Sunday, April 4, 2021

Another Messiaen post

It's been a number of months since I last wrote to my little audio diary and promotional blog. I made a few drafts, but never got around to finishing them. Yesterday I discovered a Messiaen work with which I was unfamiliar. Because I spent so much effort months ago listening to his music and writing my impressions, I figured I would follow up.

The story begins at the library. Ah, the library, one of my favorite places to be. It's quiet. The staff is not only usually helpful, they are sometimes enthusiastic to be of assistance when you need it (which is not often in my case, I know my way around our main branch pretty well). You can not only browse literally tons of materials, in most cases you can take them home. I usually have something that I'm hunting down, but half the enjoyment is browsing whatever else is on the stacks. One of my greatest disappointments during the pandemic lockdown has been the closing of the libraries. At one point you could order and pick things up, but what's the fun in that?

Recently I've had a particular interest in the German post-war composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann. That itself is an aside. Some months back, Duquesne University sold off its entire remaining collection of vinyl LPs to Jerry's Records. (I write "remaining" because I'm uncertain whether students and faculty had the option of picking through the collection first.) As far as I know, it's overwhelmingly classical recordings, and the majority of that is "standard practice" era (1750-1900). There are some very nice 20th century and avant garde recordings scattered throughout, which is what interests me and a few other people. My favorite buys from the collection have been some Zimmermann recordings, most significantly his opera Die Soldaten on a three-LP set. For $5, that's value.

The library reopened for browsing (with limitations) about a month ago. I'll take it! I've been checking out Zimmermann scores recently. When looking for the score of his ballet Présence, I noticed a Messiaen score with an unfamiliar name, Chant Des Déportés. Having listened to over 32 hours of Messiaen's music during the initial lockdown and not recognizing this title, I had to check it out. 

It's a work that was once considered to be lost in the Radio France archives. It was performed once in 1945 to mark the end of the war, filed away, to be rediscovered before the composer's death in 1992. 

When you consider the work, it's not surprising that it's not performed more often (apart from being considered lost at one time). It calls for a reasonably sizable orchestra (woodwinds, brass, percussion, glockenspiel, piano, "many" strings) plus a sizable choir of sopranos and tenors only. For all those numbers, Chants takes under 3.5 minutes to perform. You could fit it on one side of a 45rpm 7" single.

I'm not big on analysis. That is to say, I'll examine scores and look for basic elements: form, structures, densities, particular harmonies, and so forth. But I'm not looking to understand the significance of the two tetrachords in measure six, etc. However, looking at this score, I had a pretty immediate reaction to its relative simplicity of materials, despite its density.

There are three basic elements of the piece:

  • The melody. It's sung by the chorus, sopranos and tenors singing entirely in octaves, generally simple rhythms and longer note values. This is doubled and harmonized in the strings and brass, with tuba and basses playing only on the longer notes.
  • The glockenspiel plays a constant eighth note triplet line, everyone of which is a three-note chord, until the last note. This is reinforced in the flutes and oboes, with occasional rests along the way for breathing. 
  • The piano is the center of the third element. It has a rhythmic cell, displaced by an eighth note between the left and right hands, longer note values but all based on 16th note lengths (no triplets). This is doubled in the clarinets, bassoons, and percussion. 
The piece has the melody out front, but the other elements add a general level of density that underscores the piece. Also, it's entirely in 4/4 time, no tempo changes, and scored as being in B flat major.

Two notes in, there's no question that it's Messiaen. A few more notes, and there's little question that it's period Messiaen, 1940s, when he's in his prime. 

What's curious is the work's brevity. I'm sure it was written pretty quickly. It bursts out, no preparation, no build, it's just there, stays basically at a single dynamic level its length, and before you know it, it's done. It sounds like the concluding section of a much longer movement. 

Here's a video with not only a performance, but some additional background information:

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Ennio Morricone 11

Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (AKA Lizard in a Woman's Skin AKA Schizo) 1971, double LP reissue on Death Waltz Recording Company

I kept this for later in this mini-project because I knew it was one of my favorites. Of my vinyl Morricone, I only have a double LP collection left.

Unlike most of the film scores I've described so far, this one I have seen. Well, sort of. I have a DVD copy. In my old college classroom, I had a TV monitor with a blu ray player attached. I'd run DVDs when I had to sit for hours grading. It slowed down my work to be sure, but it made the time less tedious. I've put this movie on twice, but both times I really only half-watched it. I'll give it my full attention some time soon.

And well...Ennio Morricone meets Lucio Fulci. This wasn't their first film working together, which would be the 1964 film I due evasi di Sing Sing (Two Escape from Sing Sing). Fulci is now best remembered for his extremely bloody and (literally) visceral horror films: Zombie, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, House by the Cemetery, A Cat in the Brain. Those all came later than this film. Prior to this, he was usually directing comedies and westerns.

I'll confess that Fulci is a bit of a guilty pleasure that's grown for me over the years. His films often don't make a great deal of sense (which he would defend). And even a superfan would have to get a laugh out of the shark vs. zombie scene in Zombie.

The liner notes read that Fulci specifically asked for Morricone for this film, based on his work on Argento's original "animal" giallo trilogy (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O'Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet). The producers wanted the word "lizard" in an attempt to exploit the success of the Argento films.

Morricone is in full-out weirdo freak out mode here, befitting the "is it real" nature of the film. Well, with the variety I've described before: some space lounge (though uncredited, it's doubtlessly Edda Dell'Orso again), groove bass and drums with wah wah/fuzz guitar, as well as some sound that I can't identify. A squirrel call or squeaky toy? Percussion? Also cluster strings, whistling, a couple of pipe organ breaks, improvisation, duo flutes.

There's a harmonic device he uses on a track that I identified while listening to his score for Giornata nera per l'ariete (The Fifth Cord), also of 1971. All the chords have the minor seventh in the bass. The first four chords in that score are C/B, D/C, E/D, B/A. I couldn't put my finger on it the first couple of times, because the harmony that results isn't jarring but it is constantly unsettled. He's permitted to recycle ideas (Jeez, with something like 500 soundtracks under his belt, how could you not?), and I'm sure he didn't consider the possibility that someone would be listening to a big chunk of this work separately from the films as I have.

I wonder if any, or how many, Morricone scores have never been issued on vinyl or digitally? And if so, are they any good? I really like this score, and Autopsy and Veruschka, but there's no question he's mining similar ideas in all three.

I should mention that the liner notes indicate that Morricone refused the chance to score A Clockwork Orange. Can you imagine? But then, that reminds me of how Alex North composed an original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Kubrick replaced but didn't tell North, even when he attended the film.

I've written before that I don't like when film directors rely too heavily on pre-existing music. I'll admit it's hard to argue with Kubrick's use of music in 2001. But what of The Shining? Was it really necessary there? Hearing "Koyaanisqatsi" in the middle of Watchmen was entirely too easy to set a particular mood. Scorsese does this sometimes (Taxi Driver beings a notable and excellent exception) and Tarantino is among the worst offenders in this case. And wouldn't you know, the one original score to a film by Tarrantino is by Morricone, he himself borrowing ideas from The Thing and Exorcist II.

I'd like to see Morricone's "The Ecstasy of Gold" permanently retired from all future films and especially commercials.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Not Morricone 2

Steve Moore, The Guest 2014 on Death Waltz Recording Company

Another soundtrack tonight, but a break from the Morricone. One of my favorites is coming, possibly tomorrow.

I remember this popping up on the Death Waltz/Mondo site, and selling out pretty quickly. I can't recall where, but I later found a used copy of it and snagged it.

I don't think I had noticed at the time that this work is by Pittsburgher Steve Moore, also of the band Zombi. I don't know Steve myself but we have mutual friends. I've seen Zombi just once, as the headliner at an old Flux event. They have a way of making a big sound for two guys.

It's my understanding that the name Zombi, and their initial musical inspiration, comes from Italian horror movie soundtrack music. So there is a through-line from some of these films to this band, and this particular work. The film Zombi was scored by Fabio Frizzi, as was several other Lucio Fulci films. I like Frizzi's work and I'll have to put one on again soon. Steve and Zombi's music comes much closer in spirit and sound to Frizzi's music than to Morricone's, to be certain.

With that information in hand, this soundtrack is along the lines of what I'd expect. Lush synth soundscapes, musical minimalism. You can make an argument that sometimes Morricone and Bernard Herrmann wrote film music that could sometimes compete for your attention from the film, rather than complement it. They certain push that line at times, but it also makes for a more interesting listening experience separately from the film. Based on listening to this (without, again, having seen the film) I'd say Steve possibly wants to sit in the background a little more, be more like atmosphere.

It's all synthesized sounds in some way, and he puts energy into choosing his sounds carefully. A list of his gear is on the back of the LP, which I assume is some sort of home studio setup: Arp Axxe. Korg M1, Korg Mono//Poly, Korg Polysix, Korg Wavestation SR, Moog Minitaur, Moog Slim Phatty, Moog Opus 3, Moog the Rogue, Moog the Source, Oberheim Matrix 1000, Roland Compurhythm CR-78, Roland D-50, Roldand Juno-60, Sequential Circuits Drumtracks, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, Sequential Circuits Prophet 600, Yamaha DX7II-FD. Whew!

This would be lazy record reviewing, but I'm not a serious reviewer, so here goes. The music sounds less like Fabio Frizzi than maybe Phaedra-era Tangerine Dream. Even that's not fair to write, as TD could be kind of wooly and even a bit sloppy at times. TD of course has done many soundtracks, but the lineup has changed so many times, it's almost not fair to consider it to be the same band. I've never heard it but I'd be most interested in their work on William Friedkin's Sorcerer, with the classic Frose/Franke/Baumann lineup.

Another soundtrack I liked on Death Waltz that's vaguely similar is Sinoia Caves' Beyond the Black Rainbow. I have seen that film, and the soundtrack works not only as supporting mood, but also as literally the soundtrack in a promotional film that appears within the film.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Ennio Morricone 10

Tonight! Exorcist II: The Heretic 1977

Full and not particularly interesting disclosure: I have a vinyl copy of this. I was thrilled to find a $5 copy, and I should have known better. It's warped to the point where, for some reason, only the second side is playable. I'm streaming this through the Hoopla app (which I recommend) but looking at the cover of my physical copy.

I admit it, I love vinyl. I love the physicality of it. I love the graphical presentation, the size of the image on the cover. I love how the medium has been manipulated: colored vinyl, concentric groove records (I was watching a documentary series today on Monty Python, and this came up regarding Matching Tie and Handkerchief), grooves that play from the outside in, or one of the most extreme examples being my friend tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE's "Audio Obstacle Course", which is the audio cut to play outer edge in, AND inner edge out, superimposed. Wow! I had never thought of that. We all know the rpms: 33&1/3, 45, 78; how about 16 rpm? 8rpm? I have at least one of each of those too.

I know I haven't said anything about the music on this record yet. It's coming.

If you want more examples of vinyl and cassette extremes, check out this article on the Conglomerate Records collection I bought. The first item was a composite record glued together from multiple cut-up records.

So....Exorcist II. Among the most maligned of all sequels. I listened to a podcast by The Projection Booth about this film, with several people defending it passionately. I later watched it, and, well...I don't think it's as terrible as its reputation would indicate, but it's definitely not as great as the superfans might have you believe, in my opinion.

What is very clear is that nobody counted on director John Boorman making a film that was so markedly different from its origin work. The superfans speaking in defense of the film in that podcast do make a good point though: Exorcist II is a very controlled film, it's not a train wreck. The color scheme is very limited. The filmmaker knew what he was doing.

I think part of the break from the original film also involved hiring Morricone to score this. I wonder what he thought of it all, but he'd scored trashier films than this before.

There's no sign, as far as I can tell, of Edda Dell'Soro here. There are prominent female vocals a few times, particularly in the strangely-titled "Little Afro-Flemish Mass" and "Night Flight."

There are two primary themes throughout the score: the Regan theme (pretty, minor melody) and the Pazuzu theme (nasally vocals, stranger). The latter theme plays into "Magic and Ecstacy", which was covered by Snakefinger on his debut LP Chewing Hides the Sound.  That's where I heard it first.

You know what's not part of this score? Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. That's the primary theme of The Exorcist. It's an eerie and affecting theme to be sure. But it's not original music, and sometimes I find that to be cheating. I'm looking at you, Quentin Tarrantino! For that matter, Martin Scorsese relies on pre-existing music too often.

From a listening standpoint, the ending of this record is no less of a head scratcher than anything else on this project. The final three tracks: "Night Flight", an intense work for orchestra and voices. Follow that with "Interrupted Melody", possibly the sweetest moment on the soundtrack, and then "Exorcism", orchestra clusters and voice, percussion, almost recalls the Pazuzu theme. It's under a minute and then it's gone. What?

I've just re-ordered an interview book of Morricone, and I wonder if he has anything to say about this one.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Ennio Morricone 9

Even if it's late as I write this, still staying with the daily Morricone theme. Today's vinyl: Moses the Lawgiver, 1974, on RCA Victor. 

I bought this from Jerry's Records on one of his auctions, and no doubt bid the minimum. The score was written for a 1973-74 Italian/British TV miniseries, starring of all people Burt Lancaster in the title role! No weirder than Charlton Heston, I suppose.

My wife is open about her Hollywood crushes, and Burt Lancaster is close to the top of the list. And I can't say I blame her. We tool a vacation in Vancouver once, and the local arthouse theater had a film noir series. We saw two Burt Lancaster films, The Killers and (I think) Desert Fury. The second was shot first but released later. In both cases, the beautiful dame chooses a schlub over Burt, and you have to wonder, why? Hell, I would have chosen him. 

I don't recognize any other actors' names on this project, though Burt's son appears as a young Moses. Notable is that Anthony Burgess co-wrote the screenplay, and once again Bruno Nicolai conducts. No vocals by Edda Dell'Orso this time though. I guess there wasn't any call for panicked or erotic breathy vocals on this score. There is credit given each to a lead female voice, violist, and flutist. Morricone's in orchestra and chorus mode here, little of his unique instrument choices are to be found this time.

So I have to wonder, who would buy and listen to this record? Why would they press it into the vinyl format in the first place? How many copies are sitting in a landfill?

The first two pieces on this album are solid but common-sounding soundtrack cues. Folk-like unison chorus and orchestra, etc. Those are followed by a particularly brutal tone-clustery piece that almost recalls Xenakis. Follow that with a piece of multiple (multitracked?) recorders, and then again a lamentation piece for solo voice and chorus. "In God's Voice", ending side one, recalls Ligeti to me. Is it processed with delays and reverbs or not? I'm not entirely certain. The beginning of side two, "Israel", in a way recalls that Bernstein Mass. Both compelling and dated. I wonder if the conductor's score still exists.

It's all to the service of the visuals. And yet, this is its own separate record album, and as a discrete listening experience, it's disconcerting. I can picture a Jewish person coming across this album, thinking, "Moses! He's our man!" Taking it home, listening, and thinking, "What the fuck is this?"

Maybe. Don't let me put words in anyone's mouth or head.

And that got me thinking, this is some Old Testament shit. Vengeful God. It should sound harsh at times.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Not Morricone 1

Today's soundtrack listening: Bruno Nicolai, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (AKA La notte che Evelyn uschì dalla tomba) 1971, 2X LP reissue, Death Waltz Recording Company

Bruno Nicolai's name came up on two of my Morricone albums, and I'd noticed it before then, for conducting credits. I realized I had a Nicolai soundtrack in my collection, so I thought I'd give it a spin instead of Morricone today. I know I've listened to this before but couldn't recall the music specifically.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is without doubt one of my favorite film titles. How can you not want to see that? The American promotional poster is no less enticing. A woman dressed in a negligee, with a skull for a head (with full hair) holding up a man's decapitated head. Hell yeah!

Unlike the films for the Morricone soundtracks I've been describing, I have seen this one start to finish. It's not terribly memorable, just okay but not as great as either the title or the soundtrack. As trash producer David F. Friedman would say, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." That title and poster is definitely the sizzle.

The real question when re-listening to this album, how does it differ from a Morricone score from the same time? I don't have a solid answer to that question. It sounds a lot like a Morricone score of the same period. At any given moment, drop the needle, I'd say it sounds like a Morricone giallo film score.

If this was Morricone, I'd expect the opening title them to be one of those Serge Gainsbourg-like lounge/pop tunes. It's not. We have to wait until the second cut for that to happen.

There are so many Morricone-like touches, to the orchestration alone. Harp run through delay. Sopranino recorder. Swinging/grooving bass and drums rhythm section with atonal strings. Even an occasional post-60s rock-n-roll instrumental. I was thinking it's probably a lot of the same studio musicians, and wouldn't you know it, Edda Dell'Orso does vocals on this. For all I know, this could have been recorded in the same sessions as The Black Belly of the Tarantula (see my previous post).

I work under the assumption that Morricone was the leader, the innovator, and Nicolai followed in Ennio's footsteps. Truth is, I don't really know. I can speculate that film directors and producers wanted scores that sounded a certain way. I have a general sense from comparing this to Black Belly that Morricone was possibly more open to improvisation in his soundtrack scores of this time. He was an improvisor in addition to being a composer, on trumpet. He was a member of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuovo Consonanzo, founded by composer Franco Evangelisti. I'd love to track down a copy of their album on Cramps Records. Il Gruppo found its way onto a few soundtracks too.

And what of influence? Would Strayhorn would have been the Strayhorn we know without Ellington? Probably not, but that doesn't mean Strayhorn wasn't a great and original artist in his own right.

I like this record, but it suffers from the same fatigue as other soundtrack albums I've listened to. A single LP would have been tight, a great read on the score, but it wouldn't be complete.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Ennio Morricone 8

Tonight's Morricone listening: Black Belly of the Tarantula (AKA La tarantola del ventre nero) 1971, double LP reissue on Death Waltz Recording Company

I've previously mentioned the Crime and Dissonance double-CD collection. (I will at least one more time before I'm done with this series of posts.) To recap, it's all generally the strangest cues from Morricone soundtracks. Most of it is 1970s, and many from giallo films.

This film soundtrack is not represented on that collection, but I knew it would be somewhat similar. 1971, giallo, no question. And to add to the weirdness, the opening title theme is a pop/lounge sounding piece that the text on the obi compares to Serge Gainsbourg. Edda Dell'Orso is back on her breathy, sometimes wordless vocals. Just how many of these projects did she do with Morricone? I was looking at her credits on, and after twenty original soundtrack listings, I stopped counting. Bruno Nicolai is also back conducting, similar to Autopsy. I have one of his soundtracks, I'll have to pull that out soon.

This soundtrack has a lot of what I love about 1970s Morricone. It's thick with atmosphere. While much of it is clearly through-composed, I suspect there are times when there's structured improvisation as well. There's a looseness to some of it that just doesn't sound tightly composed and performed. I would have loved to have asked him about that. I'll have to get his book out from the library.

What are some of the components this time? Harpsichord, muted or prepared piano, out of tune piano, high string clusters, grooving bass/drums rhythm section, pitch-unstable keyboard, fuzz bass, vibes. Sounds like something I'd listen to even if it wasn't an eerie Morricone giallo soundtrack. And then he pulls it back to that poppy opening theme a few times.

I really like the Death Waltz/Mondo label, but it's an expensive habit. Single LPs sometimes go for $30. Waxworks is another similar boutique-level soundtrack vinyl label, and there are a few others. They're beautifully packaged, often with attractive colored vinyl (disc one on this one is yellow splatter, disc two red splatter), heavy (and sometimes gatefold) covers. Some editions sell out quickly, but you never know which ones. I haven't bought anything from them in a while but some of those other Morricone releases look tempting.

I'll admit there are a lot of period Morricone scores that sound similar to this one. But it's a good one nonetheless.