Elmer Bernstein, the great movie composer -- 125 scores in 28 years, by his own rough count -- says most music for television is pretty terrible for the same reason most television programs are pretty terrible. "Television has one concern: getting the show out fast and getting high ratings," Bernstein grumps.
"I think I could safely say that with few exceptions, television schedules preclude the possibility of good work," he could safely say, and does.
But -- all that is changing. Some of it is changing. A little bit of it is changing. There are encouraging signs, and Bernstein himself is one of them. The fact that the composer or such superior if dissimilar movie scores as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Ten Commandments" is dipping his esteemed little toe into the muddied waters of television is in itself an indication of change for the better.
In addition, movie-music composers like John Addison ("Tom Jones") and Maurice Jarre ("Dr. Zhivago") also are doing work in television, chiefly, like Bernstein, for TV-movies. Such men are not hacks.
Most producers would assume that someone like Bernstein would be too expensive to hire for a TV movie. "Well, they'd be right, actually," Bernstein says. Yet he composed the score for NBC's movie "Little Women" (including the main title heard on the just-canceled series) and is now working on an unusually ambitious TV project, adapting and arranging three works of Aaron Copland -- "Rodeo," "Billy the Kid" and "Appalachian Spring" -- to be used as the score for the Alan Landsburg production, "The Chisholms," a six-hour Western miniseries to be seen on CBS starting March 29.
"Television's getting to be a much more interesting field, and the key to it is money," says Bernstein, whose brother, Leonard, is also a composer (Leonard says "Bern-stine"; Elmer says "Bern-steen"). "All of a sudden they're spending money into millions to make television films, and that has always been the key in this business -- spend enough money and the interest and care rise accordingly.
"As time goes on, because of cable and various things, the competition is becoming more and more fierce, so fierce that they have to find ever-new ways to attract people to the set. And now, hopefully, they're trying quality. As strange as that may sound."
Bernstein worked in television "way back in the MCA-Revue days" (it's now Universal TV) on "The General Electric Theater," hosted by that crummy actor Ronald Reagan. "They had great hopes for television at that point," Bernstein says. Composers got paid comparatively little, and if they balked, producers would say, "But, it's television." Bernstein says the plea had validity in those less prosperous TV days but not any more, though he still hears it from time to time.
For years, Bernstein says, the rates for composing music for a two-hour TV-movie were standardized at $7,500 top, including conducting and orchestration. "Yet the work is similar to feature films and the tensions and pressures are worse in television," he says. TV producers would offer him about one-fourth the amount of money he could get from film producers.
Movie composers are notorious grumblers and malcontents, but they do have lots to complain about. Especially in the '60s and '70s, producers and publicists were forever pressuring them to tap out a pop tune that would help promote a film. Bernstein says there is still a trace of this top-40 mentality in TV, and for that reason, though he scored the feature film "National Lampoon's Animal House," he "politely withdrew" from the TV version, ABC's "Delta House."
"I sensed right from the beginning that there would be that kind of problem with that show," he says. "You know, 'Let's get the show off with a bang,' 'bing-bang-wham,' all that sort of thing. When you get into that kind of a situation, you find out that everybody's a genius all of a sudden. In the area of pop music, everybody thinks they know what to do, and they may be right; I probably don't know any more about pop music than the kid on the street. This can be very disturbing, because the only secure thing an artist has to fall back on is his judgment. And the one great freedom you have to cherish as an artist is the freedom to make your own mistakes -- not other people's mistakes."
Bernstein blames himself, partly, for introducing pop music into movie scores with his jazzy riffs for "The Man With the Golden Arm" in the early '50s. "I had lunch today with John Williams," the composer of "Star Wars," "Close Encounters" and "Superman," Bernstein says, "and I said, 'John, you really closed the circle. I opened a Pandora's Box with 'Man With the Golden Arm.' Thank God we have now come full circle; 'Star Wars' brought the symphonic score back to the movies."
When Bernstein's friend Mel Stuart, director of "The Chisholms," called him about the Copland project, Bernstein told him, "I'll do it for the pleasure of seeing my name on the screen with Aaron Copland's." Copland has written for films himself ("Our Town," "Of Mice and Men") and he can rest assured his music is safe with admirer Bernstein.
"When I was 12 years old, my composition teacher took me to Aaron Copland to play a little waltz I had written, to find out if I was talented, and he sent me on my way," Bernstein recalls. "I haven't spoken to Aaron personally about this, but from what I can gather, he gave carte blanche. Strangely enough, I must tell you, as I approached the material I haven's messed with it really at all. I am trying to use it whole cloth as much as possible. Of course I find myself in a difficult position; I don't want to injure it in any way."
Bernstein is no stranger to Westerns; he has scored many, and his most popular or at least most familiar score is probably the one he wrote for- "The Magnificent Seven." The stirring main title found its way onto television without any collusion from Bernstein; the theme, in addition to being a pop hit of its day, was propelled into immortality as the musical signature for the Marlboro campaign in the years when cigarette advertising was still allowed on television.
Bernstein's "dum, da-da dum da-da-da-DA-da dum" became synonymous with Marlboro Country. No, not with hacking coughs -- with chiaroscuro skies, misty vistas and tough hunks tall in saddles.
"I want to make something very clear about that, by the way," Bernstein says. "What most people don't realize is that the movie composer does not control his own copyright. The copyrights are owned by the studios, who can do anything they wish with them. The sale -- a perfectly fine one, I don't object to it -- of the 'Magnificent Seven' theme to that Marlboro campaign was nothing I had anything to do with or could have controlled. Because the copyright owner is United Artists pictures."
Still, the composer does get paid for these incursions into his oeuvre ."Yes, it was very lucrative, I must say." He smiles reflectively. "Very lucrative."
Bernstein says there are more good reasons for avoiding television than the fact that it has a tradition of being cheap. It also has a tradition of not treating composers, or any artists, very well, and the bugaboo is that old familiar standby, the Nielsen ratings, and TV's devotion to their every wrinkle.
"The biggest difference between music for feature films and music for television," Bernstein says, " is that in television, the hysteria surrounding the scheduling and doing something that's going to score in the ratings brings about a situation that precludes anybody caring about anything. It just. cancels all caring out . Pretty soon it gets to a point of your saying, 'Well, if they don't care, I don't care.' It's not a desirable state of affairs."
There's also the rush to get things done, for which producers blame networks and their capriciousness. Bernstein says he knows a composer who received the information he needed on a Monday night for a TV show score that was due Wednesday morning. "Now that may sound extraordinary, but I regret to say, it's not. It is perfectly common to have only five or six days to do the music for a one-hour show. Unless one has the genius of a Mozart, it would be impossible to do really fine or original work in that period of time. And obviously, if anybody has the genius of Mozart, he isn't writing music for television."
Bernstein won't really consider the idea of commiting himself to a weekly series, partly because shows now can be canceled after just a few episodes on the air; sometimes they are canceled while in production, before they have even been broadcast. However, he does say of writing music for series TV, "It is a wonderful training ground for young composers. There's a chance to make mistakes that nobody will remember the next day."
Bernstein, who is on the portly side and has a geniusy mop of shaggy gray hair, lives in Santa Barbara, but works in a surprisingly dingy and dull West Los Angeles apartment. One can't help noticing how prosaic a setting it makes for the creation of something so romantic as music, even music on demand. In fact, the whole idea of writing music on demand has its astonishing side. After all, a piece of music isn't anything so mundane or plebeian as, say, a newspaper column.
Elmer Bernstein is naturally pleased with such a question, and he might well be, since he is not only uncommonly prolific and successful, but has also written hours and hours of music of which he should be nothing less than enormously proud.
"Music is a romantic art, yes," he says, his glasses hanging by a string against his pot belly. "It's an art of shades and sounds, and it's an emotional art; it deals with feelings rather than intellect. But the making of it is an intellectual exercise. And therefore it can be done in any surroundings.
"The great music of the world was all written for money and under deadlines. It's true -- going back to Bach, who had to turn out a cantata to be sung in church every Sunday. That's a pretty good deadline right there. Haydn was producing things like the Nelson Mass because Lord Nelson was going to come and visit the next week, you know? And on through Mozart, who did things on commission and was always pressed by deadlines, especially for the operas.
"There was one period in the mid-19th century when that was not as true, with composers like Chopin and Beethoven, who sought freedom from patrons. That was a big mistake. The patron system was perfectly fine. No matter how romantic a composer is, he has to pay the rent and feed his children and they have had to do so in every age. Whether one subjects oneself to the tyranny of a patron, or the tyranny of a Nielsen rating, there is always some patron, whomever one is working for." CAPTION: Picture 1, Elmer Bernstein: Composing for TV "is getting to be a much more interesting field, and the key to it is money." By Valerie Landsburg -- Copyright (c) 1979, Alp Inc.; Picture 2, The score for CBS' series "The Chisholms" is being adapted by Bernstein from compositions by Aaron Copland. Copyright (c) , 1979, Alp, Inc.