In the New York rock world, Nathan Halpern is known as an intense, melodic guitarist, a member of Kerry Kennedy’s brilliant Ghostwise band and a first-class dark rock songwriter in his own right. The film world knows Halpern as a composer. His most recent project is the soundtrack to the documentary film Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, playing at Film Forum through July 5, on HBO all summer long, followed by a national theatrical release which is still in the works. Halpern is a master of noir, and this haunting, Eastern European-tinged theme and variations establishes him as a sort of 21st century counterpart to Angelo Badalamenti. One word to describe this: Lynchian. Analytically speaking, it’s absolutely fascinating how Halpern develops and orchestrates a series of variations on a series of allusively menacing ideas. But nobody’s going to sit and analyze this: as haunting, Balkan-inflected High Romantic angst, it’s something to get completely lost in. Other than the gypsy music, and Badalamenti – whose minimalist work with David Lynch comes to mind most obviously here – there are echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores, the Tin Hat Trio’s contributions to the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack, and the occasional reference to Bach or Beethoven. In other words, this guy isn’t messing around, diving into the shadows from the first few lingering notes from his piano.
A lot of these pieces are tantalizingly brief, clocking in at just a couple of minutes or even less: how they segue into each other makes it next to impossible to keep track of which is which unless you’re keeping a close eye on which track is playing. There are two main themes. The first, a tensely moody, chromatically-charged melody, features Halpern’s piano and a string section of O’Death’s Robert Pycior (who is credited as co-writer of the main theme and a couple of variations) on violin and viola, Jody Redhage on cello and Andrew Platt on bass plus Thurston Moore collaborator Mary Lattimore on harp. The second is a morosely atmospheric waltz anchored by Halpern’s echoey, often bloodcurdling music-box broken chords. The title theme recurs again and again, strings rising and falling against it, sometimes warmly and lushly, sometimes agonizingly. The waltz channels unrequited love and longing as it recurs and shifts tempos, at one point morphing into a dark little Serbian dance. There’s also a chillingly stately interlude that toys cruelly with a Bach Invention motif; a gleefully dancing Balkan piece led by Pycior’s stark phrasing; and a couple of artful atmospheric passages where droning textures move sepulchrally into and then out of the picture. The orchestrations manage to be simultaneously terse yet enveloping, and are packed with neat, shadowy little touches: is that the choir patch on a synthesizer? No, that’s Lori Fisher’s ghostly, distant vocals leading into that stern, tense Jody Redhage pedal note. And V.S. Nabakov’s water-drop percussion adds a cruel inevitability to a miniature Beethoven-tinged nocturne about the passage of time, lit up by Halpern’s spaciously reverberating, plaintive electric guitar.
What about the film, and Abramovic? She’s a Belgrade-born performance artist, now in her sixties, who’s made a career of putting herself on display: she may be your cup of tea, or she may not. Not having seen the film, it’s not clear to what degree it comments on what she does, if at all, and the soundtrack gives nothing away. The suspense is crushing. The itunes link is here.