The How and Why
Barry, the keyboard player from the group Mogwai, told me a story about a guy he knows, a young singer songwriter. "All his friends are junkies. But he's not a junkie. But he gives them stuff so they can get their drugs. Once he didn't leave the flat for a month because he hadn't any shoes. He lives in some council houses in Glasgow. He's got stab wounds all over his tummy"
"Did he wear a shirt with the wrong color?" asked Una, the bass player. "No, it's just a bad area and he's got long hair"
I was approached regarding scoring the film Young Adam by my friends Hercules and Jeremy at the Recorded Picture Company. I hadn't worked on a film they'd produced since The Last Emperor, though we'd kept in touch. They said it was an adaptation of a book written by a Scottish beat writer. I was intrigued- I didn't even know there was such a thing as a Scottish Beat movement, but why shouldn't there be? The Alexander Trocci book smelled like a sleazier version of Camus' The Stranger, set in a colder climate. Trocci, it turned out, was a legendary character who sowed addiction and destruction wherever he went- from Glasgow to LA. I suspect he could be the subject of another movie.
The fact that the cast and the director were all Scots and me being Scottish, though long distanced from those roots, seemed to tie the project completely into that place.
David MacKenzie, the director, played me some cuts by contemporary Glasgow bands and I almost immediately suggested that rather than me use a bunch of NY or London players I could work with Glasgow musicians. The score might then capture the weird tentative vibe that seemed to be emanating from a town that was simultaneously in the midst of a kind of cultural revival and "drinking to throw up" as one friend described the aim of Glasgow imbibing. In talking to the director David MacKenzie about appropriate sounds and moods we both wondered why bands such as Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor hadn't been tapped for film scores before- as their sounds are so cinematic.
I listened to a selection of records, many of them suggested by MacKenzie, assuming that that in his taste he would gravitate to the mood he was after in his film, and from those CDs, the Scottish one's anyway, I selected a group of musicians. I'd write some stuff in NY using samplers and such, mainly to have a framework to work from- and then the musicians and I built on those ideas. It went great- the musicians captured the right combinations of dark moods, sadness and sex. There were some amusing moments- we had a hurdy gurdy player in- whose instrument was broken- only the drone string played. I marveled at the fact that I was paying this guy, a skinny beaked nerdy Scot- to play his almost completely dysfunctional instrument. But the dysfunctionality worked in our favor (favour?)...the one note, when tuned, was perfect- slightly scratchy and repetitive, but somehow not like an electronic repetition- sexier and more ominous.
I instructed him and the others in a kind of John Cagian indeterminacy - a -you-pick-your-note system. I handed out bits of paper for specific scenes and said- * " here are the notes you can play on this scene- you can play them whenever you want, and in whenever order you want"...In some cases there were two or more sets of notes that would be chosen in certain sections- but for some cues there would be only a set of notes for the cellist and the accordion player to choose from (the hurdy gurdy guy had no options due to his malfunctioning instrument) It sounded wonderful- drone-y but constantly changing and subtly surprising. And remarkably easy. I said to the engineer- "we could churn out a pretty good ambient record in a few hours like this"
[Later a friend mentioned that this technique was actually reminiscent pieces by the late composer Giacinto Scelsi, who I hadn't heard of. They were right, his pieces Hymnos and Pax are both more or less one chord, often one note- his versions use sizable orchestras though, so the effect is different]
As we started mixing I realized what some of this music is made of: the sound of a hurdy gurdy that only plays one note, a NY church gate that squeaks (I recorded it before I left), the sound of the L train's brakes (ditto), a guitar string vibrating uncontrollably, a double bass hit with the bow and some bowed cymbals. And sometimes a cello and an accordion playing single notes- notes swelling up and then dying away. Hmmm. Maybe there's something here after all. At it's best it almost invisibly blends with the background sounds of the film-the sounds of the barge, the docks the plates, the sex, the dishes...maybe at it's best it's not even noticeable as "music" but as an extension, a musical interpretation of, the ambient sounds. Other bits are more conventionally, maybe too conventionally, melodic, but they're bound to be the more popular ones.
I had a good time, it was nice to spend some time in Glasgow- I saw some family- cousins and nephews and managed to work the names of the areas I'd pass by on the way to the studio into the song at the end- Sauchiehall street and Kelvingrove park. The Great Western Road is the thoroughfare that follows the river Clyde west to the former shipyards in Dumbarton, where I was born.
As is often the case, much of this music is not actually heard in the film- so this record represents another film, one with even less dialogue and a lot more music.
-David Byrne, NYC June 12, 2003