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Posts from the ‘Soundtrack’ Category

Mind on the Run

hidden-orchestraIt was with regret that I had to leave Hull after only 24 hours of Mind on the Run, the weekend festival celebrating the life and work of Basil Kirchin, the visionary composer who spent three decades in the city, working in complete obscurity until his death in 2005, aged 77.

When the Guardian asked me to write a piece about the event, the first call I made was to Brian Eno. I had introduced the two men in 1973, while preparing the release of the second volume of Basil’s World Within Worlds on Island’s HELP label. Eno immediately recognised the value of his work with manipulated tapes of organic sounds, and more than 40 years later he was happy to talk about the impression it made.

The festival, held in the City Hall as part of Hull’s 2017 UK City of Culture programme, was quite brilliantly curated to include contributions from Matthew Herbert, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory (with a contingent of the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell), Wilco’s Jim O’Rourke, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of Saint Etienne, Evan Parker with Adam Linson and Matt Wright of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, and a DJ set of Kirchin’s library music by Jerry Dammers.

On the first evening I heard a spirited set by a local five-piece band led by DJ Revenu (Liam van Rijn), heavy on imaginative electronics. That was followed by the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan with a piece inspired by several of Basil’s themes and performed by an nonet — including the outstanding harpist Serafina Steer — in a style that made me think of what might happen were Steve Reich to get it into his head to reinterpret those miniature tone poems that Brian Wilson used to drop into mid-period Beach Boys albums: things like “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” from Smiley Smile and the title track of Pet Sounds. O’Hagan’s music was minimalist, lyrical, unhurried and unrhetorical, with a fragile charm. (Just after it had finished I told a friend that I was particularly attracted to the way the music felt, even now and then, as though it might be about to fall apart; during a conversation an hour or so later O’Hagan mentioned, unprompted, that this was precisely the effect he’d been after.)

I enjoyed taking part in one of the panel discussions, alongside Bob Stanley and  Jonny Trunk, and listening to another that featured Matt Stephenson, co-director (with Alan Jones and Harriet Jones) of a 45-minute documentary film which did an excellent job of summarising Basil’s extraordinary life through interviews with those who had known him at various stages of his career. It also featured a wonderful film clip of the Ivor Kirchin Band in the early ’50s, with the leader’s young son as the featured drummer, from a time when dance band musicians wore cardigans and sensible slacks. (When someone in the audience likened Basil’s skin-pounding, cymbal-flaying antics to those of Animal from the Muppet Show, Matt was able to regale us with the priceless information that the real drummer of the Muppets had been the great session man Ronnie Verrell — who, in an earlier incarnation, had replaced the man who replaced Basil on the drum stool in Ivor’s band…)

Trunk, who has done so much over the past decade to create interest in Basil’s work, also mentioned that the handful of CDs released on his label represent no more than a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come from the archive of Kirchin soundtracks and library music.

Among Basil’s credits was the score to The Abominable Dr Phibes, the truly bizarre 1971 British horror film in which Vincent Price played the eponymous villain, who celebrated his dreadful deeds by letting loose on a pipe organ. The film was screened on Friday night, with the figure of a caped Alexander Hawkins emerging through a gauze screen from time to time, playing the music live on the City Hall’s mighty organ: the third largest in England, it is said, and the possessor of a massive 64ft pipe which, if unleashed at full volume, would probably turn the Victorian building’s foundations to dust.

Before leaving Hull I also managed to creep into the soundcheck of Joe Acheson’s Hidden Orchestra (pictured above), and was beguiled by the grooves and textures of a band featuring two drummers, violin, cello, harp, trumpet and keyboards. If you want to know more about that performance, and others, read Tony Dudley-Evans’s report for the London Jazz News website.

It was interesting to discover how Hull, a victim first of the Luftwaffe and then of the Cod Wars, is making use of the opportunity to present a new face to those lured by the year of cultural events. There are five excellent Francis Bacons on temporary loan at the refurbished Ferens Gallery in the main square, which is dramatically spanned until March 18 by a 75-metre aluminium wind-turbine blade created by Nayan Kulkarni. An exhibition devoted to the story of COUM Transmissions, the renegade art collective founded in Hull in the early ’70s by Genesis P. Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti and others, is at the Humber Art Gallery in the streets of the former Fruit Market, where all sorts of hipster enterprises are springing up.

It’s not all great, of course. Take a bow, “Sir” Philip Green, for the vacant hulk of the striking early-’60s building until recently occupied by British Home Stores. But if you can imagine a cross between Copenhagen and Hoxton, that seems to be how Hull is attempting to reshape itself, and the audiences who flocked to Mind on the Run demonstrated the potential of this culture-led Humberside renaissance. I hadn’t been to the city since a single visit in 1965. Now I can’t wait to go back and do some more exploring.

A soundtrack of the ’60s, Italian-style

la-notte-poster

The Jazz on Film series of compilations, curated with excellent taste and scrupulous attention to detail by Selwyn Harris, might be the best reissue programme since Hip-O Select’s Complete Motown Singles treasury. My favourites so far have been the French New Wave and Jazz in Polish Cinema boxes, but I’m very pleased to have the new vinyl single-album release titled Jazz in Italian Cinema, which collects soundtracks from 1958 to 1962 by such composers as Piero Piccioni, Piero Umiliani, Armando Trovajoli and Giorgio Gaslini.

As you would expect, the 11 tracks are full of atmosphere, mostly that of a smoky bar in Trastevere during the period when Italy was emerging the from the wartime ruins and making its own adaptation of the American culture disseminated by the occupying US forces. It begins with a track from Umiliani’s score for Marco Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti (released in the English-speaking world as Big Deal on Madonna Street), setting the tone for most of the set with an approach based on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool band and Shorty Rogers’ medium-sized units.

Chet Baker, staying in Italy during one of his periods of personal turmoil, is featured on two tracks written by Trovajoli for Dino Risi’s Il Vedovo; sounding forlorn on “Oscar Is the Back” and sprightly on the film’s theme tune, he plays with poise, concentration and inventiveness. He’s even better on “Tensione”, the first of two tracks from Umiliani’s score for Nanni Loy’s Audace Colpo dei Soliti Ignoti (Fiasco in Milan), displaying the kind of up-tempo chops that suggest why Charlie Parker was so impressed when they played together in Los Angeles in 1952. “Relaxing’ with Chet”, the second of the tracks, is a lovely West Coast-style medium swinger.

Piccioni’s theme for Elio Petri’s L’Assassino (which starred Marcello Mastroianni) sounds charmingly like the sort of stealthy thing Henry Mancini, in a jazz mood, might have written for a detective movie. Gino Marinacci on baritone saxophone, the composer on piano an unidentified vibraphonist are the excellent soloists. No musicians are identified on Piccioni’s “Finale”, from Antonio Pierangeli’s Adua e le Compagne (Adua and Her Friends), which is a shame since it features some exceptional alto saxophone work from a player whose fluency and bitter-sweet tone are somewhere between Hal McCusick and John Handy. “Blues all’Alba” from Giorgio Gaslini’s quartet music for Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte is probably the best known piece here, a cigarettes-and-coffee nocturne featuring Eraldo Volonté’s eloquently world-weary tenor saxophone.

Next comes the only letdown: John Lewis’s “In a Crowd”, from Eriprando Visconti’s Una Storia Milanese (A Milanese Story), which teams good jazz players — guitarist René Thomas, flautist Bobby Jaspar and Lewis himself — with a string quartet but never emerges from behind a veil of effeteness. But Harris has saved the biggest surprise for last: two delightful tracks by by altoist Sandro Brugnoli and his Modern Jazz Gang from the soundtrack to Enzo Battaglia’s Gli Arcangeli (The Archangels), good examples of robustly swinging, bluesy post-bop jazz with modal inclinations neatly arranged for octet, in which Cicci Santucci’s bright-toned trumpet and Pucci Sboto’s vibes heard to good advantage.

All that, then, and a beautiful black and white shot of Jeanne Moreau on the front cover. A very entertaining and enlightening set, then — and, as the sleeve notes suggest, there’s potentially much more where this came from.

Nico: the last journey

nico-2Nico died in Ibiza, a place she had loved for many years, one hot July day in 1988. Leaving the rented farmhouse where she was staying with her son, Ari, she headed into town, apparently intending to buy some hashish. At some point in the journey she fell from her bicycle and suffered a head injury. It was not until the following day that Ari called the police, gave them a description, and received the news that she had died in hospital.

Stephan Crasneanscki of Soundwalk Collective is not the only one to have found himself trying to visualise that last journey. With a new album called Killer Road, he and his partners in the band, Simone Merli and Kamran Sadegh, together with the composer Jesse Paris Smith, present a cycle of pieces based on Nico’s songs and poetry in which they attempt to evoke the thoughts and sounds that might have been going through her mind as she pedalled through the heat and the noise of crickets. The words are read by Jesse’s mother, Patti Smith.

There is a historical connection. Patti once rescued Nico’s harmonium from a pawn shop and gave it back to her. She is, however, not an idolator. “It influenced us all, to have such a bold delivery of bold songs by a female singer in that period, the early ’60s,” she writes in the sleeve notes, but explains that she doesn’t “identify” with Nico beyond the admiration of someone who worked to find a way of delivering her poetry through the medium of music. Nevertheless her commitment to the project leads her to deliver the words in a way that reflects Nico’s own manner: “half-singing — like a child singing to themselves,” as she puts it. Her mission, she says, was “to just, somehow, represent a small part of her, even though we have different voice tones and no obvious similarities.”

In the event, it would be hard to imagine a more effective interpreter for this project. Smith’s performing experience allows her to imbue the lyrics of “Evening of Light”, “Secret Side”, “My Only Child” and others with quiet drama, using a mostly whispered delivery (exception: “Fearfully in Danger”, which she sings in a raw New Jersey voice). The approach works perfectly against the brooding, shifting electronic soundscapes created by her collaborators, which often summon (without trying to replicate) the effect of the harmonium, Nico’s signature instrumental sound. The original melodies are entirely eliminated. When Smith recites the lyric to “Saeta” against the tinkling of distant prayer-bells and hovering synthesiser sounds, the tune is nowhere to be heard; yet for those who know the song, Nico’s loveliest, it is inescapably present.

This is a album of ghost music: an attempt to pay tribute by creating something as strange, original, atmospheric and appropriate to the material as the arrangements through which John Cale moulded the great trilogy of The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End into something without precedent. The result is subtle, respectful, and wholly successful.

* Killer Road is released on the Bella Union label. The photograph of Nico is from the cover of the 1981 album Drama of Exile and was taken by Antoine Giacomoni.

Two soundtracks/2: ‘Ran’

Ran 1Until its re-release this week, I hadn’t seen Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece set amid the turmoil of 16th century Japan, since its first appearance in 1985. I had, however, listened to its soundtrack, by Toru Takemitsu, many times. In terms of orchestral accompaniment to films of great quality, it ranks for me alongside the scores provided by Ennio Morricone for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and Alberto Iglesias for Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother.

Takemitsu (1930-96) was to classical composition as Kurosawa was to film: a master with a love of formal experimentation, whose reputation became global. Both of them helped introduce Western audiences to the history and the culture of Japan. Takemitsu composed many pieces for all kinds of ensembles; they included the celebrated Requiem for String Orchestra in 1957 and, 10 years later, the beautiful November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra. He also wrote the music for more than 100 films, but never one like Ran.

To accompany Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear, in which an old ruler’s bungling of his legacy leads to intra-family warfare, madness and disaster, he juxtaposes Japanese and Western instruments: a solo flute (possibly a hochiku rather than a shakuhachi), woodblocks and other dry percussion sounds, and a full symphony orchestra. Kurosawa’s genius is to use this wonderful music sparingly, bringing it to the forefront during the central battle scene.

Ran is the Japanese word for chaos. Amid astonishing scenes of death and destruction, colour-coded armies hurtle silently back and forth on a wasteland of volcanic dust while flights of arrows pass across the screen like flickers of static and blood-soaked bodies lie in piles; the only sound is that of the orchestra. The slow sweep of strings and the mourning incantations of bassoons and English horns form a stately, richly textured lamentation for human folly.

* The restored version of Ran is showing at the BFI Southbank in London and at arthouse cinemas around the country. Sadly, the soundtrack album is out of print.

Two soundtracks/1: ‘Victoria’

Nils Frahm 1Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria opened in London a couple of weeks ago, a year after it won an award at the Berlin International Film Festival. It’s famous for having been shot in a single 138-minute take. I came away impressed by everything it has to offer, from the direction and the acting by all the young principals to the agile cinematography of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and, by no means least, the contribution made by Nils Frahm’s soundtrack.

Frahm is a pianist and composer who was born in Hamburg 33 years ago — his father is a photographer whose work was used on early ECM sleeves — and now lives in Berlin (where Victoria is set). He creates a kind of music that is austere and lyrical, and suits the times. It doesn’t have a name but could only be produced by a person with good listening habits. (He’s curating a three-day festival at the Barbican in London in July, called Possibly Colliding, also featuring Nik Bärtsch, stargaze, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Szun Waves, and the Britten Sinfonia Voices performing Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and Pärt.)

Frahm’s music in no hurry. In fact in the notes to Solo, an album released last year and devoted to his playing of the largest upright piano in the world (15ft high, weighing almost two tons, and built by David Klavins), he says this: “The joy of playing and listening to the sound of the instrument made me play slower and slower, softer and softer, as almost every new note was destroying the immense beauty and sustain of the previous note.” The sound is rich and dark and full of overtones. You get a definite sense of strings vibrating. Sometimes he seems to produce notes without any attack at all; they just emerge. But although the mood is calm, it’s never passive.

In Victoria, having opened the film with a club track by DJ Kose (heard in the trailer), Schipper uses Frahm’s electro-acoustic ambient music brilliantly, and never more so than in a couple of sequences during which he mutes all the sound from the live action — speech, street or club noise — and allows the score to take over. It’s a brilliant touch, perfectly suited to the mood of a film which takes place in the hours before and encompassing dawn, when the senses are both naturally and chemically distorted. Some of the individual pieces on the soundtrack album, such as the one titled The Shooting, possess an almost transparent beauty.

Frahm’s live performances seem to be as interesting as his work in the studio. Here’s an excellent film of his 60-minute set at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year. He has two concerts coming up in London, one at Village Underground this month and then the Barbican Hall performance in July, and they’re both sold out.

* The photograph of Nils Frahm is by Michael O’Neal. The soundtrack album is on the Erased Tapes label.