Fire and Ice


by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis 

performing live with the 

Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs

conducted by Nicholas Buc

Sydney Opera House,

6.15pm, Sunday, 08.12.19

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Film Music. Sydney Opera House. Photo by Daniel Boud.

Toby (Chris Pine) finds his reversal of fortune in Hell or High Water

I think it must be somewhere during the soundtrack to Hell or High Water that a question drifts up into my mind and wakes me from the dream I have fallen into. The thought is this: who holds death in their hand, and how must they deal with it? 

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are performing Film Music with the help of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, led with what can only be described as ecstatic precision by conductor and arranger Nicholas Buc. 

We move with them from The Proposition (2005) to West of Memphis (2012), and on through the soundtracks to The Road (2009), Hell or High Water (2016), Wind River (2017) and The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (2007).

Cue cards announce each film score along with images projected across a huge tripartite set of screens above the musicians. Now and again, the splitting of the screens truncates an actor’s face or obscures an unfolding detail, but for the most part it concentrates the cinematography and framing that makes these films so visually arresting. 

You become aware the music is not simply connected to any narrative drama. Instead, it evokes a spiritual world that resonates out of each character’s voyage across whatever landscape they are compelled to pass through. Which is to liken the music to aural cinematography as much as storytelling accompaniment; an inner journey as much as a physical one. It’s this consistent achievement that leaves you feeling something special has occurred. A sense that you, too, have been somewhere strange and beautiful and, yes, a little troubling too. 

From the haunted outback desert of The Proposition to the glacial limbo of Wind River, from the apocalyptic, ashy sheen of The Road (its images intensified tonight by monumental bushfires smothering Sydney in an end-of-days smoke shroud) to the historically fading and snowy frontier of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, we negotiate a series of quasi-Biblical, neo-Western tales that the music imbues with mystical intensity. 

The nearest parallels I can make are to the ‘holy minimalism’ of the Estonian composer Arvo Part, who defined his own musical challenges in this way: “How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?”

Another reference might be Eduard Artemiev’s soundtracks for the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (The MirrorStalkerSolaris) – pioneering electro-acoustic scores that fused woodwinds and dissonant strings with natural sounds and early use of the synthesizer into a psychically intense whole.

The nineteenth century folk residues that Warren Ellis’ violin inevitably conjures up serve as a signature counterweight. Ellis violin work is typically rustic and grungy, yet he can move into synth-constructed ‘beds’ of sound that are equally recognisable to the point of becoming a compositional trademark for him. 

Cave, in turn, seems to barely touch his piano for brief but stunning, and often cyclical melodic phrases in the mode of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies.

The musical alchemy is indicative of their creative personalities: Ellis, with all his unsettled, hidden atmospheres and weeping gypsy pretties; Cave, observationally cool and beautifully above, frail and frightening as a ghost, yearning to change form and melt. 

Together, they are the proverbial fire and ice. 

Warren Ellis. Film Music. Sydney Opera House. Photo by Stuart Spence.

Nick Cave. Film Music. Sydney Opera House. Photo by Stuart Spence.

We’ve been told Cave and Ellis have often never seen the films they begin drafting soundtracks for – or, at best, they have only rough-cut splices drawn from the unfinished project, a working script, and conversational notes from the director as guides to their days of jamming, whereby they narrow down material and find traces they can develop and attach to what will be on the screen. 

It’s not always the most obvious corollary. A delicate or sorrowful sound can counterpoint a movement into violence. A gritty depiction of struggle or death can be matched with a dreamlike sonata. Nick Cave has described these ways of fitting music with film scenes as “beautiful accidents”. A case of the artist letting go of their own work, and accepting its mysterious sublimation into another world. 

And yet the music makes its own demands too. Ellis has spoken of the pair arriving during editing for a Hollywood project, ready to “find the soundtrack” for a film and being “treated like amateurs”. Conventional practice demands composers ‘spot’ a piece to cues like a door being slammed or a significant gesture. For the most part, Cave and Ellis don’t do this. Working on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford they came close to being pushed off the project, but for director Andrew Dominik’s confidence in their more organic approach – though he too rejected their first efforts, and was the one to suggest they try using a celeste to enhance an otherworldly instrumental palette for that film.

Wind River is a powerful evocation of Cave and Ellis’ wide-open approach to scoring. Its initial creation was underlined by the death of Cave’s son Arthur at the time it was being put together; its sonic tones and melodic streams would then flow directly into the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree. There is something in the felt logic of that film’s music, and the rock ‘n’ roll album that followed, which cannot be denied. Though the melodies, textures and lyrics were supposedly in place prior to the tragedy, the premonitory force that runs through Cave’s entire career surfaces in these sounds. 

If nothing else, it says that great art puts us in touch with a world within and beyond us, and possibly even ahead of us. This is the cosmic space we hear inside the music of Cave and Ellis; the silence that gives their sound its vast architecture even at the most spare and intimate of moments.

I’d anticipated this darker palette or shadow over everything tonight. Instead, the contributions of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (voicing, by turns, the angelic and the damned, and even binding them) accumulate into an easier, and far more uplifting evening than the spooky melancholia and hovering malice of the original soundtrack recordings. 

Cave’s amused demeanour watching Ellis’ leg-shaking, showboating moves while playing violin are a part of that. As are his own archly enthusiastic gestures from behind the piano, gestures that set you in mind of nothing less than a boy encouraging his rocking horse to go faster.

Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and conductor Nicholas Buc. Film Music. Photo by Daniel Boud.

Even Cave’s chilling ‘Second Journey’ utterances – “far from your loving eyes / in a place where we can never go” – from the Wind River score are reborn tonight in a love duet, with Opera Australia principal soprano Julie Lea Godwin keening away as the wind personified. We connect with the sheer pleasure of people making music together as Cave and Godwin edge into self-conscious humour as much as storytelling dread in their stage communication. 

There is also the clarifying, almost deconstructive revelation of the how the orchestra and choir work like a grand machine whose parts have been brought in to support what Cave and Ellis have written. We get to see the body of the music as it moves.

Nicholas Buc’s conducting is trim and restrained, yet always prepared for the swell of those eerie spaces. Buc does Nick Cave and Warren Ellis some fine favours tonight, and without losing any drama or tension he engages with the heart of the works in surprisingly warm and exciting ways. Perhaps, too, the orchestra’s role in replacing some of Ellis’ synth-driven atmospheres humanises the cold ethereal energy that predominates on the recordings. Live on stage, with an orchestra and a choir, the music gets deeper but not darker.

The exception to that rule is ‘The Cannibals’ from The Road, a heart-pounding accelerator of a-rhythmic drums and distorting strings that captures the evil rush that surges behind a hunted human being. Opposing that are the dreamy edges of the music from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, with Cave’s melodic piano playing assuming its most crystalline edges. 

Without any cinematic images to accompany it (possibly due to copyright restrictions), the Jesse James score emerges as a triumph on the night, focussing all our attention on the players and the music. ‘Song for Jesse’ could be a child’s lullaby; instead, we know it’s the movement of a stone-cold killer passing through the world. ‘Song for Bob’ has an inevitable pulse that feels tragic as well as beautiful, an empathetic nod to the historical Judas who murdered Jesse James. Perhaps even killers have souls that are worth lamenting over. 

The performance closes with an encore reading of ‘Push the Sky Away’, the title track from the 2013 album that confirmed Nick Cave’s full-blown creative partnership with Warren Ellis. Again, there is an obvious connection to Sydney’s toxic atmosphere as fires continue to coat the city in ash and smoke. But unlike the silvery and funereal feelings of The Road, ‘Push the Sky Away’ reads as an anthem, even a fightback song tonight.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Film Music. Sydney Opera House. Photo by Daniel Boud.

Push the Sky Away was the album that first marked Cave and Ellis’ radical shift into ambient and synth-dominated territories. It’s a landscape that has only gotten more amniotic and glowing with the songwriters’ latest album, Ghosteen, a recording where Cave’s band, The Bad Seeds, do their best work by disappearing to let the music and words untether themselves from the ground and float heavenwards in what is effectively a poetic requiem mass.

There’s a tonal hint of the quantum shift across the last three albums to be found way back inside the score to the 2012 documentary, West of Memphis. You might intuit a similar equation between the shuddering, sometimes violent melodic expansions of The Proposition and the beginnings of Cave’s rock ‘n’ roll rebirth, with Ellis, on their side-band project at the time, Grinderman. The more you listen, the more these instrumental threads appear: cinematic portents for Cave’s mainline solo career with The Bad Seeds. 

Cave’s vocals on ‘The Rider’ and ‘Second Journey’ act similarly as premonitions for the intensely poetic lyrical approaches he has been making more and more use. When they appear in the film scores, his words are recited, whispered, submerged, and incantatory to the point of threatening and ominous, as much as they can be magical or divine as well. The soundtracks appear to have given Cave room to develop an aesthetic where he can make use of a much denser poetry inside the infinite-sounding musical atmospheres woven by Ellis.

Rumours abound that Cave and Ellis plan to revive the prog-metal demonology and pagan eroticism of the Grinderman project. It’s my guess Grinderman’s return will be earthed by highly political responses to issues already present in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds last few albums, most especially a concern for the climate crisis evidenced in tracks like ‘We No Who U R’ and ‘Anthropocene’. 

It’s not so far from this cosmic topicality to the Shakespearian world-out-of-kilter that Cave relished in his trash-can romantic days in The Birthday Party. Nowadays, the affiliations Cave has made through his work on films like The Proposition and Wind River – powerful responses to indigenous spiritual sovereignty and a colonial aftermath that has eternally stained the landscapes of Australia and America – work on an even larger psychic level. The one-time rock ‘n’ roll Hamlet is no longer engaged in an annihilating independence or “sick at heart” for only himself. He has discovered that we have sickened our universe. And it is only just that we should feel sick in return. Leaving him to make a final move into prayer and protest.

In this regard, there seems to be an archetypal story uniting the constellation of works being played tonight. One that might tell the tale of a man caught between two worlds; a man who must play out a fated role, with a woman’s suffering or absence haunting him, with a lost child or shadow brother in danger, with an act of violence made necessary along the way, on a journey through places hot or cold – and always endless– where his spirit might be purified and put to rest, and some idea of justice or balance be restored. I don’t know if that is the story. But it sounded something like that to me as I dreamt and woke again. 

Story by Mark Mordue ©

Father and son search for a better world in The Road