"The Passion" of the Composer

John Debney on a Soundtrack-Turned-Symphony

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ROME, JULY 4, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The composer of the soundtrack for film «The Passion of the Christ» has extended his original work into a symphony.

John Debney will conduct a world premiere of the symphony in Rome this Wednesday. He arrived here Friday for rehearsals. Beforehand, he gave ZENIT more insight into his work.

Q: Could you please give us a glimpse of what we’re expecting here in Rome? Is there a difference between the symphony and the soundtrack?

Debney: Yes. Certainly, this whole idea started when I was composing music for the film with Mel Gibson and I thought it would be a nice idea to write a major new work that would be based upon some of the themes I had produced for the film, but with some additional thematic material.

What I decided was that I would try to tell the story of the Passion […] as exemplified by the Stations of the Cross.

So, my symphony is composed of a prologue which starts in the Garden of Gethsemane. Then we have seven movements that contain in them two stations per movement. This means there is a total of seven movements representing the 14 stations.

After the seven movements I have an epilogue which is the Resurrection — obviously not part of the traditional stations. So, I wanted to write a work that would really encompass the whole story behind the passion of Christ.

Q: In what way do you tell this story through your music?

Debney: Well, I also wanted to talk about the other main ideas behind each station. What I mean by that, for instance, are the ideals which are universal: love, mercy, faith, sacrifice, charity, etc.

It is a uniquely Christian work and one that, I think, underlines Christ’s message of goodness and self-sacrifice, etc. That’s the whole idea behind the symphony.

And the wonderful thing is that not only will you hear this music, but you’ll be able to see some amazing visuals which are highlighting some moments or characters from the film [and] also are highlighting some of the greatest artistic works on the topic of all time. I have expanded quite a bit on the film’s pieces, though.

Q: Indeed, the film utilized a range of unique sounds and rhythms denoting not just these sentiments but also the location and era that I believe will be carried into the symphony?

Debney: There is a lot of music in the film — so I’m also using some wonderful «world» instruments from the movie. Things like the duduk, an ancient Armenian instrument which I used a lot in the film.

We are also blessed to have Elizabeth Scott, one of the soloists from the film, with us in Rome. Hers is the voice of the flashbacks where Mary is flashing back to the memory of her Child Jesus, as many viewers may remember.

Q: But, how would you personally, as the composer, describe the textures and timbres of the music itself and how you feel the music reflects the themes you are aiming to present?

Debney: The whole notion for the type of score started with Mel Gibson. And what Mel wanted to create was truly a universal experience.

What that means is, obviously, that the film has a capacity to speak to those of the Christian faith and beyond to those people who may be interested in seeing a story of Scripture.

The score had to really reflect every area or cultural influence of the world. This is really how the score ended up the way it did, as it really utilizes many varying instruments and colors from all over the world.

Not only that but, as I mentioned, we wanted to include instruments that are ancient, like the primitive drums, like the numerous flutes from this land of 2,000 years ago.

And I think what the ethnic or multicultural influences do is that it puts the listener into this world of 2,000 years ago. Mel used to say, «I want you to be able to taste the dust in your mouth; to taste Jerusalem and all the different backdrops and streets of 2,000 years ago.»

I really feel that at the end of the day, hopefully through what I’ve tried again to do with the symphony, the listener will be able to both be able to identify with music that we’re very familiar with in modern, Western terms while being able to experience those moments when we travel back in time as we hear the mournful sound of the duduk or a nai flute or a vocal. Certain instruments represent particular characters, like the Chinese erhu for Satan or evil.

I’m also using three languages in the symphony — ancient Aramaic, Latin and Italian — selected for very specific reasons. So even in the language it crosses cultural boundaries.

Q: It is evident that you had to face an enormous challenge in the creation of this work. What is your overall perspective of the creative process and did you experience a sense of the sacred?

Debney: It was truly a gift from up-above for me to do this film as I’m a lifelong Catholic. Then, for whatever reason, I feel that doing the symphony was another great gift too. I don’t try to question it. I truly treat it as a personal act of faith.

I treated both the writing of both the symphony and the film score in this faith-filled way. It’s very personal to me. I hope that when people hear and attend — I hope that they will be deeply moved. I hope that they think about the possibility of God.

Q: They are powerful sentiments you are reflecting in the music. As a famous film composer with a huge filmography behind you — I counted about 43, ranging from comedy to tragedy, thriller to cartoon — what was unique or similar about the experience for writing the music for «The Passion» and now this symphony?

Debney: My goal is to always help tell the story in a film, and in working with Mel, it was a wonderful journey that was both beautiful and hard and all the other things you can imagine in terms of a journey like that.

Therefore, when I began writing for this symphony all those sentiments came back and it was similar.

Again, I hope that when people hear this music and hear this symphony that they may think about the possibility of God.

I’ve written notes that accompany the symphony which indicate my journey too and if nothing else I hope that people will hear it and just consider God’s existence … whether they are a believer or not; that they may just ponder on how there has to be more behind all of this and beyond just this physical world. So that’s what I’m hoping to show.

I’m also aiming to have it hit people so they may feel it on a very basic, deep human level.

So I think what people will hear in the symphony is music that is deeply moving and at times distinctly powerful; at times intensely uplifting and others acutely sad. Again, we as believers know the end of the story and that is the joyous note it ends on as I mentioned earlier.

Q: What kind of study did you have to put into this work?

Debney: I had to do some very quick study when I got the assignment to do the film. And I can tell you, there’s not a lot of music that exists from that period.

There are bits and pieces of different traditional folk liturgical music from it, though, and as I was writing both the score and symphony I really didn’t know from moment to moment what was going to come out. I was sort of without a road map.

I knew that I had to be true to each Station of the Cross and that I had to bring the listener through that journey. I hope that they come with me when listening to the symphony and walk together the stations of the Via Dolorosa.

Therefore, though it might sound a little strange in many circles, I have to admit that my study was left up to God. I just let the Spirit lead me.

Many times I would finish composing a movement, go away for a couple of days, come back and couldn’t even recall having written it! It’s a rather bizarre experience.

An almost unique experience stemming from this film: I would complete something, we would record and people
would be overwhelmed with emotion, even those rehearsing or recording.

It wasn’t the music, it was the spirit behind it. I believe it’s God who’s really behind this, letting me write a few good notes.

That was the internal dream for me. Study was replaced at times by internal prayer and hoping and trusting that things would come out well.

Q: So faith played a significant part in the composition process?

Debney: Yes. God’s imprint is all over this, in my humble opinion. It’s not me. It’s that strange disconnect that an artist gets when using [his] talents to glorify the one who gave them to him. For example, maybe a great painter stands back from his easel at the end of a work and realizes that his hands weren’t alone in the creation of this.

My intention is to just put this out into the world and if it touches people I’ll be thrilled. I don’t want anything from it. It’s a nonprofit venture.

I’m happy that I completed it and am honored and actually quite humbled by it because I have felt the Holy Spirit through this journey in my life.

Q: Will the symphony be performed beyond Rome?

Debney: I hope so. We have had many inquiries and we haven’t even performed it, but the word has sort of gotten out. My dream would be that it would go to every part of the world, quite frankly.

For everyone who with either knows or doesn’t know of God, I hope that this may be used as a font of inspiration of some kind and a permanent invitation.

After praying long and hard about how to define the symphony, I like to call my symphony an invitation.

By this I mean, it is an invitation to convert. Just to consider that there is more, to contemplate on God as a real entity and a loving persona. These are real, concrete things.

They’re not abstract things so that’s why I call it an invitation. I just hope now that this happens — people everywhere will hear it and ponder.

Q: Any final words you wish to share?

Debney: I love speaking about the film, I love speaking about our faith, about music in general and I would just invite everyone … I will pray that this will simply spread truth and love through sound.

With everything I do, it is to glorify him. The fact that he continued to give me the gift through all the struggles, and there were some, to wake up and write these notes, is thrilling. That is true about everything I do, but especially about this.

I’m hoping to invite a certain number of people that can’t afford to go, so we’re making a number of inquiries through the Vatican to try to invite orphans and religious who would not otherwise be able to attend. To be Christ-like we must reach out to the lowliest and include them in such activity.

Sometimes we don’t hear what God’s telling us. It’s worth stopping to listen so we can open our arms to them too. You never know what joys you will find when you listen to God’s call.

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