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Musician and filmmaker Barry Adamson on Bernard Herrmann’s dizzying score for Hitchcock.
Vertigo is without doubt, Hitchcock’s masterpiece. A masterpiece because Hitchcock lets us into his (and our own) universal truth. He shows us his longing. A longing that can never be satiated. A longing that merely leaves us up in the air, frozen in time and space forever.
He dismisses conventional story telling structure. (Conventional film structure is three acts. You put a person up a tree. You throw rocks at them. You watch them try to make it down. Most first acts are over with pretty quickly so we can get on with the business of throwing rocks. Hitchcock putting Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie up a tree is to have him fish Kim Novak’s Madeleine, the woman he’s been following at a distance, out of San Francisco Bay, take her home, strip her naked and put her in his bed… after 46 minutes.) He then masterly creates his trademark suspense. In the last few acts, the audience knows something the protagonist doesn’t, after a remarkable disclosure of the film’s plot. Up until that point, there’s so much tension, intrigue and seduction manoeuvring. We’re watching a man watching a woman who’s keeping an eye on herself while observing another woman…
Bernard Herrmann said that whereas he wrote character music for Orson Welles, Hitchcock wanted place and situation and to feel the tension building. The music throughout the opening titles tells the whole story. The film is set in San Francisco. Herrmann builds a geographical, dreamlike and suspenseful motive around ‘contrary motion’. One motif plays six notes up and down the scale as the other motif (same notes) comes down and up the scale and this alludes to the idea of physical vertigo as well as a kind of teetering on the edge, both emotionally and mentally.
He then adds the ‘doomed love’ theme in four notes, ending the phrase with a dissonant death chord. It would seem to be the end, and of course later in the piece it really is BUT… he then arranges for ‘trilling’ violins to animate and rise from a pit of desire, into omnipotence. They begin skipping carelessly as if to mock the idea of death as finite. This is short-lived, however, as again doom now plays out before the final death knell rings.
This happens over swirling graphics and close-ups of a woman’s mouth and eyes. What’s this film about again? A fear of heights? No. Fear of falling… in love.
The other part of the score is the brilliant Carlotta Valdes theme, which Herrmann uses as a link to the past and then turns it into a hallucination, another kind of vertigo for Kim Novak. Scottie’s toxic seduction is played out over a stealing of Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde. Herrmann uses the ‘love/death’ theme, which he rewrites and extends as mere metaphor, gluing together the idea of Madeleine’s obsession with the past and Scottie’s idea that the dead can be brought back and made alive again…
The Soundtrack season at HOME Manchester has been co-curated by Barry Adamson and HOME’s Artistic Director of Film Jason Wood.
Writers: Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
France, Denmark, USA 2016
The composer and musician talks about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.
Cliff Martinez started his career drumming for Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Captain Beefheart before making his big leap into cinema, writing the music for Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape, The Limey, Traffic and Solaris, . He’s since formed a close bond with Nicolas Winding Refn, composing the scores for Drive and Only God Forgives. Their latest collaboration, Refn’s shiny new offering The Neon Demon, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has an intriguing, pulsing electronic score that is haunting and emotional in equal measure, while the film itself unexpectedly divides critics and audiences alike.
Pamela Jahn spoke to the composer and musician about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.
The Neon Demon is your third collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn. Did the fact that it features women rather than men in the lead role, which is quite unusual compared to Refn’s work in the past, change your way of approaching the music for this film?
Cliff Martinez: No, Nicolas had told me very early on in the process, ‘This is going to be a very different film because the subject is going to be women.’ And when he told me that, I was curious what it would be like. But then when I got to saw the film and I saw the shower scene and things like that, I thought, ok, so that’s how Nicholas is making a film about women, of course. So, no, for me it didn’t feel so much different. It was more a departure for Nicholas himself, I think.
Do you think there is a specific link between electronic music and fashion in the way those two worlds seem to complement each other?
Oh, I never thought of that, but it’s an interesting idea. Maybe there is some sort of connection, I don’t know.
The music to Drive is widely regarded as one of the greatest scores of its time. Did it feel special to you when creating it?
I loved Drive from the minute I saw it, but I don’t think anyone imagined at the time how successful the film was going to be, or at least certainly I didn’t have a clue. It was just a great project to be working on. I’ve never really grasped quite why that particular score got so popular. And I’m still kind of fascinated by the fact that in my 25 years of working as a composer, that’s the one score that people keep talking about.
In 2014, the BBC created a televised re-score of the original Drive soundtrack – what did you make of that new version?
I’ve heard of it but I’ve never actually seen this new version, so I don’t know. I heard that it was re-scored but that’s about it.
You also worked with Nicolas on Only Good Forgives, which has these great karaoke moments. Were you involved in creating these scenes?
As I recall it, the script and the actual film turned out very different from each other, but I think the karaoke material was there from the very beginning. I remember that it was the first thing that I did when I started working on the project. I usually don’t come in until the film has been shot but this time the ground floor was really the script, because there were several karaoke scenes that they needed the music for so they could shoot. I’d never done any karaoke for film before and I remember in the beginning Nicolas had this idea about iconic country western songs but then he decided to go with Thai music instead. So, I think I created five of these Thai karaoke tracks, each track was then tested and got changed several times to be performed at the karaoke bar, but in the end I think we used the original tracks.
You started your career as a composer working with Steven Soderbergh. Was he your first sort of soulmate in cinema, in a similar way that Nicolas seems to be now?
I don’t know, we just seem to work together very well. We seem to agree on films, their philosophy, musical genres and so on. We have a similar taste, I guess.
You’re currently working with Soderbergh on the TV series The Knick. Does it make a difference to you if you compose for the big or small screen, apart from the fact that it’s a longer process?
That’s the thing, it’s more exhausting than feature-film work but, in the end, it just feels like a ten-hour Soderbergh film to me. But there are some differences as well, I guess, one of which being that you have to mix the score so it sounds right on very small speakers, because most people will see it on their normal TV at home. And you also really have to develop your theme and your emotional peaks and stretch them over ten hours as opposed to two hours.
You are working across the board, from cinema to TV and video games. How do you choose your projects?
To be honest, it’s more that people chose me rather than me selecting things. Directors like Steven, Nicolas or Harmony Korine, for whom I composed the score for Spring Breakers, have asked me to score their films. So I feel that if I have worked on these great projects, it’s not so much because of my decisions, but because people have chosen me and trusted me with what I can bring to their work.
Was there a score when you were younger that first made that feeling, that relationship between music and movies, click for you?
There are a couple of films or film scores that come up actually, like the old scores by Bernard Herrmann and especially Ennio Morricone. One of the first film scores that I owned on vinyl when I was young was A Fistful of Dollars. Another thing that resonated with me from the beginning was the TV show Saturday Night at the Movies. I would watch The Day the Earth Stood Still three or four times a year, and the music just got to me, I listened to it every time it came on.
A film might be flawed but the music can still be brilliant. What do you think the score can bring to the movie as a whole?
Well, the score depends on the film. The music has a significant role, especially if there is not much dialogue. People turn to the music to maybe explain a bit more about what’s going on.
Do you think a great score can save a film from being terrible?
No, I don’t think the music has the power to salvage a terrible film, but I do believe it has the ability to completely transform a film. It’s hard to explain what it is, I didn’t understand it myself until I saw a film without music and then with the music, but when you do that, you can appreciate the power of music. But still, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that music can rescue an utterly flawed film and turn it into an entertaining, successful film – no musical score can do that.
The soundtrack to John Landis’s much-loved horror comedy inventively subverts the clichés of the genre.
John Landis’s 1981 classic horror film An American Werewolf in London was something of a pet project: the script was written by the director many years before but the studio thought it either too funny or too scary to green light. Following the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), Landis found himself with a carte blanche for his next project. Despite its odd comedy/horror mix An American Werewolf in London became yet another box-office smash. In 1981 it was a film everyone was talking about – particularly horror makeup man Rick Baker’s first-rate gore and the great man-to-wolf transformation scene. Landis and Baker would team up again in 1983 to zombify Michael Jackson in Thriller.
After all these years the inventiveness of the film remains striking. It is clearly in the horror genre and yet sidesteps cliché at every turn, and nowhere more memorably than with the soundtrack. There’s no scary music; instead we get mood music so subtle it is hardly noticeable and handful of pop songs with the word ‘moon’ in the title. All great songs and used with irony and humour.
The film opens with a shot of the moors, but not the foggy storm-battered moors of horror classics. These hills are pleasant and green and lit by a slowly setting sun. These shots are accompanied by the first of the film’s three moon songs, Bobby Vinton’s classy 1963 version of ‘Blue Moon’. It was recorded for his ‘blue’ concept album along with his hit records ‘Blue on Blue’ and of course ‘Blue Velvet’. This smooth, sweet, almost sugary confection stands as a paradigm of American pop music between rock’n’roll and the British invasion. With its lush production complete with subtle tasteful instrumentation and backing vocals whispering ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, this is perhaps the piece of music with the least tension ever to open a horror film.
There is a gap of an hour featuring a visit to a pub, a wolf attack and a few dream sequences before the next song accompanies the young lovers: the werewolf attack survivor and his nurse take a shower to Van Morrison’s 1970 ‘Moondance’. Although less obviously ironic than the other songs its light jazzy swing is certainly at odds with the typical wailing saxophone that usually enhanced such scenes in 1981. The third moon song follows shortly after. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s apocalyptic stomp ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (1969) accompanies our lycanthrope as he spends a weekday afternoon battling boredom (he even tries British daytime television), a strange restlessness and lack of appetite. It is a truly great song and a great stripped-down production with one of the best drum sounds ever recorded, and it is completely at odds with the scene. Boredom never seemed so much fun.
Two more versions of ‘Blue Moon’ follow. Sam Cooke’s unique soulful phrasing plays over the painful transformation scene. And after the heartbreaking ending, the end titles are accompanied by the famous ‘bom-di-di-bom’ of The Marcels’ upbeat doo-wop version. It is now the most famous version of the song written in the mid-30s by show-tune specialists Rodgers and Hart. The joyful ending seems so perfect for a film imbued with the love of making movies. Landis’s career went from strength to strength and many more box-office successes followed. Those subsequent films were tight and entertaining but his love of cinema was never again so obvious.
Cast: Romola Garai, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Dean Andrews, Julian Barratt, Jane Asher
For Halloween 2015, BBC Radio 4 commissioned a pair of new radio adaptations of modern horror stories. Alongside an hour-long dramatization of Koji Suzuki’s The Ring (Ringu), the BBC also broadcast a revised version of Nigel Kneale’s 1972 TV drama The Stone Tape directed by Peter Strickland, best known for his films Berberian Sound Studio (2012)and The Duke of Burgundy (2014). This chilling play, considered a classic of 1970s television, relates the tale of some audio researchers investigating a haunted Victorian mansion, using difference frequencies to try and explain ghosts as a playback phenomenon, due to the fact that the stones of buildings capture recordings of the past.
The 2015 radio adaptation moves the temporal location of the play forward to the end of the same decade, when home recording had started to become a normal occurrence, and removes some of the story elements concerning pre-existing ghosts, to concentrate on the arrogance of the researchers creating a dangerous and uncanny situation all by themselves. An alternate download version of the play (available alongside the traditional stereo mix as broadcast on Radio 4) was partially recorded using ‘3D audio’ a.k.a. binaural sound, where a manikin dummy is used in the studio to simulate the position of the listener, with microphones attached to the sides of the dummy’s head to capture sounds at the distance and location where they would be heard from a listener’s ears.
Alex Fitch spoke to the director of the new Stone Tape to talk about his move from cinema to radio, his interest in 1970s drama and the aural influences on his radio play.
Alex Fitch: This is your second radio play after The Len Continuum, which featured your Berberian Sound Studio collaborator Toby Jones, but with The Stone Tape you have brought more filmic techniques to radio, in the sense that you’ve created more of a surround sound soundscape.
Peter Strickland: Yeah. The first one was more of a straightforward drama; I didn’t want to do anything gratuitous with the sound in Len, but with The Stone Tape the sound is so inherently part of the narrative, and part of the appeal. There are a lot of records that I love and I felt that if they’re going to be shoe-horned into the script, there’s no point in doing it. With The Stone Tape it was crying out to have these ideas informing the whole play, such as Arvin Lucier’s ‘I am sitting in a room’ or Robert Ashley’s ‘Automatic Writing’. So, it was a great opportunity to pay tribute to music, rather than anything to do with film. There’s the original Stone Tape, of course, but I wasn’t really thinking of any other films at all.
You used a 3D microphone set-up that records sounds coming from all directions. Did that make any difference to mixing the tracks for radio, or did you do two different edits – one for broadcast and one for download?
There are two different edits. When we did the assembly edit, the sound that was recorded using the microphones attached to the dummy head was mixed into one track. My editor John, who was doing this using ProTools, has one track for the straightforward edit and another for the sound from the dummy head. It was quite complicated – with radio it’s so complicated, you sometimes only listen to temporary audio, but for us it was sometimes two or three different edits within sentences, which can be a nightmare with the dummy head in terms of the whole special quality – if an actor moves slightly that’s going to disrupt things.
Only at the last minute did we realise there was a bit of spare time – not for the radio edit, but for the binaural download – so what we did was extend some of the things that had to be shortened for radio. So we extended the scream decay at the end of the play. James’s experiments with resonance were extended, but as far as I remember there were no extensions to the amount of dialogue; there was no time to do that.
It would be great if they released a soundtrack of the actual sounds; James Cargill did a lot of work and Andrew Liles did as well. There are five separate components: James did all the electronic tones and the library music at the beginning; Andrew did the vocal sounds; Steve Haywood and Raoul Brand took what was recorded and added all these analogue effects; Eloise Whitmore was on hand with the Nagra 4D, plus the whole mix, the foley and everything; and then Chris Pike worked with Eloise on the 3D sound.
When we recorded with the Nagra, the fidelity was so good that we could barely hear the difference between it and digital. So, we did this thing where you can feel the difference when you go from tape to ‘real sound’. We didn’t want to cheat it, Steve gave us the option of using a high gain to make it sound a bit ‘crunchier’, but I thought that was a bit of a shortcut. If the Nagra 4D is that good, let it sound that good. So what we did was: for the 3D sound we used mono, which seems kind of perverse! We’re spending all this money on this incredibly expensive studio and then we’re using mono for about 30% of the whole play, but what that does is really interesting regarding the contrast in sound. If you have 3D sound being used all the way through, you become numb to it somehow. By dipping into mono when it switches to tape, it seemed like a good way of solving the whole thing.
And also, because the play is very specifically located in 1979, you probably wanted to limit yourself to the technology of the time, so it sounded authentic
Well, that was the thing. Even though we recorded the whole thing on digital, when we did the tape parts, that was recorded on the Nagra 4D, which has been around for donkeys’ years! Obviously the original play was 1972, but by moving it up to the end of that decade, a lot of the possibilities of sounds fitting into smaller spaces don’t sound quite as preposterous as it would have done 7 years earlier. I really wanted this idea that, if not clearly a ghost, there’s a lot more in this version on the fact that this is something much more that they can monetise, and either use it for the consumer market – which is essentially what the mp3 generation has done – or for MI5 or MI6, in terms of setting a whole house up as a recording device.
So, I wanted to expand on this and get into the idea of how we perceive recording and playback set against the time we live in. It’s all dictated by what’s happening at the time. In the 1970s you were still thinking about side A and side B – to get beyond that concept is quite strange – whereas now young people don’t even know about side A and side B.
It seems almost a natural progression for you to move into radio, particularly following Berberian Sound Studio, which was also an obsessive attempt to find some meaning in layered sound, which seems to offer many parallels with The Stone Tape. Is there something about audio, which you think other filmmakers don’t explore, that you’ve had an opportunity to do more with in your work?
I don’t pay too much attention to that. It’s just stuff that works for me in some way. I wouldn’t say it’s always that way – the last film I did, The Duke of Burgundy, had nothing to do with sound. We do our best with it, but we didn’t want to be emphatic with it, we don’t want to be gratuitous. I suppose a lot of filmmakers get their cues from painting, for me it’s always from sound. With my last film, the whole structure of it came from my listening to minimalist music, even though it wasn’t a film as concerned with sound.
I grew up listening to a lot of records that were fascinating. I was always dying to use some of Arvin Lucier’s ideas in something, and I think The Stone Tape was the first thing that was the perfect way of doing that – a way of looking backwards from what Lucier was doing. He was trying to annihilate his voice and we’re trying to do the opposite, bring back a voice from annihilation! On the one hand, it might be seen as a very dry, academic piece of work, but on the other hand it was something very sad – here’s this character that doesn’t like his voice and he wants the dominant frequencies of this room to smooth it out, he wants his voice to be subsumed. All of us can relate to that in some way.
But also thinking of your debut film – Katalin Varga(2009) – you created a lot of atmosphere in that film just from discordant noises overlaid with images of landscape. So I think it’s a tool that isn’t used enough by some filmmakers, and by using this technique, you’re experimenting with its possibilities as a threatening presence within the film.
In hindsight, yes. When we made that film, it was my habit of working. I took this long gap between making short films and my first feature and got into making sound stuff. So I’d developed this habit of working, which no one gave a damn about at the time! I’m not saying that out of sour grapes, it just took me by surprise when the film got recognised for its sound. I thought: ‘What?’, because people always did that on records and no one really paid attention.
So, I never thought in a million years that it was going to be special I was just making this story, working by habit, and then all this. There was that very pleasant shock when we made that film, and that’s what led on to Berberian, thinking of all those records that I loved, and if you use those ideas, combined with imagery, somehow it clicks with people. The best example is Krzysztof Penderecki’s music for The Shining(1980); on vinyl people find it too academic, but on film there’s something about the timbre and the dissonance that really ignites how you see the scenes.
So, a long way of answering your question is: I just work that way out of habit! After Varga, I thought: ‘people are responding to the sound’, and that had never happened to me before.
Obviously you’re a child of the 1970s, but it’s also a temporal location you keep returning to. The Stone Tape is set in 1979, the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy hark back to the 60s and 70s’ style of credits, and Berberian Sound Studio is set in the 1970s as well. Is there something about that decade you’re almost trying to exorcise through your work?
I think it’s just childhood. Many directors just reference their childhood. If you think of the 1980s, the directors of Back to the Future (1985), Gremlins (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986) were all going back to their childhoods in the 1950s. People’s childhoods are just perhaps more intense; whatever you experience or perceive embeds itself in you more, whatever you perceive now just goes straight through your head, like water off a duck’s back!
The way I saw television, the way I heard music, it somehow had this uncanny feel to it, and that’s something that stays with you. Was it a particularly odd decade? Maybe not. This generation working now just happened to be kids in the 70s. Perhaps in 20 years’ time you’ll have people looking back at the 1990s in a strange way, but for me the 90s was completely strait-laced. I think that’s all it is. I’ve become aware of that; Varga was the only contemporary story I’ve directed, but for some reason I always end up in that blasted decade!
Was the original Stone Tape something that made an impression on you, when you were young?
No, because I didn’t see it when I was young. I was born in 1973 and must have missed it when it was repeated in the 80s – I saw it much later. I saw it sometime last decade, so it didn’t have the same resonance… A lot of people I spoke to found it absolutely terrifying when they were children, but I was more into it for the whole sonic notion that was being explored, these notions of natural acoustics and so on.
I found it uncanny, but what we wanted to do – when Matthew Graham and I wrote the script – was to focus more on the melancholic side of Jill, and the slightly creepy nature of it. But I think I never found it really terrifying. The stuff I found terrifying was more mainstream like The Omen (1976) – Billie Whitelaw’s eyes – and so on. It’s strange, even with M.R. James, the only one that scares me is Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968).
With this radio version of The Stone Tape, you’ve cast comedy actors as two of your lead roles – Julian Barratt and Julian Rhind-Tutt. Is that because their heightened performances work well with horror, particularly on radio where it’s just voices?
I didn’t pay too much attention to that, there’s definitely some humour in the script, but in terms of casting I thought they would be interesting. What I wanted to do, and I guess it all goes back to when you hear bands like Joy Division, is that they have these gloomy personas, but when you hear about them, they’re just a bunch of lads messing around.
I think having worked in studios a lot, it is quite laddish in there. You get this kind of cabin fever, people just get on each other’s nerves, they start messing around and playing up, so I wanted an element of that kind of banter you get in the studio, especially back in the 70s where there was this casual sexism. To be a woman at that time, with all those blokes, must have been quite unpleasant. Also, what I like about that is that it sets up this fairly innocent framework, and when the creepiness does come in, it’s a bit more of a contrast, perhaps. I wasn’t interested in having a creepy atmosphere throughout the whole thing. The first half is more like a bad version of Fawlty Towers, and then slowly things happen. I never wanted to have any kind of background music, every single sound in the play is diegetic, and everything comes from what the characters are doing, even if the radio is on in the background. I never wanted to creep people out, the films I find scary are the ones where nothing is signposted too much. A lot of the terror I find is in Michele Haneke’s films – they’re stone cold silent. So, I’m only using the sound for when the characters are employing this machinery, this sonic drilling.
It’s a great sound in itself, and it’s a sound I like – you don’t need much more than that. There’s no emotive element to it. It’s cold and hard, and I really enjoy that.
Viewers with untrained ears might watch Belgian directing team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s dazzling neo-gialloThe Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) and wonder why Ben Power (Blanck Mass, Fuck Buttons) would be so bold as to want to re-score it. The heady mix of slick psychedelia, early synth and ambient grooves are a perfect fit and certain signature pieces are used repeatedly throughout. However, not one of the compositions was originally scored for the Cattet and Forzani film. Instead they lifted their music straight from the 1970s giallo films that inspire them.
The directors have said they like to assemble their soundtracks as they write their script, embedding the fusion of audio and visual into the early stages of the development process. So it was no doubt an unusual experience to watch their film with Power’s retrofitted score laid over it. Thankfully and unsurprisingly, the new music comes with the Belgian duo’s approval. It features contributions from Stockholm’s Roll The Dice, London’s Helm, Moon Gangs, Phil Julian, Glasgow’s Konx-Om-Pax, and New York’s C. Spencer Yeh, as well as Mr Blanck Mass himself. Each artist was assigned a scene and given the freedom to score it how they wished. Furthermore they were doing this without prior knowledge of what was planned by anyone else. Their combined efforts have come together to form a brooding cinematic morass of electronica. In particular, Helm’s ‘Silencer II’ is a hyper-tense 11-minute epic of suppressed emotion and pent up frustration whereas Moon Gangs’ ‘The Apartment’ or a couple of the C. Spencer Yeh tracks are far less brutal – allowing your fast-beating heart and fragile mind a chance to relax. Note that the shrill attack of Phil Julian’s ‘End Credits’ makes sure there’s a shot of adrenalin for anyone flagging when the film fades to black.
The re-score of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is put out by Death Waltz Records. It’s a double vinyl release, housed inside a 425gsm reverse board jacket and comes in two versions. There’s the ‘exclusive splatter combo’ as Death Waltz’s Spencer Hickman describes it – limited to 500 only worldwide. Not entirely sure what exact colours that means, but it will not be black – that’s reserved for the regular shop version of it.
The East End Film Festival are showing The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears with the brand new score on 10 July at Red Gallery. After the screening there will be DJ sets from Blanck Mass and friends, including Spencer Hickman spinning some rare giallo records of his own.
For more infos about the event and to buy tickets visit the EEFF website.
The Austrian zither is synonymous with The Third Man (1949), considered by many cineastes to be one of the greatest films of all time. A combination of guitar and harp, it is a five-string fretboard that belongs to the piano family and is played with the left hand.
The pleasant and alluring signature sound of the zither score starts with the eponymous theme tune – re-titled ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ in the UK after Orson Welles’s character. This seemingly inauspicious musical moment singlehandedly introduced the post-war world to a very unusual Austrian instrument. ‘The Third Man Theme’ enjoyed 11 weeks at number one in America. This kind of stand-alone success didn’t go unnoticed by the movie moguls. It pioneered the use of soundtracks to market and sell films.
Like all the best innovations and cultural phenomena this paradigm shift was entirely down to chance. Director Carol Reed was picking up carafes of wine for his crew when he spotted Viennese local Anton Karas playing the zither for pennies in the courtyard of a small sausage restaurant on the outskirts of Vienna. It was the first time Reed had heard this strange instrument. His mind raced as he wondered if it could carry a whole film score.
Karas was a virtuoso; he’d been playing ever since he found a concert zither in his attic in 1918 aged just 12. Reed brought him back to his Austrian hotel and after successfully testing recordings of the zither with rushes from the film he invited the stunned Karas to score the music for The Third Man.
The Austrian musician spoke no English and initially took some convincing to come to London. Eventually one night he asked Reed to listen to a new tune he’d done – this turned out to be the first recorded version of ‘The Third Man Theme’. Reed loved it and, unappreciative of the skills required, asked him why he hadn’t played that before. Karas supposedly told him that the tune takes a lot out of your fingers.
In the wake of The Third Man’s success the venues for Karas’s performances changed dramatically. He was invited to play the zither for Princess Margaret in Buckingham Palace and for the Pope in Rome. With the money he made from the film Karas bought a bar in Grenzing, Austria… and called it ‘The Third Man’.
Bernard Parmegiani (1927-2013) was one the most formidable composers to emerge from Pierre Schaeffer’s music research group the GRM in the 1960s. Parmegiani’s work abounds with a vivacious corporeality. His compositions are extremely animated and dynamic, and the sounds he composes with are especially distinctive for their kinetic physicality and visceral presence. They meld environmental noises and impulses with electronic sounds and enhancements in a way that, as clichéd as it is, can best be described as alchemical. Yes, there is much in the way of transmutation or, to evoke Catholicism, trans-substantiation. A sound event or impulse without discernibly doing so becomes another event or impulse, or becomes redolent of something else, and one starts to question the nature of what one is hearing. One becomes an active listener. It is true acousmatic music. There is also a great sense of humour and a genuine sense of motion in his work. Interestingly, Parmegiani trained to be a mime artist with Jacques Le Coq in the late 1950s.
His album De Natura Sonorum (1975) is the defining musique concrète LP, a masterpiece. Notable for its exquisite timbral richness and dynamic interplay, it is also very percussive and physical. When you hear what sounds like a woodblock being struck it sounds and feels like it’s happening six inches away from your head. Although it is part of the musique concrète canon and was composed in 1975 it still radiates a sense of being sui generis and extra tempus.
Parmegiani was also a prolific composer for television and cinema, working notably with the Polish auteur Walerian Borowczyk. In Daniel Bird’s short documentary Eyes That Listen, he discusses his soundtracks for Borowczyk’s animations: ‘It’s a type of music which on purpose doesn’t exaggerate distance from the sound to the image… what you see and what you hear… is as in real life… when something falls down the chute it falls down… da, da, da…’ I think he’s underplaying just how unique his sounds actually are.
Parmegiani wasn’t the only composer Borowczyk worked with. Indeed, the Polish director was something of a pioneer in using electroacoustic music in animation. In collaboration with animator Jan Lenica, he had already worked with composers like Andrzej Markowski and W?odzimierz Kotoński, both members of the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. It was after Borowczyk came to France in 1959 that he started working with Parmegiani on a number of films, including the macabre 12-minute animation Les jeux des anges (1964).
Perhaps Parmegiani’s most widely heard but little known work is the ident for announcements at one of Paris’ major airports, Indicatif – Aéroport Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle. This stunning, glistening micro-composition is full of mystery and magic and excited the ears of travellers for 34 years between 1971 and 2005.
I met Parmegiani once. It was at a London Musician’s Collective concert at the Institute of Contemporary Art. He was sat drinking wine with his wife, relaxing before he diffused some of his work through a monster sound system. I’d recently released a 20-minute composition on a 3” CD published by the Spanish label Oozebap. I gingerly approached Parmegiani and offered him a copy of the CD. He asked me what was on it and I said ‘It’s a collage…’ He looked back at me doubtfully and said with a slight rising inflection and hint of incredulity, ‘You like collage?’ I don’t recall my reply.
Richard Thomas will be part of a musical response to Walerian Borowczyk’s film scores at Café Oto, London, on 10 June 2014: Octothorpe presents Borowczyk: Mise-en-scène, featuring Aleks Kolkowski + The Dufay Collective (Vivien Ellis, Jon Banks, Paul Bevan & William Lyons) + Secluded Bronte (The Bohman Brothers & Richard Thomas) + short films.
Original title: L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps
Cast: Klaus Tange, Jean-Michel Vovk, Sylvia Camarda, Sam Louwyck
Belgium, France, Luxembourg 2013
French directing duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have developed a style in which they take elements of the giallo and use them to compose intensely sensual cinematic experiences. They made their feature debut with Amer in 2009, a near-experimental exploration of a woman’s troubled psyche set in the south of France. Their follow-up, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, moves north to Brussels and into the obsessive mind of a man looking for his missing wife.
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani talked to Virginie Sélavy at the London Film Festival in October 2013 and told her about using the language of giallo to give audiences a filmic orgasm.
Virginie Sélavy: How do you see the relationship of your films to giallo? Are they homage, distillation, artistic commentary?
Bruno Forzani: Definitely not homage. It’s more that we reinterpret and re-use the giallo language to tell our story.
Hélène Cattet: We use it as a tool, especially because there are strong iconographic elements whose meaning we can subvert, for instance, the figure of the assassin, which is a very striking, shocking figure. We change its meaning so it takes on a personal significance in our story.
You do the same thing with sound: you’ve used extracts from giallo films for your score. It must be difficult to re-use music that was originally composed for something specific in other films. How did you choose the tracks?
BF: Initially most of them were in the script.
HC: They inspired us as we were writing the script.
You mean that as you were writing the script you were thinking about those pieces of music?
BF: Yes, exactly. We want to use music 100% and give it all of its original power, not just compile a jukebox. So we have to find the right balance in relation to a modern film. A couple of the pieces didn’t work because they made the scenes too kitsch. One was the music for the inspector’s story at the beginning, and the other was for the opening credits. As the scene is cut all the time, it interrupted the rise of the melody and it ruined it.
Does the story inspire the music or is it the other way around?
HC: The music inspires the way a sequence develops. It gives us a rhythm, and ideas too. We listen to music as we write, and all of a sudden there’s one track that strikes us, so we play it again and again, and it inspires the rhythm.
BF: And images too.
What is the most remarkable music for you in the film?
BF: ‘Maddalena’. That’s the one when Dan goes inside the walls. It comes from the film Maddalena by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, about a priest who falls in love with a woman, and is lost between faith and passion and doesn’t know which to choose. I was very keen to have this music in the film because it’s representative of a period in Ennio Morricone’s career, and it works with the film’s themes, in relation to fantasy – we hear all these women sighing. There’s also the use of the organ that you find in the music he wrote for Westerns. For me it was the most important music. It was the hardest to get but we managed it in the end.
HC: For me it was the music from the opening credits that we didn’t keep! It was the very first piece we thought of for the film and it had inspired the first drafts. It was from Seven Blood-Stained Orchids. It created the atmosphere there was at the very beginning. We started writing in 2002 and the film was very different then. It was more like a whodunit, and through the years it turned more into a ‘who am I’. The whodunit aspect of Seven Blood-Stained Orchids was really present at first.
The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh also seems to be a major influence.
BF: Yes, completely. The sequence when Barbara explodes on the glass body is like the flashback in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh. It’s a scene that really struck me and we tried to magnify it – not to redo it because there’s no point, but to be inspired by it as if we were dreaming it in a different way. And there’s also a note on the bunch of flowers, and it’s the note that Edwige Fenech receives in the film. Sergio Martino’s films are always about vice, fantasy and sado-masochism, so it fit the subject matter perfectly.
Amer, and your contribution to The ABCs of Death, O for Orgasm, even more so, were already concerned with pain and pleasure, and sex and death. What draws you to those themes?
BF: We see the films we make as an experience. We try to give our viewers a filmic orgasm. There is definitely that aspect, to give pleasure to people.
HC: It allows us to approach the story in a sensual, physical way, to play with very strong feelings of attraction and repulsion.
BF: They are two instincts, two impulses, and as we’re trying to do something sensorial, connecting those two impulses strengthens the audience’s involvement in our sensorial experimentation. And audiences are confronted with their own impulses, which they may reject – violence, desire – and that places them in a slightly ambiguous position. For me, a film is not like a motorway, it’s about getting a bit lost among primitive things. We try to play with that, embrace that side of things 100% and not have any moral judgement in there, just connect with the impulse, whether it’s fear or love.
You seem more interested in the sensory experience than in the narrative.
HC: It’s a little as in Amer. We use all of those filmic elements to tell the story. To tell it sensually first, but there is a meaning in the end. The story is told by what is experienced through the sounds and images. We try and convey the ambiguity of a character through stylistic effects. The split screen, for instance, may look nice, but it’s there to actually show something.
BF: We construct the film in two ways. The first is the sensorial way, which corresponds to the first viewing of the film: you experience the film physically, then it sinks in. We wrote the film so it could be seen several times and people would discover different layers each time. We’re very influenced by Satoshi Kon. There are several levels of interpretation in the way he writes, and each time you see one of his films you discover new things. We wrote our film in the same way. We were also strongly influenced by David Lynch when we were teenagers. The first time we saw his films, we didn’t understand them, but the experience of them was very strong. It was a very powerful world. And gradually his films have become clearer and clearer. It’s a similar principle.
There seems to be an intense concern with seeing inside of objects, buildings and bodies in the film.
BF: Yes, there is definitely something obsessive about it. We are obsessed with close-ups, with trying to be very close to the viewers and penetrating them. We want the film to penetrate people. In the sound, we worked a lot on the bass frequencies, because bass goes into you. This film is really obsessed with penetration!
HC: And with intrusion too. That was already the case in Amer.
It’s a very baroque film, with this fascination with surface illusions, with doubles, mirroring and artifice, and of course the luxuriance of motifs.
HC: Yes, completely. That’s how we saw it. We were very inspired by Art Nouveau, and as we live in Brussels there’s a lot of that. We really wanted to film inside those Art Nouveau houses, with all those lavish motifs that fit so well with the labyrinthine aspect that we wanted for the film. It inspired us, not only in the visual motifs, but in the space and the mise en scène too – you get really lost.
Architecture is very important in giallo, but you have really found your own architectural world here. I loved the idea that the building is alive.
BF: For us, the question was always, is the building the main character, or is the main character inside the building? Where is the inside, and where is the outside?
HC: We played with the idea that the building is like a Rubik’s Cube, and the walls move, everything moves, and in the character’s mind something is triggered.
How did you choose the locations for Amer and Strange Colour?
BF: It was very natural. Amer was shot where I grew up in the south of France, on the border with Italy. And we made this one where we met, in the city where we live. So in each case it came from something personal.
It looks like every single shot has been carefully composed, with the same obsessive mindset as your characters. Do you feel there is an obsessive quality to your filmmaking?
HC: That’s the way it was visually, but also sonically, and that was even worse because we had no sounds at all – we shoot without sound – so we had to recreate absolutely everything. So, for instance, things like breathing, things that audiences don’t even notice, but will notice if they’re not there.
How long did it take you to make the film?
BF: All in all, 11 years. We started writing in 2002.
HC: Then we started the preparatory work in 2010.
This film felt closer to O for Orgasm than Amer.
HC: We made O when we were waiting to find out if we’d be able to make Strange Colour. It had been a few years since we’d last shot something, so it was perfect to get back into things. We tested things for Strange Colour in O, things like the slow-motion ghost-camera, so maybe that’s why.
What influenced the title of the film specifically?
HC: It refers to the themes of the film, while being surreal. And it brings to mind The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? (aka The Case of the Bloody Iris) and All the Colours of the Dark.
That’s another major reference in the film.
BF: Yes, we use the music from All the Colours of the Dark in the credits. There is a gorgeous nightmare scene in that film. And it’s about a woman who is bored, alone all day while her husband is at work, and our film is like the other side. She goes into this sect to discover pleasure because she has no pleasure with her husband, and our film is a little like…
HC:…the husband’s point de view!
BF: I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, exactly!
Have you thought about how you are going to develop the form you have created with Amer and Strange Colour in the future?
BF: I don’t know. After Amer there were people who said, ‘I don’t know what you can do after this, it can’t be renewed’. But then we made this. It’s the same themes, the same world, but it’s different. There is a third part, but we won’t do it straightaway. We’ll try and do something else in between. We’d like to do something that doesn’t come from us, because this film took so much energy, so much life. And then we’d like to go back to something personal to conclude Amer and Strange Colour.
All the Colours of the Dark ( Tutti i colori del buio) is surely one of the greatest soundtracks ever recorded and a holy grail vinyl for many collectors, yet for some reason Bruno Nicolai still doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves outside of the circle of giallo fans and hardcore soundtrack aficionados. For many years he was the right-hand man to Ennio Morricone and maybe that’s the problem: the wider world sees him in Morricone’s shadow or doesn’t even know the valuable contributions he made to Morricone’s scores before a mysterious falling out left them parting ways on bad terms. They were never reconciled, and sadly Nicolai passed away in 1991.
Although I’m a fan of nearly all of Nicolai’s scores, this one towers over the others. Throughout its runtime it can be jarring, difficult, dreamlike, hallucinatory, and yet it’s always strikingly beautiful. Recorded with the help of Alessandro Alessandroni on sitar and Edda Del Orso on vocals, the score can be split into two distinct sections.
Tracks such as ‘Sabba’ are beat-driven affairs with Alessandroni’s piercing psychedelic sitar almost working against the track, threatening to derail it. Add to this Del Orso’s terrifying wordless screams and moans, which sound out of time and place, and the whole thing almost becomes a car crash of the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ kind. In lesser hands this would be unlistenable. But such is the masterful ear of Nicolai that he manages to focus the whole piece on what is very nearly an uplifting ‘chorus’, and the whole thing eventually makes you want to dance around your room like a lunatic.
And then you have tracks such as ‘Magico Incontro’, which are simply beautiful avant-pop with gorgeous orchestration and wailing vocals. I say ‘simply’ but nothing Nicolai does is simple. There is always something going on under the surface that pulls you back in for multiple listens.
As much as I love this score I had a hard time writing about it. It’s difficult to pin down what makes it great and it’s best experienced through a rumbling sound system where it can almost overpower you. The original goes for big money (if you can even find it ) so kudos to Andy Votel and Finders Keepers for not only releasing it in its original library sleeve but also loaded with extensive liner notes and a poster.
Spencer Hickman is the founder of Death Waltz Recording Company, the leading soundtrack label specialising in horror and cult films. Forthcoming releases include the scores to House of the Devil and City of the Living Dead.
Watch the US original trailer for Tutti i colori del buio:
Abel Ferrara’s 1981 rape-revenge movie Ms.45 is all too often forgotten by film fans. Maybe it’s because, in the UK, it never made it onto the Department of Public Prosecution’s final banned list in the early 80s, like Ferrara’s iconic video nasty Driller Killer (1979). Or maybe it’s because, for exploitation fans, it’s just not as grisly as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978). What is certain is that Joe Delia’s score has never received any real appreciation outside the context of the film because, up until now, it has never been released.
The Ms.45 LP sleeve artwork by Alice X. Zhang and sleeve notes by composer Joe Delia.
Ms. 45 is the New York tale of Thana (the late Zoë Lund), a mute seamstress who survives not one rape attack, but two: first in the street, and then, when she gets home, a burglar, waiting in her apartment, repeats the ordeal. What follows is a shocking one-woman rampage against all male chauvinists.
Joe Delia started out in music in the late 60s, touring in backing bands for the likes of Stevie Wonder and The Isley Brothers. In the 70s he studied composition, and got his big break with Ferrara’s first feature, Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976). His career in film and TV now spans almost four decades.
The score of Ms.45 was his third feature-length effort. He had the tough job of jamming out the real sounds of New York, as well as making up for the glaring silence of our mute anti-heroine. For example, down-tuned guitars cling to a racing post-punk rhythm, intensifying the horror as Thana is dragged from the street in the first attack. Whereas, when the burglar points his gun at her, the shrill of a saxophone, like a crazed seagull, pleads: not again, because she can’t. When her transformation into Ms. 45 is complete, Delia subverts this saxophone motif to signify Thana’s rebirth as a woman of vengeance. Her full red lips take centre stage as the music demands you know she’ll no longer be a victim. These dramatic, broad musical tones are complemented by gentler, stripped-down piano compositions.
Everyone who knows this movie knows ‘Dance Party’, and its Liquid Liquid/ESG-type disco-punk groove. On screen a band performs it at a fancy dress party as Thana – in a sexy nun’s habit – bides her time before her final, fatal act of vengeance. [SPOILER] For this climax Delia switches, on the first gun shot, to the haunting Gregorian sounds of ‘Voices’ as Thana shoots every man she finds in her cross hairs at the party – only to be halted when one of her fashionista colleagues (literally) stabs her in the back.
Delia recorded four other tracks for Ms. 45, but they only featured as snippets in the final film. He doesn’t consider these part of the score so they do not appear on the Death Waltz record. However, they are included as digital extras when you buy it, together with two elements tracks – 25 and 45 minutes long – thrown in for good measure.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews