Keeping Scores

Good old-fashioned movie music is as healthy as it ever was

In their aggressive beauty, Friday and Seezer recall the peerless Ryuichi Sakamoto, who wrote the symphonic parts for The Last Emperor, and whose latest classic is Love Is the Devil (Asphodel). Electronicism and Debussy-like chord clusters have long compelled Sakamoto, and on this very scene-dictated score, 28 pieces with titles like "Museum" and "Toilet," he mates his interest in both, placing borderline-static electronic soundscapes alongside more-frenetic passages, alternating these with a percussive piano melodicism that itself often discusses immobility, entrapment, and suffocation.

The most striking score of 1998, though, does something else entirely, sustaining, with a lot of shifting around, one unshakable mood that sounds brand-new. For High Art (Velvel), the rock band Shudder To Think put velvety basses on top of slowed-down, crummy-toned techno grooves, accenting everything with brief guitar outbursts, stray keyboard notes, and occasional Middle Eastern figures. The result is movie music as imagined by rockers tired of rock, expansive and Miles-like in bluesy places, abrupt and Eno-fed in others. The tone— unremitting Downtown rattiness— stays put as the tempos pick up ("Mom's Mercedes"), go flat ("Photographic Ecstasy"), or stretch out ("The Gavial"). This is cinematic grandeur as conceived by channel surfers, tranced-out and insomniac.

But the slightly earnest novelty, the realized creative striving of High Art is a fluke right now. What's really happened to film music is that, like everything from new shoes Petula Clark could have bought 30 years ago to bicycles whose thick fenders might have excited Beaver Cleaver, it's discovered the comforts of the neoclassic, the notion that a certain kind of mood and composition and approach can seem not only timeless but completely modern. "Tony's brief to me for the music was 'big and elegiac,' " Anne Dudley writes of director Tony Kaye in the liner notes to her dizzyingly intense score for American History X (Angel). "He felt the score should somehow stand apart from the events on the screen and underline the deeper implications." So Dudley and her orchestra do their hugely symphonic interknittings of 19th-century gravitas, sacred concentrations, and personal tragedy. It's not how John Barry did it when his flugelhorns elaborated on the cut of James Bond's dinner jacket. But these days, things move on, even as they don't.

Shudder To Think: the new face(s) of John Barry and Nino Rota
Christian Lantry
Shudder To Think: the new face(s) of John Barry and Nino Rota

A five-day festival of film music featuring Sakamoto, Shudder To Think, and others will take place at Town Hall November 10 through 14.

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