Collection: Music for Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork
BROS. 7599-27256-2 [46:23]
Music, in some cases electronically adapted and/or abridged
from orchestral recordings, from Purcell (funeral music for Queen Mary),
Rossini (The Thieving Magpie and William Tell overtures), Beethoven
(Symphony No.9), Elgar (Pomp and Circumstance Marches No.1 &
IV). Also including Overture to the Sun by Terry Tucker. Electronic
music by Walter Carlos and Rachel Elkind. Songs: I Want to Marry a Lighthouse
Keeper written and performed by Erika Eigen, Singin' in the Rain,
composed by Freed and Brown, performed by Gene Kelly.
Now those of us under 44 finally have a chance to see A
Clockwork Orange (non-UK readers may be amazed to learn that the film
has been unavailable, at its director's insistence, in its country of original
for over a quarter of a century). Those older than that can see it again.
We can finally see what all the fuss was about, and more importantly for
our purposes here, attempt to make some sense of the soundtrack album. I
should note that the album reviewed here is the 15 track OST, not to be confused
with the 10 track album, on the cover of which a very threatening knife is
replaced with a glass of milk (threatening by implication only), but which
includes the complete 13 minute version of 'Timesteps', here cut to 4 minutes.
(You might wish it had been cut further - techno probably begins here).
The film is a flawed masterpiece, and one of the flaws concerns
the use of music, specifically classical music. After the brilliant use of
classical music in his previous foray into science-fiction, 2001: A Space
Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick decided to cover large parts of each
of his following five films with classical extracts, almost entirely at the
expense of any original score. No composer is credited on the cover, and
you have to look inside the booklet to find the name Walter Carlos - later
the Wendy Carlos who would score Kubrick's The Shinning (1980), and
the proto-Matrix SF of Tron (1982). Carlos was a composer of
electronic music who played a large part in the development of the Moog
synthesiser, and achieved enormous commercial success in the late 60's with
the album Switched on Bach. Though largely forgotten today, this was
an incredibly popular LP, the first electronic music to find mainstream
acceptance, the forerunner of the 70's synth/prog rock of Tangerine Dream
and Jean Michel-Jarre, and ultimately, of the hellish clockwork cacophony
which today passes for popular music.
But why do I think the use of music is one of the flaws of
A Clockwork Orange?
(This is no place for a detailed synopsis: suffice to say that
the film is near future SF, that in a dystopian Britain a teenage gang run
on a riot of drug-fuelled sex and 'ultra-violence' until their leader, Alex,
is imprisoned for murder and brainwashed into conformity.) The Alex of Anthony
Burgess' source novel loved the music of Beethoven, and this love is kept
in the film as the one signifier of Alex's buried humanity: Burgess himself
wrote symphonies as well as novels, though recordings are hard to come by.
The film features a mixture of straight extracts from Beethoven and other
classical composers, plus electronic versions of other classical themes created
and performed by Walter Carlos. Presumably the intent is to create a futuristic
ambience, but nothing dates more quickly than last year's future, except
perhaps electronic music. Somehow, combined with the very 70's look of the
film, the music has dated A Clockwork Orange while 2001: A Space
Odyssey remains astonishing impervious to the hand of time.
Anthony Burgess has explained the rather baffling title, which
itself could have been the perfect name for a 70's rock band (think of Deep
Purple, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream) as symbolising something sweet, good
and life-giving, which has become bitter, lifeless and mechanical. Thus we
might accept the electronic-classical soundtrack as a realisation of this
idea, and to some extent it does work. The film opens with an electronic
setting of part of Purcell's music for the funeral of Queen Mary - listed
as 'Title Music from A Clockwork Orange' on the cover, and this is indeed
portentously chilling in it's synthesised grandeur. It sets the scene well,
and makes a strong opener to the disc.
However, the flaw I refer to runs much deeper: the synthesised
versions of Beethoven make no sense in terms of the purpose of the film.
In a key sequence in which Alex is brainwashed into feeling sick at the thought
of violence or sex, the film footage used to condition him is accompanied
by Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. The whole point of the brainwashing is to
make Alex feel as bad as possible, yet Beethoven's Ninth is generally considered
to be one of the most uplifting works in the classical canon. Thus its use
in this context simply makes no sense, playing as crassly pragmatic plotting,
engendering sympathy for Alex because afterwards he can no longer bear to
listen to his favourite music: his one connection with higher human values,
taken from him and corrupted.
Later, a writer by the name of Mr Alexander, having discovered
Alex is responsible for his disabling injuries and, indirectly, for the death
of his wife, tortures Alex with a recording of Beethoven's 9th.
With wild implausibility Mr Alexander plays Alex the same electronic version
of Beethoven which accompanied the mind-control film. Surely he would have
a recording of the original? No one in their right mind would buy the electronic
version featured here for pleasure, and surely it is far to improbable
a coincidence for the cultured writer to chose to use this version over the
real thing? Thus, on a level of pure plot, key musical ideas in the film
simply do not work. Translated to CD, the disc is a bizarre mixture of orchestral
extracts and electronic reworkings which makes for a uniquely alienating
experience. If the idea is to put one off listening to Beethoven, then it
Rounding the disc off, Gene Kelly's incomparably wonderful
performance of 'Singin' in the Rain' seems even more incongruous than does
Alex's own shocking use of the song in the film itself. This is sweetness
turned sour indeed, and I for one would sooner associate the song with it's
50's context rather than it's 70's corruption. Listening to the album is
a surreal experience, from the mock vaudeville of 'I Want to Marry a Lighthouse
Keeper', via Rossini and Elgar, the strange electronic soundscape of 'Timesteps',
mutant Beethoven and innocent Kelly, it is as diverse, iconoclastic and
uncomfortable as the film itself. The sound quality is also inevitably variable,
with the orchestral recordings sounding better than the electronic ones.
Is it any good? is a question which seems terrible old-fashioned and irrelevant
here, but it is a useful document of an important film.
Gary. S. Dalkin
a coherent and enjoyable musical experience
a document of the film