interview: John Barry: Out Of Oxford

On a brisk Fall Monday this past October 18th, I had an opportunity to join about fifty scholars in the centuries-old Oxford University student union library for an intimate conversation with legendary film composer, John Barry

Guided by a moderator under the watchful eyes of an Irish BBC documentary crew, Barry fielded a wide variety of questions — ranging from his thoughts on Shirley Bassey (“She convinced you of Goldfinger. It was a ridiculous song.”) to Robert Redford’s rejection of the original Horse Whisperer score — generated by a mostly male assembly. The handsome but brooding visage that stares back at us on vintage On Her Majesty’s Secret Service LP sleeves has since become more than a little wizened and grandfatherly today. His recollections sometimes meandering, Barry’s assessment of today’s movie-making process — soundtracks in particular — was nonetheless clear and brutal.

Here are some of the evening’s highlights:

Opening with a few general remarks, Barry was quick to observe that in the world of film, change is a constant. Therefore, “to sit and pontificate about what it’s all about is totally impossible,” he reminded the audience.

Despite his years of experience, the composer’s sense of wonder at the whole process was evident in his observation that the movie projector was “the most extraordinary piece of equipment.” By the same token, it governs everyone’s actions with one inescapable rule: Twenty-four frames per second. “That’s what this is all about.” From his standpoint, it was otherwise a game without laws. “I feel like a psychologist,” he noted, “analyzing the producer … the director. It’s all a game, really.”

But it was Barry’s harsh criticism of today’s score scene that “ruled” this evening. Despite his own occasional flirtation with synthesizers for scores such as … Majesty’s … and The Black Hole, the composer was particularly opposed to the trend in digital composition and manipulation, going so far as to cite the recent announcement of digirati Hans Zimmer as director of music for the film division of DreamWorks as, “the kiss of death.”

Mr.Barry remarked that Hollywood’s current regime was overly-fascinated by — and completely reliant on — computer-generated sound. Although some might argue that this has broadened the range of available effects and compositions, Barry counters that the sheer expense of both the technology and the technicians, as well as the abandonment of less costly but nonetheless proven methods, robs movies of quality while adding a “weight” that overwhelms the images. He further lamented MTV’s other sad influence on film: “Cutting every second. Nobody gives anybody a chance, there’s no time to absorb anything.”

The Academy Award-winner was especially saddened by the use of pop songs in place of true scores. Lucrative though it is for the record companies, Barry sees no connection between this approach and film-making. “Now is not a very good time [for traditional film composers],” he stated.

Raised on a steady diet of epic films — his earliest childhood memory is of a visit to the Rialto theatre in New York City; “It was SO big!,” he recalls — with epic scores by the likes of Korngold and Steiner, John Barry himself rose to prominence in the 1960s under much different circumstances. Largely due to the advent of television, gone were the days of in-studio orchestras lead by on-staff conductor/composers.

With the rapid succession of such diverse films as Born Free, The Lion in Winter, Midnight Cowboy, and the James Bond series, does he have a favorite? Noting that the time and energy required to produce a score most often left him unable to appreciate the final result, Barry did offer that sometimes, years later, he’ll catch a telecast of one of the films he’s scored and think to himself, “Oh, that’s not bad.”

To what does he owe his good fortune? Backing from U.S. studios despite never actually working in America for one (although he’s quick to profess his appreciation of Americans; “[They] don’t mess around. Saves a lot of time.”). More simply, though, he considers himself to have been the right person, in the right place (i.e., London), at the right time.

As the evening wound to a close, a petite exchange student posed the session’s most genteel question: “What’s more important, the music of feelings or the feeling of music?”

“I can’t separate them,” Barry stated. He went on to explain that the challenge to the composer is to examine the feelings while simultaneously seeking to express those emotions musically in a way that’s unique (that is, unlike the score of a similar scene in a previous film), yet still appropriate to the film overall.

Currently at work on the big-screen version of Thomas the Tank Engine — which will definitely delay both his next non-film album as well as an already problematic concert schedule — Barry seems content with his lot. “Sometimes I think I should be writing the next Messiah,” he acknowledged, “but I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”

The BBC documentary on John Barry is scheduled to air in the UK early next year.

For a comprehensive look at John Barry, visit The John Barry Resource.

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