Solaris might be the best sci fi soundtrack ever. Putting its appeal into words isn’t easy, however.
One reason why it is hard to articulate its artistic success is because the actual musical content of Solaris is so slight. Immediately after viewing the film, it’s hard to recall there being any soundtrack at all.
The most salient aspects of the non-diegetic sound are the Bach interpolations, mostly used in the film to describe Earth. The remaining tracks, by Andrei Tarkovsky’s sidekick Eduard Artemiev, are variations on a black hole-cold drone – it prefigures the trend in ‘dark ambient’ that would become so popular some 30 years later.
For context, here is what other cosmic music sounded like in 1972:
In the spring of 1970, at a house party thrown by film editor Mikhail Romadin, Eduard Artemiev and Andrei Tarkovsky were introduced. Their cinematic collaborations would go on to be every bit as symbiotic as the more familiar likes of John Williams and George Lucas or Danny Elfman and Tim Burton, though the two men were never particularly close, and their work together would peter out as Tarkovsky came ever more disillusioned with the role of music in cinema, sometimes just picking a single theme out of hours of music recorded by Artemiev for a film, and looping it, as he did on Stalker. Eventually he would remove Artemiev’s scores altogether.
Even at their first meeting, the director was dispassionate about including music in his films. He told Artemiev that he wanted a composer for Solaris, but not to write music. “I don’t need music, but the composer’s feeling of space, what I need are the states, conditions…” he told the musician.
Perhaps as much as grasping that a film set in a – a kind of – haunted space station should be only minimally garnished with music, Tarkovsky had also been burnt by his previous collaborations with composers. His earlier films has been scored by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, who Artemiev knew and admired, but a spat of bitterness between the two had ended their creative relationship. Tarkovsky was bullish from the start, declaring to Artemiev that he would never work with anyone who was Ovchinnikov’s equal, so what was the point.
“He sought not the author of music,” explained Artemiev of his vague brief for Solaris, “but the organiser of audio space of the film.”
What sold Artemiev to Tarkovsky was a visit to the groundbreaking electronic music studio where Artemiev worked alongside the mathematician and optics engineer Yevgeny Murzin. The studio housed Murzin and Artemiev’s hulking metallic baby – the ANS synthesiser; an electronic music-making machine unlike any that had preceded or followed it.
Murzin began work on his synth in 1937 and it took 20 years to build. Research into new musical instruments was largely prohibited by the state, and despite the not-inconsiderable innovations of Leon Theremin, creating electronic instruments in Russia was considered a criminal act. Buying the required components was impossible, so inventors had to steal them from institutions.
In the era of Stalin, when dissenting artists were not only sent to the gulag or shot, but literally written out of history – their works destroyed and even their image edited out of photographs – Murzin’s work was open rebellion.
However, the inventor would become engaged in secretive, “highly classified” work which earned him certain privileges, allowing him to make make friends in high enough places that a blind eye would be turned to his and Artemiev’s studio.
Murzin’s hero was the early 20th Century occultist and composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, who developed intricate and atonal musical systems based on theosophy, mysticism and synaesthesia. Christening his machine with Scriabin’s initials, Murzin set about applying some of the mystic’s methodology to electronic music.
For instance, the ANS did not work in 12-tone scales. Instead, it could summon 720 sine waves, which were printed across five glass discs. The discs were arranged so that the low frequencies were at the bottom of the disc and the high frequencies were at the top. Overall, the available microtones spanned 10 octaves.
For the composer to access the tones, they were required to scratch lines in non-drying black mastic resin covering another glass disc – effectively scratching out a musical score to be scanned by the machine. Shining a light through the aligned discs would trigger the ANS’ 20 photocells, converting the visual information into sounds. It was even possible to play all of the the 720 microtones simultaneously, by simply scratching a straight line across the disc.
Though triggering soundwaves through photo-optics would not take root as a popular synthesis method (Daphne Oram’s ‘Oramics’ machine remains the most well-known proponent of this approach), several inventors in Russia, such as Evgeny Scholpo, Arseny Avraamov and Boris Yankovsky, had all been crafting sound machines along similar lines.
Despite electronic music not being recognised by the Ministry of Culture, Artemiev found that he could circumvent the state prohibitions if the music was used as part of a film.
In 1963, Artemiev had used the ANS to provide Radiophonic Workshop-like “special sound” – such as theremin-y spaceship noises – to a less well-known Russian science fiction film, Mikhail Kraiukov’s space race propaganda piece Toward Meeting a Dream.
With the machine sliding unnaturally between tones, perhaps Tarkovsky – like Kraiukov – heard something non-human and uncanny that would fulfil his brief of non-music for Solaris.
If so, however, then he kept these feelings largely from Artemiev, who found himself confused and intimidated by the lack of guidance offered by his director. The one demand placed on the composer: he must use Johann Sebastian Bach’s choral prelude in F-minor – Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesus Christ.
Both Bach and the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci became a motif in Solaris, because Tarkovsky was concerned that – with cinema as such a relatively youthful art form – the audience would need more ancient art to anchor the narrative to Earthly traditions. “He knowingly used the symbols which put him on a rank with the ‘eternal,’” was how Artemiev described it.
In the end, the Bach prelude – performed by Artemiev on organ – would be mostly used to illustrate Earth, and the strange, fantasmal future music Artemiev brewed up with the ANS and subtle orchestra would underscore scenes of the psychic planet Solaris.
Though this juxtaposition is one of the most commented-on aspects of Solaris’ use of music, again it was prefigured by Toward Meeting a Dream, which employed conventional orchestras to signify Earth and the ANS to describe space.
Despite this, Artemiev seemed anguished over his direction, given both Tarkovsky’s lack of guidance and the director’s reluctance to commit to a musical score.
“I did not know how to start all this,” Artemiev admitted, “but step-by-step I found the ways. And, it was the creation of several spaces where you can create one sound and by moving it you can watch how it lives, breathes, flowers… The most important thing is to make it in such a way, that one could not see how it is made, just a wave of sounds, and their nature cannot be understood. Perhaps this is a puzzle in itself. So we found a mutual language.”
The composer began by dividing the music into five discrete areas: landscapes, personal sound perceptions, transformations or distortions of the Bach theme, recollections of Earth, and the sounds of the living ocean of Solaris.
In an interview for the Criterion issue of Solaris on DVD, Artemiev describes how he hit on a sonic approach that could create a sound world representative of the film’s moods and environments, without damaging Tarkovsky’s sacred minimalism:
“It occurred to me that we could introduce orchestral sounds, voices, tapping of the strings light as the rustle of grass, very subtle. [Tarkovsky] liked this idea very much. And that’s how we slowly created a special musical language. The surrounding world, with the help of the orchestra – the clusters of soft sounds emerge, almost inaudible, sometimes overlapping. The viewer may not even notice them.”
The orchestral elements of Solaris are, in truth, barely recognisable. Artemiev has described how, alongside the ANS, the orchestra actually “functioned like one giant synthesiser”.
Perhaps the best illustration of this can be found in the sections of music used to accompany the sentient ocean swirling upon Solaris.
“It is, obviously, composed of the sounds of terrestrial life as if processed by the ocean,” said Artemiev. “The characters of the film hear (or are trying to hear) sounds either similar to terrestrial ones, or sounds which are kind of little cells or islands remaining from the Earth which they manage to identity out of the mass of strange and yet incomprehensible noises.”
Tarkovsky discussed with Artemiev the idea of taking the sounds of nature and everyday life – a stream, or the noise of a city – and “growing” the music out of them, “as if rolled like a wave, and then dissolved again in the same nature sounds.” This would go on to become a defining feature of their collaborations – see, again, Bach quotations swelling out from under the scrape and huff of the train in Stalker, before receding back into the metallic din.
Even more than music, Artemiev claimed to have been inspired by painting for his work on Solaris: “Miro, Klee, Mondrian had opened for me another world, other dimensions.”
He speaks lovingly of the relationship between music and space, which could be akin to Mondrian’s use of negative space and blocks of colour.
“Tarkovsky is a master of space,” the composer once gushed. “He fills it with spiritual energy, and that is why one and the same frame can be motionless, and stay on the screen for a long time. This is in itself a miracle created by an artist.”
Though it may have been an uneasy juxtaposition both on paper and in practice, the visual and aural elements of Solaris combine perfectly to create a mood and environment completely unique to Tarkovsky’s cinematic poem to Stanislaw Lem’s story.
In much of Solaris, in fact, the effects of Artemiev’s music are verging on the subliminal – though this has remained a point of contention for the composer.
The music in Tarkovsky’s Solaris is phenomenally quiet. “Often at the limits of hearing,” Artemiev complained, although he suggested that Tarkovsky’s intention may have been to provoke the audience into listening more attentively, which “will raise higher emotional stress from the spectator.” However, on some prints he bemoans that “the music is just not heard.”
True enough, Solaris may have the most minimal soundtrack in cult cinema this side of Eraserhead. Certainly the 2002 Hollywood remake of the film (with soundtrack duties more than competently handled by Cliff Martinez) integrates sound in a much more typical way – smearing the symphonic synth score over the surface of the film rather than burbling away beneath it.
Sadly, shortly after completion of work on Solaris, Murzin’s ANS – the only one in existence – was destroyed. However, a replica machine is currently housed at the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow, and was used as the sole instrument for a triple-album set of Solaris-like compositions by Coil, released in 2004.
Artemiev would go on to score (literally) hundreds of films, both in Russia and the US, and provided the theme for the Russian Winter Olympics in both 1980 and 2014. Despite an avowed enthusiasm for the future he saw electronic film scores moving towards in the hands of Klaus Schulze and Vangelis, he would eventually become somewhat disillusioned with the progression of the genre, and shifted his focus to more traditional forms – even penning his own musical version of Crime and Punishment.
Solaris remains a musical touchstone. In 2013, the music was licensed to soundtrack the crowd-funded Spanish science fiction film The Cosmonaut. Ben Frost even had a go at wringing out an alternative Solaris soundtrack, with the assistance of Daniel Bjarnason in 2011, although for an artist celebrated for his extreme and uncompromising vision, the results were tame and weirdly similar to the Martinez score.