Interview with Gabriel Yared

Photo by Peter Cobbin

When it comes to a beautifully unabashed celebration of feminine angst, perhaps no composer speaks the universal language of proudly met ill fate than Gabriel Yared. For where some Hollywood composers might fear to tread into pure melody in the service of characters who resonate with passion, Yared’s scores like “City of Angels,”” “Autumn in New York,” “Cold Mountain” and “Amelia” storm musical emotion as if it was the beach in Normandy – or in the case of Judy Garland a nightclub in England that represents her last shot at a professional comeback, let alone gaining the funds for the impossible wish of having her children again be part of her life in a trunk.

The Lebanese-born composer first revolutionizing the sound of electronic scoring in France with the likes of “Moon in the Gutter,” “Betty Blue” and “Invitation au Voyage,” “Betty Blue.” Over the decades, he’s shown his distinctive voice with any number of styles, from scores that sing with surreal poetry (“Map of the Human Heart”) exotic sensuality (“The Lover”), romantic angst (“Possession,” “By the Sea”) modernistic madness of iconic artists (“Camille Claudel,” “Vincent & Theo”) and even the terror of Stephen King (“1408”).

But it’s Gabriel Yared’s work with the late director Anthony Minghella that has swept away American audiences with the tragic rapture that brought him an Oscar for “The English Patient” and nominations for “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain.” With actress Renée Zellweger receiving acclaim in that film for playing a Civil War survivor in that film, fit’s a near guarantee that Yared’s music will aid in her getting an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of “Judy’s” little girl lost, her road to ruin paved by the yellow brick road of her terrible treatment as a child star by MGM’s distinctly un-fatherly boss Louis B. Mayer.

Where he’s swooningly played emotion over desert sands and battlefields, Yared’s approach to “Judy” is more introspective, if no less moving. His memorable wounded bird theme hears the surface niceties of a star gliding on her accolades with a thankfully genuine, if self-deprecating and sometimes self-destructive attitude. It’s the deceptive, lush music of waltzing through what everyone around her thinks is a charmed life. Yet there’s a hollow, eerie sound that flashes back to Garland’ oppressed studio past that was determined to paint her as a portrait of teen wholesomeness without any intent of letting her actually be a young woman. With subtle jazz elements to land her on a London nightclub stage which she’d be just as happy to run off, Yared uses haunting, delicate piano and strings to hear a delicate woman, while also getting across the let’s-put-on-a-show strength that lets Judy find her beloved voice in her most desperate hour. As one of Yared’s most sympathetic scores, “Judy” is music that becomes a simultaneously fragile, and tough legend at the kind of twilight hour that the composer captures so well.

After starting out as a lawyer, what made the significant career shift into composing?

Actually, I only studied law for two out of the four years necessary to graduate, so I never had a job as a lawyer. I was born in a family where there were no artists whatsoever, but I knew from my early childhood I was born for music. My parents considered music as just a hobby, so they forced me to study anything else. I chose law, as the university was just next to the Jesuit cathedral where I could play the organ. So instead of studying law, I studied all of Bach’s repertoire for organ! In 1969, I went to Brazil just for 15 days and stayed there for two years, which is where I started working as a composer and a self-taught orchestrator.

What do you look at in a film, or director, before deciding to take on a project? And why do you think they seek you out?

What I enjoy most about writing for film is firstly meeting with a director and establishing a real relationship and connection with them. This relationship is exactly like a marriage, where you firstly get to know someone, before getting engaged and then eventually you get married. For example, I was fortunate to find a soul mate in Anthony Minghella. I very much enjoy getting to know people before watching their images, and often both aspects compliment each other. When a director talks to me, they spark my interest in the film, and the film itself makes me more interested in the director and what they are trying to express. As for why they seek me out, it must be because I have my own style. I got on immediately with “Judy’s” director, Rupert Goold. He is currently the artistic director at the Almeida Theatre in London, and he is very refined and musical. There was always an understanding between us, and it was a very rewarding collaboration.

Gabriel Yared at Abbey Road Studios (photo by Peter Cobbin)

Do you think your early work for such iconic singers as Charles Aznavour and Johnny Hallyday made you especially suited to score Judy Garland and a film dealing with her London stage show?

I don’t think so. Although I orchestrated for these singers, it was only ever for songs and not for stage shows.

Did you have any affinity for Judy Garland and her singing career before scoring “Judy?”

Yes, I knew about her and her life, and so I definitely had an affinity for her and felt close to her. I have always been attracted by her destiny, and so I love her story as well as her voice.

What do you think Renée Zellweger’s performance brings to your score?

Photo by David Hindley Courtes

Renée’s performance brings so much to the film, and of course to my score. She is completely amazing and inspiring. All parts of a film compliment each other, whether this would be the acting, direction, cinematography, costumes, set design etc. So, as Renée is so brilliant, this makes every aspect of the film stronger, fortunately including my music!

I started working on the music after the film was shot, and so particularly watching Renée’s performance and personality greatly helped me in composing and finding the right tone for the film. Renée also brought so much to the film and score when I worked on “Cold Mountain.”

Was it important to play the inner strength that Judy draws on to perform?

Absolutely. For example, there is a scene where Judy is backstage, and she is trying to find the courage to go out and perform. For this scene I wrote a piece for orchestra and choir that gradually builds to its climax when she goes on stage, reflecting this inner strength.

Tell us about creating “Judy’s” main theme? Why give it a waltzing quality as such?

In fact, I didn’t write the main theme as a waltz. The original theme was in a minor key, much slower, and in 4/4 instead of 3/4. Since there is only one main theme in this film, I used this “waltz” version for a specific scene, called “Judy Gets Ready”. This is where Judy is getting dressed and her makeup is being done, and everything is very choreographed like a dance. I transformed the original main theme into a major-key waltz to reflect this, and make the scene much more uplifting.

Could you identify with the kind of doubt, if not anguish that Judy Garland goes through here to get herself on stage?

Of course. Although I am probably quite experienced in composing, I always feel like a beginner when I start writing music for a film, ballet, song or anything. Very often I am anxious about not being able to find the right path. Nothing is more difficult than going into this quest to search and write the best possible music I can, and this is something that makes me worried and anxious.

You have a talent for scoring psychologically conflicted, and ultimately doomed heroines in movies like “Judy,” “Betty Blue” and “Sylvia.” Are you drawn to these characters, and do you think there an approach that links these scores together?

No, I am not necessarily drawn to these characters, but quite often I am put in a ‘pigeon-hole’ in the sense that the films I end up working on sometimes have these “doomed heroines” (or heroes). I love all kinds of films, including dramas, comedies and animations, and I have scored many of these in the past. Of course, it is not uncommon to be known for a particular ‘style’ of film or music, but for me I love to be eclectic and so I try to work on as many genres of film as possible.

You started off as a distinctive electronic composer with “Invitation Au Voyage.” How was it for you to become adept at your beautifully lush orchestral style?

I may have started writing as an electronic composer, but only because I was interested in this at the time (and I still am today). However, I was also able to write for orchestra. If I decided to write more electronic scores for “Invitation Au Voyage” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Sauve qui peut la vie”, it was because these sounds expressed the themes of the film in the best possible way, and that this kind of score suited the film much more than a traditional orchestral palette would.

For me, technology and synthesizers are always great tools for composing. I started using the Kurzweil sampler very early on in 1979, sampling short excerpts of ethnic music from vinyl, and using these sounds alongside my orchestral palette of strings, woodwinds, brass etc. Also, I was probably one of the first people to use the Fairlight, which I used for a film in 1981 called “Malevil.” My score for this film was a way for the company to sell the instrument to many great composers. Using samples really opens the mind, and allows a composer to break away from their normal habits of writing for more common orchestral instruments. As many composers have the same sample libraries, it is important to differentiate oneself by putting the same care into creating samples as one would in every other aspect of their work. Personally, I kept all the samples I created between 1979 and 1990, and I continue to create samples and synth sounds based on small extracts of my music. The result is that these sounds are completely unique, and become part of my musical world. I only use samples in addition to the orchestra, and both compliment each other. It is not about replacing the orchestral palette, in the same way that the orchestra cannot replace the sounds of synths or samples.

Photo by Laurent Koffel

How do you view yourself in the rich tradition of French-based composers working in Hollywood, a la Maurice Jarre, Georges Delerue and Alexandre Desplat?

I wouldn’t say that I am part of the French-based tradition of composers. I was born in Lebanon, and I lived in Brazil for a while, so I don’t consider myself just as a “French composer”. I’m also not based in Hollywood as I decided to follow a different path. This is especially because I like to be involved very early in the process of a film, and this becomes more difficult for Hollywood projects. Since I hardly ever work in Hollywood, I wouldn’t put myself in the same category. Maurice Jarre was a great friend to me. After winning the Oscar for “The English Patient”, I got back to my hotel very very late. I was at the bar, celebrating, and suddenly the barman gave me the telephone. It was Maurice Jarre on the other end, who introduced himself and said that he was calling all the hotels in Los Angeles to find me and to congratulate me. We then became very close friends until the end. Alexandre Desplat is a good friend too.

How has the “Hollywood” experience of working on such scores as “City of Angels” and “Message in A Bottle” differed from your experience at scoring French films?


It was not so different, and it was a very good experience. Of course, in Hollywood you have the means and budget to hire many more musicians, record more music and to take your time in recording sessions, however my approach has always been the same.

Do you think that European cinema, and stories set overseas have an affinity for a thematically rich, symphonic approach that Hollywood might not?

For me, it’s the film that dictates the musical approach and score it requires, rather than whether the production is based in Europe or in Hollywood.

You scored the documentary “Born in Syria” about the war’s refugees. In that respect, how does your Lebanese heritage continue to play a part in your life and how your music can shine a light on what’s happening in the Middle East?

I didn’t write the music specifically for this documentary, as the music was taken from one of my old scores and reused. I would say that I don’t have a very strong Lebanese heritage, as I haven’t lived there for most of my life. I discovered Arabic music very late at the age of 30, only after having studied Arabic classical music. We are all made of many influences, and of course, my Lebanese heritage must be in my blood, but my music is made up of many other influences, for example Bach, Ravel, and Bartok. My Lebanese heritage has certainly played a role for me the last few years, though, as I have been producing and composing songs for a great singer called Yasmina Joumblatt, who sings in Arabic and writes the lyrics. I have already released four of these songs digitally.

Criterion will soon be releasing the “integrale” version of “Betty Blue” in America. What’s your recollection of a score that helped put you on the international map?

I worked with Jean-Jacques Beineix very closely, and I started to write the music well in advance of the shooting. Because of this, I was able to meet with the actors, cinematographer, and of course the director. My music was influenced by all of these meetings and by the script. I composed and demoed all the music before the shooting, which is why I feel the score and the film are so intrinsically linked. The whole film crew knew the music as they were shooting the film, including the actors.

Music Box Records has been putting out expanded scores of yours like “Moon in the Gutter,” “The Lover” and “Camille Claudel.” What’s it like for you to hear these soundtracks again, and are there any in your repertoire that you’d like to see get a similar treatment?

I am pleased that these expanded scores are being released! I work in such a way that anything I write and send to a director I am completely happy with, so I would like for any of my scores to get a similar treatment. It’s great that the listeners have the chance to hear to these scores, including some tracks that didn’t end up being used in the final film. Personally, I don’t tend to listen to my own music.

What kind of effect do you think winning the Oscar for “The English Patient” and your subsequent nominations have on your creative process, and career? And do you think the regard that “Judy” is getting will see you get nominated again – or possibly winning?

Even after winning an Oscar, this did not change my humility when it comes to composing music. So on this side, it doesn’t change my creative process. As for my career, I didn’t feel the need to stay in Hollywood as one could always work on an American film from Europe. Also, I didn’t want to get trapped in writing for one style of film, especially as after “The English Patient”, many people wanted me to be a specialist in these kinds of epic and tragic romantic films. I would be thrilled to be nominated again for “Judy.” I am very conscious that I wrote the most beautiful music I could for this film, and if the Academy voters have a chance to listen to it, perhaps I might have a chance!

In America, you’re most renowned for your romantic talents. But is there a style, or genre you’d like to explore more of that people might not necessarily think of you for?

The genre or style of music I write is secondary, as it depends on what the director and I feel would elevate the film in the best possible way.I hope that audiences listen to my music separately, not only when they watch a film. I also think that if audiences and especially directors were able to listen and discover my lesser-known film scores, maybe they would understand my eclectic style, and perhaps I could score even more interesting projects, and a wider range of film genres.

In the end, would you describe “Judy” as being both an affectionate, yet tragic score?

Yes, I think this a very accurate description!

“Judy” opens on September 27th, with Gabriel Yared’s score digitally available on Decca Records October 11th.

Find Gabriel Yared’s French scores on Music Box Records HERE, and his soundtracks HERE

Buy the Criterion’s blu ray of “Betty Blue” HERE

Visit Gabriel Yared’s website HERE