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Interviews

Marc Ribot: That's the Way I View It From New York

By Published: March 27, 2006
AAJ: I was going to ask you about "Scelsi Morning, because I didn't hear any guitar on that song.

MR: I edited myself out of most of that record.

AAJ: That's an interesting strategy.

MR: I liked it [laughing]. I've already heard me. Sometimes it's better to lay out.

AAJ: I like your solo guitar piece here, though, "And Then She Fell. That's got that sampled sound.

MR: That was a bunch of loops that I did with looping devices. I superimposed them on each other—very simple thing.

AAJ: It's got some fantastic stereo effects—it's the new psychedelia. "Our Daily Bread is one of the Yoshiko Chuma pieces. It's got that violent sampling and Christine Bard's percussion ping-ponging around.

MR: Oh, yeah, that was the one that had the click happening.

AAJ: Right, a robot tempo takes over towards the end. I've had a hard time imagining what dancers would do on that one.

MR: Well, you should come and see one of Yoshiko's pieces. She's a very conceptual dancer but she always does something fabulous. I think they were moving around giant cubes.

AAJ: Let me ask you about your film scoring work, as documented on the 1997 Show String Symphonettes and 2003 Soundtracks II CDs. These collect music you did for a bunch of films from the eighties through the nineties. There's no time to cover it exhaustively, but I will ask how you approach scoring films.

MR: I've used a lot of different approaches, but now I've learned the proper way of scoring films. Step one: shoot the director [laughing]. No, not really; that's illegal.

AAJ: Well, directors do have the tendency to want to be involved in every stage of their films.

MR: Well, involvement can be a good thing because usually, before you see it once, they've seen it a thousand times. Literally. People working in film do not see film the same way as other people—even critics. A critic might know the whole history of film, might have seen Casablanca ten times. But I can tell you, the person responsible for the continuity in the film stock saw it 200 times, and the person who edited it saw it a thousand times. The director saw each scene played back hundreds of times—the composer also sees it hundreds of times. And people who see it like this are organic intellectuals; after all those viewings, the film deconstructs itself. You don't have to have read structuralists to know what's going on.

AAJ: Your toes know it at that point.

MR: Exactly. So I find film very interesting. The idea of composing to an image, as something that makes an image work in a particular way—it's really interesting. John Lurie, I think, is an excellent film composer, as is his brother Evan Lurie—he did the score to Stranger Than Paradise and some other Jim Jarmusch pictures and a lot of other things as well. He's a very original film composer. But he once said something interesting. He said that the truth of film composing is that every piece of music works with every piece of film. But—and this is a big but—every piece of music changes every piece of film. So it's this big responsibility because you're not just putting music to it; you're creating meaning.

AAJ: That's the whole, dare I say it, sound/film dialectic.

MR: Yeah. That's right. You are altering the meaning of what's there when you put music to it. That doesn't make it easier; it makes it harder—because you're responsible. You're responsible for the meaning. There's also a problem in film, which is an interesting one, and that's that it's usually a long-form thing. And a lot of film is ruined by film composers who don't know about that—about repeating that thing that you did at the beginning at the end. You have to use the tricks of people who compose in long form—like symphony mode. You have to use those tricks or it doesn't work. I think movies are being ruined because a lot of idiots don't understand what a film composer does. They think, "cool! We can afford to buy some pieces of music, and they get a music director, and it winds up seeming like a ninety-minute segment of MTV.

AAJ: Yes. This is probably the worst influence on motion pictures of the last twenty years. Just buying some contemporary rock and rap tunes and throwing them in.

MR: Well, rock and rap can work terrifically in a film. Like in Jarmusch's Ghost Dog.

AAJ: Yes, that was a fantastic soundtrack.

Marc RibotMR: That was a great soundtrack. It's not a question of the group of sounds you decide to put on the film. That's not it; it's a question of the form. A rock set is suite form—in other words, you get songs A, B, C, D, E, F, G. And then you play them in whatever order. But in order to tie something together, you need to have A, B, C, A, C, D, E, A—then B [laughing]. You know what I mean—you need to return to themes, you need to link themes to moods, ideas and characters in the film. So unless somebody's brain is really working, it doesn't happen, and a lot of film is crap because of that. You can even have interesting musicians involved, but if they don't get that thematic stuff, it's not great. It's something I'm working on myself; I wouldn't say I'm a master of it. But I'm at least aware of it as a problem.

So those are things that make it interesting. What makes film a drag is that the idea of interacting with this visual thing is a great idea, but unfortunately you never get to interact directly. Your interaction is always mediated, usually by the producer or the director, and in Hollywood stuff—I haven't scored any of these, but I've played on several—by a whole other committee of funders whose okay you have to get. It's unbelievable! Let me tell you—if things suck, it's for a reason. There are some really smart, good people out there, but directors are often working under contract and if they deviate by one line or one instruction from the script, they don't get paid. They can be sued. And the script has to be approved by the accountants.

It's not a really great situation, and the same thing goes for the score. I'm not going to name anything, but I've played on scores where we'd cut a piece and music and they'd have to sit and wait for a whole committee of people who weren't even in the studio were consulted to see if it was okay! The whole committee had to sign off—the money people. We're not talking about literary, musical, critical geniuses here. We're talking about morons! So that's the way it goes.


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