The world of Varése Sarabande – Interview with Robert Townson

The name of Robert Townson has firmly attached to the most respected publisher of soundtracks, Varése Sarabande. Our website managed to interview the producer of this famous company and due to this we could catch a glimpse of the other side of this branch of the Hollywood industry. We tried to cover all major momentums while assembling our questions to present the most accurate picture about the procedure of a track release and about the every day life of a publisher firm. 

Dear Mr. Townson! Where does this name (Varése Sarabande) come from? When was it founded and what was the first release?

Varése comes from the composer Edgard Varése and Sarabande is the dance form. They were originally two separate companies that merged. The first releases were all classical and the first few of these were released under the moniker Varése International. Initially reissuing preexisting masters from other classical labels, Varése was soon producing new, audiophile recordings of classic symphonic works like the Beethoven symphonies, Dvorak's Ninth, the Rodrigo guitar concertos, lots of really wonderful stuff. As time went on, there were some classical works by film composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rózsa released. This lead to their film works and also to establishing relationships with Rózsa himself and Korngold’s son, George. From here the focus of the label shifted to film music. It’s a wonderful history that links directly to the Golden Age of Hollywood and film music. 

What does your logo represent?

We call it "The Bug". In truth, it is nothing more than an ink spot, though its hidden meaning has been hypothesized over for decades. 

How long have you been working for the company? Why did you choose it?

I started my own label in Canada called Masters Film Music out of frustration that so many of my favorite scores were not receiving soundtrack releases. It was because of scores like The Final Conflict, Raggedy Man, Heartbeeps and Under the Volcano that I was ultimately driven to try to do something about it. Masters Film Music was formed in 1985 (hard to believe it's been 20 years!) and, as Varése was truly the only film music label at the time, I sought to establish a distribution arrangement with them. When all was said and done I had produced and released my first soundtrack, with Jerry Goldsmith no less, by April of 1986. This began my long friendship with Jerry and my relationship with Varése Sarabande, which lasts to this day. By May of 1989 I had moved to Los Angeles and taken over production of all soundtracks at Varése. The recent release of the soundtrack for the film Stealth was my 750th CD release.

Here in Hungary we regularly meet with Varése releases which are under the aegis of Colosseum Records (your partner publisher we assume). What is the relationship between the two firms? 

Colosseum Records handles all Varése Sarabande releases for Europe. The titles remain on the Varése label, but all manufacturing and sales are through Colosseum. We have similar arrangements in other territories but, given the size of Europe, Colosseum is our chief partner. 

How is a soundtrack "born"? What are the procedures before it hits the shops?

Oh my goodness, that's a big question. There are principally three ways a project begins. I will either receive a call from a film studio hoping to interest me in releasing a given soundtrack or I will receive a call from a composer or their agent. The third way is that I pursue a specific project if it is a film or score that I am particularly interested in. In these cases I make the call to explore soundtrack possibilities. Obviously there are, after so many years of doing this, a lot of relationships in place so there are many composers who keep me posted regarding what they are working on and the scores they are most excited about. I also have longstanding associations and friendships with virtually all of the film studios and so it is very easy for one project to simply lead to another. Dependant upon what stage of production the film is at I will then either be invited to a recording session, sent some already completed music or invited to a screening of the picture, with either with a final score or a temp score. Then, based on how I feel about the music and the film I make a decision as to whether I am prepared to take on the project. Assuming that I say yes, two simultaneous production schedules begin. The composer and I will begin working on selecting cues, sequencing the music and preparing for the mastering session. Concurrently with this the film studio's art department will furnish me with key art and stills which I will use to design a CD package. Within this process there may also be a director or composer who writes a brief liner note for inclusion in the package. Once the music and artwork are all final, the materials are shipped off to the printer and to the CD plant. From there the finished discs are delivered to our distributor and then individual retailers. This is the process for new film soundtracks. From the point that the music is recorded we can get a new CD in stores in about six or seven weeks. For archival soundtracks requiring restoration work, it's a different story all together and for brand new recordings of classic scores from the past, well, that again is a whole separate adventure. 

What does the track list depend on? How much liberty do the composers or the producers have in assembling the album?

Generally it will be me working with the composer. Depending on everyone’s schedule it may be solely the composer who prepares a sequence and submits it to me for approval or vice versa. Film studios are very rarely involved in this process. If the composer is happy and I'm happy, then the studio is happy. 

Composers regularly complain of the directors who are totally uninterested in their work and ask for major changes at the very last moment. How do the short deadlines and fast records affect the publisher?

It is a real shame to see the current working conditions for composers. It is certainly not a climate that fosters the creation of great film music. Post production schedules get shorter and shorter. And as soon as some ridiculous schedule is met, word gets around and then that become the new industry-wide expectation of how long a score takes. Alex North spent a year on Spartacus and it shows. Jerry Goldsmith used to accept new projects on a ten week contract. I think John Williams is about the only composer left who can demand proper time be allotted to the creation of the score. Further undermining the creative process is the frequency with which scores are tossed entirely. It has gotten so that composers know that if they stray too far from the temp track, there work is likely to be rejected. Great directors like Franklin J. Schaffner allowed a safe environment and, when scoring his films, Jerry could feel not only comfortable about experimenting but even encouraged to do so. When I was recording Patton with Jerry in Scotland, Joel McNeely was there with us. After Jerry recorded the German Advance cue Joel, who was completely knocked out by what he had just heard, asked Jerry if he thought it was even possible to write a cue like that for a film today. Jerry's response was that it was not. He said he felt that that cue would be thrown out immediately in this day and age. I thought that was a pretty sad comment on the state of the art. 

This is not to say that great work is not being done. It is. But the deck is seriously stacked against the composer. The days of composers answering solely to an all-powerful studio music head like Alfred Newman are long past.

Soundtracks are usually between 80-110 minutes, while the disks contain 30-45 minutes of music. What is the reason for this? 

30 minute CDs really existed for one reason only and that was due to Musician Union rules. Thankfully, the era of the 30-minute CD is now past. New Union rules allow for 45 minutes being the standard length of a new soundtrack. There will, occasionally, still be shorter CDs, but this is due to the length of the score to begin with. A good example of this was Cliff Eidelman's lovely score for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Even to get the CD to the 35 minutes it is now required Cliff writing two new pieces just for the CD. I think they really rounded out the score beautifully and I’m very pleased with how the CD turned out.
Frankly, I don't think that many scores are well served by filling a CD with 78 minutes of music. With rare exceptions I think 45 to 50 minutes serves the vast majority of scores very well. 

Some soundtracks are released after months, or sometimes after years of the premier of the film. What causes this delay? 

If a CD comes out months late it is usually due to a restriction by the label that released the song CD. Even though both albums appeal to completely different audiences, the label putting out this song CD will, in certain cased, require a hold-back. This, for example, was what happened on both Shrek films. Luckily this practice is relatively rare as it certainly serves a score album best to be in stores concurrently with the release of the film and this is what we always strive for.

The soundtracks that are released years after the fact are usually brought about simply by changing times. There were so many great scores that went unreleased during the 80s, 70s, 60s and before. There really is about 60 years of neglect that needs to be addressed and it's quite a task! This is the job of the CD Club.

Are you present at the recording of all the scores produced by your firm?

No, certainly not all of them. Because I always have so much to do I have, for a long time, really been forced to be pretty choosy about the days I can allot to recording sessions. The one exception to this was when Jerry was recording. With only a very few exceptions, I was with him at the recording of all scores since 1989. But I certainly try to get to as many sessions as possible. 

The Soundtrack Club releases are held as real diamonds among soundtrack fans. How do you decide on the variety of the scores and the number of copies to be released under the Club logo?

The CD Club is as much fun for me as it is for soundtrack fans. It gives me the opportunity of going back and rescuing some really extraordinary scores of the past that have been otherwise neglected. There is certainly a group of composers on which I focus, while also including the occasional surprises. The most represented composers in the Club have been Jerry Goldsmith, Alex North, Elmer Bernstein, Georges Delerue, John Williams and Franz Waxman. Even though all of these composers are very well represented on CD, that doesn't change the fact that they each have many great scores still deserving release. It's also been wonderful to be able to offer scores that people have been clamoring for. Things like Predator and Die Hard and Project X, and to include scores like Heartbeeps, Magic and Joe vs. the Volcano that I have been clamoring for. It's also been a thrill to dig up scores that no one ever thought would see the light of day. Alex North's Sanctuary, The Racers or the King and Four Queens, Waxman's Beloved Infidel, Goldsmith's Studs Lonigan. Then there are the absolute masterpieces like The Robe, The Sand Pebbles, The Great Escape, The Agony and the Ecstasy and Hawaii. The nature of the Club allows for the extra money to be spent on producing titles like this that, otherwise, would not be possible. 

As to the quantities we set for each title, we take our best guess at what the market for each score is. We spend a lot of money on these titles so it does require maximizing sales and minimizing excess stock. Even as it is, because of the obscurity of certain titles, I know, going in, that making their money back will be a long shot for some scores. So, in some cases, a title like Commando may, in essence, underwrite The Story of Ruth.

Your other famed release series is the Deluxe Edition, which consist of extra tracks compared to the first release, while they are not limited editions. Who is in charge regarding the Deluxe Editions?

The Deluxe Edition series spans both the CD Club and my regular releases. This series is made up of new, expanded CD that address limitations that were put on scores that had their original soundtrack releases produced during the LP era. It has really been a lot of fun to go back to classics like The Omen, Total Recall, The Fury and The Great Escape. As I've said, I don't think there are that many scores that are very well served by filling a 78 minutes CD, but the ones that are really demand it. Jerry and I had always been very happy with the original Total Recall sequence, given that, at the time, we were restricted to about 40 minutes. But the Deluxe version is really breathtaking and Jerry was very pleased with that one. He even, after initially being hesitant; went along with my idea of adding the Recall commercial as a hidden track at the end. My release of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo was really the first one of this series in all ways but in name. Just as with all of my regular releases and Club titles, I select the scores that will be given the Deluxe Edition treatment.

What are your future releases under Soundtrack Club and Deluxe Edition?

The newest releases from the CD Club included Elmer Bernstein's 1983 score for Spacehunter: Adventures In the Forbidden Zone. It's a wonderfully fun, symphonic score that was part of the post-Star Wars science-fiction craze. I was very pleased to be able to finally release both this and the recent Stripes CD. Bill Conti's scores for F.I.S.T. and Slow Dancing in the Big City have always been two of my favorites of his. I've always felt Conti to be just an exceptional writer. There are so many still-unreleased scores of his. I was also thrilled to finally release a full CD of Georges Delerue's achingly lovely True Confessions. Such beautiful music. So powerful. And the latest surprise from the Varése back catalog was a very early David Newman score called The Kindred. I'm working on many more new titles for the Club and also a few Deluxe Editions, but those are all secret.

In this year you released a couple of Rejected Scores. What proportion will they represent within your whole future products?

It's a shame when any score is rejected. It almost never has anything to do with the music. For this reason, whenever a score is rejected, particularity if it is by one of my friends, I will go out of my way to try to rescue it. The two most famous unused scores of all time are Alex North's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bernard Herrmann's Torn Curtain. I think that my recording of 2001 is certainly one of, if not my most important recording. There's also been Elmer's Stars 'n' Bars and Last Man Standing, Hans Zimmer's K2, Cliff Eidelman's The Picture Bride, John Ottman's Halloween H20 and, more recently Jerry's magnificent Timeline and also Alien Nation. I was with Jerry at every one of the Timeline sessions and so I knew how tremendous the score was. There was just no way that I was going to allow that great score to be lost.

With the number of scores being unceremoniously tossed these days, it seems a sure thing that I'll be adding to this dubious series.

Your releases share a common look: same side, same internals. In the past even the discs were the same. How important is the unique outlook for the company?

I like having a unique style for all Varése Sarabande releases. It obviously goes through a lot of variations but within certain set formats and templates, if you will. I suppose the most prominent unifying element is the CD spine. Since this is what shows when most people file away their CDs, I like having a very distinct Varése look, which includes always featuring the composer's name, and in the same place. They certainly line up nicely. There are, of course, other similarities between the CDs, many that are more subconscious and simply come from the fact that I design them all so there is, inevitably a visible style.

One your greatest releases is Jerry Goldsmith at 20th Century Fox. How much work was behind assembling the album and why did you single out only the Fox soundtracks? According to our best knowledge Mr. Goldsmith and you were close friends. Did he participate in choosing the tracks? 

This was an enormous project! It took over a year to put together. It cost more than any CD I have ever produced. I really can't even imagine a better film music release. It grew out of the archival series of film music releases I have been doing with 20th Century Fox and Nick Redman. I knew that I wanted to do a special release for Jerry's 75th birthday but just wasn't sure what to do. There was no studio that Jerry did more work for than 20th Century Fox. Jerry's scores for the studio also included a good number of his absolute best scores. The idea began as a Goldsmith release along the lines of the Bernard Herrmann at 20th Century Fox series, but as a set, rather than individual CDs. It started as a two CD set, almost immediately grew to four, and finally ended up at six. The set includes 39 different scores and over seven hours of music. I sequenced the first three discs, while Nick did discs four, five and six. Then we each wrote liner notes about the scores on the discs we sequenced, and I wrote an introduction. Matthew Peak designed the package and did a typically spectacular job. I was absolutely thrilled with how it turned out. I think it exceed the expectations of everyone who worked on it.

Jerry was a very dear friend. From my very first CD there hadn't been a time when I wasn't working on something new with Jerry. We did 80 CDs together. By the time the Fox set was in production it was a very sad time. Jerry was very ill. He wasn't involved in the production of the set at all. But as soon as it was finished I went over to his house to give him some copies. Jerry's agent, and another good friend of mine, Richard Kraft, was there as well. Jerry loved the set. He went through every page of the liner notes and was reminded about certain films. He would tell stories about some of them. Jerry was so full of great stories that, even after all the years of knowing him, there were always new ones to hear. He couldn't believe we had found the tapes for S.P.Y.S. He was thrilled that we had included his prologue from The Agony and the Ecstasy. I told him that it was one of my all time favorite pieces of his. He smiled and said that it was also one of his favorites. It was really a wonderful afternoon. But also so sad. This turned out to be the final new release I was able to give him.

Recently your scores are played by Hollywood Studio Symphony. Who decides on the date, the place and the musicians? 

Only the name "Hollywood Studio Symphony" is new. The majority of film scores have always drawn from the deep pool of Los Angeles session musicians. Los Angeles and London are probably the two best cities in the world for recording, both for the number of musicians, the quality of them and the number of recording studios. All three of these factors are essential. For example, I love recording in Glasgow with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. But when the one great recording hall closed in 2002 for a three year renovation, it put an end my recording series. Recording sessions and schedules for new film soundtracks in Los Angeles are all set by the film studios that have huge films and pressing release schedules to contend with. 

How fierce is the fight among the publishers for the rights of the soundtracks? What are the conditions for Varése to publish a score?

I wouldn't really call it fierce. The majority of film soundtracks are released by Varése, Sony, Decca and Hollywood Records. Each label has their own company affiliations and relationships. There are also pretty distinct things that make releasing a soundtrack make sense for each company. There will certainly be projects that more than one label will go after but a lot of time it is so clear that you can even guess what label will end up releasing a specific score. Since I have relationships with all of the film studios and composers, my own criteria ends up weighing the factors of who wrote the music, how wide the film will open and, of course, how much it will cost to produce the soundtrack. When a parent company owns both a film studio and a record label, the record label will usually have first right of refusal on that companies biggest pictures. Examples of this would be Warner Bros. Records releasing the Harry Potter-scores and Walt Disney Records releasing all the Disney soundtracks. 

Which is the album you are the most proud of? Which was the one you had to fight for the most?

Probably Alex North's 2001. It was such an enormous and important project. The whole experience of originally scoring the film was such a painful and sad memory for Alex, I'm so pleased that he trusted me to finally give his magnificent score its day. Back in 1993, it was really hard to believe that the recording was finally going to happen. 2001 is such an iconic film. I just revered and adored Alex. He was such a remarkable man. Musically, it was really the best of all worlds. It was the first recording of another composer's music that Jerry had ever conducted. We recorded with the National Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. What a first trip to London this was for me! Matthew Peak, who of course did that spectacular painting on the CD cover, came to the sessions. Charles Gerhardt dropped by to witness history and hear some great music. Christopher Palmer was there, as was Anna North. Alex's son Steven came. Even my grandparents were there! There was just such an enormous sense of history those days. It was a project that was literally 25 years in the making. It’s hard to beat that!

Who do you like to work with? Who are members of your Hall of Fame?

I am privileged to work with virtually every composer in the industry. In addition to all of the composers I work with on their new film scores I assembled, over the years, a Varése "home team", so to speak, of composers who would also travel to Europe with me to conduct my classic film score projects. In the rotation were Jerry Goldsmith, Joel McNeely, Elmer Bernstein, John Debney and Cliff Eidelman. Five dear friends who, between them, probably account for nearly 200 CDs that we have done together! The memories of all of our adventures together in England and Scotland (with a few early trips to Seattle) will be with me forever. It was also wonderful when I had more than one of them with me on particular recording trips and to see the interaction between, for example, Jerry and Joel, when Joel attended the sessions for Patton and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Jerry was in the booth while Joel was recording Out of Africa. It was fun hear them discuss the End Credits from The Swarm, in preparation for Joel to conduct it in Jerry's absence. I also had Elmer and Cliff in Glasgow together. Elmer was actually in the booth while Cliff was conducting Jerry's Alien cues and, I can tell you, Elmer was getting quite a kick out of listening to that music. John Debney and Stu Phillips we on the same trip and had many stories of writing for television to share. I really loved seeing the different generations come together. 

As far as my Hall of Fame composers, well, the list certainly has to start with Alex North and Jerry Goldsmith. The others that I absolutely revere are John Williams, Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Franz Waxman and Georges Delerue. I just love Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, Philippe Sarde and John Barry. Other favorites from the Golden Age are Miklós Rózsa, Erich Korngold and Alfred Newman. All of them are so different and so essential to what I feel makes up the tapestry of great film music. 

What is your opinion about the present and the future of the film musics?

I would say that the soundtrack market is very strong these days. With a good deal of thanks to the Musician's Union, there really are more soundtracks being issued today than ever before. In fact, there is so much film music being released that there is more pressure on the consumer to be selective than ever before. The danger, of course, is that with so many releases literally pouring out of soundtrack labels, less attention ends of being given to the truly extraordinary productions. The plethora of new soundtracks really ends up being taken for granted. But, in the end, this is such a wonderful problem to be concerned about when compared to the barren landscape of the 1980s and before. Some of my favorite soundtrack releases of recent years have come from Universal Jazz France. Their series of classic French soundtracks and, particularly, the works of Georges Delerue and Philippe Sarde has been nothing short of miraculous. There have also been so many exceptional releases from labels like Film Score Monthly and Intrada that film music collectors are really kept on their toes. 

Which music do you prefer when you are out of office? What are your favourite soundtracks?

I love film music. Even though I spend virtually every day utterly surrounded by it, I still devote a lot of my "out of office" listening time to favorite old scores and new ones released by other labels. My other musical passion is classical music. Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Dvorak, Sibelius, Mahler, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, Puccini and Vaughn-Williams are great favorites. 

As to my favorite film scores, I recently went through an interesting experience of being on the jury for the American Film Institute's selection of the top 100 scores of all time. I was forced to, for the first time, really quantify a top 25 scores list and also to rank a top five. When really getting down to it, it was quite difficult. I ended up with dilemmas like whether or not Vertigo or Sunset Blvd. should take the last available spot in my top five. I ended up staying with my longtime favorite Spartacus as No. 1. My list included lots of Goldsmith (Patton, Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and lots of North (Streetcar and Cleopatra, to name just two more of them). Elmer's Mockingbird was very high and The Magnificent Seven was also there. Rózsa's Ben Hur, Newman's The Song of Bernadette, Korngold's Robin Hood, Waxman's Rebecca, Herrmann's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Inevitably, I ended up leaving off a lot of my favorites but with room for only 25, it was a pretty tough list to crack. When I was done, however, it was just astounding to look at the list and be reminded of all the magnificent film music there has been and the staggering talent of the men who wrote it. 

It really is a joy to spend so much of my life immersed in this absolutely glorious art form. 

To know more about Varése Sarabande, please visit the labels's official website.


Photographs from: Robert Townson 
October 7th, 2005 

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