Mostly remembered for his production on Neil Young’s albums in the late 60s, Jack Nitzsche’s varied musical talents served him well in the 70s where he rose to prominence as a film composer, which include works as varied as The Exorcist, Performance, An Officer and a Gentleman, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He initially began his career as conductor and arranger for Phil Spector, eventually having musical encounters with the Wrecking Crew, The Rolling Stones, and even Doris Day. However, Nitzsche’s musical arrangements and production skills with Neil Young were so impressive that he was given the chance to compose original orchestral music. St. Giles Cripplegate is the result.
Released in 1972 before his film composing career truly took off, Cripplegate features lush orchestration and romantic melodies alongside brooding, stark outbursts that are disturbing yet enthralling. With a musical idiom that draws on expressionism as well as composers like Poulenc, Berg, Villa-Lobos, and Bartok, Cripplegate sometimes feels modernist but is often romantic. The album opener, #6, is a tense piece with hushed strings interrupted by dissonant, doppler-like outbursts from the rest of the orchestra. The starkness begins to loosen as the strings play glissandos up and down as the brass gets louder until it abruptly shifts into a major fanfare with timpani that carries to the end. This tendency towards the romantic continues with #4 for mori, a brooding dirge with a heartrending melody played by the strings throughout. A timpani keeps solemn time, occasionally dropping out for lush, major crescendos until a horn takes melodic charge. #2 continues the same melancholic yet florid texture, with prominent strings and soaring horns. Its ending is particularly beautiful, with harps, slight dissonances and a dark sounding underbelly that is unsettling. At times Nitzsche’s style veers into the saccharine but the orchestral sonority is always emotionally affecting. #3 changes things up, beginning with a series of chromatic progressions becoming increasingly atonal until it slows back down into the recurring, oddly consonant bed of strings. #1 returns to starkness, with plucked strings, sustained horns, and falling lines, climaxing with shuddering strings and trembling woodwinds. The textural carpet rises until it becomes very dissonant while the horns play a melodious tune. The contrast is reminiscent of Charles Ives’ experiments in sound but Nitzsche brings a unique sense of detachment. #5 is outright emotional in its use of orchestration, with strings accompanied by accented brass, oboes playing longing melodies and sharp percussive sounds. Eventually, the triangle starts keeping strict time, the bass playing every third beat, creating a sort of rag that would make Hindemith proud. It all ends in warmth though, with the same sense of cosmic longing that is prevalent throughout the album. Ultimately, Nitzsche remains the romantic.
Cripplegate is by no means a great contemporary classical music album and Nitzsche is definitely not aiming to be a musical innovator. However, the record is a striking showcase of lush orchestration that often surprises and never bores. If anything, it shows Nitzsche could have become a formidable voice in the contemporary music scene had he not moved onto film music (perhaps that is fitting for his style). Recommended for the curious. Also, dig that cover.