Watching Doors Open

A lauded movie soundtrack gives the Golden Arm Trio much-deserved attention

The art of composing music for film is a time-honored tradition, and it is a delicate challenge.

"It's true that traditionally, music is used to push the viewer in one way or another emotionally, and it's a really controversial topic among film people," says composer and bandleader Graham Reynolds, who with his Golden Arm Trio wrote and performed the score for the recent Richard Linklater film A Scanner Darkly.

"It's like how the scene gets really tense in High Noon, and we see the clock and hear the music. That kind of melodrama is not really looked favorably upon these days. People feel manipulated by it often," says Reynolds during a recent phone interview from his home studio in Austin, Texas.

"The idea is to create and play something that works in an aesthetic sense and also works emotionally and artistically on the screen, but still respects the intelligence and emotions of the viewers and listeners so each person has a little bit of their own perception."

A tall order, perhaps. But it's one that Reynolds and the Golden Arm Trio achieved, earning glowing reviews for the challenging score for the experimental film, in which live-action actors are animated to imbue the science-fiction proceedings with an unnerving surrealism.

Reynolds, who plays piano and percussion, wrote the score for those instruments as well as guitar, bass and cello. The music--a mixture of chamber music, edgy jazz and quasi-electronic soundscapes--was played almost entirely on acoustic instruments but fed through various effects and processors to achieve an otherworldly combination of isolation, anomie and disorientation.

On a tour to promote the soundtrack album of A Scanner Darkly, the Golden Arm Trio will play a concert on Wednesday night, Nov. 8, at Club Congress. Proceeds from the show, which will include sets by local opening acts Simple Question and Tryst, will benefit Spirit of Service, a local health-services organization.

Joining Reynolds on stage at Club Congress will be cellist Jon Dexter, upright bass player Chris Black and guitarist Josh Robbins. They'll perform music from A Scanner Darkly and from the two previous GAT albums, Why the Sea Is Salt and The Golden Arm Trio.

Hold on: Doesn't this trio have four members? GAT actually exists in many forms, Reynolds says.

"We took forever finding that name. Then, after one gig, it became two people, and then me and whoever. I quickly had to realize it did not matter. It really ranges depending on who's available and what we are playing. It's whatever seems appropriate for whatever music we're playing."

The origin of the name is exactly what you might've guessed, too. It was inspired by Nelson Algren's novel The Man with the Golden Arm and the subsequent Frank Sinatra movie of the same name. But the band has nothing to do with that story of a drug-addicted jazz musician; Reynolds just liked the sound of it.

"I asked many of my friends to make lists of names. Not having seen the movie, I picked that one. Only later, I found out it was a reference to heroin, but it was too late."

Reynolds, who is 35, was born in Germany, where his father was posted in the Army. He grew up, however, in Connecticut and moved to Texas after leaving college.

Although he has been playing the piano since he was 5 years old, Reynolds spent little time in the rarified atmosphere of the music conservatory. "Through junior high school and all the way through high school, I was in bands, trying to master the drums."

When Reynolds was an impressionable child, his primary musical influences were contained in his father's record collection.

"When I was little, I would listen to every record my dad had. We'd take a stack of them downstairs and listen to all of them," he recalls fondly. "There were a lot of Beach Boys albums, because my father loved them. There was Question Mark and the Mysterians, and the Beatles' 'White Album.' One, of course, was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I don't know where this came from--maybe it was my mother's--but it was Handel's Water Music. There was Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg, too. We listened to that one a lot. And another good band we listened to was Savoy Brown; their covers were really good."

As a result, Reynolds writes and plays rock, jazz, ethnic music, classical, folk, oom-pah-pah polka, carnival music--whatever strikes his fancy. He has composed for theater and dance productions, as well as film.

When he got to college, instead of music, he studied Latin-American history.

"The traditional academic approach is to immerse yourself in a subject, and at each level of education you move up, you've got to narrow your focus more. But I abandoned that approach as a rule and have tried to broaden the focus of my experiences and my music."

In terms of music, though, he took theory in high school and some in college, but then began studying a wide array of music on his own.

"As far as composing, I did a series of concerts here in Austin in which I basically put myself through my own grad school program using whatever settings: a brass concerto, a percussion concerto, a string concerto, orchestral concerts. I would read the theory book on them and then do them."

Reynolds and GAT have received more widespread attention from A Scanner Darkly--the DVD of which will be released Dec. 19--than at any other time since the Trio's inception in the early '90s, he says.

"It's opened a lot of doors and created a lot of doors. The press machine that works with a movie got press for my music in all sorts of places that I've never been exposed to before. We even flew to the Cannes and L.A. premieres. It has been an amazing ride."

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