My Page: Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor “Moments of Transference”

Alexis Taylor on August 2, 2018

For every issue of Relix, we invite a musician to discuss a topic of their choice for our My Page segment. Here, Hot Chip lead singer and keyboardist Alexis Taylor discusses a family Easter tradition that turned into an everlasting meditation on music, film and metaphors. In April, Domino Records released Taylor’s fourth solo album, Beautiful Thing, which was produced by DFA co-founder Tim Goldsworthy. 

My family watched Pasolini’s film Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo so many times at Easter when I was growing up that it became a symbol for that time of year. “Shall we watch The Pasolini?” my mum would ask, referring to it as if it was the version of the Christ story or, perhaps, also, as if it were his only work. (My mum was thankfully unaware of Salo or even Edipo Re back then, otherwise, it might have been quite a different Easter ritual.) Of course, this question did not require an answer.

From the first time I watched the film, I was mesmerized by its use of music: of Bach’s “St Matthew Passion;” a haunting rendition of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” by someone, at that time, unknown to both me, and seemingly, the back of the VHS box or the film credits themselves; and later on in the film, the twanging bottle- neck acoustic-guitar playing accompanied by the wordless moans of its performer. What I didn’t realize, growing up, was how original this must have seemed at the time the film was first released—taking preexisting, recognizable and (relatively) obscure records, and placing them heavy-handedly centerstage in scenes depicting the most famous moments of Jesus Christ’s story. I was very affected by them—they made the scenes incredibly powerful, in combination with the raw performances from the cast of non-actors— and at times, the use of music created a fairly absurd atmosphere in its juxtaposition of place, story and musical accompaniment. I remember seeing the film again some years later in the cinema—most people watching quietly with some weeping while one offered a knowing laugh as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” played accompanying scenes of Mary, baby Jesus and Joseph as the wisemen arrive to view. (This wise viewer saw Pasolini being bold and playful, as well as melodramatic.)

I tried in vain for many years to trace the origins of the film’s music. Billie Holiday was mentioned in the credits, but it appeared that she had been sloppily substituted in place of the (unknown to me) performer of “Motherless Child.” This irritated me. The credits didn’t mention many of my other favorite pieces of music. I wanted to discover the origins to explore its transformative powers further.

I made a pilgrimage to The Record Album, Brighton’s specialist in soundtrack LPs. “I only deal in perfection,” the elderly gentleman behind the counter told me as he opened a mint-condition copy of Kurosawa’s Ran, to display the fact that it had never been played. (He was actually appalled to hear some static noise…!) “I can get hold of that Pasolini soundtrack for you, but it only contains the classical stuff,” he told me. My name and number went down on a waiting list, but no news ever came.

When I was a student at Jesus College, I had access to the university library, and rather than concentrating on my curricular studies, for a brief period, I would look up every book they had on Pasolini. These were, of course, not all filed next to each other in a “film” section, ordered by subject or even director. No, this was one of only two libraries in the U.K. that attempted to keep in stock one copy of every book published! So I would have to travel all across the vast interior of the phallic-shaped giant tower, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, and scour through each page and reference of Il Vangelo to see if any music was noted in any detail. Eventually, I found one book of about 12 that mentioned the performer I was most interested in, the singer of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

The singer was Odetta, who I was then as unfamiliar with as the label copy writers for each edition of the film. I was so pleased to discover who was singing this song that had been haunting me for years, and that Blind Willie Johnson was the performer of the acoustic blues piece, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” used in another powerful scene. Predating websites such as Wikipedia, Discogs and the app Shazam (all of which would have made my life infinitely easier), I had finally gotten some helpful information.

I set out researching Odetta’s back catalog, and ordered a used copy of her album Odetta At Carnegie Hall from that featured the song in question. I did, of course, hope that there would be other recordings on the same LP of a similar nature to “Motherless Child,” but was quite disappointed by the rest of the live album. Nonetheless, this became one of my most precious records, and I would play it to close DJ sets at people’s house parties in the Romsey Terrace area of Cambridge. It didn’t really fill the floor but didn’t clear it either.

Blind Willie Johnson’s song, and its use in this film, clearly influenced Ry Cooder’s use of music in Paris, Texas years later. Similarly, Pasolini’s use of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” influenced Scorsese. (Pasolini features it prominently in his first film Accattone and Il Vangelo Second Matteo, and Scorsese, an outspoken Pasolini fan, uses it in the opening scene of Casino.) I am not sure whether it was Pasolini himself—or if there was a musical director working on the film who chose these pieces alongside Missa Luba’s “Gloria” by Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin, and other fantastic but musically eclectic pieces—but they seem to transform the scenes radically. And now, rather like the annual home film screenings of The Pasolini becoming symbolic of Easter time itself for my mum, they serve as both perfect metaphors and moments of transference for the images they accompany, as well as symbols of how we use music in almost all modern film.

This article originally appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here