Rough Magic Interview
Sonic Symbols and Fearful Symmetries: An Interview with Craig Safan
“You know that sound, that bright metallic attack when the piano hammer strikes the string, the sound we don’t usually perceive or think about? I wanted it to be right in the foreground, absolutely audible.” Craig Safan’s voice does not so much rise with excitement as shift subtly into a higher gear as he describes an important element of his 1980 score to the film Fade to Black. He may as well have been writing a portion of his aesthetic manifesto. Safan has recently completed and released Rough Magic, his first album of “classical” compositions, but as he makes abundantly clear, while it is certainly a departure from the career he has enjoyed, those manifestations of sound, environment and drama always informing his compositional vision continue to be paramount as he enters this new creative phase.
While it is as a film composer that Safan is widely known and justly respected, he is quick to point out that his career does not define him. “I’ve been very lucky,” he muses. “I’ve had many fantastic opportunities, and they’ve enabled me to undertake this project, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.” Safan speaks from the vantage point of serenity; listening to his voice over the phone, the impression is of certainty tempered by the humility of constant discovery, of a fulfillment without complacency, and with good reason. Indeed, there is hardly a need to document or even discuss his early life; his widely varied musical training in classical and popular music leading to some professional songwriting experiences and, eventually, to film scoring, not to mention his early mentoring experiences with established film composers such as Elmer Bernstein and Fred Steiner, have all been thoroughly documented. The same holds true for his many soundtracks, so thoroughly has he been interviewed about them. From the West-meets-East palimpsests that comprise his music for the 1985 film Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, to the rough-shod bar-band interludes he composed throughout the eleven year run of Cheers to the achingly lyrical and rhapsodic orchestral sonorities imbuing “Son of the Morning Star,” Safan has continually synthesized quest and archetype to create an extraordinary corpus. Equally at home composing for electronic and acoustic forces, his sense of timbre is as inventive as his feel for timing and pacing are impeccable. We spend little time on his past in our interview, but the fact that he studied orchestration with Alvin Lucier, the influential composer of such pieces as “I am Sitting in a Room” and “Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas,” is too fascinating for exclusion. Very simply put and entirely oversimplified, Lucier’s interest has always been in the way sound moves in space and reacts to, and with, the environment in which it occurs. “I am Sitting in a Room” employs the room, in which a speaker’s voice is played back and recorded repeatedly until that room’s resonant frequencies destroy the intelligible sounds of speech, is a landmark contribution to 20th century music, and its spatial and environmental concerns are at the heart of Safan’s multivalent work. “I had a very good classical background,” Safan explains. “I was fortunate enough to learn piano from Helene Mirich, a woman who played classical violin but also improvised; she taught me to improvise and encouraged me to play all kinds of music, including Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk tunes. When I was in college at Brandeis, I had long been reading and writing music of all sorts, and I was arranging some pop records, but I wanted to have my own band. I decided it was time to take an orchestration class, and Lucier was teaching it!” Safan reminisces about Lucier bringing in people to demonstrate the various instrumental ranges and possibilities, but his most vivid memories of that fruitful experience involve Lucier’s comments on sound. “He’d start off by discussing various aspects of orchestration, but he would always digress, suddenly discussing a piece he was writing on how bats hear, just as one example. He became an unofficial advisor of mine; I heard his pieces, read his books, and he had a huge influence on the way that I perceive and use sound.”
It is this world of sonic diversity, its levels and intricacies and the way they relate, that makes Rough Magic such an intriguing and satisfying listening experience. The album’s title is particularly appropriate, given its subject matter and the often starkly archetypal soundscapes Safan has chosen to carve out of his chosen material. “I’ve been interested in mythology since I was very young,” he muses. “Myth books were among the first I had, and later, I discovered the work of Joseph Campbell; I became so deeply involved in it that when my wife and I were first married, I made a point of going to some of the European caves he wrote about.” The seed was planted for recording a series of pieces based on those experiences, but as so often happens, various external concerns necessitated that the project find its way to a back burner. “I was raising a family, and I had a career, admittedly a very wonderful career, but all of that meant that I just had no time to devote to realizing this project, though it remained very important to me. It was about three years ago that I reached the point where I decided that it was time to make it happen.” He visited caves in various parts of France and Spain, some friendly to tourists and some in which crawling on hands and knees through the mud was the only way to get through. He kept his small pocket recorder on constantly, capturing voices, whistling, rocks banged together and even, in one case, struck stalactites, about which more will be said presently. “I was inspired by the ancient art painted and drawn on the walls of the caves. The art was made by humans from 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, and it’s awesome to imagine what that world was like! From what I’ve read, the music of that time would have been completely ritualistic, and stalactites would have been struck in especially resonant areas. That would have been part of the ritual. It was all shamanistic, about bringing the participants into some kind of parallel universe through ecstatic music, though we obviously don’t know what that music sounded like.” Safan has clearly done the research to support his ideas on the subject. His voice rising, he expresses great admiration for recent studies that catalog all of the instruments from caves that have survived. “Obviously, we don’t know about those instruments made of wood or of similar substances that have decayed, but we now have indexes of various flutes, birdbones and many other types of instruments.”
To say that Safan’s music constitutes an exploration of sound is to sell it short, or to understate his achievement. Like the magician, Safan conjures environments, not only through his chosen sounds but through creating spaces, or areas, of varying sizes. Each sound appears whole, carrying its essence with it just as it is hewn out of whatever environment birthed it. As with Lucier’s work, or with the multi-perspective soundscapes of Toshiya Tsunoda, sound and environment are presented in symbiosis, so that each component inhabits a foreground in which details are never sacrificed to the whole. “For each piece, I wanted to create a kind of scenario, but I didn’t want to be too programmatic about it all,” explains Safan. To achieve this, the listener is often brought into what sound like actual spaces, or environments. On “Blind Cave of Eternal Night,” the listener is plunged, with very little ceremony, into a wide and reverberant environment as pitched sounds bounce off of imaginary objects on either side of the stereo spectrum. Very soon after the piece begins, the environment changes, taking on a closer resonance, as if the walls were nearer, but maintaining a wide scope as choral, brass and tympani timbres merge just before the sound of struck stone enters the frame. “These caves were not home,” Safan informs me. “It was a place that you went for the sacred experience, so in that piece, I tried to create an ambience at the beginning by using many human voices which I manipulated to be somewhat alien.” Safan and the album’s mixing engineer, Greg Prestopino, worked very hard to achieve these environments, what I would have called imaginary landscapes, invoking John Cage’s maverick compositional series, until Safan informs me that they are not imaginary environments at all. “All of the reverbs you hear were from the caves. We were using software that will capture a room’s ambience which can then be added to whatever sound you choose.” It’s a kind of modeling, and Safan uses it to create environments that are at once real and invented, his own and yet somehow foreign. “Imagine the feeling of searching in the dark, not knowing where you are; that’s what I was going after, and do you remember the bells at the end? That’s a lithophone, similar to a marimba but made out of stone, and do you hear that single repeated pitch? Yes, that lower-register one right there …” I realize that Safan has the album playing in the background as we speak. “That’s the sound of a stalactite being struck. We have evidence demonstrating that they were chipped off in just such a way, making it likely that they were used in ceremonial music.”
So blatantly environmental a piece—Safan thinks of it as being impressionistic—is only one of the musical topoi presented in these thirteen miniatures. Some are melodic in a traditionally motivic way, the album’s opening track, “Make the Sun Dance,” being based primarily on a two-note idea that becomes integral to its construction. Yet, even this shiny third is immediately displaced by similarly pitched timbres that then go astray, sliding around the fundamental pitches in aleatoric dance only to fade into silence. Many are rhythmic, using any imaginable permutation of drums, bells, shakers and various other percussion in motoric juxtaposition. “Oh yes, I have all of my sounds picked out before I even begin a project,” smiles Safan, “including the percussion. Here, listen, these are all kick drums …” Six or seven different shades of kick drum spark and snap down the phone, and it becomes obvious that Safan is triggering these, via keyboard, from his home studio. Further listens to the album reveal many such timbral similarities, all of which blur the boundaries between what is obviously sampled and the finely adjusted colors that allow his sounds more of a realistic flavor.
Then, without precedent and at the album’s center, comes what might be simultaneously the most threadbare and complex piece on offer. Even the title, “Where Light and Darkness Lies,” addresses a duality that the rest of the pieces evoke in more linear fashion. “I wrote this on a complex curve,” explains Safan, “But I panned each event, or unit, hard left and hard right.” The result is a series of repetitions on either side of the stereo spectrum, and the center is left empty, almost akin to what might be heard on early 1960s popular music in stereo. Unlike most of the sounds on the album, each unit, beginning with bronzy percussion and transparent open fifths, is limited to a very specific point on that spectrum, shackled by its own space, even as other sounds are gradually added. The contradiction lies in the augmentation and the way the music exists in space. The forward motion is gradual, the units increasing in tempo over nearly four minutes. The drama could not be more human, even conventional, in its scope and rush toward a climax, but the components forming the deluge defy categorization. Each stereo channel takes on an orchestral identity, a treasure-trove of timbres covering all areas of the pitch spectrum and encompassing pan-geographical traditions, from plucked sonorities reminiscent of the Indian Surmandal, to drones that simply hang and then slide into descent, growling low-register brass that sound as if they were plucked from Webern circa 1910, tympani, electric guitars, electronic high-register laser-beams and finally, in the very center, a growl, maybe human, maybe not. It is impossible not to invoke William Blake’s tiger, as the piece is constructed in the fearful symmetries of light and dark, left and right, space, time and their opposites, but it also works on a more microcosmic level. It could just as easily serve as a miniature primer of Safan’s work in film music. All of the regions, timbres and musical styles he has explored throughout his long career have been distilled, not least the subtly sliding pitches pervading his rejected score to the 1981 film Wolfen. “Where Light and Darkness Lies” is the most alien and familiar music on offer here, summing up both the album’s raison d’etre and Safan’s approach to music.
“Of course,” Safan’s voice has a smile in it. “I’m basically a dramatic composer, which is what I’ve always been. Writing film music is like writing opera to pictures, which is where my compositional strengths lie. When I imagined these cave pieces, I had very specific visual images that went with each one, and my goal is to put the listener in that place. You might view Rough Magic as a film without pictures.” Even though the thirteen miniatures are sequenced so that a kind of drama becomes evident. “The opening track involves the sunrise, and then, with “A Vision Full of Majesty”, we’ve broken through to the ritual, which is why I used so many voices and relied so heavily on the breath sounds. I didn’t want to make this drama too literal, but there is certainly a dramatic arch to the album’s overall form.”
Given the historical and cultural scope afforded by Rough Magic, I was curious about the proverbial next move. At this point, Safan is scoring fewer films, preferring to focus on his own personal projects. During our initial interview, he is unwilling to discuss anything in precise terms. “Well … it’s still in the very early stages of planning, but I do have some of the sounds for it …” I push back a bit via Email, and it emerges that the next series of pieces will involve, to some degree, Homer’s Odyssey. This coming spring, he’ll journey through portions of Greece, Italy and North Africa in hopes of retracing Odysseus’ steps. “I’m not sure if it will be about the entire Odyssey… that’s probably too much!… but rather about just one aspect of the journey. It will be similar in sound palette to “Rough Magic” but much more melodic (or so I think).” Besides attending to his compositions, Safan is in the planning stages of a course on the psychology of film music. One of the concerns he is considering in the class involves music in otherwise realistic films. He has been deep in the study of the brain, primal music and the way all of it connects with music as employed in films, especially tribal music. Finally, Safan has been increasing his activities as an orchestral conductor. “It’s a real pleasure to stand in front of an actual, living orchestra rather than only sitting and staring at my computer. I’ve always loved electronic music, but it’s also great to hear a traditional symphony orchestra playing one’s music. I conducted twice in Los Angeles this summer and hope to continue next year, possibly in Europe.” Whatever is on Safan’s horizon, it will certainly be as bright as the sunrise he depicts in sound and as deep as the caves that birthed the myths that give his music such life and power. MARC MEDWIN