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How Composer Howard Shore Brought the Sounds of Tangier to William S. Burroughs' ‘Naked Lunch’

Mondo will bring three Shore scores from David Cronenberg films to vinyl this summer.

In 1991, Canadian film director David Cronenberg directed an adaptation of prolific Beat Generation novelist William S. Burroughs’ notorious novel Naked Lunch for the silver screen, recruiting longtime collaborator Howard Shore to compose the music for his two-hour anxiety-inducing haze of drugs and sexual curiosity. Shore, who’s known Cronenberg since his teens, has composed the music for almost every single film the cult filmmaker’s ever done; he’s also composed the music for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit series, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and The Aviator, and most recently Tom McCarthy’s Best Picture-winning emotional tour de force Spotlight. Needless to say, Shore has plenty of Academy Awards and Golden Globes in his office, along with countless other nominations and accolades.


This summer, Howard Shore’s teamed up with Mondo to release vinyl editions of three of his scores from Cronenberg films: Naked Lunch, 1988’s Dead Ringers, and Crash (1996). We spoke with Shore about his work on Naked Lunch, including how he used the music of Morocco and the jazz of famous Ornette Coleman to transport the film’s audience into the “Interzone.”

Noisey: How did you and David Cronenberg first meet?
Howard Shore: We had mutual friends and grew up in the same neighborhood in Toronto. We met when I was 14—David is a few years older than me.

Is your creative process with David highly collaborative, or does he just let you work your magic?
Our working process is very intuitive. David always sends me the script early on, and I read the source material and connect it to the project. We talk about who he’s going to cast in the film, and I always go to the set during shooting. I soak up what he’s interested in and try to create a work that reflects his ideas for the story.

Naked Lunch’s music takes the viewer into a jazzy-beat-poet-headspace. What was your approach for this film?
Naked Lunch is set in a world called “Interzone,” and from William S. Burroughs novel, I knew it was somewhere in North Africa. The score’s a combination of North African music by The Master Musicians of JaJouka, and Ornette Coleman—who was a contemporary of Burroughs. I tried to put the idea of New York bebop and Moroccan music together.


Were those styles difficult to intertwine?
It wasn’t, because there was a recording that Ornette made in the late 60s where he went to the Moroccan village of Jajouka, in the Ahl-Srif mountains outside of Tangier. He recorded “Midnight Sunrise” there, which was released on Dancing in Your Head (1977). That song really defined the sound that I was interested in—Charlie Parker-esque bebop-jazz with a Moroccan orchestra. Ornette, was in Amsterdam at the time, so I called him, we met in London, and started working together. We talked about Charlie Parker’s early recordings; eventually we started working in the studio with the London Philharmonic, and the score came out of that.

Ornette Coleman’s presence in the score makes it true to the time period where this piece was created. It fits naturally.
Ornette’s The Shape of Jazz to Come was a very revolutionary album, and it came out around the time of Naked Lunch. The novel was in 1959, so there’s a real connection to Burroughs’ writing and Ornette’s music.

In Naked Lunch, there’s straightforward orchestral cues, and then suddenly you’re watching a drugged-out hallucination soundtracked by blaring horns. Was that your way of juxtaposing intensity?
I thought of it as a colonial sound in North Africa. The English orchestra represented the colonization of Morocco, so you have the orchestra’s elegant sound of the orchestra, as well as other, more extreme areas.


The score sometimes catches you off guard—you’re subdued in conversation and then you’re swept away with a very pronounced saxophone that almost becomes part of the scene.
That’s the beauty of Ornette Coleman. He’s a genius musician. Sadly, we lost him last year, and we miss him so much. But I feel very fortunate that I was able to spend time in the studio with him and work on that recording. We did a few live performances of Naked Lunch—one in Belfast with the Ulster Orchestra, and a live projection of the film with Ornette’s son Denardo and French bassist Barre Phillips, who also played on the recording. We also did it at the Barbican in London with the BBC Concert Orchestra. It was a lot of fun being able to play that music live accompanying the film.

You’ve worked with many famed musicians over the years. What was it about working with Coleman that stuck out the most to you?
I was music director of Saturday Night Live in the 70s, and occasionally I could book an act on the show. In 1978, I booked Ornette with this group Primetime, and it was fantastic. Ornette is a great American artist, and it was the first time he’d ever appeared on a national televised show.

Ornette’s greatness was due to how much he touched people from all demographics. Even though he played what we called “jazz,” it reached way beyond that. He was very effective in expressing his ideas through music. He’s a brilliant musician and I was lucky to be able to work with him.


What do you enjoy about working with David Cronenberg?
There’s just a connection—maybe just from our youth, and the fact that we grew up in the same neighborhood. We had a certain way of viewing the world. David is very intellectual—he’s a brilliant director, and probably the most well-read person I know. I was always catching up with David because his ideas were always so interesting. He was always leading the way, and we’d go off on another journey.

I’ve written 15 scores to his films over 30 years, but you can never look back—you’re always looking towards the next adventure, the next film. You’re never repeating something you’ve done before, so we’re always trying something new. David is very innovative about what movies are and what they can be. He’s a great writer working with ideas that are always fresh and new.

The Howard Shore/Mondo collaborative editions of Naked Lunch, Dead, Ringers, and Crash will be available through Mondo’s website.

Derek Scancarelli is pretending he wrote this article from Tangier. Follow him on Twitter.