Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004, and is regarded as one of the greatest films of the 2000s. One of the memorable aspects of the film is Jon Brion’s soundtrack that combines lush strings, lo-fi nylon string guitars and melancholy piano. Jon Brion’s work on the soundtrack led to him working with Kanye West on the 2005 album Late Registration, where he providing the strings and brass arrangement, as well as co-producing and helping with the creative direction of the album. Additionally the soundtrack has had a big influence on indie and dreampop bands as well as hip-hop artists, being directly sampled in several songs:
Jon Brion - Phone Call
The main song I’m going to look at is Phone Call, a short piece constructed around a layered guitar part with lush strings playing over the top. It’s heard for this first time at the end of this scene:
“There’s a scene [in Eternal Sunshine] when Jim Carrey’s character has just met [Kate Winslet’s] Clementine, and she’s invited him up for drinks, it was the first time you saw him excited, and you could tell it was going to be a pivotal point in his life. But the music you heard — do-do-do-do-do-do-do — didn’t make you feel so good. It created such a good contrast. I just wanted to do something that felt like that.” – Jay Electronica
The guitars in Phone Call features 2 layered tracks playing different arpeggiated chords over each other. This song is in the key of Db and Guitar 1 plays a Db arpeggio while Guitar 2 plays Gb to Ab arpeggios. This is how it is played:
- Organ 1 // Organ 2 00:00
I’ve also played the two parts on guitar into a loop pedal set to loop each part together. Both have been run through SoundToys Echoboy to add a basic lo-fi wobbly sound.
- Phone Call Guitar Loop 00:00
While these densely layered chord movements sound pretty gorgeous already, to really get the Eternal Sunshine vibe we need to explore where the grainy lo-fi guitar sound on the record came from originally, so we need to look at a bunch of very old sampling keyboards.
The Optigan & the Chilton TalentMaker
Short for Optical Organ, the Optigan was released in 1971 and plays back prerecorded backing samples from optical discs made of clear plastic. A backing track could be produced by pressing the buttons on the left whilst melodies & improvisations could be played over this backing on the keyboard. Although sophisticated for it’s time, the Optigan suffered from poor tonal quality due to limitations in the technology, and dust and dirt on the discs would create a crackly sound similar to worn phonograph records.
There were several instruments related to the Optigan, such as the Vako Orchestron and the Chilton TalentMaker. The latter was meant to improve the sound quality of the Optigan and includes extra chord buttons that the Optigan had been missing. The main optical discs that I’ll look at are Classic Guitar for the Optigan and Guitar in 4/4 for the TalentMaker. Note that I’m using samples of these discs. Here’s where to get samples:
GForce M-Tron Pro with Optitron Expansion: a very exhaustive selection of Optigan samples but missing TalentMaker samples. M-Tron Pro comes with the Classic Guitar samples a the Optitron expansion has some other great stuff.
Optigan.com: An extensive selection of raw samples. Pricey but there’s some really rare stuff, including the elusive TalentMaker samples.
“It’s funny because you were talking about my grandfather inventing that keyboard, Jon has some old keyboards. My father, who is the son-in-law of my grandfather, took over his keyboard shop and he started to sell electronic synthesizers and organs and he had this very weird synthesizer called The Talentmaker. And I hadn’t heard or seen one in 30 years. And when I went to see Jon he had this. So when you hear this very sad guitar that we use a lot [in the film] that’s [The Talentmaker]. So you had the nostalgia of my grandfather’s shop. So it was great to collaborate with him.”
– Michel Gondry (director of Eternal Sunshine)
Phone Call (cont.)
Now I’ll show how Jon Brion used the TalentMaker and Optigan samples to create Phone Call, note that the song uses the TalentMaker samples but I’ll also show how to use the Optigan samples from GForce M-Tron Pro too, as these are a little easier to get hold of. Firstly the TalentMaker ‘Guitar in 4/4’ samples:
- TalentMaker 1 00:00
- TalentMaker 2 00:00
- TalentMaker Layered 00:00
- Optigan Guitar 1 00:00
- Optigan Guitar 2 00:00
- Optigan Layered 00:00
- Collecting Things Optigan 00:00
In Bookstore, Jon Brion uses the same guitar part from Phone Call but with an interesting reverse effect to make it same more surreal and dreamlike. Here’s the song in the movie:
If we flip this song backwards we can hear how the guitar part is simply the Phone Call guitar sped up and played in reverse:
- Bookstore Reverse 00:00
This is a easy effect to do, simply take your sample (or bounce a MIDI part to an audio file) and reverse the audio in your DAW. In Ableton Live simply use the Rev button in the sample options. Logic Pro X users want to enable ‘Advanced Audio Tools’ and find Reverse in the Function menu of the audio editor.
Here’s the Phone Call TalentMaker sample from earlier flipped backwards. I’ve also sped it up using Live’s Re-Pitch pitch-shifting algorithm that raises the pitch in relation to speed. I raised the tempo until the sample reached the pitch of E Major (3 semitones up from Db) which is the key the strings are playing in.
- Bookstore Full 00:00
I hope you’ve learnt something about the process behind these pieces, and maybe gained some insight into how Jon Brion created this soundtrack. He used sampling in a way not usually considered, and utilised old, obscure instruments in a new, fresh way. Try to incorporate these methods in your own compositions and see what you come up with!