Maestro of Movies and Masses: Steve Edwards

From dramatic orchestral scores to big-band tunes to the sacred sounds of a Latin Mass, the prolific work of composer Steve Edwards can hardly be categorized in a single style. In June 2000, philanthropist Thomas S. Monaghan commissioned Edwards to compose an orchestral Mass in honor of the Chapels of Ave Maria at Domino’s Farms in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Mass will be premiered at the annual meeting of Legatus, an international organization of Catholic CEOs, in Naples, Florida, this month. The performance will be recorded and possibly released on CD.

Edwards’s creative flexibility has gained him work on more than 36 films since the mid-1990s for video and television, including Showtime’s recent Possessed (2000) and MGM’s upcoming Pop & Me. An ardent Catholic from Ann Arbor, Edwards possesses a keen awareness of the powerful role that music plays in the arts and worship. Crisis Publisher and Editor Deal Hudson spoke with Edwards recently about his views on film and liturgical music.

Hudson: Tell me where you grew up, where you went to school, and about your family.

Edwards: I was born and raised in Ann Arbor, which is where my family still lives. I went to Lawrence University in Wisconsin and obtained a bachelor’s degree in music in piano performance in 1985. After that, I went to several different schools for short periods, including the Eastman School of Music in New York and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Then I went to a now-defunct music school called Dick Grove School of Music. My mother is a music teacher who taught at Greenhills High School in the 1970s and early 1980s. She was also director of the women’s glee club at the University of Michigan. My father, Martin, is president of Edwards Brothers, Inc., a book and journal manufacturer, and a long-standing member of Legatus.

When did you get interested in music and films?

As a piano player, I had my first exposure to the great classics at seven years old when I started taking lessons. So I have played Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and all the chestnuts. I also really liked the movies and the great music that was being written—for example, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith who were writing the great scores for Jaws and Planet of the Apes. I can remember whistling the famous tune of Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I also remember hearing one score when I was really young: The Red Balloon by Nino Rota. He actually went on to score Federico Fellini’s films and composed the love theme from The Godfather.

How did you get into the film industry?

My first paying job was with Disney in 1985. They had a national search for college musicians, and I won the piano chair in the All-American College Orchestra at Epcot Center in Orlando. I really fell in love with film music while I was there. I worked with Johnny Green, who scored Raintree County and supervised a lot of music for MGM musicals, including Singing in the Rain. Then Mike Post [a TV composer who scored Hill Street Blues, Magnum P.I., Hunter, and Wiseguy] invited me to Los Angeles to work for him in 1986. So my next job was working on L.A. Law as a keyboard player.

Does a film composer actually try to engage audiences at a deep, emotional level, at the level of their soul?

Absolutely. That’s the key to the kingdom right there. If I don’t think about it, the director will remind me of it. I involve the audience in a myriad of ways. What I do as a composer is provide the connective tissue to make all editors’ cuts make sense. So my job is to make it look like it can only be done that way. From a score point of view, my job is to make cuts look inevitable. There are so many other levels: For example, do we want the audience to feel something, or do we want them not to feel something? Do directors and producers want me to write something that plays against the visual? Do they want something that plays with the visual to make it look faster or creepier? Do we want to create some sort of undertone that’s not there, some other element besides what is going on on the screen? Now that is when it really gets interesting because I get to create with the music some sort of other experience. Remember we are looking at a flat screen here. We are looking at only two dimensions, and with music we can add a third dimension.

How much do you think about the level of musical experience and knowledge of your audience?

I never think about that. What I am doing has to do with the subconscious. I don’t want the audience to notice what I am doing. I want them to feel what I’m doing. If it becomes a conscious thing, that’s a really bad sign, because then I am taking them out of the scene and getting them focused on the music.

Do you agree that something can be overly beautiful or overly melodic and actually take away from the visual, or does it add to the visual?

You could ruin the whole experience if it is too good. It might be that a single alto flute is going to make that scene better than a 90-piece orchestra would. It is all about what the visual has to say. I always have limitations, but my biggest limitation is what is going on visually. I am also limited because I don’t have budgets for a large orchestra in every show I do anyway. I don’t think anyone has ever told me that something was too beautiful. I actually had a producer last year that told me that my score had too many notes, just like in the movie Amadeus. I didn’t know if this producer knew that movie or not, so I actually asked her if she was serious. She was dead serious.

What about John Barry’s lush melodic scores for Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves?

I think he is perfectly appropriate there, but look at the canvas he is painting on. It is a giant canvas. I think what he did was absolutely perfect in both of those movies. Being a film composer is like being a specialist physician. It takes a certain kind of sensitivity to understand that you are telling the story.

What was your breakthrough commission?

Well, I would think that it has to be the first one, and it’s a movie that nobody ever saw. It was ten years ago this summer. It was a little movie called Midnight Fear. A friend of mine that was the script supervisor in the movie introduced me to the director, and that is how I got my first job. The first job is probably the hardest one to get, but once you actually have your name on the credit as the composer of record, it makes it easier.

What is your best-known score?

Probably Pop & Me, a documentary that is coming out on DVD and video. It is a story of fathers and sons who take a trip around the world and interview other fathers and sons in other cultures about their relationships. It is pretty fascinating. The music there is almost world-music style. It is dramatic, but it is very much a percussion-oriented piece. I actually cowrote with this Mexican percussionist, Mazatl Galindo. We went into a studio with a roomful of percussion instruments and created the score in small fragments. That score has everything from piano cues that sound like George Gershwin to really rhythmic stuff that almost has a Peter Gabriel flavor to it.

What other kinds of films have you scored?

I have composed for the action genre, which is very popular, in The Patriot [the 1998 film starring Steven Seagal, not the 2000 Mel Gibson blockbuster]. I’ve also done three martial-arts titles starring Jet Li, who is amazing. One is called Fist of Legend, another is called The Legend, and the other is Twin Warriors. These movies were shot in either Hong Kong or mainland China, in Mandarin. Miramax buys them, and then they bring them over and completely revoice and rescore them. Sometimes they recut, but it is not very common. So I have done three of those, and apparently there are a lot more of them coming next year. So I might be doing a lot more of that.

What kind of film motivates you the most?

First and foremost, one that I am entertained by. I don’t really have to do something passionate or something comic. I don’t really discriminate that way. I want the project to be good, and what I bring to the project just adds to what is already there. There is a famous quote from Bernard Hermann. He watched somebody’s really badly done science- fiction film and knew it was terrible, but they wanted him to score it. So they asked Hermann, “Well, what can you do?” and he said, “Sir, I can dress the corpse, but I can’t bring it back to life.” So when you get a hold of something like that, you have to hold your nose and hope. I’ve done a lot of resuscitating in my life. You know, making a slow scene play faster, or making a chase that is shot in a way so that it looks like they are not going very fast seem like it’s fast.

Have you had any interesting encounters with film-music greats?

Meeting Carmine Coppola was certainly memorable. He had played the flute in the NBC Symphony under Toscanini, and he was intimidating like Toscanini. He was definitely old-school. He hasn’t scored too many films other than those of his son, Francis. When I was at Disney, we were playing part of his score for Napoleon. Coppola made very specific instructions to the music librarian that I was to have the piano part in advance of the rehearsal because it was so difficult. I started playing, and I came to this long solo excerpt, and I see this black plethora of notes. He started yelling that I should have been provided the score in advance. So I raised my hand meekly and said, “Mr. Coppola, can we try it again?” He said sure. We started over, and I actually got through it. He was impressed. I thought, Wow, I will never forget that!

Is Possessed the first film with an explicitly religious theme you had to work on? I thought it was quite extraordinary.

As you know, the film was based on the only documented exorcism ever done in the United States by the Catholic Church. The director was Stephen Di Souza, who wrote Die Hard. He has written some really huge hits in theatrical movies, and he is very much the taskmaster. I actually worked in conjunction with the guy who wrote the score, my friend John Frizzell, who did Alien IV and Beavis and Butthead. He called me and said they needed some music that was not part of the score. I was glad to contribute. They used a variety of my music, some liturgical things and, for the end credits, a song called You Cast a Spell on Me, which has a Sinatra sound to it. That was a great deal of fun to write. We used a real big band and got a singer who sounds like Frank.

How long have you been writing liturgical music?

Well, the first liturgical thing I ever wrote was probably nine or ten years ago, and it’s kind of a weird story. I had a friend working on this independent film that nobody knew about called Reservoir Dogs. She introduced me to the producers. The producers didn’t really know what they wanted, but they wanted a score. So they gave me two scenes from the movie; it was the most phenomenal script that I’d ever read in my life. I was completely bowled over by this screenwriter named Quentin Tarantino. His script leaped off of the page. There were two scenes that were otherworldly. The characters are doing these long soliloquies, and there is a camera spinning around. The movie is very violent. So I wrote this six-bar phrase, almost like a passacaglia, which keeps repeating itself. I submitted it to them, and they really liked it, but they decided not to use a score at all. The piece sort of resonated, and every time I put it on my reel and sent it off for another movie, I got a really good response from it. So I held on to it and dillydallied with the idea of writing a Mass based on the passacaglia, which is actually what’s going on right now.

How did you receive the commission from Tom Monaghan to write your first Mass?

That’s an interesting story. Mr. Monaghan approached my mother about a year ago at the last Legatus conference. He was building some small chapels called the Chapels of Ave Maria at Domino’s Farms and wanted a song about them. So we put our heads together and thought if we did the song, who would sing it? Andrea Bocelli, Harry Connick, Jr., maybe Tony Bennett? As soon as you have any one of those artists record it, your audience becomes the audience for that person. I thought it was a fabulous idea to do something musically that pays homage to these chapels and the vision behind it. Finally it dawned on me that we should write a Mass.

How did Monaghan respond to that idea?

I sent Mr. Monaghan a fax, and I said, “Why don’t we do a Mass, and why don’t we do it in Latin? We can dedicate it to the chapels, and we can premier it at Legatus.” I told him I would write a Mass that could be performed by any good choir anywhere in the world. In that way, it is not like you are recording a song that will get lost or sit on a shelf somewhere. So Mr. Monaghan called me back and said, “I ask for one flower, and you give me a dozen roses.” We both knew it was the right thing to do.

Did Monaghan have your musical credentials checked out?

Yes, he called a priest at Assumption Grotto Church in Detroit, Fr. Eduard Perrone, and asked him what he thought about this crazy idea. Fr. Perrone wanted to hear my music, so I sent him some score excerpts on CD. He finally listened to everything and gave Mr. Monaghan the green light. I started last summer.

What kind of style are you using in the Mass?

This Mass is designed such that you can perform it with a good church choir and an organ, but obviously the best setting is with a large orchestra like we are going to use at the Legatus premiere. The constant is the use of the traditional Latin text. The style will be a little bit of everything but basically tonal. I am not composing like Krzysztof Penderecki!

I’ve always thought the hardest part of the Mass to set is the Credo.

No question, and that is why we are not doing it. I had conversations with Fr. Perrone about it. I will tell you honestly most of my least favorite movements in a lot of the famous Masses are the Credos.

My favorite musical part of the Mass is the Agnus Dei.

Yes. It is funny that you say that because the movement that I think is working the best right now is the Agnus Dei. That is really the last movement of the Mass. Interestingly you don’t hear many Masses that have an Agnus Dei that is fire-and- brimstone. It’s usually very lyrical and very reflective. This is reflective stuff; this isn’t celebratory like the Gloria. It is very interesting that the Mass is structured that way.

A lot of modern Masses open up sounding like Renaissance polyphony, and then they evolve into something else.

Well that kind of polyphonic device is going to recur through this Mass. It sort of comes and goes. This Mass has a harpsichord, so there are continuo sections, which are really fun to write. I haven’t totaled it up, but the Kyrie is probably four minutes long, the Gloria is six, the Sanctus is about four, the Benedictus is probably two, and the Deo Gratia will be between three and four—probably more like three.

As a West Coast film composer and a serious Catholic, do you ever feel a tension with the kind of cultural environment that you are living in?

No question about it. Certain things that go on appall me; then I am really excited by certain things. So there is a little of both going on. There was one project I did last summer called Cowboys and Angels that just got sold for distribution. It is a love story, and this movie has no violence, no sex, no swearing. It had no nudity. It could be rated G.

Do you miss living in Ann Arbor?

Well, it would be great if I could live in Ann Arbor and do what I am doing, but given the nature of what I do, it’s not practical. For example, the project that I am doing right now is a history of the Oscar for the Motion Picture Academy that will be hosted by Anjelica Houston. I have a little more than half of it recorded, some of it with a Benny Goodman, big-band sound. Also, the show contains an excerpt from a silent Frank Capra movie called The Matinee Idol, so I got to write a piece in a comic/slapstick style. That was lots of fun.

Good luck with your performance.

Yes, thank you. I feel very lucky to be doing it. It is very unusual for any composer to be commissioned to compose a choral Mass in Latin in these times. I’m sorry that more of this type of music isn’t performed in churches these days. Doing a Latin Mass with this wonderful, ancient text is a composer’s dream.


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