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Jessica Roch – The Mindbenders

… in conversation with David Ashworth

Jessica Roch

The Mindbenders is a new soundtrack by Jessica Roch, for the FDA (U.S. Food and Drugs Administration) archive film ‘The Mindbenders’. I was lucky enough to chance upon it on the British Music Collection website.

Anxious to find out more about this intriguing film, I managed to get in touch with Jessica who kindly accepted my invitation to join me in the cafe to talk about her work.

Hi Jessica – and thanks for joining us! First off, I’m interested in hearing about how the initial idea for writing this piece came about. Can you tell us something about how you came across the film in the first place? Was this a commission?

It’s useful for film-makers to see a composer’s music put to moving image but it often takes a while before composers find their perfect director and are able make music that reflects their style of writing. I just loved the visuals of Mindbenders and have always found the subject matter fascinating so finding this film was a bit like working with my dream director.

The original is actually twice as long as the version I wrote music for as it has sections with a narrator who creates quite a contrast to what the interviewees have to say. I’m sure the FDA would probably not have approved the film if it wasn’t for the scare-mongering voice-over! I had to lose the narrated sections as they had music underneath already but the interviewees and doctors speak for themselves and present a wide array of views about LSD, some pretty positive.

Indeed! Now can you tell us something about the process of composition for this piece? The initial musical ideas – and how you developed them?

As with most musical ideas I have, I tend to use a mixture of improvisation and notation. I watched the film and improvised piano and synth parts over the images, creating various ideas, then picking my favourites. So the whole process was essentially a mix of intuitive improvisation, writing and experimentation.

When I sat down to write it, I knew it needed to involve some old synth sounds as well as dissonant/effected strings. I’ve always liked to experiment with classical instruments and effects like strange reverbs – I want the essence of the sound to be there but to create a new feeling without losing the familiar tone. I’m always surprised when I start experimenting with delay and various warped sounds as they take the pieces in directions I’d never imagined. 

Yes, that’s one of the things I like the most about working with technology –  being able to take familiar sounds into new places. Moving on to the film content … It is an extraordinary film contrasting the hope and expectations of the young people who have used the drugs with the more factual doctors’ narratives … and then there is the wonderful ‘psychedelic’ footage. Do you see this as an interesting period piece from the archives, or does it still have a relevance today?

I’m so glad you like the psychedelic visuals as they’re the first thing I fell in love with when I watched the film. Just beautiful and so much more impressive considering it was filmed in the late 60’s so a lot of work would have gone into every shot.

Even though I initially fell in love with the aesthetic of the period and the atmosphere of the film, I absolutely think it has relevance today which is what I think makes it an interesting watch. The law has only become more severe about most drugs in the US (besides cannabis in a few States) as well as the UK, despite all the research that has been done over the decades about the potential benefits of LSD – particularly in small doses. 

Two things that strike me when you compare it to our understanding of the contemporary, somewhat darker drug scene. These young users are not the demographics you might think of today, where we read of young vulnerable exploited addicts and the more prosperous ‘hedonistic’ users we associate with business and celebrity cultures.  These more innocent, possibly somewhat naive, users from the 1970s seemed to be reaching out for something more spiritual – a void to fill a perceived emptiness.  Do you think this is a fair assessment?

Yes, in a way. This is just one depiction of drug use from that time – and this is the way the FDA chose to present drug users in this film, so you’ve got to bear that in mind. In fact that’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to it – the FDA made this film! It’s essentially an anti-drugs film but it doesn’t always appear that way.

I actually see a fair few parallels with the young people in that film and many young people today. In the eyes of the young back then, their parents’ generation made some severe mistakes which they couldn’t hide from their children. By that point in 1970, there was a mass uprising of young people against the Vietnam war in the USA. They hadn’t voted for the presidents who pushed for US involvement and sent out millions of troops to kill and be killed. Many young people were also involved in the civil rights movements and stopped trusting the police.

Today, young people in America in particular are still protesting against the police for systemic racism and ending gun violence etc. We see the same rebellion, the mass protests and the activism of young people across the world. In both cases, it has a lot to do with the older generations’ decisions having a detrimental effect on the embittered youth who lose faith in the system. Back then, many of them may have taken the drug to fill a perceived emptiness but maybe also to escape from the bleak reality where they felt helpless against the powers that be. History repeats itself so blatantly sometimes.

A good point – times may be changing but some things are not so different. I first encountered your piece on the  British Music Collection archive, which tells us the music is scored for quite a diverse ensemble – various string instruments, mallets,  piano, percussion voice and synths. For the recording, did you play all the parts or did you convene an ensemble to make the recording?

I played everything I had access to at the time which was piano, synths, vocals, percussion and violin. I down-tuned my violin for the viola and cello parts which luckily works quite well when blended with the other parts. The mallet parts are recorded using a plugin, although I would have loved to have used real musicians but sadly didn’t have the budget at the time. I’d love to get some people together to perform it live at some point when we’re allowed to do that kinda thing again. I like to think it’d work as a live experience.

I’m sure it would! Some of the musical sections are very short, the length obviously being dictated by the film action. It occurs to me that it might well be worthwhile to consider extracting the music from the film and developing it as an instrumental ‘suite’. Do you think this is a direction that might interest you?  Could it work as a standalone listening experience?

I’m not sure. Like you said, some of the sections are fairly short but the audio alone (including the interviews) is up on my Soundcloud if anyone wants to listen to it without the video. 

Finally, can you tell us something about your musical plans for the future. I notice you have recently released Expanse on Bandcamp which I’m really enjoying listening to. Can we expect more like this?  Post Covid, do you have any plans for more recording and possibly  live performance?

Ah thank you. Expanse is another piece of music that probably sounds like I took something before making it, despite the fact that I have actually never taken acid. Maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to make psychedelic music!

I’m currently mixing my first EP which I’m hoping will be out fairly soon on all the usual platforms. It’s more piano-based so is a little different to Mindbenders.

I’m also working on some of the music for a new documentary alongside the very talented Mike Day. I recommend checking out his last film, ‘The Island and the Whales’ if you haven’t already. He actually told me the other day that the music I wrote for Mindbenders was one of the reasons he got in touch with me!

Live music-wise, I hope to play an improvised show at some point next year with my friend and fellow improviser and pianist/cellist, Derek Yau. We’ve been meaning to do something improvised and live for years and 2020 has possibly given us the kick up the arse that we needed! 

2 thoughts on “Jessica Roch – The Mindbenders”

  1. A really interesting interview and examination of the process behind making psychedelic music for an anti-psychedelic propaganda film and the relationship between music and film. I think Jessica is correct that the 1970 footage at times fails to even criticise its subjects but instead only helps to point out their plight, their lack of good leadership, the lack of love and guidance shown to them by their own society. To put it in a Jungian context, rather than hippies and their culture being a threat to society, they merely highlighted exactly what was wrong with society. I also agree with Jessica that it is indeed the same today.

    I found both the music and the film, as well as Jessica Roch’s explanations to all be rather poignant and on point. A very interesting piece of work. I love the idea that you might do it live, perhaps a series of pieces performed live to films followed by a question and answers/debate?

    Liked by 1 person

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