Retired but still relevant

He's played piano in cocktail lounges and produced records for Nina Simone, he's been an A&R man too, but you'll probably know Stu Phillips best for being the composer of cult '80s TV shows Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica. Having composed music for over 20 feature films in the '60s and '70s and being covered by the likes of Tammy Wynette and B.B.King, Phillips moved on to writing for TV. Working exclusively with Glen Larson for many years the pair were responsible for some of the '80s biggest hits including Buck Rogers, The Monkees, Quincy, The Six Million Dollar Man and of course the iconic Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica. With a style that can adapt to every genre from disco to pop, Phillips' first love is classical, his epic score to Battlestar Galactica a testament to this. While Phillips might have retired many years ago, he is still very much a part of the film and television zeitgeist today, attending fan conventions and cult screenings of Battlestar and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and even winning a BMI Film and TV Award for Best Ringtone with Knight Rider.

When did you start composing film music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I sort of fell into film & TV composing around 1961. It was never my burning ambition to do this. I was more inclined to becoming an arranger like Morton Gould or Dave Rose and others in that vein. However, I did study composition and orchestration at The Eastman School of Music, so I was musically prepared. As far as my composing influences, I would have to say... everybody. From the classical composers to all of the film composers.

What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?

Wow! Far to many for me to pick just a few. Obviously, producing and arranging three number one records would be one, and one other would be receiving a phone call from Glen Larson in 1974 asking if would be interested in writing the music for a pilot called The Six Million Dollar Man, now referred to as Wine, Women & War. Then of course there would be the fantastic experience of conducting the LA Philharmonic for five days in the recording of the Battlestar Galactica music.

What are currently your main compositional challenges?

I’m retired.

As a soundtrack composer, one must usually adapt one's ideas to the film, the director and the audience. How does one maintain a balance between, on the one hand, artistic integrity and sticking to one's creative convictions and, on the other, being professional in one's job? How does one find a sense of freedom within these structures?

It’s a job. You get paid to provide music that the filmmakers are content with. The only freedom is how you handle pleasing yourself and the film people. It’s a very dicey and delicate situation.

What do you usually start with when composing? At which stage of the movie production process do you prefer to get involved? 

Blank paper, a pencil, and a whole bunch of erasers. I’m from the old school: The sooner I’m involved, the better. More time to develop ideas and rework them if necessary. 

Over the decades, film music as a whole, despite the radical differences depending on genre or style, has developed a certain tradition and vocabulary or tools, techniques and thematic development. How would you describe your relationship with this tradition and what roles does it play in your work? 

I was a traditional composer as well as a one who tried to find new sounds and techniques. I always preferred to make use of the main theme when possible, even if I didn’t write it. To me it made for better continuity in the music. Not to toot my own horn, but the Knight Rider theme was the first main title music on TV to feature the use of multi synths. It predated Miami Vice by about five months.

What, to you, are the main functions and goals of soundtracks and film music and how would you rate their importance for the movie as a whole?

Being a composer I would naturally answer, very important. Being a realist, I would have to say that at times the music is irrelevant. Sometimes it helps, and there are times when I feel that music can actually hurt a scene. Often it is not the composer’s fault, as he is being directed by the filmmaker to do something that he disagrees with, but if he wants the job he/she has to comply. There is a TV show called Southland that has no score. There is occasionally some radio source music, but the lack of a score is not missed one bit. Everything works. Take away the score to Gone With The Wind and it would be a disaster. So as you can see, there are two sides to the coin.

Jerry Goldsmith once asserted that, as a composer, one "can't be visual with the music". How do you see the relationship between image and sound in a movie? How directly are you working with the images in the writing process? 

Bless Jerry, but I can’t completely agree with his statement. I defy you to listen to Debussy’s La Mer without having the feeling of being on the sea. Without a relationship between music and image, the whole process of film scoring would be completely negated. Of course I work with the images. That is how I get inspired to write. Well… that and the money.

Elliot Goldenthal mentioned that while a movie is "going linearly from side to side", one had to talk about film music "vertically". What's your take on this statement?

No comment. Way over my head.

Scores can either exist entirely of original material or temp-track music. Are these two approaches equal or do you feel as though a soundtrack written especially for a movie is always to be preferred? 

I despise temp tracks. They are used and abused by film editors trying to impress the boss with their editing prowess. Sometimes filmmakers become obsessed with the music and nothing else will do. So either the composer has to write and replicate the music, or they pay a license fee and use the music as is. It all stinks. It takes away all of the creative efforts of the composer, which I sometimes believe was their purpose to begin with.

People tend to see film music as existing in a time of its own. Would you, on the other hand, say that there such a thing as zeitgeist in film music as well? Are there compositional devices which you don't find appropriate or wouldn't use right now, because they're too closely associated with a particular era? 

A well-done film score uses whatever tools are necessary to deliver a good score. Whether it be new music, old music, jazz, rock, rap, choral, etc. etc., all should be considered. Our good friend Jerry G. was good at this. So is John Williams.

The balance between visuals, fx and film music is a delicate one. What, from your point of view, determines whether or not it is a successful one?

I have had music buried beneath a ton of effects, and I have had music way too far in front to make sense. In my humble opinion the British sound mixers and producers have always seemed to have a better perspective in the balancing of music and FX than the Americans. This goes way back to the 1940s and is still the case today. 

In your opinion, should film music remain connected to the picture it was conceived for or should have it an intrinsic value outside of the movies?

Primarily the music was written for the film. It is always a plus when the music can stand alone without the visual images. I do not believe that one should write a score and try to adjust the music for concert purposes. Of course if time allows, one can always record two versions of the music--one for the film and one for listening. Henry Mancini quite often did not release the original scores from the film but preferred rearranging them and putting out an album strictly for listening.

Usually, it is considered that it is the job of the movie to win over an audience. But watching and listening are also active, rather than just passive processes. How do you see the role of the spectator in the cinematic communication process?

There are no two people in the audience who see and hear the film the same. So this question is rather difficult to put a handle on. The average spectator needs to feel entertained, or moved emotionally. Of course there are exceptions. 

Please recommend two film music composers to our readers that you feel deserve their attention. 

John Williams and Bernard Herrmann.

To read more about Stu Phillips or buy his book Stu Who, visit www.stuwho.com