Composer and musician Barry Adamson talks to Northern Soul
On Barry Adamson’s new album, Know Where to Run, there’s a track called Cine City. It’s brassy, vivid, edgy, dramatic and propulsive – in short, highly cinematic. Its title, though, is meant as a nod in two different directions.
Cine City is the name of a film festival in Adamson’s home town of Brighton, a festival of which he is an enthusiastic patron. But it was also the name of a long-standing cinema in the Manchester suburb of Withington, a place which Adamson, who grew up in nearby Moss Side, used to frequent.
“That’s kind of where I lived on Saturday mornings up until the age of about 15,” Adamson tells Northern Soul. “Everything I experienced in the cinema came from there, so it’s a kind of reference to the way that things have come full circle in that respect because it is the name of the festival too. Just a little nod to coincidence, if you like.”
Adamson‘s career in music has been remarkable, whether as a member of post-punk deities Magazine, or the esteemed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, or else as a successful solo artist. In the latter capacity, he was an early proponent of the notion of creating a soundtrack to an imaginary film: expansive, evocative, often instrumental music which sounds as though it ought to be a movie score. He is also known for a slew of acclaimed soundtracks including his contributions to Derek Jarman’s The Last of England, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
Throughout August, Adamson is bringing this deep love of film and film music to Manchester’s HOME, by co-curating a special season of screenings entitled Soundtrack. His fellow curator is Jason Wood, HOME‘s artistic director for film, who has known Adamson for a while.
“We met on a panel at the BFI one day and found we had similar tastes and similar ideas about film and became mates,” Adamson says. “I’ve followed his career and he’s followed mine, so our paths have crossed at various times.”
An initial discussion about Adamson getting involved in HOME’s current Jazz on Film season has blossomed into something all of its own. Choosing exactly which films to show for the Soundtrack season was tricky, though. For one thing, great films don’t always have great soundtracks, or indeed vice versa.
Adamson explains: “Obviously I’ve veered towards the things that have excited me and actually influenced me, the things that have made sense of film for me. Sometimes there’s a great soundtrack and a dodgy film, but I think I’ve been quite straight ahead in thinking, this is a great film and it has a great score as well. But it comes from all the elements that are involved, from the writing and the acting to the directing. I think those sorts of things influence each other within a film a lot of the time. I think any good director has got a good eye for what’s going to happen in terms of the score.”
For a film score connoisseur, though, making a wish list like this must be a bit like being a guest on Desert Island Discs.
“Yeah, it is a bit, but it’d be a shame to go on Desert Island Discs and ask to play It’s Now or Never by Elvis Presley and they say, ‘actually, we can’t play that one’.”
Indeed, public cinema screenings can be a complex business. If a film isn’t currently in distribution, or the rights aren’t freely available, it’s not possible to show it.
“For example, one of the prime ones for me would have been The Man with the Golden Arm. That was a sort of breakout soundtrack for me, but we just couldn’t get hold of it to show. That happened with a lot of different films, so there’s about three or four different lists that have been tethered down to what we’ve got.”
Nevertheless, it’s ended up as a masterly, hugely appealing roster of screenings, taking in Anatomy of a Murder, A Touch of Evil, Psycho, Shadows, Performance and Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear. Adamson himself will appear with Jason Wood for a Q&A alongside the first screening, David Lynch’s masterly mindwarp Lost Highway, and will also introduce Jonathan Glazer’s astonishing Under the Skin.
All this is happening just a stone’s throw from where Adamson grew up during the 60s and 70s. In promoting the season, Adamson has said: “Manchester was the perfect black and white movie set to play out my early life in. It was this big, dark, beautiful city where character, content and back-story came together to influence my very being in the world.”
This will certainly chime with anyone who has heard his fine 1989 solo album Moss Side Story. Despite living down in Brighton, is Adamson familiar enough with modern Manchester to see how it’s evolved?
“I’m not around a lot, but of course I see this sort of technicolor landscape now, how it’s changed and is changing constantly. I guess I’m fairly glued to an era: early 60s Moss Side. It’s like, you couldn’t build that as a film set. That’s just the way it was, or maybe that’s the way I observed it and made it into a sort of filmic playground, if you like, for me to run around and grow up in. It was full of all the things that happened in films – great characters and shades of light and darkness, things happening, things being said about things on the grapevine and stories unfolding about people’s lives against a changing backdrop.”
Something else that’s changed down the decades is the wider appreciation of film soundtracks. In recent years, Neil Brand’s BBC Four series Sound of Cinema and Mark Kermode’s Radio 2 show The Soundtrack of my Life have helped to make the subject almost a mainstream interest. But it wasn’t always so.
“l remember I used to think, around when I was doing stuff like Moss Side Story, that the soundtrack is wack,” Adamson says. “It was seen as like, dirty old men in overcoats shuffling around one section of the record shop, you know? ‘Ooh, don’t go over there!’ – ‘Why, what’s over there?’ – ‘Soundtracks!’ Sort of a specialist, slightly creepy area of interest. Now of course it’s very much mainstream and it’s no shame any more to be a fan of the soundtrack. It’s something that people understand and get.”
On the other hand, Adamson worries that contemporary audiences’ over-familiarity with the language of the film score may have debased it as an art form.
“I think there was something about that golden era of the 70s where the language was almost being learnt and experienced at the same time it was being created, which is an amazing thing to happen. You get stuff like the Bernard Hermann scores where they’re almost like, you’re listening and you’re kind of feeling this tension and you don’t quite understand it. Can you hear it, are you even aware that there’s music there? It’s functioning in that way, so there’s a great sort of mystery about the language and also a kind of development about the language of sound and music. Whereas I think now we all know if someone’s sad, what sort of music accompanies sadness, for example, and I think it’s become a slightly diluted language, just because we’ve got used to it. It’s quite interesting that the soundtrack has become that mainstream, but the language has become slightly obsolete.”
Still, he believes that there are modern soundtrack composers working to widen the horizons of the art.
“One of the films we’re showing is Under the Skin. Mica Levi from Micachu & The Shapes did a score for that which was really, really innovative and really out there, using contemporary ideas as well as old ideas, of melody but also modern technology, sampling and slowing samples down. Throughout the 80s and 90s, synthesizer sounds meant, ‘oh, it’s cold, this environment’s cold’. Whereas Mica uses it for feeling, and I think that flips the thing on its head slightly, because the language is being discussed again and opened up in another way. For me, I think that’s probably one of the better scores around in later times, because of taking that approach to it.”
For personal reasons, Adamson’s overall highlight of the HOME season remains Lost Highway, for which he contributed to the soundtrack.
“It was an experience that I’ll always treasure. As well as doing it alongside Angelo Badalamenti and the other people who were involved in the score, it was a great experience as well to be directed by a master like David Lynch, who was very generous with me. He wasn’t like, ‘here’s the film, go off and send music back and I’ll say yes or no’. He was very involved. I got to discuss things and try things and get feedback from him. I feel very lucky to have had that as a sort of masterclass. So I’m going to have to stand beside that film but I feel very honoured to be talking at a Q&A when it’s shown at HOME, and to come home to do that, as well.”
The Soundtrack season is at HOME in Manchester, August 5-31, 2016. For more information, click here.
The screening of Lost Highway with a Barry Adamson Q&A is August 5; the screening of Under the Skin introduced by Barry Adamson is August 6, 2016
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