XXJFG


18th December 2013

Funk That Doesn’t Try To Be Funky

fantastic-planetPrior to Forbidden Planet in 1956 and Louis and Bebe Barron’s incredible ‘monsters from the id’ soundworld, received wisdom dictates that science fiction film soundtracks had become played out and by rote – the novelty of wailing theremins accompanying the ascent of flying saucers had rotted into cliche. But the queasy glissando from one grasped-at note to another (and all the secret notes in-between), plus the electronic nature of the instrument, did make an appropriate shorthand for the alien and the futuristic.

Louis & Bebe Barron – Forbidden Planet main titles

The Barrons’ soundtrack expanded on and exploded that linear thinking – sometimes Forbidden Planet sounds like an orchestra of theremins humming and howling to each other, that have somehow achieved sentience but in doing so are tossed in the midsts of some unholy nervous breakdown. In truth the Barrons’ created homemade, self-governing noise-making circuits – each of which seemed to have their own character and personality, and so gave the soundtrack a living, breathing, ‘populated’ sense, subtextually appropriate for a story about a planet haunted by the ghosts of a mad professor’s psyche.

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The next major evolution in the sci fi soundtrack, Eduard Artemyev’s Solaris, went even more abstract – flattening space out into black hole-cold drifts and drones of synthesizer. Science fiction as a static, paranoid rumble. Released a year later in 1973, Alain Gorauger’s work on La Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet) dramatically turned away from the persuasive drift into all-electronic science fiction mood pieces that would achieve its apex with Blade Runner, and came crashing back down to Earth with a puzzling, but fabulous, soundtrack played live by human hands.

Eduard Artemiev – Solaris main title

Maybe it’s because of the total absence of robots and the bare minimum of spaceships in Fantastic Planet that the film isn’t swathed in the modish tones of a gigantic Moog Modular. Electronic music at this point still largely confined to representing machinery – though A Clockwork Orange is a notable exception (unless you can read an implication of the ultraviolence as the unthinking, programmatic product of youths operating by rote as machines). Instead Gorauger takes on another, equally modern, form of music – though one coming from a very different tradition: funk.

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La Planete Sauvage is the only science fiction film I can think of that not only uses a (sort of) funk soundtrack but which uses music of black origin as a starting point at all. That is, if we’re discounting Sun Ra’s afro-futurist parable Space Is The Place from being a genre film.

Strange that for all its utopianism and attempts at inclusion, science fiction has persisted to be represented sonically in white European terms. Gorauger himself, of course, is white and European – a jazz musician and easy listening composer who had collaborated with Serge Gainsbourg and even wrote a winning Eurovision tune.

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Interestingly, another point at which Fantastic Planet diverges from the music of Solaris, Forbidden Planet, and countless science fiction films before them, is that Gorauger resists assigning ‘voices’ to characters and locations. In Solaris, for instance, Artemyev used a purely electronic score for representing the alien planet Solaris, and snatches of Bach signifying Earth. The plot of Fantastic Planet essentially concerns a race war between a dominant race of giant, blue-skinned ‘aliens’ (Traags), and their pets – the humanoid ‘Oms’. It must have been tempting, if not blatantly logical, to give the Traags their own musical culture, while using sound more ‘familiar’ to represent the Oms underclass. With Fantastic Planet, Gorauger elegantly splices the funk band with the orchestra, which means as well as slapped bass, shuffling drums, and wah-wah guitar there are 3/4-time waltzes and walls of strings and choir. Separating the two into a weird kind of stilted European funk for the Traags and traditionalist classical for the Hommes would have been effortless, if fundamentally racist. Fantastic Planet instead just drenches the story in mood.

Alain Gorauger – L’oiseau

Gorauger’s white, classical-laced reading of funk isn’t particularly funky, and doesn’t particularly try to be. Instead it finds a peculiar source of energy in funk, that gives the story itself a particularly driving momentum, and then attacks it with minor key strings from all angles.

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Compared to contemporaneous releases like Herbie Hancock’s Sextant or Head Hunters, Gorauger’s is a very linear, straight approximation of funk. By 1973 Hancock had embraced, redefined – and even grown bored of – an envelope-pushing Arp Odyssey-powered afro-futurism that had made fusion sound practically sci fi. Fantastic Planet doesn’t have that same playful rubberiness (rubberiness seems a more appropriate term than ‘elasticity’ for Head Hunters some how) and rumbling undertow of Africa as Herbie’s early 70s records do. It’s conventionally cinematic in many ways, but it adds something that hadn’t been heard much in jazz-funk before: menace.

Herbie Hancock – Watermelon Man

Fantastic Planet is haunted-sounding music. For all of its spirited, jazzy kick, Fantastic Planet’s funk is heavy, ominous. It drips foreboding. Jazz is a notoriously ambiguous music in soundtrack terms, as it doesn’t easily fit the quite binary major and minor modes demanded by film makers for reiterating happy and sad moments. Maybe in making the half-transition from the library music-style easy listening jazz of his 60s records to the more rock-embracing funk, Gorauger saw an opportunity for reinstating narrative.

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Musically, Fantastic Planet’s closest cousin is Jeff Wayne’s The War Of The Worlds. An album that married and maybe perfected Strauss-like clashes of orchestra with rock band pacing and song structures. Fantastic Planet does make a convincing template for The War of The Worlds, even amplified with MOR and prog overtures as it is. Wayne uses the driving, melancholic orchestrated sub-funk-rock in a similar way to Gorauger, except for in this home stereo LP drama the musical exposition is exaggerated – even without Richard Burton’s narration and the rock opera guest spots from Justin Hayward and Phil Lynott you could easily imagine Wayne’s music forming a plausible tone poem for HG Well’s invasion story.

Jeff Wayne – Horsell Common and The Heat Ray


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