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Bob Cobert Scores His Own Victory in 'War'

November 19, 1988|ZAN STEWART

If the Guinness Book of World Records had an entry for composer of the longest film or TV music score, Bob Cobert would win--hands down.

Cobert wrote the 2,000-plus-page score for ABC's 1981 miniseries "The Winds of War." But he estimates that the score for its 32-hour sequel, "War and Remembrance," will run 3,500 pages by the time he finishes writing the music for the second half, a 14-hour segment due to air next May.

"It was an insane assignment," he said with a laugh, "and tremendous fun."

A Juilliard School of Music-educated composer who's been been writing scores for film and TV "since the '50s," Cobert approached the seemingly daunting "War and Remembrance" scoring task with "great glee," he said, "because I knew I'd have a lot of music to write. The size and the magnitude really makes it thrilling because you have a chance to work with thematic development and to work with many kinds of music."

"In a 2-hour movie," Cobert explained, "the music has one kind of thrust. This movie has 10 different kinds of thrusts." He wrote everything from "pure romantic music to all kinds of military music to jazz."

The core of Cobert's score are the recurring themes that underlie the drama. In all, there are "20 to 25 recognizable themes that are repeated throughout the film," he said. "A lot of these I used from 'Winds of War,' but I further developed each theme."

The project started in early 1984, when Cobert read the drama's lengthy script and started to plan the source music. (Source music is music that's heard on screen coming from a visible source, such as a radio or a dance band--anything other than background music.)

"Very often source music has to be recorded before scenes are shot, so that it can be playing during filming," Cobert said.

"In this movie, there are 110 to 120 pieces of source music," he went on. "Sometimes it's the Glenn Miller band, sometimes it's an orchestra playing in a concentration camp, sometimes a symphony or Jewish ecclesiastical music. We researched thoroughly so that the music would be accurate for the period."

Cobert, who served as musical director and conductor for the miniseries, also used pieces by such composers as Mozart and Beethoven. And he wrote hours of "plain old work music, which is music for a scene that stands by itself, where there's no musical development or even a hint at a previous theme."

"As an artistic endeavor, (scoring this picture is) not limiting," Cobert said, adding a laugh.

When shooting was completed last spring, Cobert's main work--the writing of the background score--began. He "spotted" the entire film (the process of deciding where there will be music) with producer/director Dan Curtis and music editor Chris Ledesma, and then set out to compose.

Getting going wasn't easy. "Before I start, it's scary," Cobert said. "But then you try something, a few notes here, a few notes there, and it's OK."

Cobert had to work fast, writing an average of 2 1/2 to 3 minutes of music each day to make ABC's original air date of February, 1989. But when the writers' strike forced the network to push the air date up to this month, he really had to scramble.

"Curtis asked me if I could write 5 minutes a day, and I thought about it and said, 'Yeah, but I won't do it for free,' " Cobert chuckled. "When Dan told me that money was no object, I called my agent and said, 'Go get 'em!' "

To fulfill his end of the bargain, Cobert worked 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, from August through October. He produced five hours of background music for the first seven installments that are running through Wednesday.

"I took no time off whatsoever," he said, and amazingly he didn't get tired. "While you're going, the adrenaline is pumping," he said. "You're into it. Then when you get a day off, you realize how tired you've been."

Orchestrator Jack Hayes was an essential element in the scoring process. Cobert's music sketches were sent by messenger to Hayes--who had collaborated with the composer on "Winds of War"--and he would decide, with Cobert's approval, what instruments would play what notes. "We had achieved such a good rapport from working on 'Winds' that often he could hear just what I wanted without asking me," Cobert said.

Once the music was completed, recording sessions were held, with Cobert conducting a 50-piece orchestra. During these, Curtis stood by like a watchdog, listening to recorded takes and seeing how they meshed with the filmed material, making sure he got what he wanted.

"It's not a question of basically liking (the music)," Cobert said. "It's Dan's picture and he must approve every note. There's nitpicking one bar here and there, but it's great, because he stands behind the product."

Curtis, who has been using Cobert scores since his 1966 soap opera "Dark Shadows," has effusive praise for his composer.

"I think he's a genius, no question about it," he said in a separate conversation. "He has an incredible knack for writing clever background music that enhances all the time. He stands up there with the greatest and somebody should start to recognize him."

Cobert believes he's perfectly suited for the hectic life of a TV/film composer.

"I love what I'm doing," he said. "It's my life's blood. I did not start out to become a serious composer and wind up having to do TV and film as a substitute. I started out wanting to be a radio composer--then came TV and film. I'm not frustrated. It's such a marvelous feeling to write something one day and then soon thereafter, you walk into a studio and find yourself in front of some of the greatest musicians in the world who have come to play your music, and who play it superbly. What more can anybody ask for?"

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