Naked ambition

Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore's collaboration on the Naked Lunch film score was a triumph. Can it repeat that success played live?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Although neither Wagner nor the Ballets Russes ever, as far as it is known, featured a talking asshole in any of their works, it's in such august company, aspiring to a total artwork unifying text, music, movement and design, that David Cronenberg's 1992 film Naked Lunch (which does) perhaps deserves to be placed.

Although neither Wagner nor the Ballets Russes ever, as far as it is known, featured a talking asshole in any of their works, it's in such august company, aspiring to a total artwork unifying text, music, movement and design, that David Cronenberg's 1992 film Naked Lunch (which does) perhaps deserves to be placed.

Written and directed by Cronenberg from the novel by William Burroughs, with a score by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman (including contributions from the Master Musicians of Joujouka and the London Philharmonic Orchestra), and featuring a startling production design by Carol Spier, the film was an unusually ambitious undertaking. Now, in a unique event for the Belfast Festival on Friday 10 November, Naked Lunch is to be presented "live", with Howard Shore conducting the Ulster Orchestra, together with the Ornette Coleman Trio, in a specially surtitled screening.

The event is part of the Ornette Coleman residency for the festival, the saxophonist's only European dates this year. As well as helping to accompany the film, with his son Denardo on drums and Charnette Moffett on bass, Coleman will appear in a double-bill on Tuesday. The first half, The Belfast Suite, is a collaboration with a group of Irish traditional musicians (something Coleman has wished to do for some time); how the eccentric altoist gets to grips with a quartet of flute, fiddle, pipes and bodhran offers mind-boggling possibilities. The second half returns to safer ground with an rare opportunity to see Coleman with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, his two most eminent and longstanding accomplices.

Naked Lunch was Coleman's last great album. The combination of Shore's dark, ominous orchestral writing and Coleman's impassioned, wailing saxophone was one of the most effective musical marriages of the past few decades, fitting the spirit of the film, and the book it derived from, perfectly.

In his sleeve-notes to the soundtrack album, Coleman described how the final assembly had an uncanny air of serendipity, with Shore's yoking together of disparate parts exactly fitting his own concept of how it should sound. "Howard Shore has written his score as the past, future and present singing in one voice."

I interviewed Shore last month in a weirdly Cronenbergian Chinese restaurant across the street from New York's Lincoln Center, where he was rehearsing a new chamber piece. The composer, who has written over 60 soundtracks, including nine with fellow Torontoite Cronenberg, and The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia for Jonathan Demme, was a Coleman fan from way back.

"We did the film in 1991, and I reread the book and underlined every reference to music," Shore said. "There were a few references to bebop, or what was termed cocaine-bebop, and because of the setting of Fifties Tangier and the International Zone, I kept thinking about the connection between bebop and North Africa. I remembered a recording that Ornette Coleman had made in '73 called Dancing In Your Head, especially a track called 'Midnight Sunrise'. So I dug that out of my vinyl collection and played it for Cronenberg. He loved it, and thought that it was the Interzone national anthem!

"I called Ornette to see if he was interested in working on the film, and sent him a copy of the rough cut. He called me back promptly and said yes."

Another research tool was the famous wire recordings of Charlie Parker solos made by Dean Benedetti, who tended to switch off his machine when Parker stopped playing. "I started working with those pieces, looping them together and writing around them. They were very fast solos, very bebop, and I was writing very slow, almost tango-like, pieces around them, like a colonial African western orchestra.

"I played some of that for Ornette and he started working. Then we met in London, a week before the recording, and I asked him if he wanted to record the Parker tunes. After thinking about it, he declined, saying that they were definitive and there wasn't anything new he could contribute. So he wrote four pieces. I asked him to do it for a trio, because I thought the bare-bones structure would work well in the film.

"It was a wonderful experience, and Ornette helped a lot in the recording - he didn't just show up and do a session. He knew Burroughs, and Burroughs was thrilled that Ornette was doing it. It was a lovely collaboration, and that's what led us to the idea of the concert. "

As part of the festival, Shore will also be doing a lecture on Cronenberg's film Crash, which he scored, but it's the Naked Lunch screening that has required the most preparation. "The idea of doing the concert with the projection poses a few interesting questions," he says. "We're not doing a silent film like Napoleon, so the music isn't continuous throughout, but there is quite a lot of music, and I've actually extended some of the pieces, so it's really a new score for this concert."

Hopefully the venture will be repeated, taking Naked Lunch into the repertoire where it belongs, as a unique fusion of so many distinctive artistic identities. Meanwhile, the talking asshole awaits its first live cue.

Belfast Festival box office: 028-9066 5577

Comments