Friday, 6 March 2009

Music For Your Movies 1

It’s probably no surprise that my favourite musicians tend to be heavily influenced by cinema. The absorption of an eclectic range of films as well as record collections gives them an extra musical dimension through the works of various soundtrack composers, who themselves may have synthesised a wide diversity of influences. The bands and musicians which I’ll be taking a look at have also taken their love of film a step further by collaborating with film-makers or even turning to making movies themselves. First up, a band which I’ll cite as my favourite in most moods: Broadcast

Being a particular favourite of mine, Broadcast are a group whose recommendations I would naturally be inclined to follow through on. In fact, as is often the case when you trace connections out from artists who you like, I find our interests seem to coincide to a large degree. A quick glance at the tracklistings of the radio mixes on their website gives an idea of the range of their tastes, and a good number of the films the music comes from have already made an appearance in the Hidden Cinema programme. We get Christy sensuously singing Ennio Morricone’s Deep Down from Danger:Diabolik. Tom Dissevelt’s poppy 60s electronica Sonic Re-Entry may well be the piece which singer Trish Keenan mentions being played at the beginning of Georgy Girl, with the school children Lynn Redgrave is supervising doing a bit of freeform music and movement to its avant grooves.

There’s more Morricone in the guise of his great theme from Theorema, whose influence you can definitely hear in Broadcast’s music. Given that it’s from a Pasolini film about the emotional sterility of a bourgeois Italian family and the soullessness of the capitalist class, it’s really quite danceable. Then there’s his Invention for John, a sublime piece from Sergio Leone’s rather neglected revolutionary western A Fistful of Dynamite (or Duck, You Sucker, or Giu La Testa – take your pick). This is probably my favourite piece of Morricone music, with it’s different elements of open plains whistling, nonsense vocalisations, harpsichord, flutes, organ, Ligeti-like choral chord clouds, low end piano stabs and strings melting in and out of each other in nine minutes of heartrending loveliness. This is the sound of Heaven. Bliss.

Electric Flag’s Peter’s Trip I think we can surmise is from the Roger Corman film The Trip (tagline LSD – a Loveley Sort of Death) in which Peter Fonda is initiated into the marvels of hallucinogens by Dennis Hopper, who is aiming for the record of how many times one person can say ‘man’ in a single sentence. Julian House’s mix includes more Morricone (clearly a big favourite – and why would he not be) alongside tracks from two of the key Radiophonic Workshop composers, John Baker and Delia Derbyshire. Baker’s track comes from a documentary on Ove Arup, one of the members, alongside Berthold Lubetkin, of the Tecton architectural partnership who created those iconic pieces of metropolitan modernism the London Zoo penguin pool and Highpoint flats in Highgate. An absolutely ideal subject for the Radiophonic treatment, in other words. Delia’s wonderful march of the robots entitled 'Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO' (you'll have to listen to it to get the pronunciation) is from BBC science fiction series Out of the Unknown(an episode called The Prophet which adapted an Isaac Asimov story) and suggests that these mechanoids are funky little beggars.

We then move on to the third mix, which has one of the more upbeat pieces from Goblin’s Dawn of the Dead soundtrack, this being used during the sequence where the protagonists are clearing the mall of zombies and bringing the lorries in to block the entrances (if memory serves). There’s a beautiful piece of Krzysztof Komeda music called When Angels Fall, with choral voices, which sounds like it comes from a soundtrack - Incidentally, there’s a good group from Sweden called Komeda, who were obviously sufficiently enamoured of his music to name themselves after him.

Ravi Shankar’s music from Chappaqua, a 60s obscurity which probably doesn’t deserve rediscovery other than through its soundtrack. Ennio Morricone reappears (boy, was he prolific) with My Name is Nobody with its chirpy, whistle along theme. He may be nobody, but he sure sounds happy.

Next comes quintessential 60s sounds from a film which is so much of its time it should be in a museum. The President’s Analyst is Hollywood trying to be groovy, and probably does have its period charms. It's one of several ingredients that Mike Myers threw into the mix for his Austin Powers films. Which is appropriate, since Broadcast’s The Book Lover’s appeared on the soundtrack to the first Austin Powers film, although not in the movie itself. The song is an exemplary piece of light 60s pop, with flutes, harpsichords and vaguely bossa-ish plucked acoustic guitars all present and correct. It’s rather wonderful, in other words. More Komeda in the guise of his first collaboration with Roman Polanski (at feature length, anyway) Knife In the Water. He sticks fairly close to his jazz roots here. The final mix features several pieces from Carl Orff’s Schoolworks collections, ritualistic pieces featuring percussion and voices, which were designed to be played by schoolchildren. Several of these found their way into the evocative soundtrack to Terence Malick’s debut picture Badlands. There is a bit of Henry Mancini’s score to Experiment in Terror, very John Barry-like in sound, particularly in its use of cimbalom. The appearance of a cimbalom in a 60s film is a sure sign that there’s espionage afoot, with its evocation of behind the iron-curtain East European machinations. Finally, there’s an extract from Alain Goraguer’s score to Rene Laloux’s French animated science fiction feature Fantastic Planet (or La Planete Sauvage in its native country). The buzzing electric guitars and sighing vocalisations conjure up the strange alien world created by Roland Topor’s artwork.

James Cargill and Trish Keenan, always the core and now it would appear the only members of Broadcast, joined Johnny Trunk as guest on his OST radio show a couple of years ago and again soundtracks featured large in their selections.

Ravi Shankar’s score from Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland made two appearances, with the title music and that used during the drowsy croquet sequence. The use of Indian music in this very English setting enhanced the sense of dislocation and dizzying illogic which Miller brought back to Carroll's often over-sentimentalised tale. There were two of Freddie Phillips’ pastoral guitar-led songs from Trumpton (or was it Chigley? Or even Camberwick Green?) with Brian Cant giving a pleasingly soft and mellifluous vocal on behalf of the potter Mr Farthing. There are extracts from the title music of two excellent children’s TV fantasies from the 60s and 70s, Children of the Stones and The Owl Service. Children of the Stones (and I have to disagree with Mr Trunk here, as I think it is marvellous) features a wonderfully eerie theme which mixes vocal elements from Ligeti and Berio, humming and chanting voices building up to a sighing group cry, half terror, half ecstasy, before settling down into an otherworldly melody of spectral yearning.

The Owl Service is a tape-splice cut up of sounds, featuring a concrete collage of bird’s wings, rippling harp chords, revving motorcycles and rushing water. More avant-garde for the kids. There is an extract from the music for Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde. Trish recalls how they had a video hire shop around the corner called Cinephilia (good name) which had a whole section of Czech cinema, which they devoured. She also recommends a film called Konkurs. Wouldn’t it be great to have such a place here in Exeter? Dammit, we did of course. Never mind, it lives again (hmm, a title from the shelves of Brazil I never got around to seeing). Finally, there is one of the more ecclesiastical selections from Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a film for which Trish has been vocal in her admiration. Indeed, she wrote some of the sleeve notes for the Finders Keepers release of the soundtrack, detailing her very personal relationship with the film and its music. She also draws a comparison on the Trunk show between this and Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland. She’d have enjoyed the opening Hidden Cinema double bill, then, which also paired these two dream-films.

So that’s the film music which they love, but what of the cinematic influence on their own oeuvre. Well, Valerie is the obvious touchstone. The song Valerie from the album HaHa Sound reworks some of Lubos Fiser’s musical themes. Trish’s lyrics distill the film’s atmosphere into a tender lullaby, with its promise of ‘good things coming soon’ and its refrain ‘shake your earrings over my head, lay down your dreams on my pillow before bed’. This album also contains Man Is Not a Bird, another East European new wave film, this time from Yugoslavia. Not having seen the film, I can’t really say how the lyrics relate to it, but the film seems to be a freewheeling sixties concoction of love, labour and laughs. Their love of the Miller Alice is reflected in the Black Cat’s refrain of ‘curiouser and curiouser’.

There are also the two volumes of Microtronics eps, which are their takes on the old library music collections. These were records of utilitarian music made for use in film, television or radio (or music and movement classes) and usually categorised according to mood or genre. It’s music you’ve probably heard if you were a child growing up in the 60s or 70s and happened to find yourself watching an Open University programme on, say, the measurement of electromagnetic spectra in pulsars or some such (any scientists will immediately spot that this is complete gibberish, for which - apologies). They included the odd gem (such as the Delia Derbyshire and Ron Geesin KPM records which have recently been re-released and are currently available on vinyl in Rooster Records if you’re in Exeter) and have become manna for record collectors who have exhausted every other corner of the musical universe. Broadcast have also been involved with maverick and inventive Birmingham film collective 7 Inch Cinema, providing improvised soundtracks at some of their screenings. And they are shortly to collaborate with Ghost Box records and Trunk Records to provide another improvised soundtrack in what promises to be a memorable evening at the Shunt Vaults in London. A very cinematic band.

Coming soon: Pram, Saint Etienne, Scott Walker and Stereolab.

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