It is late. The television is the only light in the room. You slouch, alone, on the couch. The movie you’ve been determinedly watching through to the endless final credits has been disappointing. What were people raving about?
Unfulfilled, you surf a few channels, hoping for…what? Something to prod you out of this torpor; a canvas swathed in 60s technicolour, perhaps, or an unfamiliar rock movie full of snotty energy.
One late evening in the late 70s, I stumbled across some stark film credits, white rolling across black, in Russian. Wondering whether this was the beginning or the end, I hesitated on the channel tumbler. It was clearly a sign, but of what?
Subtitles informed me that it was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. That didn’t mean a damn thing to me, but the music did. Church organ, magisterial, haunting, like a Bach meditation. I stayed. The screen changed colour with a lingering shot of deep green river reeds performing an undulating dance in a muttering stream; I stayed. Next to the entangling water stands a middle-aged man wearing a vivid blue leather jacket. He looks pensive, both curious and resigned. A little sad. The camera, stationary, pans to follow his ambling path through green woodlands to a mist-shrouded lake. On the other side is a house…
Tarkovsky’s mysterious film about humanity and loss is considered a classic, perhaps even an Eastern 2001: A Space Odyssey. So much so that Steven Soderbergh re-made Solaris with George Clooney in the lead role of the psychologist sent to investigate strange happenings on a space station orbiting a distant planet. But the 2002 re-boot is not of interest here, it is the hypnotic 1972 original that stayed with me across so many years. So much so, that when I happened across a re-issue of the original soundtrack late last year, I bought it on impulse. No doubt the beautiful packaging played a part—a still from the film pasted into an embossed ‘frame’ within the 12” album border—and certainly the information on the back cover (reproduced here in its entirety):
Eduard Artemiev, composer
Music and noise recorded on the photoelectron synthesiser ANS
Bach and electronics. Good enough for me.
As I reflect on the film and its music, I find it difficult to separate the two. The windmills of your mind have migrated to a slowly orbiting space station. Visitors from the swirling psychedelic lava of the planet below drift through the white corridors and infiltrate memories. The placement of the Bach chorale prelude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ) indicates Tarkovsky’s beliefs, but also provides an organic connection (pun intended, I’m afraid) to Earth. Where it appears, in linear time or memory, there is a terrestrial link. Elsewhere, it is the metallic, technological murmurings of Artemiev’s synthesiser that punctuate the (often long) silences. The theme of presence and absence is central. Film scholars have doubtless written theses on how George Berkeley’s philosophical idea that things cease to exist when they stop being observed manifests in Solaris, just as psych honours students could have a field day with the exploration of memory versus ‘reality’. But I’ll stay away from such discourse partially because this is an article on the film soundtrack but mainly because I’m not clever enough.
The 2013 re-issue by Superior Viaduct has, in addition to the beautiful front cover, another intriguing feature. Inside is an eight-page booklet of the same dimensions as the photo on the front. If you were of a destructive bent you could cut up the booklet and rotate the stills through the cover frame. But for those disinclined to vandalise the artwork, the Californian record company has temptingly provided three versions of the LP using a selection from the eight in the booklet. (Well, Discogs says three, and I’m not going to argue). So lots of pocket money to invest for completists.
Who would enjoy this album? Certainly any fan of the film will be drawn into its surreal orbit by the ghostly sounds created by Eduard Artemiev. Would anyone else? I think so, as this 1972 creation has a transporting potency all its own. The work might be defined thus: A Minimalist Ambient Industrial Electronic Soundscape. Navigate this pentagram and its intersections with the Bach organ work and you’ll find, paradoxically, that the cold enigma of the non-music connects you to your own humanity. And that can’t be a bad thing.
* Film poster photo courtesy of MUBI. Link below.
The posters are (clockwise from top left) “the Polish (by Andrzej Bertrandt), Italian (by Renato Casaro), Czech and French designs.”