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15 Questions to Frank Strobel

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Thanks a lot! I’m just back from a wonderful little silent movie festival in Erlangen, which celebrated its tenth aniversary. Together with the ensemble Kontraste, I performed music by Carl Davis to “woman of Affairs” (starring Greta Garbo).

What’s on your schedule right now?
At the moment, among other things, I’m preparing a rendition of the ballet movie „Romeo and Julia“ featuring music by Sergei Prokofiew, which will premiere at the beginning of March in Hamburg. It’s a special project for me as well, as the performance of big orchestral music to a filmic ballet represents a special challenge to me.

When did you discover your special interest in film music?
I’ve aways held a strong fascination for the combination of images and music. And besides my musical activity, I’m a big fan of the movies in all its different forms and shapes. That’s why, at an early age already, I started engaging myself with the music to these movies. And, since music plays an especially important part in a silent movie, it seemed only natural to me to start right there, with silent movies. Even while still in school, during my time at the music-gymnasium, I prepared the original score to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” in an arrangement for two pianos. This version saw its debut in my home town Munich and was later performed over ninety times all over the world. It was by my intensive study of silent movie music, either by reconstructing original scores or by performing new compositions, that I very consciously grew to become a film music interpreter. You see, there were at that time hardly any coductors in Germany, which dealt with the issue. And since I quickly came to the conviction that the combination of film and music in all ist facets could represent an art of its own, I decided to devote myself to film music besides my work as a conductor in the regular concert- und musical theatre scene. Once you’ve left the usual clichees in judging scores behind, you’ll quickly realize that you’re dealing with a highyl diverse music open for new ideas.

In your opinion, should Film Music remain connected to the picture it was conceived for or should have it an intrinsic value away from the movies?
In the years of studying the genre I’ve drawn the conclusion that there’s great film music, which never works in a concert hall and there’s equally good film music, which works just wonderfully in a concert hall. I don’t adhere to the usual clichees of “a good film music is one, which you don’t hear or which merely serves a functional purpose”. Instead, when thinking about which scores to present in a concert, I deliberate about which will be able to stand on its own. There’s quite a few of them. The best example is the title theme to “Star Wars” by John Williams. But apart from that, there’s still a lot o works, which, according to me, long deserve to be played in a concert hall – be it as part of pure film music concerts or integrated into a regular program. On the other hand, there’s music which needs to be translated into a concertante form. Often, scores tend to consist of many singular takes. Transferring these into the form of a suite is frequently worth the pain. 

You’ve already released extracts from Schnittkes’s repertoire on CD as part of an ongoing series. Has there never been the thought of making this a DVD-series, instead of a mere audio-experience? Or was the idea to present this music in a contect of its own?
Actually, I did think about it and I’m still pursueing this idea. Still, to Alfred Schnittke and me, it was foremost about transferring his film music into an autarkic form. Schnittke was totally convinced, that a big part of his scores could work independent of the pictures they were conceived for. Which is why we started creating concert suites from his scores, which I continue to do after his death as part of his testament, so to speak.

Whenever I do listen to sound tracks (or more precisely: scores) at home, I find it remarkable how exciting, well-crafted and melodically strong this music actually is. Any idea why it is not catching on with a wider audience? How would you rate some of the top Hollywood composers yourself?
I believe we’re still only at the beginning of really discovering film music and its composers. And I expressly include a part of the Hollywood composers with this. For even today I clearly recognise that some scores refer to a line of good “old” traditions of the founding fathers of the Hollywood sound. By that I mean their melodic inventiveness, their instrumentation, etc… And of course, I also mean their claim to not merely copy these „Über-fathers“, but to use the basis they’ve created to cover new ground.

How difficult was it convincing concert organisors of playing film music in a concert hall? How much prejudice against it is still common among classical afficionados?
Quite definitely, a change has taken place over the last years. On the one hand, I witness a great openness among orchestral musicians towards rehearsing film music. It has to be said, by the way, that working on scores is always a highly diverse affair, thanks to its various stylistic elements. And because audiences tend to be mixed as well, musicians experience very direct reactions, which rarely happens during classical concerts. On the side of concert organisors, too, the awareness has taken hold that film music is capable of attracting a wide range of people. On top of that, institutions like the European Film Philharmonia have been instrumental in acchieving an optimised co-operation between organisors, orchestras, publishers and those holding the rights to the music. Because of the increased interest on the side of presenters and orchestras, the desire for new projects has gained momentum, but at the same time it has created demand for a professional realisation. And in the past it has repeaptedly proven to be a strenous affair, doing the complex material justice. Publishing houses, have fortunately now started to prepare film music in a very practical way. I say fortunately, for, on the one hand, previously there were hardly ever any sensibly arranged suites of scores, which could be performed as absolut music in concert halls and on the other hand orchestral materials were often in a state which I would describe as “cryptical”.

A big German music magazine once presented a film music special, which ended in the 70s with the claim: In the 80s and 90s, there wasn’t any film music worth mentioning. What’s your point of view on this?
I can only partially subscribe to this point of view. Of course, film music has substantially suffered because of the possibility of producing it in one’s home studio. On the other hand – exciting film music has always also been written under difficult circumstances and always will be.

When playing and conducting live with an orchestra to movie pictures – how do you keep the element of spontaneity in such an exactly choreographed performance?
Similar to an operatic performance, I need to be able to shape and structure a work and to uphold its tension, without having the feeling of being at the movie’s mercy. And it is especially important to me that a performance take place without any additional technical aids, such as a click track in my ear or a visible time code on the monitor – for musicality’s sake. Synchronicity can be achieved by a precise knowledge of the film, plentiful (mostly more than a thousand) synchronicity pointers in the score, exact tempo specifications (preferably metronomic indications) and the aforementioned feeling for movement and mounting in the picture. Spontaneity does not need to suffer because of this.

You’re conducting huge orchestras with a rich sound palette. Still, contemporary productions hardly ever do without electronic instruments. How do you feel about the combined use of Synthesizers and orchestras?
I reject any imitation of an orchestra through the use of samples and synthesizers. But I do appreciate the use of individual and self-contained sound colours of an electronic nature or, more generally, electronic music in combination with orchestral music.

Your special attention goes out to Alfred Schnittke. What makes him so special? And how would you charaterise his approach to film music?
Film and its music are a child of the 20th century. And there are many composers, who have dealt with the movies in that century and have written for them. So it’s only natural that so-called classical music and film music have mutually influenced each other. And Alfred Schnittke, which to all of us is one of the most important composers of the 20th century, has written over 60 scores in the course of his life, as well as one big work for the silent movie genre. If you compare his concert pieces with his scores, you will quickly discover that a lot of what he initially conceived for film music can be found in his concertante works and even his operas. Or to put it differently: The polystylistic techniques of Schnittke have been almost ideally mirrored by the movies. And it is exactly this what makes his music so interesting in my eyes.

Quite a lot of the material for the Schnittke-project was still waiting to be arranged. What was your approach to sculpting the music into “film suites”? Had you talked to Schnittke about how we wanted things to be done?
To answer this question, I need to go quite a bit back in time. Already at the beginning of the 90s, together with ZDF-editors Jürgen Labenski and Gerd Luft (the ZDF is of Germany’s two main national broadcasters – tokafi), I wanted Alfred Schnittke to write the music to a silent movie (at the time, i had already overseen and conducted several „silent movie and music“ projects for the ZDF). After lengthy preparations, in autumn 1992, everything was finally set: In cooperation with “Alte Oper Frankfurt” and the Ensemble Modern, I conducted the premiere of “The last days of St. Petersburg“ (directed by Wsewolod Pudowkin), which was broadcast live on national television. Thanks to this project, I engaged in a friendly and creative relationship with Alfred Schnittke. Following this concert, Alfred Schnittke again turned to film music and wrote the score to the picture “The master and Margarita” (Russia 1993, Directed by Juri Kara) together with his Son Andrei – again I was responsible for production and recording. Thanks to the renewed contact of Schnittke with his work on film music, he started to develop the desire to revive his sizeable repertoire for the movies in concert halls. He therefore asked me to create concert suites out of a toal of about sixty scores. It proved to be a difficult project, since the sheet music to his scores was only partially in his possession, while most manuscripts were lying in some archives in Moscow, inaccessible to us. Therefore, Schnittkes publishers, the Sikorski music publishing house and the widow of the late composer, tried hard to obtain the handwritten scores – and succesfully managed to have them sent to Germany, one by one, from their Moscow archives. This is a process which is still going on today. Which then allowed me to arrange concert suites of his film music and to record them under the auspices of the Deutschlandradio Kultur in collaboration with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin. Of course, I worked on this closely with Schnittke until his death in the year 1998. Up to now, fourteen suites have been finished as a result of this work, among them “The detective” and “Fairy tale of changes”, which Schnittke ranks among his most important pieces. 

What does the agenda for the Schnittke-project look like? When can we expect new releases?
Up until now, two CDs of these film music suites have been released, one of which on cpo and another one on capriccio. In the meantime I have furthermore recorded all of the aforementioned concert suites, which will now be released on capriccio every half year, with the next album being published in March of 2006. In the end, until 2007 four CDs will be released, which we will then bundle in a box with bonus material. Furthermore, I have started the recording of a composite recording of Alfred Schnittke’s piano concertos with Ewa Kupiec and the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, which will also be released by Capriccio.

The movie “Angst” was built around Klaus Schulze’s music and not the other way around. Does this sometimes happen to you as well – that music seems to have a strong “visual” aspect, which seems to ask for a filmic realisation?
This is a question, which I have also given a great deal of thought. Of course, there are a lot of composers, which seem to ask for a filmic realisation – such as Strawinsky’s “Sacre du printemps”, a classical piece, which took place under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. The same goes for a lot of original film music compositions. But especially because of my involvement in “silent movies and music” I have come to the conclusion that this form, through its combination of imagery and music could be of real relevance to contemporary directors. The latest movie of Franka Potente, on which she directs for the first time, is a godd example of this, a modern-day “silent movie”.

When was the last time you cried during a movie?
It happened during a silent movie: "City Lights" by Chaplin, the finale scene, in which the once blind girl recognises ist benefactor by the way he clasps her hand.  

"Alfred Schnittke: Konzertsuiten aus Filmmusiken zu Die Kommissarin,..." (Capriccio) 2005
"Max Deutsch: Der Schatz - Eine Filmsymphonie in fünf Akten" (cpo) 2005
"Sergei Prokofiew: Alexander Newski" (Capriccio) 2004
"Alfred Schnittke: Konzertsuiten aus Filmmusiken zu Die letzten Tage von St.Petersburg,..." (cpo) 2001
"Blue Print" (BMG) 2004  
"Von Babelsberg nach Hollywood" (BMG) 2001
"Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod/ Gloomy Sunday" (wea) 1999 
"Meschugge" (Motor Music) 1998
"Zeitmaschine - Udo Lindenberg" (Polydor/Universal) 1998
"Belcanto: Udo Lindenberg & Das Deutsche Filmorchester Babelsberg" (Polydor/Universal) 1997
"Tödliche Wende" (Pool) 1996
"Franz Schreker: Oper “Flammen” (marco polo) 1992

Frank Strobel

Picture by Kai Bienert

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