The No.1 Website for Pro Audio
 Search This Thread  Search This Forum  Search Reviews  Search Gear Database  Search Gear for sale  Search Gearslutz Go Advanced
The Life of Danny Elfman Virtual Instrument Plugins
Old 14th October 2007
Lives for gear
bcgood's Avatar

The Life of Danny Elfman

I went to my brothers house today. He has Netflix and showed me Oingo Boingo's last concert in 1995. It reminded me of the two times I had seen him live and how much fun it was. I've been a long time fan of his work and really enjoy some of his film scores and t.v. theme music. If you don't know who Danny Elfman is, I'm almost positive you've heard his music. He wrote the theme music for The Simpsons, Desperate Housewives, almost all of the musical scores for Tim Burton films, (Batman, Edward Scissor Hands, Nightmare Before Christmas, Big Fish etc.) I was doing some research on him tonight and came across this commencement speech he gave. I found it very interesting and inspirational. I hope you do to.

College Commencement Address
to the North Carolina School of the Arts
Class of 2007

Danny Elfman

June 2, 2007
Roger L. Stevens Center
Winston-Salem, North Carolina

First, I’d like to begin with my sincere congratulations on successfully completing something that must have seemed, not too long ago, to be a remote, distant, semi-impossibility – and yet, here you are.

Second, a disclaimer. I’m reading from notes because, aside from having to rely on memory cells
ravaged and pillaged by the onslaught of time and functioning more or less like a 1981
Commodore 64 computer with only 32K left intact, aside from that, one of my greatest fears
is that of public speaking. And yet … here I am.

And the question is … what words of advice can I possibly offer that might in any way be
useful to you?

I could talk to you about “following your dreams,” which is a wonderful sentiment, but that seems just too obvious. This is a school of the arts and you are all, in one form or another, artists. So in fact, you are already, without my encouragement, following your dreams or you wouldn’t be here.

So I began by looking to my own experiences, to see if I could find some shred of something relevant. At first I really didn’t think so. As I reflected, it occurred to me as it often has in the past, that my life has basically been a bunch of random events, bizarre occurrences, and coincidences, some working out better than others. But then as I gave it more thought, it began to feel more like a season of “Lost” where everything happens for some strange “reason.”

And I began the process of rummaging through those remaining memory cells to recall the many dreams I attempted to follow, to see if I could find any patterns that made some kind of sense. And slowly, (in a way) it did… .

And so, I will in fact, talk to you today about “following your dream” and “going down that road.”

But I’d like to talk to you about how strange and unexpected the “real” process of “following one’s dreams” can be. Because for some of you, that road might be a smooth, paved highway. I envy you, and I wish you well, but what I’ve got to say will have no relevance for you. (This might be a good moment to get those iPods and headphones out.) But for many of you that road might be like it was for me: twisted, bumpy, full of potholes, misplaced exit signs, and dead ends.

So now, with your permission, I’ll tell you a crazy, meandering story. Mine. And like my life, I’m afraid it’s rambling and a little complicated. And for that, I apologize. And I invite you to draw from it what you will. It will take some patience, so bear with me.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I shall digress.

By the time I got to high school, I had only two interests: radiation biology and movies. I pretty much went to the movies every weekend I could remember. They were a major part of my life, but I had no dreams of actually working on them. Too impossible and distant – so science was my only option. I was quite sure of it.

However, I was a an odd, shy kid who didn’t make friends easily in a new school, in a new neighborhood, with no old chums to rely on. My first couple of new friends were kind of odd and shy like myself and, to my surprise, were all artistically inclined in one way or another. Poetry, cartoons, writing and, in several cases, musicians.

This was a new world. Stuff rubbed off. Through my musician friends, I was exposed to 20th-century classical music and jazz. I was blown away, but I also felt that I’d long since missed the boat. I had no musical ability that I was aware of. They had all started playing music as children. It was, I wistfully observed, too late for me.

Now high school was over, the travel bug had bitten me, and my only dream at that moment was to beat it – as far and fast as I could. College could certainly wait for my return, and, as I had saved up a little cash by various questionable and sundry means, a year of world travel seemed quite reasonable. But – and this is where that “dream” thing came in – I decided to purchase a violin to bring with me, and to attempt to learn to play while I traveled. I thought, though my time may have passed, why not? I thought just maybe … . Well, anyhow.

Skip to several months later, in Paris, getting ready to start the “big journey” and staying with my older brother who lived there and worked there. One day, while I was practicing that fiddle, I was overheard by the director of an avant-garde theatre troupe who was visiting at the time, and to my astonishment, was given the offer to “join up” for a summer tour. No money. Room and board. He seemed to think I was good enough, and being a “rag-tag” kind of thing, I simply had to play along with a number of crazy songs they had in their show. I thought, maybe I could get good and become a violinist? Now that seemed like a worthwhile, though distant, dream.

But wait: This particular dream was supposed to be about a big world journey. The music thing, like college, would just have to wait.

I spent close to a year traveling across Africa ( I though it would take a couple of months) and lo and behold … I didn’t get good at the violin, but I did fall in love with percussion, and got to listen to a lot of incredible music and shipped quite a few instruments home.

Cut to … finally back home … off to college? Maybe music or film school or both but … no go … .

While I was traveling, my brother had come back to the States and founded his own street troupe, inspired by the French experience, and upon my return he immediately inducted me to be their “musical director.“ I didn’t even know what that meant, least-wise what I was supposed to do. I had still never taken a lesson nor could I read or write music. No matter. I played a poor but serviceable fiddle and had a bunch of cool West African percussion. And that was enough. To use the description “rag-tag” would be a wild overstatement.

We worked our asses off night and day. Because of the lack of money, there was a constant turnover of musicians. I think it took me about a hundred hours of work and maybe 1,000 phone calls to locate and find each replacement. But somehow we slowly improved. Every single night I wasn’t bussing tables, I was rehearsing. I passed the hat for money.

I gave myself a year max to “follow that dream” before going on to school. The year turned into seven or eight. We loved old 1930s jazz so reluctantly, I was forced to teach myself to transcribe various Duke Ellington big band orchestrations because somebody had to. And I taught myself to write them down on paper.

We really believed in that dream. But we also starved. There seemed to be no way to make this thing viable, and we couldn’t fit into any niche that might qualify for grants or endowments. The commitment and effort were enormous, but I finally came to the realization that maybe it had reached its limit – and the “dream” had no future.

Time for “a new dream”? Maybe I could refine some of these skills with the crude composing and arranging I had picked up. Could this be it? Perhaps. Also in that troupe we had begun to build our own mini percussion orchestras. Maybe I could become an ethno-musicologist, or better yet, start a homemade percussion ensemble. Now that’s starting to make sense, right? Wrong.

Woke up one day and heard this new up-tempo pop music from England called Ska. It reminded me of the West African pop music I used to listen to, and damn it, that’s what I wanted to do. Gotta follow that dream … again … but now I’m really having a hard time figuring out: Exactly what dream was that?

Cut to …

Now I’m playing electric guitar and singing in a struggling eight-piece rock band modeled after a West African pop group. Violin and percussion skills moot. Composing and arranging, useless. It was all very fun but I was kind of bitter that I’d wasted all those early years and got such a late start. I was 30 years old. Aren’t you supposed to start your first band at around 16? Whatever … .

A year became five or six. Again, we busted out asses and rehearsed night and day. We got better. We built a strong following. Even got a record deal. Things are going OK. I guess I’m finally realizing my dream?

Can’t put my finger on it. Something’s still not right. Still not quite seeing “the future.”

Then a young animator doing his first feature film comes to see my band. He liked it and thought maybe I could score his film. How the hell am I going to do that? I have no training. I felt woefully inadequate. My newly acquired band skills now seemed useless for this endeavor. I came so very, very close to saying no. So, time for a big deep pause.

Remember back – all those movies I paid so much attention to (including the music)? Combine that with what I’d picked up with the theatre troupe – I developed a pretty good ear during those years.

I did learn to write down music on paper once. And I did remember all the film scores I grew up with. And so I reluctantly agreed.

The young animator kid, by the way, was Tim Burton, and the movie was PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. I did it, and guess what happened? It jump-started a new dream and a whole new career. But that’s not the point of this story. That was a lucky break.

So here’s the point.

Over the next 10 years, I busted my ass to learn this new craft and to my surprise, I found that every detour and dead end I had encountered in the past ended up giving me great advantages. I began incorporating all of my ethnic percussion and love of rhythm. As my teachers, I turned to a half dozen film composers that, although I didn’t know it at the time, had embedded themselves into my soul and brain.

I drew from some of the crazy, irreverent stuff I did while banging it out in the street troupes, both French and American, and the ear training I got from transcribing those Ellington records.

And strangely, in a weird way, the “go screw yourself” attitude I got from being in a rock band paid off too, because it allowed me to be more fearless.

Even the starving years taught me to sharpen up my intuition and people skills and how to figure things out with nothing to work with. Things that proved to be really useful.

But most importantly, all those detours taught me not to lose hope from failure. One door closes, another opens up. And amazingly, in the end, nothing was wasted. All the time I thought I had lost wasn’t lost at all.

So now finally I’m getting to the message. Time to preach a little.

Whatever field you’re about to embark on, by all means, go ahead and follow that dream, but here’s some simple lessons to keep in mind.

The only absolute promise that I will make to you today is this: While pursuing your dream, you will find that you’re going to encounter tons of stuff, both good and bad, that I guarantee you will not expect. You may think you know where you’re going, but in fact, it’s likely you have no idea where any of your chosen paths will take you. It will be difficult.

But if your path is twisted and uphill and all over the place, you’ll still acquire some tools, some skills, some experience, no matter how small, no matter how random, that could add up to something that is above and beyond your original dreams, in ways that may startle and surprise you.

So, whatever happens in your life, starting now – remember it. And use it.

You’re artists. You can, and should, use everything.

There’ll be many unexpected obstacles … use them. There’ll be many disappointments … use them. There could be some real heartbreaks … use them. Leave every possibility open all the time.

If you end up in the commercial arts, like I did, you may find yourselves up against an all too common beast: the combination of limited imaginations attached to egos larger than anything you thought possible. You may encounter small minds that judge you and whose approval you may need to move forward, and that will make you frustrated and angry. Use it.

In my first 10 years as a film composer I was up against so much criticism, slander and abuse from my industry, it was astounding. Mean-spirited rumors were commonplace and abundant.

And I can tell you this, the frustration and anger I felt toward my detractors and those who took shots at me from high safe places became my greatest fuel.

I know this sounds really sick. And it is. But the point is that adversity, and the need to prove yourself and to show what you’re capable of can be a tremendous motivating factor. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself overflowing with frustration like I was … use it. Own it. Don’t waste it. It’s not just fuel, it’s rocket fuel! And when your weapon is your talent, revenge is sweet!

And now the platitudes.

Know that it’s OK not to be the best at what you’re attempting to do. That doesn’t mean you don’t have something worthwhile to offer. I never for a second imagined I’d ever be half the film composer that my idol Bernard Hermann was, and I was right, I’m not. But it’s OK.

Expect your first pass at anything to be flawed … and your second, and your third and sixth and maybe your tenth. It’s OK. It’s normal. It’s something we all share.

Don’t expect a lucky break. But they’ll happen. They’ll find you.

If you’re lucky enough to find success, learn to accept praise warily. Those who accept and believe praise too readily – or worse, those who seek it inevitably suffer in their work.

There are no dead ends in your life … until of course, you’re dead.

But, believe it or not, there’s one more point I’d like to make. I was discussing all this stuff with a writer friend who posed an interesting question: When and how does one know when to stick with their dream and when to bail for another? Sadly, there’s no good answer for that. If I had stuck with the violin, I have no doubt that I would by now have become a mediocre violin player at best. It simply wasn’t in me.

We all have to learn to find our strengths and weaknesses. To learn self-criticism but to sense when it’s becoming self-destruction. We all have to have faith in ourselves but need to know when to stand firm without bending and when to become fluid, elastic, and agile.

There’s no easy answers to that. We’re all different. You’ve all heard the stories about listening to your gut, your instincts, and they’re all true. Over time your instincts will evolve.

Observe it all. Use it all. Keep your eyes and ears open and learn from everything you can. Remember that it’s just as important to discover what doesn’t work for you as what does.

Today you’re graduating. And you’re beginning this long, wonderful, terrible, agonizing and ecstatic, draining and fulfilling process. Now your learning has just begun.

And may the elusive gods of inspiration at least occasionally reach down and touch you.

Good life, and good luck.
Old 14th October 2007
Gear nut

Nice, thanks for that
Old 14th October 2007
Gear addict
Clayphish's Avatar

This is exactly what I needed right about now. Thanks for posting it.
Old 14th October 2007
Lives for gear

Truely thought pravoking and inspiring.

Ron Florentine
Soundswest Studio
Old 14th October 2007
Lives for gear
chrispick's Avatar

Yeah, thanks for the post. I really liked reading it. An unpretentious speech from someone who's achieved two major music career successes.
Old 14th October 2007
Gear Addict
Funk Dracula's Avatar

Didn't know Danny Elfman had that kinda upbringing. Knew about his brother 'cause I'm a cult movie addict, and as a teen loved "Forbiden Zone."

Always admired his compositions. Very nice speech!

Jeez, the year before I graduated from highschool Hillary Clinton was the speaker. (1995)

The year I graduated (1996) a producer for "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" spoke. He was high. Great intro for what I was in for...

I skipped out on both of my two collage graduations. Wish Mr. Elfman or the likes was there...
Old 14th October 2007
Lives for gear
bcgood's Avatar

Your welcome for the post!

I wish someone as cool as Danny Elfman spoke at my graduation.

Like chrispick said, what a humble and inspiring speech from someone that has accomplished so much.
Old 14th October 2007
Lives for gear
Sui_City's Avatar

One thing that this drives home for me is how one really only finds arrogance in those who have no reason to be arrogant.

Those like Danny Elfman, who have accomplished so much, tend to be more grounded and real, not only in their evaluation of their environment, but in their evaluation of themselves.

And that is a reminder to remain humble.
Old 14th October 2007
Lives for gear

Great post - a wonderful read. Thanks for sharing.

It's refreshing to be reacquainted with such fundamental truths. Even those whom we think may lead charmed lives ... are really no different than ourselves. The insecurities and yearnings we all have, coupled with the hopes & dreams we search for in attaining some lofty goal ... are as universal as the outcome is unpredictable.

Go with the flow, Live in the present ... and the future will take care of itself.
Old 14th October 2007
Gear Guru
FFTT's Avatar

Sent this to my daughter at Va Tech, THANKS!
Old 14th October 2007
Originally Posted by Sui_City View Post
One thing that this drives home for me is how one really only finds arrogance in those who have no reason to be arrogant.

Those like Danny Elfman, who have accomplished so much, tend to be more grounded and real, not only in their evaluation of their environment, but in their evaluation of themselves.

And that is a reminder to remain humble.
Hope blender1/2/3 is still reading these boards...
Old 14th October 2007
I was never a fan of Oingo Boingo (although one of my old pals was a big fan of the original theatre troupe it sort of grew out of) but I was, in time, won over by Elfman's soundtrack work. (I believe he also owes a debt of gratitude to his long-time orchestrator, whose name escapes me, but I'm told she was instrumental [sorry] to his early successes.)

Speaking of Elfman's many effective and occasionally quite moving movie scores, I was once listening to a weekend show on my local public station back in the 90s and they were playing some big, boldly recorded orchestral music that was clearly soundtrack music and I thought to myself, Gee, looks like Danny Elfman's been doing this too long... he's really doing a lame parody of himself here...

I was really kind of disappointed and stuck around to hear what movie it was from.

Imagine my surprise when it was back-announced: it wasn't a Danny Elfman score at all -- it was one-time "serious music" darling Phillip Glass.

At least it didn't have Glass's infinitely boring signature arpeggios. OTOH, it really showed what thin compositional chops Glass actually fields.

And, for all you Glass fans, don't think this is based on a superficial familiarity with his works: I estimate I've seen his work performed in concert perhaps six or seven times over the years, between my local symphony and the Kronos Quartet, who are big fans of Glass (and I was once a big fan of them). I even saw the premiere (I believe) of his inispid Concerto for Timpani (which I have dubbed the Mission Impossible Concerto for its infuriatingly insistent use of the rhythmic tattoo from that TV show theme). It was one of the worst pieces (IMHO) I have ever seen performed by a symphony orchestra. And I like "20th Century" music. Stravinsky? Bartok? Stockhausen? Bring 'em on... I love 'em.
Old 14th October 2007
Gear Maniac
sharky's Avatar
First album (cassette) I ever bought was Oingo Boingo's "Nothing to Fear". Made my Mom take me to the store to get it. Grey Matter was the first song I ever "owned".

Always been a big fan of Mr. Elfman. Great post. Thanks.
Old 14th October 2007
Lives for gear
DAWgEAR's Avatar

bcgood, thanks for posting that.
Old 14th October 2007
Lives for gear
chrispick's Avatar

Originally Posted by theblue1 View Post
I was never a fan of Oingo Boingo (although one of my old pals was a big fan of the original theatre troupe it sort of grew out of) but I was, in time, won over by Elfman's soundtrack work. (I believe he also owes a debt of gratitude to his long-time orchestrator, whose name escapes me, but I'm told she was instrumental [sorry] to his early successes.)
To my knowledge, Steve Deleted User (also of Oingo Boingo fame -- and Strawberry Alarm Clock!), is the main Elfman behind-the-scenes orchestration helper. His Elfman-related arranger/orchestrator credits go all the way back to "Forbidden Zone."

Steve Deleted User

I don't think this discredits Elfman significantly though. He still comes up with all the melodies, movements, counterpoint, etc. And I imagine Deleted User is amply compensated for his contribution, as he's continued to work with Elfman behind-the-scenes for many, many years (well, he does get a credit on every film).
Old 15th October 2007
Lives for gear
Strobian's Avatar
A good read, I'm a huge fan of Tim Burton and especially loved the nightmare Before Christmas score. Good to hear the human side of people, yeah adversity is what makes people great. builds character.
Old 16th October 2007
Gear Addict

Excellent stuff and certainly an inspirational way to start off the morning.
I may have to float this to my college aged nieces.
Old 16th October 2007
Lives for gear
PlugHead's Avatar

A fascinating read: thank you for this!

I've been an Elfman fan for alot of years, and reading his musings on life and where we might end up as artists is revealing to the depth of character he has.

I've heard it from more than just him - life is a series of 'little' breaks, not one giant one. For all the people I've heard whining that they were never given that 'big' break - I laugh to myself and and think of the current mentality where people want fame before they have any talent. Develop your talents FIRST, then get ready to approach making a living, and hopefully some notoriety and/or fame will follow...

Facinating read: I also wish someone like Elfman were at my grad - I never attended ANY of them, but if he had been there I sure woulda thought twice about skipping it...

Old 16th October 2007
Gear Nut
GungaDin's Avatar

good stuff, thanks!
Old 16th October 2007
Lives for gear
FMNYC's Avatar

Old 16th October 2007
Gear Guru
henryrobinett's Avatar
That was really great. Thank you for that BC!
Old 14th October 2008
man, this rules.

thank you so much for that.

anybody with info on o recordings?
Old 14th October 2008
Gear Maniac
Chris Nighman's Avatar

Thanks BC; great read.
Old 14th October 2008
Lives for gear
drastic's Avatar
Great readthumbsup
Post Reply

Welcome to the Gearslutz Pro Audio Community!

Registration benefits include:
  • The ability to reply to and create new discussions
  • Access to members-only giveaways & competitions
  • Interact with VIP industry experts in our guest Q&As
  • Access to members-only sub forum discussions
  • Access to members-only Chat Room
  • Get INSTANT ACCESS to the world's best private pro audio Classifieds for only USD $20/year
  • Promote your eBay auctions and listings for free
  • Remove this message!
You need an account to post a reply. Create a username and password below and an account will be created and your post entered.

Slide to join now Processing…
Thread Tools
Search this Thread
Search this Thread:

Advanced Search
Similar Threads
Thread Starter / Forum
bryancook / Q+A with Tchad Blake
jwh1192 / Gearslutz Secondhand Gear Classifieds
chetatkinsdiet / So much gear, so little time
Renie / Gear free zone - shoot the breeze
007 / Remote Possibilities in Acoustic Music and Location Recording

Forum Jump
Forum Jump