12 April 2014 – Under Milk Wood

I recently went to see a new opera version of Under Milk Wood. It’s composed by John Metcalf and is based on the Dylan Thomas radioplay. John lived quite near to where I grew up in rural Wales, and I got to know him and studied with him a little, around when I was a student. He’s one of the more rare breed of composers who, as well as being active in writing new music, is also a very good teacher.

This operatic version of Under Milk Wood was great fun, with occasional cheeky comic moments. I’ve only listened to the original radio play once before, but I’ll have to dig it out ready for the next time I’ve got a long drive somewhere.

Seeing it actually reminded me of a car advert. Now, yea I know… when it comes to pieces of filmmaking that stick with you – usually car adverts are hardly the pinnacle of artistic achievement. But I remembered liking this one when it was around, many years ago. It’s not one of those quirky honda adds, that usually get stuck in your head – it’s just a simple blend of nice shots of modern cityscapes at night, with excerpts of Richard Burton’s opening narration from Under Milk Wood, all held together with an awesome piece of music from Cliff Martinez’s great soundtrack from the film Solaris.   ((which is a film that references Dylan Thomas quite a few times itself… although just the ‘death shall have no dominion’ poem, as far as I remember….))

I remember it was this advert that encouraged me to first listen to Under Milk Wood, and also to go back and re-watch Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris as well. It’s a film that I quite liked – although any objective judgement of the film would be quite impossible given how much I like the score alone. The score’s made of 2 main types of music – the bass-driven chugging rythm over a haze of delay-strewn pitched percussion (as in the ad above); and then a less measured more orchestral presentation of the soporific haze of sound (eg) that I’ve described before as ‘almost tonal micropolyphonic Liget’.

Both of these side of the film score have inspired me in my own music. Several years ago I worked at a music summer school at which, incidentally, John Metcalf was leading a composition course. I had piece preformed there which was largely inspired by the rhythmic cues in Cliff Martinez’s score. The piece was called In F and you can here it here. More recently I worked on a short independent film called The Moirae. ((I got involved with this film as the script was written by an old school friend Roanne Bardsley, who now happens to work as a writer for Hollyoaks.)) We needed a score that was very sparse and bare but still managed to maintain tension. In places I felt this score ended up owning a debt to the more hazy elements of the Solaris soundtrack (as well as to Ligeti (to whom, of course, Cliff Martinez was nodding to in his score ((In the audio-commentary on the Solaris dvd (hmm, I guess that level of nerdyness proves I must like the film, and for more than just the soundtrack alone) I seem to remember Soderbergh (or maybe it was James Cameron (who was a producer) ) saying they’d tried laying some Ligeti music over some of the scenes. Of course, the link here between Ligeti and Martinez’s sci-fi score is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which famously used several pieces by Ligetis, (most prominently his Requiem), to create an other-worldly atmosphere. Solaris does have some scenes (later on in the film when George Clooney’s going a little more crazy) that clearly owe a debt visually to the trippy ‘hurtling-through-space-and-time’ bit in 2001. It only makes sense I guess then, that the soundtrack would owe a debt to that same father of modern science-fiction cinema.)) )). Maybe hearing this cue below by itself it might seem a little boring, and in all truth it is quite literally just 4 notes slowly played over 1minute, but oh well, I quite like it.

 

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About jackwestmore

Jack Westmore writes music for film, television and media, and is currently based in Cardiff in the UK.
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