The Ethnic 'Passion' of Peter Gabriel

Premiere - February 1990
by Jon Parelese


"Have I told you the difference between vomiting and shitting?" asks Peter Gabriel, his blue eyes gleaming as a half smile flickers across his face. We're talking about his somber, reflective, even reverent score for Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which has spawned not one but two separate albums, each released long after the film's controversial theatrical run. In the score, Indian and Moroccan drumming accompanies Middle Eastern fiddle and a digital synthesizer; Turkish and Egyptian reeds blare against electric guitars; a Pakistani Qawwali singer, a British choirboy, and Senegal's top rock singer are heard alongside Gabriel's own voice. It's a mixture of Western and non-Western sounds, of drones and drama -- and to explain his use of ethnic music and musicians and his efforts to imbue the film's images with a spiritual tone, Gabriel has come up with a distinctly earthy metaphor.

"To be an artist, you do what every artist has done from the start of time," he says. "You feed yourself everything that turns you on in order to stay alive. But if you vomit, what comes out is simply chopped up and regurgitated, while shit has to go through your system and be completely digested. I've tried to do the latter. After all, alchemists used to make gold from shit."

Gabriel has been digesting ethnic music since the late 1970s, using non-Western ideas to transform the art rock that made his reputation when he led Genesis in the late '60s and early '70s. He has freely admitted to what he calls "stealing" from other cultures, and he has been more scrupulous than most rockers about making his sources public. As his interest in ethnic music grew, he cofounded WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) in 1980, an organization that now presents several ethnic-music festivals each year in various countries and also books tours by ethnic musicians.

After the release of The Last Temptation of Christ, Gabriel reworked his score considerably and released it under the title Passion, which was also the working title of the film. As a companion piece to Passion, Gabriel's own Real World label recently released (through Virgin Records) Passion Sources, a collection of the ethnic music Gabriel drew from for the score. "For those of us that are taking," Gabriel says, "there is a responsibility to try and promote those from whom we are taking and not deny it. I put out Passion Sources so that people can see where the stuff comes from, and the musicians get a chance to do their music in the way that they want."

Gabriel knew from the start that the film would be controversial, "but I underestimated the amount of controversy," he says. "Talking to Marty, there was no doubt about the integrity of his desire to make a religious film, and I felt that his approach was right in trying to bring alive the struggle between Christ the son of God and Christ the man. The lovemaking scene that offended so many people, put in the context of a man falling in love, marrying, and having a child with a woman, is not in itself controversial, although applied to Jesus it may be. But if Jesus was torn between humanity and divinity, it would have to involve that sort of temptation. To me, it was a very spiritual film."

Gabriel was careful to let his collaborators know what they were working on -- "I didn't want anyone to feel conned" -- and in the end, only a British boys' choir decided to remain anonymous on the album. Musicians from the Islamic sphere lent their names as well as their talents to the score. From the beginning, both Scorsese and Gabriel were determined that Last Temptation would not sound like Hollywood's typical biblical epics. "Traditionally, films about Christ used very Western religious music," Gabriel says, "and Marty was very keen to get away from that, to make a very fresh look at the story of Christ. It did, after all, take place in Israel. Obviously it wasn't entirely historically or geographically accurate -- there were all sorts of [musical] colors -- and still the whole thing goes through this very European sensibility, which is mine. But it did have a sense of place for me."

Composing the music was a yearlong process, and one that led Gabriel to a new way of working. "I started assembling a collection of pieces of music, " he says. "Lucy Duran, of the National Sound Archive in London, helped quite a bit. She'd play a hundred things to me, and I'd pick ten of them and send a cassette off to Marty. He'd say, 'This sounds great, this is right for this, this is right for that,' and that's how I started picking my palette." From there, Gabriel worked by instinct and improvisation. "What I try and do is keep my head empty and the room full," he says. "On the piano and synth, I'd have a mass of cassettes that I could grab at any time. We put a strip of Velcro all around the studio, and on that strip we put big sheets with colored names and notes and illustrations. It means that if you're working on one piece and looking around for something else to go with it or go in another direction, you can just scan the room."

Often, he'd begin with a rhythm -- perhaps Brazilian, or Egyptian, or West African -- and an atmospheric keyboard drone, then bring in guests. "Choice of personnel was critical to this record, and those choices were about 70 percent planned and 30 percent accidental," he says. "At the last minute, I would find out that somebody was in the neighborhood. For 'It Is Accomplished,' I found out that [drummer] Bill Cobham was in London for the day and had to leave the next morning, but we did it in one night." Usually, says Gabriel, "I would start off with certain key phrases and melodic ideas and then give the musicians a space to do their improvising." For the selection called "Passion," which accompanies Christ carrying the cross to Golgotha, Gabriel brought two guest musicians into the studio -- Shankar, who often plays electric violin for Gabriel, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a traditional Pakistani Qawwali singer -- and the three of them began trading phrases over a Brazilian rhythm. "We just started firing away with lines," Gabriel says. "It was quickly out of my league. They were doing Indian and Pakistani scales that lost me, but it was just stunning." To perfect the timing, he had the scene projected in the studio while the musicians played.

Gabriel, who has made only one other sound track, for Alan Parker's Birdy, sees film scoring as an occasional sideline; he says that he turned down the chance to score The Handmaid's Tale. "I'm basically a song-writer," he says, "but sometimes it's nice to be an employee. It's great for me to work without the structure of songs, because I love the atmosphere, melody, and rhythm." With Passion and Passion Sources, Gabriel is practicing his own philosophy of cultural exchange. "Some people say ethnic music shouldn't have anything to do with rock music and must stay in its own country," he says. "To me that's saying, 'Stick it in a glass case in a museum.' It'll end up maybe as some token tourist piece. To me, that is a far more colonial, imperialist, racist attitude. It's a kind of cultural apartheid.

"We're learning all the time that events in other countries, whether they're political or environmental or economic, are all interconnected," he concludes. "The days of pretending you can be an isolationist in the world are gone. To encourage people to listen to the world is really Important now."


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