The Sounds of a Hard Project

As I mentioned in my post about what I'd like to be sharing here, I'd like to show the playlists I use to create some of my video essays. Most recently, I finished a project about 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and how it was inspired by some Soviet Realist documentaries. In approaching this topic, there were a lot of angles to consider not to mention the enormous amount of visual and sonic material to boil down. I'd like to take a look at some of that process in the future, for now I'd like to look at the musical component of my most recent video essay.

One important aspect of 2001: A Space Odyssey is how influential it is. In researching references to 2001 I found almost as many sound references as I found visual references in movies made since. Ironically, these are really hard to capture in a video essay. Naturally the influence of 2001 is much more encompassing than just those references though.

Most notably 2001 influences the scores of other sci-fi films even those which are trying to stand apart from it in most respects. The scores of Arrival (2016) and Interstellar (2011) are great examples. Both have terrific scores. Nevertheless, both these films try to capture some kind of cerebral, thoughtful, sci-fi presence and it's really clear in the music that they both rely on sounds which are very similar to 2001.

What I wanted to do with "The Screen is a Monolith: Understanding 50 Years of 2001" was to create an alternative 2001 soundtrack. Something very like the same music used in 2001 but in other respects different. So I tried to deploy similar music in similar ways to Stanley Kubrick and I relied on music which was inspired by 2001 and music which grew out of the musical movements captured in some of the music already in 2001.

One important guiding feature of my feelings about this film toward the end of the project was that things could have turned out quite different. Other music, other visionaries, completely skipping what is now seen as an essential work in sci-fi filmmaking. Any of these paths were possible after the films of Pavel Klushantsev were made. Capturing those possibilities was something I did in the music.

In particular, the idea of there being a Russian composed version of 2001 struck a chord with the material of the essay. Surely a Soviet made 2001: A Space Odyssey would make use of Russian composers. So in diving into Soviet cinema and other Soviet visual arts, I also tried to bombard myself with Russian composers. There's a lot of intensity and mental gymnastics that are required when understanding most Russian art, I find, especially from a Western perspective. Ultimately I didn't indulge a lot of the commanding Russian music I listened to, but that idea of a Soviet made 2001 stuck with me as I created the playlist.

At the end of the day, it not really a movie about space at all if it doesn't have "Magic Carpet Ride" on the soundtrack, but lets look at three interesting features of this project:

Not the Blue Danube!

There was no way I was going to fall into the traps of using music which has become cliché because of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It would have been a distraction. Even so, finding good classical music was key, and I settled on Camille Saint-Saëns for my space ballet. Roger Ebert noted that the music Kubrick used in 2001 "wants to be sublime" and so there's a sort of competition for aesthetic attention, and this is maybe the most obvious feature of Kubrick's use of music.

The Danse Macabre is about all you could possibly ask from a classical composer. Truly even greater than any of the work by Strauss in 2001. As it happens I was reminded of this particular piece by Netflix's Chef's Table. In that show the documentarians really pull out all the stops to produce some kind of popular aesthetic experience like what Ebert was talking about.

Of course a theme by Saint-Saëns features in Babe (1997) which was probably my first exposure to that composer. Since I remember seeing Babe at a very young age and indeed have many Saint-Saëns infused memories this was the first and easiest music to place.

Discovering New Music

I went looking for the breathy vocals like those in the Kyrie by György Ligeti and came up with Meredith Monk's extended voice technique operas. Aptly, names like "Atlas" and "Earth Seen from Above" feature in the discography. Listening more of Monk's music is probably the thing I'm most happy came about from creating a playlist for this video essay.

As it happens, Monk's music from Volcano Songs features in The Big Lebowski (2000). Thus, like so many things, this composer was much more of a rediscovery than a first discovery. Additionally rediscovering Meredith Monk augments my long standing love of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman as contemporary composers. The repetitiveness and precision of Glass, Monk, and Robert Wilson's works really fascinate me.

Monk's work was an obvious "must have" right off the bat. I think I figured out good placement for the piece I used. Atlas along with "Fugue State" by Eluvium are probably the most striking and most important pieces, at least from my perspective, used here.

Zvezdolikiy

The dissonant aside by Igor Stravinsky was a last second addition to the playlist. Encountering this piece is exactly why I make Spotify playlists for every video essay I do. The experience of encountering new but similar music out of context is something that Spotify's algorithms can help with.

So I was riding the train home one day, exhausted from work, and rather than just rest I decided to put on the radio for the 2001 video essay playlist and out of the blue this piece hits me. It was barely audible over the train, but the voices stood out. So it shot up to the top of the playlist and into the final cut.