Interview: Charles Bernstein on his score for "A Nightmare on Elm Street"
In 1984, Charles Bernstein composed the score for Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street and established what is probably the most recognizable theme of 80s horror film. During his music career, Charles has worked on over 100 films (in a variety of genres), won an Emmy, scored a documentary about Maya Lin, taught courses at USC and UCLA, and written two books on film music. Quentin Tarantino has used cues from his scores in Kill Bill Vol.1 and Inglorious Basterds. Some of the other horror films he has scored include: The Entity (highly recommended), Deadly Friend (which we discussed a few weeks ago), April Fools Day, and Cujo. Charles was kind enough to take some time to discuss his score for A Nightmare on Elm Street with us, including some details about the synthesizers and unique sound design he used to construct it.
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In the 1970s there was a shift in the horror genre away from traditional orchestral scores implemented by a composer and a group of musicians, towards completely electronic scores, often created entirely by the composer (possibly with a smaller budget). This shift became even more pronounced in the 1980s. How did this transition affect you as a composer and change your approach to scoring films?
Honestly, at the time that I did the first "A Nightmare on Elm Street" there was no sense in the composing community of a shift from orchestral to home based scoring. It was only later that this began to be perceived as a trend among most of us working in the field. I had been using home studio-based techniques since the early 1970s. This approach can provide for more personal experimentation and exploration of sounds and possibilities. I remember doing a synth-based mockup of "Mr. Majestyk" around 1973, prior to recording the score with orchestra as a demo of intent. Many of my early scoring jobs included home studio recording techniques. Of course, now this is all quite common and widespread, even on large projects, and I feel quite literally at home with it.
Charles Bernstein in his first 1980s home studio
In 1984, what bands, types of music, or other film scores were you interested in and influenced by? There was a great deal of electronic music being incorporated into pop music (and film music) at the time, and I wonder if that has any relation to your work during that period.
I had discovered the German group Kraftwerk when they toured in the 70s, and really appreciated the possibilities that they opened up. I was also following the early pre-NewAge trends, including Brian Eno and many local musicians.
Can you talk a little bit about what is different about working on a score for a horror film? Any thoughts on how music enhances this type of film?
Horror films are great for composers for all the obvious reasons. These kinds of pictures provide a wide range of stylistic and experimental musical possibilities. I love to work in many kinds of genres, but horror and suspense do offer a truly great range of soundscapes and musical possibilities.
What were your initial ideas and inspirations for the score? How did you begin your work on the project?
I really began work on this film, as I do on all my projects, by communing with the film and letting it guide me to finding the right notes and overall style. I try to give each film its own musical identity.
I understand that there was already some temp music in place when you started (from Gary Scott's Final Exam score). What materials or direction were you given by Wes Craven to work with (either initially or along the way)? Were you ever composing directly to picture or edited sequences?
The print that I worked from didn't have any temp in it except for Wes' jumprope nursery rhyme chant near the beginning. I don't know if there was any music temped before I came on board. Wes and the producers were still making a few picture changes when I started working. The ending of the film was not yet resolved. Wes was great to work with, I would run all my ideas by him as I was writing, especially the main theme idea, which he liked and supported from the first time I suggested it.
The score is very thematic with variations on the familiar 10-note melody occurring throughout. Can you talk about how you're able to grow the score from an initial melodic idea and flesh out the various textures and layers? It seems like there must have been a significant amount of overdubbing and/or editing involved.
That 10-note theme was very crucial for me. Once I had that idea and Wes approved it, the variations followed easily and I think it helped to shape the feel and the flow of the film.
In your book, you discuss how the limitations of a project can enhance its outcome. How did this score (and your ideas about it) change along the way, either through collaboration with Craven or by the constraints of the film?
This is an interesting question. It may be that the constraints of budget, time and resources prompted me to make choices that a big budget and full orchestra may have changed in various ways. It's interesting to contemplate.
There are a number of vocal elements heard throughout the score, particularly in the Main Title, "Laying the Traps", and "Rod Hanged / Night Stalking". I've read that you performed these vocalizations and processed your voice with a series of Boss pedals. Can you tell me a little more about those pedals and how this process worked?
It was a pretty primitive technique really. I plugged a cheap mic directly into the Boss digital delay and echo pedals with a 1/4" plug and ran the signal through a mixing board. I'm sure there was a better way to do it, but time and money were short, and (as the saying goes) necessity is the mother of invention.
One thing I noticed is how many metallic textures you've used in the score, often with heavy delay or reverb; this seems to be an important component of The Entity score too. I also love the heightened sense of tension at particular points due to high-pitched drones or pulsating bass notes. There is one particular element that occurs at about 1:42 into "School Horror / Stay Awake" - I refer to it as the "descending pitch stab" for lack of a better term. I've noticed it being used in several later 80s horror films. What is that and where does it come from?
The element that you refer to is a chime-like effect bent downward with the mod-wheel. It may have been an old Emu2 patch --I think that it had a name unrelated to the sound, but I remember that it wasn't labeled as an actual chime sample. I liked it because it had a kind of old churchyard bell tower feeling that felt ancient and dark.
Let's talk about synthesizers for a moment! I was under the impression that you had used a Prophet 5 as one of your primary instruments, but recently I saw a gear list for the soundtrack that included a Yamaha DX7, Oberheim OB-SX, Roland Juno-106 and a few others. I'm curious about how you used these instruments together and if you have a particular favorite.
I think that's right. No Prophet 5, but I noticed a Pro-One [ed: a descendant of the Prophet-5] in an old photo recently, and maybe an Emu SP12 as well as some small metallic colored Roland drum machines around.
I haven't seen the "Never Sleep Again" documentary yet, but I understand you composed music for it based on the NOES score?
I wrote a new main title theme and chapter openings based on it for the documentary. It is more lively and faster paced than the NOES music. (It can be downloaded from iTunes as "Elm Street Legacy," Charles Bernstein)
Thank you for your interest and for your very thoughtful questions. There is more info available on www.charlesbernstein.com.
Many thanks to Charles Bernstein for talking with us. If you don't already have the NOES soundtrack, now's the time to get it!