Mike Ratledge – Riddles of the Sphinx

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[Reviewed by Peter Marks]

Set the controls for the stem of the brain and be sure you’re securely fastened in. From 1977’s highly obscured film “Riddles of the Sphinx” comes the film score of the same name. Go to youtube, the BFI have graciously allowed it to be uploaded in all it’s shamanic glory. Taken on it’s own merits, this music is hypnotic, disarming, enticing and unsettling all at the same time. The film itself is mainly comprised of slow, panning shots taken of domestic settings through which the director and this beguiling set of sequences connects the mysteries of ancient feminine matriarchal history to what, at that time, was the current world of late 1970s Britain.

The aura of mystery which pervades Ratledge’s stunningly effective compositions descends upon one like a slow motion downpour which ever so gently engulfs it’s victims in the warm, suffocating contentment of suburban malaise. You can see the ordinary interactions of the film’s subjects taking their toll upon them just as this score will exact a terrible price upon the listener if they do not choose to accept it for what it is: a tome of subliminal, swarthy sounds which like snakes upon the desert leave only the impression of their ever having been there. It is a challenge to accurately gauge what Ratledge was aiming for with his work here, not having been more than four at the time, my memories of this era are hazy.

From what I have come to know about how England was by the time the late seventies arrived, the dourly insular nature of “Riddles of the Sphinx” seems entirely appropriate. There seemed to be a lot of soul-searching going on and with Maggie waiting in the wings, not much faith was placed in the promise of the future. So this excursion into the private routines of women who lived in their thoughts and had these sorts of hidden revelations is in itself quite remarkable. As a gender, they are so often conditioned to remain quiet, as the saying used to go ‘speak when you’re spoken to, that’s what nice girls do.’ Push it down and keep it inside… but where does it go?

In spite of societal factors at that time which included outright sexist policies in the workplace and in politics (something which is Thatcher’s sole positive achievement with regard to her eventual career in government), there has always been a sisterhood which exists behind those tightly drawn drapes. The descriptive language which describes the Sphinx’s box is a beautiful collection of lush details and a strange collective memory of what has come before and if this world is to have any kind of hope, what is to return someday. The recollections of childhood, in particular, when the subject feels a rush of triumph when her father leaves the house are sublime.

They pour out like a torrent of encounters spread across the millenia, the liminal space between thoughts and actions given release… so familiar yet so fatally easy to forget. Whatever else the Baron exhumes from the vast library he has been given access to, this album will stand as one of the most unusual ever composed. A score which breathes like exotic Morse code through the ether of time; listen long enough and you, too, will begin to hear the Sphinx speak. Unlike any collection of film music I’ve yet heard, the simplicity of instrumentation cascading in ruminative repetition easily stands out from the bombastic garbage most scores are swollen with.

Wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

Mike Ratledge – Riddles of the Sphinx
Mordant Music, MM066
LP, Digital, 2013

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