We were actually going to post a track from this album anyway, but to celebrate the announcement yesterday that XXJFG’s proposal on Eduard Artemiev’s Solaris has been shortlisted for publication as a 33 1/3 book, we’ve shuffled this deep cut from Artemiev’s lesser-known 80s oeuvre to the front of our ‘to blab on about’ list.
Birth of Earth is the opening track from Warmth of Earth – a 1985 non-soundtrack album by Tarkovsky’s main score composer. It is a must-listen for any fans of genuinely weird music. Synthy, operatic, symphonic, ambitious and irreverent to rules, Warmth of Earth has moments that prefigure The Knife or Add N To X – or that echo fragments of Rick Wakeman’s White Rock analogue synth burnout soundtrack to the 1976 Winter Olympics* – but mostly just sound like little else.
Fans of the Solaris or Stalker soundtracks will be surprised but delighted upon checking this one out. Oneohtrix named it has one of his 13 favourite albums in a 2011 Quietus piece, to give you some idea of the kind of nerd this synth delirium might appeal to.
Who knows whether our Solaris idea (technically written by just one of us, but is likely to be done with so much assistance and support from the other three JazzFunkers that it will be practically a co-write) will achieve fruition, but, right now, it’s an honour to be considered among classics of music crit such as John Darnielle’s Master of Reality, Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love and – indeed – Drew Daniel’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats.
Many of the other proposals on both the long and shortlists look amazing too (When The Haar Rolls In, Kimono My House and Lulu to pick just three), though that hasn’t stopped certain people from acting like total fucking crybabies over their pitches not being accepted. Not a good look, guy.
*Interestingly, Artemiev would go on to score the opening ceremony of the controversial 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
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.
Prior to Forbidden Planet in 1956 and Louis and Bebe Barron’s incredible ‘monsters from the id’ soundworld, received wisdom dictates that science fiction film soundtracks had become played out and by rote – the novelty of wailing theremins accompanying the ascent of flying saucers had rotted into cliche. But the queasy glissando from one grasped-at note to another (and all the secret notes in-between), plus the electronic nature of the instrument, did make an appropriate shorthand for the alien and the futuristic.
The Barrons’ soundtrack expanded on and exploded that linear thinking – sometimes Forbidden Planet sounds like an orchestra of theremins humming and howling to each other, that have somehow achieved sentience but in doing so are tossed in the midsts of some unholy nervous breakdown. In truth the Barrons’ created homemade, self-governing noise-making circuits – each of which seemed to have their own character and personality, and so gave the soundtrack a living, breathing, ‘populated’ sense, subtextually appropriate for a story about a planet haunted by the ghosts of a mad professor’s psyche.
The next major evolution in the sci fi soundtrack, Eduard Artemyev’s Solaris, went even more abstract – flattening space out into black hole-cold drifts and drones of synthesizer. Science fiction as a static, paranoid rumble. Released a year later in 1973, Alain Gorauger’s work on La Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet) dramatically turned away from the persuasive drift into all-electronic science fiction mood pieces that would achieve its apex with Blade Runner, and came crashing back down to Earth with a puzzling, but fabulous, soundtrack played live by human hands.
Maybe it’s because of the total absence of robots and the bare minimum of spaceships in Fantastic Planet that the film isn’t swathed in the modish tones of a gigantic Moog Modular. Electronic music at this point still largely confined to representing machinery – though A Clockwork Orange is a notable exception (unless you can read an implication of the ultraviolence as the unthinking, programmatic product of youths operating by rote as machines). Instead Gorauger takes on another, equally modern, form of music – though one coming from a very different tradition: funk.
La Planete Sauvage is the only science fiction film I can think of that not only uses a (sort of) funk soundtrack but which uses music of black origin as a starting point at all. That is, if we’re discounting Sun Ra’s afro-futurist parable Space Is The Place from being a genre film.
Strange that for all its utopianism and attempts at inclusion, science fiction has persisted to be represented sonically in white European terms. Gorauger himself, of course, is white and European – a jazz musician and easy listening composer who had collaborated with Serge Gainsbourg and even wrote a winning Eurovision tune.
Interestingly, another point at which Fantastic Planet diverges from the music of Solaris, Forbidden Planet, and countless science fiction films before them, is that Gorauger resists assigning ‘voices’ to characters and locations. In Solaris, for instance, Artemyev used a purely electronic score for representing the alien planet Solaris, and snatches of Bach signifying Earth. The plot of Fantastic Planet essentially concerns a race war between a dominant race of giant, blue-skinned ‘aliens’ (Traags), and their pets – the humanoid ‘Oms’. It must have been tempting, if not blatantly logical, to give the Traags their own musical culture, while using sound more ‘familiar’ to represent the Oms underclass. With Fantastic Planet, Gorauger elegantly splices the funk band with the orchestra, which means as well as slapped bass, shuffling drums, and wah-wah guitar there are 3/4-time waltzes and walls of strings and choir. Separating the two into a weird kind of stilted European funk for the Traags and traditionalist classical for the Hommes would have been effortless, if fundamentally racist. Fantastic Planet instead just drenches the story in mood.
Gorauger’s white, classical-laced reading of funk isn’t particularly funky, and doesn’t particularly try to be. Instead it finds a peculiar source of energy in funk, that gives the story itself a particularly driving momentum, and then attacks it with minor key strings from all angles.
Compared to contemporaneous releases like Herbie Hancock’s Sextant or Head Hunters, Gorauger’s is a very linear, straight approximation of funk. By 1973 Hancock had embraced, redefined – and even grown bored of – an envelope-pushing Arp Odyssey-powered afro-futurism that had made fusion sound practically sci fi. Fantastic Planet doesn’t have that same playful rubberiness (rubberiness seems a more appropriate term than ‘elasticity’ for Head Hunters some how) and rumbling undertow of Africa as Herbie’s early 70s records do. It’s conventionally cinematic in many ways, but it adds something that hadn’t been heard much in jazz-funk before: menace.
Fantastic Planet is haunted-sounding music. For all of its spirited, jazzy kick, Fantastic Planet’s funk is heavy, ominous. It drips foreboding. Jazz is a notoriously ambiguous music in soundtrack terms, as it doesn’t easily fit the quite binary major and minor modes demanded by film makers for reiterating happy and sad moments. Maybe in making the half-transition from the library music-style easy listening jazz of his 60s records to the more rock-embracing funk, Gorauger saw an opportunity for reinstating narrative.
Musically, Fantastic Planet’s closest cousin is Jeff Wayne’s The War Of The Worlds. An album that married and maybe perfected Strauss-like clashes of orchestra with rock band pacing and song structures. Fantastic Planet does make a convincing template for The War of The Worlds, even amplified with MOR and prog overtures as it is. Wayne uses the driving, melancholic orchestrated sub-funk-rock in a similar way to Gorauger, except for in this home stereo LP drama the musical exposition is exaggerated – even without Richard Burton’s narration and the rock opera guest spots from Justin Hayward and Phil Lynott you could easily imagine Wayne’s music forming a plausible tone poem for HG Well’s invasion story.