On the western verges of the San Fernando Valley, surrounded by an array of custom-constructed instruments — mammoth steel drums, a gamelan metallophone, and the awe-provoking Baschet Cristal, whose spiky protrusions suggest a Mars Rover as much as anything musical — film composer Cliff Martinez wages war with the ordinary. He has hewn a singular path in the scoring of contemporary cinema by channeling his imagination through this gallery of unique musical implements. Influenced by developments at the radical fringes of music making, pulling notes from minimalism and ethnographic melodies alike, Martinez has lent his talents to a diverse assortment of movies and in so doing, has pointed toward the horizon, to what film music could become.
Certainly his recurring collaborations with pathbreaking directors on the order of Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Solaris) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) have done much to cement Martinez as a composer whose output seems always to point toward emerging trends in film scoring. The roster of other recent films abetted by Cliff Martinez scores includes The Lincoln Lawyer, Spring Breakers, Arbitrage and War Dogs. At the time of this writing, two of Martinez’s latest projects are due for theatrical release: The Foreigner, Martin Campbell’s revenge drama framed by Irish terrorism; and director Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, with its surreal depiction of jealousy and fatal, vampiric obsessions.
Cliff Martinez was born in the Bronx and raised in Ohio, moving to California in 1976, just in time for the upheaval occasioned by punk. His stints as drummer for The Weirdos, Lydia Lunch, Jim Thirwell, The Dickies and most notably The Red Hot Chili Peppers, variously preceded and followed a resume item of signal importance in Martinez’s past, the evidence of which is close at hand. The front hall of the composer’s Topanga Canyon home-cum-studio sports framed album art from the landmark late ‘60s album Trout Masque Replica, signed by “Don,” a testament to Cliff’s one-time role as drummer in the final incarnation of legendary iconoclast Captain Beefheart’s (a.k.a. Don Van Vliet) Magic Band.
It could not have been an altogether bad thing, to be caught up in the mounting buzz surrounding the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the early years of the 1980’s. Cliff Martinez was the drummer and co-writer on that band’s first two albums. His stint with the Peppers came with corollary benefits, such as the band’s rehearsing for months at a stretch in the Detroit living room of their producer, Funkadelic overlord George Clinton. But it was during this period that the band’s drummer spent increasing amounts of studio time in thrall to a recently introduced sampling drum machine, a device that, to Cliff’s mind, held the potential of an entire band within a box. In part, it was his investigation of advancements in music technology that would lead ultimately to Martinez abandoning rock drumming for a career in film scoring.
Cliff Martinez’s entrée into music for film happened by serendipitous means, when a tape collage he had constructed (“Several of my friends making aggressively weird noises, which I assigned to pads on a MIDI percussion controller.”) led to an opportunity to score an episode of comedian Paul Reuben’s transgressive mid-‘80s TV hit, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. That same sound collage was heard, in turn, by Steven Soderbergh. Prior to his rise to prominence, director Soderbergh tapped budding composer Martinez to provide the music for the former’s first theatrical release, sex, lies and videotape. The film’s success launched a new era of independent filmmaking, did much to establish the Sundance Festival as an arbiter of new directions in cinema and put Cliff Martinez in the ring as a contender within the latest crop of film composers.
Martinez has since composed scores for many of Steven Soderbergh’s films. The hammered dulcimer that wends throughout Kafka; the seasick piano portending the violence concluding The Limey; the amalgam of steel drums and ambient textures drifting in deep space during Solaris; all these were conjured in Cliff’s studio, as were other Soderbergh scores such as Gray’s Anatomy, Schizopolis and Traffic, the latter winning four Oscars and earning an Oscar nomination for its music. Martinez reunited with the director for his successful 2011 pandemic drama Contagion. Soderbergh’s venture into episodic television, The Knick (a 2014 series for Cinemax), had at its core a daring juxtaposition, successfully pitting an all-electronic Martinez score against a period setting, the gritty mise-en-scene of a Victorian-era English hospital.
In addition, Cliff’s ability to balance themes both idiosyncratic and heartrending has imbued critical favorites such Pump Up The Volume (1990), Wicker Park (2004) and the 2003 feature Wonderland with tonal palettes unlike any heard elsewhere in movie theaters. For the latter, Martinez conjured airy timbres unique to the Baschet Cristal. (According to Cliff, the Cristal “Works marvelously during crime scenes, especially those featuring huge plumes of blood on the walls.”) More impressive still was his depiction of sordid mystery at the core of director Joe Carnahan’s Narc (2002), comprising tweaked-out synthetic bass lines culled from electronic dance music and keyboard timbres swathed in digital vapor.