You already know we are devout followers of Polish thinker and sci-fi writer Stanislaw Łem. Besides writing Solaris, which inspired A. Tarkovski into the collaboration with E. Artemiev we discussed last week, he was also behind many other wonderful science fiction books (The Cyberiad, the Futurological Congress), as well as Summa Technologiae.
This prospective essay on the future of mankind was translated into English last year by the Electronic Mediations Series edited by the University of Minnesota Press. We are currently reading this book, and were impressed by the way it describes the failure of astronomers to detect signals of intelligence when they gaze into the black void with their telescopes and detectors: “Day after day, week after week, their instruments registered nothing but the monotonous cosmic noise generated by dead matter’.
If we accept that the emergence of life and its development into an advanced civilisation is not a freak event but a typical outcome, then this silence is a surprise. Łem spends a fair bit of time considering this possibility, since it has significant implications for his own discussion on the future of mankind.
If life is an outlier then the stars have little to tell us about our own future. However, it could well be the case that life emerges frequently, but there are ‘natural’ obstacles to its development into a civilisation capable of interstellar communication, sending Von Neumann probes across the galaxy to explore it, or engaging in feats of astronomical engineering – like building Dyson spheres to capture the energy of the stars. Different modalities of a filter – cosmic holocaust, civilizational suicide, decay or technological stagnation – would explain this silence, which also vexed Enrico Fermi.
Łem proposes an alternative explanation for the situation, one that is consistent with his pessimism about the ability of humans to communicate with, or even understand the presence of an alien intelligence even if this alien intelligence existed and was singing at them in the face (this is an important theme in Solaris, of course).
The point is quite simple: there are aliens out there, and they produce signals, and they probably use supernova to build enormous reactors – but we can’t see or hear them. The cosmic noise hides their voice, The intensity of the explosions in the sky obscures their acts.
Which brings us to today’s song, by mysterious Texan sybarite of fuzz Smokey Emery. It is a cliché often repeated in this blog of devout worshippers at the altar of HP Lovecraft and Philip K Dick, that artists are individuals more attuned to occurrences below the perceptual threshold of the average human/ scientific instrument. Their visions, prophetic dreams and hallucinations are echoes of a physical reality most of us aren’t able/ready to perceive. Their work is a creative translation of that reality.
In that case, Smokey Emery’s work is a decryption of otherworldly signals written in black ink over the black parchment of the night. The cosmic noise generated by dead, inorganic matter turns into a poem. Sometimes it rumbles like the motor of the universe as it expands away from us. Sometimes it unfolds like a psycho-thriller playing out over aeons. Sometimes it conveys the pop music of dead civilisations muffled by their intergalactic journey. And in ‘The Room Falls Way’, it strums a doomed drone, like the wreck of an Slint cargo cult splattered over the fringes of an event horizon.
You know we love tapes. We run a tape label and everything. But you know what’s better than music that comes on a tape? Music that is MADE with tapes.
This Creative Commons release really is one of the most phenomenal pieces of tape experimentation we’ve heard since, fuck it, the Doctor Who theme. It really is superb.
Listen to Phantomaton while reading Chemiefaserwerk’s description of how he created those sky-taunting, ever-accelerating drones:
This piece was made from very limited source material – no added sounds, no synthesis or electronics except for the recording device. Other than a 7-band graphic equalizer no effects were used. The only modulation comes from the pitch knob mounted to my 4-track.
There are four slightly different takes of the source material recorded onto the tape running at a speed of 9.5 cm/second plus 25% pitch. A C-90 cassette in this mode plays in just under 20 minutes per side. Three different takes were then recorded on another 4-track using the previously mentioned tape here played back at 4.75cm/seconds minus 25% pitch. Slow, very slow.
This is how the fundamental drone is created in this piece of music – the slowness of the source. The high tones evolves from the interaction of all three takes. In the end I added a final mono track (number four) on which the source sound on the cassette is wound back and forth repeatedly. Basically that is it.
You can try and do it as well if you are able to get hands on two multi-track cassette recorders, at least one of them with a pitch knob. Find a nice sound source first and the rest is mixing and trying out different options of the finished tape. The equalizer in this piece just pushes the mid-tones at 32.k and the high tones come from that. The source material of this piece is the static noise created by a broken electronic toy piano that I found in our rehearsal room. I recorded it there in November of 2013. The soft murmurs emitted by the plastic toy were nearly inaudible via the built-in speaker but they came out kind of harsh and with a strange sonority when I connected the neon colored device to my multi-track cassette recorder and raised the gain knobs.
This is not an artist statement as seen so much these days, this is just some information on the piece of music I did for Pan Y Rosas in May of 2014.
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.
The setting is Thailand, the sentiment of beautiful doom and preordained oblivion, that eternal loop which is the timeless substance of the blues. Sirens morph into calaveras that grimace amidst the interference of very mighty myth-waves: Kuroneko, Herzog, the ur-western. Nothing is what it looks: ondines like horses, murder ballads with ghostly culprits, man-eating forests and man-drinking streams, the funereal drone that we had not realised featured in this tune until we watched the video, the drone that, as the song finishes, engulfs us with a liquid kiss.
Although the blurry silhouette of their riddims and the jagged aliasing of their computer melodies echoes the output of other modern Electronic Dance Music outfits intersecting dance and noise (L.I.E.S.) or dance and DIY (100% Silk), we see WIID’s distortion and wobble most precisely rooted in the future primitive aspirations of original acid and Chicago house impresarios with lasers in their eyes and spaceships in the basement.
The result is much effervescence in the brains of your 20JFG scribes, wide-eyedly lost in scenarios such an alternative future where Daft Punk became obsessed with hard Sci-Fi instead of M.O.R. (2 Way Mirror by U), a 1980s Horizon documentary about the dub reggae scene that thrives at the quantum level (Takahiro Mukai’s #122309), abstract dioramas for cyborg fairy tales (Sky Mask by Lumigraph) or the track we are leaving with you today, Tuff Sherm’s Backwoods, a vogue match between statuesque tribesmen with Tetsuo-like arms.
The sort of synth-pop we’ve often traded in at 20JFG is, of course, of the night. From Minimal Wave through the Chromatics to current proponents, Gold Zebra. It’s music that has an almost symbiotic relationship with our sweatier loves, Techno and House. For this is music for the cold blue of dawn. Of that calm, drugged state of existence: quiet and completely outside of time. It is instant nostalgia for the night just passed, a warm jacket against the chill realities of the morning.
Gold Zebra’s Apart Again exudes just enough of that synth ennui, just enough of a bass line to remind us of really existing dance music. It perches on the threshold between hedonism and introspection that is the particular preserve of the walk home; headphones in, of course.
“My mum sing very good, and she wanted to go to Phnom Penh. But when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge come they kill her parents. She stopped singing. She cut her hair, same as boy. She make up black to put on face. If very beautiful, they want to kill. My mum was very young.
“Listen radio, listen my mum sing. I say ‘Oh mum, you sing good.’ We have parties, she sing. She work, she sing. She work, I work beside my mum. She make food, washing, she sing a lot. I sing beside my mum. My mum was my teacher. I didn’t go to school, except for one week. When the teacher ask if anybody sing, I say ‘Me! Me!’ Everybody shy, me not shy!
“People say to me: ‘Oh you sing good, old songs. Everybody loves old songs. Romantic.’
“In my song I try to have three emotions: happy, sad and funny. ‘Not Easy, Rock & Roll’, come from heart. ‘Broken Flower’, from heart, ‘Have Visa, No Have Rice’, from heart, ‘You Go, I Come Too’, from head, ‘Whisky Cambodia’, from head. From head, I see and I write, but write from heart not easy.”
The Cambodian Space Project’s co-founder, Julien Poulson:
“[The Khmer Rouge] ripped out the heart and soul of Cambodian culture. Their very ill-conceived manifesto was a kind of fucked-up Maoist thing, to return society to agrarian utopia, which meant destroying and dismantling culture. The Khmer Rouge very successfully destroyed everything, along with almost two million Cambodian lives.
“We do a cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’. In this country for a band it would be a very silly, overblown and obvious cover, but in the context of a female Cambodian singer, taking the lyrics from Sinn Sisamouth [who, like most Cambodian singers, was murdered by the Khmer Rouge] who did an astonishing version of it in the Sixties, it has an incredible power.
“I met Master Kong Nay, the old, blind musician, and also Srey Thy’s teacher. I heard his voice and saw him playing in a corrugated iron hut and I was just blown away. They call it the ‘Mekong Delta blues’. They call him the Ray Charles of Phnom Penh, because he looks like Ray Charles, but really it’s a misnomer. He’s the Leadbelly of Phnom Penh, and just totally fucking cool.
“It was the biggest baby boom in the world’s history: 1979-1980. Srey Thy was born at the end of that. People weren’t allowed to marry before, or celebrate. I guess we see the result of that now where they have their big Cambodian parties, everyone comes together and the music goes at full blast.
“Her father was a tank driver. There’s an amazing photo which shows her semi-naked except for a handbag and some pants on. She’s about this big. There’s a table here, there’s a transistor radio with its aerial up, there’s Pa in his military uniform, a six gun slung around his hips, and the tank. They’re moving around the country in a Soviet T-53 tank and listening to the radio. They were moving around the frontlines, as the war continued. This is post-Pol Pot times. What many people don’t understand about Cambodian history is that war continued for a long time. The Khmer Rouge was supported by all the Western countries because they didn’t want to support the Vietnamese occupying forces.
“Our first gig was at a little swampy bar called the Alley Cat in Phnom Penh, and the other musicians blew in literally within ten or fifteen minutes of the first few songs. Scott Bywater, who is with us now, offered to play or bring some instruments down. He was the ‘Bill Wyman’ guy, which I can say because he’s not around at the moment! We wanted him for his instruments at that time, but he’s an incredible musician and such a big part of our creativity now.
“Bong Sak was a soldier for a long time. It’s sadly not uncommon in Cambodia. Right now he’s finding it very hard to be here in London. He’d rather stay at home, on the farm, eat food routinely and ride a motorbike down to the gig when it’s on.
“It’s remote, it really is. Srey Thy’s family home is literally a thatched bamboo hut, but she’s very attached to the place and it’s very deep in her persona. She’s steeped in the rice fields of Prey Veng. There are problems with the abject poverty, particularly for Srey Thy, because suddenly everyone there expects her to be rich or to be able to fix problems or to be different. Her grandparents love to look at her pictures from Paris or London, and they’ll say, ‘Now you are very different, very beautiful, you’ve changed!’ She’ll say thank you, and then they’ll say, ‘But never forget, you’re one of us. Your bare feet are in our fields.’ She will say, ‘Yes, I never forget.’
“This album was all recorded in Cambodia, which was very important. It was challenging but the results were pleasing. The next album we’re hopefully going to do in Melbourne with Mick Harvey. He’s interested and wants to do it. He did PJ Harvey’s last album and worked with Anita Lane, so he’s used to female vocalists, and that fact that ours sings in Khmer doesn’t really make any difference if you’re a soundscapey kind of character. Strangely, the darker Cambodian songs are kinda like the Bad Seeds: noir-ish karaoke that ends with murder in the rice paddies. They’ve got this kinda hypnotic groove to them.”
It’s not very often, admittedly, but occasionally the real life biography of the bands we cover are way weirder and more engrossing than any zany shit we could come up with.