Music In The Raw: Bo Harwood and John Cassavetes

"Warning: The twenty music tracks that may be downloaded from this website have never been exposed to the public before. This is film music in the raw, as rough and unpolished as Cassavetes’ movies, with the lyrics pouring straight out of John’s heart, conjuring melodies that flowed through Bo’s fingers onto guitar strings and piano keys." These words spread across the homepage of BoHarwood.com, where the talented composer has released 20 songs, scores and musical improvisations he recorded for and with John Cassavetes. A warning might be necessary for those unfamiliar with Cassavetes’ films, but for those who have come to appreciate the brilliance behind the “rough” and “unpolished” work of this American master it is a glowing invitation.

Above: Bo Harwood and John Cassavettes. Photo by Joan Almond.

Like the films of John Cassavetes, the music that Bo Harwood recorded is very special for reasons hard to explain. Raw, unrefined, yet holding tremendous emotional power within such simple musical structures, it beautifully complimented the unique work Cassavetes and company were creating in front of the camera. “Over the years, it never really occurred to me to 'put out’ our music,” Harwood emailed me in 2009, “probably because I've just always thought the music is where it belongs. But for some reason, during this last year, I have received a lot of email from people who really appreciate the music and wonder where they can get it.” A CD set was in the works but never materialized, but finally, four years later, Harwood has decided to release the 20 tracks he produced for Cassavetes through his website and also include a wonderful 60 page personal “History” of their working relationship called The Last Room on the Right.

When Bo Harwood first met John Cassavetes in 1970 the musician was 23 years old. Harwood did the music for a film called The Bach Train and both Harwood and Cassavetes were at a screening. The music... was... terrific,” Cassavetes told Harwood when they were introduced, “But I didn’t understand a thing in the movie.” Husbands was being edited, and the director asked Harwood if he’d come help out. “I didn’t even appreciate who he was,” Harwood told me, “I needed a job.”

There were some scenes in Husbands that had absolutely no sound whatsoever. Harwood went to work building the sound from scratch in the editing room. This was no small feat. But what really endeared Harwood to Cassavetes was Harwood’s willingness to work late into the night, running the Moviola, trying different editing ideas. “He could always lasso me into staying till four o’clock in the morning and work on a new cut for a screener they were having in two days,” Harwood recalls. The two hit it off.

Husbands was Cassavetes’ fifth film, but aside from what was actually playing in scenes, Cassavetes hadn’t yet explored ways of significantly incorporating music in his films. It wasn’t until years later, as he began planning A Woman Under The Influence, that Cassavetes told Harwood he wanted him to do the music for the film. This excited but unnerved Harwood. He didn’t know how to read or write music and so would need help in the final stages when it came to orchestrating the score. Cassavetes was fine with that, so Harwood went to work writing the music that he imagined would eventually be orchestrated in the film. “Then came the shocker,” Harwood writes in The Last Room on the Right, “I was putting new strings on my 12-string in the music room, and there was a knock at the door. It was John. ‘Bo, I’ve been thinking... I want you to do the music on piano.’ I was a little struck and came back with the obvious, ‘I don’t play piano.’ And without missing a beat, he said, ‘Rent one.’ He was dead serious and I knew it.”

Harwood, despite having to basically teach himself how to play piano as he wrote the music, came up with the main theme in a few days. Cassavetes loved it. But then came the next shocker. “I was at the piano and about to play John something new when he blurted out, ‘I don’t think this sound guy is going to work out. I think you should do it.’ ‘Do what?’ ‘Do the sound on the picture.’” Harwood protested that he had no idea how to do that. “Sure you do,” said Cassavetes, “You do all your own recording. You record your own music. One tape recorder is like the other.”

I asked Harwood how he found the courage to do it. “I loved John and didn’t even know it. I don’t know why I did. I certainly didn’t understand him half the time. You’d hear a lot of people say that. ‘John said something and I don’t know what the fuck he means.’ But here was this guy who had this tremendous faith in me, that I could somehow get it together and make it work. I had so much admiration for him that I just put a mask over my eyes. I just said ‘Ok, I’ll do it,’ and just went in scared shitless.”

Cassavetes had a nightmare with the sound on his first film, Shadows, which took months and months to correct, so the imprudence of asking Harwood to record the sound, despite not knowing how to do it, could not be overstated. But there was a method to his madness. It was paramount for him to create an environment where everyone was slightly new to what they were doing or at least were pushed into taking chances, forcing them to be in the moment. He seemed to have worked exclusively on this level. Even after shooting was done, in the way the films were edited, he laid out scene after scene that shook the audience awake, not allowing for passive viewing.

Harwood remembers, “There were times when a scene played really well, like in A Woman Under The Influence, and it was very loving, very compassionate. Everyone would think so. John would rip it apart. Not because he hated compassion, but because that’s not what he wanted from the scene. He had a winning scene that everyone was in tears about, which most people would keep for its aesthetic value. But that’s not what he wanted. That’s not the intention of the scene. And he would rip it apart and re-cut it. That happened a lot. He definitely would have a vision and stick to it. He was a fucking artist, like a horse with blinders on.”

After Harwood survived the production, successfully recording sound on a movie for the first time, he went back and finished writing the score. Once complete, a scratch track was recorded. A scratch track is a temporary recording, usually done very quickly and with little attention to production quality, that is placed in the film during editing, holding the spot for where the actual ‘real’ music will go when it is recorded. “We were about to re-record it, work with an arranger and stuff,” Harwood says, “and John would play the temp track and say, ‘You don’t like that?!’” It turned out Cassavetes loved the rough version and had no plans to re-record it, no matter how raw it was. It was almost as if he believed Harwood captured something in the raw, which, with too much polishing, would disappear. He often fell in love with Harwood’s temporary versions and would go on to use a lot of them in his films. Most of A Woman Under the Influence's score was not even recorded in a studio, but in the office. This was, naturally, very frustrating for Harwood. Initially, he thought it was a money issue. Cassavetes assured him it wasn’t. It was what he wanted. “It took me a long time to where I believed he was telling me the truth,” said Harwood, “But I saw him get money when he needed it. If he wanted to get a full blown score on Woman he would’ve gotten the money together, and he would’ve done it.”

So was Harwood flattered? “No, because I didn’t like hearing myself play. I loved that he loved it. And I kind of liked it. I just thought everybody else would hate it. And I wasn’t evolved enough as a human being or an artist to appreciate that. I was scared. I was young. I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to have a lick of professionalism, of being a professional piece of music. That was in the beginning, then I started to relax behind it.”

Listening now to the piano score of A Woman Under The Influence (track 13 in the collection), it is easy to hear what Cassavetes fell in love with. It’s probably a combination of Harwood playing an instrument he was not totally comfortable with and at the same time never imaging that anyone would hear his actual playing. The result is an effortless balance of simplicity and emotional power.

But it still frustrates Harwood that Cassavetes used the raw versions of his music. He played me “I’ll Leave It Up to You” (track 12 in the collection). An early version of the tune plays in the last scene of Love Streams. The version Harwood plays me is the final version of the song. “I mean, I like this version,” he told me, “The one in the film is just flat. But John fell in love with it and it got locked in.”

The final version is much fuller than the one used in the film and just plain sounds more like a finished song. And in this case, the final version was finished and ready to use if Cassavetes wanted it. But he didn’t.

This approach to the music might be confounding but this was how John Cassavetes dealt with every aspect of his film work. He had no qualms about using a shot that was out of focus or badly lit, choosing a moment that was poorly performed (by conventional standards) or putting two shots together that didn’t match at all, as long as the result reached an emotional truth. His evaluation of these things was not normal, predictable, or at times understandable, even to longtime collaborators like Harwood. “He would make some decisions that were terrible,” Harwood recalls. “We disagreed about a lot of stuff—the wardrobe, the color of something, a casting choice. But John would see something in a person, in a character, he would see them walk into a room in a certain way and look around a certain way, and in that room there’d be a bright red carpet. And the next morning he’d have his art director bring in various red carpets to look at. Terrible. Awful. This is the thing though—he would see something work, he would see a character do something a certain way, and it worked. He saw it happen and that made it valid. So that’s what he was going to do. It was valid because he saw it. No discussion. He had the nerve to go with a vision without worrying about explaining himself. Because, I’ll tell ya, some of those decisions, maybe even he didn’t like them, but he had faith in his own vision. It was uncanny—a very courageous guy, a true artist with a sack full of dirt cloths he would throw at things.”

Another aspect of their work together was musical improvisation. Cassavetes liked to try ideas out on people. He would basically pitch the latest story to anyone that was around, in order to see their reaction. He would dictate scenes to his secretary, whole scripts in fact. He needed to work ideas out loud. He worked similarly with Harwood. Cassavetes would walk into the music room with some lyrical ideas, and he would ask Harwood to put a fresh ¼ inch tape on the recorder. In pre-production on Opening Night, he’d get in the mindset of the lead character, Myrtle Gordon (ultimately played by his wife, Gena Rowlands) and just start speaking ideas out loud. Harwood would accompany it with music. “I had no idea what I was doing with the guitar or the piano,” he remembers. “A lot of times I’d just sit there till I feel like trying something and didn’t try to analyze it or anything like that. I would just go, and sometimes things would work and sometimes they didn’t.”

It continued through the years. A lot of their songs were born from these improvised meetings and Harwood provides selections in various states of completion. He gives an example of how Cassavetes would begin: “He would just say ‘Walk into the fog, love cannot stay’ or whatever, and I’d hear a phrasing thing, and I would say, ‘Wait a minute, John. Hang on a second,’ and I would try something, then he would try, and we’d go back and forth like that.” The result, “Love Cannot Stay” (track 9 in the collection), is a lovely, melancholy tune, sung beautifully by Harwood. It was one of their favorites.

Listening to the selections Harwood has put together, both those we’ve longed to hear outside of their brief moments in the films and the ones that have never been released to the public before, one can’t help but feel privileged for the opportunity to savor such unique, raw and emotionally connected work. The dedication to Cassavetes can literally be heard in Harwood’s voice. Diehard fans of the filmmaker will comb through these songs in search of a glimpse into the unconscious mind of the man, but Harwood’s gift for phrasing and melody take these pieces well beyond their textual importance.

I asked Harwood if he could objectively surmise why people the world over are interested in hearing his work now. “No, other than the fact that they just happen to be Cassavetes fans and I just happened to be the one that did the music for it. That’s one reason,” Harwood answers. “Another reason is, every now and then I write a really good tune.”

Responses

3 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Cory Floyd

    I can’t believe no one has responded to this post! Thank you so much for letting me know Bo Harwood has released the music out there. I think his work on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is sublime. All of his music is just pure perfection with Cassavetes works but Chinese Bookie is my favorite score ever. Great interview too.

  • Caddn13

    Thank you MUBI. lovely read, i look forward to listening to the cd.

  • Budd

    Fantastic! Thank you and I can’t wait to hear the music.

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