Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2011 June 29 • Wednesday

Lucio Menegon's latest release, under his Reverend Screaming Fingers moniker, is called Music for Driving and Film, Vol. II, and I strongly recommend it. You can download it here.

I've had it for a few months but just got around to listening to it. It reminds me of some of my favorite music, like Ikue Mori's Painted Desert CD (a trio with Marc Ribot and Robert Quine) and Tom Verlaine's instrumental trio albums.

I like it so much I'm going to upgrade from the digital version to the real CD version.

2011 June 27 • Monday

The 171st Soundtrack of the Week is Bernard Herrmann's sci-fi masterpiece, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

This 1951 score still sounds more avantgarde to my ears than most avantgarde music I've heard. I'm no expert but much of it seems to anticipate the work of famous minimalist composers. If Herrmann had written "Radar" for the concert hall, given it some abstruse title and added enough repeat signs to make it a couple of hours long, he probably would have been the toast of the town.

This CD of the original recording, not to be confused with the stereo re-recording conducted by Joel McNeely (also worth having), begins with the most heard piece of film music ever, Alfred Newman's "Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare".

Then it's the triple threat of "Prelude/Outer Space/Radar", which immediately startles the ear with Herrmann's unique instrumentation. The orchestra included two theremins (one high, one low), electric violin, electric cello, electric bass, four pianos, four harps, three organs (two of them Hammonds), vibraphones, glockenspiels, and a large brass section. (Herrmann further enhanced the music by having some tracks played backwards and, as his biographer Steven C. Smith put it, "completing the otherworldly din with the process of oscillator testing, usually used to set studio sound levels".)

Another stand out is "Klaatu", a brilliantly ethereal "space music" cue. (Herrmann would expand on this years later in his "Outer Space Suit", music that he created for CBS Television. You can hear it in episodes of The Twilight Zone.)

Theremin and pounding brass dominate "Gort/The Visor/The Telescope", which starts out menacing, makes a roundabout way to ferocity then ends peacefully.

Theremin, organ and piano are played off each other excitingly in "Escape". This is followed by the sparse and beautiful "Solar Diamonds", a cue which sounds like its name. This piece was not actually used in the movie.

Herrmann had championed of the work of Charles Ives (read this for more on that) and conducted a lot of Ives's music. It's therefore not surprising that Herrmann was so able to create "American" music, such as his score for The Trouble with Harry or the "Arlington" and "Lincoln Memorial" cues here.

After those we are back in Herrmann's science-fiction musical world with "Nocturne/The Flashlight/The Robot/Space Control", the longest piece on the CD at a jut about six minutes. The timpani really shines here.

At about four and a half minutes, "The Elevator/Magnetic Pull/The Study/The Conference/The Jewelry Store" is the third longest cue, and another remarkable work, apparently using early stereo effects somehow.

The other stand-out here is the second longest selection, "The Glowing/Alone/Gort's Rage/Nikto/The Captive/Terror". You can count on Herrmann to deliver the goods anytime there's terror involved!

So by all means this is a must-have for admirers of Herrmann. You will also need the aforementioned McNeely re-recording and also the Bernard Herrmann Great Film Music CD, which has a Herrmann-conducted suite of music from The Day the Earth Stood Still, recorded in Phase 4 Stereo.

2011 June 24 • Friday

Here's another book that caught my eye at P.S. Bookshop.

"All Shook Up" was a big hit for Elvis Presley in 1957. This book came out in 1958. Probably just a coincidence. Note the pool-hall setting.

2011 June 22 • Wednesday

A while back Steve Bissette was blogging about sleazy exploitation books and noting that many of them took place in swampy locations. (Bissette is famous in the comics world for his work on Swamp Thing.)

So I thought of him the other day when I was at P.S. Bookshop and noticed this title for sale.

Swamp Thing, indeed. You can read a little about The Thing That Made Love here.

2011 June 20 • Monday

Bernard Herrmann fans have been eagerly awaiting whatever new releases might come out to honor the centenary of his birth. Varèse Sarabande's Soundtrack Club is the first across the finish line with two CDs! Even better, our 170th Soundtrack of the Week is only "Volume 1"!

Herrmann's music for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Hitchcock's follow up to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, has been on my Most Wanted list for years. The two CDs present Herrmann's music in a series of suites for their respective episodes.

This is quintessential Herrmann, a sort of missing link between his music for Hitchcock's feature films and his music for The Twilight Zone.

I've listened to the CDs but haven't had time to process them yet. I need to listen to them several times more. But what I've heard so far is breathtaking.

Just as Herrmann's score for Blue Denim has been described as a "baby Vertigo", you can hear echoes or anticipations of Fahrenheit 451, Psycho, Marnie, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Torn Curtain, among others, here.

The music is from the episodes "A Home Away from Home", "You'll Be the Death of Me", "Nothing Ever Happens in Linvale", "Behind the Locked Door", "Body in the Barn", "Change of Address", "Water's Edge" and "The McGregor Affair". Also included is the theme music, Charles Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette", arranged and conducted by Herrmann.

For track listing and music samples. click here.

2011 June 17 • Friday

Most of the pieces in this collection of journalism appeared originally in The New Yorker. The title refers to the first and last stories in the book: "Mysterious Circumstances", about what appears to be a real-life locked-room murder mystery, with a Sherlock Holmes expert as the victim, opens the collection, and "Giving 'The Devil' His Due", about a former Haitian death-squad leader now living as a real-estate salesman in Queens, ends the book.

The Devil & Sherlock Holmes is divided into three parts, each tagged with a quote from a Sherlock Holmes story. It was this emphasis on Holmes that prompted me to buy the book in the first place. The first story had me a little disappointed, perhaps because I have encountered Sherlock Holmes fanatics in real life, while working at The Mysterious Bookshop. "Mysterious Circumstances" also struck me as somewhat anticlimactic, but as I read further in the book, I changed my mind about this, admiring Grann for his restraint in writing about obsessive people and dangerous outsiders. He sticks to the facts without embellishing or sensationalizing and makes judicious use of his own presence in the stories.

"Trial by Fire" relates how an innocent man appears to have been executed in Texas. "The Chameleon" is about a grown man who impersonates teenagers with startlingly successful results, at one point finding himself in a situation that suggests Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar. "Which Way Did He Run?" is about a fireman who survives 9/11 but has no memory of how he survived.

"The Squid Hunter" follows people obsessed with capturing a giant squid. One of the most interesting pieces is "City of Water", about the underground tunnels that supply New York City with its water, and about the enormous new tunnel being built right now, an astonishing feat of engineering. "The Old Man and the Gun" is a portrait of that great American icon, the bank robber, and its subject is still at it at the age of 78. This one has an exhilarating beginning but a sad ending. "Stealing Time" is similar, but replaces bank robber with baseball player.

"The Brand" is the most terrifying story in the collection, detailing the rise to power of the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison gang that rivals the Mafia in its use of violence and organization of crime. When John Gotti was in jail, he needed them more than they needed him. "Crimetown, U.S.A." is a real-life Red Harvest, about an Ohio county that’s practically owned by the mob. "True Crime" is subtitled “A Postmodern Murder Mystery” and takes place in Poland, where a police investigator solves a cold case by reading a novel. Finally there’s "Giving 'The Devil' His Due", which presents the bizarre circumstance of a hated figure banished to live among those who hate him. It will not make you feel good about the CIA or the US State Department.

All in all, this is a very impressive collection of recent journalism, a tribute to the values of understatement and the calm, careful presentation of facts. I stopped reading The New Yorker a few years ago. Perhaps I should start again.

2011 June 15 • Wednesday

The new Sunday Press book, Forgotten Fantasy, arrived on Saturday. It's a huge book, presenting Sunday comics from the years 1900–1915 in their original sizes and colors. Winsor McCay's Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend is included with many other treasures. Read about it here.

2011 June 13 • Monday

Here's another favorite Bernard Herrmann score. I love underwater music and this is one of the ultimate underwater soundtracks. Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is the 169th Soundtrack of the Week.

The movie itself is not very good, though it has a certain nostalgic quality, being a Technicolor, CinemaScope adventure film from the 1950s.

Herrmann provides the necessary energy to this idealized Hollywood take on Americana in such cues as "The Sea", "The Homecoming", "Flirtation" and the "Finale".

Some of his most lyrical and sensitive work can be found here as well, in "The Glades", "The Quiet Sea", "Elegy", "The Lagoon" and "The Grave".

Herrmann the master of action, suspense and violence is also present, in cues such as "The Conch Boat/The Harbor", "The Search", "The Fire", "Sorrow/The Dock/Escape" and "The Hookboat/The Fight".

But it's the music for the underwater scenes that make this one of my favorite soundtracks. "The Undersea/The Boat", "The Reef", "The Undersea Forest" and the magnificent "The Octopus".

Herrmann often had a conceptual approach to a score that matched the music to subject of the movie somehow.

The score for Psycho is famously "black and white" since it uses only string instruments. (The strings also suggest nerves. Herrmann's music for this film was also the inspiration for the strings in The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby".)

For Journey to the Center of the Earth Herrmann eschewed strings entirely, using a metal and earth palette of brass, percussion and pipe organ.

For Beneath the 12-Mile Reef he used nine harps, a shocking number, for profoundly aquatic orchestral color.

2011 June 10 • Friday

The J. G. Ballard story "Mr. F Is Mr. F" (1961)is about a man who ages in reverse, ultimately becoming the fetus inside his pregnant wife. In a bizarre flourish at the end, typical of Ballard in its claustrophobic insanity, Charles Freeman's friend becomes his wife's husband and Freeman's father, "the moment of [Freeman's] conception coinciding with the moment of his exticntion, the end of his last birth with the beginning of his first death".

Before this, Freeman's transformation from infant to fetus is described: "he now felt clearly for the first time what he had for so long repressed. Before the end he cried out suddenly with joy and wonder, as he remembered the drowned world of his first childhood".

Which brings us to The Drowned World (1962) J. G. Ballard's second novel but first "major" novel or "work", the novel that Ballard wanted the world to remember as his first.

The succession of gigantic geophysical upheavals which had transformed the Earth's climate had made their first impact some sixty or seventy years earlier. A series of violent and prolonged solar storms lasting several years caused by a sudden instability in the Sun had enlarged the Van Allen belts and diminshed Earth's gravitational hold upon the outer layers of the ionosphere. As these vanished into space, depleting the Earth's barrier against the full impact of solar radiation, temperatures began to climb steadily, the heated atmosphere expanding outwards into the ionosphere where the cycle was completed.

All over the world, mean temperatures rose by a few degrees each year. The majority of tropical areas rapidly became uninhabitable, entire populations migrating north or south from temperatures of a hundred and thirty and a hundred and forty degrees. Once-temperate areas became tropical, Europe and North America sweltering under continuous heat waves, temperatures rarely falling below a hundred degrees. Under the direction of the United Nations, the colonisation began of the Antarctic plateau and of the northern borders of the Canadian and Russian continents.

Eventually "Europe became a system of giant lagoons, centred on the principal low-lying cities, inundated by the silt carried southwards by the expanding rivers".

The story of The Drowned World takes place in what used to be London. A scientific-military expedition is wasting time with studies nobody pays attention to and is eventually called back to its polar base. A handful of people decide to remain, having become fascinated by dreams of a primordial sun and jungle.

As the planet returns to the conditions of the Mesozoic Period, so do these few humans, being part of the planet, return also. When life left the ocean for land hundreds of millions of years ago, it was an event analagous to mammalian birth and one which is remembered, apparently biologically or genetically, by humans. The "drowned world of uterine childhood" is mentioned more than once.

As the few futuristic squatters travel back in time in their dreams, their dream life more real than their waking life, they discover that the time periods they travel back through can be mapped onto their vertebrae. The lagoons themselves are described as "neuronic".

Their situation is disturbed by the arrival of Strangman, a dangerous looter who, like the military man Riggs, is too much of a materialist to have the dreams experienced by the others. Strangman arrives in a ship with a crew of mercenaries and followed by thousands of alligators. His hold on the crew and the alligators is mysterious. Like much in this novel, it has the power and resonance of ancient mythology.

It's a great book and, naturally, wonderful summer reading, especially if you're somewhere hot and humid like New York City, where you can imagine the place overrun with giant iguanas and prehistoric vegetation. There are echoes not only of "Mr. F Is Mr. F" but also of such Ballard stories as "The Waiting Grounds" (1959), "The Voices of Time" (1960), "Deep End" (1961) and "The Cage of Sand" (1962).

2011 June 08 • Wednesday

More sightings of my favorite headlines.

Sleepers West (1941)

Blue, White and Perfect (1942)

Champagne for Caesar (1950)

2011 June 06 • Monday

June 29, 2011, will be the day Bernard Herrmann would turn 100 if he were alive. The Soundtracks of the Week for this month will be his.

SotW #168 is On Dangerous Ground, a quintessential Herrmann score, one of his greatest and one which echoes in later Herrmann works.

Many thanks to Film Score Monthly for putting this out. The original tapes were long gone, so FSM used acetate playback discs to make this CD. An Engineer's Note informs the listener that "Many hours of detailed restorative work have been performed, but these specific recordings exhibit a panoply of disc wear and injuries. … The listener must hear past the flaws".

No problem. I notice some noise here and there but the power of the music overwhelms any deficiencies of the medium.

The primary theme is "The Death Hunt", which must be on the same family tree as Herrmann's North by Northwest theme, though it's heavier and more intense, in sympathy with his music for Cape Fear and Torn Curtain. A "Prelude" first introduces this theme, and it's heard a few times throughout the score, notably in "Hunt Scherzo".

"Solitude" is an interesting piece, played very quietly early in the movie for Robert Ryan in his lonely New York City apartment. On Dangerous Ground shares some DNA with Taxi Driver and it's interesting to note that Herrmann's "Solitude" is one of his only jazz cues, anticipating his music for Scorsese's film. The "Solitude" theme is subtly reprised in "Nocturne".

"Violence" is a very short cue but with a handful of notes that stand out for being familiar. They turn out to be the tail of a memorable North by Northwest motif that was first written for On Dangerous Ground. The entire motif can be heard in the "Pastorale" cue.

"Snowstorm/The Silence" reveals another familiar piece of music. What would become Herrmann's theme music for the Have Gun — Will Travel series is actually the beginning of "Snowstorm".

"Blindness" introduces the theme for Ida Lupino's character, the blind sister of the killer that Robert Ryan is chasing. This is one of many pieces to feature viola d'amore solos performed by Virginia Majewski. So important did Herrmann consider her contribution that he demanded she be given her own screen credit. When the studio executives said there was no room for her in the credits, Herrmann told them to put her with his credit. And so they did.

Perhaps the titles of the remaining cues tell the story well enough by themselves. "Fright", "Faith", "The Searching Heart", "The Whispering", "Dawn/The Idiot/Fear/The Cabin". "The Death Hunt", "Hunt's End", "Grief", "The Winter Walk", "The Parting/The Return/The City/Finale".

There's an alternate take of the "Prelude" and after that some amusing outtakes from the recording session. These give a rare and fascinating "fly on the wall" perspective and of course it's wonderful to hear Herrmann's New Yawk voice hectoring, apologizing, clarifying—and reminding the engineer that the viola d'amore must be prominent.

2011 June 03 • Friday

Here are two more for the gallery. That sure looks like NEW TAX BILL MAY BE NEEDED in I Want To Live! and that's definitely LIMITED FARM BILL FAVORED in Scarlet Street.

Scarlet Street (1945)

I Want To Live! (1958)

2011 June 01 • Wednesday

Last December I shared my hobby of looking for the headlines NEW TAX BILL MAY BE NEEDED and LIMITED FARM BILL FAVORED in newspapers in old movies. I put the images from that post on this page and will be adding new ones as I see them.

The first addition:

A Place in the Sun (1951)