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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN ELMER BERNSTEIN : A First in His Career : Composer: From 'Cape Fear' to 'The Grifters,' all of his film scores this year are different. On purpose.

December 05, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Which is not to suggest that Bernstein is an anti-electronic crusader who hides from the tide of digital progress behind a piano and an orchestra. In the early '50s, he began experimenting with various electronic instruments, including the Hammond B-3 to the Novachord.

"I experimented with them on a couple of films," he said. "One of them is a cult film generally considered to be possibly the worst film ever made--'Robot Monster.' That was followed by another one called 'Cat Women on the Moon.' I experimented on those films a lot.

"Now it's commonplace, really. My feeling about them is that they are useful as tools and as just another instrument."

Throughout his career, Bernstein has struck a keen balance between upholding tradition--the kind of tunefulness that won him an Oscar for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" in 1967--and innovation.

His music for "The Man With the Golden Arm" in 1956--the score that kicked his reputation into high gear--was the first to rely principally on the language of jazz. But in the same year, he also delivered the heroic overtures of "Ten Commandments."

And so it has gone for Bernstein, whose versatility has enabled him to tackle films as disparate as "The Magnificent Seven," "Birdman of Alcatraz," "True Grit," "Ghostbusters" and countless others.

Far from being a star-struck, Hollywood-bound musician in his youth, the New York-born Bernstein studied music at Julliard with composers Roger Sessions and Stephan Wolpe.

"My goal in music originally was to be a concert pianist, which was the way I started," he said. "I did concertize until I was in my late 20s."

During his stint in Special Services during World War II, Bernstein got a last-minute job scoring a dramatic radio program when the original composer went AWOL. With that unlikely introduction, a long and fruitful career was born.

Bernstein has written concert music all along, including a song cycle performed by the Santa Barbara Symphony three years ago. But it is his film music--and his fresh ideas therein--that are his real hallmark. He hasn't looked down on film music for decades.

"If you sit at home and write, say, a large symphonic work, the writing of it is gratifying," he said. "But then you have to persuade somebody that they ought to perform it, even if it's a commission. You write a symphonic work and it gets a performance--or even four performances, on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Goodbye. Hopefully, somebody will pick it up.

"What was so appealing (about film scoring) was the immediacy of it--writing it and then hearing it immediately. And then, of course, there is the idea that what you're doing is heard by millions of people. It seemed like great fun. Also, going from project to project, where no two projects are exactly the same, tends to keep one's interest up."

Needless to say, Bernstein has no immediate retirement plans.

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