Fanfare’s Colin Clarke Reviews “L.A. Ex” & Interviews Craig Safan
Beautifully recorded with a high level of immediacy, Craig Safan’s third and newest recording is certainly one to get the blood pumping. The high energy of High on Hope Street sets the bar high as this celebration of life in the City of Angels launches. There’s also a sense of play in the vocals, plus real grit to the violin solos.
The disc’s title, L. A. Ex, works with memory (as discussed in the associated interview) but also refers to the city’s famous airport. Spring St. Boogie with its high-octane repetitions seems to simultaneously pay homage to boogie and big bands, but with an extra-beat “kick” to it. The immediacy of the recording is remarkable, particularly over good quality headphones.
The rather more psychedelic Angel’s Flight refers to a funicular railway. The musical figurations with their ascending/descending trajectory seem to link into that up and down life, while we hear grinding musique concrète sounds as part of this varied landscape. More vibrant in color is the mariachi band of El Coyote, but even here there are surprises galore. As Safan says, he is a great fan of putting together disparate materials and “seeing what happens”; this is the example par excellence, and as a musical collage it is unbeatable.
“Swimmy” is probably the best word for Planetarium; it sits in high contrast to The Manne-Hole, when listeners get the distinct impression that they are eavesdropping on a jam session. The next track, Moore Drive, could hardly be more different. The street is the one Safan grew up on; in one year, workers found an intact mammoth’s skeleton. (This is a slow processional so in one sense perhaps it could be seen as a funeral cortège for the mammoth.) A synthesizer pad over piano creates the atmosphere, while a live violin sings. It’s all spooky yet somehow homely, yet repeated exposure only reveals more enigmas. This track is far less simple than it sounds on first hearing, at least emotionally.
The place Pandora’s Box on Sunset Strip has had a checkered history, from hippie hang-out to coffeehouse. It was demolished after the Sunset Strip Riots. Here a tribute to The Doors morphs into Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. We also find mellatrons in the mix, a phenomenally exciting track with the occasional nod to Minimalism in its repetitions of motifs. Personally, I love the Scooby Doo aspect of The Witch’s House: there’s cartoon horror at the beginning before the beat kicks in, with big band gestures now transmogrified into the house of horrors ride at the fun house.
Playing on the “dirtier” aspects of Mulholland Drive in Mulholland Nights, this track features a tenor sax melody that has a decidedly dark side to it. As the music finds its way back to pure rhythm, the music seems in danger of evaporating, but the snake-like sax melody revivifies it. (Does it threaten to slide into the famous sax solo from Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street at one point, I wonder?)
Humor climaxes in the wacky, hilarious Hitching a Ride, but throughout all the chaos made manifest is a sure compositional hand (all of which equally applies to the caricatures invoked in Muscles, Tattoos and Veins). We need the down time of Summer Dreams, some chill-out time at Malibu beach, a vibrant mix of electric guitars and synthesizers. Again, there’s an aspect of playing with expectation. Previously, it was the discombobulating extra beat; there, accents shift. Perhaps there is a nod to Janáček here (try guessing when the brass come in during the first movement of the Sinfonietta; it all sounds perfectly predictable, but it’s not).
The sense of a long, restrained crescendo via a slow waltz issues through P.O.P. Davey Jones’ Locker (Pacific Ocean Park) before the madcap mayhem of The Jetsons represents The Theme Building; manic electric cello pervades the argument. The sheer vigor of this track is positively invigorating.
Finally, Smog is a piece that holds extremes, from the primal drums to the long-breathed melodies to the oscillating, almost inaudible background that somehow reminds me of the buzzing wind oscillations at the outset of Stravinsky’s “Shrove-Tide Fair” from Petrushka.
There is a real impression of going into some sort of time vortex when listening to this disc; one is never sure which memory of which era will come into focus next. Safan’s imagination is vast, and he is a master painter in the way he creates an individual world for each track. Fantastically inventive; brilliantly realized. Colin Clarke
INTERVIEW WITH CRAIG SAFAN
Composer Craig Safan was previously interviewed in Fanfare 39:3, around his disc Rough Magic (a disc I myself also reviewed); Marc Medwin’s article provides excellent background for this newest release, L. A. Ex. This time it was my pleasure to explore this chameleon composer; Safan’s music draws you in. It is visceral, and yet refuses to be pinned down in any way; it also seems to occupy vast terrains easily. This is a disc that is vital, primal, and often funny. But it riffs on concepts of memory, too, as we shall see.
Previously interviewed in Fanfare, you’ve talked about the importance of improvisation in your training via your teacher Helene Mirich, and I wonder if that is a vital component in the diversity of musics we hear on this new album—the ability to go to any and all musical places?
I’ve always been able to compose in many styles. I started in ragtime, went to jazz and pop, and then to rock. Along the way I started listening to classical. My first ever classical album was Bernstein conducting The Rite of Spring! I’ve been improvising since I was six years old and believe all composition has an element of improvisation in it. The trick is recognizing the good little slices of improvization and developing them into composed music! Also, as I was a fine arts major at university, I never had any of those preconceptions that come with going to a music conservatory.
You have called yourself “basically a dramatic composer”; is that referring to your ability to conjure up atmospheres and memories?
Yes, I think so. I think my music almost always tells a story. It is rarely passive. That’s why I’m not really a pop song writer; my music goes too many places for pop music! When I see or feel something, I immediately hear music. Maybe I have musical synesthesia!
For your new disc, L. A. Ex, there’s an emphasis on the importance of place. “I’ve always boomeranged back to L. A.,” you say —your father was born there, as were you. What is it about LA that continues to fascinate you? Is it possible to put in in a few words, or is it too vast for that?
LA is where I grew up. I’ve seen it change over many years, sometimes in big ways, sometimes subtly. It’s also an endless city. It seems to have no boundaries. One can always find something new in it. I grew up in the 1950s, when LA was pretty sleepy. Now it’s a major metropolis. Also, I’ve always felt very connected to the Latino population here. My mother was born on the border of Texas and Mexico and was bilingual. I have family in Mexico. That’s why I loved writing the music for the film Stand and Deliver! I find the city infinitely interesting and nostalgic!
I’m intrigued by your work with the past, whether it be the distant past in Rough Magic—and therefore mankind’s collective memory—or here with a personal touch in terms of your own life. What is it that fascinates you about the nature of memory?
I think I was born with memories! I was always collecting rocks and fossils, looking through telescopes, visiting museums, and thinking about dinosaurs. I also had a huge seashell collection and spent my 20s reading Jung! My first trip with my wife was to visit the ruins of Palenque in Southern Mexico. The second was to see the Paleolithic cave art in Pech Merle in France. I’ve always thought I would have become an archaeologist or scientist if I hadn’t had such a strong pull to music.
And in terms of something so visceral as your own life, is it the energy of a place itself that also fascinates?
Yes, I can always feel the energy of a place. It definitely informs my music.
Your description of LA is very interesting to me (I’ve never even been to the States, much less California!). The openness of LA, its relaxed vibe and yet what you describe as a “great creative energy” that buzzes underneath all of this. Is the pluralistic nature of the population of LA a contributing factor to the variety on display on this disc?
Yes, that’s part of it. But I think more it’s that the very space of the city allows lots of freedom of expression. It’s not cramped and hyper like New York City or even London. One can be comfortable in one’s little space and get a lot done. Also, it’s the center of the film business and the music business, so there are always many young people trying to make it. That adds to its energy. As far as the different styles of music, it just seemed like it was called for—Mexican restaurants, jazz club, observatory, busy streets, warm beach, etc.
And you have created quite a sonic palette: a mix of live musicians with acoustic instruments and digital samples.
Yes, there is no genre to this album! It floats and jumps all over the map.
Can you explain more about the idea of the album moving from East to West?
That was purely arbitrary. When figuring out how to sequence the album I tried all sorts of different possibilities. My wife suggested just going from East to West. I liked it!
Your music tries to embrace the whole gamut, from “sand and surf” to “urban rock clubs” and jazz, to the “joyful pizzaz of amusement parks.” Yet it is all discernably from the same pen. Is this variety something you have deliberately cultivated? Does it come from your experiences with film music?
I think whatever style I write in always sounds like me! I’ve been interested in different styles and have felt comfortable going from one to another for all my life. This has been a big help in my film music as one film may use a Korean orchestra, the next a full symphony, the next all electronic. I find that kind of writing fun and challenging. I’d be bored only composing in one genre.
I wonder if we might now discuss the tracks themselves one at a time, as they each hold something different.
High on Hope Street (the main drag of downtown LA)—the name itself seems to be a trigger for you? There’s sampled scat, and it has some body percussion. What did you ask of your performers, in that regard, precisely?
I’m the only performer on that track, except for the violin solo. I did a bunch of scatting and then started laying the results on different tracks, slightly out of sync with each other. I also sampled lots of body/mouth percussion. I was trying to get a feeling of excitement with a bit of chaos. I’m not sure where the violin solo came from—it just felt right to me. I told the violinist just to get as much energy out of it as possible. I think she did a great job! In the mixing process we also made the violin sound a bit more intense, almost like an electric fiddle.
This is a terrifically exciting track—spatially too it seems very carefully organized (as in sounds in the listening space, which seems particularly exciting when using headphones). Even within the one track there is a plethora of sounds, from the jazz violin to the grungy bass—and insane sax solos! What was the atmosphere you were trying to create here?
I was going after excitement and chaos and the unexpected. In terms of the space, the mixer/producer Greg Prestopino is a master at creating a spatial experience. Listen to my previous albums Rough Magic (which is much less pop and almost aleatoric), and also Sirens, to hear what amazing spaces he creates.
Spring Street Boogie (Downtown 2006)—this is the LA’s Wall Street. You opted for nine-to-a-bar boogie, which gives it that slightly unpredictable vibe—and we meet a similar technique later in the album. Is this idea of destabilizing elements important to you?
Well, don’t you find an eight-to-the-bar boogie a bit predictable and boring?! I know the saxophones found their parts quite challenging, but that’s what I like. Giving these great musicians I’m privileged to work with a challenge is always fun and actually appreciated by the musicians (who also get bored). The players who did the TV series Cheers used to call themselves the “bar band from Mars” because there were so many little bits of weirdness in the music!
Angel’s Flight Bunker Hill 1958–2021—this is LA noir “extreme.” Built in 1901, a funicular goes up and down Bunker Hill —a tourist hotspot. It includes musique concrète—grinding gear sounds that you found on the street and recorded on an iPhone. I presume the musical figuration is derived from the idea of the funicular going up and down again—from which that simple metaphor a jazz trumpet solo rises?
Yes, the piano and violin figures sort of feel like the up and down journey of the train. The industrial/steam-punk sound was from a grinder that makes the grooves in the cement sidewalk so wheelchairs can get traction, and the muted trumpet is the most typical sound of LA noir. Put them all together, and you get something a bit new!
As for El Coyote: Hollywood 1948–2021—there is Latina folk here, mariachi choruses flamenco, and disco salsa … but different keys! I found this track hilarious—there’s such fun here, especially in the sudden mood changes and juxtapositions. Is this a sport of post-Ivesian collage for our era? Is that fair? (I even heard soundtracks to 1970s cop shows in here, but I may be making that up!)
I’m glad you got the fun feeling. LA is a fun and wacky place (think Pee Wee’s Playhouse), and I try to have a laugh with some of the tracks. Ives? Well, I’m a big fan of putting together a bunch of disparate elements, just to see what happens. I liked how the keys overlap; putting the sections all in the same key would have been dull. I pictured the piece as each type of music happening simultaneously in different rooms in the restaurant.
Planetarium Star Show Griffith Park 1983—which film had its music recorded on the Observatory’s rotunda? Also, can you explain “echoplexing” for the reader (which is applied to the trumpets)? This echo system seems to have had something of a cult following; I’m intrigued to find that Miles Davis used it (along with many others). This track is very swimmy indeed! I take it that the deep quiet poundings are to ground the experience in some way. I wonder if I’m imagining a Janáček influence here—in the trumpets towards the end in particular?
Long ago I was able to use the rotunda at the Griffith Observatory to record weird sounds for the movie Wolfen. I set it up like Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In a Room where each successive recording brings out the resonant frequency of the rotunda.
The “Echoplex” was a device that used actual magnetic tape to create an echo effect. I remember hearing Jerry Goldsmith use it in a recording (maybe Alien) and, in my mind, it came to signify 1970s sci-fi film music. I used it for that typical “outer space” feeling. I am definitely a big fan of Janáček’s Sinfonietta … the trumpets are amazing! I guess I must have channeled that with all the brass and timpani and cymbals. Good call! And, yes, there are so many vocal lines going on that it had to be grounded in some way as we travel to outer space together!
The Manne-Hole Cahuenga Blvd, 1962 jazz—Shelly’s Manne-Hole was opened by the drummer Shelly Manne—and you saw Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans, and so on there. I’m so jealous about Monk—a true genius! You got to shake Monk’s hand—was he as laid back as both his music and the film footage I’ve seen of him imply? And could you describe how the music is inspired by Monk? Are the keyboard’s chordal solos, the single-line right hand passages in the track all part of that?
Monk was ripped on God knows what. He seemed barely conscious as he reached out his hand to me. I was around 13 and very naïve. As they say, it rocked my world; I never forgot it. I played a lot of jazz piano when I was that age. My teacher and I would trade solos on two pianos. Also, she would transcribe (from a vinyl record!) Monk’s solos for me to play. I was thinking Monk but also the many other pianists I heard there: Hampton Hawes, Evans, Bobby Timmons, etc. I wanted to get the feeling of a small jazz club with the scattered applause, but also added the electric sound of the piano and the build of the saxes as the piece progresses, as if we’re going into a much larger, stranger venue.
Moore Drive Carthay Circle, 1958—these are the street you grew up on! I’m intrigued by the story of a mammoth’s skeleton! Described as “a dark sonata for standing in the shadows,” this is highly atmospheric—it unfolds slowly. Of all the tracks, this comes closest to an imaginary film scene. Is that how you compose always, by translating visual imagery into sound?
I am affected by visuals. I was a fine arts major at university. I never went to music school. So I guess visuals are a big part of my life.
I feel very nostalgic about where I grew up. It seems so long ago, and yet I can still drive by our old house and not much has changed on the street. At this point I see it through many filters. I really like the solo violin … it moves me. Also, I like all the ambient sounds behind the chords.
Pandora’s Box (Hey, hey hey) Sunset Strip 1965 was a candy-colored club where you first heard the music of Bob Dylan. It was a hippie hang-out; here, Jim Morrison and the Doors meet Hendrix. Very different—headbanging music, almost. Another example of your chameleon craft!
Yeah, this was channeling the 1960s. I was very much a hippie and loved rock music. The Beatles were my favorites. When Sargent Pepper came out I immediately locked myself in a practice room and transcribed the entire album!
The piece opens with a Doors-like groove, which starts to fall apart. By the end the band isn’t playing together at all! Then the psychedelics take over and we are ripped by a time machine into the 1960s. Mellotron, string quartet, electric guitar, analog synthesizer, glued together by solo violin … all reminiscent of that amazing time in pop music.
The Witch’s House West LA 1959—this is haunted house music: “Spooky like a cartoon.” This is glorious! Hilarious! I kept thinking of Scooby Doo, especially with the big band trill gestures. There are zany sounds at end—how were they made (the high pitched, spiraling ones)? I’m guessing it’s really fun to compose music like this!
It’s definitely a cartoon. Besides the usual drum set, the rhythm track has bones. The high-pitched sound is a bowed saw. The trills are by the band plus a female choir going “Oooo….” Also, as I said before, I started by playing ragtime piano, so there’s lots of it in this piece! I’ve always loved the old cartoons … you might take a look at the one of Mickey Mouse with the dancing skeletons.
Mulholland Nights – between LA and the Valley 2001—I may need a bit of background to the importance of this drive and how you reflect that in music (although I’m also aware of the film of that name) … it’s certainly ambient, atmospheric, laid-back.
Mulholland Drive is the quintessential make-out spot in LA. It’s on the ridge of the Santa Monica mountains, with a view from both sides of the road of the entire city and valley. It’s quite isolated and dark. Of course, there are many stories of crime and murder happening to unsuspecting couples smooching in their cars! It was also featured in some noir films. My take on it is a jerky, unstable musical pad accompanying a sultry tenor sax, with delayed, clustered strings following the sax melody. I really like this one!
Hitching a Ride —Pacific Coast Highway 1964—more cartoony music, the story of a hitchhiker. This is very comedic, it strikes me—is it tongue-in-cheek? And there’s a real story that emerges! How did this piece come about?
I used to hitch a ride to the beach every summer. In those days it was okay and not considered dangerous. I had a specific picture for this track: a high-voiced, pimply-faced teen is trying to get to the Pacific Coast Highway, or as it’s known here, the “PCH.” He lands a ride in a very souped-up hot rod with a big, bad ogre driving it. The music is sort of Mission Impossible, with the bass pattern and Fender guitars and rock organ solo. The voices are all me, tuned up and down! For the screams/laughter at the end I used a sound effect library from Hanna Barbera, so they were used in many cartoons.
Summer Dreams Malibu 1960–2000—the longest date span yet! “An electric ode to summer on the beach.” Blissful, hypnotic … which memories does this link into?
I think this is my favorite track. It’s very nostalgic to me. It’s hypnotic because the meters are tricky. The constant ostinato/pattern is a repeating 4/4, 2/4, 3/8. The main guitar melody that keeps repeating at the end is in 3/8—a very spacious, interesting effect! The repeating pattern is made of altered voices, flutes, violins, harmonics on a solo cello, and synthesizers. For some reason I don’t get tired of feeling the heat of the sun on the sand and the rise and fall of the waves. My favorite place is still the beach and ocean.
Muscles, Tattoos & Veins—Venice Beach 1968—bodybuilders. So, Venice Beach = Muscle Beach? And are the words improvised by your daughter, Kira? I found loads of humor in this track! I almost feel this is like a musical picture postcard.
Yes, my daughter improvised the voice on this one. It’s meant to be funny and retro. The music is a sort of Kraftwerk heavy electronic dance groove. I can just see bodybuilders moving to it with a Swedish blonde checking them out! It’s totally a movie.
Davy Jones’ locker POP 1964 (Pacific Ocean Park)—a mysterious Davy Jones’ Locker funhouse. I can absolutely hear the music-boxy dream sequence here—it sounds a little like a deliberate distortion of childhood memories into a distorted fairground mirror/horror space. Is that perhaps a reflection on how we recontextualize these memories?
Yes, these are memories of a place that was fun, exciting, and scary. In one’s memory the scary part gets amplified, probably because it is more evocative and interesting. I like how the sound effects of the wind and water get stronger and louder, as if a storm is coming. I built underwater sounds of bubbles going up and down. I really had fun with this one. It’s sort of a hornpipe with a stormy, wet, windy, mystery.
The Theme Building LAX 1961—this is futuristic architecture (which adorns the front cover of the disc). I’m fascinated with its relationship to The Jetsons. Could you explain that a bit more? This is a terrifically energetic piece of music—and an incredible piece of architecture that inspired it!
The Jetsons typified that 1960s futuristic architecture and design—flying cars, aliens, and cool one-piece jump suits! So the music has that constant eighth note groove going on the pizzicato bass. But the electronic cello is pretty wild and is constantly re-accenting where the beat is. There’s a very tough, challenging part for the cellist! I wrote this very orchestrally, with the thought of a piece for solo electric cello and symphony. There are no synthesizers in it. It’s the energy of the future!!
Finally, Smog—1956 “concludes not with a place but an atmosphere.” I like the slight rhythmic shift again—I couldn’t help thinking of Petrushka at the opening! You call this, and indeed all the tracks, “film music without the film,” and of course the tracks are each highly individual—and painterly, if you see what I mean. Each is a single canvas, and taken together they form a sort of kaleidoscope. What would you say links them all, though? Are there any core traits of what makes up you as a composer that you can list that link them?
This one has a tricky meter: 3/4, 3/8, 3/4, 3/8, constantly repeated. The guitar soloist and the violinist had a hard time at first finding the downbeat. This one is very atmospheric and has a sort of smoggy feeling. I can easily see visuals of floating through the filter of LA air on a bad day in the 1950s. Things have gotten way better since then, when people used to burn their trash in their backyards!
As to the “kaleidoscope” of music, I would say that more and more I’m less and less interested in genre. I think it has almost become meaningless. We all have so much access to all kinds of music that even the most hardened classical Minimalist has probably grown up hearing rock, hip-hop, country, alternative, ethnic, electronic, and all the many forms of Korean music. Now I can hear and see any type of music easily on YouTube or Spotify. My album is all of one piece: love songs to Los Angeles. It mixes up all sorts of genres, as LA mixes up all sorts of people with different backgrounds and histories. I believe in the end of genres, which just pigeonhole composers and limit audiences. There’s a gigantic palette of musical styles and sounds out there. Why are composers and performers supposed to be stuck with only one?
Your producer, Greg Prestopino, who also mixed the music, is clearly expert at what he does. Are you frequent collaborators?
Yes. I’ve known Greg since college, and he is probably my best friend. We worked on my last two albums before L.A. Ex together, Rough Magic and Sirens. As I said, he really understands how to create an amazing four-dimensional space with my music.
Finally, for the disc, what would you hope for regarding the listener who encounters this disc? To come out energized? Or thoughtful? For me, it made me ruminate on my own memories of earlier in life.
I like that the music caused you to think of your own memories. I think that would be a great outcome for the album! Also, I just want the listener to have feelings, sad as well as happy and funny, and enjoy going along for the ride. Maybe having intuitions about life that aren’t really quite grasped or understood, but fully there and resonant.
And what’s next on your musical journey? Anything in the pipeline?
Right now I’m completing a recording of a new score I was commissioned to do a couple of years ago. It’s for the silent film Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. It was performed in LA by the Marina del ReySymphony before the pandemic, and I’ve wanted to make it into a great recording and, hopefully, a new release of the film and score together.