Oct 3 2011: Access All Arias: An Interview With Carl Davis (Big Issue in the North, 2001)

I knew Carl Davis mainly as the composer who’d made a speciality of supplying scores for silent cinema, including Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, which I think I’d seen on Channel 4 back in the days when that channel screened things worth watching on a regular basis – but going along to his house off the King’s Road to chat to him about his life, work and approach to popularising classical music (a term he tended to avoid) back in 2001 was something of an introduction to much of the rest of his CV. At any rate, he was a pleasure to talk to, and while I’m not so sure that the use of artworks as advertising has no effect on their inherent meaning, Davis himself clearly saw the less than ideal situation that this was one of the few places where non-specialists actually heard these things as a way into extending the audience for orchestral music.

A cursory glance at Carl Davis’s CV leaves the impression of a man prepared to turn his hand to almost anything. Whether scoring prestigious film and television projects like The World at War, Pride and Prejudice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, writing original concert works, pursuing a thriving career as a conductor or collaborating with Paul McCartney on Liverpool Oratorio, Davis comes across in summary like the Zelig of orchestral music.

In person, Davis is an affable, expansive New Yorker, keen to communicate his own love of orchestral music – a term he tends to use instead of the “more intimidating, and somewhat inaccurate” classical music. A mane of white hair, open-necked shirt, steel-framed glasses and a face which looks much younger than its 65 years combine in a kind of archetype of the conductor or composer, updated slightly but comfortably familiar. Just back from Holland, in a room full of CDs where award statuettes line up on the piano and memorabilia from a long career covers the walls, Davis is explaining the origins of his notably broad interests.

“It’s tied to the extraordinary period in New York when I was growing up in the Forties and Fifties,” he says. “I came to England in 1959 but I left New York fully formed, in my 20s, and it was an incredibly lively place then. Broadway was in its heyday, the city was the dance centre of the world, and it had been a period in which the economy had totally reversed itself, from depression to prosperity. All that fed into the arts, and you had the rise of eclectic people like Leonard Bernstein, who was a kind of role model for me. He’d play in jazz clubs, work on ballet, write for films… So I always felt nothing should stop you doing anything, provided you’re going to do it well.”

Far from being a break with the hallowed traditions of classical music, though, Davis points out his own approach has plenty in common with that of the acknowledged greats of the past, who weren’t averse to a bit of commercial or popular work themselves.

“In the last year of Mozart’s life, you find he was writing minuets, dance tunes, which were like the rock’n’roll of his day. Beethoven did it all the time, too, job after job after job of music for dance. He’d write a minuet, they’d pay him for it, and that was it. It was the lack of royalties which accounts for how prolific those composers were – they had to be. They really were paid pretty much by the note, when they were paid at all. So, you look at Beethoven’s catalogue, and there are the great symphonies scattered through, but you’ll also find long lists of Irish and Scottish folk songs arranged by him, or sets of variations on Rule Britannia. Haydn did it, too – all of them, right into the twentieth century, when people like Britten wrote for film and radio.”

Which explains in part why Davis sees no ‘dumbing down’ whatsoever in his ongoing promotion of ‘pops’ concerts, sequencing popular classics in ways he hopes will draw new listeners to orchestral music. Having played a concert of John Barry’s music from James Bond movies, produced original scores for silent film classics and played them live at screenings, and now putting together an evening of classical music used, but often left uncredited, in commercials, TV and film, it’s a long-standing passion of Davis’s to rid concerts of their “stiff, rather unyielding” atmosphere.

“Sometimes concerts can feel a bit like school or church, and what you hope for is a more relaxed atmosphere where people can feel more at home, more a part of the event. The evolution of the whole Strauss thing in Vienna, ­which has now become rather stultified as Austrians in concert halls wearing pork pie hats­, that all originated as music at outdoor cafes in summer, with strolling musicians. It was only in the 20th Century that it got to be this non-participatory kind of experience, and I’m always interested in seeing how I can bring back that social element to music. ”

For eight years, a series of Big Top concerts with Liverpool Philharmonic were a kind of ongoing experiment in precisely this. For Davis, “putting on a Bond concert with Honor Blackman, or a Carnival evening involving a Chinese dragon and Kung Fu demonstrations, or a local Samba school bringing full Rio-style costumes and 30 drummers to play with the orchestra,” are all opportunities to get people involved in simply listening to music. Hence, also, Davis’s belief that the use of music in commercials or as TV themes can be positive in terms of drawing people into listening to the works of the great composers of the past.

“As long as the original music isn’t touched – you know, ‘Malcolm McClarened’ up with rock beats or whatever – people are getting the experience of the music, even if it’s only a snippet. This Liverpool concert is really an excuse to play a lot of very good pieces. One piece, for example, is best known for the first 16 bars, which is the theme to The Horse of the Year Show, but it’s taken from a Mozart piece called A Musical Joke. What’s interesting is if I did a concert saying we were playing that Mozart piece I’d probably get 30 or 40 per cent audiences – but if I say it’s the piece the TV theme music came from, people say, ‘I always liked that but didn’t know what it was… ‘ It gives people a way in, which means they’re more likely to come and hear it.”

As well as orchestral works from Bach, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Holst, Davis notes the presence on the bill of operatic arias.

“There are two Puccini arias used in A Room With A View, one from a film called Diva, and Moonstruck had big chunks of La Boheme on the soundtrack, so we’ll be doing some excerpts from that. We have a wonderful Latvian singer who’s quite a cult figure, Innessa Galante, a real hidden treasure. One of the choices is a piece that’s been used in ads for Gaultier perfume and cars, and once, when I was abroad, I heard it on a commercial for smoked ham. The point isn’t that it’s been used in adverts or on TV, but that it’s actually a fabulous aria that people should hear – even if it is selling smoked ham or perfume.”

“In the end, I want to make people feel they have the right to listen to this music,” he concludes, “to benefit from it, because it’s really for everybody. When you hear a fabulous piece by Mozart, Puccini or Bach, Verdi or Beethoven or Brahms, it gets to you, and there’s a kind of spiritual healing to it. I don’t want to sound drippy, but it’s like looking at a fantastic painting, reading a wonderful book or just seeing a beautiful landscape. Like those things, hearing this music is an experience I think everyone should have.”

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