The Lure of the Hammered Dulcimer

I must make an admission.

Even though I’m a writer, even though I work in film and television, even though I take pretty photos with pretty cameras, there is nothing that seeps faster through my skin, as someone who feels for art, as wholly as music. For me it is the ethyl alcohol of expression.

All it takes is a well-played scale in the right key, on the right day, in the right mood, and I’m sold. Here I am, cash in hand! What band is that? Who is that? Some songs attack me unawares with their brilliance, ignobly leaking out of someone’s cheap computer speaker from some streaming internet radio station. It’s like one of Homer’s Sirens, and me without wax to plug my ears or spare hands on the ship’s deck to strap me down.

I remember music with succinct precision and stalk it down, if only for information to complete the missing pieces of the what/who/when puzzle I carry with me. I remember being sixteen and regularly hounding the employees at a large record store in Edmonton, asking if they knew of the existence to the soundtrack for the film Brazil (and each time my enthusiasm was met with a resounding “no”. It wasn’t released until over a decade later, by which time – while thankful for its eventual existence, for sake of people to experience – I was over it, like a scorned lover).

Sometimes there’s nothing worse than falling in love only to be separated without details of who or what it was that caught your passion. In the case of music, it’s doubly hard because you don’t even have the luxury of a face etched in your memory; you are left with something frustratingly abstract: what it sounds like, which by comparison makes paleontology seem straightforward. It’s the rootsy, gypsy-sounding piece with the theremin!

A recent example is the not-so-recent film Kafka, by Steven Soderbergh. As a film, it’s vivid and engaging, though it suffers from Soderbergh’s serial emotionlessness. It was the soundtrack, however, which caught me off-guard. A beautiful piece of work by Cliff Martinez which incorporated Eastern European (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Western-interpreted flavours of Eastern European) motifs performed on a hammered dulcimer. As soon as I heard that instrument, in that evocative score, my attention was rapped. Done. Thank you. Unfortunately, and not unusually, there was no soundtrack issued (when you consider the type of film it was, released by a major Hollywood studio, and how miserably it must’ve performed in theatres, one can only imagine how the question of “Should we release a soundtrack?” was greeted). On this note, I feel bad for a lot of film and TV composers, or at least the ones whose work transcends the need to only be experienced whilst married to picture and sound effects. If you see a composer on the street, hug him or her. Then ask why the hell they’re not in their studios, holding up the mix, working as they should. I digress…

Yesterday I chanced to search for the Kafka soundtrack again, and to my surprise, on Cliff Martinez’ website, he has released his music cues for various soundtracks which were never commercially available before (for free, albeit with the proviso that they not be used professionally). I couldn’t believe it. I found myself downloading his cues for Kafka in a single Zip file (just under 60 megabytes), and within no time, I’d transferred them to my “portable digital music player”.

I ask what more fulfillment you need when you have a hammered dulcimer, its soft yet briskly percussive tones, reminiscent of a harp, in your headphones on the streetcar.



2 Replies to “The Lure of the Hammered Dulcimer”

  1. thanks so much for the link to the wonderful Kafka score! man, that sure is one incredible opening theme, and its so great of the composer to make it available, now THAT is an artist who gets it. And considering the darn film isnt even available on DVD in the US? jeez.

  2. Thanks for the response – I was beginning to think I was the only person on the planet who was interested in this.

    Cliff Martinez has a very large following amongst film editors and post production people – they often will use his tracks for the offline (or rough) version of edits.

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