Sunday, 12 July 2020

Once Upon A Time With Morricone

In a previous life I used to make documentaries. In 1999 it was my great pride to be asked to write and direct a documentary, Once Upon a Time – Sergio Leone, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of this great Italian director’s death. 


You can’t talk about Leone without also mentioning his lifelong friend and musical accomplice Ennio Morricone. So it was that our researchers scheduled an interview to take place in his apartment in Rome. This was the first interview of many that we would conduct for the production and on the appointed day I set off nervously with my Italian-speaking producer, who would act as translator for the interview. We were nervous not only because this was obviously an important interview but also because the scene had been set by his PA who informed us that he always insisted on being addressed as Maestro. 


His apartment was grand, in the classical Italian style: dim lighting, archways, alcoves and heavy drapes. As we set up in the living room we were told that we were free to take some general shots but that we must not, under any circumstances, film near the window. My producer explained that the view outside the window was of a very famous monument and that if we had filmed this all Romans would have immediately learned where Morricone lived.


About half an hour later the rather serious and imperious Maestro appeared. From the start of the interview he made it quite clear that in his opinion his relationship with Leone was one of equals. His role as composer was not merely that of a hired hand but that he saw his job as being of equal importance to the actual filming and that he enjoyed working with Leone particularly because of the importance which Leone gave to the music of his films.

And who could disagree? You only have to see the poster of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and your brain starts to hum the signature theme.

He explained that prior to working on film scores he had been very active in researching avant-garde music and that in this realm the use of sounds was often given as much import as the musical notes. 

Thus it was that when he composed the music for Leone’s first film with Clint Eastwood, Fistful of Dollars, he used a variety of bells, whistles and abstract vocal yelps that would establish the tone of all the films scores he composed for Leone's westerns. 

Link to Fistful of Dollars theme

By the time he was composing for Leone's third film the range of effects had taken on an almost symphonic level using gun shots whips and whistling and animal yelps. 

Link to The Good the Bad and the Ugly theme

As far as he was concerned these were all part of the musical pallet. In fact his involvement with the avant-garde was more than a passing fad and from 1964 up to their eventual disbandment in 1980, Morricone was part of the Gruppo d Improvvisazione Nuova Consananza, a group of composers who performed and recorded avant-garde free improvisations.  


I asked him if he composed at the piano and he scowled, saying, “Only amateurs compose at the keyboard. I write directly onto the musical page.”

In my mind I wanted to challenge him with the retort, “Do you mean amateurs like Beethoven?” but I was awestruck by the thought that he had mastered music notation to such a degree that could write directly from his musical imagination with no need to be reminded what the notes sounded like.

He went on to explain how he composed the music for Leone’s films before the films were shot and that Leone would often use extracts of his music to play on set to help create an atmosphere before a take. 


He then explained how his love of the avant-garde prompted him to take Leone to a see a performance artist perform Symphony for a Metal Ladder, in which a heavily amplified set of steps was used to create a whole range of weird and wonderful sounds. This, he explained, gave Leone the inspiration for the opening scene of his epic western Once Upon a Time in the West

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the whole movie, but the opening sequence must certainly be one of the most transfixing opening scenes of any film. Seven minutes of sound symphony as three gunmen await the arrival of a train at an isolated and primitive railway station. Throughout the whole sequence the ‘musical beat’ is maintained: the repeated rusty squeak of a dilapidated windmill used to pump the water for locomotives. 


Link to opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West 


In a later sequence, music also composed prior to filming, Claudia Cardinale is seen arriving at another railway station. She is arriving to meet her fiancé who is not at the station to greet her and the music somehow captures the romance and deep sadness of the scene. Leone was able to use the music and its crescendo to choreograph this single shot and its reveal of the bustling town that is springing up in response to the arrival of the railroad. 


Link to Claudia Cardinale's arrival by train 

The range and magnitude of Morricone’s compositions is immense. In one year alone he was reported to have composed 20 film scores. 

Without doubt one of his most lauded scores was for Leone’s final film, Once Upon a Time in America

Once again the score was written before the film was shot with Leone playing it on set to help create an ambience for the scenes being shot. 

Deborah's theme from Once Upon a Time in America


In this epic gangster film the story jumps from one time period to another as the jigsaw of the story is gradually revealed. The director’s cut, released in 1984 at the Cannes film festival to rapturous applause, was 3 hours 49 minutes long.

But Warner Brothers, who were distributing it, decided that in order for the film to be a commercial success they would rearrange the film chronologically and edited it down to 2 hours 19 minutes. This act of vandalism made it the only film ever to be voted by screen critics as both the best and the worst film released in the same year based on the two edits. 


Sadly, one of the results of this shoddy editing by Warner was that Morricone’s name was edited off the credits, thereby excluding him from an American Academy Award on a technicality. (That year the award for best score was won by the film The Right Stuff – does anyone remember the score?) 


I suspect that Morricone was unmoved by this omission as it was apparent from my time with him that he had no doubt in his ability and expertise as a composer and was much more concerned with the job at hand. He died on July 6th 2020 at the age of 91 and was composing new scores till his last days. 


I believe he was, without doubt, deserving of his preferred epithet. Thank you, Maestro Morricone.


Link to Morricone biog.



Tuesday, 7 July 2020

The Hi-Fi of Lo-Fi Jazz

I Iisten to a lot of music. Sometimes it feels like I am sifting through gravel, waiting for that moment when I encounter a precious stone amongst it. For me, these gems mostly appear as part of readily identifiable genres. I I find them hard to classify, I sometimes list them in my collection as 'Wonky',

It’s not often that I discover a whole seam of music but one day in mid-2018 I stumbled upon a track called The Accord by Harry Wolfman. For me it immediately stood out with its muddy mix of samples, with melody glinting, as those panning for gold might see a cleanly glittering speck of gold amidst the mud from the riverbed.


The Accord by Harry Wolfman


I dove straight in and listened to nearly everything Harry Wolfman had produced. Then, starting with the ‘Those who bought this also bought this’ facility on Juno Downloads, as well as checking other artists on the same record labels, I began to piece together names of others who I recognised as part of the same musical movement like Loz Goddard.

However, because I didn’t know a genre name to help me, I was lost as to how to describe this newly found (for me) genre. I created a folder on my computer simply titled Wolf to store everything I found. I then began sifting through my own collection to see if I could find other kindred tunes.

The constituents I was looking for were such elements as a ‘muddy mix’, excessive phasing, or otherwise distressing of the original samples, plus a particular fondness for mysterious spoken word samples or tantalising vocals that sound as if they are coming from a slightly out of tune radio.


I immediately identified what could well be described as a flag waver for this mystery genre. In 2013 Andhim had a hit with a gorgeous track called Hausch. I remember when it first came out being transfixed by the distressed, searingly soulful male vocalist with the oh so familiar line, ‘She’s not just a plaything, she’s flesh and blood just like a man’.

But who was the original male vocalist, and what was the song? Ah yes, it wasn’t a man, it was Queen Aretha singing Do Right Woman. So, time to resurrect Hausch. 


Hausch by Andhim


After a couple of months of musical mining I was gushing to a record producer friend about the tunes I had become obsessed with and he knew immediately what I was describing and gave me the genre label: Lo-Fi.

Now I had something to Google and soon discovered that the most recent incarnation of the term Lo-Fi was around 2016 and that there were some leaders of the pack like DJ Seinfeld and Mall Grab and DJ Boring. Leaders they might be, but I didn’t really like anything they produced. It seemed to me that for most of their output the fascination with distressed samples overweighed the power of melody which was often buried in a distorted Ketamine mumble. 


I read a comment from the time in which a journalist remarked that the reason Lo-Fi House had not taken off in clubs was because the muddy quality of the mixes sounded shit on a decent sound system. Consequently the scene tended to be located in smaller underground venues. 

What I was discovering was not poor quality but a lush additions to the soundscape, not negation of it. These distressed, phased tones with seemingly incompatible EQing were creating a new range of tones to the musical pallet. Tones which for me carried with them a powerful emotional quality.


I have always enjoyed Jazz in its many variants and began to notice that much of the Lo-Fi that I favoured had a Jazz flavour in the samples so started to look for the crossover between Jazz remixes and Lo-Fi. Odd tracks started to filter into my sets and I discovered that many of the tracks I had collected had a rather cool and sophisticated tone that were well suited to early evenings.


Modal Miles by Cesare Dell' Anna


Before long I started to discover that some of the producers with an inclination towards Jazz remixing had added their own Lo-Fi signature with what I call ‘slurring’. It’s as though a jazz instrumental is playing on vinyl and someone keeps gently nudging the turntable to slur the notes.

It drove me mad when I first heard it, but then gradually became one of my favourite effects.


Eitt by Felix Leifur


After several months I was still gushing about this genre when I cornered a journalist friend of mine to tell him of my discovery and he burst out laughing.

He then went on to tell me that it was not the producers who first coined the term Lo-Fi but rather a group of music journalists during a long liquid lunch. He knew this for certain — because he was one of them!

Of course it is rarely the artists who name their movements. The artist’s rôle is to sense and develop art which captures the zeitgeist


The term Impressionism was not coined by the artists but rather an art critic, Louis Leroy from the French satirical magazine Le Charivari He wrote a review of an exhibition comprising a group of the founding fathers of the impressionist movement in 1874. The exhibition included work by Monet, Sisley, Degas and Cezanne.

One of Monet’s paintings was entitled ‘Impression: Soleil Levant'. This provided Leroy with the title for his satirical review: 'The Exhibition of the Impressionists'

It seems that despite drawing attention to one of the most important art movements of all time, Leroy wasn’t all that keen on what he saw. He summed up his view of the Monet work with the words:

Impression, I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it  — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished that this seascape.


So what is it that appeals to me about Lo-Fi and my own predeliction for Lo-Fi Jazz? Well, as the saying goes, ‘There’s no accounting for taste’, which is evident in the taste divide between those who love Marmite and those who can’t stand it. To me this music carries a great deal of emotion.

I began thinking about how we remember things. Often, looking back, our memory is cleaned and polished. We remember situations as though they have been shot in 35mm. In reality most of our experiences are rarely so clear — there will be background sounds and distractions, all of which help to cement events in our future memory. For me Lo-Fi captures this complexity and nuance of memory as events and stimuli drift in and out of the soundscape.

This might all be a silly theory written by someone who spends way too much time in his thoughts with music, but if you've read this far and you would like to get a glimpse of what I'm talking about I have just put together my third volume of Lo-Fi Jazz mixes, and below you will find the links to all three.

I'm aware that this might be the Marmite of music, but I have always been missionary spirited and love this seam of music so intend to keep putting it out there along with my usual Balearic journeys and hope that there are ears that will hear.

Love Howard.

Lo-Fi Jazz Vol 1

Lo-Fi Jazz Vol 2

Lo-Fi Jazz Vol 3






Friday, 26 June 2020

Everything is Better With You

In March 2020 during the first week of the Corona virus lockdown in Ibiza, I was asked by a friend if I would DJ for her virtual birthday party, using the Zoom app. I must admit that my initial thought was that this was something of a gimmick, but she was a friend so I agreed.

What I experienced was one of the most moving events I have ever participated in.


Looking at the screen full of enthusiastic dancing figures from around the world it suddenly struck me that for many of the participants the room I could see was the prison into which they were now condemned. I would like to imagine it was solely my music that was bringing such joy to the party but in truth it was just one element. The major force was the sense of shared community. A growing awareness that we were all sharing and in the process breaking out of our own sense of isolation. 


Based on this experience I decided I’d start my own weekly event with the title ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ because, as my experience of the Zoom birthday party showed me, sharing does improve the experience. A meal by oneself in a restaurant, no matter how good the food, is rarely as much fun as even a simple meal of bread cheese and wine when shared with friends. Those memorable evenings many of us have experienced in a nightclub have not just been about the music but the shared experience with our group of friends. 

Although many other DJ’s were starting to do their own live streams on Facebook and other platforms I decided that I was going to use the Zoom app because it allowed more of the human interaction that many of us were thirsting for. I knew that getting people to download the app and join in was not going to be easy, probably because many, like me, believed it was something of a gimmick. But amazingly a weekly hard core of around 30 individuals and families from Spain, UK, Nepal, Israel, Finland, Switzerland and France logged on week after week for nine weeks!

While this was happening I, like many others, started to spend more of my newly acquired free time on Facebook where the tone of communication seemed much less collaborative, more tribal and polarised. I wish I could claim that I was a model of tolerance but instead became angrily determined to challenge all with reason and fact. I eventually realised eventually that in a world where nothing seemed certain I was fighting to resist any ideas that challenged my own views, particularly when many of those views were expressed in such an uncompromising way that they excluded any dissent. 


One day I remembered some words from my Buddhist mentor Daisaku Ikeda. Starting in the 70’s Ikeda began a series of dialogues with academics and leading thinkers covering a wide range of topics concerning society and attempting to find the common thread between Buddhist thought and contemporary issues.


At one point Ikeda was interviewed by a journalist who asked him how it was possible for him to conduct seemingly creative dialogues with such a diverse range of people. His answer was very simple. He said that first of all they established a friendship based on those areas on which they agreed. Then, and only then, were they able to move on to discuss those areas on which they disagreed.


It struck me that with Facebook and other apps we are apparently able to create friendships with the click of a button, which circumvents the need to create human bonds of friendship and mutual respect before tackling areas of disagreement. Many of us are learning confrontational and polarising manners of speech that are antisocial that simply don’t work in the real world. 


It is well documented that a sense of isolation and loneliness is growing in the world. The British government has even appointed a minister tasked with looking at how to remedy this in the UK ,which in recent research found that 9 million people often or always feel lonely. I am certainly not saying that Facebook and other social media is responsible for loneliness but I do find the tone of much dialogue is divisive.


This set me on a journey to investigate how is it possible to improve our relationships with each other, starting with myself. A book called The Talking Revolution* led me to discover The 

Harvard Study of Adult Development*. Initiated in 1938, the researchers began collecting data initially on a group of 268 male undergraduates, covering health, work, income and general well-being.


A few years later an additional study was started based round 456 teenage boys from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods. After a few years these two projects were combined and eventually it continued for 75 years. Most of the participants continued to participate in the study for as long as they were able to, creating one of the broadest and longest- running studies of human well-being.


The results from these tens of thousand pages of data are startling and Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of the study, noted that, ‘People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier. They’re physically healthier and they live longer than people who are less well connected’


But surely, it was asked, ‘What about exercise, diet, position in society and money? Don’t they make a difference?’ The answer, according to the study (which as I noted covered a broad cross-section of society), was categorically,  ‘No.’ Those people with good personal relationship are healthier and live longer regardless of background and personal habits and diet. 


It seems therefore that it’s not just music that ‘sounds better with you’ but our whole experience of life itself is improved by our good relationships with those around us. This is the thought that is now etched into my brain as I contemplate the coming season in Ibiza and beyond.

* The Talking Revolution 

Harvard Study of Adult Development