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Her Avant-Garde Tunes Are Getting 'Wide' Notice

Movies: Jocelyn Pook's offbeat music caught the attention of director Stanley Kubrick, known for using classical music in his films.

July 26, 1999|JON BURLINGAME | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

British avant-garde composer Jocelyn Pook may be one of the luckiest musicians around. Not only did director Stanley Kubrick ask her to write original music for his "Eyes Wide Shut," he actually used it.

The legendary director was well known for his use of classical music: Strauss and Ligeti in "2001: A Space Odyssey," Beethoven and Purcell in "A Clockwork Orange," Handel and Schubert in "Barry Lyndon," Bartok and Penderecki in "The Shining."

Only occasionally did he hire contemporary composers to write original music. His rejection of Alex North's entire score for "2001" is notorious; most of Walter (later Wendy) Carlos' work on "Clockwork Orange" and "The Shining" involved electronic realizations of existing works. The synthesized sounds of "Full Metal Jacket" were done by Kubrick's daughter Vivian (under the pseudonym Abigail Mead).

In July 1997, a choreographer rehearsing movements for the masked-ball sequence for "Eyes Wide Shut" happened to play a track from Pook's 1994 album, "Deluge." It was a dramatic work for strings and percussion with the strangely compelling overdub of chanting Romanian priests, the latter played in reverse.

Within hours after hearing the track, Kubrick called Pook directly, asking for more of her music on tape. Two hours later, a car came for the cassette. The next day, another car arrived, this time for Pook. Chauffeured to a meeting with the famous filmmaker, she found him "really warm and really enthusiastic," Pook recalls in a recent interview in Los Angeles. "He was very musically literate. It was a very lively, enjoyable exchange." Kubrick immediately put her to work on the masked-ball and orgy scenes.

Off and on for the next year and a half, the two talked ("It was very much a phone relationship," Pook says, even though the two lived in the London area) and the composer supplied demos for various moments in the film. As usual, Kubrick planned to score much of the film with existing music, including piano pieces by Ligeti and Liszt, a Shostakovich waltz and the Chris Isaak song "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing." (Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata 2" is the dramatic solo-piano piece that recurs at several key points in the film.)

True to Kubrick form, the composer never saw a script and was told only what she needed to know about the few scenes on which she was working. "I knew very much the atmosphere, the images and the masks. I knew the dramatic curve of that section," she recalls. But the plot line and dialogue were a mystery to her. Finally, in early 1999, she saw edited footage.

The quasi-religious track that first interested Kubrick was modified slightly for the masked-ball ritual. In addition, Pook reconfigured another piece, the vaguely Middle Eastern "Migrations" with its Persian and Yemenite vocalists, for the orgy scenes. She wrote new music for several key dialogue sequences, notably Nicole Kidman's sexual-fantasy confessions to husband Tom Cruise.

In all, Pook has 24 minutes of music in the score, mostly written for string ensemble. Only recently did she consider the possibility that her music would wind up in the final cut. "I didn't really want to think about it too much," she says. "It's been going on for a while and I really didn't want to believe it until I heard the music in the film."

What annoys her, however, are the frequent suggestions that the late director was an eccentric recluse. "He was a busy man," she insists. "He was very focused on the work, his family and his close, loyal group of friends and colleagues that he worked with. He was quite paternal with me."

Executive producer Jan Harlan points out that Kubrick felt that music "was a pivotal part of storytelling and drama." Pook's music "is a big contribution," he says. "What's remarkable is that her score fits the images so well."

Pook, who says she's in her mid-30s and favors bright green nail polish, is well known on the London musical scene. She studied violin and viola at England's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and founded an all-female string ensemble called Electra Strings, which played for a number of rock artists (including Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave and the Cranberries).

She toured for three years with the Communards, which was at the center of London's mid-'80s nightclub-disco revival, but has spent the past decade writing music for theater and dance companies and doing occasional TV and film projects. She cites minimalist composers Arvo Part and Michael Nyman as among her influences but also cites the many medieval-music references in her work as one of her less traditional trademarks.

Pook's offbeat sensibility has resulted in works like "Portraits in Absentia," a piece built around answering-machine messages that she expects to perform live (along with music from "Eyes Wide Shut") at a New York concert this fall. She has also been commissioned by London's Newham borough to write "a symphony for 2,000 players" to be performed next summer, and is doing string arrangements for Peter Gabriel's next album.

Although she has already had offers, she says she's "not interested in doing mainstream Hollywood films." The Kubrick movie, she says, "is such a hard act to follow."

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