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Eastwood's score plumbs depths

"Somehow I became an actor," the unmistakable, dust-dry voice of Clint Eastwood said over the telephone. "I drifted away from music. But if I had just practiced, I might be playing in a bar somewhere today, with a tip jar on top of the piano."

Eastwood played cornet and flugelhorn as well as piano when he was a kid, and as a young man he did play piano in bars. He may have drifted away from music, but he's never given it up. He's sung or played piano in several of his movies and featured the work of some of his favorite jazz artists on soundtracks.

His films also include knowledgeable references to classical music. And Eastwood the improviser has become a composer, writing songs, themes, and even entire scores for nine of his films, including the new "Mystic River."

"This is a Boston story," Eastwood says. "The author is a Boston man, the screenwriter comes from 40 miles south, and we filmed it in Boston. Since the whole picture had a Boston tilt, I said we might as well see if the Boston Symphony is available to record the score."

So last March, the BSO did record the film's moody music under the direction of Eastwood's Army buddy from 50 years ago, jazz saxophonist Lennie Niehaus, who has worked on the music of nearly all of Eastwood's films since 1984. Boston Pops percussionist and arranger Patrick Hollenbeck prepared the orchestrations. Eastwood even made a brief appearance on the Symphony Hall podium himself, grateful, he said, that his entrance had not been greeted by the theme from "Rawhide."

For the photographers he raised his arms, but reportedly told the orchestra, "Just tune up." For the recording, he turned all of the conducting over to Niehaus.

Eastwood says his love of music has been lifelong. "I liked pop music and swing music and especially jazz; jazz was just rebellious enough to appeal to me," he says. "Right after Fats Waller died [in 1943, when Eastwood was 13], my mother brought home some records and told me they were going to be classics. I listened to them and didn't appreciate him at first, but then I started really liking him and trying to imitate the chords he was playing."

Renowned as an understated actor and a minimalist director, Eastwood knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. "I grew up in the radio era, and the sound of a movie is almost as important to me as the visual aspect," he says. "If one of these dimensions is lacking, it diminishes the impact of the film."

Eastwood remembers with pleasure John Williams's score to one of his early movies, "The Eiger Sanction." But he believes in an aesthetic radically different from that of those directors who hire Williams to produce wall-to-wall scores nearly as long as the films. "Often Clint's movies will go on without music for 20 or 25 minutes," Niehaus explains. "He says, `If the acting is good and it works on its own, you don't need the music.' "

"Music," Eastwood declares, "should enhance the drama, whatever it is, and it should be used very subtly. I have seen a lot of movies where there was a lot of music where I would have preferred to hear none. `Bridges of Madison County' [1995] begins with no music; these people are living lives void of music. But as the characters fall in love, the music begins to come in, also incorporating things those people might have enjoyed listening to." (Eastwood's theme for "Bridges," "Doe Eyes," was played at his wedding to Dina Ruiz in 1996.)

The score to "Mystic River" is slow and solemn; Eastwood calls the chorale-like principal theme "a dirge." "This is a very tough story, a very dramatic story, a very emotional story," he says. "Hopefully we've captured that. This theme recurs throughout the film, played in a series of variations." But the music is only part of the aural atmosphere of the movie, in which thousands of sounds create a kind of musique concrete: birdsong, children on a playground, a clattering coffee cup, dogs barking, sirens, a train whistle. During a wake, children are noodling at the piano, and the tune they are playing with is the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Eastwood's music comes in occasionally to bridge scenes, more often to add depth to the most emotional moments. His son Kyle contributed two fragments of the score: some hip-hop music and the saxophone blues playing in a bar in a key scene at the end.

The director says it has come to seem a perfectly normal thing for him to create the music for his movies: "The film is occupying 90 percent of your time, anyway. You just jot down a theme that kind of works with the drama as you see and hear it. I start hearing the music as I go along, the same way I see the story visually. I compose the themes on the piano, sometimes before even starting on the movie. I wrote the theme for `Unforgiven' while I was still just thinking about the movie. This one, for `Mystic River,' I wrote after the film was made."

Niehaus says his own usual modus operandi is to write down Eastwood's music as he plays it on the piano. "In this picture he harmonized the melody in triads," Niehaus says. He confirms that Eastwood was very clear about how the triads reflect the interlocking relationships of the three principal characters.

Part of the scoring of the film was serendipitous, according to orchestrator Hollenbeck, who describes his own job as "largely secretarial . . . [trying] to enhance Clint's vision with colors from the orchestra, the chorus, and the hall."

During a break, pianist Brad Hatfield was improvising on the "Mystic River" theme in front of a mike he didn't know was on. Eastwood overheard him and loved what he was doing. So he recorded Hatfield's improvisations, and Hatfield's piano now opens the film.

Eastwood says, "When you have the Boston Symphony, it is very tempting to put a ton of music in, and I had to resist that. Every film is different. Some call for more music, some for less." It's clear that "Mystic River" has a special resonance for him. "It's still stuck in my craw," he says, "so I think I'll hang with this one for a little bit. I don't know what I'm going to do next. I'm trying not to work as much as I used to, but I have a few more rabbits to pull out of the hat."

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