• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal


We are inching along, but not as quickly as we (or you) would like. If you have already donated, thank you so much. If you haven’t had a chance, consider skipping the coffee this week and drop CounterPunch $5 or more. We provide our content for free, but it costs us a lot to do so. Every dollar counts.

Drumming at the Apocalypse

I didn’t vault happily into the New Year, but slunk into it by way of the cinema, on January 1st taking in a double bill whose two soundtracks offered huge contrasts with another—a sonic clash that seemed to me appropriate to the contradictions that are part of the packaging of this thing we call 2015.

First in theater four, was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, a manic magic trick coursing with near-toxic doses of testosterone. The soundtrack kicks, whips, and goads the characters and the audience along through its phantasmagoria of theatrical action and human dysfunction, the whole unfolding in what appears to be one long take, though seamless splices and other sleights-of-editing provide a few chapter markings as one day turns into the next, the narrative spanning roughly seventy hours. The elegant, economical flow of the camera through time watches the events with a sometimes-perplexed calm that uncannily amplifies the movie’s inexorable crescendo of fragmentation.

As all cineastes and soundtrack fans know by now, the film’s sonic frenzy is literally pedal-to-the-metal stuff: the antic inventions cajoled and kicked out of a de-tuned drum set by jazz musician Antonio Sanchez. There’s the shimmer and throb of brushes on snare and cymbal as the main character, has-been batman-like superhero Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), prowls the backstage labyrinth of an old Broadway theatre, or marches through the crowded desert of Times Square to the clatter and clank of the trap set brimming with so much manic energy that you think it might just explode in a burst of flame and bronze shards.

One of the many miracles of Sanchez’s soundtrack is that it seems both carefully planned and utterly spontaneous. In fact, a meticulous and involved artistic process led to the finished product: Sanchez recorded the temporary track, then provided the final composition, before finally travelling to Los Angeles to do it once again on a drum set whose purposeful dilapidation both symbolizes and somehow sounds like the battered mental state of the characters on screen.

Iñárritu has asserted that Sanchez’s drumming music is meant to be non-diegetic, that is, not heard by the characters in the fictional world of the film. But the movie itself often renders the soundtrack’s status ambiguous, and the music comes across as the sonic read-out of madly pumping hearts and crazily firing synapses: it’s a kind of Geiger counter registering dangerous levels of mental radiation. We seem to be hearing what’s in the head of our fallen hero.

Sanchez’s soundtrack reminds me of Miles Davis’s for Louis Malle’s 1958 thriller, Elevator to the Gallows. The similarity is not purely sonic, and doesn’t simply derive from founding bop drummer Kenny Clarke’s rhythmic joyride through the Parisian dark in Malle’s gripping movie. In both films destiny is rushed along by the rhythms: the soundtrack isn’t simply commenting on individuals and their actions but seems to be driving them.

Given the startlingly original approach and execution of the Birdman soundtrack, it should come as no surprise that Hollywood’s Academy disqualified Sanchez’s work from contention for best soundtrack at this year’s Oscars. The flimsy pretext—one strenuously resisted by Iñárritu—was that there was too much previously composed music, including works by Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. Most commentators—including me—find this ridiculous, but certainly no more egregious than previous rationales for exclusion served up by Tinseltown.

But in over-emphasizing these contributions of long-dead musical white men, the Academy’s dictates do point up another beautiful and bizarre paradox at the beating heart of Birdman: the solo jazz drumming is the diegetic “score” and the Euro-Composers’ mighty works are source music playing from sound systems within the world of the movie itself, as in the unlikely threnody of a Russian symphonic dirge heard in a grubby liquor store off Times Square or the pathos of Mahler’s world-weary song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen rising from the street below as Thomson conjures his former on-screen superpowers and contemplates human flight from the top of an NYC building.

Where Sanchez’s drumming is meant to sound as if it was recorded on the street corner, the classical music heard in the bars and backstreets of New York’s Theatre District is pure and perfect. Yet these categories of the diegetic and non-diegetic are artfully compromised throughout the film, nowhere more trenchantly and poignantly than when Thomson rushes through the backstage warren for his final scene in the play he has written, directed and stars in (adapted from Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). On his way to this shattering climax, Thomson passes by the drummer (ironically not played by Sanchez) doing the “non-diegetic” soundtrack in an alcove off the narrow hallway. It’s both a clever joke and a brilliantly judged boost to the breaking-down of artificial barriers and beliefs on and off screen.

Sanchez’s utterly new mixture of meticulousness and verve marks it as a milestone in the history of film music. His soundtrack has a miraculous talent for keeping things on the ground until there is nowhere to go but up.

You might think that one man drumming is a quick and easy way to crank out music for a film, something much more readily tossed off than a traditional orchestral soundtrack, scored by a composer, orchestrated by an orchestrator, rehearsed and conducted with a large ensemble in a studio. But compare the vitality of Sanchez’s first and only soundtrack to the output of six-time Academy Award nominee, Alexandre Desplat, who scored five films in 2014 alone. There’s a deceptively impressive range to Desplat’s soundtracks: in the past season he’s moved from the fin-de-siècle whimsy of the Grand Budapest Hotel to the bluster and menace of Godzilla. It has been some time since Desplat usurped Hans Zimmer’s place as the most facile of film composers.

The excitement generated by the grit and transcendence of Birdman’s bipolar soundtrack was quickly dampened by the music for my second New Year’s Day movie across the corridor in theatre three, The Imitation Game — yet another telling of Alan Turing’s cracking of the German Enigma code in World War II, and his own sexual concealments. Having already discharged himself valiantly in the service of British myth—see especially his King’s Speech score—Desplat’s Imitation Game is a Philip-Glass-meets-Ralph-Vaughan Williams mash-up: repeating, slow-motion modal figures ride on top of orchestral waves, the general effect meant to evoke the triumph and tragedy of Turing’s genius. It’s an off-the-shelf potion conjuring the grandeur of England’s war-time effort and the cycles of Turing’s epoch-making and epoch-saving code-breaking computer. When Turing, played with troubled panache by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, turns on his computer you can just about see Desplat doing the same at his soundtrack machine: punch in the plot and character coordinates, and the contraption dutifully spits out a soundtrack.

As we hurtle towards the present apocalypse, I’ll take Sanchez’s drums over Desplat’s nostalgic printout—even if the Academy won’t.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

October 22, 2019
Elliot Sperber
Humane War 
October 21, 2019
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Wolf at the Door: Adventures in Fundraising With Cockburn
Rev. William Alberts
Myopic Morality: The Rehabilitation of George W. Bush
Sheldon Richman
Let’s Make Sure the Nazis Killed in Vain
Horace G. Campbell
Chinese Revolution at 70: Twists and Turns, to What?
Jim Kavanagh
The Empire Steps Back
Ralph Nader
Where are the Influentials Who Find Trump Despicable?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Poll Projection: Left-Leaning Jagmeet Singh to Share Power with Trudeau in Canada
Thomas Knapp
Excuses, Excuses: Now Hillary Clinton’s Attacking Her Own Party’s Candidates
Brian Terrell
The United States Air Force at Incirlik, Our National “Black Eye”
Paul Bentley
A Plea for More Cynicism, Not Less: Election Day in Canada
Walter Clemens
No Limits to Evil?
Robert Koehler
The Collusion of Church and State
Kathy Kelly
Taking Next Steps Toward Nuclear Abolition
Charlie Simmons
How the Tax System Rewards Polluters
Chuck Collins
Who is Buying Seattle? The Perils of the Luxury Real Estate Boom
Weekend Edition
October 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Trump as the “Anti-War” President: on Misinformation in American Political Discourse
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Where’s the Beef With Billionaires?
Rob Urie
Capitalism and the Violence of Environmental Decline
Paul Street
Bernie in the Deep Shit: Dismal Dem Debate Reflections
Andrew Levine
What’s So Awful About Foreign Interference?
T.J. Coles
Boris Johnson’s Brexit “Betrayal”: Elect a Clown, Expect a Pie in Your Face
Joseph Natoli
Trump on the March
Ashley Smith
Stop the Normalization of Concentration Camps
Pete Dolack
The Fight to Overturn the Latest Corporate Coup at Pacifica Has Only Begun
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Russophobia at Democratic Party Debate
Chris Gilbert
Forward! A Week of Protest in Catalonia
Daniel Beaumont
Pressing Done Here: Syria, Iraq and “Informed Discussion”
Daniel Warner
Greta the Disturber
John Kendall Hawkins
Journey to the Unknown Interior of (You)
M. G. Piety
“Grim Positivism” vs. Truthiness in Biography
Christopher Fons – Conor McMullen
The Centrism of Elizabeth Warren
Nino Pagliccia
Peace Restored in Ecuador, But is trust?
Rebecca Gordon
Extorting Ukraine is Bad Enough But Trump Has Done Much Worse
Kathleen Wallace
Trump Can’t Survive Where the Bats and Moonlight Laugh
Clark T. Scott
Cross-eyed, Fanged and Horned
Eileen Appelbaum
The PR Campaign to Hide the Real Cause of those Sky-High Surprise Medical Bills
Olivia Alperstein
Nuclear Weapons are an Existential Threat
Colin Todhunter
Asia-Pacific Trade Deal: Trading Away Indian Agriculture?
Sarah Anderson
Where is “Line Worker Barbie”?
Brian Cloughley
Yearning to Breathe Free
Jill Richardson
Why are LGBTQ Rights Even a Debate?
Jesse Jackson
What I Learn While Having Lunch at Cook County Jail
Kathy Kelly
Death, Misery and Bloodshed in Yemen
Maximilian Werner
Leadership Lacking for Wolf Protection