Sylvester Levay (born 1945 in Serbia) is probably my favorite film composer. His ability to use melodies and themes in the music is quite unique.
I discovered Levay's music in the very early 1990s while in my mid teens. Me and some friends watched the opening credits of Invitation To Hell, and something about the music hit a chord in me. The nice electronic melody was something I hadn't heard before.
Levay worked on Hollywood film and TV scores between 1982 and 1994, and this is the first interview with him which goes in detail about those years.
Interview by JON AANENSEN (email@example.com)
Q: What made you go to USA to write film music in the early 80s?
Levay: It was a dream that I had already in my childhood. I was always a movie goer. After I visited the US a few times during the success of Silver Convention, like the Grammy Award event etc, I felt that this would be the right opportunity to try my luck with film music.
Q: Before you started your own film composing, you worked with Giorgio Moroder on Cat People, Scarface and Flashdance. Tell us about this. How did you meet Moroder?
Levay: I knew Giorgio from Munich; the times when I had a worldwide success with Silver Convention, and Giorgio had launched Donna Summer. Later on he moved to Los Angeles, and eventually started to compose music for films. He always needed talents around him who would put his ideas into realization. Harold Faltermeyer was one of these artists. I remember, on one occasion Harold passed me over a project, and that was, I think "Flashdance". That's how it all started.
Q: Did working on the Airwolf series really open many doors into working on more projects in Hollywood?
Levay: Airwolf was a very special project to me in a so many ways: First of all; for me to meet and work through many years with the creator and the producer of Airwolf: Don Bellisario. He is a truly great Hollywood guy! I have learned a lot during so many years with Don, his team and of course Airwolf. It truly helped me too in many ways in my career.
Q: 1984 was in many ways a special year for synth-driven film and TV music in Hollywood. It was the year that many composers like yourself, Harold Faltermeyer, Jay Ferguson, Jonathan Elias, Michael Boddicker, Thomas Newman, Jan Hammer and Mark Isham all started their careers, and with guys like Patrick Leonard, Gary Chang, David Foster, James Newton Howard, Keith Forsey and Vince DiCola all following the next year. Of course paved the way by Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, Vangelis and Giorgio Moroder ever since the late 70s. Did you feel that 84 was a special year?
Levay: These years were definitely very exciting. The electronic music has influenced many great directors and producers. They dared to go very different ways in the style of the score. The names you mentioned above have all contributed great innovative ideas into the Hollywood film music world. And it worked very well too. I entirely enjoyed these times. This is also when the world of electronic and digital instruments exploded: new inventions were developed in garages. I was partially involved a little too. I had very close contact with Roger Linn, who discovered/designed the all so famous LINN DRUM. The TOTO guys demonstrated to us (Giorgio, Keith and other musician fellows) the first midi Instrument Yamaha DX7. In their studio they had hooked up these instruments, and they both were linked via midi cable to a master keyboard, so one could play many keyboards at the same time from one master keyboard, and these instruments had all a different sound. Well, you see, that's Evolution. Nowadays we are (luckily) spoiled with all these gadgets that are coming to market faster than you can afford to buy them. But it's allright!
Q: You did three feature films in 84, Invitation To Hell, Body Rock and Where The Boys Are. Tell us about this, and the decision to feature an orchestra in a few scenes.
Levay: Three completely different kind of movies. I enjoyed all three of them. "Invitation to Hell" demanded some orchestral underscore, to make this "underworld" more effective; more believable if you will. "Body Rock" : I have very special memories of this movie; everyone involved were very excited and full of energy. There were a few really good songs in there, and the underscore had to bring out the emotions a little more than you could see on the screen. "Where The Boys Are" was a summer teenage movie. The director was a well experienced movie guy. We communicated well; on one of our meetings we agreed that we should put in some orchestral stuff as well, because that would enhance the lightness of some of the action scenes. It was fun.
Q: The TV movie Time Bomb used your music extensively through the whole film, as a very important factor. Are you pleased with how this turned out?
Levay: Although Time Bomb was a TV movie, I felt at the time that I was doing a feature film. The producers agreed to have in addition to electronic score a big orchestra as well. That gave me the opportunity to give the score a more dramatic depth. During composing of the score, it became clear to me that the music had to give a focus on the bomb. As soon as a bomb starts ticking; it's "alive" and fatally dangerous, and the music had to deliver this.
Q: Tell us about the score for Creator. For me this score sounded a bit like classical music performed on synthesizers.
Levay: Regarding the score of " Creator", I think I should at first let you know that I was hired to replace an existing score entirely, of a famous composer (who's name I will not mention). I looked at the movie and I realized that this story would require a more instrumental, partially classical movie score, to bring out the wonderful emotions that this movie carried. Now, the money for the score was gone, so there was very little money left over for my replacement - creative work, needless to say for recording it as well. So I concluded that I would still compose an emotional score, and would try to find a way to use natural instrument sounds emulated by synthesizers and newest samplers, as good as they were available at the market at that point. It was pretty clear that under these circumstances there was simply no money to hire an orchestra for the score, so I decided that I would perform the entire score on synthesizers, and one of the very first digital
sampler keyboards, and try to reach the goal of a semi classical score as good as I could. At that time, luckily, a digital smaller-keyboard emerged out of the Californian Genius society of inventors.
If I remember correctly it was called the E-360 or something like that. The inventor of this instrument was a colleague of Roger Linn, with whom I was working very close on the development of his Linn-9000 sequencer, wich also was a first of its kind. The guys from Toto were also very much involved in these things. E-360 was a keyboard which contained sampled sounds of natural instruments, programmed into single chips, which were lined up together, to achieve a certain amount of memory, to be able to reproduce the digitally sampled sounds as close to natural as possible. Now, way back in the eighties, one sound had maybe a memory space of one Mega Byte or so, compared to one of my violin samples of VSL (Vienna Symphonic Library) which is approx. 8000 MB. Wow!!! What a difference in this short period of time. The E-360 had natural piano sound, acoustic guitar, rock guitar, strings, flute etc. So, I have indeed performed the entire score on E-360 and my synthesizer setup. It was very exciting and quite challenging. It also was a kind of pioneers work. However it turned out, I am very happy to have been a part of these creatively exciting times in Los Angeles!
If my memory serves me well, the name of the inventor of the E-360 digital keyboard, the first sampled natural instruments on digital chips, is Bob (Robert) Easton. He developed this instrument very closely with Roger Linn. I am just mentioning this because I was lucky to be able to record many of my film works with real orchestra, and I was always composing with sampled sounds instead of the piano, because it gave me the possibility to hear what my work was going to sound like when I eventually recorded it with the real orchestra. Also I would like to express my feeling that talents like Roger Linn and Bob Easton belong to the many major pioneers who have created and developed the world of digital instruments. And I can say that we in the music business can consider ourselves very lucky that so many talented people have put their hearts and souls into this "electronic-digital evolution", and also sometimes their existence at risk as well. I certainly hope that the world of entertainment will not completely forget these people.
Q: The melodic "sad/love theme" has always been an important part of your scores. Do you consider this crucial in many of the movies you scored?
Levay: I was always convinced that the music had to give the audience as many emotional moments as possible. It will enhance the effect to the audience. It will bring out emotions that you can not see; it is inside the heart and soul, and the music will transport these feelings directly into the hearts of the audience. I personally believe that a movie is not much worth without any emotional moments. You must dare, and the audience will be thankful.
Q: You are not too well represented on soundtrack albums. Records like Body Rock, Where The Boys Are, Burglar and Navy Seals even appeared without any of your score music. Did this matter to you at all?
Levay: It is very sad that the record industry, even nowadays, doesn't really care about soundtracks, unless there is a major star from the "pop music" field involved in the main title song. It is simply an economic factor for them, regardless of the millions of movie fans who would really enjoy having the opportunitiy to buy a soundtrack from many of their favorite films.
Q: How did you get involved in writing additional music to the John Barry-scored film Howard The Duck? And what's the story behind the shared credit with Georges Delerue on Touch And Go?
Levay: It happens every now and then that a director or the producer(s) decide to hire a composer just because he just won an Academy Award, or he is famous, forgetting to consider if this composer would write the right music for the particular movie. Only after the score has been finished and recorded do they realize that the kind of music the composer wrote does not fit to the movie at all. Now the panic starts: Let's find a composer who would fix this problem, instantly and not expensive since the score-money is gone. I was fast at composing, and I was not greedy, that's how I came to replace the music in several films. Among the movies that you mentioned, there was Creator as well, and a few more.
Q: Annihilator features an extended theme at the end of the film, where I feel that the Moroder-influences are clear. Was this intentional?
Levay: I've known Giorgio for quite a while, and I truly think that he was, and still is a great PIONEER. I am sure that he had influence on my creative work in film music, as others did, like the names that you mentioned above. But I should mention that I have arranged and performed on a few of his movies where I have created some parts of underscore by myself, so there was a lot of my musical style involved as well. It works both ways: Artists get inspired by other artists.
Q: Cobra is one of your most beloved scores. How did you work on this? Was the track Skyline written specifically for the album, as it's not in the film?
Levay: The work on the score was very demanding, but also very exciting. Sly Stallone is a great guy, we got along very well. He has a great musical sense. That is what I found so wonderful about him. For example; I wrote the love theme "Two into one" that I recorded with Gladys Knight and Bill Medley. Unfortunately, through some arguments between the studio and the artists lawyers, this recording did not make it into the movie. I performed it instrumentally. When we were mixing the movie, Stallone came to me and sung the melody into my ears. That was really great; he has a great voice. The story of "Skyline" was very simple, it was a substitute for "Two into one". Otherwise the soundtrack would have gotten too short on music. So much for this...
Q: You wrote a song (Criminal) for the Harold Faltermeyer-scored film Fatal Beauty in 1987. How did you get involved in this?
Levay: The producer and music VP of the studio that produced the movie did ask me if I had a song for Fatal Beauty. As it happened, I had a song; they listened to it and decided to put it into the movie.
Q: Tell us about writing additional music to Three O' Clock High. Did Phil Joanou ask you to ape the Tangerine Dream-sound?
Levay: Amblin contacted me, if I would be willing to replace some of TD's score. I asked them for the reason. They told me that TD recorded the entire score in Berlin, without having the producers or Phil as the director involved. After they listened to the finished score, they realized that some of the music didn't really support the picture. That's when I came in. The producers and Phil were very nice and communicative, and so my music got into the movie. Although it was another fix-job, I enjoyed it, as well as the other fix-jobs.
Q: Abduction featured an impressive score, including the seven minute opening sequence and even some slide guitar effects. Any memories from this?
Levay: Yes, this movie is also one that I have good memories of: The producer Leonard Hill was a great "drama out of the life" producer. He had a great sense for drama, but even more so for the emotions that are apparent and also hidden in these stories. Now, music for drama and emotion are the two things that I very much like to compose. It was a true story about courage, belief and hope. I did use Dobro slide guitar effects, because I felt that it would enhance the suspense connected with the nature; the mountains and the woods, in which this movie was playing. I also believe that these stories, if done the right way and morally correct, should be shown to people.
Q: You wrote an electronic score for The Tracker in 1988. Was this considered a brave move for a period/western movie? (As you probably know, Anthony Marinelli and Brian Banks did the same for Young Guns the same year.)
Levay: It was a little risky, but here again there were two people who were very open and very supportive to me. The director and the music VP of HBO. I was truly very happy with doing this score.
Q: For TV movies, you often had to write a catchy theme for the end credits that lasted less than a minute. How did you manage this?
Levay: You have to tell yourself two things: Don't be selfish by disliking the fact that your music has to be so short. And the other even more important thing is: If you have composed a great theme it will work in 60 seconds as well, maybe even better. It's all up to you.
Q: Am I correct in saying that Courage Mountain from 1989 was your most orchestral score? Were there any synths at all here? Do you prefer writing for electronics or orchestra?
Levay: "Courage Mountain" was very exciting for me, especially because I was working with Michael Douglas, who was the producer. Also it was my first of three movies where I have written the score starring Charlie Sheen. The story, the time (first world war), did not call for electronic score, so that's why I composed an orchestral score, which I recorded and conducted with the Munich Philharmonic.
Q: What's your opinion on Intrada Records' release of Navy Seals from some years ago? This was indeed a CD that the fans enjoyed receiving, 20 years after the film got released.
Levay: It was and is a significant example that Intrada Records set by releasing scores of movies even after many years. I am happy and thankful to them.
Q: Stone Cold is probably your most heavy score, with lots of screaming electric guitars. Who performed the guitars on most of your scores?
Levay: This movie really called for a rock score. As in so many movies of mine, a great guitar player by the name of Duane Sciacqua played the great and tasteful rock guitars. We had lots of fun recording this score.
Q: How did you get involved in Hot Shots by Jim Abrahams? Whose idea was it to ape the Faltermeyer-music from Top Gun in the main title?
Levay: My agent sent a tape of my score from Navy Seals to director Jim Abrahams. Jim called me and asked me to meet him at his office in Santa Monica. When I got there I said hello to him, and this is what he said to me: "Listen Mr. Levay, I usually don't hire a composer just by meeting him. But this time I have to make an exception, and the reason for it is very simple: I have listened to your score from Navy Seals, and by thinking of my movie at the same time I couldn't stop laughing my butt off. The serious score and the spoof on Top Gun was just the perfect match." I had a truly wonderful time with this movie, and Jim Abrahams!
Q: The Owl from 1991 is a peculiar film. It features some extended scenes without dialogue where your score is heavily used, like in those flashback scenes for instance, where you wrote one of your most beautiful themes. What can you say about this? Also, did you perform the flute yourself in the main theme?
Levay: The main character "Owl" was a human being with some super-natural powers and he was fighting for justice and for the people. Given these premises I had to find a special musical character for him and for the show as well, and that's how I came up with the Main Theme with Shakuhachi flute. Yes, I perfomed the sampled Shakuhachi flute myself.
Q: You scored several TV movies like Stalking Laura, Donato & Daughter, In The Deep Woods and Dead Before Dawn in the early 90s. Anything you'd like to say about this?
Levay: "In The Deep Woods" and "Dead Before Dawn" were the two movies that I remember where composing the score was very exciting.
Q: Your swan song in Hollywood was Flashfire by veteran director Elliot Silverstein in 1994, a powerful score with electric guitars. Tell us about this. Had you decided by now that you would not score any more films in Hollywood? Have you ever regretted this decision? Did you feel that the kind of music you wrote had gone out of fashion?
Levay: This question of yours carries actually three questions. I will answer them one by one:
1. Flashfire was a well done action movie, and to me it was clear that through the heavy story I had to go with lots of electric guitars. In my opinion, it gave the movie a dramatic depth and a more modern touch.
2. I had promised my partner Michael Kunze, with whom I had the world wide successes like "Fly Robin, fly" with Silver Convention etc, that I would compose the music for a German language musical thet he wrote the book and the lyrics to. It was a musical about the Austrian Emperess Elisabeth. I knew I could not compose music for films and at the same time for musicals, because both jobs are too big. Because this would also affect our family I talked to my wife about the new situation, and told her that I would have to give up my Hollywood career if I wanted to do "Elisabeth". Monica said to me: You have to do "Elisabeth". Well, the reason I did not go back to Los Angeles is that "Elisabeth" became the most successful German language musical of all times. So I stayed home and was from then on writing mostly musicals. I have never regretted this decision.
3. You ask, has the kind of music that I wrote at that time gone out of fashion. The truth is, everything is at some point going out of fashion. The most important thing is for all creative people to realize that fact, and to follow with the fashion, and learn. That way you will never really get out of fashion. One must be willing to learn until the last breath. And that's what I am doing.
Q: Fans hungry for more of your film music got something to talk about with the download release of your Medicopter 117 music some years ago. Do you have plans of releasing more film music, either old or new? Are you still interested in writing film scores, or is it a closed chapter?
Levay: If I had the time, I would certainly get into producing and releasing most of my film scores. But you can't do such things with half steam. And at the moment, as I also have lots of success with my musical around the globe, I am concentrating on writing musicals. Yet I never have given up my wish that I would perhaps compose a score for a great Hollywood movie one day, but that movie would have to touch my heart and soul.
Q: Looking back now, how do you feel about the years you spent writing film music in Hollywood?
Levay: I actually spent twenty years in Hollywood, between 1980 and 2000, out of which I've written music for films for approx. 17 years. Seventeen wonderful years in Los Angeles.
Invitation To Hell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byfpCBtxy-g
Airwolf (Gabrielle's Theme): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKLXpGi7xPM
Above: Brian Reeves and Sylvester Levay at 20th Century Fox Scoring Stage in 1991, working on Hot Shots.
Below: Sylvester Levay 1991.