Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
rob + = email

2010 March 01 • Monday

The one hundred and second Soundtrack of the Week is Gil Mellé's The Andromeda Strain.

I've admired some of Mellé's television scoring, particularly for Columbo. Mellé also made some great small-group jazz records in the fifties and sixties, for Blue Note and Prestige. For one of the Blue Note sessions—October 25, 1953—he recorded an arrangement of Miklós Rózsa's Spellbound theme. The group was Mellé on tenor sax, Urbie Green on trombone, Tal Farlow on guitar, Clyde Lombardi on bass and Joe Morello on drums. You can hear it on Gil Mellé's The Complete Blue Note Fifties Sessions.

The liner notes to Intrada's new Andromeda Strain CD tell us that Mellé was "First signed to Blue Note Records at the age of 19" and "supported himself by painting album covers for the likes of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. After studying modernism under one of its greatest proponents, Edgar Varèse, Mellé's own experimental interests took an electronic turn in 1959. Mellé constructed his own instruments and was adamant that they should be their own electronic beasts, rather than replicate already-existing sounds".

The Andromeda Strain is a masterpiece, one of a handful of scores that make me think that avantgarde concert music lags behind some of the music created for film and television.

It was apparently for the Andromeda Strain score that Mellé created the Percussotron, "the world's first percussion synthesizer", according to Intrada's liner notes. "He also recorded a wealth of organic sounds, from pins being knocked down at a bowling alley to buzz saws in a lumber mill. Mellé even ventured with [director Robert] Wise to tape the inner workings of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California".

Listening to it, I was reminded occasionally of Miles Davis's electric bands of the '70s, of Raymond Scott's electronic music, of Toru Takemitsu, of Xenakis and Stockhausen, of free jazz, of Lee Perry, of Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. But it doesn't actually sound like any of that. There are only occasional moments of sympathy with those other musical worlds.

Mellé's work is breathtakingly original. This is a record that benefits from close listening with headphones. Stereo separation and "panning" from left to right and from right to left are aggressively deployed here.

It doesn't make me want to see The Andromeda Strain again, but it does make me want to see the Bionic Woman episode "Doomsday Is Tomorrow" again. That was a two-part episode that combined elements of The Andromeda Strain, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove. Jaime has to fight a super-computer to prevent it from causing nuclear war. "May the best—'one'—win," says the HAL-like computer.