Don Byron goes to the Movies

From my deep files, mildly edited notes on a  program at the Mary Pickford Theatre in May 2001. The clips I’ve linked to aren’t necessarily the ones Byron played.

The Library of Congress commissioned a new piece from jazz composer/clarinetist Don Byron to be premiered at a friday night concert, much of which I missed. But I didn’t miss the Thursday night program at the Mary Pickford Theatre, the small (it officially seats 64) venue where we [USED TO – ed.] run film series . The Music Division also asked Byron to program an evening at the Pickford, taken from the Jazz on Film guide.  Armed with a stack of tapes and DVDs, many from his own collection, Byron took the opportunity to show a wide range of his tastes in film music.

He began with a series of musical performances on film. Some jazz, some not: dancer Freddi Washington shaking to “Black and tan fantasy”; Morris Day and the Time from Purple Rain; Monk performing “Just a gigolo” from the documentary Straight No Chaser .

Then he opened up. Byron cued a clip from Spike Jones’s tv show: a stout balding gentleman seriously croons “Cocktails for two.” When he gets to the end of the line “that overlooks the avenue”, two gas-guzzling sedans appear from stage wings and crash in front of him, sending a ball of fire briefly into the kinescoped ether.   The square-jawed Jones, dressed in a loud suit criss-crossed with bold comic-book lines, chases a brunette around the stage. Later, the brunette chases Spike’s pants, wandering around the stage disarmingly torso-less.  This isn’t the clip Byron showed (I can’t find it on YouTube), but it has some of the same elements and gives you an idea of the Jones aesthetic:

Next, a tribute to some of his favorite film music composers, including Henry Mancini.  Byron respects the way Mancini played with jazz and dissonance. Clips: the percussive intro and other selections from Charade, and the famous opening shot of Touch of Evil, where Mancini uses the ticking of a time bomb (the first thing you see onscreen) for the rhythm of his quasi-Latin (they’re crossing borders) theme.  In the restored Touch of Evil, the are credits removed from this sequence — not a bad thing — but the Mancini theme is taken out as well, though parts of it can be heard playing from a nightclub that Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh walk past. Here’s the version with credits:

Other clips:

Bernard Hermann’s music in Vertigo: the shot where Kim Novak and James Stewart go around on the lazy susan; and the climax.

Takemitsu’s score for the great battle scene in Ran; the sounds of battle are muted, so all you can hear is the beautifully mournful music.

Appropriated Orientalism:

Lalo Schifrin for Enter the Dragon.

Carl Stalling for”Operation Snafu,” one of a series of Looney Toons produced (by a company led by Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel”) as WWII propaganda.

John Corigiliano’s score for Altered States, which Byron offered as an example of really intrusive film music (the clip was of William Hurt’s peyote trip). As Byron said, really killing stuff.

The Heiress, a Montgomery Clift/Olivia DeHaviland melodrama with score by Aaron Copland.

A brief audience exchange:

BYRON, talking about Olivia DeHaviland in THE HEIRESS: She was bad.
SEPTUAGENARIAN PICKFORD REGULAR, incredulously: You’re saying she was bad?
BYRON: In a good way. In my community, bad means something
different from what it means in your community. And I respect

Under “adapatations,” Byron ran an Ernie Kovacs clip set to Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Another adapation: the prison riot scene from Natural Born Killers set to music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Byron noted the complete disconnect between music that was likely about God, and the horrific scene of carnage.  Yet somehow it worked — why?

Byron ended with a clip of Ernie Kovacs “Nairobi trio” routine. Three actors in monkey masks; one handed a second blocks; a third played vibes to “Solfeggio”. A diverse and illuminating program.


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