Sharps & flats

The "Stigmata" soundtrack stars Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan and his experimental art of demonic composition.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published September 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

With "Stigmata," his second film score (the first was "Ransom"), Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan has morphed from alt-rock idol into edgy free-form electronic alchemist, creating music too strange (and often brilliant) to ever make it onto the radio.

Corgan started moving in an electronic direction last year with the Pumpkins' "Adore," but film has given him the freedom to jettison rock conventions altogether. "Stigmata" is a horror movie about demonic possession, and the music -- credited to Corgan and Mike Garson -- creates an atmosphere of creeping terror and schizophrenia interspersed with moments of quiet and grace.

Following six tracks by the likes of Bjvrk, Massive Attack and David Bowie, Corgan's original material begins conventionally with "Identify," a forlorn original pop song sung by Natalie Imbruglia, one of the best arguments yet for the insalubrious effect that MTV has had on pop. Onscreen, her breathtaking beauty makes up for her thin, flat voice, but on disc she's simply grating, obscuring Corgan's luminous soundscape.

After "Identify," though, Imbruglia disappears and we're thrust into the echo chamber of "1,000,000 Voices," followed by the sprightly, otherworldly "Pop Pop" and the plaintive, spare piano of "Await." From there, the "Stigmata" score is study in chiaroscuro. There are moments of angelic beauty, with tendrils of synthesizers twirling over crystalline washes and ticklish percussion. Often, though, they quickly give way to chaos and even terror. On "Reflect," the music begins with lulling, pretty percussion that reminds one of stones tossed in a placid lake. Soon, though, it segues into a chaotic tumult of electronic noise, a sonic evocation of pure panic. On "Distrbnce (After Sckhausen)," noises bubble up and then evanesce like ghosts. A brief piano interlude lends a bit of order, but it is quickly replaced by a pulsing electronic beat that sounds like racing footsteps. Happily, Corgan eschews the "O Fortuna"-style operatic hysteria once so popular in horror films. Instead, he creates creepy, discordant fear with jagged digital elements, slinking percussion, ethereal washes and doleful sonic shadows.

Not all of the pop songs on "Stigmata" have the evocative power of Corgan's score. Chumbawamba's shrill, bombastic "Mary Mary" starts the record on a sour note, and David Bowie's "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell" is weighed down by ugly heavy metal guitars. But Bjvrk's "All Is Full of Love" and Massive Attack's "Inertia Creeps," though both familiar, are still stunning. Anyway, the songs that start the album are almost beside the point, because it's the cinematic sweep of Corgan's intricate instrumentals that makes "Stigmata" so compelling, and so much more than a marketing aid.

While synergistic media companies often seem determined to destroy artful soundtracks by turning them into promotional singles compilations, film scores are still the ideal way for restless pop artists to try experimental composition. As famed Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann said in the early '70s, "Cinema and television is the great vehicle for contemporary music. You can have experimentation in both those mediums in the most avant-garde music techniques, and an audience will accept it provided it is compatible with the dramatic situation."

With "Stigmata," Corgan seems to have taken those words to heart.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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