Back in the early 70s, the Third Ear Band were the festival band. Wherever there was mud, cider and an outdoor PA system, there would be Glenn Sweeney’s merry band with their strings and their hand drums, wigging out on some epic jam which somehow managed to blend together the collective folk music of half the world. Curiously, only when they were asked to provide an explicitly period soundtrack did they find it necessary to add an electronic synthesizer to their line-up. Simon House, later of Hawkwind, joined the group for the Macbeth soundtrack and left shortly after. He played a VCS-3, a keyboard-free analogue synth beloved of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire (not to mention Karlheinz Stockhausen), and designed in London by the composers Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff (with engineer David Cockerell).
This sudden addition of electricity to the previously acoustic group seems to suggest an understanding that the sheer macabre weirdness of Shakespeare’s play – especially as interpreted by Roman Polanski and Kenneth Tynan – demanded something other, some element of fantasy that went beyond what could be notated on manuscript paper.
For a group whose previous compositions averaged close to 10 minutes in length, the Third Ear Band are here remarkably restrained. The extended prog-rock ragas of Alchemy and its eponymous sequel are here compressed to clips of but a few seconds’ length. And for most of the play’s first act, they stick to a fairly straight medievalism, the pentatonic melismas of Paul Minns’s oboe doing a serviceable imitation of a twelfth-century shawm. The only note of something sinister – and obviously anachronistic – comes from the bass playing of Paul Buckmaster: one minute plunging into psych head music, the next evoking the drones of the tambura in Hindustani classical music. This soundtrack was Buckmaster’s only recording with the Third Ear Band, a performance turned in between arrangement work on Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate and Miles Davis’s On the Corner.
As Shakespeare’s story grows darker and weirder, so too does the music. While Macbeth contemplates murdering Duncan, a fizzling hum of shuddering VCS-3 and scraping guitar noise underscores the famous ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ soliloquy. Upon the deed itself, a wild dervish of free improvisation. As the film draws towards its conclusion, with the army approaching upon the hill and mist engulfing the screen, a thick fog of dissonance drifts in likewise, seemingly emerging directly from precisely the kind of snaking modal oboe line which had once seemed to speak of happier times. As Macbeth finally meets his end, high tremolando violin merges with more VCS-3 in a pitch of piercing tinnitus.
The Third Ear Band’s music for this film has been compared to both the chamber music of GyÃ¶rgy Ligeti and Masaru Sato’s soundtrack to Kurosawa’sThrone of Blood(1957). The Tragedy of Macbeth has often been called the bloodiest of all Shakespeare films. With its murderous tones, forever teetering on the edge of some horror, this music may be bloodier still.