"Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud" Soundtrack
Miles Davis' Score Elevates Louis Malle's Lift To the Scaffold
Though it's only 26 minutes long, covering 10 sequences in the film, Miles Davis' score for Louis Malle's first non-documentary feature, 1958's Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud (released as Lift to the Scaffold in the UK and Elevator to the Gallows in the USA) is the stuff of legend, with jazz critic Phil Davis describing Davis' soundtrack as "the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep." In other words, it's Kind of Blue, but ultimately kind of very Cool, and by choosing a non-traditional jazz soundtrack, Malle set the template for later New Wave works. (No, Malle didn't review films at Cahiers du Cinema like Godard and Truffaut and company, and his background was upper middle class, but other than that, this looks and sounds like - and has the hopeless lost soul/rebel attitudes of - a New Wave film.)
Backed by Barney Wilen on tenor saxophone, Rene Urtreger on piano, Pierre Michelot on contrabass and Kenny Clarke on drum, Miles recorded the soundtrack in one late night session lasting from 10 at night until 5 in the morning, while female lead Jeanne Moreau (whose face graces the cover of the soundtrack album) stuck around to discuss the film with the musicians and staff an improvised bar in the recording studio. Davis later recalled the experience as described below:
...I went to Paris again to play as a guest soloist for a few weeks. And it was during this trip that I met French filmaker Louis Malle through Juliette Greco. He told me he had always loved my music and that he wanted me to write the musical score for his new film, L'Ascenseur pour l'echafaud. I agreed to do it and it was a great learning experience, because I had never written a music score for a film before. I would look at the rushes of the film and get musical ideas to write down. Since it was about a murder and was supposed to be a suspense movie, I used this old, gloomy, dark building where I had the musicians play. I thought it would give the music atmosphere, and it did. - Miles Davis
Bassist Pierre Michelot, in the liner notes to the Verve Records soundtrack album, agrees:
The session took place after the European tour, so we were used to playing together. We arrived at the Poste Parisien around ten, Jeanne Moreau was there, and we had a drink together.
Miles was very relaxed, as if the music he was playing wasn't that important. It was only later that I leaned he'd already been to a screening, and that he'd known about the project for several weeks. So he knew exactly what he wanted, and he also knew what he wanted from us, which is very much to his credit.
What was typical of this session was the absence of a specific theme. This was new for the period, especially with the soundtrack for a film.
-Pierre Michelot, from the liner notes of Ascenseur pour L'échafaud
Indeed, it was one of the very few film scores that was completely improvised. In his 2002 book A History of the French New Wave Cinema, Richard Neupart describes this night as follows:
During this one-night improvisation, December 4, 1957, Malle projected a loop of each of the ten sequences to be scored, and Davis gave the musicians a couple of chords and a tempo to follow. Richard Williams, a Miles Davis biographer, writes, "Of the ten separate tracks that were eventually used, nine are based on the same two chords, D minor and C7; the tenth is a variation on the harmonic sequence of 'Sweet Georgia Brown.' But the nine provided evidence of perhaps the most profound and remarkable of the changes that Miles Davis would impose on his music: the paring down of harmonic material practically to nothing...As a result, the soundtrack of Ascenseur pour L'échafaud took on a completely novel flavor, one that Davis would spend years exploring.
According to Davis biographer Richard Williams, Davis was deeply affected by the images Malle projected:
Davis created an unsually graphic mood; listening tothe soundtrack...the listener has little difficulty summoning fugitive images of rain-washed Paris streets at dawn, or empty nightclubs, of lonely figures prowling the shadows...Never had Davis' music been so poised and assured, so stark and so spare; and the starker and sparer it became, the more power it exerted...Miles Davis had discovered his true characteristics - tragic, solitary, impertinent.
- Richard Davis, Miles Davis
And Malle, in the opinion of Richard Neupert, received in return a soundtrack whose loose jazz music fit the structure of his loose narrative. Neupert argues that by using a lively, often discordant jazz score, Malle influenced subsequent New Wave directors to "move beyond contemporary popular music to jazz, which lent dangerous and hip connotations to images of Paris rather than allow it to remain majestic and traditional. The music showed that something was afoot. The new music fit the new generation, and it was an appropriate accompaniment for Elevator to the Gallows, with its young, streetwise punk Louis, who seems as chaotic and jarring as the Miles Davis soundtrack."
The Criterion Collection DVD of Elevator to the Gallows is worth seeking out, as it includes footage of Miles Davis and Louis Malle during the soundtrack recording and a film about the score with music critic Gary Giddins and jazz musician Jon Faddis.
By the way, there are two versions of the soundtrack available on CD, the 10-track, 26-minute one that goes for about $10 and an extended 26-track version that includes alternate takes and sells for about $14.
The site Elevator to the Gallows: A jazz Film of Collaborative Integrity has a detailed analysis, with sample video clips, of how Davis' score matches the on-screen narrative.
But if you want it short and sweet, this great Rialto Pictures trailer for Elevator to the Gallows captures the essence of the sights-and-sounds collaboration between Malle and Davis:
Verve Soundtrack Album