The High Pitch of Strangeness: Ikarie XB-1

Ikarie XB 1_1
Ikarie XB-1

Deep in space, a derelict rocket from the year 1987 – centuries in the past – explodes into splinters of radioactive dust, destroyed by its own nuclear weapons. The pulsing electronic noise that had built-up towards the detonation abruptly stops, and for the first time in a long while we are left with total silence. Back on board the Ikarie, the modern spaceship that discovered this old ruin lost millions of miles from Earth, we see the stunned faces of the crew. In one cabin, two astronauts discuss the crimes of the twentieth century, its wars and its holocausts. One of them begins absentmindedly picking out a few chords on a grand piano, which has a peculiar wing-like double lid. ‘Honegger,’ he says, by way of explanation. ‘Also twentieth century.’

Those piano chords are from the introduction to Arthur Honegger’s dramatic psalm, ‘Le roi David’, from 1921. Composed by one of ‘Les Six’, the group of dynamic young composers who gathered around Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie, in its day ‘Le roi David’ was strikingly modern in its wild eclecticism, borrowing freely from jazz and gregorian chant, Bach and Stravinsky. But for all its lyrical beauty, amid the future sounds of Zdenĕk Liška’s score for Ikarie XB-1 (1963), directed by Jindrich Polák, it sounds positively antediluvian, like the dim ghost of a distant age.

Ikarie XB-1 is released on DVD, newly restored by Second Run, on 23 September 2013..

Born in the small Bohemian town of Smečno just short of a year after ‘Le roi David’ was first performed, Liška would work on many of the classics of the Czech new wave (Vĕra Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise, Kădar and Klos’s The Shop on Main Street, Juraj Herz’s The Cremator) before embarking on a long and fruitful collaboration with Jan Švankmajer. When, after a long illness, Liška died in 1983, Švankmajer refused to work with any other composer and for a long time used only classical music in his films.

For Ikarie XB-1, he sets out his stall early, and the opening title music is little short of stunning. With a jerky melodic motif resembling one of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies or a John Cage prepared piano sonata, albeit reconfigured for a bank of haywire oscillators, the piece mixes orchestral and electronic tones until they become almost completely indistinguishable. Turning usual practice on its head, it’s the live instruments that here produce the sound effects, while the electronics carry the tune.

This high pitch of strangeness is maintained throughout. The score ranges from dreamy impressionism to tense late romanticism, eerie drones to furious machine rhythms, and in one particularly odd scene in which the spaceship crew have their own dance party, even a sort of dissonant future mambo. With so many different moods and styles, it’s a soundtrack that was as modern and eclectic in 1963 as Honegger’s ‘Le roi David’ was in 1921. A heady stew of robot rhythms and whooshing frequencies, Ikarie XB-1 could be the missing sonic link between Forbidden Planet and Liquid Sky.

Robert Barry

Monsters from the Id – The Music of Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet
Forbidden Planet

With the placing of a small silver pellet into what looks like a small lava lamp, a softly modulating drone strikes up. A high-pitched swoop joins, introducing the opening riff of a bassline like bubbles bursting. Shimmering echoes float into space. ‘That recording,’ Dr. Morbius sternly informs us, ‘was made by Krell musicians a half a million years ago.’ Xenomusicology.

The story goes that producers of Forbidden Planet tried to get Harry Partch to compose the Krell music (Partch denies it) and you can understand why. Partch, perhaps more than almost any other composer of the 20th century, seemed to have tried to establish an entirely fresh basis for music. Not just bye bye diatonic harmony; bye bye the twelve-note octave, bye bye the instruments of the orchestra and hello a whole newly-invented band of ‘cloud chamber bowls’, ‘eucal blossoms’ and a ‘chromelodeon’.

But even Partch might not have come with anything quite as genuinely alien sounding, quite as pregnant with the future, as did Louis and Bebe Barron. In any other film, this short burst of alien sonics would have stuck out as thrillingly weird and exotic, but the whole film sounds like this. Everything whirls, and gurgles, and bubbles with the strange ‘electronic tonalities’ the Barrons devised with their home-made circuits.

The Barrons were among the first people in America to own a tape recorder, a wedding gift from a German friend who had imported it himself at the end of the second world war; the very same model used by Adolf Hitler to record his speeches. They immediately realised, however, that their new machine offered far more possibilities than the faithful reproduction of the human voice. Their early experiments in slowing tapes down and speeding them up, creating loops and adding echo, resulted in their first substantial composition, already implying a kind of artificial life by its title, Heavenly Menagerie.

It was around this time, at the beginning of the 1950s, that the couple first met John Cage at an artists’ club in Greenwich Village, and they soon agreed to collaborate on a series of works for tape, which would include Cage’s Williams Mix, as well as their own For an Electronic Nervous System. Louis’s recent discovery of Norbert Wiener’s writing had encouraged the pair to view their circuits by analogy with organic life or the neural pathways in the brain. They copied cybernetic circuits from Wiener’s books and adapted them for sound production, with complex feedback routes and unpredictable, ‘capricious’ natures, prone to self-destruction. ‘Those circuits were really alive,’ Bebe claimed, ‘they would shriek and coo and have little life spans of their own.’

The Barrons’ brief career as Hollywood film composers began when they accosted MGM president Dore Schary at the opening of a gallery exhibition of his wife’s paintings. Before long, the couple had persuaded him of the novelty of their ideas about electronically produced music, and Schary agreed to give them a chance to create some sounds for his new production, Forbidden Planet. From the start, MGM had only anticipated that the Barrons would contribute a small amount of special sound effects to accompany a standard orchestral score by an established composer, but having persuaded Schary to give them access to a print of the film, the Barrons came back six weeks later with a complete electronic soundtrack.

They created quasi-Wagnerian leitmotivs for the alien creatures that beset the astronauts on the planet of Altair IV by building different circuits based on the cybernetic principles outlined in Wiener’s book, Cybernetics. Their idea was to create electronic circuits that would act as though they were alive, like ‘organic’ entities, based on the feedback principles of self-organising cybernetic systems. In the original draft of Forbidden Planet’s screenplay, the idea had been that the aliens – ‘monsters from the id’ as they are called – would never be seen, so in a very real sense, the Barrons’ ‘organic’ circuits were the alien monsters; their only phenomenal manifestation. But what the Barrons found was that these circuits were actually enormously unstable and tended to breakdown in rather dramatic fashion – and it was these sounds, what Bebe Barron would later describe as the sound of a machine having a ‘nervous breakdown’, that formed most of the soundtrack to the film.

Robert Barry

Disembodied Voices: John Parker’s Dementia

Dementia
Dementia

I once saw Boyd Rice perform a live soundtrack to John Parker’s Dementia (aka Daugther of Horror, 1955), playing waterphone and bass harmonica, backed by Dwid Hellion from the hardcore band Integrity, in a cinema in central Paris. But mixed in among Rice and Hellion’s loops lay spectral traces of the film’s original orchestral soundtrack, by the former ‘bad boy’ of new music, George Antheil. Re-watching the film some years later, it’s clear that a major contributor to Dementia‘s singular atmosphere of oneiric noir is its score – one of the composer’s last, but by no means least, works.

As an American in Europe during the interwar years, Antheil had been at the very frontline of the avant-garde, collaborating with Dadaists and associated, for a time, with the machine music of the German November Group (Novembergruppe). But from the late 1930s on, the Trenton, New Jersey-born composer would embark on a career in Hollywood, composing comparatively unremarkable (and often uncredited) music for directors such as Cecil B. DeMille (The Plainsman, Union Pacific), Nicholas Ray (Knock on Any Door, In a Lonely Place), and William Castle (Serpent of the Nile, New Orleans Uncensored). In the mid-50s, however, at the time Dementia was in production, the now quinquagenarian composer would start to revisit some of the pioneering work of his youth, revising both the Ballet Mécanique and Jazz Symphony.

Following the murderous dreams-within-dreams of an unnamed female protagonist through a nighttime world of deserted street corners and jazz clubs, Dementia‘s soundtrack is alive with popular rhythms – from the cool, west-coast jazz of Shorty Rogers in the nightclub scene to the various transformations and transpositions of a simple habanera, which seem to crop up whenever the gamin (as Adrienne Barrett’s part is listed in the credits) encounters some attempted seducer. Antheil eschews stepwise melodic movement in favour of motifs made up of serpentine cadences in minor seconds and diminished sevenths. The soundtrack is full of neat touches like the brief flurry of a toy piano in the Rich Man’s apartment, or the sawing cello portamento as the gamin hacks off his dead hand in the street outside. The repeated thrumming of harp strings establishes the dreamlike mode from the very beginning of the film, in time-honoured fashion.

What is perhaps spookiest of all about this score, however, is the voice, often blended with woodwind to create a weird, theremin-like sound; singing eerie chromatic peals of wordless vocalese; Marni Nixon’s voice haunts this soundtrack like a guilty secret. A former child actress turned opera singer, you are most likely to have heard Nixon’s voice dubbing Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or as the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember and Natalie Wood in West Side Story (unbeknown to Wood herself). In this film without dialogue, Nixon provides a similar function in supplying her own disembodied voice to the voiceless body.

From the numinous off-stage voices of the very earliest operas to the various talking automata of the 18th and 19th centuries, there has always been something deeply uncanny about a voice without an apparent (human) source – and all the more so if that voice is stripped of a clear lyric to anchor its meaning. As the Slovenian philosopher and author of A Voice and Nothing More, Mladen Dolar has suggested, ‘What defines the voice as special among the infinite array of acoustic phenomena, is its inner relationship with meaning. The voice,’ he continues, ‘is something which points towards meaning,’ and yet when that implied meaning is refused and obscured, the voice becomes a kind of fetish, pointing only towards the absence of meaning and the gap between sound and its source, or sense and signification. In the context of Dementia, then, Nixon’s voice is both that what bridges the gap between the real and the dream, between the work and its audience, and also what draws attention to the very existence of that gap. Antheil’s use of the voice here recalls finally Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, in which the voice is ultimately that which reminds us of the impossibility of communication, of our isolation in an ocean of sounds.

Robert Barry

An Electronic Murmuration: Brian Eno’s Music for Land of the Minotaur

Land of the Minotaur1
Land of the Minotaur

As the priest and the private detective approach the window, a familiar motif strikes up on the soundtrack. Deep in the bass, a succession of notes alternate by a semi-tone to anxiety-inducing effect. It’s not an entirely original idea: it’s essentially a sped-up and harmonically simplified version of the leitmotif Richard Wagner uses to introduce the dragon, Fafner, in the opera Seigfried. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Wagner’s wurm-motiv became something of a Hollywood staple, used to signify the monstrous and the numinous in films from King Kong (1933) to The Thing from Another World (1951). But at this tempo it can’t help but recall to modern ears one of the most recognisable bits of film music of all time: the shark’s theme from Jaws, made in 1975, the very same year as this low-rent schlock-fest from Greek director, Kostas Karagiannis.

In the context of Land of the Minotaur (aka The Devil’s Men), however, this is by far the most conservative bit of the whole score, notable as one of the very few moments on the soundtrack to employ actual recognisable musical notes. For the most part, the music by Brian Eno avoids the question of tonality altogether in favour of a shimmering cascade of electronic murmuration. As strange things go on in a small Greek town, with cultists sacrificing licentious teens to a fire-breathing minotaur statue, Eno produces an eerie susurrus of humming and heavy breathing, echoplexed into a dense fog of sound.

Produced in the same year that the ex-Roxy Music synth player would record his second collaboration with Robert Fripp and earn a credit for ‘direct injection anti-jazz ray gun’ on Robert Wyatt’s second solo album, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, it’s a reasonable assumption that he employed the same system of daisy-chained delay units. It’s a modus operandi Eno would accuse Terry Riley of copying from him – an accusation that would be a lot more plausible if only history travelled backwards – and is an early example of his now all-consuming passion for generative composition, inspired by the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener, the process-based minimalism of Riley and Steve Reich, and the generative grammars of Noam Chomsky. But what sounds contemplative and quietly zen on its near contemporaries is here unearthly, unsettling, goose-pimpling stuff. One of the real highlights of Eno’s soundtrack career – and an unfortunate omission from his two Music for Films compilations.

Robert Barry

Suspended in Wind and Water: Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan

hors satan1
Hors Satan

Early on in the latest film by former philosophy teacher Bruno Dumont, Alexandra Lematre’s character (identified only as ‘elle’) takes an in-ear headphone from the pocket of her hoodie and slips it in her ear. We, the audience are never made privy to the music she listens to, but the gesture draws attention to the use of sound in the film. As traditionally defined, there is no music in Hors Satan – no silken Hollywood strings, no pop songs, no diegetic performance, no non-diegetic score. Even the kind of sonic re-structuring usually handled by a sound editor is missing, for Dumont did not hire one.

No music, nor very much dialogue either – and most of what there is, is largely inconsequential. But Hors Satan is not a silent film. Far from it. We hear birds tweeting, cocks crowing, leaves rustling, as well as several more revealing sounds – a camera dolly rolling over its track, the wind blowing against a microphone.

In an interview with Jean-Michel Frodon, the director explains, ‘We recorded only live and “mono” sounds. What you hear in the film are the actual sounds recorded during shooting. I didn’t alter or re-record them. I wish some noises weren’t there, but I kept them anyway, stoically… The sound material is very rich and untamed. Therefore, when there is a moment of silence, you can feel it loud and clear.’

At one moment, after it has been raining, we hear water running over a corrugated iron roof and falling to the ground. The two main characters pause in their journey to watch and listen, and we listen with them. These characters frequently take time out to simply stand still and pay attention to some ambient sound. And even in their absence, the camera will likewise pursue such sounds to their sources, which become, in the process, a character like them. Sound – and a certain quasi-musical attentiveness to sound – thus subjectivizes, and in so doing constructs an audience that will be willing, like the film’s characters, to offer a certain attentiveness toward sounds, to give them time, without preconceptions.

Hors Satan will be released on DVD in the UK by New Wave Films on 13 May 2013.

How can we describe the sense of time experienced in the films of Bruno Dumont? It is certainly very far from the clock-time of Hitchcock, the almost Taylorist efficiency with which narrative details are revealed and slotted into the perpetual motion machine of the diegesis in his North by North West (1959) or The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). We find with Dumont a concern with rhythm and tempo that goes beyond brute functionalism, and there is evidently something musical in this. But neither are we dealing with the languorous time of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, nor the time of Béla Tarr, which would be something like the Erfahrung of Walter Benjamin.

Karlheinz Stockhausen once remarked that ‘Wagner, more than any other Western composer, expanded the timing of Western music: he would have been the best gagaku composer.’ While the first half of this statement is undoubtedly true, I’m not so sure about the second half. Think of the constantly held back, teetering sense of anticipation, of desperate yearning for an impossible fulfilment, found in Tristan und Isolde.

Maybe I am wrong, but I suspect this is something foreign to the Japanese gagaku tradition. Perhaps not so much to the cinema of Bruno Dumont – even if only to an earlier film such as Twentynine Palms (2003), in which the palpable sense of dread, of waiting for some seemingly inevitable horror, hangs suspended in each crawling take, like the infinitely delayed resolution of some grating dissonance in the middle voices.

Hors Satan is different in this respect. The shot lengths are generally shorter than in his earlier films (though still considerably longer than most mainstream films), the forward motion of the narrative less precipitous. Perhaps this film is closer to the sense of time alluded to in Stockhausen’s reference to gagaku.

In his book, Haunted Weather, David Toop, in the midst of a discussion about contemporary Japanese electronica, describes this 7th and 8th century court music, which, he says, survives largely unchanged to this day: ‘So measured in the progress of its percussive markers that it draws the image of a footstep raised to move forward yet caught in a universal power cut, gagaku’s timbral consistency is a gaseous astringency of reeds, flutes and free reeds.’

Hors Satan is a film which repeatedly invites us to listen, even when there is nothing – conventionally speaking – to listen to; it draws attention to its soundtrack, even when there is no soundtrack to speak of. This kind of invitation to pause, to reflect, to make time for the unfolding of an absence, evokes a kind of ritual-making space for the becoming of a miracle, in a manner which would have appealed to John Cage (a composer whose fondness for the gagaku is well known). We hang suspended in an amber of wind and water and other accidental sounds, ‘raised to move forward yet caught in a universal power cut’.

Robert Barry

A Bleak Picturesque: Nicola Piovani’s score for Le orme

foot-prints-on-the-moon_le-orme_you-won-cannes
Le orme

In the 1970s, Nicola Piovani was dogged by rumours that his name was just a pseudonym for Ennio Morricone – something he liked to make great play of at after-dinner speeches. If true, it would’ve meant that the one man, Morricone-Piovani, was responsible for 675 film soundtracks. But one thing the two Roman composers do share is the suppleness to switch seamlessly between auteurist productions for Fellini or Marco Bellocchio, and the grislier fare of gialli and nunspoitation films. Luigi Bazzoni’s Le orme, also known as Footprints on the Moon (released on DVD by Shameless as Footprints), fits into the latter category, albeit not unproblematically. The film is concerned with the peculiar lunar dreams of a professional translator-interpreter, Alice Cespi (Florinda Bolkan), who seems to have lost several days from her memory.

About twelve minutes into the film, Cespi starts to recall the events leading up to her fugue. The image switches to black and white and we find ourselves in a large conference centre as a deep organ drone enters on the soundtrack with a series of discordant notes added in the middle voice of the keyboard, offset only slightly by a sparse, gentle melody on the piano. As the camera pans across a series of cubicles containing translators for different languages, strings enter tremolando with a grating sound verging on scratch tone. We hear a series of glissandi played – by the sound of it – using the screw of the violin bow, recalling Helmut Lachenmann. A flutter-tongued flute briefly enters, and the percussion drifts and rolls softly as if somewhere in the distance. It’s only a brief composition, played low in the mix under a number of multilingual voiceovers saying things like, ‘Our computer has also shown us that in the year 2000 it will be almost impossible for men to live on planet Earth’, but in its brief span of minutes this piece showcases several extended instrumental techniques then being popularised by modernist composers like Lachenmann, Krzysztof Penderecki and Luciano Berio, to startlingly atmospheric effect.

The score to Le orme was one of those cited (in numerous interviews) by director Peter Strickland as inspiration for his recent Berberian Sound Studio (it’s name an homage to Berio’s wife, the singer Cathy Berberian). But it was the melancholy opening theme which inspired James Cargill and Trish Keenan of Broadcast in the composition of their own score for Strickland’s film. The principal melody for flute and acoustic guitar is used at several moments in Le orme, its instrumentation evoking the folk records of the time – or perhaps rather the odd combination of folk and easy listening that was becoming a feature of albums of library music at the time. But there is a sadness to it, suitable for that bleak picturesque peculiar to beach resorts out of season, the setting for most of the film. It sounds nostalgic, but with a sort of cloudy, sunken feeling, like a half-forgotten memory.

Over the opening credits, however, this instrumentation is augmented by a steady pulse beat on a drum and bursts of organ, suggestive of church music and, in its trills, particularly reminiscent of certain works of Bach, but in the context of the film also associated with images of the moon. Also, we find again that flutter-tongued flute – a technique popular with the 60s avant-gardists (Berio’s first Sequenza, in particular, makes great use of it), which first entered the mainstream of classical composition at the turn of the twentieth century, with works like Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg’s moondrunk monodrama from 1912. ‘Piovani’s central flute and string chord progression lulls one into the loneliest of reveries,’ wrote Strickland of the score in a blogpost back in 2011, while his Berberian Sound Studio was still in production. ‘Brooding and full of yearning for something that maybe never was, this is a tender and beautifully understated soundtrack.’

Robert Barry

Tangerine Dream’s Thief: High-tech vs old school

Thief

From its opening scene, Michael Mann’s feature debut announces its concern with a new type of thief. No more the delicate application of stethoscope – an instrument whose early 19th-century invention signalled a burgeoning alliance between the medical profession and the new science of acoustics. Frank (played by James Caan) breaks safes and enters buildings with power tools and complex electronic equipment. If Frank’s criminal activity is newly hi-tech, so too its accompanying music, composed and performed by German synth rock pioneers Tangerine Dream.

Come and enjoy the Tangerine Dream soundtrack for The Keep at the 35mm screening of Michael Mann’s 1983 lost classic The Keep, presented by Cigarette Burns and Electric Sheep on Thursday 21 February at the Prince Charles, London.

Formed in 1967 by Prussian pianist and Dali enthusiast Edgar Froese, by the end of the 70s Tangerine Dream were one of the highest grossing instrumental rock bands in Europe, their oft-bootlegged live shows famed for their pyrotechnics and elaborate laser shows. The early 80s saw the group supplement their barrage of analogue electronics with increasingly sophisticated digital equipment while pursuing a range of major American film projects, beginning with Thief in 1981.

While Tangerine Dream in 1981 were a newly digitised proposition, so too was one of their chief rivals in the sphere of instrumental synth prog, Vangelis, himself on the verge of an equally productive cinematic career with Blade Runner the following year. But from the very beginning, Thief‘s score sets itself apart from the whispy floatiness of the Greek synth maven. With the first sight of Frank’s equipment the synth pads burst into a hyperactivity of competing arpeggiators, syncopated power chords, and reverb-heavy drum machines. The glistening digital sheen of the music already anticipates the gleam of the diamonds being stolen. Tangerine Dream’s music is at once more ‘pop’ and more ‘techno’ than anything you will find on the Blade Runner score.

As in most American crime films, criminal activity is here a synecdoche for capitalism itself. Thief is essentially a film about a struggle between two different forms of capitalism, represented by two different father figures. On the one hand, the old ‘master-thief’, Okla (a stethoscope man, one suspects); and on the other, Leo, a man associated with malls, rentierism, stocks and shares. Both are referred to – either by themselves or by Frank – as his father. Both of these competing capitalisms are, in a sense, musically coded. The new hi-tech capitalism by Tangerine Dream’s digital synths and sequencers, and Okla’s old-school artisanal cat burglary by the very fact that he is played by country music legend Willie Nelson.

Only in the very last scene of the film do we really hear much in the way of ‘real’ instruments – that is, music that would not be regarded as totally alien by someone used to listening to Willie Nelson – on the non-diegetic score of Thief (there is a brief scene of diegetically performed blues rock earlier on) and it sticks out like a sore thumb. As it turns out, Mann only realised late in the post-production process that he would need soundtrack music for this scene and by that time Tangerine Dream were too busy touring to provide it. Instead, the lot fell to Craig Safan (who would go on to write incidental music for the sitcom Cheers).

The track opens with acoustic guitar, soon accompanied by a sweeping hard rock electric guitar solo. The scene it complements depicts Frank’s final triumph against the forces of the new capitalism – a triumph which, in the context of early 80s America can only be regarded as pure fantasy. It is appropriate, then, that the music lends the scene precisely the atmosphere of that bit in every Guns ‘n’ Roses video where the storyline pauses in order that Slash might stand, a propos of nothing, on the edge of a cliff to perform an equally ecstatic electric guitar solo.

Robert Barry

Cannibal Holocaust: The perverse contrast of sonic beauty and visual horror

Cannibal Holocaust

It may simply be coincidence – but then again it may not – that one of the most striking, fascinating pieces of film music I have ever heard provides a soundtrack to one of the most visually repulsive and disturbing film scenes I have ever seen. I am speaking (of course?) of Riz Ortolani’s score for Cannibal Holocaust and in particular the track listed on the soundtrack album as ‘Adulteress’ Punishment’.

It begins with the simple alternation of two notes, a major second apart, deep in the register of a fuzzy Moog synth bass. On the screen, we see a man on a small handmade raft rowing to shore in long shot.

At 0:10, an electronic percussion sound enters – probably the same high tom from a Synare drum synthesizer used in Anita Ward’s hit disco single ‘Ring My Bell’ the previous year. We cut to a mid-shot to reveal that the boat also holds a naked woman, tied by her hands and feet, and struggling to get free as the oarsman drags her to shore and ties her to a post on the muddy beach.

At 0:42 seconds, the violas and low register violins come in, with a very rich, almost pungent sound. At the same time, the oarsman pulls his captive’s legs apart and triumphantly produces some sort of stone with which he proceeds to rape his supine prisoner. The strings stretch and pull, seemingly yearning through more and more dissonant intervals.

At 1:22, the cellos enter, but instead of grounding and resolving the tension of the violins, they only unsettle the ground even further. As Monroe – the film’s putative hero – and his guide look on aghast, the rapist discards his first stone and clumps together a mound of wet mud, placing a series of sharp pegs to protrude from it. We catch a close-up of the victim realising what he is doing and there is an arresting break in the musical tension: the strings suddenly modulate to the major key in a move that is at once strangely sweet and perversely romantic sounding.

But the relief is short lived. Within ten seconds, we have returned to the high-wire astringency of the original key and the assailant is now pummelling the genitals of his victim with this new weapon in horrific close-up. Her belly is awash with blood and high strings enter, playing the opening theme in the manner of a fugue.

As he goes on to bash her brains in with the same tool with which he has just mutilated her sexual organs, the harmonies ripen, grow increasingly tense, recalling Ravel’s famous String Quartet or Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. Finally, the strings subside, the woman is dead and pushed out to sea. The Moog bass also fades as Monroe’s guide explains that the awful punishment we have just witnessed is ‘considered a divine commandment’.

Many commentators have noted the ‘violence’ of the synth in Ortolani’s score (e.g. Kay Dickinson), its ‘perverse cruelty’ (Kristopher Spencer) and the contrast with the ‘beauty’ of the strings, which combine to make the film’s brutality ‘all the more unexpected and horrific in contrast’ (Randall D. Larson). As Jennifer Brown notes in her study of cannibalism on film: ‘Riz Ortolani’s orchestral soundtrack is a crucial part of the impact of the film, haunting and affective. It contrasts jarringly with the violence of the images on the screen making them paradoxically beautiful in their goriness.’ In a way, the contrast Brown mentions, this tension between image and music, is already fully present in the music itself, in the very jarring piquancy of the orchestral harmonies.

In an interview (available to watch on YouTube), Ortolani himself has referred to his music for this scene as ‘a religious adagio’. Reflecting the guide’s statement that this punishment is ‘a divine commandment’, Ortolani says of his score, ‘it had to give the tone of a religious piece’, but at the same time sound ‘modern and striking’. Listening to the piece again, we can hear how the combination of aspects of fugue and passacaglia (the repetitive Moog bass ostinato) reinforce this ‘religious’ dimension. Indeed, we can recognise some of the same sense of ‘painful longing’ as in Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, which had been used in the baptism sequence of The Godfather just a few years earlier.

Arguably, however, Ortolani’s music neither simplistically upholds nor respects the characterisation of this horrific act as sacred, and therefore worthy of some sort of culturally relativist respect. Nor does it seek to expose, by association, the violence and brutality supposedly inherent in all religions by their very nature. Instead, the piece presents both these interpretations at once, rubbing them up against each other in a kind of perverse sonic parallax.

Robert Barry

A Far from Silent Battlefront: Ecstasy of the Angels

Ecstasy of the Angels

Kôji Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels, like many films of the early 70s, opens with a song. In a darkened nightclub, while four conspirators plot their mission, Rie Yokoyama’s Friday sings an unidentified Japanese fôku song, accompanied by a plaintively plucked acoustic guitar. ‘I throw a tiny flame,’ she sings, ‘towards bright crimson blood / In any barren field / Burn the dawn / Burn the streets to the dawn’. Her distant-eyed delivery makes a curious counterpoint to the surreal, sometimes violent lyrics of the winsome, enka-esque melody and, as there is no further music for the next half an hour, the lines stick in your mind like an ear worm, becoming the unvoiced refrain of all the action that follows.

When the first bit of non-diegetic music does come in, it is every bit as violent as the intervening action. Clangorous piano chords burst in over a montage of newspaper headlines detailing the terrorist acts of the young revolutionary group. Drums skitter in freefall, as Yosuke Yamashita’s piano-playing veers from modal jazz to free atonality, switching dance partners from Alice Coltrane to Anton Webern.

Yamashita remains one of Japan’s most famous jazz musicians. He started playing with his elder brother’s swing band before he’d left school and by the 1960s he was spending every Friday at legendary Tokyo basement club Gin-Paris. One of his earliest teachers was Fumie Hoshino, a woman who played stride piano along to silent films in old cinemas, and Yamashita himself would go on to work on a number of films, from 60s pinku films by Wakamatsu and Noriko Natsumi to Shohei Imamura’s award-winning Dr Akagi. All the while carving out a distinctive live playing career as one of Japan’s most celebrated jazzers, with frequent comparisons to Cecil Taylor (his acknowledged idol) and one German critic – just a few years after the release of Ecstasy of the Angels – coining the phrase ‘kamikaze jazz’ to refer to his group’s wild musical antics.

Nowhere is the comparison to Taylor more apt than in the present film’s final scene. We are back in the same nightclub from the opening scene, but now one of the four conspirators is missing and the cool, collected spirit of their earlier meeting is long gone. At first we find Friday once more, singing the same song about a ‘silent battlefront’. But then, as if at the click of someone’s fingers, she and her accompanist disappear to be replaced by Yamashita’s trio, seen on screen for the first time. Akira Sakata’s soprano sax is squealing and honking like Ornette Coleman, Yamashita is pounding frenetically at the keyboard and Yuki Arasa’s section leader, Autumn, sat over at the table, is screaming hysterically as her empire crumbles around her.

Robert Barry

Halloween III: Chariots of Pumpkins

Halloween III vinyl cover artwork (Death Waltz)

Format: Limited edition double coloured vinyl

Release date: 18 October 2012

Label: Death Waltz Recording Co. via mondotees.com

In Halloween II, the first of the series on which they collaborated, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth built up a tight skein of tension woven from music that often sounded like atonal, percussive noises, and incidental noises – alarms, buzzers, etc. – which interacted in various ways with the music. The sound was cold, relentless and utterly inhuman – the perfect counterpart to a masked killer in the process of being transformed from psycho on the loose to embodiment of all evil.

Its follow-up, Halloween III, is a different kettle of fish altogether. Based on an original script by Nigel Kneale (Quatermass, The Stone Tape, The Year of the Sex Olympics), who later asked to have his name removed from the credits, Season of the Witch often feels like a very classy movie that has had a series of decidedly unclassy moments rudely inserted into it by a grubby-fingered juvenile – it just so happened that the grubby-fingered juvenile’s name was Dino De Laurentiis, one of the most powerful producers then in Hollywood. Fortunately, the score that Carpenter and Howarth produced is definitely on the classy side.

The Halloween III soundtrack comes on a limited orange and black vinyl with cover art by Jay Shaw and sleeve notes by Alan Howarth and Jay Shaw. Spin the Film Roulette for your chance to win a copy.

Although it was the first score realised using the method Carpenter would refer to as his ‘musical electronic colouring book’ – i.e. improvising and recording live to tape while watching the film on a TV monitor – the pair began with much the same set of instruments they had used on its predecessor: Linn drum machine, Arp sequencer, and a pair of Prophet synths. But the sounds wrought from them could scarcely have been more different. Where Halloween II was all sharp attacks and high mids its successor is built of slowly evolving wave shapes, warm lower mids and deep, deep bass thuds.

As if in self-parody at their new lush sounds, Carpenter and Howarth even named one track ‘Chariots of Pumpkins’ – a nod perhaps to the previous year’s chart-topping Chariots of Fire score by Vangelis. But ‘Pumpkins’ is no tub-thumping anthem, rather a highly atmospheric blend of insistent pulses, four-to-the-floor Linn kick drums, and sweep-filtered arpeggiating Prophet synths: the soundtrack not to a race for Olympic glory, but to a man running desperately for his life from a factory full of murderous autons.

Fans of the series were put off by the absence of regular baddie Michael Myers, but the film boasts some equally disturbing adversaries – and plenty of gruesome murders. Nonetheless, it works best in moments when almost nothing is happening. Such as the scene taking place outside, on the first night the protagonists spend in Santa Mira, when the swollen flanks of deep, salebrous sawtooth waves become the motif of a machine vision that hovers over the town like a murder of clockwork crows, beating time with the convulsive impatience of a Hoffmannian automaton. Waiting.

The soundtrack to Halloween II is also released in a limited edition by Death Waltz on 18 October 2012 with new artwork from Brandon Schaefer.

Robert Barry

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews