Gayle Levant - Salvi Harps
From the Oscars to the Las Vegas strip,
from Ray Charles to Liberace, from The
Simpsons to The Incredibles—Gayle
Levant has left her musical mark in nearly
• March/April 2008
every corner of Hollywood.
by Ellie Choate
You probably don’t realize it, but chances are you’ve heard
Gayle Levant play the harp. Anyone who has been to the movies,
watched TV, or listened to the radio in the last 40 years has heard
her—the list of recordings to her credit is so extensive that she’s
hard to miss. Good friend and colleague Ellie Choate sat down
with Levant to talk about her fascinating career as a studio musician.
HC: How did you wind up in the recording industry as
opposed to all the other options that were possibilities for
GL: My father was a great violinist—he unfortunately
passed away in 1950 at the very young age of 41. He was
concertmaster in a lot of the studio [orchestras] here in L.A.
• March/April 2008
HC: If your father had not been a studio musician, do you think you would be as likely to make
GL: I’m sure it’s my frame of reference with my
dad. However, I’ve always loved sight-reading, and I
don’t like things that I have to keep doing over and
over. I was a voracious reader. As a little girl I was
always buying piano music. I just couldn’t get
enough. It’s like people who
read books, I couldn’t stop FOR THE RECORD
reading—I loved sight-reading. Levant recalls some of the singers she has
HC: You studied all this clas- performed and recorded with over the
sical repertoire, and then you years.
want to do studio playing. How
did the classical foundation
influence your studio playing,
and what things do you need
to know in the studio that you Tony Bennett
may or may not have learned David Benoit
from the classical stuff? Andrea Bocelli
Because obviously there are Michael Bolton
GL: Right. Well, let me just Michael Buble
kind of go in a progression of The Carpenters
answers. After high school, I
was the harpist for USC’s symNeil Sedaka
phony, and UCLA, and the
Young Musician’s Foundation,
and Debut, as well as Ontario,
and Rio Hondo, the Beverly Josh Groban
Hills Symphony—I was just Charlie Haden Quartet Steve Tyrell
running around everywhere. I Whitney Houston
was having a grand time, but I
still had in the back of my mind wanting to go into
the studio business. The first time I was in a studio
was when I was 15, and then I actually did my first
commercial when I was 17. I was driving alone and
it was the first time I heard myself on the radio! And
I just—I almost went into the center divider! I got so
HC: That’s a very promising career right there!
GL: Yes, and nobody was there to hear it, but I
was so excited! And that just confirmed it for me. I
must have been about 18 at that point, and that’s
when I just knew that I wanted to be in the studios. I
never had aspirations to be a concert harpist, to be
traveling. It’s a lonely way of living your life because,
you know, it’s not easy, and I admire soloists that do
that kind of work, whether it’s on the harp, the violin, the piano, whatever. But I love studio work. So
after I had done a lot of the community orchestras, I
started working. I worked up in Tahoe.
One day when I was 3 years old, he must have
played a wrong note, and I went screaming down the
hallway, “Mommy, Mommy! Daddy hit a wrong
note!” And at that point my parents looked at each
other—my mother was musical as well, she played
the flute and violin—and it was decided that maybe
I should start piano lessons. And that’s where it all
started, from the piano. I studied the piano until
shortly after I made the transition to the harp. But
the piano was my foundation. I don’t remember if I
was introduced to the harp because my mom started
talking about it when I was 11, or if it was from going
to youth symphonies on Saturday mornings—the
L.A. Phil would have the Symphony for Youth concerts, and I remember Stanley Chaloupka was the
harpist. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I saw
him actually pick up the harp, put it over his shoulder, and walk off the stage!
HC: That is a remarkable sight!
GL: That’s right. So anyway, whether it was my
mom, whether it was my talking about it, who
knows? The bottom line is we got a harp in the
house, and I started harp lessons with Hazel Bruster.
She was an incredible woman. It was the most natural transition to go from the piano to the harp.
Should a child wanting to learn the harp study the
piano first? I know there are mixed feelings about it.
I definitely am for it, because it gives you everything
on the black and white keys—you know, the whole
range. And when you make the transition to harp,
for me it just made so much sense.
I studied with [Bruster] privately until I was about
15, and then she wanted me to study with a woman
by the name of Raiya Kibbee, who was a real
taskmaster. When I would go to my lessons at her
home, I’d come out after an hour and a half or so just
wringing wet, mad and infuriated and excited and
exhilarated all at the same time, depending on the
type of lesson I’d had.
I was still very active with the piano all through
school. I started playing piano for choirs. To this day,
I love playing for choirs. I had just transitioned from
classical piano to jazz. And I remember the jazz
teacher saying to me, “What would you like to do
when you grow up?” And I must have been about 12
then, I had had some harp lessons. I said, “I want to
be like my daddy. I want to play in the studios.” And
he said, “Well, there are so many incredible pianists
in this city, that if you really want to do it, you should
really go after the harp, and really pursue it, because
you’ll have much more opportunity.” It was the best
advice I ever had.
HC: In the hotels, you mean?
GL: The hotel was Harrah’s Tahoe. And ironically,
• March/April 2008
Levant floats along
in the lagoon at the
restaurant at the
Dunes Hotel in Las
Vegas in 1965.
my mother had remarried to a man named Duke
Goldstone who actually was the director and producer of the Liberace series back in [the fifties]. So when
the call came, which came actually from Liberace’s
conductor, Gordon Robinson, I knew that name really well because I had met Liberace when I was 11. He
didn’t know my name as Gayle Levant, which is my
maiden name. So I remember Gordon called one day,
and he said, “We’re looking for a young harpist that’s
nice-looking, who can improvise and would like to be
featured with Liberace,” and I said of course.
Because I was doing a lot of private parties and
weddings and fashion shows at that time, I had to
have a lot of pretty gowns. And I remember Gordon
Robinson, the conductor, saying to me, “Could I possibly come over and meet you?” And he came over to
the house, and he said, “You know, Lee really likes
things to look beautiful. Do you have any pretty outfits we could show him?” I said yes, and I showed him
a few things. He said, “Oh Gayle, this is great! I’d like
to take you up to meet Liberace.” And I said, “Fine!”
So we go up to Lee’s home, and I meet him, and he’s
absolutely delightful—and, of course, I’d met him
years ago—and I show him the gowns, and one of
them had feathers
all over the bottom,
ostrich feathers. And
he loved all this, so I
got hired. And I said,
“Okay, now can I
talk to both of you?”
And they both said,
“Sure.” And I said,
“Do you remember
their ears perked up,
and they said, “Well,
of course.” And I
said, “That’s my stepfather!” Well, from
then on it was like
bringing a family
HC: But on the
other hand, you
landed the job on
your own merits.
GL: That’s right;
they had no idea
who I was, and I don’t know how they got my name.
So it was a double thrill for everybody, because when
I got home, my mom said, “Did you get a job today?”
I said, “Yes, I got a job.” “Well, what are you going to
do?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to Lake Tahoe, I’m
going to play the harp with Liberace,” and she said,
“You what?” So I went up to Tahoe and did the show
for three weeks. I had a grand time. Got written up in
the paper, got my picture in the paper. It was just
HC: Must have been the fabulous gowns, too.
GL: Well, the gowns were beautiful. They were.
And I could wear anything I wanted, because the
harp was right up on the center of the stage, and it
HC: What kind of instrumentation did he have?
Did he have a whole backup band?
GL: Yes, it was a full orchestra, everybody in
black, and one time I’d come out with a gold satin
outfit, another time I’d be in turquoise. I’d always be
in colors. So it was nice.
GL: The house conductor at Harrah’s had heard
me play, and he liked what I did. The next thing that
happened was I stayed on to work with Judy
Garland, and then Nat King Cole. And Judy Garland
had been my hero, I just loved her voice. So to have
the privilege to actually be on stage and play her
music—I mean—I couldn’t believe this was happening. It was magic. So I stayed on, I was with Liberace,
then Judy Garland, then Nat King Cole. I went to
grammar school with his daughter—she used to get
on the school bus with me every day. So it was like
coming home to a family. And Nat gave me a nickname, because I wasn’t of age to be in the casinos; I
was too young! He used to call me “Little Bit.” I’d
always have to walk through the kitchen to get to the
stage, because I wasn’t of age! One time I walked in
the casino, and he was playing roulette, and he said,
“Come over here, Little Bit, give me some luck!”
Anyway, it was a wonderful, wonderful period,
and I was up in Tahoe for about a year. When I got
back to L.A., I worked at the Beverly Hilton for three
year years, six nights a week, playing solo music for
an hour before the group would join me, and then
we’d play dinner music for the rest of the evening. We
never had really set arrangements. Sometimes we’d
have a rehearsal, but basically I would just improvise
the whole evening. Playing every night for an hour
alone, I really started to develop a repertoire of the
music of that time. This was back in the ‘60s, when
my ear really became accustomed to harmonies and
walk in there with a big pile of music and
be flipping pages all night.
GL: No! And there was no room for a
music stand, so you had to basically play
off the top of your head.
HC: What sort of wardrobe did they
have in mind? The Liberace gowns, perhaps?
GL: They asked me, and I said, “I’ve got
lots of gowns,” and I brought them with
me. I’m driving to Vegas, I’ve got the harp
in the back of the car, and I happened to
see my name on the marquee out in front
of the hotel! And again, I almost drove
into the center divider! Because I don’t
think about those things, and it was a
HC: It’s a good thing you’re a good
GL: Yes, I’m telling you. I basically
stayed there for a month. They wanted to
pay X amount of dollars, and I said, “No,
that’s not going to be enough.” And so
they increased the salary. They wanted me
to play five hours a night, and I said, “No,
four hours is what it’s going to be,” and
they wanted me to do 45-minute sets, and
I said, “No, I’ll do 30- to 40-minute sets,
depending.” And then they wanted to give
me a 10 minute break per hour, and I said,
“No, they’re going to be 20 minutes.”
Anyway, I set the standard for all the years
the room was going. Fortunately, I had
enough wherewithal to say, “No, this is
what I want.”
HC: To make it reasonable for anybody,
whoever it was.
GL: Absolutely. And I knew I was only
going to be there for a month, because I
had my job at the Hilton.
HC: Oh, right.
GL: So I came back to L.A. and continued my job at the Hilton, and then got a
call to go back to Tahoe to play with
Mancini and Andy Williams. This was in
‘66. I said, “Okay!” So I went up there, and
that was a lot of fun. And while I was up
there, a contractor who used to be at
Universal, by the name of Bobby Helfer,
called and asked me if I’d be interested in
doing a record session with Andre Previn
and Julie Andrews. And I said, “I’d love
to.” I don’t know why I got called, but I
did. I had done a few sessions in town,
but I didn’t know anybody. Well, it was
absolutely beautiful. And to this day, it’s
one of my most favorite albums I think I
ever played on.
HC: Is that the Christmas album, by
HC: It’s beautiful. And there’s a lot of
harp on it.
GL: There’s a lot of harp on it, and I
was the baby in the orchestra. We had an
80-piece orchestra at RCA here in
Hollywood, and I didn’t know anybody,
All I know is I just had the most won-
• March/April 2008
Levant has recorded with countless musicians over the years, including Michael Bolton
(left) and Kenny G (right).
HC: So playing jazz piano must have
carried across into that.
GL: Oh, yes! What happened was I
found that as I was starting to play,
whether it was by myself or playing with
groups, I always saw the keyboard in front
of me—it was always in my eyes. So I was
always thinking the piano at the harp.
And when I would play alone, and play
solos, I never had music. I would just play
by ear. And I wouldn’t play anything
unless I knew all the lyrics. And then I
would play as if I were singing, so I really
ended up singing through my fingers.
And I still do the same today when I play.
I’m singing through my fingers, because I
don’t have a singing voice.
From Judy Garland to Barbra
Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett,
Ray Charles—all of the singers that were
so prevalent at that time had a major
impact on me. Then a gentleman from
the Dunes hotel—his name was Major
Riddle—came into the restaurant where I
was working one night, and approached
me and said he was going to be building
a room that would feature a harpist.
Would I be interested?
HC: Oh, I was hoping you would tell
me about this, I love this!
GL: A year later, he came back to the
Hilton. It was in February of ’65, and I
went to Vegas to see the restaurant they
had built. It was in a round. It had two
levels where the tables were placed
around the room, along with this moat,
this lake—lagoon—that was in the center
of the restaurant. And they had this boat
thing that the harp would sit on, with a
remote control to stop and start. So I could
basically be stopping at the tables and
talking to people and taking their requests
and doing all this good stuff.
So that was in February, and I think it
was in June of ’65 we opened the restaurant. You felt like you were in an aquarium, because it had on the wall, going all
the way around, a projection of fish moving. Oh, it was beautiful!
HC: Think about the skills that you had
to have for that job—you can’t exactly
derful experience for the time that it took to do the
album. And Andre was conducting his arrangements, and Julie Andrews was there singing. I mean,
what a wonderful entree into the industry. It just
boomeranged from that point, and I just went on. I
became so active in the record industry, where I was
bouncing around doing at least three to four sessions
a day, the fourth one possibly being at midnight,
where I’d go in and just improvise over a record
where they had no music, no chord sheet.
HC: So you were just doing overdubs on what was
GL: Yes. And sometimes I would go in and lay
down a basic track. This was in the days before selfcontained groups started recording themselves in
their garages. Everything was being done in the studio. And at the time, I still had long hair. It was the
time of miniskirts and boots, and, you know, it was
just an amazing period. I was all over the place. And
I needed a second harp, so I called Verlye Mills,
because I had been told she had one for sale, and so
I bought her 11. So now I had my 23 and my 11.
Neither one of them were ever home, because they
were just floating from one studio to the next. It was
an unbelievable era.
HC: That was a busy time for harpists, wasn’t it?
GL: Yes, and it was a wonderful time. But that was
my start, that album with Andre Previn and Julie
Andrews in ’66. And it hasn’t stopped. You know, I’m
still to this day—and we’re now in 2008—very
involved in records. Not as many record sessions,
because there just aren’t that many record sessions.
In ’68 or ’69, when I did my first record date with
Barbra Streisand and we hit it off so well—and we’ve
worked together throughout all the years—I’ll never
forget one day we were doing a rhythm date, and I
was in an iso booth. Barbra wanted to get a certain
feel from the rhythm section, and it wasn’t happening. We took a break, and I said to Barbra, “Barbra,
come over here, I want to play something for you,”
and we went over to the Fender Rhodes [electric
piano] and I played what what I thought she was trying to get, a feel, and she looked at me and she says,
“Why does it take a woman to understand me?”
GL: And it’s just because I had such a regard and
respect for her that sometimes I knew what she wanted before she knew what she wanted. I just understood her, and I was just basically musically in her
head. Anyway, I can’t even begin to count the number of projects we’ve done together throughout the
HC: That includes live concerts, too, doesn’t it?
GL: Yep. And that was wonderful. She treated all
the musicians that traveled with her—we were all
taken care of so well, with the accommodations, with
GIVE HER CREDIT
• March/April 2008
In more than four decades of a Hollywood harp career, it’s difficult for Gayle Levant to recall every film she’s
played on, but here are some of the highlights from the last 15 years.
A Beautiful Mind
Anna and the King
Austin Powers 3
Beauty and the Beast
Benny and Joon
Big Mama’s House
Cheaper by the Dozen 2
Clear and Present Danger
Far From Heaven
First Wives Club
For Love of the Game
George of the Jungle
Ground Hog Day
Home on the Range
Hunchback of Notre Dame
Isn’t She Great
Joy Luck Club
Just Like Heaven
Meet Joe Black
Mighty Joe Young
Mission Impossible 3
Next Karate Kid
One Fine Day
Princess Diaries 2
Road to Perdition
Rumor Has It
Santa Clause 2
Scary Movie 2
Scent of a Woman
The Bucket List
The Family Stone
The Mirror Has Two Faces
Thomas Crown Affair
White Fang 2
You’ve Got Mail
albums together in the early days, and the
way we worked, I was never with the
orchestra. He and I would just work oneon-one together. I had a lot of wonderful
sessions that I did with Ray Charles over
the years, and that was phenomenal. And
Stevie Wonder, and—what I should have
done is brought out a list. I need to make
a list of all the people I’ve worked with. I
remember on Stevie Wonder’s record that
we did… “Overjoyed”, that’s the name of
the tune, “Overjoyed.” It’s a wonderful
record, and to this day, I get so excited
when I hear it on the radio. And at the
end, I just started doing soft, gentle flourishes? And they just let me keep going,
and it’s on the end of the record. I’m not
gliss-happy, I’ve never been a gliss-happy
person, but when it feels right…
HC: …there’s no other sound that will
continued on pg. 28
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• March/April 2008
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the way we were flown. It was fantastic.
Funny story—I’m sitting on the stage at
the end of the performance of one of the
shows we had done in Australia, and
Barbra had gone offstage. She came back
on, and she stopped right next to the column of the harp to sing an encore. I didn’t have to play in the beginning of the
piece. She’s facing the audience, and she
put her right hand on the column of the
harp, and she’s just holding onto it. And
that’s fine, because I don’t have to play
yet? She’s comfortable, and hey, that’s my
girlfriend, you know? And she says, “Do
you mind if I hold the harp?” I said, “Of
course not.” Well then, at one point—and
she has the most beautiful hands, her
hands, her fingers are long, and her nails
are beautiful, she has incredibly expressive hands—she took her hand off the
harp, because she was using her hands in
her singing. And I pulled the harp back,
because it was time for me to play.
HC: Seizing the opportunity.
GL: Yes. Now, she’s standing there,
singing with her hands. Without looking
at the harp, she puts her right hand out to
reach for the harp again, and it’s gone!
Because I’ve got the harp back on my
shoulder, and she turns and she looks at
me, and she says, “Oh, I forgot you have
to play!” [Laughs] And it was just one of
those priceless moments. You had to be
there! I’ve had so many wonderful experiences with her over the years, playing for
her wedding, just everything. So the record
world, which is where my heart has
always been, and still is, was such a major
part of who I am today. Starting with the
Carpenters, when they first started their
career, having done everything with
them—I’ve got so many little side stories...!
HC: Well, the first time I was aware of
you was on a James Taylor record, where
they had a picture of all the musicians
that were on the record, and of course I
had to find out who the harpist was, and
there was this woman, and I was thinking,
“Who’s Gayle Levant? Who’s Gayle
Levant?” But there was no more question.
GL: Well, James and I did a number of
continued from pg. 25
GL: That’s right. So, record sessions
were incredibly prolific, along with television, back in the ‘70s. So many TV shows
had live orchestras that were recorded—
you know, music that was recorded to
whatever the episodes were, whether it
was Happy Days or Laverne and Shirley or
Love, American Style or Dynasty, Dallas,
Knots Landing… I was doing all these
shows every week! And then the wearing
of another hat came into my life, and that
was opening a recording studio.
HC: That had to be just another whole
in what ways has he been an influence or
had an impact on you as a harpist?
GL: As a harpist, I became far more
aware of the way the sound of all the
instruments in the orchestra was being
reproduced. I’ve been on sessions where
the orchestra will sound lovely, and the
harp itself will sound brittle, pingy, thin.
And I have always had a concept of the
way I want my harp to sound, and the
way I play a string. I want that string to
have the warmest, the richest sound I can
give without finger sound. I think it really
began when I became aware of the Fender
Levant, pictured here with husband John Richards, a Hollywood sound
engineer, says she hears with a different ear thanks to him. “John had a
major impact on my really becoming aware of the way orchestras are
• March/April 2008
GL: It was.
HC: It’s one thing to go in and play ses-
sions and it’s another thing to own a studio.
GL: That’s right, and really understand
how it works on the other end.
HC: Changing subjects for a moment,
with your husband John [Richards] being
an engineer, what do you suppose your
influences have been on one another,
since you know the harp so intimately and
he’s so, you know, such a respected engineer, and knows so much, and hears so
GL: That’s right.
HC: How has that affected…well, for
example, just the equipment you use, or
Rhodes and how warm that instrument is.
And that’s what I wanted for me, for my
sound to be. And every harpist has their
own sound that they perceive in their
head. So consequently, when I’d be on a
session and I’d hear the harp on a playback sounding awful, I started to become
aware of microphones. I’ve carried my
own mics to every session for years, and a
lot of times I walk into a studio and they
don’t have a mic set up because they know
I’ve got my mic, or mics. So John had a
major impact on my really becoming
aware of the way orchestras are recorded—the sound.
HC: I know that people are always
interested in anything to do with the film
industry, because movies are such a huge
part of our lives. And the Academy
Awards are coming up, so I wonder if you
could talk a little bit about what it’s like to
play on the Academy Awards show. And
also, probably as a side note to that, how
even the Academy Awards and your
career have been affected by this current
writers’ strike. Anytime there’s a strike in
any one part of the industry, it affects the
whole body, so I wonder if you could talk
a little bit about those things.
GL: It’s interesting you bring that up,
because that was my dream as a child, to
someday play for the Academy Awards.
And it was 14 years ago, Bill Conti was
going to be conducting them, I was doing
a film with Bill, and we were at Warner
Brothers. He came over to me one night,
and he said, “I’m just wondering if you
might like to play the Academy Awards
with me.” And of course… [laughs] I
thought I’d pull his leg a little bit, and I
said, “Bill, I am so flattered, but there’s a
tradition that John and I have together.” I
said, “Every Academy Awards night, John
makes shepherd’s pie and we sit in front of
the TV with the fire going and watch the
Academy Awards.” And Bill was really
serious, and he says, “I really respect tradition.” I said, “Are you crazy? This has
been my dream since I was a child!” And
so I’ve been really, really blessed for the
last 14 years, minus one year. I’ve done
the Academy Awards [show] every year,
whether it be with Bill, who is an absolute
joy to work with, and keeps us all in stitches, because we have so many hours that
are involved where we’re just sitting, you
know, rehearsing—dress rehearsals…
HC: This involves days, does it not?
GL: This involves a week. The book,
when it’s passed out, has maybe 150
starts, from top to bottom. And the show is
always close to four hours long. It’s a wonderful show to play. A lot of people maybe
would say, “Oh, it’s so much work.” But it’s
the highlight of our industry here in
Hollywood, and to be a part of it—I can’t
tell you how proud I am. With regard to
this year’s Academy Awards, I don’t know
what’s going to happen, because of the
HC: All the nominations.
GL: It can really be enormous. And
then we have what’s called the underscore, when we’re playing live to whatever
is happening, and sometimes the underscore is pre-recorded, if it’s going to a film,
it has to all be…
HC: …synced up.
GL: …synced up, exactly. So we have
rehearsals in the earlier part of the week,
then we actually go to where it’s being
held now, at the Kodak Theater—beautiful
theater. We go in for a sound check in the
middle of the week to make sure that
everything’s okay. We then go back and
do more of whatever has to be done at
Capitol, and then the show, which airs live
on a Sunday—it goes on the air at 5:30, I
believe. We come in Saturday night and
run the show down from top to bottom,
then we run the show again from top to
bottom on Sunday morning, then we have
a meal break, and then we do the show.
HC: But when you say you run the
show top to bottom, they still haven’t
announced who the winners in those cate-
• March/April 2008
GL: That’s right. And it’s close to 150
starts. That’s a huge, thick book that we’ve
got sitting on our music stand. The first
part of the week we’ll go into Capitol
Studios and start rehearsing. Some years
have been, well, not really song-oriented.
This past year, we had a lot of good songs,
and the artists came in to sing them, and
that was great. This year I’m sure we’ll
have a lot of great songs again, so we
have to get them recorded, the artist has to
come in, hear the arrangements, and get
used to what’s going to be done. We
rehearse with them, and then we have to
run down all the cues of the films that
have been nominated in every single category. What they do is they’ll take maybe
16 bars, which will be a theme from each
of the films, and we’ll have—because
there’s always five nominations in each
category—and we’ll have to spread out
HC: And be prepared to play…
GL: …and be prepared. We have to be
familiar with all the music.
Writers Guild strike. But this is the 80th
year for the Oscars, and again, I feel like a
kid in a toy shop. I don’t know, as we sit
here right now, whether or not the show’s
going to go on.
HC: But at this point there is some sort
of show that you’ve been hired to do?
GL: Yes, there’ll definitely be a show on
[Feb.] 24th, as far as I know. The producer,
Gil Cates, announced that there’s two
ways they’re going to do it, and I don’t
know what those two ways are going to be
yet, but I’m hoping with all my heart that
the Writers Guild will allow the show to
happen full-blown, because obviously
nobody’s going to cross the picket line.
HC: Right. And the Musicians Union, of
GL: No. We’re just holding our breath.
I don’t know what’s going to happen.
HC: Well, assuming it goes on as it
always has, you’d have a week of rehearsal, 120 cues…
HC: And how do you manage all that
the night of, because this is international
• March/April 2008
GL: What they do is
they’ll have a stand-in,
because obviously the
stars are not there for the
dress rehearsals, except
for the singers. The singers
will come in and do their
songs, because they have
to make sure that their
staging and everything is
correct. So there’ll be a
stand-in who will say,
“And the Oscar goes to,
for this rehearsal only…”
and they’ll read [a name].
So then we obviously have
to start to play the music.
And the speeches are
allowed to be just X
amount of time, because
Levant and Alf Clausen, composer and conduc- the show gets so long, they
tor of The Simpsons, take a moment in the stu- try to really hold it down—
dio for a photo. Levant has played 18 seasons of it doesn’t always happen.
HC: Well, now that you
have 14 years of not being
able to watch it with shepherd’s pie, what does John
do? Does he stay home and cook? [Laughs]
GL: Yes! He does, we tape the show, he makes the
shepherd’s pie, I come home, I get to watch it, and
we have our shepherd’s pie! I live five minutes from
the Kodak, so I’m home shortly after the show’s
ended. I get there around 9:30, quarter of 10, and we
still continue our tradition.
Last year, I had a horrendous thing happen. One
of the pedals on the harp that I was using on the day
of the show stopped working.
GL: I thought the rod broke. The pedal stopped—
I couldn’t use the pedal anymore. And there’s such
tight security at every level at the Kodak—we live in
those times. And I just had to stop, and I went over
and just quietly said to Bill—it was Bill Ross who did
the show last year, God bless him, he did a great job
his first time conducting the Awards—I went over
and I said, “Bill, I cannot complete the rehearsal, but
everything will be fine for the show.” I immediately
got on the phone and had my Arianna sent over,
which sounded great. It really came through like
gangbusters. My rod hadn’t broken, a screw had fallen out.
HC: Oh, honestly!
GL: And I didn’t see it until the lights in the pit
were turned up, and my harp had been taken out,
and there was nothing I could do about it. But it was
just one of those moments that you just—it’s one
thing to, God forbid, have a string break…
HC: But a rod!
GL: Needless to say.
HC: I have a question for you, because you’ve
done so many different things, and you already,
early on, realized your childhood dream of wanting
to play in the studios to begin with.
HC: Is there anything looming out there that
you—I can’t imagine that you haven’t done, but
that you just didn’t get enough of? Is there some
dream project that, one of these days, when you get
enough time, or if all the factors come together the
right way, is there something in particular that
you’d like to do?
GL: Well, I’ve been asked so many times, “Gayle,
when are you going to start doing your own
albums?” I’m just in the process now of getting
myself set up with Pro Tools and everything, because
I want to record my own stuff.
HC: You mean solo harp?
GL: Well, I have so many ideas that I want to do,
whether it’s solo harp, whether it’s with groups,
whatever it is, I want to be able to do it. And hopefully I will! I’ve done some writing.
One of the nicest things that happened for the
first time, just this past month. I played on the film
The Bucket List, and Marc Shaiman wrote the score,
and it’s a very nice score which has a lot of harp in
it. We had just come off of doing Hairspray. And
Marc, who is so brilliant, so funny, an incredible
pianist, and a wonderful composer, has an energy
about him like nobody else I’ve ever seen. And he’s
been an absolute joy to work with all these years. So
we had just done Hairspray, and he said, “Gayle,
I’ve got a score coming up that’s going to be very
harp-driven.” And I said, “Great!” And we recorded
it. John and I went to a screening of it at Warner
Brothers this past month, and the last thing I expected, when the credits came up, is I was given a screen
HC: Oh, how nice!
GL: And it was so unexpected. Of all the albums
I’ve played on throughout all the years—and I’ve
had so many credits—I’ve never had a screen credit.
And it was just one of those moments where, if I
never do another film, I’m so proud to have been
affiliated…you know, to be part of the score, and
and maybe it’s not playable. So you have
to be aware of what the composer’s trying
to do and give him the best you can,
although you may have to change the
HC: Understanding the intent.
GL: That’s right.
HC: What about musical styles? You
can always tell the melody instrument
players who are only classical players and
don’t listen to the radio, because they
play, as I say…
GL: They play the notes.
HC: Yes, they play the notes, and the
rhythm’s there, everything’s very accurate,
but there’s no soul to it.
GL: That’s right. And, not to jump over
you, but a perfect example would be
Marty Paich, who has since passed away,
who was a phenomenal arranger. And I
can’t tell you how much respect I had for
him—I adored this man. And he was a
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• March/April 2008
that I was acknowledged!
HC: That’s nice. They do it more lately,
it seems. There used to not be anything
about the musicians in the credits.
GL: That’s right. And I think musicians
that, whether it be a lead trumpet or an
incredible violin solo, whatever it is, I wish
that they would be acknowledged,
because they bring so much to a moment.
HC: What advice do you have for
young harpists who want to get into this
GL: As far as anybody wanting to possibly come into the industry, I don’t
know… It’s like anything else—it’s who
you know. The industry is based on relationships. I think as far as doing studio
work, especially film scoring, you have to
be a good sight-reader. You have to be
quick. You have to have good technique.
You have to have an understanding—at
least I feel—of what the composer’s trying
to get, because so many times, the scores
are written on synthesizers, and the harp
part, when it’s extrapolated from the
score, has been written on a keyboard,
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stickler. He really wrote for strings up the
wazoo, he really knew what to do, and
understood them, as well as the whole
orchestra. And I remember sitting there
one day…because he was so meticulous
about everything, he really made the level
of the string playing…he would take it to
another level, because he demanded it.
And we would read through the music,
and I remember he would say, “Okay,
orchestra. Now, you know the notes, now
let’s play the music.” And that sentence
has stayed with me forever, because it’s so
true. You can play all the notes, and be the
most phenomenal rhythmical player, but
what happens to the music? Are you really listening to the music, are you playing
HC: And do you understand the style?
GL: That’s right.
HC: Just like you were talking about
with Barbra Streisand, trying to get a feel.
There’s a certain feel that they want,
there’s a certain style, there’s a certain
something that they’re looking for, and
the more styles and the more genres
you’re familiar with and at home with,
the more you can be of service to the people you’re working for.
GL: That’s right. It’s just being aware. I
don’t know how else to put it other than
just being aware that there is a whole level
that goes beyond what you’ve just learned
in your classical training. And everyone
has their assets. How do you learn the different styles? By listening.
GL: Listening, being sensitive, being
aware. Being aware, when you’re sitting
in an orchestra, that it’s not just about the
harp. It’s like when you’re sitting in symphony—you have to…you know, you’ve
got to play…
HC: You’re part of a body.
GL: That’s right! And you’re all so
important to the wheel going around in
the right way. Like when I used to own the
studio, I’d say, “Guys, we’re 20 in staff
here. We’re all part of a wheel. Not most
important, but as important as the recording engineer, and the person who takes
care of all the equipment, is the person
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to the production company. And as far as
in our country, I wish composers could
take a stand and say, “This is my home,
and this is where I record.” I think the
equivalent of Los Angeles is England. The
orchestras in England, whether they’re
freelance or whether they’re the LSO or the
RPO, doing a film score, or Saint Martin’s
in the Field—they’re phenomenal musicians, and they listen to each other, and
they play beautifully. And their scales are
pretty much on a parallel to us. That’s not
to say that the composers and the production companies can’t get the scores done
in parts of the world where it’s a lot less
costly. It’s just different. But they will get
done. And it’s very sad to think that a lot
of work that should be done here leaves
Or now what’s happened, obviously
with the advent of digital recording, the
composers now are required to mock up
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who answers the telephone; that’s the first
contact to the outside world.”
HC: That’s right.
GL: We’re all part of a wheel. If one cog
in the wheel is broken, it’s never going to
spin properly. And the same thing with an
orchestra. It’s a fantastic industry. There
are incredible new composers that are
coming onto the scene.
HC: I just hope they’ll love acoustic
instruments as much as we do.
GL: Well, we have another problem
that is obviously…beyond acoustic instruments is the cost of recording these instruments.
GL: And we have wonderful contracts
that have been set in place for many
years, and contracts that have been set up
to help accommodate lower-budget films.
But what has happened is that the world
has become so small that composers often
are told that they are going to have to go
to Budapest or Prague, or go to other parts
of the world to record where they get a
score done for a lot less money; [less] cost
• March/April 2008
these scores for the directors so there are
no nasty surprises when you get to the
scoring stage. In the old days, what a composer would do is call up a director and
say, “Look, I have this idea for such-andsuch as a theme for this person,” and then
plays it on the piano, or the guitar, or
whatever his instrument is. But today,
composers are having to actually mock up
these scores. And then we go in and reproduce what the mockup is.
HC: That’s what I mean about having
the people in the industry have a thirst for
acoustic instruments. I don’t care how
good the technology gets, it’s never quite
GL: It’ll never breathe the same.
HC: I was just going to say it’s got to
have somebody’s breath in it, or it’s not
quite the same.
GL: That’s right; that’s right. And so
consequently what sometimes composers
have to do—because the budget is so
small and they have to go into their pockets, with a synth score—they will bring
into their own home studio acoustic
instruments, maybe a solo violin or
maybe a trumpet or something, to try to
give a little bit of humanness to their
manufactured score. And it works a lot.
It’s not the way I want to see the industry
go. I want to see—oh my god, a real
orchestra! I remember one day I was at a
party, and we were meeting some new
people, and there was a young fellow that
was an up-and-coming engineer. And we
were talking, and he was saying, “You
know, I just love recording,” and bla-blabla-bla-blah, and he’s going on, and he
says, “But I just find it really difficult to get
the sound from the violins that I get on
my synthesizers.” My next comment is,
“How about listening to a live orchestra?”
HC: Yes. Hmm.
GL: “How about going to a symphony
concert and listening to how they sound?”
But I thought, that’s where a lot of the
people that are up-and-coming, if they
haven’t been exposed to live musicians,
want to reproduce the sound that the synthesizers give them. And that’s tragic.
HC: I’m such a huge proponent of live
music on every level. I want music to be a
human, everyday occurrence.
GL: So do I.
HC: With students, with professionals,
with everyone. Every time I go out and
play a [job], I know that I’m advertising.
I’m advertising for the music industry, I’m
advertising for all the people that are
making the records, too.
HC: Every time we’re playing in front
of human beings, they have a chance to
see that this is a human thing.
GL: That’s right. And it’s a gift from
heaven that we’re able to do it. It all
comes down, again, to economics.
Unfortunately, the music budget, which
has been, let’s say, factored into the overall budget… I remember we were doing a
project, and they said, “Oh, we can’t go
into overtime,” because they had basically taken $3,500 from the music budget to
ber that maybe is doing the
score. I remember John and I
went to a screening of—what
was the one that Tom Newman
did? The one that I loved? I
Redemption, that’s right. And I
remember at the time thinking
how wonderful the score was.
We went to see the film, and
afterwards when it was finished I just sat there thinking,
“This is the most complete film
at every level.” It was perfection. And the music—Tommy “The industry is based on relationships,” says Levant
Newman is just a phenomenal (right) pictured here with fellow L.A. harpists Ellie
composer. And he has his own Choate (left) and Carol Robbins (center) outside a
sound. And he had truly writ- jazz club in Southern California.
ten a score that was an
absolute marriage to the film.
music—whatever you choose to do in your
life, whether it’s music or not, just be pasHC: Well, we live for those days when
sionate about it. Just really, really love it.
we get to do the work where…that’s the
And hopefully that every day you wake
best of circumstances.
up, you have joy in your heart because
GL: That’s right. It’s a wonderful, wonyou’re doing something you really want to
derful industry. My thing that I always tell
do. I’m still doing it.
anybody who wants to do something in
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• March/April 2008
K i m b e rl y R ow e
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go buy the director a fur coat because he
got cold during shooting of the film and
wanted a fur coat. Hello?
HC: Music is such an integral part of
GL: That’s right.
HC: It’s like with the writers’ strike—
you can’t have a film if you don’t have
GL: That’s right.
HC: …and I don’t think you can have a
film if you don’t have music, either.
GL: Most times. Sometimes a film is so
good that it doesn’t need any music. In the
old days, you know, it was wall-to-wall
music. John and I went to hear a film the
other night, and we just were appalled
that… how could this score possibly be in
a film? You know? It didn’t marry to the
film, it didn’t add to the film, it created
such a distraction. It was a distraction, and
it was an irritant, and I just wished it
would have been a film without the music
in it. Sometimes I don’t understand the
choices that directors make, whether it’s
based on a relationship, or a family mem-