Interview: Mark Leneker

If you Google the name Mark Leneker, you won’t find much information. But this man is responsible for bringing to light a brand new, premiere recording on Naxos of Aaron Copland’s complete, Oscar-nominated scores for OF MICE AND MEN (1939) and OUR TOWN (1940). Copland’s score for the 1939 documentary, THE CITY, got him noticed by Hollywood and he was invited to score the film versions of these two famous literary works by John Steinbeck and Thornton Wilder. Mark recently spoke with me by phone about his decade-long pursuit of bringing Copland’s film music to light.

JIM LOCHNER: I went back and re-read your liners notes for SOMETHING WILD (1961) to try and get some background information for this interview. Not much information comes up when you Google your name.

MARK LENEKER: Good! (laughs)

Tell me how your interest in Copland began.

The whole thing with the Copland music, especially the two scores for OF MICE AND MEN and OUR TOWN, goes back almost 11 years. SOMETHING WILD was something that happened as an offshoot of this, and just happened to come to fruition years earlier.

The initiative to do this was a rhetorical kind of request that came from this trumpet player that was trying to put together this orchestra [to perform film music] here in New York that would be a mixture of session recording and people from the [New York] Philharmonic, stuff like that. They did that Jerry Goldsmith concert at Carnegie Hall in 1998. They were looking for volunteers. I went to that concert and I thought it was a good idea so I got in touch with him. One of the things he said was, you know, if we’re really going to do this, we need to find material to do. Copland’s centenary was coming up and it seemed like a good bridging content.

So I just took it upon myself—it seemed like a semi-lunatic thing to do—and got permission from Copland’s estate. I got some [scores] sent to me from the Library of Congress, and I also went there and extracted some things. I don’t know if they’d let people do this now, but they just sent the stuff over, these disintegrating pages, and gave it to me. And I sat there and photocopied it—not all of it but a lot of it—on a regular photocopier.

Then there was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin that got in touch with me. At the time, he was part of the library system there and they had an archival recording of the motion picture score [for SOMETHING WILD]. I thought it fit in really well. Once again, I did something sort of lunatic and got in touch with the director, Jack Garfein, who was living in Paris at the time. He only directed two films and SOMETHING WILD was one of them. He thought it was a really good idea. I think he was kind of charmed by the whole idea of getting this stuff out there. He just took it upon himself and met with his lawyer.

There was a period of time where they were trying to find the music. He knew that there were some unopened albums but he couldn’t find his. And then literally his wife stumbled across it in the attic. About the same time that that happened, [Robert] Townson at Varèse Sarabande got involved because M-G-M was licensing a lot of titles. I guess Garfein’s lawyer decided to include this or something. So that moved forward and they asked me to write the liner notes. That’s how that came about.

That came about fast because you didn’t have to do anything other than remaster the LP. So the whole engine at Varèse kicked in for that. They didn’t do enough PR for that album, I don’t think. On their site, they act like it’s this major thing and you’d think that they would have done something which they don’t do with a lot of their releases, which is get review copies out to not just film music magazines but classical music magazines and cross-fertilize. But it didn’t really seem like they did that. It did get reviewed, but they could have made more of a bigger deal outside of their website. I remember reading the description on the website. Oh it doesn’t get any better or more important than this… Well, if it’s really true then you send out copies to The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and that sort of thing. Still, it was great to do that. It came together much faster because they just remastered the album. You didn’t have to go through this really long process of trying to re-record music.

The other thing that happened sooner than that was “The World of Nick Adams” concert. One of the other scores that Copland did, this was for television [in 1957], was to accompany a bunch of short stories by Hemingway, the Nick Adams short stories. I got in touch with the guy who wrote that screenplay [A.E. Hotchner]. He was a screenwriter and he was a friend of Paul Newman’s, and they started his food company.

It’s a small world!

It is. It’s really weird. I went over to his apartment and he said, “Oh my God, you found [the music]!” And he has a charity that he does for kids with cancer and terminal illnesses. He did a staged reading of that music and the screenplay at Lincoln Center [in 2001] with all these stars, and he repeated it at the Kodak Theatre in L.A. the next year. He used to trot it out as a fundraiser. I think there’s still more life in that. I think at some point it would be interesting to do that as a piece for narrator and orchestra or something like that.

So those things happened in the interim when I got the music for OF MICE AND MEN and OUR TOWN and now. In between, I was weaving in and out and pitching it to record labels. There are less record labels now than there were in 1999! It’s all changed. The spectrum is different now.

God bless Naxos! I started out with little street cred on this whole thing. Even when I pitched it to Naxos I guess I had built up a little stuff with SOMETHING WILD. I literally wrote an email to the CEO. He got back and said, “This seems like a good idea.” (laughs) It took a little while for the engine on that to get moving. That was in 2005. So they had to take the music which, even though it was complete, needed to be put into a computer program so that they could produce parts and everything. They did that, and they needed to schedule a time, space, and an orchestra. Last year they recorded it in February in the Czech Republic. That’s how that came about.

These things that you received from the Library of Congress, were they just conductor’s scores or did you have parts with them?

There were no parts, but it was the fully orchestrated scores. Otherwise, I don’t think this would have happened. We were really, in that sense, extraordinarily lucky that Copland kept such tremendous records.

And they’re all there in D.C. now.

Yes, they are! I don’t think they trot them out as much. Things are different now. In 1999, I stood over a photocopier. Now they digitize a lot of it, which is great, because I think it keeps people’s hands off of material that is already disintegrating. It allows them to look at it without disturbing the originals. But back then the collection was far from fully digitized.

It was the fully orchestrated score to OF MICE AND MEN on paper and the fully orchestrated score to OUR TOWN, which was also on disintegrating paper. OUR TOWN was missing a few pages and I was lucky enough to ask for not just the score but also the folder that contained the original suite that Copland put together, because that had the missing pages. I was able to put the pages back in. There they were.

Incidentally, the OUR TOWN score, the person you can thank for that, other than Copland for keeping such good records, was the person who worked with him who, I guess, was basically the copyist, Jerome Moross.

I remember taking a photocopy and faxing it to Moross’ daughter to verify his handwriting. What they would normally do back then was that you’d have the conductor’s score, which Copland wrote out, and he put in all the specific orchestrations. Someone like the copyist would then look at that and if he knew what the hell he was doing, he could write up the parts from that. That’s usually how they would do it.

But he took the extra step of writing out the complete score for Copland and he even inscribed it. There’s an inscription on the first page that says, “Score from the movie OUR TOWN, music by Copland, but not his handwriting.” So we can thank him for creating that.

So that was there and it was just a case of me putting back in the pages that he had extracted from the suite. They sent me a few other things as well. I don’t think I photocopied everything there. I also paid for them to just send some stuff as well. That’s what was used. From there, some poor guy must have gone blind (laughs) putting that all in the Sibelius music program so that they could extract the parts.

He got paid for it. That makes it a little easier.

Yes it does. What it got down to was what it needed somebody eyes of steel and a lot of patience to set that up in Sibelius. But all the notes were there, so there was no guesswork, no mystery. And there was no difficult work of reconstructing the music by ear or something like that. That was not needed at all, which was good. If you listen to, for instance, the fight cue from OF MICE AND MEN, I should imagine it would be very difficult to replicate that sound wall at the end or something like that. We knew when things were coming in and when they were going out, what was fluttering, if they were fluttering up a half step or down a half step, things of that nature. We were really lucky like that.

You really would not have been able to pull anything off a DVD of OUR TOWN.

Exactly! (laughs)

That is in bad shape.

It’s in terrible shape. Even the one that was “restored” was bad.

It needs someone with some very deep pockets and some expendable income to restore it. Maybe someday.

That film is in public domain so the prints were thrown out. I don’t know what they could do. They may be able to improve the picture. I don’t know what they could do with the soundtrack.

It’s almost unwatchable, it’s so bad.

Exactly. And “unhearable” too sometimes. (laughs) It was quite an eye-opener to listen to what the orchestra did later on. Speaking of the Library of Congress, that would be a really worthy one for them to take up, from their cinema section or something.

Both films were serious movies that were sort of anomalies because they were produced by guys who were generally doing shorts and comedies, B-movie sorts of stuff. OF MICE AND MEN was Hal Roach and the other one was Sol Lesser. Hal Roach [produced] Laurel and Hardy. The guy who produced OUR TOWN did a lot of cheap Tarzan movies and shorts and stuff like that. I’m not saying they’re bad, they were just sort of anomalies in the sense that the one time that they did something sort of serious.

It may be ultimately that the films were clearly the victims of mismanagement. I mean, letting your film’s copyright expire… (laughs)

That’s sad.

That’s pretty funny, you know.

What is your role on these recordings?

My role really was to come up with the idea and initiate the project, sort of get it into the hands of a company that wanted to do it. It was my idea and then I just pushed the idea. I don’t know what word there is for that. I would like to think, this is a good word for it: “It was my idea and I ‘curated’ the music.” How’s that?

That’s good! I like that!

I can’t take credit for that. There’s a clarinet player in the New York Philharmonic who said, “You know, you need to curate this music.” That seems as good a term as any.

Surely they’re giving you some credit on the CD.

Well, the CD isn’t out yet. I did the notes on the download and those are going to be the same on the CD. I would love to do some big, huge booklet but it’s just not going to happen as far as I know. To be able to email the CEO of Naxos and say, “I have this idea…” That’s pretty good too. There may be follow-ups to this. And not just Copland, other stuff as well. I’d love to tell you they’re paying me thousands of dollars but nobody makes thousands of dollars off stuff like this. But to have that connection is quite valuable, and especially with Naxos. Naxos is huge now! They’re bigger than Sony Classical. They ate everything up. When they started, people laughed at them. They’re the only game in town now.

They’re the only ones putting any money behind these reconstructions.

Yes, exactly! They’re the only ones putting money behind anything. I really can’t knock ‘em. With this recording, they did things that even they normally wouldn’t do. When something like this comes to them, like with Stromberg, they would have everything set up. I didn’t have everything set up! They had to do work that they normally don’t do, which is to get the music in shape and hire an orchestra. Usually, orchestras come begging to them. That’s also why I’m so glad that the download has been quite popular. I like looking and seeing that it’s the #1 downloaded album at ClassicsOnline. It’s good to know.

I was hoping for a really good recording, and it far surpassed what I expected.

They did a terrific job!

It’s extraordinary that 70 years later we’re finally getting to hear these scores.

Yeah. That is what I was advocating for a decade. Even when all the compromised quality in OUR TOWN, I could still hear things and think, “Oh my God, this is really good.”

I think that OF MICE AND MEN, in particular, is an unsung opus of Copland’s. This is a level of quality and importance on par with Billy the Kid.

At the same time, the great thing about these scores is that they’re steeped in his populist style, which everybody loves, it sticks with us today. And yet he was able to experiment and do things that you don’t hear until decades later, and stuff that he did in the ‘20s. You got this unique kind of something that sounds like classic Copland, but then you’d have these bursts of dissonance and other stuff. I hear things from SOMETHING WILD in OF MICE AND MEN occasionally, little phrases, little things here and there. He did that decades later. That’s one of the things I find most fascinating about the scores is that you think they’re one thing—and they are—but there’s a lot more going on.

And to think we’ve only heard two or three cues from these films all these years.

They were re-arranged and scaled-down. To listen to [the suite] Music for Movies and think you know anything of the score for OF MICE AND MEN is pretty inaccurate. (laughs)

And you don’t! There’s so much more to it. Even with OUR TOWN, there’s so much more to the score than that 8-minute suite.

No one can answer this now, because he’s dead. Why did he choose what he did? But he did. I know why he orchestrated the suite the way he did. He scaled down the orchestrations because that was the fashion of the time. But also, if you’re a composer that makes a living from orchestras playing your stuff, then you want as many orchestras as possible to play it. If you have extraordinary orchestration demands, that’s not going to help you. (laughs) He had more than usual amount of woodwinds and a full complement of brass for the film scores. And not all orchestras could have done that. I think that’s one reason he scaled [the suites] down. I think he may have chosen the parts that he chose because they fit into the suites as he envisioned them and also they could exist without any narrative beats behind them. They were just pure music. They just evoked something that didn’t need any picture behind it.

“Threshing Machines” is just this perpetual motion sort of thing. “Barley Wagons” is just plain. You didn’t need visuals to get the gist of what was going on. It’s just the music. Just the fact that he was able to put movie music into orchestras in the 40’s is pretty amazing. That has never really been repeated too much. (laughs) I mean, Corigliano, right? He’s the only other one. And that was decades later. Of course, [Leonard Bernstein’s] ON THE WATERFRONT. But once again that was in the 50’s. But Copland did it in 1943! That was pretty amazing to do anything like that.

Since you’ve looked at the conductor’s score for a decade now, talk about some of the different instruments we hear in there, like the Jew’s harp and the saw in “Emily’s Dream.” There’s a point in the main titles for OF MICE AND MEN, it’s so dissonant, I don’t know if it’s the strings playing harmonics or what. It’s a very odd sound.

Yeah, I know the point. They’re playing a note and the harmonic above that note. It’s all dictated out in the score.

You don’t hear that in 1939 film scores.

No, probably not. You sure as hell didn’t hear a 26-second-held clashing chord that sounds like something out of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS or Ligeti from 1960’s concert music. That was really ahead of its time. And yet at the same time, you didn’t hear something that was so, I don’t want to use the word sparsely, but he orchestrated in a way that was not lush for the most part and was not the European music that was going on at the time. Even though, I have to say, he used the number of instruments, which is about 52 or so, a lot of studio orchestras were that size back then for non-epics. He just tamped everything down to get that sound that he wanted.

I know that one of the things Virgil Thomson is known for is his documentaries. There is a similar sound. But as far as their influence goes, if you look at an independent documentary as opposed to what was at the time a major studio release, maybe why [Copland’s] influence in film was more widely felt, because more people saw the film. And he got nominated for Academy Awards and that sort of thing.

Before OF MICE AND MEN, they didn’t know what they were doing with western film. And then they heard that and they said, “Oh, it’s not all little ditties and stuff like that.” You can actually come up with a complete, “original” sort of palette of what the American west sounded like.

It’s so interesting to hear these two scores next to each other. They come attached to two major authors of the time. OF MICE AND MEN almost looks back to Copland’s more dissonant work of the ’20s and early ’30s. And yet OUR TOWN is pure and clean and simple, which is what you need for any production of the play, without any sentimentality in there at all.

That’s right, except for “Emily’s Dream,” which actually stands out. Listen to “Emily’s Dream” and then listen to the opening bars of SOMETHING WILD. They’re similar, believe it or not. It’s just that one has a much larger orchestration. Which just goes to show that Copland was really quite ahead of his time. These ideas were floating around in his head for much longer than people think. It was always there, I guess.

I didn’t have any big thesis in mind when I collected these scores. I was practical. There they were and they didn’t need to be reconstructed. But it was nice to have these scores back to back—because they were written within months of each other—because they’re so iconic, so American by these great American authors with these great American themes. That’s why I thought an album of those two would be nice. And they do contrast with one another. And you have these two things that people always associate with Copland—the West and quiet, small villages.

It’s amazing that they’re just as fresh now as they probably were back then.

I know. Some of the music sounds like it could have been written yesterday. It sounds like film music you’ve heard in the past 20 years. That just points out his influence.

There are people who would say that Copland started an entire school of film composing. And I think they may be right. There was this European style, which was very predominant and was used a lot. It got recharged again with John Williams and all of his big epic scores. But Copland came along in 1939 and did this whole kind of style that was different. I mean basically his influence is French, right? But to us it sounded innately American and entirely original. It struck some composers. I think his film work and his concert work struck a lot of composers. And slowly but surely, they started working in that vein as well, with Hugo Friedhofer and Elmer Bernstein.

You can hear it in Alex North, Leonard Rosenman and others as well.

Oh yeah, absolutely. They took up that style. We still have the two big schools. We have the [Max] Steiner school, I guess you could call it, and then the Copland school. It hasn’t left us, with the exception if someone’s doing something really experimental or songs or something. That was the interesting thing about 1939. It was such an amazing year for movies. Not just for movies, but it was also because maybe that was the year when the two big schools started. You had GONE WITH THE WIND, which was traditional, sweeping, symphonic, European. You had OF MICE AND MEN, which introduced this whole “American” style. And then you had THE WIZARD OF OZ, which showed that song and score could be amazingly popular.

What are your next plans with Copland? I know you had talked about the possibility of doing THE HEIRESS. Is that still in your plans?

Yes it is. And so is THE RED PONY. It’s all very preliminary at the moment. I hope it doesn’t take another 10 years. (laughs) It’s definitely something I’d like to do. It’s the only logical follow up to this, for me to do those two scores. We’ll see what happens. There’s definitely interest.

It will help if this sells.

Absolutely! (laughs)

Those acetates for HEIRESS are in bad shape.

I know. I have the files on my computer.

You can’t listen to them too terribly much. They’re harsh.

The word “archival” is being kind. When THE HEIRESS gets done, if I have the chance to make that happen, when it gets recorded, you get one shot at it. So everything is going to get recorded, everything that Copland wrote, everything that was thrown out, everything that was replaced (even if he didn’t like it), because you don’t get another chance at it. Everything that could possibly be recorded we’d at least try to get recorded.

There’s also a practical side to that too. A lot of those cues are short. You want an album that’s over an hour. So you include all the source cues, the little dances and stuff. You just do as much of it as you can. And you’ll be happy to know that Naxos shares that vision. With OF MICE AND MEN and OUR TOWN, they wanted to do as much of it as was out there. They don’t have any kind of prejudice against short cues or anything like that. They wanted to do as much of it as possible.

It’s amazing that they stepped up to the plate and did this.

Yeah, I have to give them props.

You’d still be pounding the pavement with this idea.

While record companies fold left and right. (laughs) It was so overdue. It’s very funny how it slipped under everybody’s radar. There must have been this feeling, I think, that some of the music from the suites had been around for so long…Maybe there was this feeling that it had already been done. Nothing could be further from the truth. You listen to it and you think, “Oh my God!” Maybe there was this feeling, “Oh, wasn’t it done?”

It doesn’t matter because it’s done now. And it’s a great recording.

They did a great job. The orchestra [Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic] has been around for several decades. They’re named after a famous Czechoslovakian composer who moved to the States in the 50’s and taught in New York City and wrote a fair amount of stuff. The orchestra has been used for a lot of low-budget film projects. They had some English conductors who probably trained them a bit on the style. They had done a recording of The Tender Land [Copland’s only opera], the full opera had never been set down. They did that in 2002, so they were not strangers to this. You can hear it. They know how to achieve that particular type of sound.

It sounds like an American orchestra that’s been playing Copland their entire lives.

Copland was such an ambassador. If we can play Tchaikovsky, then obviously other orchestras can play Copland, and able to do other types of composers.

Thank you for all your years of pulling it together, because it paid off.

Yeah, I’m happy. I’m glad that it’s had the amount of downloads that it’s had already. I hope it keeps going. It bodes very well for doing a follow-up. I wish they would have bumped up the release of the physical CD, but there are a lot of releases on the site where they say the CD will be released later. I think they have a backlog of releases that they need to do. I think what they may be learning is nobody is buying CDs anymore. I think there’s a point where it doesn’t become economically feasible in the year 2010 to release 40 physical CD’s in a month, or whatever it is they do. They release a lot.

If we do the albums of THE HEIRESS and THE RED PONY, one of the things I would try to get settled, now that I know, is the digital release and the physical release would have to be, if not at the same time, then within very close proximity to each other. It’s a little weird. You get excited about the release, it’s download only, and then months from now you have to go through the whole thing again.

At least their prices are cheap.

You can’t beat that, for sure!

Even if buying both, like I will, it’s still cheaper than a regular CD.

I know. And I don’t know what’s going to be cut from the physical CD. I gave them my choices. It won’t be an internal cut—that would be ridiculous!—but it has to be an actual cue or two. It’s 82 minutes long and I think you can get away with 78 minutes from the manufacturer. Something will have to go.

I guess one legitimate argument would be that you’re getting double-dipped. And in a sense you are, but I can’t do anything about it. (laughs) Like I’ve told people, if you want the CD out earlier or if you have an issue with this, you need to talk to Naxos.

It’s a great recording. Congratulations, your work paid off!

And let’s hope it produces a bit more. That would be nice. You can be rest assured that I’m thinking about it. I definitely want to follow up with THE HEIRESS and THE RED PONY. There’s no other thing to do.

Read the review of the OF MICE AND MEN and OUR TOWN recording.

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