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Tracks in light – Tangerine Dream and Risky Business (1983)w/ Philip Glass and Raymond Scott

I’ve touched before on the use of electronic music in film soundtrack, something which at its best generates a sense of possibility for feeling and experiencing that takes the mergent synthesis (moving images and sound) to a different kind of place. Of course this can be said for all the best productions in this area whether they are orchestral, acoustic or electronic, but I’ve had cause over time to trace this thought in relation to electronic music especially – which had a kind of exemplification for me at a young age through seeing 1983’s Risky Business (starring a pre-“Tom Cruise”-Tom Cruise) written and directed by the debuting Paul Brickman. Tangerine Dream’s contribution helps transform (/elevate) this film, its affect, its emotional scope and resonance and I hope by the end of this piece to be closer to how this occurs and what might differ about these varied and dynamic songs and motifs in transforming the experience of story and the feeling of that experience.

When I was a child of about 12 or 13, the BBC showed Risky Business late one night, which I watched and recorded on VHS. Its described on Wikipedia as a ‘teenage sex comedy’ and aside from its titillation as to sex scenes it is a story of a suburban teen’s brush with prostitution (Cruise character Joel’s journey from suburban teen proto-yuppie to capitalist underbelly is done smoothly and also ends up working as a fairly ruthless critique). The film was also propelled by its soundtrack; airless and crystaline, swirling and emotional. In fact the soundtrack to Risky Business was one of the first albums I remember buying – specifically for the Tangerine Dream productions, which in form close to the original can be found here (an upload of the original presskit vinyl sent to radio stations). Despite this early and shrouded relation (it took me ages to realise that I had had this atypical brush with a love of electronic music) I subsequently lost the grasp of it for a number of years before thankfully encountering Future Sound of London’s extraordinary Dead Citites when I was 18.

The Tangerine Dream tracks from the film have been put together in the video below. Although most of them were around prior to the film’s production, they were edited and re-tooled for the film.

The soundtrack had other contributions, Cruise’s famous (and much parodied) lip syncing routine in underpants shirt and dark glasses to Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ being one. But the sonic tone of the film is unarguably established by Tangerine Dream.

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While possibly not as culturally lauded as Can, Neu, Cluster or Kraftwerk, it remains the case that the group formed in 1967 by Edgar Froese were still among the pioneers of the emergence of German music in the 1970’s. A force that would provide primary directions for so much popular and independent music in the next fifty years.

As probably the only one of these groups to maintain a significant output in the form of soundtracks (though Popol Vuh also had some powerful work in this field particularly alongside Werner Herzog), this presented something of a retention in terms of an avant garde awareness to the work and its impact and relationship with the visualities that they were shared with. On Risky Business, its also apparent that the group are drawing on their own influence of Modern Classical (what often gets called miminalist) music in the arpeggiation and phrasal mode of counterpoint and refrain and combining this in a highly melodic form.

In terms of the identifiable traits of minimalism and the interaction with film probably no one is more relevant than the composer Philip Glass, who has himself scored many films from the original and brilliant Koyaanisqatsi to the Virgina Woolf inspired The Hours, via famous entries like Mishima or Kundun (in fact he is prolific as a composer for film).

The relationship with minimalism as a form seems based on the harnessing of its power in and in the production of refrains. Something like Koyaanisqatsi (1982) with its deep bass human and organ voiced initiation of a world of short interlocking and counterpointing refrains is a perfect example. All of the successful soundtracks are also successful in terms of their own specificities of form, development and dynamics. Koyaanisqatsi starts with bass frequencies and builds upward rising through the register and the octaves to give us in form, something akin to the movement and development of the film itself where early on we encounter the mountains and canyons of the tectonic, moving on to the conurbation and flows of human settlements, towards the projection of spaceflight as a continuation of this mode. Although Koyaanisqatsi is also an engagement with ‘life out of balance’ (the translation of the Hopi Indian title) – the film in terms of its visual ‘story’ feels like it is aware of this as its direction and the direction of its expression.

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So, without really realising it, as a teenager watching Risky Business, I was also encountering the impact and augmentive capacities of electronic music and minimalism, their intensifying capacities of the refrain to generate feeling and perception thetical to an heightened awareness (however minimal itself) of being alive.

Watering Flowers was the cue I most remember resonating at the time and I would rewind those scenes where it was used before I bought the soundtrack. In fact the film sets its affective tone out virtually from the beginning (above) with its nighttime shots of the city and its ambient street and train sounds (the train which will take on significance of sexual daring in the film) before we see in the credits ‘music composed and performed by…’ at which point Tangerine Dream fade in for the first time (a subtle bow to the fact that the film in large part owes its affect to the group). They are billed, then their music begins and soundtracks Cruise’s character Joel’s voiceover describing the dream that he indicates ‘is always the same…’ It turns out to be a frustrated sex dream in which Joel’s attempts to sexually co-mingle with the girl in the shower in the dream is interrupted by him returning to an exam scenario nearly out of time, in which he will fail and be unable to go to college – his life will be ruined.

As its story pans out, its interesting as a film which can be read as being broadly about Reagonomics (and neo-liberalist capitalist dogma) “unfettered” capitalism from the teenage Joel (and his future salary obsessed friends) who is helped to realise while his parents are away, that he can turn his house into a brothel for other high school and college students – while also using the brothel to ‘earn’ his way into Princeton by making his visiting interviewer into a client.

As the “upside” twist (‘Princeton can use a guy like Joel’) it also handily lampoons the US’s ivy league collegiate production line as a parallel to prostitution and in this instance its socially-transcendent incident as an approved act of capitalism. Of course it is quieter in its implication that the prostitution in effect runs much wider than the women who are involved (although of course part of the film’s quasi-morality resides in the fact that under Joel’s (parent’s) roof – and out from under their pimps, the sex workers are making more from each trade, effectively a brief window of semi-unionisation). While in the end its Joel’s share that’s extorted back to the pimp Guido, restoring the ‘natural’ order while establishing that Joel’s own foray into pimping was the key to the legitimacy of his future.

If anything the film’s telling in the end is that the institutions of state are entirely consonant with sexual commerce and commodification, even though twice in the film, virtual authority figures block Joel’s sexual desire, in the shower scene in the dream described in the opening and later when his imagination at the point of masturbation is overtaken first by his parents and then the police, intoning him to stop on a megaphone from outside.

What’s also interesting in the film is in the introduction of the visual in reference to sex workers. First, Joel is trapped into being visited by a sex worker by his friend Miles, who calls a number from the local paper and leaves Joel’s name and address for an appointment before eating the advert (in a time before digital re-dialling). The sex worker who arrives later that night when Joel is alone is the large black (probably) transgender ‘Jackie’ who arrives and departs soon after, leaving Joel with the number for ‘Lana’ (‘all you white boys like her’).

In this way, the film’s ultimate statement of the reactionary is compounded. The black/ethnic/transgender is rejected to be replaced by the visually demure, white, young, slender Lana (who is also the daring engine of the break away brothel). The commodification completes itself in the image of desire sexually resonant with the conformist suburban paradigm ‘it’s what every white boy off the lake wants’.

Aside from these critiques, any transcendence in the film comes about mostly through the soundtrack and the odd directorial flourish from what is a very finely crafted and shot film.

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Of course, there were others around at a similar time following the line of minimalist electronic music for screen, some of whom have had a sustained impact. From John Carpenter‘s electronic lines to the transformational power of Wendy Carlos’ extroardinary work on the Shining (1980) or Tron. There is also some brilliant work for synthesiser mixed in with the orchestral from Howard Shore on David Cronenburg’s Scanners (1981). Its also notable that two of the composers most significantly to have made an impression in soundtrack in recent times are both also adherents to this kind of approach (Clint Mansell who broke through with Requiem for a Dream and Max Richter, whom I’ve covered in part before alongside Hans Zimmer).

When the first season of Mr. Robot used ‘Love on a real train’ from Risky Business (below) for an episode denouement, it felt like this identification of the Risky Business soundtrack and Tangerine Dream’s work had impacted the culture more broadly and it gathered a further resonance for me as a material of transformation in this screen-story relation.

Its unfortunate that this clips cuts off, but the point at which the character Angela arrives at a fork in the road accompanied by the soundtrack has a searching kind of other in resonance and relation with the song. In the tonality, the positive and energised lightness of the main arpeggiation is counterpointed to the falling steps of the bass. It is poised, holds the consistency of its delicate and balanced refraining in a way that allows for elements to emerge and fall away, to be added and to fade out, always holding its presence. It is a charging of the visual space and its meaning with all of its implied and realised energy of formation (its very now of presence).

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There are connections sonically speaking between this kind of work and the threads picked up later by Boards of Canada, Plaid and numerous others. Head back instead and we run into things like synth pioneer Raymond Scott, whose Manhattan Research Project in the 1950’s and 60’s was about applying these sounds, newly forged from the horizon of early synthesis – to nascent corporate and other informational films, with the specific intent of imbuing them with a sense of an extended benevolent science and of the future. The seam of corporate and state modernism in the domestic of homes and lives around the developed (and ‘westernised’) world.

As such, its not a stretch to understand that these sounds, still relatively new in the lexicon of musical instrument voices and production, could carry with them that edge of futurity and of the first and early promise of science fiction as a dream of the arrival into people’s live of a quasi-magical force that would transform existence and make the impossible commonplace. In this respect it can become the signifier of the dream of contemporaneous futurity, its affect and its transcendence (to whichever degree).

That the presence with these sounds of this kind of affect, association and relation for me suggests that when applied to films and stories in image – potentials arise for a sphere of meaning and emotional resonance connected to a shared virtual-real force both narrative and dreamed that emerged strongly in the early mid 20th century – and which has in many ways become a dominant mainstream socio-cultural force. A conjoined production whose expression – now in relation to what has been emerging from the unknown but present in the field of the technologic/ electronic (and that mysterious somewhat ‘tamed’ electrical force itself) and the creations of new expansive capacities that can themselves create new expansive capacities. Arriving previously unknown, now seemingly allied (or compliant) and whose potentials as a force are of a kind of ongoing ‘magicalised’ transformation of the bounds of the unreal into the real (a process that simultaneously mundanifies as arrival while maintaining the edge as the contact with previously untapped forces).

Such promise also suggests in our being the possibilities of a wider apperception – the making differentially understood of what was unknown, including which the context of the arrival of such a thing (a futurity) and its spaces, the space of our combined facets of being (in form and force) in a manner about which we are in the dark and yet are perpetually (potentially) learning of. This akin to the thought arrived at by Plato, as if we find ourselves ontologically in a darkened space (the cave), unable to make out what is (/virtually) around or with us. Except instead of seeing the shadows/reflections on the wall, we see the images of a story (a story that includes other stories and stories of stories) soon we forget that this is where we are until we are only aware of the stories on display and of which we all feel part. We even become unaware that generally only fragments or fractions of these stories pertain to our now-forgotten situation or its potential transformations and elucidations.

Yet while the language of light has carried its own burden (the language-resource of reason through the enlightenment being one) we tend to forget about sounds in this dimension of the revelatory and yet if nothing else, Tangerine Dream, minimalism remind us of the simultaneous power and conveyance of the refrain and of the transformative possibility of sonic occurrence and (psycho-acoustic/virtual/intensive) resonance. These are also stories, of where sounds lead, where they take us, what happens when they combine with the world of the image and their relations of meaning. These too are the questions to be asking of such encounters, in the short and blinkered stay in the antechamber of living…

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