An Interview with Pierre Jansen by Marco Werba
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the publisher Randall D. Larson and Marco Werba
Where did you study music, and how did you meet Claude Chabrol, the director with whose films you are associated?
I started studying piano and harmony at the Conservatoire de Roubaix, and then went to Brussels where I studied with Henry Sury, a composer who had previously scored many films and documentaries. I immediately thought that writing film scores was very interesting, since it could give me the possibility to hear at once what I had written and, at the same time, gives me the chance to make a living. I do also write concert music, but it doesn’t give me economic stability. Instead of making a living teaching music, as many composers do, I thought it was better to express my creativity through film music.
I think that if Bach and Mozart were alive today they would write film music. In their period they had a large number of commissions from the Royal courts and palaces, and those commissions were, in a certain way, similar to our contemporary film score commissions.
I’m very glad I met Claude Chabrol. He loves and knows all about music, and he listens to a lot of Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel. My first film score for him was LES BONNES FEMMES, in which there was a “cabaret” kind of music composed by Paul Misraki and the dramatic descriptive music that I wrote. From the beginning, Chabrol and I became good friends and we always worked together in perfect harmony. It’s not always easy to work with a director; sometimes you have to argue and fight! For LA DECADE PRODIGEUSE, I used a church organ during almost all the film and, at the end, I had to replace it with a “fanfare” of trumpets, since Chabrol wanted a strong sound. He has very precise ideas on how the music should be.
I was really scared of scoring LA DECADE PRODIGEUSE, due to the presence of Orson Welles. In the film there was a transformation of the “divinity” underlined by an instrumental change: from church organ to trumpets. My real problem was to find the right music for the Orson Welles image. I have good memories of this film and I am very proud of the music I wrote. I particularly appreciated a car chase sequence in which a 1920’s car is chased by another car. For this sequence I used the sound of church organ counterpointed by strings.
Can you discuss your score for L’ETAT SAUVAGE?
The ETAT SAUVAGE score is a symphonic portrait performed by Gianfranco Plenizio and recorded in Rome. The film was located in Africa during the independence period with its instability and danger. The music is not influenced by the African percussions but more by the music of Prokofiev. In the past I have written many kinds of music (tangos, waltzer, even juke-box music), but I prefer to use that kind only as source music and instead to write symphonic scores as narrative and descriptive music.
My greatest satisfaction in these recent years was to write (together with Antoine Duhamel) the music for INTOLERANCE, the famous D.W Griffith silent movie to which we created a symphonic score performed during projection by a large orchestra that I conducted. I like to write for films since in just a minute or even a half-minute I have to build something always considering highly precise reference points. I prefer to have those precise “minutages” instead of being completely free of writing whatever I want. When I write concert music, it is much more difficult since I don’t have any specific timing or restriction and I have to decide everything myself!
I recently had to write a concert for violin and orchestra for which I worked four months, and of course I decided myself that the length of the concert should be 25 minutes. I have in mind to do a “video opera” since, I think, television is becoming more and more important. Maybe television and not cinema will be my future!
What are some of the other directors you have had good working relationships with?
With some directors you can be yourself and do a personal work. With Francis Giraud, I did two films because he thought that my style would be good for those particular films. Then Ennio Morricone scored another film and now Georges Delerue has just scored his new film. That means that he calls in a specific composer referring to his personality and to the needs of the picture.
How many records from your scores have been issued?
Many, but the problem is that there is no one who buys them, except a few film music collectors! These kinds of records soon disappear and are replaced with new soundtrack records. I have tried to do a special record for collectors, where I put, on either side, LA DECADE PRODIGEUSE, with LE NUIT D’OR (a film that didn’t work at all, for which I used a big orchestra with chorus and even electronic instruments; a very ambitious work I recorded in London) but I don’t know how successful it will be or who will listen to it.
You scored LA NOUVELLE VAGUE, which was made by several different directors. Do you think they had a similar style, or a similar point of view on how to build the film?
LA NOUVELLE VAGUE was not a style but a tendency toward a particular direction. There is a lot of difference between directors like Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut. The NOUVELLE VAGUE was a reaction against a certain kind of French Cinema and tried to bring something new but without having a real identifiable style. The only thing that the various directors had in common was the way of using music in their films; in particular, the precision in mixing the music with sound effects for specific scenes.
What do you think about using electronic music?
I think that an artist has not to search for new sounds but just to use them. When I look to a Picasso painting I don’t try to discover anything, I just find it. I don’t like the image of the composer connected to the experimentation. I sometimes use electronic instruments but without searching for new sounds. I love Stravinsky, Picasso and I am sometimes influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s music. I don’t go to see concerts since I listen to the radio (in France we have a good channel called “France Musique” for both classic and contemporary music). I still go to cinema until television will be so perfect that I will not need to go out and see a film anymore. I appreciate the French television very much and I hope it will continue the way it is now!
Pierre Jansen was interviewed by Marco Werba at the First International Film Music Festival in Seville, Spain, in 1986