Peter Gabriel  Passion

For Q magazine, it was “a potentially mould-shattering marvel”, while Sounds labelled it “a wonderful synthesis of ancient ideas, forging something new and quite brilliant”. On the other side of the Atlantic, Rolling Stone hailed its creator, “an artist who remains idiosyncratic without being obtuse”.

When Peter Gabriel’s Passion emerged from the studios and offices of newly formed Real World Records in June 1989, the double album was nothing short of a revelation. Gabriel’s previous record, So, had been released almost exactly three years earlier, a bold slab of radio-friendly pop-funk that had bequeathed hit after hit.

It was scarcely conceivable that Passion was designed by the same brain, chiselled by the same hands. The album was an extension of Gabriel’s score for the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation Of Christ, which had been released, among no little controversy, the previous summer. As such, the album was the opposite of its predecessor – an ambient, evocative soundscape that drew from unorthodox musical sources from across the globe. At the time, Gabriel issued a warning to those post-So fans of his. “This record is not for the newcomers. This is hardcore stuff.”

Hardcore maybe, but Passion was also a quietly persuasive record whose charms weren’t writ large. It whispered, it insinuated. This was music that unpeeled itself slowly, music of unquantifiable depth and spirituality, music that matched the tension and power of the film itself.

The original score had been in gestation since 1983, when Scorsese first approached Gabriel. After the film started shooting in Morocco, Gabriel travelled out to North Africa to make some loose field recordings of local musicians; these would provide part of the score’s framework. The recordings were then expanded and assimilated back at Real World Studios in Box in the Wiltshire countryside where Gabriel worked in the company of his right-hand man, the Canadian engineer/mixer David Bottrill. Bottrill, who had assisted producer Daniel Lanois on So, takes up the story...

“The field recordings were good, but they lacked the punch of direct close recording, so we hired the Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy to come to Box to help augment the recordings. He and I basically took a week to take each track, listen and determine what the piece was and have Hossam recreate each percussion part individually. We recorded each part again and blended the two so as to have both the vibe of the live recording and the punch of the studio recordings.”

Then came a lengthy procession of collaborators through the studio door, among them the possessors of some of the most striking voices on the planet, namely the fast-rising ‘world music’ stars Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Senegalese pair of Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal. Also present were musicians like Indian violinist Shankar; US drummer Bill Cobham; his compatriot, the avant-garde trumpeter Jon Hassell; and Egypt’s Musicians du Nile, along with musicians from Bahrain, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, New Guinea and Turkey. This was a truly united nations of sound.

The gathering at Real World’s brand-new facilities fulfilled a wish of Gabriel’s: that the very latest technology – assembled with the assistance and expertise of Silicon Valley’s sharpest minds – be made available to musicians who otherwise would have had very limited opportunity to access such to-the-minute hardware and sophisticated recording techniques.

Despite the assembled nationalities, the score’s atmosphere was predominantly North African/Middle Eastern. Gabriel was keen to create “something that had references to that time and part of the world, but [that] really had its own character, and was to be sort of timeless in a way”. He was also keen to create a score that found its essence in the – hey – real world. “Normally Biblical films have this distant sheen,” he explained to The Musician magazine, “a sort of hallowed glow,and the people are already halfway to becoming angels. The idea here was to give a sense of what it would be really like for these fishermen and herdsmen, real working-class or blue-collar people. They tend to be forgotten.”

This idea was developed by Gabriel doing some digging in the vaults. “In my research for Passion, many people mentioned the wonderful resources of the National Sound Archive and in particular introduced me to Lucy Duran, who both understood what I was hoping to achieve and made lots of great suggestions. Scorsese had asked for a new type of score that was neither ancient nor modern, that was not a pastiche but had clear references to the region, traditions and atmospheres, but was in itself a living thing.” The samples and extracts harvested from the archive flavoured much of the score.

Back in the studio, the experience of working with such a diverse array of artists in the studio was a real eye-opener for David Bottrill. “Peter introduced me to musicians and styles of music I would never have had the opportunity to hear or work with. It was a fantastic learning experience. He had music running around his head all the time.” Ever-keen and ever-curious, Gabriel sank down into the project’s delicious depths, eager to explore new inspirations, new fusions, new juxtapositions. “I try to keep my head empty and the room full,” he noted at the time.

Not that the score was completed in the splendid isolation of the West Country. Gabriel and Bottrill decamped to New York City, setting up a makeshift studio in the legendary Brill Building to apply their score to Scorsese’s finished cut. Here the pair would sculpt and shape the score while scenes played on a screen, tinkering and tailoring the music to the precise demands of the film’s final edit.

But after every last note had been applied, even after the film went on (its controversial) general release, Gabriel wasn’t done. “There were some unfinished ideas that needed developing,” he explained of his retreat back into the Real World studio. After all, while a film might only need a ten-second snippet of a musical theme, its author might believe it deserved a longer treatment.

He, Bottrill and various musicians spent the following seven months extending and stretching the score into something more substantial. “I felt the record should be able to stand as a separate body of work,” Gabriel defended of the extra hours and the soundtrack’s delayed release. “It wasn’t a fly-by-night thing.”

Ten months after the film, the extended soundtrack finally saw light of day, in the process becoming the first release from Real World Records. The reaction was strong, the fusion of ancient sounds, studio recordings and the very latest cutting-edge technology earning plaudits a-plenty.

Released at the peak of interest in what was being marketed as ‘world music’, the record was seen as a genuine conversation and collaboration between a Western rock star and musicians from all four corners. It certainly helped that this particular Western rock star wasn’t paying mere lip service. Here was a musician who understood the responsibility of promoting the artists whose work had had such a profound effect on the score. He acknowledged his influences, he showed his workings. This was done through the subsequent release of Passion – Sources, a collection that showcased both the studio performers and Gabriel’s field recordings.

Nearly 30 years after its release, Passion is now being made available to subscribers of Bower & Wilkins’ Society of Sound as a high-resolution download, the first time it has been available in such sparkling definition. It will be the Society of Sound’s 100th release, an honour fittingly awarded to Gabriel, one of its curators and a man sharing the Society’s commitment to the highest quality sound in music.

The score is a work of art that has influenced many working in ambient music and beyond, everyone from Orbital to One Giant Leap and all points in between. Gabriel’s aim of creating something timeless was achieved. Passion remains an extraordinary work – stirring, stately and effortlessly profound.


 

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