I have a confession to make. I haven’t seen the movie that this score is taken from. For one reason or another Kiss of the Damned has just eluded me…
I first heard the score when director Xan Cassavetes emailed me asking if I’d like to release it. She sent me the (then unfinished) music and I instantly fell in love with it. I wanted to release it on my label, Death Waltz, but schedule-wise I couldn’t make it work.
Kiss of the Damned is released on DVD in the UK on 27 January 2014 by Eureka Entertainment. Watch the trailer here.
It’s interesting to review this because I have none of the usual markers in place (the piece of music fits this scene perfectly, etc, etc) but this is a record I listen to all the way through, from start to finish, several times a month. Steven Hufsteter (Repo Man) delivers a quite frankly gorgeous, sleazy and sexy music that conjures up blue and orange-lit rooms, writhing bodies on beds viewed through fish tanks and all manner of things you shouldn’t do in public – in fact, Jess Franco would most definitely be using this if he was still alive. It’s beautifully orchestrated and delicate too, with flashes of Bruno Nicolai and Ennio Morricone, and some very cool smokey jazz stylings thrown in there for good measure. This alone is enough to recommend it, but music supervisor Dina Juntila also dropped in tracks from HTRK, Jane Weaver and German punkers Der Fluch, who all add a contemporary edge to the score, bringing it right up to date.
Its inspiration is obvious, of course, but it’s the execution that makes this a step above a simple retro nod to the great masters. The ‘KOTD Love Theme’ has a break so crisp you can imagine Ghostface Killah spitting a verse over it; ‘Vapeur’ stands proudly with any experimental electronica of the 1970s; and ‘Bath of Tears’ is a beautifully down tempo baroque piano piece.
The score works so well as a stand-alone record that I don’t know if I’ll ever see the film. When I listen I conjure up my own images and story, and it is so vivid that I’m not sure anything would live up to it. This is the perfect example of a soundtrack you can listen to without knowing anything about what it accompanies – this is no putdown of the film either; in fact, it’s testament to all the creative talent involved in it.
All in all, Kiss of the Damned is a rare instance of a contemporary score standing proudly with its inspirations and holding its own with very little effort indeed. It also manages to be very fucking cool and aloof doing it.
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 Ms. 45 and The House of the Devil.
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.
Recently, a couple of my friends were having a light scuffle about music formats on Facebook. The conversation shifted from ‘Why are you listening to that?’ to ‘Why are you listening to that on CD?’ The suggestion was that any physical format for storing music was now absurd: ‘Why would you when you don’t have to?’ Such an outcry would be ignored by the boozy congregation that met earlier this month in Islington’s deconsecrated church The Nave. They were out in their legions to pay homage at the launch of the heavyweight 180g luxuriance that was the limited, double coloured vinyl edition of John Carpenter’s self-scored soundtrack to The Fog (1980), released by Death Waltz Recording Company, founded by Spencer Hickman in 2011. Also unveiled that night was renowned artist Dinos Chapman’s specially commissioned cover artwork: a spidery, skinless semi-human face that seems to emerge from a graphite fog and be consumed by it at the same time.
More information on Cigarette Burns Cinema can be found here.
Rare celluloid print screening masters Cigarette Burns, founded by Josh Saco in 2008, who co-hosted the event, treated us further to lurid trailers from 70s movies, including Burnt Offerings (1976) and Demon Seed (1977), getting us in the mood for the 16mm full scope projection of The Fog itself: Carpenter’s tale of 19th-century undead sailors who descend upon their old haunt, the Californian fishing town Antonio Bay, to avenge their betrayal. They were drowned when their ship was sunk by original Bay folk who were not keen on the sailors’ mission to establish a leper colony nearby. The eerie thick fog that heralds their anniversary visit is a portentous means of transportation. The fog is more than this though: its ubiquity and unearthly toxicity are incomprehensible. A motif perhaps, of the world beyond, an anarchic space outside society, that Carpenter evokes across his films. The Fog is certainly worth celebrating, and the dimly lit, smoke-filled arts venue provided some great visual echoes, especially during the scenes set in Father Malone’s church.
Carpenter is known for scoring and performing the music for his own film projects and The Fog’s soundtrack is indicative of his pared-down, minimal style. The detuned sense of foreboding puts me in mind of his outsider antiheroes, who are at odds with the dominant social forces. This includes my favourite Carpenter character, psychopath turned hobby bobby Napoleon Wilson, played by Darwin Joston in Assault on Precinct 13, who also turns up in The Fog as the coroner. Also, Michael Myers, played by Tony Moran, the slasher who gets to walk away unscathed at the end of Halloween. Whether Carpenter gives us the electro alienation of the Assault score or the agoraphobic mix of The Fog, these spaces are populated by drifters, the disenchanted and the vengeful.
Carpenter’s re-issued score would work on any format because it’s good, but I like Death Waltz’s double vinyl edition that can be handled and played on an analogue system. For me, this is part of the phenomenological pleasure of space, and objects that occupy three-dimensional space and reflect light. It’s also about an enjoyment of the residue of this: the whirring of the projector, cigarette smoke in a beam of light or the suspense of opening a double album, searching for inserts.
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.
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.
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.
The follow-up to the acclaimed, Berlin prize-winning rape-revenge drama Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a remarkable achievement. The accomplishment is amplified considering that it is a second feature. Among the most audacious European works in recent memory, Strickland’s film draws on his love of experimental film scores, sound effects and analogue recording equipment to create an elliptical, nightmarish tale that pays tribute to the Italian giallo genre and the Gothic horror of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Dario Argento‘s Suspiria. Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Peter Tscherkassky are also acknowledged influences.
Set in a beautifully replicated 1976, the film hones in on Berberian Sound Studio, the cheapest, sleaziest post-production studios in Italy. Only the most sordid horror films have their sound processed and sharpened there. Gilderoy (Toby Jones, incredibly game in a discomfiting role), a naÃ¯ve and introverted sound engineer from England, is hired to orchestrate the sound mix for the latest film by horror maestro Santini (Antonio Mancino). Thrown from the innocent world of local documentaries into a foreign environment fuelled by exploitation, Gilderoy soon finds himself caught up in a forbidding world of bitter actresses, capricious technicians and confounding bureaucracy. Obliged to work with the hot-headed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), whose tempestuous relationships with certain members of his female cast threaten to boil over at any time, Gilderoy begins to record the sound for ‘The Equestrian Vortex’, a hammy tale of witchcraft and unholy murder.
Only when he’s testing microphones or poring over tape spooling around his machines does this timid man from Surrey seem at ease. Surrounded by Mediterranean machismo and, for the first time in his life, beautiful women, Gilderoy, very much an Englishman abroad, devotes all his attention to his work. But the longer Gilderoy spends mixing screams and the bloodcurdling sounds of hacked vegetables, the more homesick he becomes for his garden shed studio in his hometown of Dorking. His mother’s letters alternate between banal gossip and an ominous hysteria, which gradually mirrors the black magic of Santini’s Vortex.
The violence on the screen Gilderoy is exposed to, day in, day out, in which he himself is implicated, has a disturbing effect on his psyche. He finds himself corrupted; yet he’s the one carrying out the violence. As both time and realities shift, Gilderoy finds himself lost in an otherworldly spiral of sonic and personal mayhem, and has to confront his own demons in order to stay afloat in an environment ruled by exploitation both on and off screen.
Named after the yellow (giallo) covers of the trashy crime novels used for storylines, this period of cinema in 1960s and 70s Italy produced numerous thrillers and horror flicks that privileged style over script. As Berberian Sound Studio makes clear, key ingredients of a typical giallo tended to include girls, daggers, blood, witchcraft and chilling screams. At the time, directors such as Dario Argento (Profondo Rosso) and Lucio Fulci (The Black Cat, Zombie Flesh Eaters) commissioned composers including Ennio Morricone and prog outfit Goblin to score their slasher films. The title of Strickland’s fictional studio, Berberian, refers to Cathy Berberian, the versatile American soprano who was married to the Italian electronics pioneer Lucio Berio, a giant of 20th-century composition. Peter Strickland himself has dabbled in sound art and electronic production as part of the trio The Sonic Catering Band.
Sound, and Gilderoy’s umbilical connection to it, is the heart of the film. To that extent the creation of the sound studio was pivotal and the film was always likely to stand or fall on the authenticity of the hermetically sealed bunker and the equipment on which Gilderoy toils. Production designer Jennifer Kernke (who worked with Berberian producer Keith Griffiths on Institute Benjamenta) has worked wonders, constructing a sound studio as it might have appeared in 70s Italy by scouring the UK for original vintage analogue sound equipment. For Strickland, an aficionado of vintage sound recording apparatus, amassing all this out-of-date gear felt wonderfully anachronistic. ‘I had to question myself. I thought, are we riffing off what these films did back in the 70s or are we taking cues from the spirit of those films? It seemed rather perverse to celebrate analogue within the digital medium.’ But it is precisely the fetishistic nature of Gilderoy’s relationship with his beloved machines – perhaps the only objects he truly understands – that Strickland is celebrating. ‘I like the idea of filling the whole frame with these strange machines as we celebrate this period when these things looked so futuristic and alien,’ the director comments.
The film’s general arcane sensibility is also enforced by the tape boxes and papers the film lingers lovingly over, all of which are designed by Julian House. A record designer whose work recently graced CAN’s The Lost Tapes box-set, House also envisioned the fake title sequence, one of the most arresting and genuinely thrilling moments in the film.
Giallo movies frequently had exceptionally advanced accompanying soundtracks that meshed free jazz with the avant-garde and high art with sleazy exploitation. The score for Berberian is courtesy of James Cargill of Broadcast (whose sleeves House has also designed), who conjures an ethereal soundscape in which sound and music cut back and forth from the reality of the studio into the giallo Gilderoy works.
Santini’s ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ may be a schlocky giallo slasher, a classic horror, but Berberian Sound Studio has a more absorbing, hauntological bent. ‘Horror was the starting point but I would never call it a horror,’ says Strickland. ‘I guess the rule was to bounce off that genre – to immediately say, no blood, no murder – but still make it scary. What was exciting about that genre was it has its own history, rules and regulations that you can manipulate and mess around with. There’s something very gratifying in taking a template and turning it into something very personal.’ While avoiding didacticism, Berberian Sound Studio also explores the fascination with violence and the potentially corrupting nature of graphic imagery. Gilderoy’s exposure to the sequences he is forced to endure slowly erodes his levels of tolerance. In the end he is quite literally ingested by the images and psychologically broken.
Despite its willingness to engage with complex and prescient issues, there is also a deep vein of black humour, most clearly during the foley sequences in the auditorium when sound artists hack watermelons and stab cabbages to imitate the sound of heads being split or witches being bludgeoned in Santini’s movie (images that are seen to be projected but which the viewer, crucially, never sees). The disconnection between the effects Santini is trying to generate and what’s causing it is often knowingly comical. As the film is so much about sound and the creation of it, Strickland was careful to bring in characters involved with exhibitions of sound and figures involved with making music. Experimental artists Pal Toth, Josef Czeres and singer Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg all appear, another example of reality imaginatively blurring with fiction.
Film4 FrightFest presented a preview screening of Berberian Sound Studio on August 26.
Unconventional trio Dead Rat Orchestra have been tinkering with harmoniums, axes, pigeon flutes, folly snow-boxes, home-wired glitchers and organ pipes for nearly a decade. Their new album was originally recorded as the soundtrack to Intrepid Cinema’s critically acclaimed BBC Documentary The Guga Hunters of Ness, which follows the journey of ten men from the community of Ness on the Isle of Lewis as they embark on a traditional hunt for gannets. Utilising their customarily unconventional instrumentation to create precarious and powerful abstract-folk, the trio of Daniel Merrill, Robin Alderton and Nathaniel Mann have come up with a powerful score, with compositions seeded in hours of study of Hebridean folk song. The Guga Hunters of Ness is out now on Critical Heights. For more information, please go to the Dead Rat Orchestra website. Below, the trio pick their favourite films.
1. Nanook of the North (1922)
We have had a nine-year love affair with Nanook ever since we first performed a live score to it back in 2003. At first, we were seduced by the stunning images, protracted pace, hand-written title boards, Inuit faces and the romance of the whole thing. Reverence descended into obsession as we began to delve deep into the origins of the film: reading biographies of the life of director Robert Flaherty; becoming engrossed in his diaries from the period. Soon our superficial affinity for the film gave way to a deeper understanding of what the film actually is: not a documentary film at all but a completely fictitious construct attempting to distil Flaherty’s experiences of 12 years living with the Inuit. As such, the film reveals almost as much about the director himself as the Inuit portrayed. This process of research enabled us to re-assess the score we had developed as we peeled back new layers of meaning. A good example is a scene in which Nanook, on the brink of starvation, spears a seal through an ice-hole and struggles to pull the beast to the surface on the end of a rope. We had always struggled scoring this section, concluding that it was actually the scene itself that was at fault – it felt overly long to us and lacked the drama that the event demanded. Through our research, we discovered that in fact the entire scene was a set-up! Flaherty had imported a dead seal from several hundred miles away, slipped the carcass down the ice-hole and got ‘Nanook’ to re-enact the hunt. Suddenly our misgivings made sense! We were not viewing a moment of life or death struggle, but a performance: almost a dance for the director. We changed tack and approached the scene as a dance scene – suddenly it sprung into life! (Band pick)
2. Let’s Get Lost (1988)
Weber’s Let’s Get Lost documents the comeback attempt by an aged and life-worn Chet Baker. Simultaneously it charts the story of his personal life through stunning cinematography, while liberally including abstract set pieces featuring actors (including a cameo by Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ bassist, Flea), which serve to embody the director’s readings of events. Chet is revealed as a callous and selfish lover who leaves a string of women in his wake, each of whom despises him but clearly remains deeply enamoured. Frankly, Baker was a bit of a bastard but one whose shadier actions were always absolved by the strength of his charm and his music. Somehow Weber managed to induce the very same sensation in me as the viewer – one of concurrent revulsion and enchantment – and, after seeing this film, I fell for Chet’s music. (Nathan)
3. The Shock Doctrine (2009)
Based on Naomi Klein’s book of the same title, The Shock Doctrine explores the lengths that governments will go to to force free market economics onto nations, regardless of the hideous consequences. Coining the term ‘disaster capitalism’, Klein demonstrates how these organisations opportunistically use natural disasters and also engineer economic ones as a form of electro-shock treatment on a mass cultural level. They create confusion and division reprogramming governments and cultures to take on free market ideologies that are against their own interests (much like the electro-shock processes used to ‘treat’ mental illness, with the aim of rewiring the patients’ thought processes). (Daniel)
4. Wings of Desire (1987)
I first saw this film in those dark and brooding late-teen days and in many ways it seemed the perfect fit, showing a way through: a glimmer of hope. As with all of Wim Wenders’s works, it’s unashamedly poetic and evocative. The film deals with the decision of an angel, on watch over the everyday struggles of an unknowing mankind, to renounce his immortality and become mortal. He chooses to experience the sensual and corporeal; to experience love. A sense of division is at the heart of the film, both between the spiritual and corporeal world – and within the setting of a still divided Berlin. It’s a film of longing. It also features an ace cameo from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the rare sight of Peter Falk (of Columbo fame) playing himself, or at least a version of himself as another ‘fallen’ angel. (Robin)
5. La Jetée (1962) La Jetée is a masterpiece of storytelling achieved through narration, still photographs and music. It never fails to captivate me and so strong are the images and narrative that I remember them far more vividly than any other film I have seen. A must! (Nathan)
6. Solaris (2002)
I’ve picked out Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 re-imagining of the story rather than the classic Andrei Tarkovsky version (1972). But I’m comfortable with that because this film spoke to me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Aside from beautiful cinematography and pacing, the sound design of this film opened me up in a way few other films have managed to do. Perhaps it was sitting right in front of the speakers when I first saw it at a cinema in Wood Green but I heard every detail and felt pulled in by the tension that is part of the architecture of the film. Add to that one of my favourite film scores, crafted carefully by Cliff Martinez, featuring an incredible combination of strings and pattering, percussive gamelan. A brooding and meditative work, it changed the way I listen to films and also led me to start learning gamelan. (Robin)
7. Someone Else’s Voice (1949)
When a magpie returns home to the motherland after travelling abroad, it challenges the local song thrush to a singing contest. The thrush sings sweetly to the wonder of the residents of its local woodland commune and receives rapturous applause. The magpie takes to the stage, dressed in decadent Western jewellery with the air and swagger of a rock star, before bursting into some red hot bebop, convulsing and grinding to the brass honk of her beak, with the beat of the drums resonating through her hips. The magpie is chased out of town by a bunch of young red birds, enforcing the message that it is better to stay true to your traditional roots than adopt new cultural forms. This piece of late Stalinist propaganda is hilarious and important on so many levels. Though its message is clear, the fun of the seemingly possessed magpie actually did more to propagate the spread of jazz in Russia than enforce Stalinist ideals! The Dead Rats feel an affinity with the magpie as this borrowing of all things shiny is a part of our process… And we hope we can give as fun a performance. (Daniel)
8. The White Diamond (2004)
Herzog’s documentaries are often criticised for being exploitative and too snide or tongue-in-cheek for their own good. For me, these aspects are merely conscious devices, employed to ensure that his poetic and ruminative pieces (which are always carefully layered and constructed towards commenting across the spectrum of the human condition) don’t become too sappy. The White Diamond is a beautiful example of this. (Nathan)
9. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
What would you do if your relationship was failing and everyone around you started turning into zombies? This film attempts to answer those problems. Cleverly put together with references to the great and good spilling over, it’s immensely funny and good fun – probably the first ‘rom-zom-com’! I loved Spaced and used to live where the film was shot so, on some level, can imagine it happening. (Robin)
10. The Wobblies (1979)
Wobblies is the nickname given to the members of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), a radical and militant union started in 1905. Its radical face-to-face democracy and anti-hierarchical stance have made it one of the most confrontational and effective unions in fighting for workers’ rights. This film is entirely narrated by older members of the union who fought in some of the most seminal battles in the U.S. and helped to establish some of the basic workers’ rights that are now legal norms in the West. The beauty of this film comes from the amazing stories of resistance that these people tell; here are people who have lived exceptionally hard lives, made even harder by persecution by governments and employers alike, but who have truly fought and saved themselves through the power of the unique union they formed. The conditions they describe are shocking but the music they make as they protest is inspiring! Watch out for an appearance by anarchist song writer Utah Phillips (an old timer in the unique position of being one of the younger members featured in the film). (Daniel)
Some three minutes of Shôhei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) have elapsed before the first entrance of Toru Takemitsu’s original score. The credits have rolled, the principal characters and the setting of the first act – Hiroshima, August 1945 – have been introduced. Within only 30 seconds of the creeping entrance of the violins, the blinding flash of white heat has burst upon the frame. So it is perhaps appropriate that one of the chief influences on Takemitsu’s music here is Olivier Messiaen, the composer of the Quartet for the End of Time.
Later, this music becomes the theme of the characters’ scarred memories of that day, as they alternately piece together and try to subdue their memories of the disaster. The strings drift in like a dark cloud. Languorous pedal notes provide a bed for waves of harsh Second Viennese School dissonances that crash intermittently upon shores of the tenderest harmony.
Takemitsu was a great lover of cinema who scored around a hundred films, including for such directors as Kurosawa (Dodes’ka-den, Ran), Ôshima (The Ceremony, Dear Summer Sister, Empire of Passion), and Teshigahara (Pitfall, Woman of the Dunes, The Face of Another). Takemitsu was born in 1930 and conscripted at the age of 14, and his music was founded at a young age on a rejection of Japanese tradition. He developed instead an early interest in the possibility of electronically generated music (roughly contemporaneously with Pierre Schaeffer in France). It was only through an encounter with the music and ideas of John Cage in the 1950s that he came to look again at, and re-evaluate, the music of his own country.
His work first came to international attention after Igor Stravinsky chanced upon his Requiem for Strings in 1957 – at around the same time that he first started composing film scores. The Requiem had itself been written on the occasion of the death of film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who had worked extensively with Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. After Stravinsky’s enthusiastic championing, commissions soon followed from America. By the time of his involvement in the 1970 Osaka Expo, he was firmly established as one of the world’s leading avant-garde composers, but this seems to have scarcely slowed the pace of his cinematic work. In many respects, the funereal music of Black Rain signals a return to the rich swelling tones of the Requiem that first brought him to world attention.
Considering it is the work of a former associate of John Cage, it seems overly reductive to think of Black Rain‘s music as no more than what can be read from notes on a page. The Spartan use of Takemitsu’s score only serves to give it power. The silences that surround it bring us close to his notoriously difficult-to-define concept of ma, which, related to Cage’s interest in the impossibility of silence, would be something like a waiting for sound to become silence, the void of empty space between notes. Throughout the film there is a lively sonorous bed of chirruping crickets and birds, and the fall of rain.
For former soldier Yuichi (played by Keisuke Ishida), the sound of a passing car engine is the trigger for a recurrent attack of post-traumatic stress syndrome. For other characters, the sound of their trauma is more internal, and that is the role taken by Takemitsu’s string music. The connection between the two, between the (diegetic, non-musical) sound that triggers Yuichi’s attacks and the (non-diegetic, musical) sound triggered by the memories of the other characters vividly brings to attention the relationship between these two sonic registers. The gap between the two, between the non-silence of the post-apocalypse and the dream-music of the falling bomb, might serve as a provisional definition of ma.
With a plosive stab of white noise, the music of Liquid Sky bursts onto the screen with the title card in the same stuttering neon as the visuals. Casiotones of synbrass and spaceflute match the synthetic apparel of the dancers in this garishly re-imagined Manhattan nightclub. The dancers flail their limbs wildly as a walking bassline trundles up and down its arpeggios, but the beat sounds more like a ticking bomb than a disco drum kit. This is New York in the early 80s, but we are certainly not in Studio 54, and neither are we down at CBGBs. This is some Other New York, caught somewhere between the cartoon concrÃ¨te of Tod Dockstader and the acrylic club scene of Larry Tee.
When diminutive extra-terrestrials land on the roof of a Manhattan apartment, they discover that their best source of food is to be found in the endorphins released in human brains by heroin use and orgasm. Easy pickings among the smacked out fashionistas that strut through this aloofly debauched film, as strung out as it is plumed and primped. Russian emigré director Slava Tsukerman composed the music himself and steers it far away from anything we might expect either from space aliens or drug addicts. There is none of the louche lassitude of the Velvet Underground to these strange jarring noises.
Even notwithstanding that electronic music was by now long out of favour as a soundtrack to alien invasion (remember, in Close Encounters, it’s the humans who play synths – the aliens are represented by tubas and heavenly choirs), Tsukerman’s music here is very far from the kind of smooth whoops and whooshes that characterised SF movie music in the 50s and 60s. Far more crotched and rangy than the Barrons’ work on Forbidden Planet, Liquid Sky‘s score finds itself instead somewhere between the Manhattan Research projects of Raymond Scott and the QY20 sessions of the early Max Tundra. Less the bludgeoning porno-beats of electroclash – the musical genre of recent times most associated with the film – than a curiously childlike take on exomusicology: true sci-fi lullabies, advertising jingles for absurd products not yet invented.
‘You are the caretaker, you have always been the caretaker.’
Very little of the score Stanley Kubrick commissioned Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind to compose for The Shining made it into the final cut. Instead, Kubrick returned to the Eastern European modern classical music that had transformed our expectations of the sound of outer space in his earlier 2001: A Space Odyssey, namely that of György Ligeti, and in addition, perhaps even more importantly, Krzysztof Penderecki. The resulting sonic landscape of the Overlook Hotel – the 1930s popular songs of Al Bowlly soaked in reverb as they echo and refract around the hotel corridors, the rumbling whistling drones and spectral harmonics of Penderecki and Ligeti, and the few remaining snatches of Carlos’s electronics and Elkind’s ghostly layered vocals – became representative of a certain trend in recent music that critic Simon Reynolds and theorist Mark Fisher have labelled ‘hauntological’.
The term, derived from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1993), refers to the ambiguous ontology of ghosts, an absent presence of half-buried traces, familiar fragments made strange by their post-historical (lack of) evocations. Among those artists labelled ‘hauntological’, along with Philip Jeck, The Focus Group and Ariel Pink, we find The Caretaker, a project by James ‘V/Vm’ Kirby specifically inspired by the haunted ballroom scene in Kubrick’s film.
Most previous discussion surrounding sonic hauntologies have tended to focus on just two elements of The Shining‘s music: the ballroom ballads of Al Bowlly and the analogue electronics of Wendy Carlos. What is less often remarked upon is the use of Penderecki’s music in the film’s dénouement, when Jack Torrance is chasing his son Danny round the snow-caked maze.
According to music editor Gordon Stainforth, while filming this scene Kubrick played Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to the cast and crew through a little portable cassette player. However, there is little evidence that Kubrick ever intended this to remain in the final cut, and, though Stravinsky’s ballet score may well have given those on set the requisite sense of violet energy, it is unlikely the scene would have been so chillingly effective had this music stayed to the final cut. In fact, the final choice of music for this scene appears to be one of the few moments in the film where Kubrick directly insisted on the specific works used, rather than leaving the individual choices – out of a wide selection made previously by the director – down to Stainforth, as happened for most of the rest of the picture.
The scene actually layers several different tracks of music on top of one another, all of which, however, are taken from the second half of Penderecki’s Utrenja (1969-71). The piece is scored for strings, percussion and choir, and the composer has compared the orchestral effects used to the kind of sonorities associated with electronic music. The text, taken from the Orthodox Christian liturgy, is concerned with the resurrection of Christ.
One could easily make too much of the Christian symbolism in The Shining – the Faustian pact Torrance makes with the hotel when he offers his ‘good damn soul’ for a drink; the suggestion, at the end, that he may be the resurrection of a man in a photograph from 1921 who shares his face. What is significant, though, is that the action of the film ends with a piece of music – whose uncanny effects are produced by stretching the technique of ‘natural’ acoustic instruments until they sound electronic and inhuman – which reminds us that Christianity is essentially a religion of the undead rising from the grave; a religion of ghosts.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews