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Interviews

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

By Published: March 27, 2006
AAJ: Not the most liberating way to have to work.

MR: No! And it's a bit ironic, because the old studio system was dictatorial in many ways, but directors and composers who'd proven themselves within the limit of it were given a certain amount of freedom—within its obvious limits. But now, dealing with bankers is not necessarily a more liberating experience than dealing with studio moguls. Getting rid of the studio system didn't get rid of capitalism.

There's a problem in the way that films are usually made. A smart director will cut a composer in on the thing early and get them to compose to the ideas and the mood. Then they'll have a bunch of music there waiting when they edit their film and they can edit to that. Almost nobody does it that way. The usual process is that people shoot a movie. They look back at the rushes every day because they want to see if what they're doing is any good. It sounds like shit. Why? Because there's no music on it and every movie they've seen their whole life has music. So, then they start to edit together a little version of the film, rough cuts, and they edit in music. As they refine and refine it, they zero in on a bunch of music and they edit to this. So during this process, they watch it hundreds of times with this music. So the edits get more and more refined, closer to the finished thing, and they're totally in love with it, and they say, "hey, let's get that music. Then they discover that each ten-second drop is going to cost them five grand and that they don't have that kind of budget for fifty or sixty drops.

AAJ: But now those pieces have influenced the entire composition of the film.

MR: Yes. They're in love with it, they've seen it that way more than you've seen anything, and it feels as natural to them as the air. At that point, they call the composer. But nothing you can do is ever going to live up to the familiarity they've gotten with the temp score. So they usually drive the composer completely crazy, saying, "make it be like that. That's why film, nine times out of ten, can be a frustrating experience. It's not because of dealing with people who aren't experts. I respect the judgment of my friends who are not musicians. There's just a conflict almost built into this process between the temp score and what you're writing. And built into this is usually a lack of trust. And there was not a lack of trust between Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock didn't look over his shoulder at every scene as he was working and say, "it's not as good as that piece we had on the temp score. He didn't do that! And as a consequence, he got great scores. But that's not how it usually sorts out nowadays. There are very few directors who have both that relation with the composer and the restraint to not try to control every aspect of the process.

AAJ: The last thing I'll say about your own soundtrack albums is that I like how you mix together the pieces from individual films on the CDs so they're not grouped together; you sort of shuffle the deck. It should make the records more incoherent, but on Shoe String Symphonettes and Soundtracks II, it works.

MR: Sequencing a record is the hardest part. You can take a great record and screw it up by screwing up the sequence. And you can't predict it in advance. I would say it's not even until the stuff is mixed that you can really say, "oh, this is going to sound good after that. It's hard to do it in advance. And you can create a little narrative there, so you can really change the meaning of the record in the sequencing.

AAJ: You did a CD called Saints for Atlantic Records that came out in 2001. This is a set of solo guitar versions of various people's tunes, including your own—Ayler, Zorn, John Lurie, the Beatles. I know you still do live solo gigs.

MR: I've been playing solo since I was eleven years old. I like to do it. The solo stuff for me is in the process of changing. I've started to do more of it on acoustic guitar. It started out as—well, you used the word "dialectic before. I used to juxtapose standards with noise pieces, new music pieces. It started off because I recorded The Book of Heads (1995, Avant) with John Zorn. So I started off trying to juxtapose that kind of very sonic, noise-oriented stuff with standards. The intent was to have the aesthetic of each rub off and bleed into the other, not to make it pastiche, but to make it one thing. And sometimes I got there and sometimes I didn't. I think the person who got there was Derek Bailey. And towards the end of his life, he recorded a record on Tzadik Records called Ballads that, to me, is the most seamless combination of free improvisation and standards that I've ever heard. I have to confess I wrote the liner notes to it, but that's why I wrote the liner notes; I was amazed.


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