Paul McCartney’s done it, and so has Elvis Costello. Now Danny Elfman has joined their ranks, penning a piece that fits the broad definition of classical music. If that’s a far cry from Oingo Boingo or his scores to Tim Burton’s movies, so be it.
The impetus for Elfman’s “Serenada Schizophrana,” to be released Oct. 3 by Sony BMG Masterworks, came from the American Composers Orchestra in New York, which initially asked Elfman to write a chamber-sized work. “It was just sort of out of the blue,” he recalls, “but I’m always looking for any kind of challenge.” The challenge was greater than anticipated, and occupied as he was with one thing and another, he forgot about the commission — until the orchestra called for an update.
“They had set the premiere for the same week my son was supposed to be born,” says Elfman. “But that was top-secret. So I immediately tried to cancel. People were saying, ‘Danny, you’re losing your nerve.'”
The orchestra offered to move the premiere from Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall’s hip underground space, to the house’s main auditorium. The composer balked, fearing that what was to have been a quiet foray into uncharted territory was evolving into a more ambitious media event. “I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ But then they mentioned that it would add months to my schedule, and I said, ‘I’ll take it!'”
Now he was writing for a full orchestra in a hall where music history had been made for more than a century. “I was intimidated looking at the scores on the walls there. I thought, ‘This is for the big boys, not a dope like me.’ ”
Courage came from “Jazz Suite No. 1” by Dmitri Shostakovich. “I was impressed that a guy who wrote those deep and heavy string quartets could have a bit of fun, a frolic,” Elfman says. “It was like a little slap on the face: You don’t have to take yourself that seriously. So I just started writing and having fun.”
Never having written a pure orchestral piece not intended to support a movie, Elfman developed his own method, creating a series of improvised movements that at one point numbered more than a dozen. He pared them down to six, with titles like “A Brass Thing,” “The Quadruped Patrol” and “Bells and Whistles.” The work’s final running time is around 42 minutes, a little over the maximum requested by the orchestra.
“I ran amok a bit,” he says of the process. “I’m used to following pictures, which tells me how long I have. But here I would start the piece, and then it drove itself. It was a ton of work to get the first two minutes of each movement, but then they got their own momentum, and it was all I could do to stop them after that. ”
The New York Times described last year’s Feb. 23 bow of “Serenada Schizophrana” as “music that works” and lauded Elfman as a composer with “an ear for symphonic colors and how to balance them.”
John Mauceri, the longtime music director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, was among those in attendance that night. “Danny was suddenly free to express the curves and shapes of his own imagination,” he says.
Indeed, Mauceri was so impressed, he asked Elfman to compose a piece to mark the conclusion of his 16-year tenure at the Bowl. That work, the 8½-minute “Overeager Overture,” debuts this weekend.
“It’s like two composers who don’t like each other collaborating,” Elfman says of his classical work. “One says, ‘Have fun; let’s get happy.’ And the other says, ‘What’s this in service of?’ In the end, each gets about 50% of what they want. I feel that all the time when I’m scoring, but I feel that even more so in this case.”