Composer / Conductor  Lalo  Schifrin
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Best known for his "Mission: Impossible" theme song, Lalo Schifrin is an Argentinean-born composer, arranger, pianist, and conductor, whose jazz and classical training earned him tremendous success as a soundtrack composer. Born Boris Claudio Schifrin in Buenos Aires on June 21, 1932, his father was a symphonic violinist, and he began playing piano at age six. He enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire in 1952, hitting the jazz scene by night. After returning to Buenos Aires, Schifrin formed a 16-piece jazz orchestra, which helped him meet Dizzy Gillespie in 1956. Schifrin offered to write Gillespie an extended suite, completing the five-movement Gillespiana in 1958; the same year, he became an arranger for Xavier Cugat. In 1960, he moved to New York City and joined Gillespie's quintet, which recorded "Gillespiana" to much general acclaim. Schifrin became Gillespie's musical director until 1962, contributing another suite in "The New Continent"; he subsequently departed to concentrate on his writing. He also recorded as a leader, most often in Latin jazz and bossa nova settings, and accepted his first film-scoring assignment in 1963 (for Rhino!). Schifrin moved to Hollywood late that year, scoring major successes with his indelible themes to Mission: Impossible and Mannix. Over the next decade, Schifrin would score films like The Cincinnati Kid, Bullitt, Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry, and Enter the Dragon. As a jazzer, he wrote the well-received "Jazz Mass" suite in 1965, and delved into stylish jazz-funk with 1975's CTI album Black Widow. Schifrin continued his film work all the way through the '90s; during that decade, he recorded a series of orchestral jazz albums called Jazz Meets the Symphony, and became the principal arranger for the Three Tenors, which complemented his now-dominant interest in composing classical music. ~ Steve Huey, All Music Guide

Throughout my career in radio, I've had the privilege and pleasure of being able to speak one-on-one with many of those who are involved in creating or performing classical music, as well as those who are involved behind the scenes, so to speak, presenting the performances or supporting it all in some other way.  I always had a free hand to explore these avenues in any way I chose, and was able to decide whom to ask for their time and insights.  Once in awhile, one or another management would request a specific encounter, and in just about every case I was happy to oblige.

Besides my on-air work at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, I also worked for a couple years for Music in the Air, the company which put together the entertainment packages aboard several airlines.  It was run by the legendary John Doremus, whom I had met as a youth when we both were singing in the Choristers at St. Mark's Church in Evanston.  He was then with WAIT, and years later he asked me to handle the classical music chores for his in-flight corporation. 

It was lots of fun, and allowed me to showcase not only my own ideas, but also selected interview segments on United, Delta, Eastern and Northwest Airlines.  The United programs were also used aboard Air Force One, the Presidential Jetliner.  Whether Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush ever heard me or not, I was there with them whenever they flew anywhere in the world.

In June of 1988, Music in the Air decided to put together a program of music and interview with composer Lalo Schifrin.  Most well-known as a film and TV composer, he also penned many works for symphony orchestra, and conducted his own and others' music.  Doremus asked me to "meet" with Schifrin via telephone.  I was in the Chicago studio and Schifrin was in Los Angeles, where Music in the Air had another studio.  The agreement was that only his voice would be used, and was recorded by technicians in their studio.  However, I was also able to record both sides of the chat, and after a period of exclusivity for them, the rights-for-use reverted to me.  The original program was flown aboard United during September and October of 1988, and I was later able to celebrate the composer's 60th and 65th birthdays on WNIB in 1992 and 1997.

Fifteen years after our telephone "meeting", Schifrin was in Chicago for performances of a commissioned work with the Chicago Symphony.  I asked if he would be able to spare a few minutes, and we met
— in person this timeat Orchestra Hall before the performance.

What is presented here a transcription of those two encounters.  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  Incidentally, the initial conversation was set up for a specific date, but then had to be postponed for one day.  It just so happened that our original appointment became the date that Schifrin was being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!  As they say in show business, "Timing is everything!"

On that day-after, the call was placed and everything was up and running in both studios.  Following a bit of incidental chit-chat, we settled in for our conversation . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  You've done a lot in both classical and jazz.

Lalo Schifrin:  Yes!

BD:  When you're writing a piece, is it all classical or all jazz, or is there a melding of the two styles?

LS:  That's a very intelligent question.  Through my background and my education and all the years of making music, I absorb both, and there is a kind of osmosis.  Actually, I would leave to the musicologists and to the historians to put labels.  I do my music.  You know, like they say here in America, "I do my thing," and my thing is the sum of many elements that are part of my musical taste and background and education and curiosities.  Jazz is one of the musics that brought me to this country; classical was the music that I grew up with, because my father was a classical musician in South America.  I couldn't avoid absorbing also Latin American music, and later on I became very much interested in ethnomusicology, from many, many other cultures and countries like Indonesia, Africa, India, etc.  All of that, therefore, expanded my horizons, and I think that today what I'm doing is a result, and I like that.  I like it that way.  Many people would say that I am "eclectic" in a derogatory way.  I am proud of being eclectic because I think that today's world, with communication
such as the fact that we are doing this interview where you are in Chicago and I am in Los Angelesand with the ways we are traveling, and telefax, and all the instant communication, the world is becoming like McLuhan said, "a global village," and my music reflects that.  I don't know why people have a tendency of putting labels, and thinking, for instance, classical music is something that belongs to a museum, and jazz belongs to another kind of museum.  By the way, I am interested in some of the electronic area, too, and some of the other things that are current.  Not everything, but I am very curious, and I like many, many kinds of music, and I integrate that into my own personal style.

BD:  Is there any kind of music that has not influenced your personal style?

LS:  Probably, but that would be a longer list.  I don't wear a mustache either.  Do you know what I mean?  All the things I don't do; that would be a good title for a song
All the Things That Didn't Appeal to Me instead of All the Things You Are.  [Both laugh]

BD:  When you get a commission, how do you decide if you will accept it or postpone it, or perhaps even turn it down? 

LS:  That depends.  It's very much about human relationships.  Let's say that the company for which you work decides that they want you to do an interview with someone for whom you don't feel any particular sympathy.  Your personal taste is totally against that person's taste.  Or let's say that you have to do an interview with a rock and roll group that is using demonology and Satanism in their songs.  You might not want to do that!  You might tell your company that maybe they should choose somebody else because you are not the right person to do that interview.

BD:  But as a composer, you are really your own company...

LS:  [Interrupts]  When I say "your company," it could be a symphony orchestra or a movie company or a producer; I'm just saying this in general.  I gave you an example so you could understand.  The same thing happens if I don't like something about the subject matter.  Sometimes I don't feel I can make the right contribution, and I tell them.  "I don't think I am your composer because this idea doesn't appeal to me."  On the other hand, if it does appeal and I like it, I come with some concepts, and then we work!

BD:  My assumption is that you get many more commissions than you can possibly accept.

schifrin LS:  Yes, I get a lot of commissions, but I have a dual career, or maybe several careers going parallel.  One of the aspects of my musical personality which developed relatively late was my talent to conduct.  I must say that I've always been a conductor, and conducted only my own music in self-defense because I felt that nobody could conduct my music better than I did.  From there I started to expand, and found that it was very interesting for me to study the scores of other composers
masters of today or the pastand look at them not from a compositional (analytical) point of view only, but also from a performing point of view.  Once I became a conductor and I started to be in touch with that aspect, I discovered that one of the secrets of being a good conductor is to know how to use the time.  For instance, today's symphony orchestras all over the world have unions with limitations in rehearsal time, so you have to know how to use your time in order to achieve the maximum possibilities.  The same thing I apply in lifehow to use my time in the best way.  So I divide it.  Sometimes I turn down things because I know that it's going to take away from other things.  I divide the year in two halves.  I say, "These two months I'm not going to write anything; I'm just going to learn this and this and this repertoire for concerts I have later on.  I have two agentsone for composition and one for conductingso I tell the conducting agent I won't be able to take any assignments for this month to this month because I'll be writing.  So that's the way.  I more or less play it by ear.

BD:  Do you get enough time to compose?

LS:  Yes, I do, because I write quite fast.  Composing is very much like writing anything; if you have something to say, you say it.  Then I welcome the time when I don't have those assignments.  For instance, in this moment I just finished a movie for Clint Eastwood, [The Dead Pool (1988), the fifth and final film in the Dirty Harry series] and I'm about to start another movie.  Then I'm not going to do any more movies this year.  I finished doing all the commissions I had in the classical field for this year, so the rest of the year after the summer is going to be just learning scores.  I'm going to take a vacation in the summer, and then I'm going to be learning scores for the season.  So I'm very well organized.

BD:  When you're writing a movie score, do you ever inadvertently come up with an idea that you think would be great in a string quartet or an orchestral piece?

LS:  Yes!  I put it in a memory bank; actually, I write it down and I put it in a drawer, and then I come back to it.

BD:  And vice versa; when you're working on a serious work, do you get an idea for a film score?

LS:  No, because the ideas for the film scores come from the screen.  The ideas for the other kind of composition come from inside... or maybe outside... I don't know.  Maybe they are in the air.  The composer is like a medium.  There are some ideas that might be floating up there, and we have to grab them.  I tell always young composers and young students of composition, "Study technique.  Study technique because the ideas are around, and the only thing you need is the technique to put 'em on paper."

BD:  Where is that delicate balance, then, between the ideas and the technique?

LS:  No, no, the technique is a tool.  In this very moment we are using grammar and syntax without even thinking.  You are doing concordance between the tense of the verb while you are asking me questions; you're using verbs and nouns and the tenses, the plural, and the singular words because you studied since you were very, very little.  You went to school and studied the grammar and the syntax, and now you are using it without even thinking.  That was a technique.

BD:  So musical technique, then, becomes ingrained in your hand?

LS:  Of course.  It's like driving.  When you drive you don't think, "I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that."  You just do it!

BD:  Do you ever come to musical emergencies where you have to examine the technique?

LS:  You mean by putting the brake?

BD:  Yes.

LS:  [Chuckles]  In art, the technique is very much functional to what we have to say.  I suppose that there are many musicians who understand what I'm saying, but for those who are not musicians, I keep using examples that are non-musical.  For instance, with writers like John Dos Passos or William Faulkner, by changing their technique, were changing also what they had to say.  They felt that what they had to say would be enhanced by the style of their technique.  The same thing happened with James Joyce and with many others.  I would say that the same thing happened to Shakespeare.  Even though we think now that he was using a very classical English, in a way he was using the best English he could use to convey what he had to say.

BD:  When you're writing a piece are you conscious of the people who will be listening to it?

LS:  Yes.  I don't write in an insular way or in an ivory tower, because that would be selfish; that would be an exercise in self-indulgence.  The public is the ultimate goal of any communication.  The work of a composer is very lonely.  Maybe that explains why I went back to performing.  The need of conducting with live audiences really helps.  Each side helps the other.  There must be some hope that somebody's going to hear this and there is a potential.  It's like in the telephone; you are hoping that somebody else is in the other side of the line, and that "somebody else" is the public.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You've made a number of recordings both as conductor and as composer.  Tell me first about the Guitar Concerto.

LSAngel Romero asked me to write a concerto for him.  I do not play the guitar, so I was very surprised that he asked me.  But I took it very seriously, and obviously I learned how to write for the guitar through the years.  I used a tablatura, the fingerboard of the guitar in front of me to make sure that I was writing the right positions, and that they wouldn't be too awkward.  Also, I started to think, "What kind of concerto am I going to write?"  The most successful is the Rodrigo, the Concierto de Aranjuez, and I don't want to compete with a Spanish style.  Romero was born in Spain, and he knows not only the classical music of Spain, but also the flamenco.  I wanted purposely to avoid that because I didn't think I could add anything new, and I couldn't do better than was done already.  However, one thing that intrigued me was the lute, the ancestor of the guitar.  I started to think, "Wait a second; the Spaniards brought the vihuela and the lute to this country.  The vihuela was the guitar of that time; that was during the Renaissance.  It became so popular here that the Indo-American cultures adopted the guitar right away; the African slaves, too.  On this continent, with the melting pot of different civilizations getting together, you can imagine the music of the Renaissance that was witnessed by the cultures of Africa, with the African rhythms and the Indo-American rhythms.  So that gave me the idea for a concerto, which is in three movements.  The first movement is actually a kind of impression of the music of the Renaissance. One of the themes is based on a Spanish Renaissance folk tune of the era called Guárdame las vacas.  The second movement is Indo-American and has elements of African rhythms, and the third movement is a synthesis of the three.  I feel very satisfied because I think I achieved that kind of synthesis.

BD:  Are you pleased with the recording?

LS:  Very much.  I was there, and I was very, very satisfied and very happy.

BD:  Did you make suggestions to the conductor?

LS:  Very little.  I think Jesús López-Cobos is one conductor that has great sensitivity and great understanding, and he did like it.  He already played it with the Cincinnati Symphony; he's also the musical director of the Spanish National Orchestra (Orquesta Nacional de España), and he invited Romero to play it four times there.  And when he's guest conducting he plays it sometimes.  I have a great respect and admiration for López-Cobos.  I told him, as a joke, while he was recording that, "I bet that you don't have too many composers that are alive and I can talk back to you.  If you perform any one of the masters of the past, they are dead, and if they don't like something there is no way that they can indicate that to you, unless you believe in spiritualism."  We were making jokes about it, but I did like him very, very much.

BD:  When you're conducting your own music, do you ever have a fight with yourself?

schifrin LS:  No.  Again, it is like driving; I know exactly how it should be.  No, I don't have that problem with myself.  I did performances myself of the Guitar Concerto, including some with Romero, and I think I did it very close to the record.

BD:  Do you conduct works of other living composers, too?

LS:  Oh, yes.

BD:  Do you have fights with them?

LS:  I don't think they were there.  I did pieces by Lutosławski, Luciano Berio, Gunther Schuller...

BD:  Are you perhaps more sensitive to the ideas of a living composer because you yourself are a living composer?

LS:  Yeah, I think so.  It's very interesting to do the music of the past because we learn, every time, something new.  It's a different kind of feeling; it's a kind of joy, almost a joy of an archaeologist.  There is one layer and another layer and another.  I am amazed... at night in my living room away from my studio, just reading a Mozart symphony and all of a sudden discovering the second bassoon line.  I thought I knew that symphony all the time, and all of a sudden you discover always something great!  It's like the joy of an archaeologist.  By doing music of living composers though, we are more in our times.  I think that my temperament is more with my time, and I think I am a better interpreter of their music.  I don't have to do the archaeologist's work because everything is there and I know why.  Even if I don't analyze it, I feel it.  It should be there, and it doesn't surprise me that it's there.

BD:  Is this what makes a piece of music great, that there can be the archaeological work involved?

LS:  No.  Anything that we do, in terms of preparing a piece, either from the past or present, has nothing to do with the performance itself.  It might have to do with absorption that makes that piece second nature.  We absorb it through our pores, through our mind, through our soul, until it becomes part of our self.  The archaeological efforts might work like analysis
how interesting that thing was before in the cello is now coming back with the oboe, and how interesting if they hear it backwards, and all that.  But the performance is something else.  The performance is very similar to...  [exhales in mild frustration]  I don't know!  I make sometimes examples that are not complete because in music nothing is so...  But there is one aspect of a performance which is similar to preparing for a test in school; it reminds me very much of that.  You prepare for a test, you study, you study, and now comes the test, and maybe there is something that happens in the test that you were not completely ready for; or the teacher took you elsewherethe nature of the test had a different vision or a different way of looking at something, and all of a sudden it threw you completely and there is confusion.  Or it's possible that you were so prepared that all the questions of the test were very well understood, because you assimilated the whole thing; no matter how difficult the test is, you know it, and then your adrenaline makes you go and you are flowing with it, and you get an A+.  The performance is the same thingyou prepare for the test and then you have it.  Of course, the test is a little more emotional because music is emotional besides being intellectual.  It's that moment that I think a conductor should let some few elements of surprise come in during the performance.  The rehearsals should be very well thought out and all the details should be worked out, but some elements of surprise should be added.  It happens in great performances.

BD:  Are many your performances A+?

LS:  Not many, but some; and when it does happen, I am the first to know it.

BD:  How much of your work is done in the rehearsal and how much do you leave for the night of performance?

LS:  That's relative.  It's a very difficult question to answer because we would have to really use specific examples.  Every work has its own life.  It's like a fingerprint, and it's very difficult to talk in general about that.  In music there are certain elements of improvisation; life has unexpected things.  It is not as if everything would be predetermined.  We run into a different problem here, comparing, for instance, lives in totalitarian countries.  Totalitarian regimes sponsor this kind of pseudo-security.  From birth to death you are going to be very secure, but animals in the zoo are also very secure.  There is nothing unexpected... provided that you are behaving, provided that you are within the rules, provided that you don't upset the system.  Well, this is not what life is about.

BD:  What is life about?

LS:  Upsetting the system!  I'm not trying to talk in terms of Rebel Without a Cause.  While you are conducting and the musicians feel it, sometimes an action comes in piece of music.  For example, during the rehearsal, in order to keep the balance, you ask the trumpets not to do the accent too loud.  Then in performance, all of a sudden you're playing the phrase that comes twice.  The first time they do the accent like you asked them because you wanted to keep the balance, keep the whole thing in certain proportion.  But the second time that the same phrase comes in, you ask them to give a little bit more.  At that moment it feels good!  They understand it and they do it, and there is a great moment.  The orchestra feels it and the audience feels it; it comes in the spur of the moment.

BD:  And that's what helps make the performance interesting?

LS:  Yes!  But this is something that you'd never thought about; it comes right there.

BD:  It's the inspiration of the moment.

LS:  Right.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  When you're writing a film score, I assume you work with a click track?

LS:  Sometimes I do when things are becoming a little complicated, especially in terms of synchronization with electronic sequences.

BD:  Do you ever find it restrictive to have to craft your music to fit exactly right?

LS:  I don't use it all the time.  If I would find it restrictive all the time I wouldn't use it all the time, and I don't.  It's only in certain sequences where I need to synchronize, especially electronic sequences with pre-programmed electronic instruments.  They play by themselves, and they have to do it in a certain tempo.  In this country, and in most of the world, the only way to do it is with a click.  There are more sophisticated ways to do it, but it's very technical; they have it in the IRCAM...

BD:  Oh yes, at Boulez's think-tank in Paris.

schifrin LS:  Right!  They have one way of synchronizing electronic instruments playing automatically to acoustic instruments; it does it without the need of a click track, but it's very, very different.  The acoustic instruments dictate the rhythm to the electronics by themselves, like almost artificial intelligence.  But this would be very difficult to use commercially; in the movie studios it would be almost prohibitive, because it's almost in the realm of science fiction.  But it happens.  I know it happens.  I am about to write a piece for the IRCAM with the Ensemble InterContemporain, and I'm right now studying that technology.

BD:  You've incorporated electronics into a number of your pieces.

LS:  Yes.  Not so much in the symphonic work, but in the movie work, yes.

BD:  Do you view electronics as just another color on your palette?

LS:  Yes.  Only that.  I don't see it as a replacement of the acoustic instruments, because that would be silly.  I know that sometimes they are being used instead of strings or other sounds; there are some synthesizers called Emulators, which means imitating or emulating the sound of timpani or whatever they want. 
[Note: the Emulator is the name given to a series of disk-based digital sampling keyboards manufactured by E-mu Systems from 1982 until 1990.I think that's very silly because no instrument can be better than the real instrument.  There are many reasons for that, including the natural harmonics.  Synthesizers don't have harmonics; if you want to have harmonics you have to fabricate them artificially, and that's very tedious and very long work.

BD:  [Chuckles]  Better to just go back to the original instruments!

LS:  Yes.  Think about the sympathy that there is between all the strings.  In a string section, there is something that happens with the sum of all the harmonic and enharmonic sounds.  There is a resonance of one playing the same line with the others.  The sound starts bouncing back from one to the other, and it creates something so incredible.  That's one of the elements of emotion in music.  Electronic instruments are too stale to do that.  It's possible to find out, in a mathematical formula, what is the secret of that emotion, and it's possible to even reproduce it; but it's a very tedious work, and it's not worth it.

BD:  Let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

LS:  Well, obviously we have music, so there must be some reason why we have music.  As you know, music started in society like many other arts, as a form of worship because man didn't understand his own nature; we still don't, I think, but we think we do now because we know a little more scientifically about the spiritual nature.  But I'm not talking about that.  At the beginning, men didn't understand the nature of anything.  Men were afraid of thunderstorms and many other things.  I think that the first ceremonials and rituals in any kind of worship were accompanied by music.  There is still religious music.  But when music is not religious, man has a still a spiritual value.  I think there must be some kind of a spiritual hunger, and I hope we don't lose it because this is one thing that makes us human.  Unfortunately, I feel, not only in music but in many other arts, there's a tendency to mediocrity.  I don't say this in an elitist way.  Who is Lalo Schifrin to say that?  I don't want to sound like I am aristocratic in my thoughts or anything like that, but you can feel there is some element of mass consumption
very much like fast food.  Music is becoming fast food.  Perhaps some people won't agree with me on this, but this is my humble opinion.  Let me give you an example in the popular music field.  There was a time where a songwriter like Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers or George Gershwin or Irving Berlin would write a song, and that song became a "standard."  Why did it become a standard?  Because it was recorded by one performer and another performer and another performer and another performer.  All of a sudden, everybody was recording it.  Now, almost like Andy Warhol said, "Everybody should be famous for 15 minutes"; a song becomes famous for maybe one month or two months.  It's on the specialized-market charts in Billboard or Cashbox, and nobody else performs it except the group that created it.  Now that might be good or bad; I'm not criticizing that, but it's interesting, and it reflects something that makes me think it's fast food.

BD:  Were Cole Porter and Irving Berlin writing songs for others to sing, and the people today are writing songs only to be performed themselves?

LS:  Yes!  And I don't say this as a criticism.  After all, Berlioz was writing also for himself, because in those times, the composer was primarily conducting his own music.  Mendelssohn was the same way, and Chopin was a performer who was playing only his own music.  Liszt practically played only his own music, but sometimes he learned something of Chopin, because he was devoted to the music of Chopin.  But basically, he was playing his own music.  The same thing happened with Paganini, who would play his own music or arrangements he would make for the violin of music of other people.  Maybe things are going in cycles; maybe we are back in the Berlioz era with rock and roll, in which the performers are playing their own music and nobody else's.

BD:  Do you expect your music to last?

LS:  Oh, that is not up to me to say; I'm not a prophet!

BD:  Do you hope it will last?

LS:  Hope?  Yes.  Yes.  I hope so, mainly because I don't think I would be very happy if I knew that all these efforts were for nothing.  There is a work I did that is going to be premiered in October in Mexico called The Songs of the Aztecs.  It's a 40-minute piece for symphony orchestra, chorus, and four soloists.  The tenor is going to be Plácido Domingo.  I put music to poems that were pre-Columbian, pre-Hispanic, from the culture of the Aztecs.  It's in the language of the Aztecs.  I had to use translations to Spanish, and a dictionary, and a grammar guide to Nahuatl, which is the language of the Aztecs.  There are six songs that I use, and the last song at the very end says, "It cannot be in vain that we came to this earth.  Let's leave at least flowers, let's leave at least songs."  This probably answers your question.

BD:  Yes, very much so.  I hope those performances go well.

LS:  Thank you.  I hope so too!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Are there other recordings coming along of your compositions?

LS:  There is one that I did it with the Paris Philharmonic, and it's probably one of my favorites because the conditions were great, the orchestra played fantastic, and everything came out great.  And the technology was very good.  The French engineering used a new way of recording that created a fantastic sound.  We did Petrushka, the 1947 version, the suite of Ma mère l'oye, and my Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra with Gary Karr the soloist.  I think it came out very well.

BD:  Good.  I will look forward to having a new entry on the small list of major works for the double bass!  Tell me about working with another special instrument, the bandoneon.

schifrin LS:  I never wrote for bandoneon.  I conducted, recently, a concert and a recording with Astor Piazzolla, who is a great master of the bandoneon.  As a matter of fact, he wanted to explain me how to write for the bandoneon, but I gave up after the first lesson.  [Both laugh]  It's very difficult.  But I had the pleasure of conducting for him his Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra; on the other side we did the Three Tangos for bandoneon, harp, piano, and strings, and percussion.  I think that it was a very rewarding experience.  He's a great master; I think that he plays with great, great intensity.  That's why I'm talking about musicians of today who are alive and have so many different things to say.  On one hand you have the minimalists; you have the neo-Webern and the post-Webern school including Berio, Stockhausen, Boulez; and then you have the neo-romantic Penderecki, who became a kind of neo-Mahler.  And the aleatoric composers...  A musician like Piazzolla is difficult to put a label on, but he's very much today and very much alive and very much interesting.  And it's good music.

BD:  Is this likely to cause other people to study the bandoneon, or will it die off when he dies?

LS:  Oh, no, no.  In Argentina it's the instrument of the tango, and there's a big tradition.  They teach it and they learn it, and there are many musicians who play it.  Also, in France there are tango orchestras, although the fingering is easier in France; they change the fingering to make it very easy to play.  The thing that frustrating is that the keys are not in a rational order.  With the Hungarian cimbalom, it's the same thing; it doesn't have a order where the D is next to the C, for instance; the C is not next to the C-sharp and then the D and then the D-sharp.  On the bandoneon, the C is in one place, and the C-sharp is in another place completely.  The key structure is different.  When you open the bandoneon it plays one note; closing it produces a completely different note.  It's crazy!  It's very frustrating, and it would take long time to learn how to write well for the bandoneon... unless you are a Piazzolla, because he's a great player himself.  He does it very well, obviously.

BD:  Right.  When you're writing for any instrument, do you feel you have to understand that instrument before you write for it?

LS:  Oh, absolutely!  And I do.  That's why I gave up with the bandoneon after one lesson because I couldn't understand the logic, or whatever makes it work.  You have heard my Concerto for Guitar.  It sounds difficult, but it comes very, let's say, "guitaristic."  When I write for an oboe, if you allow me a neologism, I write very "oboistic."  That's the way it comes.  I was invited by Zubin Mehta to conduct the Israel Philharmonic.  The first time I went, I wrote a Capriccio for Clarinet and Strings which had its premiere there.  My first teacher of piano, in Argentina, who lives in Tel Aviv, is Enrique Barenboim, who happens to be Daniel Barenboim's father.  He was there, and during the rehearsal he came to visit.  He said to me, "Where you learn how to play the clarinet?"  I said, "I never learned how to play the clarinet in practice; I only learned in theory."  Because my study of orchestration, I have a knack for knowing what fits into the natural problems of the instrument.  For me, it's interesting to learn the limitations of the instrument
what not to dowhich relates very well with the question you asked me at the beginning, about deciding what things I do or don't want to do, or what influences I might be trying to avoid.  Well, the limitations in this case.  The harp has a lot of limitations, and unless you know the limitations you cannot know how to write for harp.  That makes the challenge, and that makes it possible to say, "I'm going to have to write this piece knowing the limitations, and I want to see if I can conquer them."

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  What advice do you have for young conductors coming along?

LS:  The same advice I have for young composers
study the technique, and be in touch with the music.  I see some conductors...  There is a problem happening now; I can see it in musical education.  Orchestration is not being taught in schools.  I say this because I give seminars in universities and music departments, and I find that orchestration is not really being taught the way it should be.  They are told, "Read the scores of the masters, and that's the way to learn orchestration."  That's true!  It's very true, but there is a methodology and a guidance that we should give to the youngsters.  I studied that way, and it helped me a lot.  Orchestration is a science, and many conductors today don't know it.  They study a lot of analysis and form; they know when is coming the second theme, and that this is a transition between the first theme and the second theme in sonata form, but for some reason they are not being in touch with the music.

BD:  They're missing the forest for the trees.

schifrin LS:  Yes!  There are many things that we would have to talk about; specific pieces.  There was a conductor, Igor Markevitch, who I think was and is underestimated and underrated.  I think he was a great, great conductor and a great teacher.  He came with new insight to music and analysis that would help the musical interpretation.  For instance, he has a complete study of the nine symphonies of Beethoven, which is mind-boggling; it's the most incredible study of analysis of those works.  All the elements are there.  He doesn't tell you how to conduct them, but once you have gotten through his analysis, you know how to put it all together.  He came with a new insight, a new approach, which is a little bit different from the traditional approach.

BD:  But it works.

LS:  Of course!  For me, my score for the film
The Competition was a turning point, because that's the thing that started to get me back into conducting.  I did the pre-scoring with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and many musicians came up and said, "You are doing it very fast and very well.  You should consider getting into conducting."  So that gave me the idea.  They encouraged me.  I like that because instead of coming from the top to the bottom, the encouragement comes from the bottom up, which is the way a career should develop.  My own peers didn't have to play any politics; they really meant it.  So they encouraged me and I had great fun doing it.

BD:  What advice do you have for audiences who want to hear either concert music or jazz?

LS:  I cannot give you any advice; they know what they're doing.  I have great respect for the audiences.  Sometimes audiences get bored
both in classical music and jazz.  A jazz musician might be playing with his back to them, or they're playing boring music.  Sometimes a classical concert is also very tedious.  I don't think it's necessary today, for instance, to play symphonies with repeats.  There is a big controversyshould we play the repeat or shouldn't we play the repeat?  I don't think we should play the repeat anymore, because we have records.  When Beethoven wrote his symphonies, nobody knew them; they were world premieres!  So in order to make you become acquainted with the themes, obviously you have to repeat it.  But after so many years, everybody knows them, and everybody has heard so many recordings of them, I think repeating is redundant, and that is part of becoming boring.

BD:  Then if it's redundant to play the repeats, isn't it redundant to play whole Beethoven symphonies in concert after concert, year after year?

LS:  It depends if you feel, as a conductor, that you can bring some life into it.  That's the idea of performing
you must know you can do it.  But if you don't, you better not do it.

[Note: At this point, an urgent call was coming in for Maestro Schifrin, and we were compelled to wrap things up.]

BD:  Let me just say thank you for spending the time.  I appreciate talking with you, and I look forward eventually to meeting you in person.

LS:  Thank you very much.

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Fifteen years later, Lalo Schifrin was in Chicago for performances of a brand-new piece with the Chicago Symphony, and we arranged to meet briefly (in person this time) in a dressing room before the first of the concerts.  Even though a few of the questions are the same as in the previous conversation, his responses differ somewhat, and/or amplify other aspects of his ideas and experience.

BD:  I appreciate your taking a few minutes to speak with me again after fifteen years.  You get asked to do so much
film music, television, orchestral music, chamber music.  When you get a request, how do you decide yes or no?

LS:  It depends.  Luckily, I think that there is a rotation of requests.  For instance, if I finish a big orchestral piece, all of a sudden, for some reason I've been lucky and they and they offer me to play jazz at the Blue Note in New York.  So I say, "Yeah, that's a fantastic way to get out of what I just did."  It rejuvenates me and refreshes my source, and then all of a sudden I have to do a movie.  I don't do television too much today because I wouldn't have the time.  It's a matter of availability, and supply and demand.  I have different agents; booking agents as a performer in different continents, and I have an agent for films.  I don't have an agent for commissions of classical music, but the orchestras call me directly, like in this case here in Chicago.  And I know musicians or soloists who commission me to write for them.

BD:  I assume that if you accepted everything that came along, it would take several lifetimes!

LS:  It would.

BD:  Would you want to clone yourself, and have several Lalo Schifrins writing different things at the same time?

LS:  I am doing it.

BD:  [Surprised]  You're doing it yourself???

LS:  Yes, I am doing it; I don't know how, but I am doing it.

BD:  Can you keep it all straight, in your mind?

LS:  Yes!  Oh, yes.  I have no problem about that.  For the time being, I know where I am; I don't know what's going to happen with the aging process.  For the time being I know what I'm doing, and I do the best I can.

BD:  Besides the original uses, some of your melodies are re-used elsewhere.  Are you ever surprised by where some of your tunes and ideas wind up?

LS:  Oh, yes!  "The Tar Sequence" from Cool Hand Luke was used for Eyewitness News [broadcasts on New York station WABC-TV and other ABC affiliates].  Because it belonged to the Warner Brothers publishing company, they made a deal with Eyewitness News.  The same thing happened with a theme of the movie The Fox, where I was nominated for an Oscar.  It ended up being a commercial for women's lingerie and stockings in France.  That one is more known in France than Mission: Impossible.

BD:  Do you approve of all of these extra uses?

LS:  I laugh all the way to the bank.

BD:  I see.  They have to pay you for each use.

LS:  Oh, yeah, yeah.

schifrin BD:  Have you ever gone back and reused some of your own music; taken a theme yourself and made it into something new?

LS:  That depends on the copyright.  If I am the copyright owner, I could; if not, there is a legal problem.  Some of the movie studios pay you a lot of money in front so they own the publishing rights, in which case I couldn't do it, legally.  But if I do own the copyright, then I can do anything I want.  I can do absolutely anything I want.

BD:  When you sit down at your desk, do you think differently if it's going to be for the Chicago Symphony, or if it's going to be for a chamber group, or a movie score?

LS:  Of course!  If it is a movie score, most of the time the images dictate the sound and the quality of the music.  In this case, which was for the Chicago Symphony, it's more abstract.  I have to think about the audience; they don't have anything to look at, so I purposely wrote a piece that I call Fantasy for Screenplay.  It is supposed to be an imaginary film, but it has no story.  It calls for audience participation because they have to make their own story.

BD:  Doesn't any musical work involve the imagination of the audience?

LS:  That depends.  Some music is more abstract.  For instance, a fugue of Bach; what kind of imagination can you put there?  You have to listen to the fugue... or a solo of Dizzy Gillespie or a solo of Charlie Parker.  It doesn't tell any story.

BD:  But then you also get the Walt Disney animation...

LS:  Oh, yeah, but that was different.  I thought about that while I was saying it, but I don't know if Bach would have approved of that.  When Bach wrote, he wrote really abstract music.  The main thing is to get the emotion of the audience without any story.  Now in opera you have a story; in ballet you have story.  Some classical music is programmatic, especially the Romantics.  In the Romantic period they have some programs to follow, but the most important thing is the musical construction.  You construct it in an interesting way that is going to please.  It has to please me; I am the worst critic of myself.  Then it has to appeal the audience; I always am thinking about the audience.

BD:  Is it the same audience that goes to the concert and goes to the movies and watches the television, or are these different audiences?

LS:  [Seriously considering this idea]  With the media, the world is becoming so... I don't know...  between the phonograph records, the radios and the television...  For instance, let me tell you that there's some composers in Hollywood or in Europe who can write avant-garde music in a movie that they couldn't write for a concert because the audience would think it's too abrasive.  So the whole thing is starting to be mixed up.  You don't know where the limits are.  There are also film music concerts in which people like John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith or myself conduct film music without a screen.

BD:  Is that to entertain those who've already seen the film, or is that to enlighten people who may not have seen the films at all?

LS:  That's not our problem.  Our problem is to do a good performance, to rehearse the orchestra and to try to give the audience the best we can.  In many cases the audience have seen the film, but they didn't they have to.  For instance, I'm going to do concerts of film music in Moscow for the first time very soon, and in Tbilisi, the capital of the old Republic of Georgia.  I don't know if they know the films I've done.  I don't know if they played Dirty Harry there, or some of the other things I've done.  Mission: Impossible was about the Iron Curtain, so I doubt very much that they've seen it... but maybe by now!  I don't know; I play it and I hope they like it without knowing or not knowing it.

BD:  Is the music that you write for everyone on the planet?

LS:  I never thought about that.  [Chuckles slightly]  You are asking very difficult and good questions.  Let me put it this way
once I write something, it really doesn't belong anymore to me.  In a sense, I become detached from it.  Even when I'm conducting my own music, the baton technique I have to apply is like it would be for another composer.  I know the spirit...  One of the problems that conductors have in generalin classical or film musicis to learn the spirit of a piece.  I know the spirit, but the conducting and the resolution of the musical problems has to be approached completely fresh and objectively.

BD:  Are there ever times when you are conducting your own music, where the conductor gets into a little fight with the composer?

LS:  No, because I can solve it very easily.  [Chuckles slightly]

BD:  Who wins
— is it the conductor or the composer?

LS:  I don't think there is such a discrepancy.  For instance, I did a suite of Enter the Dragon, the movie with Bruce Lee.  That is extremely difficult for the orchestra and for the conductor.  There were two ways to solve this battle
one was to cut all the things that are difficult and just go for the easy ones, but I decided not to.  I left it and I learned it, and I'm doing it the way it is.

BD:  Very good.  But coming back to my question, do you think that your music could touch everyone
six billion souls?

LS:  I don't know; I never thought about that.  Six billion souls is a lot, and I cannot think that vast number.  It's beyond my imagination.  I think that the main thing is to concentrate.  For instance, tonight the audience of subscribers coming to the Chicago Symphony will be very modest.  When I write something that becomes known by the big public at large, it's a pleasant surprise to me because I never write with that intention.  No composer has a formula how to reach the majority of the people.

BD:  Well, why do you write music?

LS:  Because I love it.  That's the way I express myself, and I couldn't do anything else.


BD:  What is the purpose of music?

LS:  Stravinsky said that music has no purpose but express itself.  I think that's a little bit too extreme.  The purpose of music is to get to the emotions of people.

BD:  So you're touching them one on one?

LS:  I don't know if I am, but you are asking about the purpose of music.  I didn't say it is my music.  If it touches me, that is already good news because there might be a possibility that I can touch somebody else.  We all have one thing in common
we share humanity, so that's what I mean. 

BD:  Does it please you that your music is spread all over the world
on films and recordseven though you're not there?

LS:  Oh, yes!  Like tonight there is a performance of a Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in Mexico City, and I should be there conducting it.

BD:  Could you not move the date?

LS:  It's not up to me; symphonies have their own schedules and timetables.  I had to make a choice, and I chose to come to Chicago.

BD:  But is there a little bit of you that goes with all of your music in each piece?

LS:  Possibly.  But I still have to maintain my unity, my sanity.

BD:  [Facetiously]  You mean, you're not insane?

LS:  I hope not.  Let me put it this way... I don't underestimate myself, but I don't overestimate myself.  Most artists in general have to have an ego.  We all have an ego; God gave everybody an ego.  Everybody, including a busboy in a restaurant or somebody working in a bakery or a taxi driver; they all have an ego.  It's a natural thing that allows them to function in society.  And I believe in the division of labor.  It's very important to have a disc jockey like you, and a critic to promote the music.  It's very important to criticize it, or to talk about it; it's important to have a composer and a performer.  So we all have an ego, but the problem is if it becomes extreme egomania; that's wrong.  Or if it is the other extreme, which is, "I'm too insecure; I don't know if I mean anything; I don't know if what I do means anything."  Unfortunately, Kafka was like that.  One of the greatest writers of the 20th century was so insecure about what he was doing he gave the order to destroy all his works.  Max Brod, his executor, didn't obey the order, so that's why we know of Kafka.  And who knows how many other composers or writers or painters burned their paintings because of the insecurity?  I think that the best thing is to leave it alone.  When I finish something, I leave it the way it is because I could improve it ad infinitum.  Like listening to this piece today, I could say, "Hmm, maybe I could do something better."  But no, I leave it the way it is, and the next time, I'll do it better, perhaps.  That's the way to make progress.

BD:  Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

LS:  No.

BD:  [Very surprised]:  No???

LS:  No, because I still haven't done everything I have to do!  Progress is infinite, so if I would be pleased, that would be the death of the soul.  That would mean that I become complacent, and that's dangerous.

BD:  I can't imagine you being complacent!

LS:  No, I am not.  I am always curious, and that rejuvenates me.  The different activities I do keep me young.  I am now 71 years old, biologically, but mentally and physically and spiritually I feel young.

BD:  Good.  I hope you stay young forever.

LS:  Thank you.

Lalo Schifrin is one of the most versatile composers on the scene today. As a pianist, composer and conductor, he is equally at home conducting a symphony orchestra, performing at an international jazz festival, scoring a film or television show, or creating works for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra or the London Philharmonic.

Born in Argentina, Lalo was classically trained from an early age by his father, Luis Schifrin, concertmaster of the Orchestra of the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. While attending the Conservatory in Paris, Lalo led a double life: he would study classical music during the week and jam with Europe's hottest jazz players on the weekend.

When Schifrin returned to Buenos Aires in the mid 1950's, he formed his own big band. When the legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie heard Lalo play, Dizzy brought Lalo to New York to be his pianist and arranger. As a jazz musician he has performed with such great personalities as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, and Count Basie.

A prolific composer, Schifrin has written more than 100 scores for film and television, garnering four Grammy awards out of 21 Grammy nominations, one ACE, and six Oscar nominations. Among Schifrin's well known scores are: Mission: Impossible, Cool Hand Luke, The Competition, Dirty Harry, The Fox, Bullitt, Rush Hour, and Tango.

Schifrin has performed in the world's greatest concert halls: Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Los Angeles Music Center, the Concertgebouw, Royal Festival Hall, Teatro Colon, Salle Pleyel, and the Champs Elysee Theatre, as well as at all the major jazz festivals in the United States and Europe.

Schifrin's classical works include "Cantos Aztecas" recorded by Placido Domingo with orchestra and choir; "Piano Concerto No. 2" commissioned by the Steinway Foundation, performed by Mstislav Rostopovich and Cristina Ortiz; "Guitar Concerto" recorded by Angel Romero with the London Philharmonic; "Dances Concertantes" for clarinet and orchestra performed by David Shifrin; and "Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra" recorded by Gary Karr and the Paris Philharmonic.

The Three Tenors, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti, commissioned Schifrin to write all three of the Grand Finale concerts celebrating the World Soccer Championships: Italy in 1990; Los Angeles in 1994; and Paris in 1998. Schifrin's contribution was to arrange the medleys featuring all three of the Tenors singing together. This highly successful series of recordings have enticed many new fans into the world of classical music. Schifrin has arranged the music for two highly acclaimed Christmas programs: "Christmas in Vienna" in 1992 with Diana Ross, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo, and also "A Celebration of Christmas" in 1995 with Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Natalie Cole.

Beginning in 1993, Schifrin has been featured as composer, pianist and conductor for his ongoing series of "Jazz Meets the Symphony" recordings. These works have featured the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and such jazz stars as Ray Brown, Grady Tate, Jon Faddis, Paquito D'Rivera, James Morrison, and Jeff Hamilton. The "Jazz Meets the Symphony Collection" contains the first four releases and has garnered three Grammy nominations. The fifth CD in this series will be recorded in the autumn of 2000.

Schifrin's most recently acclaimed CD, for which he received a Grammy nomination, is his "Latin Jazz Suite" with soloists Jon Faddis, David Sanchez, Ignacio Berroa, Alex Acuna and the WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany.

Among the many honors awarded Schifrin: BMI Lifetime Achievement Award (1988); an award from the Israeli government for "Contributions to World Understanding through Music"; a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce; the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres from the French minister of Culture; the Distinguished Artist Award in 1998 from the Los Angeles Music Center; advisor to the President of Argentina in Cultural Affairs in 1998; and appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Latin Jazz Institute/Festival in 1999.

It is Schifrin's ability to switch musical gears which makes him unique in the music world and also continues to spark his own interest in new creations. His time continues to be divided amongst composing both jazz and classical commissions, performing on tour with orchestras and big bands, and working on film scores.

(March 2000) 

Partial Credits List

 Feature Films:

    * Rush Hour 2
    * Rush Hour
    * Something to Believe In
    * Tango
    * Money Talks
    * Mission: Impossible
    * Sudden Impact
    * The Competition
    * The Amityville Horror
    * Voyage of the Damned
    * Enter the Dragon
    * Dirty Harry
    * Bullitt
    * Coogan's Bluff
    * The Fox
    * Cool Hand Luke
    * The Cincinnati Kid

Television Themes

    * Mission: Impossible
    * Mannix
    * Medical Center
    * Dr. Kildare
    * The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Classical and Jazz

    * Gillespiana Suite for Trumpet and Bass
    * Canons for String Quartet
    * The Cat for Jazz Band and Percussion
    * The Jazz Mass
    * Symphonic Sketches of Cool Hand Luke
    * Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra
    * Pan American Games Overture
    * La Nouvelle Orleans (For Woodwind and Orchestra)
    * Dances Concertantes (For Clarinet and Orchestra)
    * Cantos Aztecas (Opera)
    * Lili'Uokalani Symphony (Symphony No. 1)

For Classical Music, Score and Parts Rentals for Lalo's work, please contact:

    MMB Music
    Attn: Marcia Goldberg -
    (800) 543-3771
    (314) 531-9635
    (314) 531-8384 FAX

© 1988 and 2003 Bruce Duffie

The first of these two interviews was recorded on the telephone on June 23, 1988.  Portions (along with recordings) were used as part of the in-flight programming aboard United Airlines in September and October of that year.  Other portions (also along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1992 and 1997.  The second interview was held at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on October 9, 2003.  The transcription of both conversations was made and posted on this website in 2011.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.