Monday, May 26, 2003

I've been slow to post anything new these past few weeks, but I hope to get some new material up soon.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

This Week at the Berkeley Library!

”The Red Violin: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack-” I really wanted to like the film this soundtrack was composed for. Francois Girard’s second film, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould” is one of my favorites- a masterpiece bursting with imagination and intelligence (thanks, in large part, to the acting of Colm Feore)- so, when I had originally read about Girard’s next project, a film that wouid follow a violin through three centuries, I thought nothing of its potential pretensions (after all, “32 Short Films” managed so well to avoid them) and everything of its likely genius. I mean, don’t we always want those people we admire and enjoy to succeed and continue to succeed in delighting us? Sure we do.

As it turned out, “The Red Violin” was a sluggish chunk of period piece tedium that, if I remember correctly (and I can’t remember much) was so poised and polished as to seem devoid of spontaneity, character or joy. It was trapped by an overindulgent reverence for its premise- a violin of near mythical proportions and its ascendance (via its numerous owners, its rich relations to matters of historical importance) through three turbulent (and sometimes very sexy!) centuries. You’re to be wowed by the extravagance of this inanimate object’s travels, to marvel at the melody of its fates and the peculiar effects it’s had on those who’ve come (or are they pulled?) into its orbit but there’s so much put into building the appropriate infrastructure of aggrandizement that the story always seems to be taking place somewhere else, like behind the scaffolding.

The soundtrack for this very special violin was composed by John Corigliano (never heard of him) with mucho solo violin performed by Joshua Bell. (I have heard of him- he’s been trotted out and displayed on enough of the various Arts/Culture pages to cross my path so as to leave an impression, at least the impression the editor’s want me to possess- that he is, or more likely was, the “it” boy of classical music...and while he may not be deserving, I’ve seen fit to lump him into the same camp as the likes of Charlotte Church- just to spite those editors!) I also seem to remember that the soundtrack to this film was quite popular, maybe even more so then the film itself, and that young Joshua even toured with it, rocking music halls across America with “Anna’s Theme” and “End Titles.”

I suppose, spending a balmy summer night at some outdoor concert venue consuming wine and cheese aplenty while listening to this soundtrack being performed would be enjoyable enough. Hell, if the wine were potent enough, I might even find myself, despite the urgent please of my companions to do otherwise, buying a Joshua Bell concert t-shirt! As it stands, the soundtrack leaves me cold. Like so much classical music, the music’s effect is to transport me to a place smelling of varnished wood and watery stone- in other words, a church. I don’t have any desire to unpack where such associations come from, but I’d hazard that classical music’s close relationship to the cultural aristocracy- the folks who, for example, front load the pages of the Arts/Cultural section with Theatre and Classical reviews and bury the Rock/Pop and Film reviews because they believe we should eat our veggies before dessert has something to do with it.

It seems hard to believe that this old cultural dichotomy still seems to prevail- that one edifies and the other sensationalizes/dehumanizes. There’s that element of class that still infects the consumption of classical music and it's one that its current makers and followers seem, from what little evidence I’ve seen, indifferent towards dispelling despite the occasional inspirational documentary wherein cherubic inner-city children are taught to play violins. (And even that has a nasty whiff of teaching the savages to sing.) It’s the music of the wealthy and it sees fit to continue to pander to them and the rattle of their bling bling. Of course, these are pretty big generalizations, but to quote Pauline Kael, “Obviously any of my generalizations are subject to numerous exceptions and infinite qualifications; let’s assume that I know this, and that I use large generalizations in order to be suggestive rather than definitive.”

Oh, and it’s terribly boring. That’s true of most classical music and this soundtrack. It’s all so damn serious. There’s no doubt that Joshua Bell can play a mean violin, but like the film itself, the music is as polished and gleaming as a marble hall and as sterile as one too.

Mulholland Dr.: Original Mothion Picture Soundtrack- Oh, yes. This is more like it. Like an update from the town of Twin Peaks (Population 51,201), especially a song like “Mulholland Drive” which sees the triumphant return of the dark velvet grandeur of Badalamenti’s moody strings.

I can’t think of a composer/director currently teamed up whose work is so seductively complimentary. Lynch, like so many of the great American director’s who got their start in the 70’s, is an intensely musical director. In fact, sound itself plays such a vital role in his films that Lynch one of the few filmmakers I know of who has a clearly identifiable sound. More on that later.

Since “Blue Velvet” Lynch has turned to Angelo Badalamenti, to compose the music for his films. Highlights include the original soundtrack to the television show, “Twin Peaks” (which I was, like many, obsessively devoted to- the debut episode still stands as, hands down, the greatest thing Lynch has ever done- residing in a world, majestically...shit, mythically even... “Gentlemen....don’t drink that coffee! There’s a fish...in the percolator!”...all its own), “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (where Badalamenti laid down some of the sexiest sleaze Ever!), “Wild At Heart” and, lastly, his tender and Big Sky countrified soundtrack to “The Straight Story.”

What makes the soundtrack to Mulholland Dr. so interesting is that it marks the first time that Lynch has interwoven his own sound design treatments into many of Badalamenti’s compositions. Sound design has always played an important role in all of Lynch’s films, but Badalamenti’s scores, when released on CD, have always been stripped of any trace of them.

The prominence of sound design is relatively new in the world of film. Most consider Ben Burtt, the guy who created the sounds of the lightsaber (mixing an old TV set and an even older 35 mm projector) and TIE fighters (“a drastically altered elephant bellow”) to be the first to really demonstrate and popularize (I mean, who doesn’t love the sounds in the Star Wars films?) its possibilities and to expand upon the use of sound in film. It’s important to note, however, that there have been numerous director’s who have done incredible work with sound previous to Burtt’s experiments. Orson Welles, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Goddard and Robert Altman are a few I can think of immediately off the top of my head.

Sound design doesn’t have one tidy, friendly definition. It encompasses, for example, the dialogue, soundtrack and sound effects. I’ve read of sound design, in this broad sense, as being defined as such- just as an interior designer goes into a space and decorates it (a chair here, a lamp there) a sound designer decorates that space with sound. Ever since the Jazz Singer, film has been decorated with its own internal sound, though this was limited to, for the most part, dialogue, basic sound effects (gun shots, thunder, doors slamming) and music. (I’m repeating myself.) It’s only been in the last 25 years, however, that the giddy possibilities of manipulating sound have begun to be explored and realized in film. To flush that out, here’s a quote from an interview with Walter Murch, one of the film worlds most famous sound designers, justly renowned in nerdy little sound design circles for his work on films like “American Graffiti” and “Apocalypse Now.”

“Never before in history, before the invention of recorded sound, had people possessed the ability to manipulate sound the way they’d manipulated color or shapes. We were limited to manipulating sound in music, which is a highly abstract medium. But with recorded material you can manipulate sound effects—the sound of the world—to great effect. In the same way that painting, or looking at paintings, makes you see the world in a different way, listening to interestingly arranged sounds makes you hear differently.”

There’s a international conference, Cinesonic held in Australia every year that focuses on film scores and sound design. Recent papers there included Kathryn Bird’s exploration of sound as used in martial-arts (Kung-Fu) films and, in particular, the effect “projectile sounds made when objects such as weapons or bodies displaced air.” Ken Wark’s paper, “The E.R. Effect: The Sound of Ambient Suffering” investigated “how the sounds of machines and technology that make up the hospital environment assume dramatic and empathetic qualities and function as counterpoints to the action of a scene.”

Reading the synopsis of these and other papers (companion books are available, but unfortunately these articles aren’t available on line) was totally fascinating, like a mini-Eureka moment- “sound manipulation and narrative- right! Of course! Why don’t I know more about this?!” Like most, when I think of sound in film, I first consider the soundtrack. But when I think back, there are dozens of films where I was struck by a particular sound or collection of sounds that weren’t part of the soundtrack, the dialogue or those aforementioned “basic sound effects.” Sounds that I couldn’t identify or seemed to hover around the audible thresholds, appearing then rescinding and casting narrative shades on the action. Sounds both alien and intoxicating but mixed so seamlessly (I rarely suddenly sit up in the movie-theater and think, “No, that’s definitely not the sound this scene needs, or that object deserves!”) as to work almost unconsciously on the viewer. How and why do such sounds effect us, manipulate us, scare us, excite us...? How are they made?

For starters, Lynch’s “Eraserhead” has, quite possibly, the greatest (certainly one of the creepiest) sound designs ever created. It was created by the late Alan Splet and Lynch and described by Philip Brophy (probably the most interesting and perceptive sound design critics I’ve come across) as “a landmark in exploring base emotional states through aural abstraction.” It’s all radiator hiss, low frequency drones and granular static coating everything in psycho-acoustic swabs of loneliness, queasy feelings of otherness and highly potent freakiness. Something else too- what Brophy touched on above- the accentuation of nothingness, the sound of space and the humming air. Individual ambiences (the sound of empty space), the presence of which we’re normally unconscious of, are amplified, tweaked, distorted and reprocessed into symptoms of dread.

In most of Lynch’s films, his sound design (which, I’d argue, is just as vital and potent as his highly individualized visual palate) is mixed into Badalamenti’s soundtrack. As I already mentioned, like most sound design in film, it’s almost always unobtrusively integrated into the film and as the strings swell, you’re usually not aware (unless you’re the type who pays attention to those kind of things or is prone to thinking such thoughts as, “I have my shoes on,” or “Hey, I can feel the elastic of my underwear encompassing my waist!” in which case, I’m so, so sorry) of a cottony sigh of static bubbling under the strings and causing your pulse to quicken in expectation of what? you’re not entirely sure. When the soundtracks have been released on CD, however, the sound design is stripped and you’re left with just the music. That’s been just fine. Here, however, the sound design has been, for the most part, left intact. That’s even better. The best example of this inclusion and its powerful effect is displayed on “Mr. Roque/Betty’s Theme” which begins with about a minute of ominous droning before a heavily reverbed bell sounds and Badalamenti’s music arrives like a balm.

There are a few excellent non-Lynch/Badalamenti compositions. The glorious Hammond slink and slither of Dave Cavanaugh’s “The Beast,” the foot-stompin’ quivering grind of Willie Dixon’s “Bring It On Home,” and best of all, the starry-eyed gee-whiz fizz of Linda Scott performing “I’ve Told Every Little Star.” Oh, and then there’s Rebekah Del Rio’s show stopping a cappella/Spanish rendition of Roy Orbinson’s Crying (LLorando)- used to emotionally devastating effect in the film (like a lot of Mulholland Dr., it makes perfect nonsense) to split the whole thing in two. Doppelganger!

Big Night: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack- When I lived in Columbus, Ohio one of the art theatres (Drexel) would, from time to time, combine a lavish gourmet dinner (what else is a gourmet dinner going to be but lavish? sparse? water and sunflower seeds?) and Big Night. It’s a great idea and I’m not sure why more art theatres don’t do this kind of stuff more often.

Big Night belongs to that genre of food movies (Chocolate, Like Water For Chocolate, Tampopo, Mostly Martha, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman) and that means it’ll make you feel good and really freakin’ hungry. That’s because, like most of the films in this genre, there will be numerous montages of incredible looking food being prepared and eaten by the likes of Isabella Rossellini and Juliette Binoche. That, of course, will make you horny but what are you gonna do?

The soundtrack is great. It’ll make you feel good and hungry too. It’s got too much dramatic flare and swing to make you horny though but what are you gonna do? It might make you want to dance, and well, we all know where that’s going to lead! It’s a mix of Italian and Italian-American songs from the 50’s and 60’s, kicking off with Claudio Villa’s “Stronelli Amorist” a song that makes me want to embody (or at least imagine) a thousand different Italian stereotypes but mostly, it makes me want to eat pasta and shout Mangi! Mangi! What a voice! So histrionic, you know?

George Cloony’s aunt, the late Rosemary Clooney is here, singing the groovy and deliciously hilarious “Mambo Italiano” with lyrics like... “Hey mambo, don’t wanna tarantella, hey mambo, no more a mozzarella, Hey mambo! Mambo Italiano, try an enchilada with da fish a bac a lab and then a...” all sung with a “Wot’s a matta you?” pseudo Italian accent. And then there’s the cuts by Louis Prima, big joyous slices (of pizza, perhaps?) of swinging jazz that aim for, it seems, nothing less than getting your toes tapping and spreading shit eating grins onto every face within earshot. In fact, the whole soundtrack is like that. It’s serving up shit eating grins all around. This is joyous music.

Ghana: High-Life and other Popular Music- One of the recent Electra Nonesuch Explorer Series, remastered so it sounds fantastic. Originally released in 1969, this is a collection of 13 songs performed by Saka Acquaye and His African Ensemble and as the liner notes point out, presents “a small sampling of the fascinating music of modern Africa.” That’s its strength and weakness. It’s an introduction to the “rich spontaneity and color of African life.” (The current editor’s make sure you’re aware that the original liner notes have been reprinted and that the “text has not been edited to reflect changes in general cultural perceptions or specific factual information that may have occurred since then.” ) It sounds great, but there’s the nagging feeling that what you’re hearing isn’t exactly representative of African music, circa 1969 (as if that could be encapsulated in a single CD) but an attempt to indulge the tastes and assumptions of what American listeners wanted African music to sound like in 1969. There are a number of Saka Acquaye original compositions with ‘exotic’ titles like, “Drum Festival,” “Congo Beat,” “Echoes of the African Forest,” and “Kenya Sunset.” And there’s this, from the liner notes: “In a government-issued guide book to Ghana, one finds the remark that ‘enjoyment of life’ and ‘love of laughter’ characterize the people of this African republic. Nowhere is this more evident than in their music.” Raise an eyebrow and you’re reminded that it’s the original liner notes you’re reading, written back when Africans were happy, especially when making polyrhythms.

Most of the songs found here barely pass the 2:00 minute mark, which seems awfully short to me, as if the editors were wary that if they were any longer, attention might wander and those smiles might turn into frowns. So, there’s a little bit of the Disney, “It’s a Small World” infection here, a bit of the Real World buff and polish about it (I worry that I’m hinting that this album somehow isn’t “authentic” enough, ‘cause I have no idea just what “authentic” African music is other than a bundle of my own prejudices and expectations), but that’s not to say it’s a total bust. It’s also a lot of fun. It’s not unlike some of the “exotic” world music songs/sounds some American stars were incorporating into their songs around the same time. I half expect to hear a “Day-O!” called out. The album’s first track, “Sugar Soup,” kicks off with a furious burst of melody, all looping drums, chugging horns, summary vibes (lots of vibes on these tracks- it’s like a sweetener should things get too dissonant) and call and response vocals. But it’s over at 2:00 minutes. It’s in dire need of an extended remix. “Saturday Night” is a great high-life groover, again with brilliant chugging horn lines and lilting vibes. It wrenches quite a bit out of its allotted 1:58 seconds. It’s all very safe and inoffensive- those who bought the original back in ’69 probably moved on to Olatunji’s “Drums of Passion” and were all the better for it.




This Week at the Berkeley Library!

-”The Red Violin: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”- I really wanted to like the film this soundtrack was composed for. Francois Girard’s second film, window.___gcfg = {'lang': 'en_US'};