My Decade With Elmer Bernstein
August 18th, 2014
Ten years ago today, the world lost one of its most influential musical figures of the twentieth century: Elmer Bernstein. Most people know his music long before they ever know his name. His themes are iconic, woven into the fabric of our popular culture. To industry veterans and film aficionados, his name is legendary. Elmer was the first composer whose film career reached a fifty-year milestone, achieving success in every conceivable genre and medium along the way. He was revered by musicians, filmmakers, executives and fans alike, and was known for defining, then destroying, genre expectations. He was, truly, a titan of the industry.
To me, he was much more. Last year, I wrote a blog entry sharing my favorite quotes from my years as his student, but that did not come close to expressing how much he inspired me and impacted my life, both creatively and personally. Elmer encouraged me to pursue my dreams in Los Angeles, to become a well-trained musician, and to always write music with “personality.” He heard something in my work when I was a kid and decided to help me find my way into the business.
The day he passed away was a profound one, marking a turning point in my life in more ways than I could have ever foreseen. I cannot believe a decade has now passed, a decade in a world without Elmer Bernstein. Since then, I have experienced tremendous changes in my life, my perspective and my values. Today, the tenth anniversary of his passing, I want to recognize how he helped set me on the path to become who I am today.
* * *
By my junior year at Bellingham High School, in Washington State, I had long known what I wanted to do with my life. I had taken piano lessons since I was six, played trumpet in school bands and keyboards in friends’ rock bands, but my dream was to write music for narrative. I spent all my free time writing music in cinematic styles, and realizing it with my consumer-grade Yamaha PSR-510 keyboard, Master Tracks MIDI sequencer, four-track tape recorder and the best musicianship my friends could offer.
Eventually, I tired of writing short themes and isolated songs. The scores I admired were long-form compositions that developed themes over a couple hours of narrative. I had to know if I had the capacity to do this. At the urging of Steve Dolmatz, a supportive high school teacher who recognized what this meant to me, I set out to compose a film score. The problem was there were no filmmakers to collaborate with, so my first step was to sit down with a friend and write a script for an imaginary film that would give me a structure to follow with music.
“The Amazing Saga of George” was a primitive science fiction adventure comedy, but it had the action, romance, comedic sidekicks and heroism I wanted to write music for. When the script was complete, I could visualize every shot and cut in the “film” so well I could score it without ever seeing it. For nearly two years, I dedicated mornings, evenings and weekends to composing a seventy-five-minute orchestral score for a film that only existed in my mind. I wrote character themes and developed them as the score progressed.
In the winter of 1996, I was awarded “Student of the Month” by the local Rotary Club. They created this award to help students with solid GPAs pad their resumes for college applications. I got to ditch class for an afternoon to attend the ceremony where I was introduced to the members and got a free lunch. My adolescent brain was bored beyond belief. I just sat there, listening to some old dude talk about my grades and my interests. I found myself actually yearning to be back in Social Studies! During the event, they mentioned my interest in film music and that I was curious about attending the University of Southern California, famous for its Film Scoring Program.
After the luncheon, I scrambled to get out, but I was stopped by a kind-looking gentleman who introduced himself, Joe Coons. He said he was struck by my interest in film music, because he had a friend in the industry. I must confess, even at this young age, I was a little cocky, and assumed he was about to talk about someone who scores the local news or public access weather updates.
“Have you heard of Elmer Bernstein?” he asked.
Elmer Bernstein was one of the composers I most admired! My brain jolted, as if someone jammed my finger in a light socket. I stammered some inane reply.
Joe Coons was active in the Bellingham boating community. He knew Elmer because Elmer kept his boat in the marina, and each summer, he would sail up the Canadian coast to Alaska. The cosmic coincidence is staggering. Joe arranged to send a demo tape (yes, a tape… remember those?) to Elmer. I put a few pieces that my high school band performed on there, but the majority of the tape was filled with cues from “The Amazing Saga of George,” my in-progress film score. A few months later, I heard from Joe that Elmer was willing to sit down and chat with me the next time he came to town.
That afternoon, at the Rotary Club, I learned to never take a boring luncheon for granted. To this day, Joe Coons still gets an autographed copy of my every soundtrack album.
* * *
The day I met Elmer, I was filled with anxiety. My mom, wanting me to look respectful, insisted we buy a brand new suit, shoes and a nice tie. I probably looked like I was interviewing for a job at an insurance company. I met Elmer on his boat, where he wore the moccasins and pig-themed sweater I would one day realize were his standard wardrobe. He broke the ice by chuckling and commenting I was overdressed by Hollywood standards.
We sat and talked about music for several hours. He said he’d listened to my compositions and was struck by the personality he heard in my music. (Only years later, would I appreciate how lucky I was for him to listen to my work at all. He consistently declined to listen to the stacks of tapes and CDs sent by aspiring composers. It was only Joe’s adamant recommendation that prompted him to listen to mine.) In the intervening months after I’d sent him my tape, I’d written a substantial new chunk of cues in my imaginary film score, so he and I listened to the new ones together. He began asking about my training.
“Have you studied composition?” he asked.
“No.” I replied.
“What about Theory? Counterpoint?”
“Harmony? History? Voice Leading?”
I made clear to him my only musical training had come from piano lessons from Paul Klein, a well-regarded teacher and local band leader, and from my high school concert and jazz band, led by Mark Patterson of Bellingham High School. I had learned everything else in early mornings and late evenings sitting at my keyboard, obsessively emulating every style of cinematic music I could find.
Elmer told me that to get to the next level I would need the intellectual tools of the trade that separate an enthusiastic amateur from a skilled professional. After a pleasant and inspiring afternoon, I left Elmer’s boat realizing two things: I needed to learn the basics of music theory, and one of the most famous composers in film history wears sweaters with pigs on them.
That fall, I applied to the (soon to be named) Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, and its Film Scoring Program. Elmer Bernstein wrote me a letter of recommendation. I got in.
* * *
During my four years at USC, I reconnected with Elmer as often as I could. He let me sit in on his classes every year, which was definitely against the rules, because I wasn’t supposed to be in the Film Scoring Program until my final year. That never bothered Elmer, though, and I never brought it up! For his classes, Elmer would assign us all to compose a scene from a film he had already scored, and then he would go through everyone’s compositions in front of the class, and critique them. I scored scenes from “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Sudden Fear,” “Twilight” and several other films, and Elmer always commented on the personality in my cues. Some of the older students would occasionally ask me in private how I was able to get such compelling synth sounds in my demos, asking which sample libraries I was using. I was embarrassed that I had no idea what a “sample library” even was, and admitted that I was just using my aging Yamaha PSR-510 synthesizer that had somehow survived both high school and a trip to Los Angeles. (In hindsight, I suspect I was accidentally getting a great drum sound by unintentionally pushing my keyboard output too loud into my four-track tape recorder, creating an appealing, natural compression.)
After each class, I would try to walk Elmer back to his car, to pick his brain about a student film I was scoring, or ask him about his current projects. After the final class of my junior year, I gathered the courage to ask if he knew anyone looking for an assistant for the summer. I could not endure another summer back in Bellingham with a momentum-crushing job at K-Mart or the local telemarketing company.
To my surprise, Elmer himself offered me a job, working at the Santa Monica house that functioned as his Los Angeles office. This was the closest to a professional job I had ever had, and I was thrilled for the opportunity. Throughout the summer, I cataloged his collection of scores, parts, documents and photos that have now come to rest at the USC Library.
Before the job started, Elmer invited me out to his scoring sessions for Wild Wild West. These sessions, at the legendary Sony Scoring Stage, were my first experience witnessing a real recording session! In all my years dreaming of being a film composer, I never actually thought about this part of the process. The sheer scale of the room, the orchestra and the team in the booth simply blew my mind.
I hung out quietly in the back, only causing a stir when I unknowingly sat in the big, comfortable couch, with a great view of the studio. I was promptly informed by an annoyed assistant that this area was reserved for the director, and kicked out. Duly noted. Following that important lesson in couch politics, I stayed out of the way as best I could for the week I was there, and observed Elmer interacting with his team, his musicians and the filmmakers.
At first, I could not understand why Elmer insisted on recording so many takes, especially when the first and second attempts sounded so great. The rhythm section locked in, brass blared triumphantly and strings soared. What was the problem? Elmer was correcting details that might not matter in the final film mix, but mattered to the quality of the score. After a few days, I was able to pick up on the details he heard, and developed an appreciation for perfectionism in recording sessions. Witnessing a true maestro in his element, I was more determined than ever to record a score of my own on a stage like that one day.
A few weeks after the sessions for Wild Wild West were complete, I began my summer job at Elmer’s Santa Monica house. Every day, I would bring a new box of unsorted material out of the closet to the main room to sort. My job was to organize everything relating to each score in its own box, and to sort press clippings, correspondence and other documents by year. With each orchestral score, if I were unfamiliar with the title’s abbreviation, I would have to identify that score by reading the music. Often, I could identify a score immediately, thanks to my youth collecting soundtracks. I read a ghostly melody for an ondes martenot that I instantly identified as the opening cue from Ghostbusters, and a marching snare drum pattern that was clearly from one of my personal favorites, The Great Escape.
To Elmer, not everything was worth saving, and some material was deemed trash-worthy. One afternoon, we came across a crystal clear reproduction of his hand-written sketch of the “Main Title” from The Great Escape: six pages detailing a piece of music that virtually every person on Earth could recognize, if not identify. He moved it over to the trash pile. Shocked, I asked him if I could keep it instead. He shot me a funny look, as if he couldn’t imagine why I would want it, then smiled and said “Of course.”
When I was unable to identify a document or score, I set it aside in a separate stack. At the end of each day, Elmer and I would comb through the mystery pile together. Of course, he instantly remembered each item. In fact, each triggered a wave of memories, which in turn led to incredible stories of the old days. I quickly realized anything I was curious about could be intentionally put in the mystery pile, and I would get a story about it!
Afternoons turned into evenings as he shared his memories: his youth as a piano prodigy in New York, his blacklisted days during the McCarthy era, his type-cast decades in westerns and comedies. There were tales of Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Cecil B. Demille, Otto Preminger, John Landis, “Marty” Scorsese and Michael Jackson.
One of my favorite stories was about a clever practical joke Elmer and his peers played on a fellow composer during the studio system, an era when composers and orchestras were salaried positions at the major film studios. Composers were close, and often attended each other’s recording sessions. One such day, Elmer and his friends were listening to one of their peers record a score with a strikingly memorable theme. They snuck a few musicians to a smaller studio, and recorded a jazz combo version of this composer’s theme, arranging it from memory. That night, when they all got together socially, they played their tape, telling their mark it was the radio. Shocked to hear a small combo playing his own theme, the panicked composer turned white and asked what the music was. Elmer and his friends told him it was a hit song that had been on the radio for weeks. The poor composer thought he had accidentally ripped off a popular song, and momentarily contemplated the task of rewriting his entire score! Elmer and his fellow pranksters laughed, and poured him a drink.
At the end of the summer, I went back to school, but I felt as if I had lived a lifetime in the film business. More importantly, by not returning to Bellingham for the summer, I had the sensation I had at last planted roots in Los Angeles. I had family here.
* * *
After my fourth year of school, I faced another summer before going back for a fifth and final year. (I stayed an extra year to separate the Film Scoring Program from the challenges of my final year as a classical composition major, and to take on a minor in recording arts).
At the end of the school year, Elmer called and offered me a new summer job, house-sitting his gorgeous Santa Barbara home while he once again sailed up the Canadian coast. I could stay at the house, drive the Mercedes, swim in the pool, play the piano and, best of all, he would give me a real orchestration job to occupy my time.
By the way, I would also need to take care of and give medicine to his dogs: two large German shepherds and an enormous Irish wolfhound named Connor who, without exaggeration, matched me in body weight.
“Do you like dogs?” Elmer asked.
I was grateful this was a phone conversation, because my eyes widened and my face paled. I had a life-long phobia of dogs, originating from an encounter with a snarling neighborhood dog when I was a toddler. No friends or family had ever noticed, but I would never pet a dog, and avoided being around them. Dogs set off a mental trigger, causing me instant anxiety, regardless of how loveable they were with their owners.
I would rather have taken care of venomous snakes or hairy spiders. As adrenaline raced into my brain, the awkward pause seemed to make the phone hiss exponentially louder.
“Yes.” I said. “Yes, I love dogs.”
That summer was an idyllic time. I collected farm-fresh eggs from the chicken coop each morning, peaches from the orchard and watched the sun set over the mountains while floating in the pool. Those amenities, however, were nothing compared to the thrill of having my first job in the industry.
Elmer gave me access to his handwritten pencil sketches of a 1963 Yul Brynner film score, Kings of The Sun, to re-orchestrate from scratch. The studio had destroyed the master tapes and scores, no soundtrack album had ever been produced, and at the time, no television broadcast or home video release of the film had existed. The only way for Elmer to satisfy decades-old fan demand to hear his score again was to re-orchestrate it from the ground up and re-record it.
By this time, I’d orchestrated for Elmer before, having done a couple suites for him for the Henry Mancini Institute orchestra, but never anything on this scale. At the beginning of the summer, Elmer sat down with me and we walked through his sketches.
Looking closely at how he put his ideas to paper illuminated his creative process. He composed on blank staff paper, creating a piano reduction of the winds and brass, another for the strings and he used a single staff for percussion. He was extremely detailed in his doublings, making careful notes and drawing arrows to pitches. He specified what every instrument in the orchestra would do. I was amazed by his efficiency, especially because it was so different than the world of synth mock-ups, MIDI markers, tempo maps and time-code-locked video playback that I had entered. (Years later, when I required orchestrators for my own projects, I would remember these lessons and strive to be as specific and detailed, even in my predominantly digital work environment.)
Using the music notation software I knew best, I orchestrated the entire film score and assembled a concert suite of the best cues. At the end of the summer, Elmer sat down with me once more and went through my work, correcting my mistakes. There is no better way I can think of to learn about orchestration for film.
Elmer’s generosity cannot be overstated. He knew every great orchestrator in town, and worked frequently with his own daughter, Emilie, who is a fabulous orchestrator in her own right. I believe Elmer gave me this opportunity because he knew I needed it, and because he wanted to test me. Thankfully, I didn’t screw it up, and after a round of revisions working closely with him, the full score and concert suite were complete.
Elmer dedicated much of his last few years to conducting concerts of his music around the world. He began to include Kings of the Sun in his repertoire. The following year, a friend called me after seeing Elmer conduct on PBS or some other broadcast. Apparently, before playing Kings of the Sun, Elmer announced that it had been orchestrated “by my friend, Bear McCreary.” A year later, my orchestration of Kings of the Sun would be among the pieces he recorded during his final recording sessions, and has since become available on iTunes.
In the fall of 2001, I returned to USC to complete the Film Scoring Program and my minor. Ironically, that year would turn out to be the first year Elmer would not teach at USC. If I had not snuck into his classes over the previous four years, if I had diligently waited my turn, I would never have been in his class at all.
Publicly, Elmer said his reasons for leaving USC were to focus more on his conducting and touring. Privately, he confessed that the industry was shifting so radically, he was unsure he was able to prepare students for the business they were being thrust into.
Around this time, he even questioned my pursuit of film music at all. I remember showing him my score for a concert piece called “The Collapse of Saint Francis.” It was an ambitious work for orchestra and mezzo-soprano that retold the catastrophic events of the 1928 failure of the St. Francis Dam from the perspective of its creator, William Mulholland. I played him the recording of the USC Symphony Orchestra performing it in concert with mezzo-soprano Melanie Henley Heyn, for whom it was written. As the final notes rang out, Elmer closed the score and looked at me, saying “If you can do this, why do you even want to do movies? Just do this!”
At the time, I understood his perspective, but I was hopeful there might yet be a place in the industry for composers with his kind of background and training. In part, I wanted to succeed just to show him that everything he had invested in me was worth it.
* * *
During Elmer’s final years, we kept in touch frequently. He always invited me to the various tributes, ceremonies and other events honoring his remarkable career. No one at these functions ever knew who I was, but he always made a point to chat with me, before I could be lost in the sea of adoring faces. I was always invited to his holiday parties in Santa Barbara, where I would re-introduce myself to everyone there, despite having introduced myself the year before.
After graduating USC, I quickly found myself homeless. All my possessions, including my trusted and miraculously still functioning Yamaha PSR-510 keyboard, were in a storage locker while I slept on a friend’s couch for months. During this insanity, I started seeing Raya Yarbrough, who is now my wife, and I still laugh when I think about how she must have pitched me to her parents. (“No, mom, he’s not unemployed and homeless. He’s just… not living anywhere or working right now!”)
In the midst of this upheaval, I was asked to score an ambitious short student film that would be my first to include a main title sequence. Ignoring the fact that I had no housing, nor any job that could sustain me, I was thrilled for this creative opportunity. However, I had no place to work or set up my computer and keyboard.
Elmer happened to call, and I expressed my predicament. Without hesitation, he offered to let me stay and work at his house in Santa Monica, where I could set up my little rig and score this film for as long as I needed. I immediately leapt at the offer.
I lived and worked at the house for about a month. Most of the time, the only people there were me and his personal assistant Lisa Edmondson, with whom I’d worked closely two summers prior. Every once in a while, though, Elmer would come in for an afternoon. Even after knowing him for many years, I still learned a lot about him during this time. He would sit at the piano and improvise, often when I was a few rooms away working on my headphones. I don’t know if he ever realized I could hear him, but whenever he played, I would stop working and just listen. I was in awe of the beautiful music he could write on a whim, and realized how limitless were the depths of his creativity.
This was December 2002, the run up to Awards Season. Everyone in town was talking about Elmer’s recent score to Far From Heaven, a film in the dramatic style of the 1950’s. This score would ultimately net Elmer his final, fourteenth Academy Award nomination. Accolades were being heaped upon him, comparing the score to his prolific period from the mid 50’s to the late 60’s. Surprisingly, I found his mood occasionally soured by all the good press.
At first, I was confused by his reaction. Then, I thought about him improvising at the piano, where evocative melodies and gorgeous harmonies fell from his fingers. I realized he could create an emotional score like Far From Heaven whenever he wanted. Critics were praising him for a return to form, but in fact, it was Hollywood that had returned to him, by making a film that actually required a melodic score of this nature.
One review of the film particularly irritated him. He happened to read it at the house during my stay there. I asked him what was so upsetting.
“‘The film also features a career-crowning score by Elmer Bernstein,’” he read aloud.
I looked at him, waiting for the bad part. But, no. That was the line that had him so worked up. “Career-crowning?” he scoffed. “What are they saying? That my career’s over?”
Of course, the reviewer didn’t mean it that way, but the undertone was there. The reviewer was trying to acknowledge the half-century body of Elmer’s work, but that is hard to do without implying that a career is nearing its conclusion. Nevertheless, no one could have known then that Elmer Bernstein would not live to score another feature-length film. At that moment, however, he was ready to work for decades longer.
After a few weeks at the Santa Monica house, I finished my short student film score, even the main title sequence that had enticed me. In the early weeks of 2003, I found an apartment, rooming with my friends who had initially let me crash on their couch. I still was unemployed, however, with no prospects of working in the music industry. I set a personal timetable, giving myself two weeks to look for a music-related job before I put in an application to the grocery store down the street. A few days before my deadline was up, my friend and mixing engineer Steve Kaplan called to say he knew a composer looking for a new assistant, Richard Gibbs.
I began working for Richard, and by the end of the year, I was assisting him on a miniseries reboot of an old science fiction program I vaguely remembered from reruns in my childhood: Battlestar Galactica.
* * *
By late Summer 2004, I had upgraded my pitiful laptop to a system of more powerful computers. The rickety keys of my Yamaha PSR-510 keyboard from high school had faded yellow like bad teeth, but somehow still worked! I had assisted Richard Gibbs for over a year, working primarily on theatrical comedies. I spent days doing every odd job imaginable and nights writing additional cues on his rig. (There was very little time for sleep, and that remains the singular aspect of my life that has not changed these past ten years.)
The 2003 Battlesar Galactica miniseries served as a backdoor pilot and a full season of thirteen episodes was ordered; it was planned Gibbs would compose the score, and I would contribute additional music again. As post-production on the first season started, Gibbs’ feature film commitments piled up. He decided to leave the series and generously encouraged the producers to hire me as composer. Reaction to this idea was lukewarm at best. I was young and utterly unproven. Nevertheless, mix deadlines were barreling down and the producers’ options were limited. Negotiations for me to compose at least a portion of Battlestar Galactica’s first season began inching forward. Any notion that I would score the entire first season was still a pipe dream. I was just hoping for a chance to do a single episode, to prove what I could do.
I received a phone call from Elmer in early August, prompting our first conversation in many months. I had heard whispers that he was sick, and like many who knew him, had gathered he did not want to be disturbed during this experience. We spoke openly about his health issues for the first time.
He admitted a struggle with cancer, but assured me he was doing much better. However, I was thrown by his voice. Typically, he had a jovial voice, with a unique accent that sounded as if it originated somewhere between New York and London. I have never met another who spoke like him, except perhaps his son Peter, who inherited a few wonderful Bernstein vocal mannerisms. On this call, Elmer’s spirited voice was weighed down by a husky growl, aching with the croak of vocal chords that had gone through hell and back.
Elmer asked how my career was going, and I said things were looking good. The thought occurred to me to tell him I would likely get a chance to score Battlestar Galactica, to have a credit as sole composer on a project of my own. Something silenced me, though. Haunted by worst-case scenarios, I did not tell him of my opportunity right around the corner. Instead, I decided to wait until it was a done deal, and tell him on the day I composed the first cue that would go out in the world with my name on it. So, I said nothing about Battlestar Galactica.
Our conversation was brief, but pleasant. I’m sure I said something like “Let’s get together soon” and he likely agreed emphatically, without being specific. Despite the crackle in his voice, I could still sense his love for life, family, friends and music. Just talking to him energized and motivated me, as it had nearly a decade earlier when I met him, on a boat in the Bellingham marina, wearing his pig sweater.
* * *
I woke up on August 18, 2004, knowing it would be a special day. The producers had agreed to let me score an episode of Battlestar Galactica, the episode “33.” We had spotted the episode together, and I was confident I could deliver a score that worked, daring to hope they would let me score another subsequent episode when I was done.
After a quick breakfast, I prepared to write. I needed to focus, so I shut off the internet and switched my cellphone to “silent” mode. The last time I set out to score a story on a large scale, I was in high school, writing “The Amazing Saga of George.” Now, I had the chance to score a sweeping science fiction story that would be experienced by millions of people. I knew I had to create music worthy of the bleak, tense world of Battlestar Galactica.
I wrote all day, without stopping to eat, psyching myself up by tackling the most challenges scenes first. I began with the episode’s tense opening sequence, where the crew watches the clock count down and makes a frantic jump when enemy Cylons appear. To increase the tension, I gradually accelerated the tempo of the music, click by click, until the score reached a blistering climax. Next, I composed a cue called “The Olympic Carrier,” for the episode’s stunning conclusion. In this scene, our hero must decide whether or not to shoot down a passenger ship that may contain innocent civilians, bringing the series’ 9/11 parallels to the foreground. On this day, I began to explore my own personal additions to the Battlestar sound, including new instruments, such as the electric violin and Middle Eastern woodwinds, and expanded percussion such as frame drums, chang changs and dumbek.
As I wrote, I thought about how excited Elmer would be when I told him I was composing for this remarkable series. I wanted to show him that the awkward kid in the starchy new suit he met on his boat a decade earlier had finally “made it” in the film scoring industry.
“The Olympic Carrier” concluded with an emotional chorale, a passage that sapped my last ounce of creative inertia for the day. The sun was sinking behind neighboring buildings, casting a thin ray of yellow through the dusty air conditioning unit in my tiny apartment window. I removed my headphones, proud of myself for completing my first day as a professional composer.
I picked up my cellphone, which had been in “silent” mode all day. I noticed immediately there were fifteen missed calls and fifteen voicemails. Something was wrong.
I don’t remember whose message was first, but it was someone expressing condolences and my mind raced to figure out what was going on. After a few seconds, I heard something I could not fathom. I frantically hung up the phone and turned my internet back on to confirm what I could not bring myself to believe: Elmer Bernstein had died that very morning.
I was in utter shock. I thought back to our last conversation and realized why Elmer had been so pleasant, yet sounded so ill. He knew we would not speak again. He had reached out to me to say goodbye and have one more conversation without any of the drama that must have been filling his life.
Sitting there alone, in my cramped little bedroom studio, my stomach knotted with a sickening realization: I had not told him about Battlestar. I had lost my opportunity to ever thank him for everything he had done for me. The yellow ray of sunlight, gasping through the air conditioning grate, drifted across my ceiling, and feathered out of existence. My world was gray.
* * *
Looking back from ten years later, I forgive myself for not understanding Elmer’s final phone call. Mortality is not a concept a twenty-four-year-old is biologically programmed to fully grasp. I was still a kid and I wasn’t looking for the signs. From my new vantage point, with a little more wisdom, I can now see Elmer called me not to talk about his life, which he knew was coming to a close, but to make sure I was okay. And I was.
Though I will always regret never telling him about Battlestar Galactica when I had the chance, I believe he understood I was on my way somewhere. Recently, I caught up with Joe Coons, the man who first introduced me to Elmer. Joe told me he asked Elmer about me after my USC graduation. Elmer chuckled and said “You don’t need to worry about Bear, he’s going to be just fine.”
Joe took me back to that day in the marina, in 1996. He met with Elmer immediately after I did and remembers the moment clearly. As they watched me walk down the dock, Joe asked Elmer how our meeting went. Elmer replied “That poor boy is going to spend his first two years in college learning why it’s important to know everything he already knows!”
Since Elmer passed away, my life has changed so radically I hardly recognize the young man I was when I look back. Battlestar Galactica impacted my life more profoundly than in even my wildest dreams. For me, that series jumpstarted a career where I have been fortunate to collaborate with brilliant filmmakers and musicians, who continue to challenge me creatively and push me into new musical realms. Inspired by how Elmer took me under his wing, I have built a film-scoring studio from the ground up. I work with composers younger than myself, and encourage them to write with the same passion for melody, harmony and personality that Elmer showed me. Elmer’s was a gift I can never repay, but will spend my life trying to do so.
Raya, whom Elmer met a few times, has since become my wife, and just gave birth to our gorgeous little daughter, Sonatine. Sona heard her first Elmer Bernstein score before she was a full day old. I held her in my arms while the theme from To Kill a Mockingbird lilted from my cellphone. The introductory, delicate piano tones washed right over her, but when the soaring, emotional strings entered with the return of the main theme, Sona tilted her head up towards the speaker and stared, transfixed by the romantic orchestra until the passage ended.
Sonatine will grow up in a house with a handwritten Elmer Bernstein manuscript framed on the living room wall. One day, when she’s tall enough to stand on the couch and put her hands to the glass, she will look closely at those pencil-sketched notes, and ask me what they mean. I will trace my fingers along the faded staff paper for her, and sing the iconic theme to The Great Escape, a melody she will instantly recognize from years living in our house.
Like so many others, she will know Elmer’s music long before she knows his name.
August 18, 2014