Edward Artemiev: Interview:  

In a company town like Hollywood, which produces hype as systematically and prolifically as it produces movies, television, music, et cetera, even the most genuine enthusiasm for an artist or his work is usually met with a certain degree of skepticism people connected with the entertainment industry are used to its PR machine barreling along in perpetual overdrive.

That being the case, perhaps, at the outset, the only thing one really needs to say about Edward Artemiev is that he is a fine composer and a very interesting man.

It goes without saying that his richly evocative score contributed in no small measure to the success of Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov's "Burnt by the Sun " including this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But Oscar glory is only the tip of the iceberg in a musical career that spans several decades and includes longtime collaborations with both Mikhalkov (their first film together was "At Home Among Strangers ", in 1974, followed by the hauntingly beautiful "Slave of Love " a year later) and his brother Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, for whom Artemiev scored the Russian epic "Siberiada ", as well as two Hollywood productions ("Homer and Eddie " and "The Inner Circle ").

For certain cinephiles, however, it is Artemiev's collaboration with the great Andrei Tarkovsky that will ultimately ensure him a place in film history. With a promise of the achievement to come for both artists already evident in "Solaris ", in 1972, it was with "Mirror " and "Stalker " that these two young Russians attained a level of mastery that comes along only a handful of times in a generation, the kind of virtuosity that is not only dazzling from a technical standpoint, but emotionally overwhelming for the viewer as well. There are sequences in both these films in which the exquisite union of Artemiev's music and Tarkovsky's images constitute, for me, some of the most perfectly realized applications of sound, musical or otherwise, in all cinema.

Even removed from their cinema their context, these scores are tremendously innovative and compelling. The main title of "Stalker ", for example, whose theme reoccurs several times throughout the film, is an intricate fusion of electronic and acoustic elements, but its astonishing timbral density seems to transcend the limitations of either process. This music possesses a kind of hallucinatory resonance and clarity - in terms of pure aesthetic intention, it is perhaps closer to something like the Allegri "Miserere " (Artemiev's solo flute line is reminiscent of that composition's sublime soprano solo) or to the Japanese sacred pieces that Tarkovsky would use as source music m his last film. "The Sacrifice ", than to any conventional notion of what a motion picture soundtrack should be. (It is also interesting to note that in the late '70s, when "Stalker " was made - a time, conversely, when post-production sound in Hollywood was becoming increasingly departmcntalizcd and fragmented - Artemiev was eradicating the boundaries between music and sound with his work on this film: many of "Stnalker's " otherworldly effects, which give the impression of subtly manipulated production sound, were actually created by him on the synthesizer, and therefore serve as both extension and counterpoint to the purely musical ideas.)

In addition to his film scores, Artemiev has produced several orchestral and vocal works, two concertos, and numerous electronic compositions. But even with such a lofty artistic pedigree - which began with classical training at the Moscow Conservatory - the man is far from a musical snob. Heavily influenced by rock, he cites, for example, bands like King Crimson and Pink Floyd as sources of inspiration, right up there alongside Shostakovich and Stravinsky.

He is not a cinematic snob, either. Recently he played for me a beautifully crafted minuet that would have seemed quite at home in some lovely, upscale European art film, but when I asked what it was, he told me it was from the score of "Burial of the Rats ", a low-budget thriller produced by Roger Corman.

Dividing his time between Los Angeles and Moscow, between film scores and what some people refer to as "serious" music, Artemiev is currently hard at work on his most ambitious project to date, an opera based on the classic novel "Crime and Punishment ", with a libretto by his friend Mr. Konchalovsky. Like much of his film music, this piece will combine symphonic, electronic and folk idioms, not to mention - roll over, Dostoyevsky - elements of rock and roll.

Surprisingly down-to-earth and approachable for an artist of such accomplishment and complexity, Edward Artemiev describes himself simply as "a Russian composer". No self-aggrandizement. No Hollywood bullshit. No hype.

Perhaps, though, as a postscript, one might want to add the following: That someone who, from a creative standpoint, can not only survive, but indeed thrive, under both Soviet communism and Hollywood capitalism, has got to be a remarkable human being, and that any film composer who can do justice to both Tarkovsky and Roger Corman is indeed a talent to be reckoned with.


Anneliese Varaldiev : For you, are electronic music and music played acoustically two radically different modes of thinking, or do you view them simply as different tools used to express similar musical ideas?

Edward Artemeiv : First we have to agree on what the term "electronic music" means. If we think of it only in terms of the equipment involved - synthesizers, processors and so on - then it's merely a new means of doing old things. So in that sense, yes - you could say that acoustic and electronic instruments are different tools which can be used to express similar ideas. On the other hand, electronic music began, to a great extent, as an alternative to academic music, and in so doing, created its own technology, and therefore its own language. It is in this context that a composer encounters an unknown world, one in which his experiences in traditional music have no bearing. Many people do, in fact, consider acoustic and electronic music as two separate modes of thinking, which have developed along parallel lines that will never actually converge. I feel though, that in the not-too-distant future, these two parallel lines will very definitely come together, and out of this confrontation, an entirely new musical form will emerge.

A .V .: Have these ideas had any direct impact on your film composing?

E . A .: In my experience as a film composer, electronic music-in its purest form - has never been requested by a filmmaker because true identity as meaning of this kind of music seems to be connected to the fact that it is beyond, or above, emotional content. It belongs to the realm of pure reason. And since cinema is a medium that usually appeals directly to the emotions, electronic music would seem to go against the intended purpose of a film score which is to intensify the emotions of the viewer.

A . V .: Is this true of your work with Tarkovsky?

E. A.: Even with "Solaris ", the only film I've ever done in which electronic music was the basis for the entire soundtrack, the main task that Tarkovsky set for me was to create an emotional field for the images.

A . V .: With film scores, how do you decide when to use sampled music and when to use a real orchestra?

E . A .: I've written scores for more than 140 films, and with each of them, one of the most important problems I had to solve was choosing which instruments or pieces of equipment would be used to create the music. With "Burnt by the Sun ", for example, I wrote for symphony orchestra, acoustic guitar, accordion, and several synthesizers. This choice was dictated by the subject matter of the film, which required music in the retro style of the '30s. For "Urga "-another film by Nikita Mikhalkov-1 sampled several instruments that are indigenous to Mongolia. I had to do this because the Mongolian musicians who played them had no experience performing with a symphonic orchestra, and there was no time or money to have them all rehearse together. But in the end, because they had been recorded very carefully, the sampled instruments sounded absolutely genuine and alive-even the Mongolian musicians were satisfied with the results. For me, the most important thing in working with samplers is to make the instruments sound as natural and genuine as possible-to create the illusion of an actual instrument being played.

A . V .: What was the first piece of electronic equipment you used?

E . A .: It was in 1960, just after I graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. I met a man named Yevgeny Murzin, who had created one of the world's first synthesizers. It was called the "ANS", which are the initials of the great Russian composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin. Murzin had completed this invention in 1955. Utilizing a series of optical generators, it produced a unique photo-electric system of synthesis, and even today, there is nothing comparable to it. I wrote my first composition specifically for this instrument in 1961.

A . V .: Did you ever study or compose for the Theremin?

E . A .: I was friends with Leon Theremin-1 spent a lot of time with him, in fact- but I never actually used the synthesizer he invented (called the "Thereminovox" in Russia) in my own work, because my introduction to electronic music was through the ANS synthesizer, and for me everything else paled in comparison.

A . V .: When did you decide to try using a synthesizer to create music for film?

E . A .: I composed my first film score in 1961, using the ANS synthesizer. It was a feature called "Meeting the Dream ", and I was asked to create aural settings for several of the film's fantasy sequences-a job which today would be known as sound design. The first important cinematic work for which I used the synthesizer, however, was "Solaris ", almost ten years later. And although we also used an orchestra in that score, it too basically functioned as one gigantic synthesizer. Then, in the mixing, we combined the sounds of these two different elements-acoustic and electronic-to achieve a seamless musical texture.

A . V .: I know that you took on the role of sound designer in other films-a number of years, in fact, before this term was officially coined...

E . A .: Tarkovsky often said to me that, for him, it was more important for the composer to create an overall conceptual idea for all the sound used in a film, rather than to simply write themes or melodies that accompany the images. In "The Mirror ", for example, I had to create orchestral textures which were added to the natural, non-musical elements of the soundtrack, in order to give them a certain spiritual dimension that he wanted. The orchestra's purpose here was to play the role of "living water" (a term in Russian folklore having to do with spiritual regeneration and renewal), m the entire picture there is only one actual music cue, in the usual sense of that term and even then I used variations on only a single chord-an E-minor chord, with constantly changing instrumentation-and this sequence is ten minutes long!

A . V .: I think your score for "Stalker " is a perfect illustration of what you spoke about earlier-the idea that something completely new and unique can come about when the parallel lines of acoustic and electronic sound finally connect. Not just merge or collide, but truly connect...

E . A .: There were actually two versions of the score for "Stalker ". The first one was done with an orchestra alone-no synthesizer-but Tarkovsky rejected it, which surprised me, because he loved the idea of live music-making. The second version, which he accepted, was basically created on the Synti-100 synthesizer, along with solo acoustic instruments that were extensively manipulated using various sound processors. At that time, Tarkovsky was very interested in Zen Buddhism, and wanted the music to reflect certain contemplative elements that are part of Eastern religion and philosophy. To achieve this quality, I borrowed from the Indian classical tradition of using a single basic tonality, whose rhythmic patterns are slowly and constantly changing, creating a background over which the melody of a solo instrument can soar.

A . V : Most of the films you've done in Russia, including "Burnt by the Sun ", were made at the Mosfilm Studios. Today, from a technical standpoint, are the facilities at Mosfilm comparable to studios in Europe or America, or could they still use a little infusion of Perestroika?

E . A .: Mosfilm currently has three recording studios-one which is designed for rock and pop music recording, and two which can accommodate large symphonic orchestras. All three studios are equipped with state of the art Western technology: Solid State Logic mixers, two 24-track tape recorders, different kinds of DSP, and so forth-and the technicians are also very highly skilled. I recorded the music for three of my six American films at Mosfilm, and as far as I know, the Americans I worked with on these productions were very happy with the quality of the recordings.

A . V .: How is your own studio currently set up?

E . A .: I have a Yamaha: DX-7, a Korg: M-1R, X5DR, DVP-1, Roland: JX-10, JD-800, and R-8 drum machine, and the following samplers: a Kurzweil-250, an EMU-2+HD, an Ensoniq EPS16+ Turbo, and a Sample Cell-2.1 have quite a few sound processors as well: reverb machines (Ensoniq DP/4, Yamaha SPX-90II, REV-5, Lexicon LXP-1 and LXP-5, ALESIS QuadroVerb, ART MultiVerb and SGE), several compressors. Aural Exciter, BBE-Sonic Maximizer, Hughes-Sound Retrieval System, and Symetrix-Noise Reduction. The whole system is run by Mac Power PC 8.100/100, with the following programs: Digital PERFORMER (version 1.6), UNISYN, MAX, FINALE, Pro-Tools-3, SOUND DESIGNER-2. I think of a11 these tools as musical instruments, and for me, any kind of musical instrument is like a living creature, so 1 never get rid of my old equipment-1 just add to it.

A . V .: How many tracks do you prepare before a mix?

E . A .: I usually find thirty-two tracks to be sufficient, but it all depends on the configuration of the orchestra-or, if the film's budget doesn't allow for an orchestra, the number of parts for synthesizer. In that event, I prefer mixing directly on DAT, using the Performer program, without making a preliminary recording on a multi-track tape recorder. I've been using this program since its second version for Mac 512.

A . V .: Do mixers in Russia generally master soundtracks to mono or stereo?

E . A .: The decision of whether to master to mono or stereo, Dolby Stereo or Dolby Surround, is entirely up to the people who are paying the bills. At Mosfilm, soundtracks are usually mastered on stereo, to avoid any problems later if the music is released on CD.

A . V .: Using effects-processing-adding reverb, etc.-what type of acoustic space do you create for your music?

E . A .: I prefer artificially created space, using various processors, but I like to leave the natural acoustics as a kind of background. I think that a composer should create space, as well as music, since space is a powerful element in building the atmosphere of a film. The creation and manipulation of space is a totally new phenomenon in musical composition, and has become possible only with the advent of contemporary technology. In the past, music theory has delved deeply into polyphony, harmony, rhythm, form, and so forth, but it has never paid much attention to space as a physical medium-the place, in fact, where music exists. I recently gave a course on this subject at the Moscow Conservatory, and in my lectures I tried to show how space can function as an active, transformational element in music, either in the most rudimentary components of musical construction, such as timbre, rhythm and harmony, or in the more complex framework of an actual composition.

Anneliese Varaldiev ("The Mix").


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