When I lived in Edinburgh, I used to play a lot of soundtrack music on headphones while wandering around the wynds and closes, graveyards and courtyards of the town, “that mad god’s dream / Fitful and dark” as Hugh MacDiarmid called it. For a feeble-minded buffoon like myself, the music (Morricone mostly) had the effect of making me feel that I was in a film of my own making; a not particularly eventful film that would have resulted in the audience tearing up the seats and launching them at the screen before burning down the cinema, like a degenerated version of Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, but a film nonetheless. A soundtrack might help us see beyond what Debord called the spectacle and to circumvent “the autonomous movement of the non-living.” Forced to internally map the cities in which we live according to work and commerce, we might be able to reclaim the city for the imagination through the act of aimless wandering. Soundtracking such a venture could be a first act against mundanity. It need not be a particularly serious endeavour either, in fact it would help if it wasn’t. After all, the Situationists made it part of the ritual of their dérives that they’d knock back a few bottles of wine before taking to the boulevards. Yet the end result could be vital. We might reconnect with the places in which we live in the face of being increasingly atomised and disconnected. By making it unreal, it might begin to seem real again.
For a brief time living in Phnom Penh last year, I tried to continue my wanderings as a tourist, charting streets lit by the glint of dawn on golden temples and the nocturnal aquarium lights of the bars and brothels. I took to walking around listening to Cinematic Orchestra, figuring if they could soundtrack Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, they would do wonders for my time as a jaded alcoholic Tintin in the Far East. The plan was to undertake vast treks across the city whilst taking notes as Dickens had in Victorian London with Sketches by Boz. For Bloomsday, it would be possible to overlay Bloom’s journey across Dublin onto a map of the Cambodian capital and, following the route, see what could be discovered. It seemed like there was nothing that couldn’t be done with a map, a stout heart and a half bottle of Cambodian Muscle Whiskey with a semi-naked wrestler on the label.
I soon found however that Phnom Penh is one of the worst cities in the world for a half-baked flâneur. For all its many charms, exploring such a city by foot and with an impaired sense of hearing would be an extremely effective act of self-euthanasia. In the dry season, there’s a boiling 40 degree sun so high and oppressive overhead it’s hard to find a shadow at times. This is a country where it has never snowed and where the friendly local dictator issues cold weather warnings for old folks to wrap up or die screaming when it dips to a Baltic 20 degrees. In rainy season, the torrential downpours send rats backstroking past you in streams that used to be streets and the risk of lightning in a city made from tin is continual, killing as it does around a hundred Khmers in a bad year.
The real pressing danger though is the traffic. The fear of sounding patronising tends to bring out the simpering cultural relativist in Western observers. There’s no disrespect or cliché however in acknowledging the staggering (and soaring according to figures) frequency of road deaths and injuries in the country, which pales in turn next to neighbouring Viet Nam. There is a universality after all in broken limbs and the contents of a human being spilled onto tarmac that renders culture cringe or post-colonial niceties redundant. Whilst the cities thankfully have less of the minibus-driving rice wine-drinking lunatics you encounter in the otherwise-stunning countryside, who think nothing of driving at 80 miles per hour undertaking cars or overtaking on blind corners or dodging vast craters in the road with overloaded passengers clinging to the roof, having filled up the petrol tank whilst smoking a cigarette, with you squashed in the back, melting in the heat, swallowing as many hospice-strength codeine tablets as you can to numb the terror, there are still considerable dangers, albeit ones lessened by a hidden logic.
Initially, the traffic appears to be simple chaos and the amount of horrendous accidents you might casually see seems disarmingly high (overturned buses in paddy fields with their windscreens smeared in blood, presumed corpses splayed by the roadside, young Khmer girls coming off motorcycles headfirst at high speed and on and on). For the first few weeks, I wondered to myself how life expectancy wasn’t lower than it was. Thankfully, most people travel safely despite tempting fate wearing baseball caps rather than helmets, within a system that appears invisible at first to the outsider’s eye. There’s a flow that jars with more stringent Western rules of the road (the place is an eye-opener for bores who complain of health and safety here). Locals use their horns almost as sonar blips to announce their presence whilst blindly zipping through intersections. Such a faith is placed on these warnings that most drivers don’t slow down at all coming to junctions, raising the thought that perhaps there’s been an over-emphasis on the benevolence of reincarnation in the local Theravada Buddhism. Braking distance is similarly eschewed in preference of intuitively, sometimes telepathically, guessing what the driver in front will do before he or she does it. Except on the long wide boulevards, there are so many motorbikes it’s difficult enough to climb to a speed sufficient enough to kill yourself outright, if you should so wish, but injury, if there is a crash, seems almost certain. The flow does in fact work for the great majority of tuk-tuks and motorcycles but the presence of ludicrously over-sized Lexus, the status symbol of the kleptomaniac CPP elite there, fucks everything up. It’s like a great lumbering whale ploughing into a shoal of fish. Or, more pertinently, a shark. There will be no ambulances to the aftermath. And no accountability provided you are sufficiently rich or sufficiently connected. This series of events is not uncommon, which is a tragedy for, in a lot of ways, a magnificent country and a people who deserve much better.
Besides being blind-sided by the new aristocrats of Cambodia, bike crashes also tend to come with lapses of concentration. I had two myself, both on crossroads, escaping by blind luck with cuts and bruises (mainly to my ego) and helped with very touching kindness by locals. What they thought looking at a tall, impossibly-pale and flailing thing going over the handlebars and landing on the dusty gravel with a whimper, we can only guess but they helped anyway. The experience made me hyper-aware of the dangers, dangers not helped by the prevalence of bottle-in-hand drink-driving, a tendency to take short cuts driving down the wrong side of the road, having no headlights at nighttime, balancing gas canisters, panes of glass or livestock on the bike or cramming as many junior family members on a single motorbike as possible (the most I ever saw was 6, a friend 8 including a baby dangling in a bucket). These are sights you see to varying degrees every day. The same friend, living there four years, once saw a passenger sitting on the handlebars of a motorbike facing the driver having a full blown conversation at high speed. Having witnessed fires, beatings and the horrific Water Festival stampede in 2010, which killed 347 young Khmers, as a photojournalist, nothing seems to surprise him much or arouse more than a resigned ‘So it goes’ shrug. Sometimes there’s an added level of grim Vonnegutian surrealism to the roads. Once, out walking at night, I was passed at high speed by a coach (a rare enough sight for such a large metropolis), so close I felt a whoosh of air go past. On its roof were a number of gentlemen sitting astride motorbikes like something in a circus show.
It became increasingly apparent that outside of the picturesque pedestrian-friendly areas by the river and the temples (see the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument above), walking around, listening to tunes, dreaming you are Dr Zhivago or Walter Benjamin was a very bad idea indeed. It’s not for nothing that the green man runs at an accelerating pace at the handful of traffic lights there. To cross a road, you need your wits about you, your hearing acute and, given a vehicle may suddenly roar at you from any direction, ideally a rotating head. Even walking distracted along the shop-strewn pavements, it would be entirely possible to blunder up against a bubbling street-food cauldron or rat-infested pile of rubbish. Ultimately, Phnom Penh has more telling priorities than to cater for tourists with literary pretensions. The country’s own writing culture is being slowly revived, though with great difficulty given the complete absence of copyright there (internet piracy in 3 dimensions) means making a living from writing, or creating comics, is incredibly difficult. The nation’s two thousand year old literary history was desecrated by the Khmer Rouge when they emptied the city of inhabitants and turned the National Library into a stables, having torched the books. There will come a time soon, if not already, when the city, which has survived oblivion and Year Zero, will be mapped by its own writers. It’s one place on Earth we should be ready to listen to.
Returning to Ireland, I’ve started thinking about the flâneur idea again, walking around re-acquainting myself with places that used to be familiar, albeit with new soundtracks and, at a push, new perspectives after some years of absence. In a sense, all music is a soundtrack. By it’s very nature it evokes, attaching itself to events and experiences sometimes so poignantly it can be difficult to return to for fear of bringing on a Proustian moment, sometimes blissfully so. We map our highs and lows with sounds. Often, official soundtracks are the least evocative given that they are already entwined with visual images. It’s quite similar to the problem with ‘naturalist’ novels, as written by Zola and co, which describe their characters and settings in too much detail, stunting the picture we create automatically and mysteriously in our imagination. It’s the aspects of Heathcliff and Catherine that remain undescribed that fascinate for example and how many versions of those characters must exist? A new one in every mind of every reader perhaps. Back to music, what works as the supplementary score to a film might not necessarily work as the background for life, the more they work in the former the less arguably in the latter. This is to take nothing away from the outstanding recent work of Jonny Greenwood, Kevin Shields or Nick Cave & Warren Ellis or a hoary old masterpiece like Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack to The Wicker Man. What I’m more interested in, especially from the perspective of psychogeography, are soundtracks for films which have never been made.
It’s an idea we all experience long before we know it has a name. I grew up in a house filled with my father’s old blues records from the 1920s and 30s and remember hearing something in the crackling atmosphere that resonated far beyond a pleasant melody or harmony. It was the same feeling when I listened to my grandfather’s long-wave radio, tuning in to Norwegian fleets or Soviet Moscow or Istanbul or the Shipping Forecast. When I was old enough, the records I bought that resonated the most were the ones that echoed this feeling. It seemed to be a nostalgia for places and times I had never been and might not even exist, a nostalgia you might say for the future. Through listening, the mind would be set to dreaming. When a former girlfriend made me a cassette compilation of classical pieces, a whole universe of music I was completely ignorant of, and still largely remain, opened up. That type of music I had experienced seemed to have a name, if a hopelessly insufficient one. They called them tone poems; stories told and emotions evoked through notes. It was in the music on that cassette, significantly most of it night-based – Holst’s ‘Neptune the Mystic’ (from The Planets suite, a treasure trove for every mainstream movie composer to steal from), Chopin’s Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1, Debussy’s Clair de lune (‘Moonlight’). Sometimes the music conjured up such images that the name was changed against the composer’s wishes; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor “Quasi una fantasia” becoming Moonlight Sonata. When I first learned that Wagner’s Liebstod (from Tristan and Isolde) and Mozart’s Lacrimosa (from his Requiem) were based on the themes of doomed love and a funeral mass, I was deflated. To me, dumbstruck by the power and the beauty of the music, they were something akin to a raging storm at sea and the end of the world respectively. This was before I knew that human stories could have all the same resonance of the epic ones to the people involved. In effect, they were a raging storm and the end of the world.
This dual effect is best heard in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor (Op. 110) which was a requiem for the victims of totalitarianism and war in his time and also his intended suicide note. If you hear it without knowledge of this, you still feel the mournful despair of the opening sequence give way to what is unmistakably terror when five minutes have passed and the Allegro molto passage begins. Within this is smuggled, for Shostakovich was a master of hidden musical codes in defiance of the All-Seeing Eye of the State, a Yiddish folk tune before later motifs of long-forgotten revolutionary tunes and Lady Macbeth. This is a Holocaust soundtrack. It is the darkest piece of music I have ever heard and renders any black metal tune set next to it a camp frippery by comparison. It can conjure images in your head that you don’t want in there, as it should.
Some of the more successful and imaginative tone poems spell out their intended mental images in more direct terms. In his La cathédrale engloutie (‘The Submerged Cathedral’), Debussy had waves causing drowned church bells to stir. Saint-Saëns mimicked the sounds of a menagerie in Le carnaval des animaux and dared to soundtrack the Danse macabre with Death playing his fiddle to an audience of skeletons rattling their bones. Sibelius too sought to paint a depiction of the infamous medieval dance of death, or rather the last gasp of life, in his Valse Triste Op. 44. The music, our imaginations and the program notes conjure up a story much more vivid and haunting than any visual representation could hope,
‘It is night. The son, who has been watching beside the bedside of his sick mother, has fallen asleep from sheer weariness. Gradually a ruddy light is diffused through the room: there is a sound of distant music: the glow and the music steal nearer until the strains of a waltz melody float distantly to our ears. The sleeping mother awakens, rises from her bed and, in her long white garment, which takes the semblance of a ball dress, begins to move silently and slowly to and fro. She waves her hands and beckons in time to the music, as though she were summoning a crowd of invisible guests. And now they appear, these strange visionary couples, turning and gliding to an unearthly waltz rhythm. The dying woman mingles with the dancers; she strives to make them look into her eyes, but the shadowy guests one and all avoid her glance. Then she seems to sink exhausted on her bed and the music breaks off. Presently she gathers all her strength and invokes the dance once more, with more energetic gestures than before. Back come the shadowy dancers, gyrating in a wild, mad rhythm. The weird gaiety reaches a climax; there is a knock at the door, which flies wide open; the mother utters a despairing cry; the spectral guests vanish; the music dies away. Death stands on the threshold.’
The strength of such tone poems are in their suggestion, in the fact that they don’t give us all the details (we are never told what Death looks like for example). It’s the same logic as to why the scariest horror films are the ones which don’t show the monster. Your imagination is much deeper, darker and more unpleasant than any CGI. Just as Cthulhu only remains terrifying when hidden (in the light his “scaly, rubbery-looking body” is patently ridiculous), we should never quite experience the full dimensions of love, joy, melancholy or despair in music. This is why they are called tone poems and not tone prose. Prose seems an attempt to understand and rationalise while poetry retains or suggests something indecipherable and mysterious. They are a hint not the revelation of deeper things. There is a magic therein.
Tone poems have continued into the modern age under different guises. The picture above is of Luigi Russolo and his brother Antonio manning their instruments. Luigi was a Futurist and a noise artist. He wrote the marvellous and highly influential manifesto The Art of Noises. What he wanted us to see was beyond beauty. Here he is replicating the soundtrack of a city. He has a descendant in musicians like Mike Patton who has explored what it’s possible to do with sound, always with a sense of iconoclasm. To take one example, his track with Trey Spruance and Mr Bungle Disco Search for Techno Allah somehow lives up to his bold title as music and as a tone poem. It is ridiculous but what, under close inspection, isn’t?
Another vein of the modern tone poem is ambient music, which is where we come back to imaginary soundtracks and, in an obtuse way, traffic accidents. Brian Eno is often attributed with the invention of ambient music. Fewer people know how it happened. In 1975, he was walking through a rainy London after a recording session, when he slipped on the road and fell into the path of a taxi. He ended up spending several months in a hospital bed with head and spine injuries. Whilst recuperating, a friend brought him a record of classical harp music. Unable to get up from his bed to turn the volume up (or fling the record out of the window), he noticed the subdued sounds of the LP were intermingling with the sound of the rain on the window. The music was seeping into the world and the world into it. The effect was mesmerising and, when well enough, he sought to replicate it.
Not to take away from Eno as an artist (he probably had a longer and more diverse run of great albums than anyone else from Roxy Music to Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks) but he didn’t really invent ambient so much as baptise it as a genre. Anyone who had already lay at night, dreaming up images in their head whilst listening to music had already been there. In another sense, it’s what John Cage was pointing out with his much-derided 4′33″ – there is no such thing as silence and no such thing as music detached from its environment and context. What Eno did was recognise the power of this as a deliberate creation rather than some accidental by-product. He had begun, brilliantly but tentatively, slipping songs like ‘In Dark Trees’ and ‘Through Hollow Lands’ onto his albums before creating complete ambient works; most aptly for our purposes his Music for Films trilogy, soundtracks for movies that were never made except in the heads of every individual listener.
Others have followed his lead. Having scored their own short film To Kill a Dead Man , Portishead’s Geoff Barrow has collaborated with Ben Salisbury on Drokk, a soundtrack to Judge Dredd’s Mega City One. The albums of Barry Adamson have been soundtracks to imaginary noir films so expertly rendered David Lynch hired Trent Reznor and he to soundtrack Lost Highway. Gavin Bryars has scored the sinking of the Titanic. Most of the time however, the intention to conjure up worlds inside our heads is entirely implied. It’s there in the stunning beauty of Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place, the new track ‘Reach for the Dead’ from Boards of Canada, Nine Inch Nail’s Ghosts, Scott Walker’s ‘Farmer in the City’, Garnet Mimms’ ‘A Quiet Place’, Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Summertime Rolls’, Nathan Fake’s ‘The Sky Was Pink’, Pariah’s ‘Safehouses’, Thom Yorke’s entire recent Dazed Digital mix, even, going back to Cambodia, the eternally-lost Ros Sereysothea. There are countless others (feel free to to suggest some below). Any music that takes you out of yourself to somewhere else by the sublime witchcraft of the right atmosphere and the right notes in the right order.