Thursday, August 04, 2005

Lalo Schifrin: The Hellstrom Chronicle

Argentinian-born composer for film and TV soundtracks, Lalo Schifrin is truly one of my favourites. His best-known work is probably the theme music to the original TV series of Mission: Impossible (1966), which has been also revamped for its new film remakes. Personally I like the best Schifrin's soundtrack for Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) which works as its own work of art alongside the film, combining a striking jazz funk score to some more avantgardistic touches. 'Scorpio's Theme' with its frantic, violent mood and tempo changes, and haunting wordless female choruses is one of the undeniable classics of any motion picture music ever made.

From the liner notes to Dirty Harry Anthology:

Schifrin's memorable Dirty Harry score, with its signature motif for Harry (played on electric piano) and unsettling theme for the psychotic killer Scorpio, is a masterpiece of the genre. Several critics -- who rarely notice film music, much less write about it -- mentioned the composer's contribution. Time cited the "excellent, eerie jazz score by Lalo Schifrin": Variety said "Lalo Schifrin's modernistic score is very effective." The L.A. Weekly referred to "Lalo Schifrin's watery, ghostly score", and The New Yorker declared that "Lalo Schifrin's pulsating, jazzy electronic trickery drives the picture forward."

It was hardly trickery, of course; that's the art and craft of composing for film. In the case of Scorpio's theme, the use of wordless voices came from the fact that "the killer was very disturbed, deranged", Schifrin explains. "He was hearing voices."

It was a highly original choice, like so much of the score: the combination of jazz and rock elements; an avant-garde use of strings; and in Schifrin's words "a motif of pathos" (also on electric piano), heard when the kidnapped girl's body is found and again at the end of the film after Harry finally dispatches the madman.

Schifrin's score for the 1971 Academy Award-winning documentary film The Hellstrom Chronicles was released on CD in 2003.


Artist: Lalo Schifrin
Title: The Hellstrom Chronicle -- The Official Score by...
Cat.No: ALEPH 029
Year: 2003

1. The Hellstrom Chronicle (Life Evolves) 4:05
2. Primeval Beginning and the Deadly Traps 9:02
3. Horror Montage and the Harvester Ant Community 8:28
4. Metamorphosis 4:13
5. The Termite World 6:40
6. African Drums, Moths and Communication 3:38
7. The Acts of Love 5:27
8. Bees, Wasps, and Mayflies 6:57
9. Rampage of the Driver Ants 8:13
10. The Hellstrom Chronicle (Finale) 2:19

Album produced by Lalo Schifrin and Nick Redman.

Music recorded on April 15th 1971 at MGM Studios Stage I, and April 29th, April 30th, May 5th, 1971 at Samuel Goldwyn Studios Stage 7.


The Hellstrom Chronicle won the 1971 Academy Award as Best Documentary feautre. It may be the most compelling documentary even made about the insect world, even though its narrator isn't real and its premise isn't something with which every scientist will agree: that insects will eventually triumph over mankind and inherit the earth.

The idea belonged to executive producer David L. Wolper, who in 1966 made a National Geographic special about insects, entitled 'The Hidden World', on which Walon Green had served as associate producer and Lalo Schifrin had been one of two composers (creating an improvisational score for the film's most offbeat sequences).

Wolper hired Green -- who by this time had written the now-classic Sam Peckinpah western The Wild Bunch -- and Green began two years of production involving eight camera teams travelling to eleven countries on four continents.

Green himself was one of three principal cinematographers, filming locusts in Ethiopia, mayflies in Minnesota and moths in California. Other cameramen shot termites in Uganda, bees in Japan, spiders in England, butterflies in California and driver ants in Kenya.

Nobody knew what to call it, so for a long time it was simply 'Project X'. Eventually there was a series of titles, including 'The Insects', 'The Silent Enemy', 'The Aliens' and 'The Quiet Contenders'. None lasted more than a few days. Recalls Green: "I shot all this insect footage and cut it together as a straight documentary. The film absolutely did not work. It was a disaster".

Green realised that the film needed a narrator, but his first choice -- a real Scottish scientist who was already preaching mankind's doom -- had contracted hepatitis and was unavailable. It was David Seltzer (another former National Geographic filmmaker who would later pen The Omen) who came up with the idea of creating a fictional scientist to perform the same function.

Green named him Dr. Nils Hellstrom, and the film became The Hellstrom Chronicle. Actor Lawrence Pressman played the self-described 'heretic' and the film now had a narrative device that both strenghthened its message and helped guide the audience through it strange world of bugs and tiny winged creatures.

The score was equally crucial. Green recalls: "Music was everything in The Hellstrom Chronicle". It was really the dialogue of the film. There was a story thread, but the mood and suspense and tempo of the film was predicated on the score. We never thought of anyone but Lalo."

By 1971, Lalo Schifrin was much in demand as a composer for films (with Oscar nominations for Cool Hand Luke and The Fox), television (with multiple Emmy nominations for Mission: Impossible) and records (with four Grammys, including one for his Jazz Mass). One of his most acclaimed works was for Wolper's three-hour documentary The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which he turned into a dramatic cantata that was performed at the Hollywood Bowl.

Schifrin found Hellstrom an irresistible creative challenge. "The music was a fiction within a fiction", he says. "I had to create the aural world of the insects. What would they hear? We don't know. I had to invent it. Then I had to translate and expand it into the human dimension, so the human ear could hear what the insect hears. But this was all my imagination. That's what really inspired me to do it. It was fantastic."

He began by creating "a catalogue of sounds", including dozen of exotic percussion instruments and the unusual sonorities produced by the analogue synthesisers of the the time (both Moog and Yamaha) as well as the traditional orchestra. But the music he had in mind was so unconventional that it could not be notated in the usual fashion. So in several instances he drew visual impressions to try and convey the desired tonalities to the musicians.

Schifrin recalls working late at night in his studio and watching insects buzzing around the lamp on his desk. "I couldn't help thinking that they knew I was writing about them", he says with a smile.

The Hellstrom Chronicle score was truly unique -- not just because Schifrin used an African thumb piano, Mexican clay shakers, Dharma Indian bells, Japanese kabuki drums and an Egyptian sistrum, among many other instruments from around the world, but because the score encompasses a stunning variety of approaches and techniques: aleatoric, serial, jazz-rock, even a fuque for harpsichord. "The movie is almost a different dimension", the composer explains. "Even the strings sometimes sound like an electronic instrument."

The score was recorded in April and May 1971 using several different ensembles, including a 53-piece orchestra; smaller groups that included strings, keyboards and percussion; and electronics alone. "I could have done a really avant-garde concert of this music", notes Schifrin. Adds Green: "I would compare the music to that of a horror film, where you heighten the mood and atmosphere but you don't have something warm and embracing. It was like a weird tone poem for acid droppers".

The film won the Grand Prix du Technique at the Cannes Film Festival, and the most perceptive critics cited the music. "A wonderfully inventive, evocative score", wrote Newsweek. "An outstanding, intricate and relevant score", said Variety. Wolper himself called the music "hauntingly beautiful", and Green singled out the composer for praise in accepting the Oscar.

"I had to play a balancing act between eliciting an emotional reaction from the audience, and at the same time keeping that objective coldness of the insects, which are almost like machines", says the composer. "It was a totally different experience. Not only did I like this project, it became very difficult for me to go back and do regular movies after this. Because The Hellstrom Chronicle pushed my imagination to the limit."
- Jon Burlingame

The phantasmagoric world of Dr. Hellstrom and his alarmist vision of a future Earth demolished and overrun by vast hordes of a remorseless, implacable and unreasoning enemy -- the insects -- makes The Hellstrom Chronicle a fascinating and beautifully shot docudrama, treading a fine line between a cunningly realised "truth" -- the theories of Hellstrom -- with a marvellously rendered look at the creatures themselves in all their colourful, cruel and grisly weirdness. Out of the primordial gunk of the universe's origins came the tiny beings that shaped and sculpted themselves to fit their environment, honing and refining until they had modified their molecules into a perfect survival mechanism -- a custom-designed construct built to withstand everything the Earth could throw at them and more. Nils Hellstrom (Lawrence Pressman) fills us in on the possible threat to society the insects pose, which is deftly intercut with superb photography of the creatures munching, mating and mowing down the opposition.

The aural landscape of such an alien world could of course have taken many forms. The beauty of its strangeness, coupled with the freedom to showcase the 'sound' of the multifarious protagonists, allowed composer Lalo Schifrin a rare treat -- he could give full vent to his not inconsiderable musical imagination and run riot with a score that had played in his head but found no suitable filmic home before now. This liberation, a release if you will, from conventional musical constraints, not only benefitted the picture by adding a subtextual layer of narrative resonance, but also in environmentally establishing for the audience what the insects may actually see, or hear. While it is inevitably impossible to know what insects see or hear, or even if they do, Lalo's avant-garde approach made the world of Hellstrom unmistakably real, and the film is all the more compelling because of it.

One of the most surprising things about the score is how varied it is. Not only in its extraordinary range of instrumentation and wild plethora of musica exotica, but in its sudden mood and tonal shifts, illuminating a dark world with a piercing shaft of light, or evoking the feeling of an impenetrable monsoon being warmed and dried by a gentle sun. Amidst the barbarity and unthinking cruelty of an insect's life, moments of subtlety, kindness, and yes, even love emerge. Listening to the music straight through, without the attachment of the stunning visuals, it tells its own incredible story -- that of a world's birth a demise perhaps -- or an emotional catharsis -- accelerating, peaking, breaking like a giant wave -- full of fury, torment, anger, but at its heart, in its soul, celebrating the great joy of just being alive.

In organising this enormously complex score for presentation on compact disc, it was decided to arrange the music largely (although not entirely) chronologically, in substantive blocks with each grouping of individual pieces adhering to a specific section of the film. The documentary begins with the white-hot molten stream of creation boiling, bubbling and coagulating the tissue of the universe, and 'The Hellstrom Chronicle (Life Evolves)' opens with a gentle precursor which gives way to the frantic pounding of those lava eruptions. As the torrent subsides, life appears if by magic, taking form, gaining sizr, until a monstrous insect is framed against the title card. 'Primeval Beginnings and The Deadly Traps' eerily evokes the very essence of molecular cell structures fermenting in the primordial stwe, later to take root as plants and vegetation sooon to be inhabited by wondrously designed creatures. Of course, the plants themselves can be dangerous and 'The Deadly Traps', those organisms that lure and trap their unsuspecting prey are shown in lethal action. The flight of winged insects is brutally curtailed once they have settled on the sticky green and yellow leaves that seemed oh so inviting. As the Cobra Plants and Venus Flytraps go about their shocking business we hear the first statement of the 'pathos' theme, a recurring motif throughout the score that gently reminds us of creation's inevitably tragic continuum. Pathos transitions into unexpected beauty as we view verdant clusters of gorgeous Sundew Traps, sultrily gulping in the sun, seemingly oblivious to the carnage. The Sundew theme, a pretty melody for synthesiser, brings this section to a mordant and elegiac conclusion.

The eerie and unearthly swishes, thwips and whoomphs of 'Horror Montage' accompany rapid-cut shots of insects in strictly kill-or-be-killed situations. Here the quickest survive, as out of the camouflage leaps the hunter on the unsuspecting prey. A dizzying display of tongues, claws and jaws, clash and lash, wreaking havoc in the trees and on the ground. The machine-like quality of the music here is desperately effective; as Lalo says, it "is so close to actual sound effects, it very likely will prove difficult for a listener unless possessed of an unusually acute ear, to separate one from the other". (For any reader who might wonder what 'Horror Montage' look like written out on a music sheet, you should try to find a copy of Irwin Bazelon's Knowing The Score: Notes On Film Music (1975) which reproduces a page.) 'The Harvester Ant Community' focuses on the industrious building and societal abilities of the ants, and also their adeptness at defence when they are in turn attacked by a marauding band of red ants. The music here is light, delicate and very tonal before descending into extravagant chaos with the red ants' onslaught.

'Metamorphosis' brings forth a lovely theme for the life cycle of a butterfly. Tentatively delineating the awkward state of the chrysalis, the freedom for escape in unfettered flight is given luscious wing by this intriguing combination of strings, synthesiser and percussion. 'The Termite World' is a potpourri of strange and unusual sound textures, using the cymbalom as a featured instrument to lure us into the unbelievably weird termite domicile. Their territory is as alien as it gets, and the score here is appropriately evocative of some science fiction hell. When a break appears in the termite mound and the creatures become vulnerable to attack, the music becomes the unspeakable nightmare of a terrain total collapse. 'African Drums, Moths and Communication' takes us to the scorched earth world of the locusts as the drum beat out their insistent rhythmic warning. The moths can 'hear' and 'speak' to each other across vast distances and their synthesiser calls of hope and harmony plaintatively curl and cross, circumventing the globe.

'The Acts Of Love' begins as a bossa nova for a young couple parked, and embracing at a drive-in. Their tender mating segues into the more primitive, but no less engaging love rituals of the Wolf Spider, and later the Black Widow. Culminating with the Widow killing and eating her lover in a wild orgy of violence, conveyed musically as a psychedelic freak-out, the track allows Lalo the luxury of incorporating three distinct forms of jazz into a hedonistic melange of cool sounds for nocturnal conjugation. 'Bees, Wasps and Mayflies' is the only track on the album that differs substantially from the way the music is used in the film. Beginning with the waterphone, an instrument perfectly suited to Lalo's unique sensibilities (he employed it more effectively than any other film composer), the bees hum and thrum doing their thing until terrorised by an airborne patrol of wasps. Although parts of this music are included in the scene, the 'airplane' effect of the wasp attack was deemed a bit too radical, and was replaced by cues tracked from elsewhere. The 'trilling' motif of the mayflies recurs at different times and is also used to begin the CD.

'Rampage Of The Driver Ants' is the score's tour-de-force. An amazing sonic battering ram of assaultive textures, this dazzling example of musique concrete perfectly brings to vivid and savage life the unremitting brutality and senseless destruction wrought by the driver ants -- the most ferocious strain of the species -- a blind, coherent army of terror whose death marches paralyse with fear all that are caught in the path. In the movie it is terrifying to watch, and the filming of it, with Walon Green himself one of the cameramen, is magnificent. 'Rampage' takes every elemeny from the true musical avant-garde and utterly reimagines it for the cinema. It is fair to say there's no cue like it in any other major motion picture, and while it is not the easiest listens for the undiscerning, it is a work of immense talent and creativity. The whole film inexorably builds to this point and its cumulative power is undeniable. The aftermath, 'The Hellstrom Chronicle (Finale)', recapitulates the 'pathos' theme and the 'Hellstrom' motif, before gently recalling the 'Sundew Traps' for the end titles.

The ideal fusion of music and image occurs when smart, savvy producers and directors have the courage to give their chosen composers the freedom to invent an aural world that will complement, enhance and inherently distinguish the movie they have made. It's a risk, like all great leaps of the imagination, but when it works, my, it's a beautiful thing. Less and less in this day and age will any filmmaker impart that level of confidence in a composer. More and more the reliance is on what has worked in the past, imbuing all moves with a formulaic homogeneity that stifles any progress, musically or otherwise. What we can be thankful for is that once there was a better time, and that Walon Green and Lalo Schifrin were there to take advantage of it. It is true that Lalo even considered retirement from film composition after Hellstrom, fearing that he'd never again be allowed to break new ground. Thankfully, lo these many years and film scores later, Lalo is still out there, banging on the door of innovation, and more often than not being invited in...
- Nick Redman

The Official Website of Lalo Schifrin
Lalo Schifrin @ Wikipedia
Lalo Schifrin @ IMDB
Lalo Schifrin @ Space Age Pop

The Hellstrom Chronicle @ IMDB
The Hellstrom Chronicle review @ Time Out