In 2006, Danny Elfman’s recording of his first classical work, Serenada Schizophrana, performed by Hollywood Studio Symphony under the direction of John Mauceri, was released. When I first learned of this, I could hardly wait to find a copy.
I loved Elfman’s music as a teenager when he was fronting Oingo Boingo. He gave us the familiar dark tones for contemporary Batman features, and his soundtracks for other Tim Burton films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands (as well as several other movies and shows) made my moviegoing experience much more immersive. He has been honored with several nominations and awards for his work, from one Grammy Award to being named a Disney Legend, and I’m still waiting for him to get his first Oscar or Golden Globe trophy.
Yet, his first full-on symphony is something I hold near to my heart.
When my youngest daughter was a baby, I kept her crib in my office, and like many parents, used to play music while she slept. I would work at my computer while she grew in her crib, as the opening piano keys of Elfman’s symphony tinkled away, followed by a wonderful build-up of strings and percussion. It made my seemingly boring day of editing or writing become an adventure to take on, while she (I hope) was using it as mental motivation to take on life’s challenges with grace and gusto.
Serenda Schizophrana was our soundtrack.
I loved the fact it was all over the place, and that it demanded attention. It went from familiar Elfman sounds to darker tones, to jazzy wavering beats and then gorgeous Spanish language vocals. Even his influences, according to his liner notes, were wonderfully scattered from Duke Ellington to Phillip Glass to Dmitri Shostakovich.
Serenada Schizophrana found its way effectively into the soundtracks of IMAX movies and documentary films, but I love it best as the standalone symphony it deserves to be.
On March 22, Sony Classical released the album for his first concerto, Eleven Eleven. This 41-minute concerto for violin and orchestra premiered in 2017 with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mauceri. Elfman wrote the piece for world-renowned violinist Sandy Cameron, and it made its live U.S. debut last year. Elfman’s four-movement piano quartet is also part of the album.
This concerto comes closer to the familiar sound of Elfman’s soundtracks, mixing bombastic drums with floating melodies in one movement, and offering slower, dreamier sounds in another. I was reminded of the intro to Beetlejuice when I first heard the parts of it, but then it branched out into its own softer world, rising and falling like it was skimming the listener over hills. There are new original creatures and worlds hidden in this work. Cameron’s full throttle violin was a major factor in this, as she was willing to take on the challenge of performing the difficult candenzas Elfman gave her. Cameron has worked extensively with Elfman in the past, and was a standout performer when Nightmare Before Christmas was performed live at the Hollywood Bowl in 2016.
Elfman was recently interviewed by California’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, where the concerto will be performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra featuring Cameron, alongside works from Sibelius and Prokofiev. He said he was originally thinking about creating a piano concerto, but began listening to violin, particularly Shostakovich.
The initial idea for the title was from a suggestion by Cameron, when they were counting the bars of the piece. Cameron said it would be a nice touch for the piece to be 1,100 measures, since the name Elfman is essentially “eleven.”
“We have no idea where the name comes from, all we know is that ‘Elfman’ is ‘Eleventh Man,'” he explained in the interview. “(Cameron) said, ‘you won’t believe this. It’s 1,111 measures.’ I said ‘that’s got to have some meaning.'”
Hence the name, Eleven Eleven.
This piece, which is much more lively and frenetic than his symphony, seems to fit where my daughters and I are today. My youngest is no longer sleeping in her crib behind me, she is an active fourth-grader who goes from curling up with a book in a homemade fort to “literally” climbing the doorways Spider-Gwen style to zipping around the block on her bike or back in fourth in the backyard with the dog. This Elfman and Cameron collaboration seems to have foreseen the zany choreography of my life and set it to music.
The piano quartet featured on the CD is a fitting addition to the album.
At risk of offending classical music “purists,” I have always felt there are many similarities between the classic music geniuses of the past and today’s soundtrack composers. Composers needed to eat as well as create, so they took on work writing for weddings, soundtracks for opera librettos, royal events, social gatherings, or funerals. Some of these pieces have evolved into best loved classical masterpieces. Today, composers from John Williams to Hans Zimmer, as well as many whose names aren’t familiar to the general public, create the instantly recognizable music form movies, television shows, video games, and sporting events.
Music lovers are as quick to recognize the pulse of “The Imperial March” as they are the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Yet, it is rare for a standalone symphony or classical piece to really resonate beyond the scholarly classical music circles today.
Serenada Schizophrana was one of those pieces that has done that for me. I’m certain this wonderful and wild violin concerto will do the same.