Turner Classic Movies
Caliendo, Christopher - composer
Written by Diana Saenger   

chris_at_mopa200.jpgA recent release that Christopher Caliendo worked on was rescoring several films in the FORD AT FOX collection. Caliendo composed scores for two: Four Sons and the 1924 epic western The Iron Horse, Ford's first major film. Caliendo appeared a benefit screening at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park in San Diego where The Iron Horse was shown and he held a Q&A afterwards.

Born and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York to Italian immigrants, Christopher Caliendo was invited to Los Angeles to finish his graduate work at UCLA by Henry Mancini after winning his Scholarship for Film Composition. Mancini introduced Christopher to television composer Jerrold Immel where began a five year collaboration composing and orchestrating for CBS's Dallas, Knott's Landing, Paradise and Guns of Paradise" Caliendo received an Emmy nomination for Paradise's "Ghost Dance", in 1988.

In 1991 Caliendo traveled to Italy and met concert promoter Giorgio Gallo who introduced Christopher to Virgilio Levi, "commissioner of arts" at the Vatican. In 1992 Caliendo received a Vatican commission as the first American composer in Vatican compose a vocal/orchestral work for the prestigious "Encounters of Sacred Music Festival" televised and broadcast live in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy. He received a second commission in 1995 for The Mystic Saints.

Upon returning to Los Angeles Caliendo began composing and concertizing "Chamber Jazz", a unique new sound mixing American jazz with European chamber music. The group's first album was recorded in 1995. That same year Caliendo launched Efficaci records and Caliendo Music Publishing to fill a niche in the flute publishing world by selling and recording his original American Tango and Gypsy music for flute and guitar.

Caliendo's love for silent film scoring was made evident when SONY pictures commissioned a rescore of the Betty Compson silent film, La Belle of Broadway. A chance screening at SONY was heard by Charles Tabesh at Turner Classic movies who commissioned Caliendo to score Norma Shearer's last silent picture A Lady of Chance (1928) with his "Chamber Jazz" ensemble.

The Iron Horse Q&A

Was there a reason for so many fifths in this score?

CC: When I saw the film for the first time - I got up at 2 in the morning - I always keep a diary throughout my scoring process, it's intense 18-20 hour days, 33 days long to score it, and I had a dream and I saw a train coming right to me, then it was being pushing up by thousands of hands and then it stopped right in front of me. The Iron Horse emblem went right across my face, and I heard ba-dum ba-dum, and those open fifths came into my head. I had the great fortune to work     with Jerry Immel for CBS and scored some Dallas and Knott's Landing series, and Jerry said always said use many open fifths because they're very easy to vary and work with.

What was the original score like?

CC: There are several scores. I'm only familiar with John Lanchbery's in the 1994 version, but I don't listen to other scores when I'm scoring a film. I don't want it to work against me in a sense. There's a score by Hungarian composer Erno Rapee, he was living in Hungary and wrote a score in 1924 for the European version. He conducted it for Radio City Music Hall. There was a point when I was asked to rewrite his score for the American version of the film, but that did not occur because of time.

What do you like about scoring classic films?

CC:The major attraction for me is the uncommon experience from modern day scoring of being left alone. Fox was kind enough to revere my work from making Major Dundee and past film scores in the silent era, and they allowed me to do what I wanted to do, basically lock myself in a room and do what I do. And that's very rare today. And because of that, I get to give you purity. It's the most honest experience I know. I can't lie to music.

Unfortunately today there are a lot of directors who live in fear of the studios. They use ten-tracks; they get an idea of what they want the score to sound like and get very familiar with that idea and ask the composer to mimic that idea. So they're hiring a composer, who is in my opinion the last lead actor in the film and of such importance and value to the film, then asking someone who is perhaps educated - I have three degrees in music conservatory training and been writing music since I was eight years old - to put aside all of that education and honest creativity and just mimic this idea And it's very difficult to do that.

Did you use synthesizers in your work?

CC: I do have them in my home recording studio, but I'm very classical music trained. I can compose music right on the table, and I have perfect pitch. So there's no time to do that. A lot of music is very specific to pictures a lot of times right to the frame, and there are 30 frames to a second. I put large canvases of paper on the piano and write sketches like a painter. Then I have to take those sketches and photograph and memorize them as they come to me and then go to the computer and then publish it into the computer. That's where the miracle of the computerization comes into play for me. To me the joy is in the inspiration. That's why I never allow anyone to orchestrate my music. And once it's in the computer, I can email it to someone who extracts the separate parts for the orchestra.

The scene in the dentist chair is quite funny.

CC: There's a gentleman (Dennis Dugan) who is directing Beverly Hills Ninga Two and he came into the studio to see my work because it's a comedy and he wanted to see that scene.

How do you pick your musicians?

CC: Over the years I've become acquainted with a lot of iconic musicians. The accordion player is Frank Marocco who played on the sound track of The Godfather (also Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.) Sheridon Stokes was the original flutist for Mission Impossible and E.T, and he played a variety of ethnic flutes to capture the Pawnee and Cheyenne Indian scenes. Richard Green is on country fiddle. They call them triple scale players in Hollywood. Again, in enormous courtesy and respect to Fox, they didn't have to do this. They could have lowered their values and used a piano sound track. I said on the DVD featurette that accompanies the silents that the problem with respect to enjoying a silent film is we're so familiar with the piano track. Even if it's a serious picture, the piano track still comes across as comedic and emits an inability to communicate. For me it's like a Chinese Water torture.

For The Iron Horse, I divided the orchestra into three smaller orchestras. There's a small minstrel group of five musicians. There's an ensemble of 14 players to capture the inferiority and psychological nature of the film. And then there's a larger orchestra to capture the physicals of the exteriors. Shifting to orchestras A, B, C provides a much wider canvas of color, and I think shows a greater investment of the picture and allows us to grasp the reality of what this was like if you were to hear it with an orchestra back in 1924.

In scoring silents, what's the difference in having to carry the entire weight of narrative rather than sharing that with fully-working dialogue?

CC: It's enormous. There's no question that without the use of sound effects and dialogue the composer has a much grater responsibility to provide you with music - pure entertainment, rhythm, motion, energy, dialogue that's not being conveyed, psychology, metaphysics. I've said this before; I think the big directors have a metaphysical theme in their pictures. With Major Dundee and Sam Peckinpah, the metaphysics were very clear. Man's turmoil. Man's eternal strife and fighting. And the music must capture that. Dundee was a character that was always comica. And I felt Peckinpah's message was massacre. Not only did he have the Charlton Heston character that was in strife with himself but in strife with self-identity, with women, with the soldiers. So I feel if I can capitalize the metaphysics I can really unite the theme.

With The Iron Horse, it's clearly Man's Progress and Lincoln's vision and these incredible intrepid men who came and punched these spikes into the ground and united America with this metal monster. If I play with that musically, then the lesser themes - the Indians, saloon, comedy - play underneath that.

That's a reason why I think Titanic was such an unsuccessful film. I think James Cameron was trying to do too many things and chose the romantic relationship between the boy and girl to be above the metaphysics of one of the world's greatest tragedies. The end of the film is depthless for me. If he chose to concentrate on the tragedy, the highest and most important theme of that film, it would have been a very different picture.

What's the logistics of rescoring a movie?

CC: The most difficult aspect was in overseeing five films in three and a half months, scoring two of them and a documentary AND bring everything in successfully under budget and on time. I think the most difficult moment was walking out of Capitol Studios on a Sunday night after a triple session recording for this movie and going home to start Four Sons and write 103 minutes of music in two and a half weeks. That was the most physically challenging and tiring moment in my career. I'm very militant, my father was a war hero, and I learned a lot form him.   I get up at 6, by 12 I take my break. I work out a little and get the blood flowing. I have a good lunch on my consistent diet, go back to work, at five eat again, go back to work, and try to get to bed by 11 or 1. This is what I do everyday.

One I get the vocabulary of a project I'm off and running because it's quite fluid, but most problems are just monitoring my health.

What was the controversy over the Major Dundee score?

CC: I didn't want to do the project after I saw the movie. It was very confusing.   There was no restoration. The picture was very saturated. The score was wall to wall. Mitch Miller and his sing-along comrades recorded the Dundee song over a massacre scene, and it didn't make sense to me because the song was up, up and go. For the Indian scenes I think he used some kind of electronic device and it just didn't work. My friend Grover said by tomorrow morning I need a budget, how long it will take and how many minutes of music. By nine the next morning I had to give him a budget.

After it was done, no-one had ever rescored an entire film, and a gentleman from an important guild said what's next - rescore Gone With The End with a calypso soundtrack? That was published in Variety and with a major studio like Sony, the fear factor came in and there were concerns about copyright infringements, intellectual property rights, and they were actually not going to re-release it in the theaters.

With this kind of negative controversy - which can be good too - was that the journal was released two or three days before the theatrical release and it gave Sony time to think. Fortunately they released the picture, it was a grass roots success, they had expected a certain amount of sales and it doubled that and the soundtrack sold out. What Grover did was to provide both versions.

Caliendo's passion and unusual blending of musical style and instrumentation and continuous respect for popular and serious musical culture has generated a personal catalog of over 500 works that include sacred, opera, folk, gypsy, tango, classical, jazz and popular music.

He has an AA in Humanities and a BA from the New England Conservatory of Music and an MFA from UCLA in Theory Composition. His teachers have been Henry Mancini, Frank Zappa, Jerrold Immel, Neal Hefti, Henry Lazarof, Paul Reale and Pierrre Boulez.

Read the review of The Iron Horse

Photo courtesy Beth Accomando

Caliendo bio courtesy of Christopher Caliendo




Do you watch more Classic DVDs than newer films on DVD?

alliance of women film journalists
© 2017 Classic Movie Guide
Joomla! is Free Software released under the GNU/GPL License.