Ismail Merchant, Mikki Ansin,
and Richard Robbins
Music From The Golden Bowl
Original Music Composed
by Richard Robbins
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  To American City 3'09
The Broken Bowl 3'50
Madame Tussaud /
The Steam Museum

Richard Robbins began his association with Merchant Ivory more than twenty-five years ago, and counts among his scores the Oscar-nominated music for HOWARDS END and THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, A ROOM WITH A VIEW, MAURICE, MR. and MRS. BRIDGE, and, most recently, THE GOLDEN BOWL. spoke with him recently about his work on the company's latest Henry James adaptation.

MIP: Describe the process by which you begin scoring a film like THE GOLDEN BOWL.

Once the film is edited, my work begins. Jim [Ivory] and I watch the film together and talk about where we want music and what the music should accomplish. Then I watch the film on my own, mostly on video, but also project onto a large screen. Certain scenes I may watch 25 to 30 times. I develop musical ideas and present them to the director. After more discussion and his final approval, I move on to working out precise timings and devote myself to thinking about the colors and textures of the orchestrations.

I find myself very involved with characters' movements in a scene, and I become more and more attached to the characters, and maybe that brings up feelings no one else intended or considered. I know when that moment arrives that the hard part of writing the score is over, because I know how I feel about a character. That's a great relief That can happen all at once: it can be as simple as watching one of the characters enter a room or walk down a hallway. In The Remains of the Day, it happened when I first saw the shot of Emma Thompson walking down the hall toward the camera. That did it.

MIP: Was there a particular moment when you knew you'd become attached to the characters in THE GOLDEN BOWL?

The scene in which Charlotte is visiting Madame Toussaud's wax museum. We can read some of Charlotte's predicament in the tension in her face: the hunger, the sense that she is losing control, taking too many chances. She's hurt, confused, jealous - feelings most of us are probably well acquainted with. They're all out there on her face at that moment.

MIP: What about the other characters? Maggie for instance?

After Maggie discovers the truth, she is very angry and confronts the prince. Then she walks over to an open door and slams it shut. Why does she do that? Is she concerned with the impression she's giving others? Does she not want them to hear her arguing with the prince? I felt that there was perhaps something more there. I felt that slamming the door also meant, "I have something to say to you. I want to say this only to you. And I want your complete attention." The viewer becomes aware of Maggie's strength of character, which is not really revealed up until that time. So the music is not standard "angry" film music.

MIP: You previously composed the scores of two other Henry James adaptations for Merchant Ivory (THE EUROPEANS and THE BOSTONIANS). What new challenges did you face in creating a score for THE GOLDEN BOWL?

The characters in The Golden Bowl seem to me layers of complexity. The characters don't reveal as much of themselves as one might like and often they hide feelings or are ambivalent about how they feel. Music is probably the ideal way to reflect that complexity, because music's message, if it has a message, can be interpreted in many different ways. In comparison, The Europeans seems light, though by no means free of conflict, but essentially a love story. The Bostonians is somewhere in the middle between The Europeans and The Golden Bowl. The characters approach things pretty much straight on and the viewer is prepared to understand how the character will react to events.

The texture of The Golden Bowl is tapestry-like: the wonderful surface, but so much more going on underneath, so much we never see.

MIP: What role do you think music plays in a film of a James novel, in which so many layers are unexposed?

I believe it helps to approach a strong defense from an angle. I tried to stay away from direct statements of the character's feelings. I knew how I felt about the four characters, and I thought about what might be going on within. But to be fair to them, it would be inappropriate to think that I could completely reveal the characters' thoughts and feelings in music.

I knew how I felt about the four characters, and I thought about what was going on underneath, but if there is confusion and vagueness under the surface, I try to reflect that in the music. Some things can't be done. I felt I should comment on the characters from my point of view. And if I saw clarity, or confusion, or vagueness, I tried to reflect some of that, but the music does not insist to the viewer, "Now, feel this. Now, feel that."

MIP: It's been said that every Merchant Ivory film features a dinner party and a song. THE GOLDEN BOWL uses period sounds in a music-hall song and your version of an early twentieth-century Russian ballet.

I think Jim Ivory and I agree that a musical score should comment on the action with a contemporary voice. But we select other musical pieces, not original compositions, but appropriate for the period, music which we think the characters would have listened to, and these pieces contribute to the atmosphere, the mood, the ambience, all strong elements of Merchant Ivory films. Howards End just wouldn't be right without Beethoven. The Schubert song enriches The Remains of the Day for everyone. The pieces give us additional information about the characters. The works of Beethoven and Schubert were once part of people's daily musical landscape, as surprising as that may seem today. These things lift us all up who are involved with the film, and likewise I think it has that effect on the viewer, to have music present in the way it would have been in, say, 1909.

MIP: On the subject of period music, why did you chose to end the film with Scott Joplin's "Wall Street Rag"?

When I saw the material that was being restored for those black and white scenes (the Ververs' return to America), and saw what that was leading up to, I thought we needed something radically different from what we had been hearing on the European side, more exuberant and brighter in outlook. The director had the same feeling, so we went for Joplin. Hearing the Wall Street Rag" with the early 20th century images left us feeling that Charlotte might, in the end, make the most of her life with Verver in American City.

MIP: You have been composing music for the Merchant Ivory team for more than twenty-five years. Do you have particular favorites among your scores?

My favorite films are not necessarily the ones with my favorite scores. I'm always happiest when I think of the score for Maurice. I think that worked very well. My favorite film is Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.

MIP: You have just completed the score for Ismail Merchant's upcoming V.S. Naipaul adaptation, THE MYSTIC MASSEUR, which takes place in Trinidad. What can we expect from your score?

I found working on The Mystic Masseur very enjoyable: the characters are so interesting and amusing. Ismail [Merchant] has created something very special, very funny, and something quite touching, moving. For this film, the director decided he wanted a collaboration with Zakir Hussain, the renowned tabla player and composer, and it was a great, great pleasure to work with him. The score turned out to be a mixture of western orchestral sounds, Indian ensemble and solo pieces, and the music of Trinidad.

Interview by Chris Terrio for


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