Music for Drifters, the very literally named album by Brit band Field Music, is a commissioned work created as a soundtrack to the 1929 John Grierson silent film called Drifters (music for Drifters, get it?), cited often as the first documentary film ever. The Brewis brothers, David and Peter (the core of Field Music), ditch the voice and their indieness for this instrumental release, comprising 20 short compositions, most of which barely cross the two-minute mark.
Despite the use of open-ended guitar motifs and thick rhythmic structures, the most striking bit about Music for Drifters is how crisply compact it is, thanks in no small part to the alignment between the drums and the melodic elements. The pockets that the guitar-and-bass lines hit are distinct from the drums — so there is ample rhythmic fluidity and playfulness — but it’s surprising how tight and locked in the music feels. There’s almost a sense of claustrophobia that seeps in from time to time, but it also sounds like a deliberate attempt to gradually develop the recurring musical themes through the album (a couple of the pieces — Casting Out and Quayside — have been split up into parts) and add to the cinematic quality of the music.
It’s always hard to judge the score to a visual work without accessing the context — namely, the film itself in this case — but it’s worth pondering over the relevance of that secondary context. Maybe the screening of Man with a Movie Camera would add to the Cinematic Orchestra’s stunning score to the seminal work, but it seems to function just as well as a standalone piece of music. Similarly, the transcendence of Mogwai’s achingly beautiful score to the French TV show Les Revenants bypasses the original framework of its creation. Those two in particular — or anything by Yann Tierson for that matter — suggest that the eternal quality of a score seems to lie in its value as a creative entity outside of the motion picture it accompanies. It’s sort of a
chicken-and-egg thing. So on its own merit, Music for Drifters excels in terms of drafting a vivid, flexible landscape that doesn’t necessarily have to remind one of the British herring industry of the 1920s, all the while creating emotive, pleasant-sounding arrangements of guitar/drums/keys music.