Basil Poledouris on Scoring Lonesome Dove

An Interview with Basil Poledouris by Randall Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.68, 1998/99
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson

Simon Wincer’s eloquent, character-driven western saga, LONESOME DOVE, remains one of the best television mini-series ever broadcast. The brilliant dialog and characterizations from Larry McMurtry’s grand, sweeping novel were translated faithfully and brought to life by a cadre of outstanding performances. Wincer and his producers made the most of their slim budget, enveloping the mini-series in appropriately simple yet highly realistic set design. The final touch was a poignant and compelling score by Basil Poledouris, which gives the story much of its heart and emotional warmth, linking its diverse characters and settings. Although the three-hour, forty-five minutes of music Basil wrote for LONESOME DOVE wasn’t as grueling as the five and a half hours he composed for AMERIKA two years prior, the project was nonetheless immense, and took up most of the second half of 1989 to compose and record. The final act was particularly challenging, with mixing sessions bumped up against an imminent broadcast schedule. I had the opportunity to interview Basil anew about this score in preparation for writing the liner notes to the new Sonic Images soundtrack CD. What follows is Basil’s fresh look back at a landmark score.

I had just finished FAREWELL TO THE KING. As a matter of fact I’d just returned from London, and my agent at the time submitted a very rough tape I had of FAREWELL – we hadn’t even finished the album yet. Simon heard it, and responded to it. He said that was the kind of emotional hit that they were looking for. My first reaction was, “how can you possibly consider stuff that was written for Borneo and the South China Sea in World War II for a Western?!” But he said it had the heart he was looking for.

What were your initial musical impressions?
I exploded when I first saw the thing. I came back from the first screening of the picture and sat down, and I think I came up with three themes in two hours. It was such a strong, instant reaction to it. That’s because the novel is so strong and the screenplay was so strong, and of course the acting was just phenomenal. It’s not one of those things where you go, “gee how can I solve these problems?!”

How did your approach to the score fit in to where you were at the time?
I was a folk music freak. I loved the stuff. I was a classical musician, but folk was a sideline. I grew up with that whole Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary, The Weavers, the Dillards, Alan Lomax was one of my heroes. I played banjo and guitar in a folk music group, and we played at shows, and it augmented my whole classical side. So LONESOME DOVE gave me an opportunity to use that. I had played with that idiom in a bunch of educational films before, but never in a dramatic form. So this was really the first time I was able to use a folk idiom in a dramatic picture, and it seemed to really work.
I knew I didn’t want Copland, I just thought that’s so theatrical. I think that, by making the score sound like folk songs, very simple structures, very tuneful melodies, that it would give the movie a reality, as if it were, in fact, music from the period.
The other thing was that some of it was really dictated by budgetary considerations. I may not have used as much of the small groupings in the film if we had the budget, but I’m glad I did because I think it really worked. It just added a different dimension to it.

How big of an orchestra did you use on the score?
I think the largest was around 35-40 musicians, down to just cello and oboe. The group was generally around 7 to 10 musicians.

What was most challenging about this assignment?
Staying out of the way! Lend it some atmosphere, but for Crissake stay out of the way of the dialog! It was so good, the acting, all of it.

Where do you think this particular score fits into your overall canon of work, both at the time, when you were doing it, and then looking back now? What’s your take on it?
Well, it was fresh. It was the first Western I’d ever done, and it was the first time I got to work in this idiom, dramatically, so it came at a good time. I’d done a few things before that but nothing quite like it, so it gave me a real fresh palette to work from. The orchestra wasn’t as large, it certainly had no choir, it was different from most of the action type stuff that I had done up to that point.

What kind of response did it get from the industry or from the viewers, as far as affecting the further opportunities you may have had?
I think it just broadened the perception of the range of music I can write, and it certainly led to QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER. There are so few films that anyone says “oh, I really loved this film and that’s why I hired you,” but LONESOME DOVE was one of them. It was the first time I worked with Simon, who hired me because of FAREWELL TO THE KING. Paul Verhoeven came to me on FLESH + BLOOD because he liked CONAN. Those are real clear cut examples. Other directors, it just seems there’s a body of work that they like.

The bulk of the music you’ve written, the heart of it, has always been found in a kind of folk music, and how much more folk can you get than this kind of an American Western story? It seems so appropriate for you to take that approach.
You’re absolutely right, folk music is a wellspring. Because of its simplicity, there’s something very powerful about the folk idiom, but it can be couched in any number of styles. I mean, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER is basically a Russian folk song, so it’s the same thing, in a sense, just in a different setting.

What instrumentation did you have beyond the orchestra?
There were two guitars, steel-stringed guitar, a hammered dulcimer, some banjo in the July Johnson theme. I also used accordion. I used it to replace the harmonica, which I think is too often used in Westerns. Then, blended in with that group were solo instruments like solo cello, solo oboe, solo flutes, and there were all kinds of strange percussion. It was such a joy to watch and to write the music for. I’m not going to say it was effortless, because certainly the last act was really a bitch to write, because I ran out of time, but it was one of the most pleasurable things I’d ever done.

© Randall Larson 1999/2018

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