Julie Amacher, Classical MPR
"I never expected to be literally blowing fire, playing trombone and passing the hat on the streets of Los Angeles, but that's what I was doing."
That was just the beginning for Danny Elfman, who's become most famous for writing the theme song to The Simpsons. After working as a street musician, his next big adventure found him leading the new wave band Oingo Boingo. Then he got his big break when he started to collaborate with director Tim Burton, which has resulted in 17 film scores and a 30-year relationship.
Danny Elfman has changed course many times in his career, often landing in a place he never imagined. His latest wild ride is a recording that features a piano quartet and a violin concerto, titled Eleven Eleven, with violinist Sandy Cameron.
"It's funny, when I got into film composition, they all hated me because I came from rock 'n' roll. It was like, 'You can't go from rock 'n' roll to film composition.' Then I became a successful film composer, and I was like, 'I want to break into the classical world.' And they're going, 'No, no, no. You're a film composer. We don't want you here.' It's actually kind of fun at this point in my life, feeling the same uphill battle that I felt my entire life for everything I've done, all over again. I find that resistance, weirdly, somewhat motivating.
"If I want to connect with that audience, I have to make sure that bits of my own musical identity and personality get carried into this world, so they can go, 'Oh, yeah. That's him.' There will be those satisfying moments of, 'That's definitely him.'
"I love working and twisting and playing, taking a melody, turning it into a softball, batting it around and seeing if I can make it rubber. The whole pleasure of the third movement, which is my favorite, was really, 'What can I do with four notes and a simple melody?' It's like a throwdown that I gave myself."
You have a thing for the number 11, and that's the name of the concerto, Eleven Eleven. Would you explain what your thing is for the number 11, and, also, how serendipitously it worked out for this concerto?
"My thing with the number 11 is just literally my name, Elfman. In the Jewish religion, the 10th man is called the minyan. Every ceremony has to have 10 to begin. My ancestor was always late and was always the one after that, the unessential 11th person, showing up, going, 'I'm here.' And they go, 'Uh, you're too late.' Hence, the name Elfman: the unessential, slightly late, 11th man.
"It was Sandy, as we were finishing the last cadenza, who said, 'Let's count the bars. It's got to be over a thousand by now. It would be fantastic if it were eleven-hundred-and-something, with your name and the whole thing about the number 11.' And I said, 'Yeah, that'd be cool.' So she started counting two of the movements, and I started counting two of the movements, and we totalled it up. It was like, 'I don't believe this. It's 1,111 measures, exactly.'
"When I start a composition, I feel like I'm pushing a train that has no locomotive uphill. I'm shoving and pushing with all my strength, and it feels impossible. Finally, the track levels out, and I'm pushing it along. It's still a lot of effort, but it's level ground, so I'm not killing myself. And then, when I'm lucky, I reach a point where it's downhill, and the composition is now leading me. I'm not telling it where to go. And I jump on top, and now it's a wild ride."
To hear the rest of my conversation, download the extended podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.