Michael Kamen

Driven classical and pop composer
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The Independent Online

Michael Kamen, composer: born New York 15 April 1948; married Sandra Keenan (two daughters); died London 18 November 2003.

The extraordinary musical career of Michael Kamen was a testament not only to his talent and driven ambition, but also to a ceaseless passion and energy for his chosen course in life: following the twin paths of classical and pop music, he seemingly effortlessly balanced work as a composer, collaborator, performer, orchestrator and producer.

On one hand, he was the driving force behind such fantastically ambitious projects as the 1994 Great Music Experience at Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan, in aid of Unesco, to which Kamen not only brought Bob Dylan together with an orchestra for the first time, but also composed and conducted an overture for 350 performers including a symphony orchestra, 200 Buddhist monks, 35 Kodo Japanese drummers, an ancient Chinese orchestra, the Irish folk group the Chieftains and an all-star rock band. Yet, he was also the co-composer of Bryan Adams' 1991 hit "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You", a No 1 single in the UK for four months and for seven weeks in the United States. It was the biggest selling single in the history of A & M Records, and won Kamen one of several Grammy awards.

The Adams' hit song, which many loved to hate, was taken from the soundtrack of Robin Hood: prince of thieves. The film world readily came to appreciate Kamen's abilities: he could write under pressure and he was fast - it took him just three weeks to come up with the soundtrack for The Three Musketeers in 1993 ("He thought visually," said the film producer Eric Fellner) and he wrote over 30 musical soundtracks, including those for all the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series, for Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986), The Krays (1990), the James Bond film Licence To Kill (1989) and X-Men (2000); several of these soundtracks were Oscar-nominated.

"He was a man of many parts, using a very wide brush," said his close friend David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. "He was about the most successful film writer in recent years. He had such a gift for a memorable tune, and a great gift for melody. He also had huge enthusiasm, and a compulsion to keep at it." Gilmour had considerable experience of Kamen's work method. At the instigation of the producer Bob Ezrin, Kamen was brought in to orchestrate the string sections of Pink Floyd's 1979 album The Wall and subsequently moved to London from his native New York. In 1983 he co-produced Pink Floyd's The Final Cut album with the group. Kamen was an ebullient, bouncing bear of a man, with a gregarious personality.

Annie Lennox said of Kamen's string arrangements on assorted Eurythmics songs,

Although he was one of the best people to do the job, when you meet a person who

has so much heart, he swiftly eclipsed being a string arranger, and became a friend. There were not many people who had so much stardust about them.

It is a prerequisite of modern film soundtrack-composing to secure a hit record that serves as a trailer to the movie. After the spectacular success of the Bryan Adams song, Kamen wrote the music that went with Sting's lyrics on the hit song "It's Probably Me" for the film Lethal Weapon 3 (1992). "What Michael was," said Sting,

was a gatekeeper to the strange and frightening world of the orchestra for those of us who had only worked in rock bands. You needed someone to introduce you to that world. If you were going to dare to approach that world of orchestration, you'd do it through Michael Kamen: he could arrange and produce strings, but he also thought like a rock musician.

Kamen's unique vision was as much a consequence of his upbringing as his own ingrained talent. Born in 1948, he grew up in the Queens, New York City, with three brothers, and parents who were liberal activists (and who were together for 72 years). Raised on what Kamen described as "a healthy diet of Leadbelly and Pete Seeger records", the precocious talent learnt the piano from the age of two, and studied the oboe at the Juilliard School of Music in New York in the 1960s. At Juilliard, under the influence of the Beatles, Michael Kamen started a group called the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, a rock/classical fusion group. The group made five albums but fell apart after seven years.

After David Bowie had come to the premiere of a ballet Kamen had written, the English star asked him to become musical director of the highly theatrical Diamond Dogs tour of 1975. As well as playing the piano, Michael Kamen brought in his friend, the alto saxophonist David Sanborn. "I had already been playing with him, touring to promote a solo record he had out," said Sanborn.

A mutual friend introduced us, and we became friends immediately. One of Michael's endearing qualities was that he was not shy about letting you know about his abilities: in a lesser soul that would have been troublesome, but he could combine monumental ego with incredible humility.

Six years ago Michael Kamen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an illness that initially he kept secret. Annie Lennox recalls being struck by his fortitude when he was chosen to conduct the orchestra for the Golden Jubilee concert broadcast from Buckingham Palace last year:

I watched him standing on that rostrum, struggling with MS, and conducting this epic show - which would have been exhausting for anyone with vigorous health.

Last year he was commissioned to write a piece for the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He conducted the Utah Symphony and Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as well as a children's choir and rock'n'roll group. Sting remembers meeting up with him there:

Over the past couple of years he had gone from being a big portly man to a stick man. I didn't recognise him at first. He was obviously struggling, and it was clearly a stressful situation for him.

David Gilmour, however, had seen Michael Kamen last Friday, at the funeral of Steve O'Rourke, the manager of Pink Floyd. "I thought he looked in really great shape, and he was in very good spirits."

Chris Salewicz

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