Wire Cinesonic No.2

published in The Wire No. 231, London, May 2003

Roy Budd - The Black Windmill
Roy Budd - Diamonds
Roy Budd - Fear Is The Key

We might be drowning in 70s retro cine-chic, but thin streams and gorgeous drops from the most disreputable decade still reach one and excite in unexpected ways. This is particularly noticeable in the ongoing re-releasing of film soundtracks previously unavailable or only obtainable through absurdly costly means. The Cinephile label wears its name down its spine - and its re-releases certainly tingle. The Black Windmill, Diamonds & Fear Is The Key are all composed by Roy Budd. Collectively, they define Budd's palette: glistening strings, sinewy brass, icy on-the-rocks piano, 24-carrat Fender Rhodes gems, palpitating vibraphone, the funny-bone hit of a gangly analogue synth, slinky double bass, sudden turns by bubbling tablas, and breathy expulsions of patterned drums. Like a close-up on a whisky tumbler filled with ice and liquid amber, the sound evokes a retro ad agency sheen coloured by unmistakably British studio-phonics.

That these sessions were recorded live may seem a menial point, but a vital factor in determining the sound of their scores. While the late 60s has been historically tagged as the advent of transforming the recording studio due to multi-tracking, two lines of development are often overlooked. Firstly, the main adoption of multi-tracking occurred in rock and rock/pop crossovers: the well-established 'easy listening' brigade of the early 60s did not so readily adopt the Frankensteinian fragmentation wrought by multi-tracking. Secondly, arrangers of easy listening throughout the 60s composed for ensembles whose unique configuration was the core of their radical potential. This neo-Stravinskian creation of ensembles to foreground novel sonic colouring was the result of supposedly 'old guard' pop producers arranging for quirky mixes of instruments - but always in a live setting. The resulting sound on so many instrumental records from the 60s into the 70s (Kaempfert, Bacharach, Mendes, Esquivel et al) bears the produce of grappling with anti-acoustic combinations of sounds which had to be recorded live.

This 'live fragmentation' is deliciously presented in all three soundtracks' meld of instrument presence and interlocking sonar fields, courtesy of Budd's work with producer and co-writer of some of the cues, Jack Fishman. Compared to the cavernous shell-shocked reverberation which characterises grand symphonic recordings, The Black Windmill (1971) is fractalised and portioned into shivering slivers of sound, while retaining a live totality to both the sound and its space. It's not unlike roving around a Turner landscape with a fish-eye lens: the panoramic grandeur is recognisable but reconfigured. Fear Is The Key (1972) incongruously yet sublimely weaves in Louisiana swamp blues motifs and Southern-fried jazz idioms into Budd's martini shaker rhythms, indicating how his jazz leaning allows him to orchestrate conflicting styles for effects beyond mere eclecticism. Diamonds (1976) settles into some delicately strung bass and drum lines over which strings and horns are draped in sheets of tantalising harmony. Alternately minimal and maximal, the orchestral murmuring is always tactile.

Across all three scores, Budd's unmistakable touch is felt in the way that every moment and every gesture creates its own constellation between textures of instruments. As with all three scores mentioned, to presume that a 'groove' is providing a conveyor-belt for the coolness of the music is facile: their flow lies in their seamless threading of separate yet continuous jewelled moments of orchestration.

Eric Demarsen - Le Cercle Rouge
Antoine Duhamel - Pieerot Le Fou / Week-End

A set of 19 French soundtrack CDs have been released so far by Emarcy/Universal Music Jazz France. Sexily designed in a Ballard-esque anonymity and featuring copious notes (in French), the collection draws a long arc across a range of cinematic styles and genres to evidence the juncture of Francophile jazz and French cinema. Compilations of Serge Gainsborough songs and Philippe Sarde scores sit beside selections from the amazing Fantomas series and scores to Terrence Young's neo-Nipponesque French Western Red Sun (by Maurice Jarre).

The Americans made film noir - but the French named it. Their perspective on its dark and brooding portraiture focussed on the emptied psyche of the genre's unsavoury characters - criminals and detectives alike. Film Noir provided the French a means to excavate their own sometimes morose psyche. While Americans still claim film noir to be a sociological milieu, the French always saw it as deep excavations of the personal. French cinema from the late 50s into the 70s produced many astounding refraction of film noir, and one director who stands out is Jean-Pierre Melville. Seminal French-noir by Melville include Un Flic, Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge; the latter two feature jazz scores by Eric Demarsen.

Le Cercle Rouge is a fine example of the distinctively self-contained tracks that Demarsen provided Melville. This score alternates between tightly strung drones which shimmer and surge in response to an uncontrollably increasing tension ("Vogel s'enfuit", "Les Habitants Du Placard"), to almost absurd bursts of jazzy dance hall vibrancy ("Razzia Chez Boucheron"). Not to be read by their surface, the tense moments exude great beauty, while the bold and brassy passages operate like the bar downstairs whose combo plays into the early morning preventing you from sleeping. Befitting Melville's uniquely strung-out denouements where criminals place all they have on the one bet, the score to Le Cercle Rouge aims everything at the one point; the music evolves into an elegiac mournful circle, with thick chordal clusters of horns drawing long breathes over liquefied vibraphones and ride cymbal patters.

At another end of the Franco-American spectra is Antoine Duhamel's score to Jean Luc Godard's Pierre Le Fou (1965) and Week-End (1968). While both films are among Godard's most tantalisingly acerbic rebuffs of American imperialism in the form of widescreen Pop Art critique, Duhamel's scores are lush and romantic without resorting to clich?. Listened to alone, the absented visual bombast of the films colours the music as a series of languid reveries, with superb orchestrations which slowly rise and swirl in warm unfurling chords. Duhamel's work modulates Godard's intellectual vitriol while remaining faithful to the emotional tenor of the film's characters.

Johnny Pate - Brother On The Run

'Blaxploitation' is a genre bound to induce smirks well before one faces its musical produce with an air of respect. Worse, the reclamation of Blaxploitation film music under the rubric of jazz can be patronising despite its good intentions. Blaxploitation music - as bold and unavoidably colourful as the clothing of its characters - need not be rendered 'sophisticated' in order to appreciate its dizzying multiplicity.

Johnny Pate's work as arranger of Curtis Mayfield's song-score for Superfly is an important contributor to the city-sonic sound that epitomises the urbanorama of Blaxploitation. Mayfield's songs actively narrate Superfly, but his close work with Pate (who transcribed and orchestrated Mayfield's 'dictations') generates the non-verbal sensory momentum of the score. Composers alone were not responsible for the Blaxploitation sound: Isaac Hayes, Herbie Hancock, Norman Whitfield, Gene Page as well as Pate brought their arrangement chops to the table. Pate fully composed and arranged Brother On The Run, directed by Herbert L. Strock in 1973. The score's CD release on Castle (as part of Sequel Productions' remastering of a number of Afrocentric titles from the Perception back catalogue) is an undiluted taste of a funk'n'soul brew: not overly spicy, but heavy, heady and hewn.

Devoid of vocals except for the title theme sung by Adam Wade, Brother On The Run is a good example of a folk idiom like soul parlayed into film music form. The feel of the music is like a funky soulful record whose vocals have been replaced by the film's images as narrator. This is a musicological phenomenon peculiar to Blaxploitation: the score does not enhance or describe dramatic action; rather, it 'backs' the film as it would a singer, complete with verse/chorus structure and solos. Sounding not unlike music playing in a succession of bars or emanating from a car radio, cues in Blaxploitation soundtracks are often coded as ways of getting from point A to B. Brother On The Run thus features titles like "Auto Chase", "En Route To Maude's", "Lady Leaving Store", and of course various takes on "Brother On The Run". Pate's music is undoubtedly rhythmatized, but it's also narration in motion. This is decidedly different from most other film score approaches which paint pictures, capture spaces and frame settings, making Brother On The Run something other than standard cine fare.

Quincy Jones - Dollars
Ennio Morricone - Exorcsit II: The Heretic

Sometimes in the arts, those with the highest profile are presumed to not be contributing anything to their field but their fame. Quincy Jones might signify a media empire to some, an ersatz producer to others. He also happens to be one of the most radical score composers in the history of American cinema, yet his work in that area is critically undervalued. Maybe this is because of Jones' habitation of a grey zone between the defiantly egocentric humanism of jazz improvisation and the Eurocentric grandeur of tonal orchestration. Deftly braiding the organic pointillism of Duke Ellington's harmonic reterritorialisation of chords across diverse instruments and George Gershwin's symphonic transformation of slight blues figures into epic monuments of jazz-ness, Jones' writing, arranging and orchestration belie an astounding complexity. Dip into any of his scores from the 9 years between 1964 and 1972 (totalling 40 films) for proof.

Quincy Jones's score to Richard Brooks' 1971 film Dollar$ appears for the first time on CD as part of this series. It's among Jones' most idiosyncratic scores, and forms a pair with The Hot Rock a few year's later, as both feature the unclassifiable Don Elliott Voices. In reality the dextrous and delirious multi-tracking of a single singer - Don Elliott - the DEV create a sound somewhere between the Andrew Sisters and Gyorgy Ligeti. I kid you not: "Snow Creatures" defies you to not hear a string section as Don Elliot 'fades-up' his chorus of Jones' Ellington-esque harmonies. It's a wholly unreal sound, and one typical of Jones' sharp ear in extracting unique traits from performers he worked with in non-film productions (Jones' used Elliot for some Roberta Flack sessions). Jones has succinctly described his approach: "My instrument is playing the musicians." Beyond the traditional jazz format of merely spotlighting soloists, Dollar$ exemplifies his archly modernist take on integrating the performer into both score and mix (the sound Jones achieves is crystalline in its micro detail). It's almost too much for a film to take.

Fortunately, a CD can bear it all. Just as ill-fitting within America's Eurocentric fixation on 19th Century music for cinema is one of Ennio Morricone's most distinctive scores - for John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic. As passed-over as the film has been dismissed, Morricone's faux-Arabesques and mock-Rock distinguish this score as a suite of outrageously fake yet wildly thrilling music. Stretched across Moroccan wails, simulated vocal possessions, and groovy chick 'nyah-nyah-nyahs', Morricone salaciously threads his main theme of Easternised prog-rock. More than thin mimicry, his distinctive arrangements raise the score above retro, beyond camp and deep into an hysterical sonic Otherness rarely celebrated in film music.

Dollar$ is part of another eclectic film music re-issue series comes courtesy of Reprise/Warner Music France. Titles include remastered versions of Jerry Fielding's score to Clint Eastwood's The Gauntlet, J.J.Johnson's score to Jack Starrett's Cleopatra Jones, Michel Legrand's score to Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42, plus 7 definitive Lalo Shifrin scores. All come with a fold-out of the original LP soundtrack cover, and the informative biographical notes are in English.

Text © Philip Brophy.