. issue II : iv .
. artist : miles davis .
. album : ascenseur pour l’echafaud .
. year : 1957 .
. label : fontana .
. grade : a minus .
The soundtrack for insular 1957 film Ascenseur Pour l’Echafaud (or “Lift to the Scaffold”) is an improvised quintet performance with Miles Davis on trumpet. The mournful, suffused tone of this wary commentary is an inexorable match for the restrained plaintiveness of French film noir. The small group ensemble is Miles Davis (tpt), Barney Wilen (ts), Rene Urtreger (p), Pierre Michelot (b), Kenny Clarke (d), and Ascenseur is bleakly noir new wave cinema directed by Louis Malle and photographed by Henri Decae. It ‘stars’ Jeanne Moreau as the strikingly beautiful but clinically undemonstrative Florence, and Maurice Ronet as (of course) her lover, Julien, an angular, slightly spent man with the cagey intellect of a Camus and the paced, hypervigilant economy to match.
The single singular moment of warmth in their live acting occurs during the opening credits, a passionate phone-receiver-cradling tryst in which Florence says, “I love you. I love you. We have to.” This human impulse remains turbulently adrift though bailing out understatedly existential waters, but — not to spoil ‘en fin’ — for naught. Of course. Ascenseur exhibits more than expresses — with perfectly stilted melodramatic restraint — French postwar cynicism, the ‘c’est la vie’ hopelessness where circumstances steer agents and not the other way around.
Indeed, Ascenseur (and Davis’ soundtrack) depicts terrible confinement, capturing the agent in inaction: the lovers’ plan to run away (what else is there?) is thwarted by mundane circumstances (what else is there?). And so Julien spends the night trapped in an elevator and Florence spends the night walking the luminous, shrouded streets of Paris, deep in her silent search for the man she thinks has stood her up. (This is one long night: this is a night in which only the set-apart Miles Davis could write the honest placard on your cage door.) What’s remarkable is that this impasse exists for at least half of Ascenseur — and negation is the hitch, here, also evoked by the exsanguinous silence of the film in lieu of the relatively concise sountrack (which runs approximately twenty-seven minutes out of ninety). Postwar France — even ‘amore’ in postcarded postwar Paris — could not escape the isolato trap in which each person is a setpiece or a sensory deprivation chamber.
The segments of Ascenseur that received music were decided upon not by the musicians, but by the filmmakers. These clips were projected for the quintet to improvise to in real-time. (And improvise they did — though Davis reportedly mulled over sequences as a jumping off point ahead of time, but French noir can only sound one way — and of the ten musical sections, five tracks required only one take, two required two takes, and three required three takes.) This explains as much about Ascenseur Pour l’Echafaud as it does its soundtrack, because watching Malle’s work is like watching a silent film — even the foley seems to be gagged. There’s an eerie vacuum to Ascenseur in which sounds emit only to fold on themselves with very definite whimpers. And, appropriately, the efficacy of Julien is his worldliness and competence, which consists in his ability to interface with the world without making noise. A deadly hunter, Julien is a stark void, the black hole at the center of the chilled, turtlenecked debris of postwar intellectualism.
Certainly, the musical conceit is what anyone would register as the beautiful but unappealing apprehension of noir — and the way in which Davis’ quintet assembled the ten-vignette soundtrack in a mere eighteen tracks, how quietly formidable, and with so little slack! Most interesting is that the tracks that succeeded immediately were tied to a concrete plot event — and those that didn’t were not. All of Julien’s music is action-based and austere: his leather-gloved assassination of his employer (a war criminal) and his ‘hanged man’ escape attempt from the elevator are marked by uptight upright bass and brooding percussion. By comparison, Florence has a developed thematic wail for her own pacing, and, with the full band and Miles’ emotive melody, these pieces took two or three attempts to work through.
And Ascenseur doesn’t contain just the final mastering: the extemporaneous takes of each song allow for insight into their processual development.
Finding each modal motif as it’s revised — like a landmark — completely changes the listener’s approach to the album. What does this tell us about how we listen? Well — that we take it for granted that each song won’t be the same, that each song is different, that there is no revisioning, and that one’s attendance to music is linear. Ascenseur presents strategic algorithms for exposure and analysis: start with the first take and work with the improvisers, or start with the final version and work back to the primal? The imprintability of these two strategies — and also the actual experience of Ascenseur — shows the listener how plainly not discerning we are, and yet how motifs, routes, modal choices, sequences (all experiential patterning) can be landmarks for discernment, and how inexorably the human mind needs to weigh out — to relativize — its stimuli. Barely predating Kind of Blue, the pregnant soundtrack for Ascenseur Pour l’Echafaud presents a proto-modal Miles right on the verge of his own processual leap.