifrin's 1970 score for the Clint Eastwood vehicle Kelly's Heroes. Portishead's instantly recognizable "Sour Times" is built around a sample from the composer's moody "Danube Incident," from one of his Mission: Impossible scores. Even O.G. badasses N.W.A derived some of the menace in "Approach to Danger" from the decidedly un-gangsta Schifrin soundtrack to Dirty Harry.

Then there's Bruce Lee, who was very excited when he was told Warner Bros. had commissioned Schifrin to score his breakthrough U.S. movie, Enter the Dragon — back in Hong Kong, Lee liked to practice in his dojo to the rhythm of the maestro's unquestionable masterpiece, the Mission: Impossible theme.

Still active at 77, Schifrin is one of the last of the great cult soundtrack composers of the 1960s and 1970s, a stellar roster that includes Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, Nino Rota and the godfather of them all, Ennio Morricone. And he's very much active: When interviewed recently in his cozy Beverly Hills home (previously owned by Groucho Marx), Schifrin was preparing to depart for Ireland, where he's to conduct a program of suites arranged from his soundtracks, at Dublin's National Concert Hall.

"I had to write special arrangements," he says in the award-lined work cottage behind his home, "because sometimes what you write as film cues doesn't work for a concert hall. I can actually develop it further, because I don't have the images to lean on, and I have to entertain the audience with music alone."

Schifrin is excited to work with a full orchestra. "The musicians are buenisimos," he says, with the no-nonsense authority of a man who trained in 1940s Buenos Aires under exiled disciples of Schoenberg, and later in Paris (where he went on a prestigious scholarship after World War II) with Olivier Messiaen and the other imposing personages of the Conservatoire.

Schifrin has always found ways to combine his classical training with more popular yet equally complex forms, like tango and jazz — and in the early 1970s, even outright funk. "I still compose a lot of [non-soundtrack] classical music," he proudly announces. "An orchestra in Detroit is about to perform my 'Tangos Concertantes for Violin and Orchestra,' and I get many commissions from chamber groups, symphonies and soloists."

Like Morricone, whom he admires enormously, Schifrin sees himself as a composer in the classical tradition, who just happens to work in the 20th-century version of mass entertainment.

"I would tell anyone who's interested in composing for film to go see a lot of opera," Schifrin advises, "and to listen to it, not on record, but live, at the theater. You have to see the spectacle. In the 19th century, before the movies came along, when people wanted to see something combining drama, comedy or tragedy, acting, music, costumes, they'd go to the opera. And even in the early days of film, the studios and the theaters hired piano players or whole orchestras to play along with the silent films. It's necessary."

And that's one of the secrets to Schifrin's success and of his survival in the highly competitive world of film scoring: He sees movie work as a job he takes seriously (he retains the intensity of the dutiful conservatory boy) and also as a continuum with the great orchestral traditions of mass entertainment. "Technologies might change, but music is still an integral part of [a film]," he says. "It doesn't matter what kind of story. I recently went to see that movie ... what's that movie where they get drunk?"

"The Hangover?"

"Yes, that one. The music works very well on that one," he says, and then lowers his voice to add: "Though I'm not sure we should be discussing this. I was a member of the executive branch of the Academy, and I can't really show favoritism for anyone. It's an ethical question. But I liked the movie, and the music worked well."

Alas, Christophe Beck's score for The Hangover was not nominated for an Oscar this year. But Schifrin's concern for ethics shows his regard for the considerable work that goes into creating any original score, no matter the project. One of his biggest worries is what he sees as a cost-cutting industry trend toward "assembled" soundtracks, like the Robbie Robertson–curated score for Scorsese's current thriller, Shutter Island, or even Tarantino's recent recycling of Schifrin's own 1970s work.

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"I liked Inglourious Basterds," he admits. "It was entertaining, and Tarantino used my music well. But he cannot work with a composer — at least not yet. He needs records, and from those records he extracts what he needs. In my case he went to my Kelly's Heroes soundtrack album that I did for a movie with Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas.

"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.

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