Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Herbie Hancock and Blow-Up

The BFI are showing one of the films that they seem to have on rotation down at the South Bank, Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966). There's a good reason for that too. It's a fine film, a thriller with philosophical complexity, it's also a lot of fun, capturing the 1960s youthquake with an objectivity remarkable for being so close to its epicentre.

Part of that now oft-cariacatured grooviness is down to the jazz score of Herbie Hancock, heard not least in the title sequence track (the first 1'20" here):

 

The music's typical of its time - that is to say a musical language that's rooted further back than in the standard Western tradition. It opens with the blues and rock guitar before moving across to a more European modal jazz. There's none of the orchestral romance of contemporaneous Morricone or John Barry (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or Out Of Africa). So the music's youthful; cool, up-to-date, but not kow-towing to the populist mainstream.

In fact, with its blues and modality it has an older pre-Western tradition sense about it, something distantly African. The film too uses this veneer of the contemporary to investigate something much more universal. Perception and memory come under scrutiny. The impulsiveness that is a low-level character of much of the film also resonates with this uncluttered, dancing music. Of course, Herbie Hancock worked with Miles Davis during the Second Quintet/Blue Note period in which modality played such an important part. Yet this is a different score to that of Miles Davis' approach in Louis Malle's Lift To The Scaffold (1958). Sophisticated but bound by its urbanity, the drifting Jean Moreau reflects on herself - on her relationships and her own emotional contingency - as she wanders the streets of Paris:



Though he's clearly absorbed Davis' modal experimentation, Hancock's own modernity has burst Davis' urban veneer of cool, no longer ruminating on the found scene as an emotional counterpart of the character but questioning the meaning of the situation and the possibility of the answers yet to be found. Here's the sequence as Thomas (the photographer played by Hemmings in the film) begins to suspect that his photograph contains clues to the thriller at the heart of the film:



The music's not in Thomas' head but that of the situation. It's music that is part of the fabric of the image, not originating in the character. We remember that Antonioni was trying to make films that disengaged from the exploration of thought but rather chronicled the narrative as it found it: there's no explanation for the abandoning of the search for the missing girl in l'Avventura, just a record of the movement of the characters through and away from the episode.

Hancock's celebrated later canon with the famous Headhunters (1973) at its centre continues this aesthetic in its own way. The music, with its ritual rhythms and infectiousness has no argument or romantic meditation but impulsiveness, recording a forward-looking, investigative thrust - indeed Thrust is the title of the album consequent to Headhunters. For an example there's nothing so quintessential as the opening track of Sextant, his 1972 album: pulsing but off-kilter and using space-age sounds. The perfect marriage of the African and the experimental - just as the art work on the cover suggests:

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