Keeping up the energy – a conversation with composer Giorgio Moroder

The legendary producer and composer Giorgio Moroder recently visited Oslo with his World Tour DJ set. Montages had the rare opportunity to sit down with the man himself before the concert, for an in-depth conversation about his film work.

Anyone of a certain age is bound to know the name Giorgio Moroder. The Italian-born composer, producer and pioneer of electronic music and disco has paved the way for a myriad of contemporary artists and composers. Now 75, he’s still keeping up the energy by touring the world with his DJ set, featuring both his own work and songs by other artists. In the film world, he’s made his mark with critical and commercial hits such as Midnight Express (1978), Scarface (1983) and The Neverending Story (1984), or iconic film songs like “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun (1986) and “What a Feeling” from Flashdance (1983).

According to himself, he related some stories to us that he hadn’t told anyone before. Hopefully, that gives some extra exclusivity to this conversation – even for the die-hard Moroder fans.

The composer’s big breakthrough – film-wise – was Alan Parker‘s Midnight Express (1978) which landed Moroder the Oscar for best original score. Beyond the famous “Chase” theme, he employs a series of high-pitched modulations that underline the grittiness of the visuals. How did he conceptualize this score?

Alan Parker liked my song “I Feel Love”, and the only thing he wanted from me was something in the style of that song in the beginning of the film, which eventually became the “Chase” theme. Then he said “do whatever you want”. At the time it was very difficult to find sounds with cables etc., so I said ‘give me something low first’ (hums low note) on the 24-track, then I said ‘give me something high (hums high note). So it’s really an amalgamation of partially 4-5, 10 tracks to give that gritty feeling.

"Midnight Express" (1978)
“Midnight Express” (1978)

For Brian De Palma‘s seminal gangster classic Scarface (1983), there are basically two musical components – the upbeat songs connoting the excessive lifestyle of drugs and women, and then the gloomy, melancholy theme for Tony (Al Pacino) signalling some sort of impending doom.

– I didn’t feel it was melancholy, it was more like doom. It seems like a classical composition (hums theme), but unfortunately, I did not have a big orchestra because the budget was limited, and at the time I just did a lot of synthesizers. But that could have been great with a big Hans Zimmer-type orchestra! And then in the scene where he kills the other dealer and the police guy, I had the same theme but more like this (hums faster version of Tony’s theme). A bit more rhytmical, but I didn’t want to make it too big because you already see them killing. It’s still Tony’s theme, but now very thin and small.

This sense of melancholy was also nurtured in the cue “Swamp of Sadness” from the fantasy film The Neverending Story (1984), in which he shared composer credit with Klaus Doldinger. How did this collaboration work?

– That was a big mess, to be honest. Doldinger did all of the music, then the movie came out in some countries with only his stuff. Then the American company asked me to write a song and to re-write some of Doldinger’s music, which I guess they didn’t like. So I had the song, and then tracks like the Swamp theme. I don’t think it’s very dramatic, but if Puccini had written it, it would probably have been sad, but not too sad. In this case, I didn’t want to get a Zimmer-kind of music, as the the guy is drowning, after all.

"The Neverending Story" (1984)
“The Neverending Story” (1984)

In the same year as The Neverending Story, Moroder also released a brand new version of Fritz Lang’s classic science fiction film Metropolis (1927), rescored by himself and featuring a multitude of contemporary artists. He also cleaned up the images in a painstaking process that turned out to be an important, but also somewhat controversial restoration project.

– First of all, I loved the film. It took me about two years to research. I had a very hard time finding the prints. The Murnau Stiftung [which also stores other works of German expressionism beyond Murnau – ed.] doesn’t have anything or very little. The majority I got from The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then I found 10-15-20 seconds of nitrate in a very small theatre in Los Angeles which is closed now. There was this old guy who would still project all the old movies, and he had these little 16 seconds of nitrate that he gave to me. I remember the story – I took it, put it in the car and drove to a big production company that develops films, and the guy was absolutely crazy – “how can you drive with this nitrate, it’s pure explosive stuff”? Then I wetcopied the whole movie frame by frame, which was very expensive, and then I coloured it. The colours came out a little too strong, perhaps. When it’s evening, it’s blue, when it’s day, it’s sepia.

– And then the music was a bit of a mess, because I did some tests with an audience, and they mostly said they wanted more rock. So I said “Ok, let’s put some more rock in”. Some of the songs I liked, some I didn’t. But it took so long, so after 3 years, the music was already a little outdated. Of course, I couldn’t go back to Freddie Mercury or Pat Benetar and ask them for another song, so I released it thinking we should have done this and that, but there you go.

"Metropolis" (1927/1984)
“Metropolis” (1927/1984)

Giorgio Moroder has been at the forefront of electronic experimentation for decades, yet he’s often said in interviews that he’s not really a technology geek and that his form of composition is more instinctual. But with all the composer’s trademarks like the electric sitar, the Roland Jupiter-8, the Synclavier 2, the Linndrum sampler etc., he must surely have a conscious relationship to the equipment he’s using?

– Oh, I don’t know. When I started in the business, I didn’t have money to record in the studio, so with the help of a guy from IBM, I built a little 4-track recorder. It was terrible, but it worked. Then I was very much involved in Sennheiser – a dummy head made of rubber to get the feel of surround. I used it in the studio with The Rolling Stones. Then I discovered the vocoder, then I discovered the Moog. I used it in 71, way before Kraftwerk. In fact, I may have used it already in 69 or the early 70s. Technology-wise, I was the first to use the Linndrum machine. Mr. Roger Linn came in from San Francisco, and he brought me a machine to test. I loved it and bought 2 or 3, I think.

– Talking about movies, I recorded the whole score of Metropolis on 24 tracks, then I did a special mix on 4 tracks with left, right and surround. And I brought those two huge Sony machines into the projection room of the academy. This was the first ever digital, 4-track showing of a movie.

In 2002, Moroder did his last feature film score to date for the underwater documentary Impressionen Unter Wasser, directed by the infamous German director Leni Riefenstahl who was pushing 100 at the time. How was it like working with such an iconic figure?

– That is so funny, because I remember she called me. She was 98 or 99. She said “Oh, Mr. Moroder, I’m Leni Riefenstahl, I have a project, would you be interested?”, and I said OK, let me talk to your boyfriend and manager, who I think was 60. We were talking technically, and it was all a film about fish and the ocean. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure, but then I thought – does any composer have a chance to work with the last nazi? (laughs) She suffered enough in her life with the Hitler stuff, so I liked it and wanted to do it. I never met her, unfortunately, but my collaborator [Daniel Walker] went to Munich to meet her — and then she died a year later.

That was 13 years ago. Surprisingly, however, Moroder has several new film and TV projects lined up – among them a TV series called The Queen of the South, a videogame for Disney and maybe a fiction series about the evolution of disco music. Could we be witnessing a score comeback of sorts? He certainly has the energy to pull it off.


You can hear the whole interview, as well as clips from the scores being discussed, at the film music webcast Celluloid Tunes.

Giorgio Moroder in conversation with Thor Joachim Haga.
Giorgio Moroder in conversation with Thor Joachim Haga.
Read next: