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.
There is little new, if anything, to say about Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting science fiction masterpiece. As deep, mesmerising and involving as the ocean from which the concept of Stanislaw Lem’s novel emanates, the film remains both poignant and peerless. Now a recent reissue of Eduard Artemyev’s original soundtrack on Russian imprint Mirumir has brought this eerie and unsettling score back into the frame. Solaris has spawned various musical interpretations, from Artemyev’s original and re-recorded version, to the Cliff Martinez score of Steven Soderberg’s reimagining, and the Ben Frost/Daniel Bjarnason rescore; almost all are remarkably strong.
Cold and claustrophobic, yet driven by palpable soul and feeling, Tarkovsky’s film has a clear understanding and appreciation for the beating heart of Lem’s novel. The theme of human nature that is so integral is reflected in the soundtrack’s centerpiece, the melancholy keys of Artemyev’s synthesized version of Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639). Played during the opening credits, references to the Earth and the elegiac and iconic waltz in weightlessness, it becomes an ode to humanity, much like in other Tarkovsy films that use Bach, of whom he is a renowned admirer: ‘there are composers and then there’s Bach’.
Outside of Bach, the rest of the soundtrack is concerned with spectral drones and abstract sonics, but it still wrestles with the relationship between humanity, nature and the cold environment of space. Artemyev was challenged with creating sounds that come from nowhere and disappear into nothingness. Echoes and reverberations of familiar sounds are distinguishable among the electronic – bells, animals and choral music appear against the circuit boards, spherical corridors and the pulsing surface of the planet. The non-immediate influence of familiar natural sounds against the mechanical drones astutely reflects Gibarian’s invention, attaching ‘strips of paper to the air vents… At night it sounds like the rustling of leaves.’
One of the most notable aspects of the score is the incredibly sparing use of it in the film. We hear vignettes littered throughout, while the space in between reflects the environment, and enhances the emotion of the characters and the effects of the sounds when they are used. The first third of the film is mostly concerned with the sounds of nature and the silence that surrounds them, with Kelvin’s spaceflight and glimpse of the space station being the first introduction to the score.
Tarkovsky proclaimed that during his career he wished to make a film entirely without music; to him, film should be a capable language unto itself, with music filling the gaps where this language faltered. This is evident in the sparing and subtle use of sound in Solaris; but when listened to as a standalone record, Artemyev’s score is as poignant today as it was revolutionary when it was produced. Like a Soviet precursor to Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works II’, the electronics were composed on the Soviet ANS synthesiser, a complex photoelectronic instrument that uses a glass plate disc system. The synthesiser was destroyed shortly after, and Artemyev’s soundtrack stands as a timeless representation of the instrument, a recreation of which now stands in the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow.
The equally essential soundtracks to Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) and Stalker (1979) have also been re-issued on 12 inch vinyl by Mirumir.
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.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) is director Panos Cosmatos’s first feature: a psychedelic, sci-fi reverse vision of the future set in 1983 in the sinister Arboria complex, where inmates/customers are promised ‘a better happier you’. The film plays out as a dystopian set of power struggles between New-Age neuropsychologist Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), his Frankenstein’s monster: Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) and mute daughter Elena (Eva Bourne). Cosmatos says he wanted to create a ‘poisoned nostalgia’ that revelled in all the pleasure of a ‘Reagan-era fever dream inspired by hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons’. The film is an undeniable example of what music critic Simon Reynolds calls ‘retromania’, where producers of popular culture seem to have stopped in their tracks at 2000, and now make work that frantically cites and recycles music and films made between the 1960s and the 1990s. Beyond the Black Rainbow is seamless in its aesthetic rendition of a film produced in the 1980s.
A familiar cult film trope used by Cosmatos is an investment in sparse dialogue, where symbolic slack is taken up by set, art direction, sound design and score – think of any of Dario Argento’s work, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and AndreiTarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), just to scratch the surface. Here, I’d suggest, lies cult cinema’s ties with the language of experimental and poetic filmmaking. The Black Rainbow script would seem unassuming on the page, such are the restrained, polite exchanges between the characters. Yet, the sound and sets expose these as patter floating on the surface of a brooding and repressed animosity felt by the characters. As such, in Black Rainbow, the audience is invited to sense through sound, a form of sonar navigation.
Black Rainbow is a fan’s film and this is reflected in, to quote Reynolds, the ‘new old’ score. Composer Jeremy Schmidt, alias Sinoia Caves, uses original 1980s synths, such as the infamous Mellotron, used heavily in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a mesmerising instrument that allows the musician to use a keyboard to play sound samples recorded onto magnetic tape, with choruses, strings and flutes being among the most classic examples used to great effect by Brian Eno and Goblin keyboard player and horror film composer Claudio Simonetti. Schmidt admits to ‘setting’ his music in the period Cosmatos wanted to recreate, and his score is remindful of a spectrum of sources, from New Age electronica styles to Tangerine Dream’s demonic, bassy film soundtracks for Sorcerer (1977) and The Keep (1983), for example. Then it would be churlish not to mention the huge creative homage to John Carpenter’s malevolent minimal synths, as well as some of Wendy Carlos’s psychotic synth-string pieces for The Shining – Carlos being the under-credited or cited synth genius who also produced music for Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and the original Tron. Notably, her ‘Clockwork (Bloody Elevators)’, used for The Shining’s 1980 trailer, was described in her own words: ‘The sounds are Rachel’s (Elkind) versatile vocals with percussive and brassy synthesizer lines, all quite melodramatic.’ I’m not sure why Schmidt’s extraordinary soundtrack for Black Rainbow has not been released yet, but it should be.
A theme of submersion extends throughout the film. In a flashback to 1966, Barry Nyle is reborn after sinking beneath black, primordial goo in an impressive psychedelic scene where Yves Klein meets Altered States. After this baptism he begins to transform, and takes medication to sublimate his symptoms. Mecurio Arboria retreats from reality and numbs the pain of the past and the future with narcotics. Elena’s psi/chotic abilities are subdued by Nyle’s manipulation of an unnamed, psychic power source: a glowing pyramid situated in the geometric psychological boiler room for the Arboria institute. All the characters are repressing something. So, sound is used to give insight into what is left unsaid and kept hidden. The pyramid energy is given a sensorium: a low frequency, migraine pulsing, oscillating synth. This sonic ident exists in both the symbolic reality of the film – in that it merges with the musical score and the ‘story’ of the film, and it appears to be a real sound when we see Nyle turning the control dial to vary the strength of these ‘energy sculpting’ emissions. It’s this permeability between diegetic and non-diegetic sound in the film, and a well-crafted score, which enable a symbolic reading of the sounds as the unspoken inner life of the alien/ated selves of the characters.
The most poignant example of this, I think, is ‘Solace’ (as it is unofficially listed on YouTube), the stunning piece of music dubbed over some of the scenes featuring Elena. Here, choral layers, detuned reverberating synths and chords, which mainline melancholia, have their own charge – beyond the weight of references to Jean Michel Jarre, Harold Budd and Brian Eno. Notably, the theme of submersion creeps in on this track with a repeated note, remindful of the sonar ‘ping’ used for underwater sensing and measuring. With this sound, Schmidt samples an ubiquitous motif in sci-fi sound design and also suggests searching the void. The track as a whole echoes Elena’s sense of sadness for her familial loss and for her own deprivation, speaking for her while remaining ultimately unfathomable.
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.
Nowadays, perhaps the most recognisable element of the soundtrack to Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is the haunting lullaby ‘O Willow Waly’, composed by Georges Auric and Paul Dehn, which is the film’s very first sound – even before the appearance of the 20th Century Fox logo (some projectionists apparently took this for a mistake and re-cut the opening before showing it). To modern audiences, the song may be uncannily familiar: a sample of the girl Flora singing it in The Innocents is buried in the crackle and hum of the cursed tape in Gore Verbinski’s US remake of The Ring. Watching Clayton’s film again though, what really disturbs us, at the very moments when the film is at its most disturbing, are the eerie electronic noises that creep around the edges of Auric’s lush impressionistic score. These noises, though unmentioned in the film’s credits, were created by Daphne Oram.
Four years earlier, Oram had been the architect of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, the soundhouse that would one day create the out-of-this-world music for Dr Who, Blake 7, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – not to mention countless science programmes, children’s broadcasts and local radio jingles. Oram had wheeled vast old tape machines and battered old war surplus oscillators from studio to studio late at night to experiment on the sly while working by day at the BBC, before a long campaign of lobbying had finally granted her a little room at Maida Vale, a long-cherished dream of hers. There, she and Desmond Briscoe would use the tape manipulation techniques of musique concrète in radio dramas such as Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, and Giles Cooper’s The Disagreeable Oyster, before a trip to the Brussels World Expo in 1958 convinced Oram to leave the BBC and set up her own studio, in Tower Folly, a converted oast house in Fairseat, Kent. It was there that, in between experimenting with her own Oramics drawn-sound composition system, she worked on the music for The Innocents, along with a number of other films, adverts, ballets and theatrical productions.
The image of a woman, dead for over a year, appears across a pond and we hear a rising tremolo of stacked sine tones, harmonised spectrally in just intonation; amid a babble of phantom voices, a door falls shut and the echo from its slamming noise swells into a dark cavernous drone. When we first hear the electronic sounds Oram created for this film, we are inclined to take them, much like those crafted by Delia Derbyshire for John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House 12 years later, as the noise of the ghosts that haunt the old house in which it is set. It soon transpires, however, that Oram’s special sounds are, on the contrary, the leitmotif of Miss Giddens’s creeping insanity, the theme to a certain panicked look in her eye. If the audience spend much of the film unsure whether the ‘monstrosities’ we see are truly phantoms or phantasies, spectres or symptoms, the redoubtable Ms Oram is clearly under no such uncertainty.
If the electronic noises in The Innocents are the sound of encroaching madness, Oram has prior form. In the late 50s, the sound of a nervous breakdown was rather considered to be the Radiophonic Workshop’s stock in trade. The first BBC production to use the word ‘radiophonic’ – Frederick Bradnum’s ‘Radiophonic Poem’ entitled ‘Private Dreams and Public Nightmares’ produced by Oram along with Briscoe, Norman Bain and Donald McWhinnie – featured among its opening dialogue the ominous pronouncement, ‘I fall through nothing, vast, empty spaces. Darkness and the pulse of my life, bound, intertwined with the pulse of the dark world’. Accompanied by a ‘comet-like shriek’ and a ‘pulsating beat’, the piece realistically evokes the inner monologue of a manic depressive. Oram once compared, in her only published book, An Individual Note, the descent into madness with a kind of psychic feedback loop, an overloading ‘through having too high a playback volume’. It is in precisely this way, the echo of feedback overloading, swelling to the point of distortion, that she created many of the chilling sound effects for The Innocents.
The ghost of Tannhäuser haunts the opening scenes of Leni Riefenstahl’s hyper-real document of the 1934 Nuremberg rally. The surging rhythms and melodic leaps from Wagner’s great overture are intertwined within Herbert Windt’s blustery score. Ironic, perhaps, that the theme for the Goddess of Love should here soundtrack the entrance of the high priest of hate. Shortly afterwards, we hear something that at first we might mistake for the Internationale – of course, it’s not. But the resemblance is typical of the way the National Socialist regime appropriated motifs from the International Socialist Movement. Later on, the manner in which the front ranks of the crowd will speak in unison was, in the words of Siegfried Kracauer, an ‘outright imitation of communist propaganda methods’.
It is tempting to see in Herbert Windt’s diffuse and oleaginous appropriation of popular themes and classical allusions some sort of articulation of a distinctly Nazi aesthetic – the analogue in many respects to their rhetoric. But Wagnerian motifs and Straussian harmonies were as common to pre-Nazi German cinema as they were to Hollywood films before and after the war. What Triumph of the Will‘s music lacks, of course, is the element of doubt and uncertainty introduced by the influence of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system on many Hollywood composers. Nonetheless, in its jingoistic heroism, and the peculiarly thin, under-composed feel much of the music reveals on closer examination, Windt’s style finally recalls none other than John Williams. It is a fact remarked on by Mervyn Cooke in his recent History of Film Music, that many of Windt’s themes and fanfares would not sound out of place in Star Wars.
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