Peter Bernstein
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Q&A: Peter Bernstein

The musician and composer, and son of film composer Elmer, on conducting his father's score for Ghostbusters with the Fort Worth Symphony.

published Thursday, October 24, 2019

Photo: Columba Pictures
From left, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Dan Akroyd in Ghostbusters


Fort Worth — A live concert of the score for Ghostbusters, one of the best-loved movies of all time and now celebrating its 35th anniversary, with music composed by iconic film composer Elmer Bernstein: Who are you going to call to conduct? None other than the composer’s son, Peter Bernstein, who brings his reconstruction of the score to the Bass Performance Hall for three concerts this weekend with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25 and 25, and 2 p.m. Oct. 27. Peter Bernstein, an accomplished composer and conductor in his own right, took the time to talk about his father’s Oscar-winning work (which includes To Kill a Mockingbird and The Magnificent Seven), the reconstruction process and the resurgence of film music on the concert stage.


TheaterJones: Mr Bernstein, welcome to Fort Worth and Dallas.

Peter Bernstein: I haven’t been here since my days as a rock bassist, so it’s good to be here.


The movie Ghostbusters is so iconic, and the score is familiar to generations of moviegoers. Is there anything surprising about the score that will come out when it steps forward on the concert stage?

There are no specific parts of the score, but I think people will appreciate my father’s themes for the characters and situations in the movie. He was great at taking thematic materials and weaving them together in subtle ways so that they become a whole piece of music. You wouldn’t necessarily recognize the themes while they are playing unless you paid very close attention, but because he relies so much on the interaction of the original material to create an internal cohesion and a self-referential quality to the music that gives it a character of its own and makes it so the score could only be Ghostbusters.

If you think about what kind of movie this is — It’s a comedy/ghost story/sci-fi/supernatural/love story. All those elements are worked around each other to fit into one movie. And the music does the same thing. It’s a very difficult task to accomplish in a movie such as this.


Can you tell us a bit about your father’s methods in creating a score like this, or any score?

Yes, I was lucky enough to work with him. He would start by sitting with the film or later on a video and watching the film over and over again as he put it “until something happened.” What happened is that he would have the germ of a creative idea. He was looking for the emotional center of the film, a place beyond calculation, that could tie the film together from a music standpoint. Then he would start to develop themes for various characters and situations. In Ghostbusters there are a lot of themes. There’s the Ghostbusters theme itself, the sort of bouncy heroic music that comes on when they do. Then there is the love story theme. And of course, a whole bunch of supernatural themes, including the one that we started out calling the Zuul theme after the creature in the film.

Once the themes were developed, he could generate the entire film score, not by simply repeating them over and over, but by using the harmonic and melodic structures to tell the story.


Is your methodology similar when you compose?

It really depends on the film. I’ve composed for a lot of more modern films and a lot of episodic works. They tend to have less theme and more atmosphere. So, the exercise of watching over and over again doesn’t always apply, but what does is that you still have to find the emotional heart of the project. There are scores out there with no melody at all — it is the style of the day. But the composer still has to find the core or even the atmosphere will be a problem.


Photo: Greenberg Artists
Peter Bernstein

Unlike some film score concerts where the scoring is more or less intact, you have stated that Ghostbusters is a reconstruction. What went into the reconstruction process?

A lot. Ghostbusters was made before computers took over the film scoring process so the composer and conductor had to piece the music together and see what would fit. And this was early in the special effects process too, so there was no way to tell for sure how long the effects would last until they were completed. And songs that were chosen for the score weren’t picked until late in the process either or would be changed. Working with [director] Ivan Reitman meant that we were always having to tinker.

I wish now I had kept the notes from when we were doing the work because it would have made the reconstruction much easier. When we got the original paper scores, we then had to watch the film carefully with the score and see if it made sense. We had to figure out what had been done during the original production and try to piece together the original pressure packed process.

There were some other technical parts of the reconstruction that were challenging like changing the instrumentation to work for a traditional orchestra. For instance, the original movie score had five keyboards whereas an orchestra usually has two, so we had to fit all those parts together as well.


Have you worked with other live scores besides Ghostbusters?

I’ve conducted The Great Escape [another Elmer Bernstein score from 1963] with a live orchestra. Before that, I did some of the reconstruction work (although I didn’t conduct) for a performance of the score from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979).


Other conductors have said that working with the film was a challenge — that it was much different than conducting the orchestra alone. Do you think your composing background has made the performances easier?

Absolutely, because it where I have always worked. For a large part of my career I have been syncing the music with the picture. But this is a very specialized subset of what a conductor usually does. When you’re making music with the orchestra alone, you can move the tempo around. But with the film, you have to be completely in sync. It’s a skill I’m very comfortable with.


Was it a difficult choice to work in film music when your father was so famous in the medium?

It’s why for the first 20 years of my music career I was a rock ’n’ roll bass player. For a while, it was great to do music where he wasn’t. But in my 30’s, I realized I was “too old for rock ’n’ roll but too young to die.” With my rock ’n’ roll career done, I never stopped loving or learning music, and I gravitated towards film music. I was able to work with him on his orchestration and that was great. And then I got opportunities of my own.

I learned to conduct so that I could get my music recorded. When I first announced to my father that I was going into the music business, he had one piece of advice for me. He told me to learn as many skills as I could because you never know what opportunities you might get. Of course, he didn’t have to. He was always able to stay in film music.


Do you think things have changed in the film business since the days when an Elmer Bernstein might be as much of a star as the film itself.

Of course, the film music business has changed a lot. But it’s funny, as long as I’ve been working, I have heard people say that the business “isn’t what it used to be.” The scores today are probably much more disposable and in my father’s heyday, the score was made designed not by the director of the film but by the heads of the studio’s music department who were often great musicians in their own right.

But with these live performances with the film and of film music even without the pictures, we are seeing the scores emerge to the front and be heard on their own. It’s fantastic. Ghostbusters doesn’t have an iconic score but being able to hear it you can recognize that it is a deceptively skillful and powerful piece of music. And it’s great to hear the music’s original concept at full volume.

The other great thing about these concerts is the way the audience gets involved. When Ghostbusters plays, people are not just sitting there listening. They are hooting and laughing out loud. I’ve conducted several concerts where the audience applauds characters or yells out the words. Imaging a whole audience yelling, “He slimed me.”

You know, we have a hundred years of film music now. And I’m so glad to see its emergence into concerts and to see the wonderful acceptance that audiences have shown. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Peter Bernstein
The musician and composer, and son of film composer Elmer, on conducting his father's score for Ghostbusters with the Fort Worth Symphony.
by Keith Mankin

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