dimanche, septembre 05, 2004

Days of future past

Squeak. Wibble. Bzzz. My God, it's alienating in here! How do we know that? Because that noise we can hear is electronic soundtrack music, which can only mean one thing: the end of history, the future gone wrong, dystopia. And now the Pet Shop Boys are doing it too. Undaunted, Michael Bracewell traces the short, hissy relationship between film and electronica and wonders why we're all so tense?

05 September 2004

The hinterland is desolate - a dead suburbia. Grids of empty roads patched with dust and scrub stretch away to a blood-red horizon. The old police station stands open to the gathering night. There is tension in the air, which is at once urgent and melancholy. Against the play of such torpid, almost lifeless images run tense little jabs of electronic rhythm. This is the landscape of John Carpenter's film Assault on Precinct 13, which came out in 1976 with an electronics-based soundtrack composed by the director himself.

As a score, these minimalist bleeps and squeaks do the work of a full orchestra, and more. Electronic music has become the signal soundtrack to films which deal with societies in chaos and dystopic futures - the robotic requiem for post-industrial crisis. Their mood is one of suspenseful elegy. This is a genre steeped in romanticism: the sense, as noted by Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys' forthcoming score to Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, "of the struggle for a good revolution".

The timing of Assault on Precinct 13 - it came out as the Sex Pistols were releasing Anarchy In The UK - seemed to pick up on some deeper violence in the zeitgeist. It wasn't simply that Carpenter had made his movie and its soundtrack on a low-budget, low-fidelity basis echoing punk's no-budget aesthetic - Assault on Precinct 13 described the urban landscape with imagery which merged derelict modernity with the strangeness of science fiction, much as the first wave of punk's cultural rhetoric did. The fusion of these two qualities suggested a world in which time had reached critical mass, history had ended, and humanity was entering a "post-future" period.

In the beginning, in the 1950s, electronic soundtracks were seen as novelty rather than artistic advance. In American television series such as The Outer Limits, for example, the hums and splutters of sinister robots were deployed less as a form of incidental "music", than as sound effects. There was a more sophisticated and enquiring experiment with electronic soundtrack in Forbidden Planet (1956) which transposed the plot of Shakespeare's The Tempest to the planet Altair Four in the year 2200. In this, the distinction between soundtrack and sound effect became more ambiguous, as electronic tremors and pulses were used to denote the workings of Prospero's magic.

After Forbidden Planet, electronics went into cinematic abeyance until the early Seventies. While electronic music itself was being pioneered by both classical and rock musicians - notably in Germany, where the avant-garde in rock music gave rise to the likes of Can, Kraftwerk, Neu, Amon Duul and Tangerine Dream - its relation to the moving image existed only on the extreme fringes of experimental cinema, and then sparsely. The pioneering work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop - a notable presence in television drama in the Sixties - did not extend to feature-film soundtracks.

It would take until the middle of the punk decade for the technology of electronic music to become sufficiently sophisticated - and fashionable - to find a place in the cinema. And even this emergence would be of limited scope, until the electronic soundtrack boom at the end of the Seventies. There were, of course, a few notable exceptions. Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's lysergic portrait of the identity breakdown of a London gangster, Performance (1970), opened with a disturbing montage that cut abruptly between images of a Rolls-Royce passing through the English countryside and dizzying glimpses of explicit sex. The soundtrack featured subterranean drones and curved arcs of electronic sound, reminiscent of the sound of pumping blood on an ultrasound scan.

The tenor of the times required nothing less. As the counter-cultural idealism of the second half of the Sixties curdled and soured, so British cinema in the early Seventies immersed itself in brutalism. The new decade was inscribed in concrete monoliths, from the subways of A Clockwork Orange to the Newcastle-under-reconstruction of Get Carter. As A Clockwork Orange portrayed the youth cults of a dystopic future, so its soundtrack featured Beethoven's Ninth played on a synthesiser. The sum effect was the representation of a plasticised culture in decay, outlining a vision of Britain Derek Jarman portrayed nearly a decade later in Jubilee.

It was during the immediate aftermath of punk's first impact, between 1977 and 1979, that the relationship between film and "electronica" seemed really to stick. The experimental Sheffield groups Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League were themselves steeped in visual culture. Their early recordings - using primitive synthesisers, electronic keyboards and reel-to-reel tape effects - were instantly recognisable as filmic soundtracks to the landscape of contemporary industrial alienation. Phil Oakey, co-founder of The Human League, later described such times as the "alienated synthesiser period". And once they'd established themselves as a vital new element in post-punk electronica, Cabaret Voltaire recorded a haunting interpretation of Henry Mancini's opening music to A Touch Of Evil(on perhaps their best album, Red Mecca in 1979), while The Human League included a version of Roy Budd's theme to Get Carter on their multi-million selling album, Dare!

In many ways, it was the romanticism of living in an "end-of-history" epoch which so appealed to the more experimental young groups and established the strong link between cinema and electronica. This goes at least half way to explaining where the Pet Shop Boys came from (the other half being, according to Tennant and Lowe, the hi-energy disco sound of Bobby O) - the unique fusion of cinematic melancholy and pure pop rush.

But while post-punk electronica was heavily influenced by film and was filmic in its own right, there was counterpoint in cinema's response to the evolving world of electronica. This evolution connected the avant-garde end of post-punk, the possibilities of dance music and the lingering influence of the "symphonic" synthesiser works by the German pioneers of progressive rock.

The central figure in British experiments with electronic soundtrack music is Brian Eno, whose work as both a composer and a conceptual thinker has been pivotal in the development of "filmic" ambient music. Eno's application of generative systems to artistic media, going back to his earliest days as a student at Colchester and then Winchester Schools of Art, became the conceptual machinery behind a whole new form of musical minimalism.

One example is his soundtrack to Jarman's Jubilee (1978). Plangent, eerie and melancholy, Eno's music caught exactly the strangeness and ambiguity of Jarman's vision of a nightmarish England. The music - as with Eno's later soundtrack for Jarman's montage of home-movie fragments, Glitterbug - conveys a sense of film's relationship with time. The pulses, chords and tones create a solid chassis for the narrating images yet retain their atomised sense of ambience. They sound like recordings from the future, yet possess a sense of being broadcast from the past.

It has been argued - by the writer Mark Sinker in an essay published in Jonathan Romney's survey volume, Celluloid Jukebox - that Brian Eno's collaborations with David Bowie on Low and Heroes (both recorded in Germany) mark a turning point in the relationship between electronic music and film. "The hook," wrote Sinker of Low, which was released shortly after Bowie appeared as an alien in Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, "is the lack. The sleeve shot is a still from The Man Who Fell To Earth: as if this were a record made by a fictional character, an alien in a movie. Eno's ambient backdrops become the foreground; the important content is the decor. By draining colour from the main man, the Bowie/Eno partnership invented background music without a foreground."

Memorably described by the critic Jon Savage as "post-everything music", Bowie and Eno's collaborations on Low established a model for filmic electronica and electronic film soundtracks. For instance, the portentous electronic score composed and recorded by Francis Ford Coppola and his father Carmine, for Apocalypse Now in 1979, sounded in places like a homage to the Bowie/Eno model.

In 1982, yet another cult film describing a dystopic future world, Blade Runner, featured an electronic soundtrack, this time by the Greek keyboard wiz Vangelis. As a specific cinema score, the music eased post-punk electronica away from cerebral aestheticism towards the melodrama, urgency and sheer orchestral scale required of film music proper - echoes of which can be heard in sections of Brad Fiedel's soundtrack to Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

But electronica isn't always about pushing into the future - it works retrospectively too. Two silent films which addressed the future and the newly mechanised, depersonalised city - Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) and Dziga Vertov's The Man With The Movie Camera (1928) - have both inspired contemporary electronic scores. In fact, Metropolis can be seen as a defining film in the relationship between electronics and cinema. A Gothic Futurist fable, endowed with monolithic factories, a mystical philosopher-scientist and an erotic female robot, the imagery of Metropolis pretty much tallies with the preoccupations of post-punk and New Romantic synthesiser music. Indeed, the pioneering electronic music quartet from Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk, recorded a track inspired by the film on their breakthrough 1978 album, The Man Machine. Kraftwerk's entire visual aesthetic is based on a paradoxical nostalgia for archaic visions of the future, with specific reference to German cultural history. Metropolis, then, was a perfect source of inspiration. It is also a film which articulates Walter Benjamin's aesthetic philosophy of the modern urban wanderer, caught between alienation and a romantic obsession with the city.

In 1984 - just two years before the hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa sampled the score to Assault on Precinct 13 for "Bambaataa's Theme" - a new, freshly tinted edition of Metropolis was released with an electronic soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder (who, incidentally, had already won an Oscar for his electronic score to Midnight Express). More recently, the Sheffield-based electronic duo From The Nursery have toured with a print of Vertov's The Man With A Movie Camera, playing a live electronic soundtrack to the Russian silent masterpiece, which blends the quotidian pathos of city life with touches of surrealist imagery.

Looking back from the lobby of the 21st century, one can see how a "golden age" of electronics-based film music seemed to declare itself between 1976 and 1984, when the classics of the genre emerged. Today, scores such as Assault on Precinct 13 or Eno's work for Derek Jarman have taken their place as great pieces of music in their own right - the Nino Rota and Bernard Hermann of the punk generation.

And there is a neat aesthetic irony in the broader project of today's electronica seeming to be as interested in the possibilities of "classical" music, as it is in honing soundscapes of bleeps and squeaks. Thus the classic atmosphere generated by electronic music - that eerie, plangent tension - is finding a refreshed intensity. The acclaimed Systems/Layers album, by the US ensemble Rachel's, for instance, sounds more like Gorecki or Hindemith than Plastikman.

The forthcoming Pet Shop Boys Battleship Potemkin project is being performed in collaboration with the Dresden Sinfoniker and is rumoured to include at least glancing musical references to such 20th-century modernists as Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Such a heady fusion of styles - European modernism and electronic beats - is of course completely of a piece with the formalism which the Pet Shop Boys have refined to perfection throughout their career. Indeed, one of the reasons why the group remain so enduringly and intensely "modern" is the sheer dexterity of their musical balancing act between poised intellectualism and the rush of dance music. And as film soundtrack music goes, the potential is breathtaking: Giorgio Moroder meets Georges Auric.

The legacy of cinema's post-punk love affair with electronics is still producing potent and adventurous soundtrack music; a genre which you might describe as musical landscape poetry - composed by humans, sequenced by robots.

The Pet Shop Boys will accompany a free screening of 'Battleship Potemkin' in Trafalgar Square, London as part of the Summer in the Square festival; 8.30pm, 12 September. www.london.gov.uk.

Brian Eno's 'Ambient Works' are reissued on 27 September by Virgin Records


Metropolis (1926)

In this re-tinted, re-scored re-release by Giorgio Moroder from 1984, the robotic sheen of Kraftwerk's track "Metropolis" - with its one-word lyric - is very much in keeping with Fritz Lang's vision of a dehumanised future.

Jubilee (1978)

Described as a "non-punk film using punk people", Jarman's film featured music by Siouxsie and The Banshees and Adam And The Ants, as well as a newly composed electronic soundtrack - eerie and plangent - by Brian Eno.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Perhaps the most revered electronic soundtrack, scored by John Carpenter. The soundtrack album became the holy grail of electronica fans, not least because until recently it was very difficult to get hold of.

Get Carter (1970)

Of interest to electronica fans because of The Human League's 1982 cover version (just over a minute long) of Roy Budd's original theme.

A Clockwork Orange (1970)

When Bowie sang "hey droogie, don't crash here" on 'Ziggy Stardust', he acknowledged Stanley Kubrick's horrific vision of a dystopic society as a founding statement of Seventies pop culture. The synthesised Beethoven has not aged as well as Bowie's name-check.

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