Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Delicate Blend of Power and Joy: Dominic Frontiere - Pagan Festival (1959)
Pagan Festival (An Exotic Love Ritual for Orchestra) is Exotica in the cinematic and seductive style of Les Baxter: orchestral and epic but not overblown, with snakily layered arrangements, wordless vocals, glittering harps, percussion, and an illusionistic sheen of shimmering fantasy. Along with Milt Raskin's Kapu, it's one of the better and more pure examples of Baxter's method in another man's hands. Of course, it scarcely achieves on a high enough level to challenge the best of Baxter's records in any category, and is at times rather baldly derivative of Ritual and Tamboo!, but it's a splendid member of the Exotica canon (where all sins can be made virtues anyway) nonetheless.
Pagan Festival was made rather early on in the composer's career, and it's one of his very few records of original material not to have been made for television or film. In fact, like many who dabbled in the creation of one-off Exotica LPs, Frontiere was mainly a soundtrack composer, whose many credits include The Outer Limits, Hang 'Em High, The Flying Nun, The Rat Patrol, and Branded.
Most of the back cover notes are taken up with gushing over young Dominic, who was only 28 at the time of this recording. Beginning with a mash note from his mentor/sponsor, Alfred Newman, it goes on to give three columns of prose over to describing the composer as a wunderkind and a prodigy, and thrilling to his relationship with Newman in almost romantic language. The hard-selling of Frontiere's talents comes to a close with this passage, before moving on to a brief description of the particular exoticisms at hand: "there are several promising young men around Hollywood just about ready to join these cinematic pioneers. Among them is a dedicated lad from New England whose latest claim to such fame you now have in your hands." Then on to the good stuff:
The basic theme of PAGAN FESTIVAL is exotic in its interpretation of ancient Inca rituals, superstitions, and the romance and mysteries of their colorful civilization. The individual selections, each composed, arranged, and conducted by Dominic Frontiere, portray many facets of this strange and exciting long-vanished way of life.
Festival with its intriguing tempos and sensuous beat depicts exotic revelry and pagan incantations; House of Dawn is almost mystic and unreal, blending deep feeling with a spiritual quality; Temple of Suicide contrasts sharply with symbolic clashes of light and shadow and fear of the unknown; Moon Goddess reflects an almost unearthly appreciation of beauty which the Inca culture aspired to. Time of Sunshine has themes of luminous warmth and airy buoyance, exemplifying the more casual details of Inca existence; while Goddess of Love has an inspirational uplift of beauty and reverence. House of Pleasure stresses in more earthy overtones still another aspect of Inca life. The delicate blend of power and joy in The Harvest conveys a time of plenty and rejoicing and Venus Girl contains moments revealing a great appreciation of beauty.
I recently read a sort of breakdown of Yma Sumac's Voice of the Xtabay, another (better) Exotica take on Inca themes (with, surprise, Baxter producing), and was caught off-guard by the assertion that there's almost nothing musically South American on that record. Not that I had ever bought into the ethnomusicological myth-making that accompanies Ms. Sumac, but I was still mildly shocked at the idea that there was not even a single formal or structural connection to South American music, antiquity or otherwise. After hearing Pagan Festival, you might be more taken aback if I told you that it was even South America-inspired at all. There's no Mesoamerican DNA whatsoever. It's wall-to-wall movie music, symphonic with exotica touches and purloined Baxter leitmotifs, and scarcely even a hint of the sort of ethno-forgery that you find in Sumac's work, or Elizabeth Waldo's somewhat more respectable records. And yet each track is accompanied by a (presumably) Inca-language title in addition to English. This pursuit of concept in the paratext but not the compositions themselves is typical of Exotica, and very much like Les Baxter's own soundtrack work on The Sacred Idol (interestingly enough, working on Idol was one of the few occasions the supposed ethnomusicologist Baxter ever took to leave the country, writing the score in Mexico but never leaving his hotel room). In the case of Pagan Festival, the commitment to the theme hardly even extends to the gaudy cover art, which skews away from specificity using an eye-grabbing silver background and imagery that's half dusky babe (in a Playboy-esque painted style) and half vaguely "primitive" art.
All that examination of authenticity and influence aside, it's a terrific Exotica record. If "House of Pleasure (Tampu-Anca)" is a naked theft from Baxter, it's also an effective, delightful concoction of exotic and erotic signifiers. It does the job, and it does it damn well. "Temple of Suicide (Ixtab)" is a great brooding storm of Conrad-lite dark-exoticism. "Jaguar God (Balam)" is great jungle-safari stuff. Nothing here reinvents or transcends what it is – a reductive formula derived from Baxter's more inventive records and a studied professionalism learned from Newman and the film industry in general – but it executes flawlessly, and plays like a dream.
PAGAN FESTIVAL (a very nice-sounding 192)