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Cliff Martinez's Traffic

by Jason Foster

Steven Soderbergh's latest film, the critically acclaimed Traffic, was generating strong Oscar buzz even before its release. Considering the praise the director already received for his work on Erin Brockovich -- combined with the buzz of Traffic -- Soderbergh is now an obvious leading candidate for a Best Director nomination come Oscar time. Traffic, which deals with America's escalation of the war on drugs, features an all-star cast including Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid and Catherine Zeta-Jones; and appears to be another notch on the director's ladder of recent success.

When it came time to score Traffic, Soderbergh called on someone he'd already collaborated with six times, former Red Hot Chili Pepper Cliff Martinez. And according to Martinez, Soderbergh had a very specific idea of what he wanted. "He seems to prefer music that is somewhat emotionally detached from the film and perhaps is more atmospheric," says Martinez. "For Traffic, Steven wanted to go even further in that direction. When we first discussed the concept for the score, it almost seemed like he wanted a score that might be just as well suited to a sound designer as it would a composer." Martinez adds that he wasn't very gung-ho about the idea. "My initial response was to rebel," he says. "It was like he wasn't allowing the score to play a very active role in the film. But I didn't disagree because at that point Steven had given it much more thought than I had. Secondly, he's smarter than I am. And three, he writes the checks."

Martinez says that when it came time to actually write the score, the creative juices weren't exactly flowing, adding that "the process for the first couple of weeks was kind of staring at the ceiling waiting for lightning to strike." But Martinez found some solace in the fact that he had already written a score for Soderbergh in a similar vein --1989's Sex, Lies, and Videotape -- and set out to create another score in the same "stripped down, electronic" musical ballpark that would be both compelling and address the dramatic needs of Traffic.

According to Martinez, the score really began to take shape when he started working with David Torn, who used unique guitar effects to lend a bit of textural construction to the score. "He did some incredible background that was just in that gray area between music and sound design," Martinez says. "Jeff Rona also made some contributions to that and I think the result was pretty successful. The music sounds simplistic, but given that Steven wanted something that had a real conspicuous absence (as far as) the usual components of music -- rhythm, harmony and melody."

Martinez adds that although the backbone of the score for Traffic is the guitar of David Torn, there's not a lot of material that's recognizable as a guitar. "There's stuff (in the score) that sounds more like a vacuum cleaner than a guitar," says Martinez, who points out that this concept is typical of Torn's music, which is often made up of electronic samples. "A lot of his stuff isn't really what the instruments are, it's kind of the process tied to it," says Martinez, who points out that many of the sounds in his score are traditional instruments, though you probably wouldn't notice. "There's strings. There's piano. There's a lot of different things," says Martinez. "But they're not recognizable as such because of the way they've been mutated."


"In the past, there've been various approaches to the films I've done with Steven," says Martinez. "Sometimes there hasn't been any temp score and he'll allow me to come up with stuff or suggest music from other composers and kind of start from ground zero. On Traffic, he seemed to have a very specific idea. He had a fairly complete temp score, and when you do it with something like Brian Eno, that's pretty specific. That's not a generic thing. I had a very specific idea of what he wanted to begin with. But after that there wasn't a lot of contact. On the last couple of films, one average, he's probably paid me maybe three or four visitsÖI think after 11 years of working with him there's a certain amount of ESP going on where I know what he wants and he knows my strengths and weaknesses as well."


Martinez says he doesn't think his score to Traffic is anything to get excited about outside of the context of the film. But within the film, he says, it makes a unique contribution. In fact, he jokingly says because of his work on Traffic and other Soderbergh films, fans may consider him to be "the anti-Jerry (Goldsmith)."

According to Martinez, Trafficis a unique film with a score that plays a unique role. And for whatever reason, everything just melded together. It's a marriage, he says, that we're not likely to see again.

"Traffic was a lot of fun because I got such a kick out of the idea that this was a $50 million picture and it (has) music that was certainly nothing all that unique or all that original, but for a film like this that's cast like this, it is," says Martinez. "I don't think you're going to get another big-budget film that sounds anything like Traffic."

Check out the full version of this story when it runs in FSM Vol. 6, No 1.

Plus, you can click here to find out more about Trafficthe movie or the album.

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