Bill Conti
Photo by Stuart William

Bill Conti: “I’m writing it for emotional reaction”

Short Profile

Name: William E. Conti
DOB: 13 April 1942
Place of birth: Providence, Rhode Island, United States
Occupation: Film composer, conductor

Mr. Conti, as a film composer and conductor, what is it about orchestral music that you find so much more powerful than other genres?

It is more substantive. Pop music is a valid field, although it is kind of fluffy. There's great jazz too, of course. But if we're talking about Beethoven and Mozart, we're talking about something that's a little bit more serious, so therefore the rewards are greater. The deeper understanding of a piece of music from some of those great composers is more rewarding. The aesthetic feeling of this type of music is not intellectual, it is just a feeling of awe. To explain how you feel about music, that can be done by a professional, but it's not as important as, are you moved by it?

And were you always moved by it, even as a young boy?

I was. You know, in school, music was advised just the same as sports was advised. Why? To get us in touch with our emotions. That was important that many years ago — and it's still important that your emotional life can be enhanced by and through music. So as a young person, it's easy to be attracted to it. For me, I grew up playing the piano, my father and grandfather were both musicians. We would go often to the opera rather than to the movies. I loved the opera, the concert halls, that’s what drew me into music. When I went to college it was on a bassoon scholarship. It's a woodwind instrument, so it set me in the middle of the orchestra.

“When you begin writing music and listening to deeper music... It pulls you in. At least it pulled me in.”

Did you ever have any interest in popular music?

Oh, sure, there's great pop tunes. You can be rewarded by great popular music. I mean, you could play it in the nightclubs — which I did, just before I went to college — and be paid and make a living. But when you begin writing music and listening to deeper music like Pugni or Verdi, the composers that always made me cry, it just… It pulls you in. At least it pulled me in.

It’s not everyone who can make a career out of classical music composition, though.

That’s true. I had no dreams of being an opera composer in a contemporary world… You can write opera today in the world, you certainly can. But you might have to do other things to make a living. If you want to get paid to write music as a composer of a dramatic music, then film and television is one of the places that I think you have to be.

But you never completely left the orchestra behind — your score for Rocky made use of 31 orchestral musicians rather than the more versatile synthesizer that had become popular in the 1970s.

Well, Rocky’s director John Avildsen told me that this was a classic tale, that it should be classic in its feeling. It takes place in Philadelphia, though, so it should be contemporary as well. I felt that a certain sound could be created only if you had so many players. Sure, you could do it with just a piano, with just a guitar, or even, as you say, with just a synthesizer. But for example, the sound of the trumpets in Rocky is done with six trumpets, and if you had three trumpets, it wouldn’t sound the same. So that choice was aesthetic, I felt that I could only make that sound with so many players, and since I’m the guy that’s writing the music, I have to do what I feel is right.

These days a score could be produced entirely by a single composer. Do you think today’s film soundtracks have suffered because of that?

No, I think they’re just different. You know, women's skirts get shorter until they get too short, then they get longer, then they get too long. So style is always something that's in flux. Is it better or worse? No, it's different. How are you going to compare the orchestra of Gone With the Wind to Chariots of Fire? That was all done electronically, but he gets the same emotions, he can make you cry, he can make you excited… Music is a universal thing. Even if the composer who is writing the music is using total electronics, humans are still going to respond to it. So if you expect a human response, you have to have some kind of universality in the music, and not the means.

What do you mean?

In other words, yes, it's done by a computer, yes, it’s done by one person all alone in a room and it’s all electronics, but as long as someone’s crying, then they get it. With movie music it isn’t necessarily about is it good or bad, but is it effective? If it's supposed to scare you, does it scare you? Did you fall in love when she looked at him and he looked at her and the music began? And whether it was violin, a piano, guitar, or just electronics, did it help you fall in love? Was it effective? That's the criteria.

The training montage in Rocky featuring Bill Conti's Gonna Fly Now (1976)

Has the rise of digital music technology changed the way that you personally think about composing film scores?

You have to, yes. You actually have to. This is what the current popular music drifts around. A violin is a violin, and even in a very contemporary piece of music, if you want the sound of strings, you can get that electronically. It's silly, but the film composer who doesn't know anything about electronics is not going to work as much.

So if you were to do Rocky all over again today, would you do it differently?

You know, here’s the problem. In the very beginning, meaning when there was only Rocky I… We were working on Rocky II, and I wanted to write different music. But the producers said, "You can't. They want to hear the same music." I was the guy that was fighting it, trying to do something new, but they said, “No, if he’s going to train, you’ve got to play the song! It’s your song, it’s famous…” So today, if I were to do it over again, maybe I would change the instruments or the sound. But if he goes training and you don’t hear that familiar tune, then it’s not the Rocky training montage.

Is that sometimes frustrating for you creatively?

Well, there's the cartooning that happens, you know, when familiarity breeds contempt. I don't mean that literally, but it kind of becomes a cartoon of itself. It's double edged. I am thrilled if my music moves anyone at any time. As a composer of music, having you react to my music, I'm thrilled because I'm writing it for emotional reaction. This is what I'm writing here. Beethoven did the same thing. This is what he felt and if you don't like it, fine, but Beethoven felt that. Well, I feel mine, and if you feel it too, it's got to make me feel pretty good.