By Mikko Ojala
There are a rare few truly long lasting collaborations between a director and a composer in Hollywood that have not only been enduring but also influential to the art form at large. Most prominent and often cited examples include Steven Spielberg and John Williams, Alfted Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Robert Zemeckis and Alan Silvestri and Tim Burton and Danny Elfman where each director has found a perfect musical companion to their particular brand of film making and these efforts have yielded cinematic and film score classics loved by millions. A long standing and no less important if often somewhat less lauded collaboration is the one between the two Canadians, director David Cronenberg and composer Howard Shore, which has during 35 years and 15 films proven to be an enduring and vibrant one, yielding several seminal unconventional yet highly inventive works such as The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, Scanners, and psychologically charged but more classically tinged Dead Ringers, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises and most recently Maps to the Stars. While these scores might not be remembered by the mainstream audiences for their masterful display of catchy memorable theme tunes they are all powerful marriages of image and sound as disturbing as they sometimes might be. Cronenberg’s work often delves into the dark recesses of human psyche, behaviour and society and his films range from dark fantasy to outright horror and crime drama but the underlying psychological element has always been strong in his brand of movies. Howard Shore has been with him every step of the way (with the exception of Michael Kamen scored The Dead Zone) and his thoughtful, inventive and challenging musical accompaniment has time and again tapped into the subconscious and subtextual layers of these movies and most of sought to conjure up that which is not apparent on the screen. Among these is also the 1991 film adaptation of William S. Burrough’s unusual 1959 novel Naked Lunch to which Howard Shore in collaboration with jazz legend Ornette Coleman provides an equally restless and nervous yet strangely alluring jazz and orchestra score that mirrors the hazy and askew narrative of this paranoid drug addled tale. For the 35th anniversary celebration of this collaboration between the director and the composer Howe Records has re-released the soundtrack as an expanded collector’s edition (alongside similar releases for Crash and Dead Ringers), which features the original album programme and 16 minutes of previously unreleased music.
There had been a few previous attempts to turn Naked Lunch, a bizarre experimental beat novel by Burroughs, into a film including one where the author himself had penned the script but these projects from 1960 had never come to fruition. Only in 1991, Canadian director David Cronenberg took up the challenge of adapting the very unconventional book to the big screen but rather than attempting a straightforward adaptation of the work, Cronenberg took a few elements from it and combined them with episodes of Burroughs’ own life, creating a hybrid film about the writing of the book rather than the book itself. It is a paranoid fantasy about William Lee (Burrough’s own writing pseudonym) played by Peter Weller, an insect exterminator who after developing an addiction to the substance called bugpowder he uses to kill insects, accidentally murders his wife (Judy Davis) and slowly becomes involved in a bizarre secret government plot being orchestrated by giant bugs in a port town in North Africa called the Interzone. These leads to a series of strange and unsettling events where the main character kills his wife, ends up fleeing to the mysterious Interzone and finally reaches both complete insanity and freedom in a place called Annexia. The film features a strong supporting cast including Ian Holm, Julian Sands and Roy Scheider among others.
Howard Shore whose career involved playing in several different ensembles of various sizes, including a fusion jazz band Lighthouse, before becoming primarily a film composer took to the challenge of Naked Lunch like fish to water. He formulated a concept of using a fusion of modern jazz and orchestra as the expression of the drug addled and misty world of the film. To achieve this he decided to collaborate with famed jazz musician Ornette Coleman, one of the pioneers of free jazz, to create a nervy, unpredictable, strange and at times disoriented collection of moods that would personify the hazy and tragic journey of William Lee on his drug addled state of mind, where very few things were real and tangible and where mental horrors would mix with drug induced paranoia and mania. This is a combination of almost film noir styled orchestral writing awash with uneasy sense of danger and restless, quick silver fast and mutable jazz elements that give it an added edge of unpredictability. Shore would mix a small jazz ensemble lead by Ornette Coleman’s saxophone with the London Philharmonic Orchestra but would set his orchestral pieces in the same vein as the jazz charts or play counterpoint to the jazzy elements.
The music Shore and Coleman have created has to be applauded for its inventiveness and for conjuring up a series of distinctive moods. The music indeed exudes atmosphere and is oftentimes almost hypnotic despite the clashing tones Howard Shore chose to combine for this score. While the majority of the writing bears Shore’s stamp at every bar and employs his gifts for musical unease and dread it is the use of the solo saxophone and the jazz ensemble and the way it is mixed with the orchestra that makes it a unique and effective piece of music. The album can be divided into three types of composition: pieces using purely the symphony orchestra that are in the vein of traditional film scoring, tracks that use solely the jazz elements (and indeed jazz standards) and finally those that employ both into different combinations or layer the two worlds with each other achieving effective hallucinatory feel of things being not quite right. In addition to the score the film itself features music from the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a Moroccan group of musicians who would later collaborate with Howard Shore on his highly experimental and unsettling score for The Cell.
For purely orchestral evocations Shore employs his patented style which is emotionally ambiguous or leans towards apprehensive murky tones. There is a fair amount of subtle dread to the ponderous chord progressions and fragments of melodies the composer draws from the deeper reaches of the orchestra throughout. ‘Mugwumps’ is a prime example of unease created by deliberately slow drawn out stark chords from the string section coloured subtly by a solo harp, a musical portrait of apprehension. ‘Fadela’s Coven’ creates a straightforwardly dramatic orchestral mood as conspiratorial rhythmic ostinato from strings and woodwinds provides an ambiguous melody bedecked with notable solos from harp and woodwinds coloured with chime tree, stylistically resembling Silence of the Lambs in a combination of quiet lyricism and dread. ‘William Tell’ leans on the symphonic forces and sombre and darkly brooding moods alternate in the string section while solo woodwinds and harp provide hints of colour, giving a dream-like calm to the deranged scene where the main character accidentally shoots his wife while trying to recreate the famous legend of William Tell by shooting a shot glass off her head with a pistol. ‘Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted’ begins with a gentle melodic fragment on harp and muted horns but the comforting mood does not last long and the composer unleashes a brassy pulsing crescendo where string section seems to evoke some glimpse of horrifying wonder. All of this music exemplifies Shore’s ability to maintain a cold and slowly creeping sense of dread with various orchestral techniques.
As a contrast to the orchestral writing are the pure jazz pieces mostly penned by Coleman and performed by his small jazz group. ‘A. Simpatico, B. Misterioso’ builds a quietly unsettling stomping piano figures and vibraphone on top of a smooth and yearning saxophone solo which is haunting in both senses of the word. This track is notable among other things for including a rare sighting of Coleman playing a jazz standard, ‘Misterioso’, which was originally penned by the legendary Thelonious Monk. ‘Intersong’ written by Coleman is one of the most surprising and loveliest moments on the album, an almost playful, tender and dreamily warm jazz ballad performed by saxophone with minimal double bass and drum accompaniment, the performance nuanced, dexterous yet emotional. The band gives a fragmented and askew duet for saxophones in ‘Ballad/Joan’ where the Coleman deconstructs his ‘Intersong’ and it becomes a ragged rough voiced lament. As the final and lengthiest example of progressive jazz comes in the end credits ‘Writeman’ which grows out of manic double bass bowing into a break neck musical plunge of Coleman’s saxophone through aggressive rapid paced drumming and bass rhythms where the soloist flits from melodic fragment to melodic fragment in true tradition of jazzy improvisation.
The most defining element of the score, the combination of the orchestra and jazz elements, is established at the start of the first track ‘Naked Lunch’ where Shore fuses together the restless saxophone that sails atop an almost film noirish bed of slowly blossoming ominous orchestral chords, vibraphone and woodwinds creating a very singular mood. Here Shore paints a smoky mysterious atmosphere perfectly illustrating the hazy and confused narrative of the movie. This could be said to be the main thematic idea of the score but rather than being a straightforward melody it is more of collection of moods and timbres used throughout the rest of the album as well. ‘A. Hauser and O’Brien, B. Bugpowder’ illustrates a starker juxtaposition of styles as the languidly rising chord progressions from the string section and moody brass suddenly collide with Coleman’s own breakneck jazz piece where his saxophone does furious battle against the drums and double bass.
In addition to using the jazz ensemble Shore makes use of several exotic instruments not only to add to the set of unusual compositional parameters but to evoke exoticism and time and place in this strange tale. ‘The Black Meat’ is the first track to musically address the mysterious Interzone, the fictionalized port in North Africa that exists only the main character’s delusional mind, with something that sounds like a Arab prayer call (again performed by Coleman) intermixed with Shore’s woodwind and languidly ominous string writing. ‘Interzone Suite’ uses constant sizzle of synthesized effects and keening exotic woodwinds to establish some North African colour of the imaginary city but mixes it all with the jazz ensemble seemingly performing its own piece superimposed on this background and in the process crafting a dream (or nightmare) like musical state where the jazz forces slowly emerge as dominant part but he constantly harries it with unsettling rumbles from what sounds like a thunder sheet. Not an easy listen yet strangely compelling. ‘Clark Nova Dies’ opens with ethnic colours for the Interzone, this time provided by the ethereal ney flute before building slowly into string section exuding almost grim sense of weary finality.
‘Mujahaddin’ reprises the same rising outward reaching orchestral chord progressions with muted wailing brass call that were heard on the first track of the album and reveals this collection of moods to be indeed the main thematic identity of the score. The string, brass and woodwind layered chords build and build throughout while saxophone makes its lonely calls and rapid runs in the midst of this soundscape and the effect is again as alluring as it is intriguing as it paints a musical picture of something inexorable and tragic. It is also lovely nod to the genre of film noir, which the film in part references and makes this some of the most accessible material on the album.
In ‘A. Cloquet’s Parrots, B. Midnight Sunrise’ the cold unrelentingly building orchestral horror slowly mixes with an excerpt from Coleman’s classic wildly raucous free jazz piece ‘Midnight Sunrise’ where saxophone and assorted sharp wind instruments babble like a flock of angry geese amidst the manic drumming. This particular piece of music has an added connection to William S. Burroughs outside the film as the author was present at Coleman’s recording sessions in 1973. ‘Welcome to Annexia’ underscores the main character’s final moments of delirious hallucination and Shore reprises his main theme in its grandest guise yet, the saxophone making an almost triumphant exit amidst victoriously marching orchestral forces as the piece grows into relentlessly restless finale where the jazz ensemble and orchestra reach an equal union, the madness now complete. Here the line of real and unreal is finally blurred for William Lee.
The new Howe Records release of the score preserves the original programme of the soundtrack album and places all the additional music at the end of the CD. These extra pieces are mostly extended variations and takes on the jazz pieces heard in shorter form on the album like a different take of ‘The Intersong’ and a longer version of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Simpatico’ but the bonus material features also new orchestral score tracks the ominous and nervous ‘The Dual Typewriters’ and brooding and funereal ‘Martinelli’ continuing to illustrate the same overall aesthetic as rest of Shore’s orchestral pieces on the album.
This is a type of score that people will either love or hate depending largely on their disposition toward jazz and its use in film scores and combination of the various jazz and orchestral elements and the whole concept of illustrating different states of madness through this musical union. The score proves once again that Shore has an affinity for providing glimpses into the subtexts of a film and for capturing the darker elements of human psyche in an unexpected and inventive way and I think this translates surprisingly well into a listening experience on disc although Ornette Coleman’s contributions often give the work a flavour of a jazz album. If you admire the inventive, at times challenging and different approach to film scoring in the form of alternating jazz and brooding Herrmannesque orchestral writing a la Howard Shore look no further as this is a fine example of such a concept but for a casual listener looking for purely catchy tunes and easily digestible film music this album might be a work as disorienting and alienating as William S. Burrough’s novel.
Naked Lunch: Collector’s Edition is out now from Howe Records