Tag Archives: Roman Polanski

Full of Sound and Fury: The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Back in the early 70s, the Third Ear Band were the festival band. Wherever there was mud, cider and an outdoor PA system, there would be Glenn Sweeney’s merry band with their strings and their hand drums, wigging out on some epic jam which somehow managed to blend together the collective folk music of half the world. Curiously, only when they were asked to provide an explicitly period soundtrack did they find it necessary to add an electronic synthesizer to their line-up. Simon House, later of Hawkwind, joined the group for the Macbeth soundtrack and left shortly after. He played a VCS-3, a keyboard-free analogue synth beloved of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire (not to mention Karlheinz Stockhausen), and designed in London by the composers Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff (with engineer David Cockerell).

This sudden addition of electricity to the previously acoustic group seems to suggest an understanding that the sheer macabre weirdness of Shakespeare’s play – especially as interpreted by Roman Polanski and Kenneth Tynan – demanded something other, some element of fantasy that went beyond what could be notated on manuscript paper.

For a group whose previous compositions averaged close to 10 minutes in length, the Third Ear Band are here remarkably restrained. The extended prog-rock ragas of Alchemy and its eponymous sequel are here compressed to clips of but a few seconds’ length. And for most of the play’s first act, they stick to a fairly straight medievalism, the pentatonic melismas of Paul Minns’s oboe doing a serviceable imitation of a twelfth-century shawm. The only note of something sinister – and obviously anachronistic – comes from the bass playing of Paul Buckmaster: one minute plunging into psych head music, the next evoking the drones of the tambura in Hindustani classical music. This soundtrack was Buckmaster’s only recording with the Third Ear Band, a performance turned in between arrangement work on Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate and Miles Davis’s On the Corner.

As Shakespeare’s story grows darker and weirder, so too does the music. While Macbeth contemplates murdering Duncan, a fizzling hum of shuddering VCS-3 and scraping guitar noise underscores the famous ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ soliloquy. Upon the deed itself, a wild dervish of free improvisation. As the film draws towards its conclusion, with the army approaching upon the hill and mist engulfing the screen, a thick fog of dissonance drifts in likewise, seemingly emerging directly from precisely the kind of snaking modal oboe line which had once seemed to speak of happier times. As Macbeth finally meets his end, high tremolando violin merges with more VCS-3 in a pitch of piercing tinnitus.

The Third Ear Band’s music for this film has been compared to both the chamber music of György Ligeti and Masaru Sato’s soundtrack to Kurosawa’sThrone of Blood(1957). The Tragedy of Macbeth has often been called the bloodiest of all Shakespeare films. With its murderous tones, forever teetering on the edge of some horror, this music may be bloodier still.

Robert Barry

Reel Sounds: Ominous Silences – Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water

The story of Krzysztof Komeda provides a very good argument for US health reform. While in the States at the end of the 60s to compose the music for Rosemary’s Baby, the Polish jazz pianist sustained severe head injuries in a random accident. Lacking any health insurance, he was unable to get treatment and immediately put on a plane back to Poland. He died shortly afterwards without regaining consciousness. He had been one of Poland’s most celebrated jazz musicians, and the first to start a modern jazz group in Poland. His distinctive style was characterised by a mix of the cool school of Gerry Mulligan and the Modern Jazz Quartet, mixed with the bebop he’d witnessed at tiny jam sessions in a basement in Krakow. Under the influence of his years spent composing film scores, his 1965 album, ‘Astigmatic’, was noted for its unique approach to structure, and came to signal a whole new European influence on the development of jazz.

Markedly different from the Wagnerian approach of most Hollywood composers at the time, notably in the way it attaches leitmotifs to specific characters or themes and so on, Komeda’s music for Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) acts more like punctuation, breaking up the tension of the dialogue scenes almost theatrically. But, as Steven Shaviro has commented, the most noteworthy thing about what he calls the ‘scansion’ of the soundtrack is its frequent recourse to silence. Tension is built up, not by the hysterical maximalism of Bernard Herrmann, but through gaps and absences. It is the horror of reading a crucial life-or-death document, partially blacked out by the censor’s pen. At what we might consider the dramatic climax of the film there are no swirling crescendos of discordant strings, no pounding brass or crashing cymbals, just a wandering bassline, circling, seemingly aimlessly, around some indistinct tonality, never quite resolving itself, or finding its home.

Robert Barry