Good Music We Can Know

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)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Flash Strap Dublab Mix! Voyage: Up Synthetic River

A while back, Dublab asked if I would do a mix for their mega-music site.  I put one together using an assortment of synth-exoticisms that had been intriguing me of late; many of them went into this last episode of Explorers Room (which shared the same name), though not all, and not in the same form.  I tried to make this more of a free-flowing collage of sounds and evocations. 

Give it a listen!  Download it! And when the summer rolls around, get yourself on a river with some sort of sound device and use it as your voyage-soundtrack.   


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Smell of Gasoline and Jungle Rot: Rhythm Devils- Apocalypse Now Sessions (1980)

Despite an obsessive love for Apocalypse Now and its music which goes back to my early teen years and has never abated in dozens of viewings, I had somehow never heard any of the "Rhythm Devils" recordings for the film (other than the earth-splitting stuff that accompanies the original version's closing footage of the burning camp) until very recently.  I'm pleased to say that I have now, because it's really, really awesome.

The Rhythm Devils was an ensemble put together by Grateful Dead percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann after being approached by Coppola to generate some music for Apocalypse Now.  While I generally find I have very little enthusiasm for anything Dead related, I have always reserved a respect for their double-drummer percussive odysseys, and that's what you get here, only better, more visceral and vital.  These sessions are brutal, seething, and amorphous, crawling with menace and insects.  Full of dread and nauseous adrenaline, stinking of gasoline and jungle rot.  They perfectly fit the film they were intended for–when sinking into these selections, it's impossible not to picture the chaotic, violent, primal exoticism of Kurtz's camp. 

They also used some pretty interesting custom instruments.  I'm just pasting from wikipedia, but it's cool to know:

"In addition to using a large collection of percussion instruments from around the world, provided by the various musicians, the Rhythm Devils constructed some new instruments. One of these was The Beast, an array of bass drums with different tones suspended from a large metal rack. After the recording of The Apocalypse Now Sessions, The Beast was incorporated into the "Drums" section of Grateful Dead concerts, an extended percussion duet performed by Hart and Kreutzmann in the middle of the second set of songs.

Another unusual percussion instrument built for the sessions, variants of which have been built and later used in Grateful Dead concerts and Mickey Hart's solo touring bands, was The Beam. This is a large aluminum I-beam (actually a "C" shaped beam facing down with the strings across the flat outside-top surface) strung with 13 bass piano strings all tuned to the note of D (a Pythagorean mono-chord at various octaves). The Beam has a heavy-duty bridge and string anchor at one end and a nut with tuning hardware at the other end. It has a movable magnetic pickup block to facilitate capture and transmission of various tonal qualities. The pickup block feeds a volume pedal and various audio effects units, which route the signals through an amplifier or sound system. The Beam generates a large variety of low frequency primary tones and harmonic overtones, and is played by hitting the strings with a percussion mallet, plucking the strings by hand or with a plectrum, scraping them with various implements (fingernails, plectrums, metal bars), or by pounding on the beam frame itself to induce a bell-like resonance of all the strings simultaneously."

This may or may not be a version of (or the inspiration for) "The Beam," in this case called "the Cosmic Beam," by the artist Francisco Lupica.  Feel free to inform me on this subject as I did the laziest, most perfunctory of research into it and then moved on.
Check it out.  Also, check out my radio show tomorrow night (Thursday Feb. 12), as I'll be playing a few selections from this record and a great deal of material sort of sonically/conceptually related to Apocalypse Now.

SESSIONS  (320) (1990 ryko reissue)