Cliff Martinez sat down with ILIO to talk about his transition from rock drummer to film composer, show his exotic musical toys, and discuss what quality a virtual instrument must possess to appear in his scores. With many blockbuster films to his credit, he knows what he's talking about.
On the western verges of the San Fernando Valley, surrounded by an array of custom-constructed instruments — mammoth steel drums, a gamelan metallophone, a Baschet Cristal, whose spiky protrusions suggest a Mars Rover as much as anything musical — film composer Cliff Martinez wages war with the ordinary. By deploying all that is imaginative and unique at his disposal, Martinez has hewn a singular path in the scoring of contemporary cinema. Influenced by developments at the radical fringes of music making, pulling notes from minimalism and ethnographic melodies alike, he has lent his talents to a diverse assortment of movies and in so doing, has pointed toward the horizon, to what film music could become.
Martinez, born in the Bronx and raised in Ohio, moved to California in 1976, just in time for the upheaval occasioned by punk. His stints as drummer for the Weirdos, Lydia Lunch and Foetus frontman Jim Thirlwell, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dickies, variously preceded and followed a resume item of signal importance in Martinez’s past, the evidence of which is close at hand. The front hall of his hillside home-cum-studio sports framed album art from the landmark ‘60s album Trout Masque Replica, signed by “Don”, a testament to Cliff’s one-time role as drummer in the final incarnation of legendary iconoclasts Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band.
It could not have been an altogether bad thing, to be caught up in the mounting buzz surrounding the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the early years of the 1980’s. Cliff Martinez played drums on that band’s first two albums. An interesting time, and not without its perqs, one that found the band rehearsing in the Detroit living room of their producer, Funkadelic overlord George Clinton, for months at a stretch. But it was during this period that the Peppers’ drummer spent increasing amounts of studio time in thrall to a recently introduced sampling drum machine, a device that, to Cliff’s mind, held the potential of an entire band within a box. In part, it was Cliff’s investigation of advancements in music technology that would lead ultimately to his abandoning the life of a rock drummer for a career in film music.
Martinez’s entrée into music for film happened somewhat inadvertently, when a tape collage he had constructed (“Several of my friends making aggressively weird noises, which I assigned to pads on a MIDI percussion controller.”) led to an opportunity to score an episode of comedian Paul Reuben’s transgressive mid-‘80s TV hit, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The sound collage, in turn, was heard by Steven Soderbergh. Nascent director Soderbergh tapped budding composer Martinez to provide the music for the former’s first theatrical release, sex, lies and videotape. The film’s success launched a new era of independent filmmaking, did much to establish the Sundance Festival as an arbiter of new directions in cinema and put Cliff Martinez in the ring as a contender within the latest crop of film composers.
Martinez has since received compositional credit on many of Steven Soderbergh’s films. The hammered dulcimer that wends throughout Kafka, the seasick piano that portends a violent conclusion for The Limey, the amalgam of steel drums and ambient textures drifting in deep space during Solaris; all these were conjured in Cliff’s studio, as were other Soderbergh scores such as Gray’s Anatomy, Schizopolis and Traffic, the latter winning four Oscars and earning a Grammy nomination for its music. In addition, Cliff’s ability to balance themes both idiosyncratic and heartrending has imbued critical favorites such as director Allan Moyle’s Pump Up The Volume (1990), Wicker Park (directed by Paul McGuigan in 2004) and James Cox’s 2003 feature Wonderland with tonal palettes unlike any currently heard in movie theaters. For the latter, Martinez conjured airy timbres unique to the Baschet Cristal. (According to Cliff, the Cristal “Works marvelously during crime scenes, especially those featuring huge plumes of blood on the walls.”) More impressive still was his depiction of sordid mystery at the core of director Joe Carnahan’s Narc (2002), comprising tweaked-out synthetic bass lines culled from techno club music and keyboards seemingly swathed in dense vapor.
Aldous Huxley, a figure identified with the antipodal fringes of experience, once noted that “What the cinema can do better than literature or the spoken drama is to be fantastic.” The English author’s words go some distance toward defining Cliff Martinez’s distinct franchise within the world of film music. Abetted by curiosity for all that is new and otherworldly – whether in software or the intangibles of musical timbre and tonality – the man who once drummed continuously for 72 hours, prior to his audition for Captain Beefheart, today continues to push the boundaries of what might be considered ‘fantastic’ in film scoring.