Swamp Things and Singing True: a Review of the comic Bayou

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Image from lovelaughterinsanity.com

If you’re going to build a world with words, look at Jeremy Love’s comic book series Bayou for inspiration—you can’t go wrong. What began as a web comic is now printed in two beautiful volumes that you need to read. Southern swamps have never looked so beautiful.

I have to warn you though, Bayou is not what I would call easy reading. It will make you think in ways that might not be familiar in your standard, comic-reading experience.

For one thing, Bayou is building on African-American folklore, such as the stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Tar Baby, among others. Their stories come together in a beautiful and horrifying mix of history and fantasy. The world beyond the swamp is a kind of pre-Abolition wonderland, where the characters of slave folklore live under the Bossman’s thumb and try to get by one way or another.

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Image from vulture.com

It does help to have at least a touch of knowledge about these African-American folk tales when reading Bayou, just as it helps to be acquainted with Greek or Norse mythology when reading other comics.

It also helps to have some knowledge of the Blues. Bayou embraces what I have seen other comics merely touch on: song lyrics included in the comic’s panels. You see, our cast of character includes several rambling musicians and singers. The enchantingly beautiful and somewhat deceitful songstress Tar Baby is the mother of the comic’s protagonist, Lee Wagstaff. Brer Rabbit and Bayou come out of their swamp-side world to sing the blues in a Southern speakeasy, and it all goes to hell when the local levee breaks and a flood takes them all. But come hell or high water, these characters get to speak and sing in their own voices. The past and present overlap in Love’s storytelling, and songs ease the transition between them. Similar to how Disney movies use songs in a montage to mark the passage of time—only Bayou never turns away from real-world darkness.

bayou2
Image from webcomicoverlook.wordpress.com

Nearly every character in Bayou speaks in a dialect. This includes the Southern accent, and specifically period-consistent African-American slang. It’s easy to pick up as you go along, and what isn’t totally clear becomes clear with usage (such as when one woman calls another a “heiffer” in a barroom spat). It also includes multiple uses of the N-word, with asterisks for the following letters. It’s a jarring reminder of the history of hate and oppression. You can never forget that slavery is in the characters’ recent past—but why should you? Little Lee may be free, but we first meet her as she swims in the swamp to retrieve the body of a boy her own age. Young Billy Glass lies dead in the bayou because local white men lynched him.

This ain’t Carroll’s kind of wonderland.

Bayou is full of love and hate, cowardice and bravery, sinners and saints. Even the characters that are anthropomorphic animals are beautifully and tragically human. You’ll see the best and the worst of the characters in this comic, but all of them are truly people—even if many of them don’t recognize it.

-Contributed by Miranda Whittaker

Spec in Song Spotlight: Kyle Morton

typhoon - white lighter
Image from wearetyphoon.bandcamp.com/album/white-lighter

Spec in Song explores the use of the speculative in music, whether it be fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or beyond.

The content of Kyle Morton’s songs is just about as wide-ranging and eclectic as the musical styles he works into them. This makes sense considering that his main band, Typhoon, consists of eleven multi-instrumentalists; their work features acoustic and electric guitars, basses, violins, drums, ukuleles, banjos, and even a horn section. Yet somehow in this mess of moving parts, he manages to craft imaginative and intricate speculative worlds.

Morton is by no means a ‘speculative artist,’ however you might define it. His themes and stories are all grounded in real-world problems such as aging, relationships, and chronic illness—specifically Lyme disease, of which Morton is a sufferer.

However, as he addresses these ideas in his colourful soundscape, the imagery and plot he weaves place him among some of the greatest sci-fi and fantasy writers of our time.

In “100 Years,” from Typhoon’s third studio album, White Lighter, Morton paints a bleak and downright disturbing picture of a post-modern dystopia. After he (or his character) falls asleep under a tree and sleeps for 100 years, he wakes up to find the world changed. “I awoke in the future,” he says, and what a future it is.

Entire cities of old folks’ homes / In every household a hospital bed for everyone / They laid me down and they stripped my clothes / They gave me a shirt that says / ‘I survived my own life.’”

Morton draws a painful link between society’s emphasis on survival over living and his own struggle with mortality. In doing so, he flings the listener into a different world. Yet this world is torn down just as quickly as it is created, giving way to introspection. “I told you / I told you / I have nothing left with which to hold you.”

Morton’s lyrics are an interesting blend of metaphor and hyperbole. Some are realistic, if overstated (like living for 100 years, even in sleep), but are combined with fantastical elements. What comes out of this mix is fantastically deep world-building, spiralling even out of a few short lines.

He continues this world-building on his solo studio album, What Will Destroy You, bringing a post-apocalyptic flavour to tracks such as “Survivalist Fantasy.” This is a song that explores his complicated relationship with intimacy in a sort of ‘last man on Earth’ scenario.

The scene is set by the lines: “The traffic lights are out and all the phones are dead / Don’t answer the door for anyone.” In a world with a zombie apocalypse obsession, these lines strike a cultural chord. At the same time, the lyrics aren’t intrinsically apocalyptic, and can bring to mind real world scenarios of riot and revolution.

Before we lost the power I think the television said / Stay inside your homes wait for help to come / That must have been weeks ago / Now I’ve got this sinking feeling / You and I are the only ones.”

Again, we see world-building that takes familiar themes and alienates them so that they make more sense surrounded by the fantastical. Who hasn’t thought, when fighting with a partner or struggling to communicate with a loved one, that the world is coming to an end? Who hasn’t questioned the value of living when there doesn’t seem to be any life in their years?

Morton writes stories that are both close to home and entirely other-worldly, which makes for a complex lyrical experience. Being familiar and yet new, it’s definitely worth a stumble through one of his worlds.

Suggested Tracks:

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

Narrative to My Ears – Analyzing the Use of Musical Narrative in Clone

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image source: http://projectclone.com/hall.html

When asked about their favourite work of fantasy or science fiction, very few people respond with a piece of music.

Most people suggest books, like the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or a movie or TV show, like Star Wars, Star Trek, or countless other star-somethings. I have yet to meet anyone who has named a song or a band. Until recently, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have done so either.

Ben Cooper, the man behind the musical act Radical Face, is the reason for this change in perspective. For years now, he’s been a relative unknown in the expansive indie folk industry, but in 2014, with the help Richard Colorado and Bear Machine Records, he released Clone, one of his most ambitious projects.

With Clone, Cooper created an audio-visual experience as compelling and narrative as a film or novel, but focusing on the music.

Next time you’re watching a movie, try plugging your ears. Like my mom taught me when I got scared watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Lupin as a werewolf is terrifying), most of the scary stuff is tied up in the sound. It is the same with the happy stuff. And the sad stuff. And pretty much all the other stuff that makes you feel something. Like plugging your nose when you eat, plugging your ears when you watch a film mutes the flavour and dulls the experience.

On the other hand, musical artists through the years have done their best to become lyrical storytellers, bringing realms of science fiction and fantasy onto our vinyl, CDs, and iPods. Yet, aside from the most popular artists (I’m looking at you, Mr. David Bowie), the speculative rarely makes its way into mainstream music, at least not into the more common mediums, such as film and print. People love David Bowie for his music and the characters he portrayed, not the characters in his music.

Conversely, Cooper focuses on the story and his protagonist, “Subject 006,” and tells a vibrant science fiction tale about a clone who escapes captivity and gains his freedom, experiencing all the world has to offer along the way.

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image source: http://projectclone.com/city_nighttime1.html

At this point, you’re probably reading this asking, “What’s new here? I’ve seen a musical. I’ve listened to a concept album.” Oh, this is much more than a concept album.

Cooper is not one to shy away from concept albums; indeed, he often prefers them. However, what we see in Clone is a more multi-faceted, nuanced attempt to tell a single narrative, focused on one character through a traditional beginning-middle-end plot structure. Cooper employs multiple media, specifically visual art, video, and prose, alongside the music, creating a fully formed web of narrative.

Having listened to the project more than once now, I am finding it easier to follow the narrative by only listening to the music. At the beginning, I held fast onto the descriptions of the action, and though they are purposeful and do contribute to the experience, they shouldn’t be used as a crutch.

The reason Clone is so hard to follow in terms of its narrative is that it is primarily instrumental, and where lyrics are used, they are sporadic and represent the thoughts of the protagonist, so they can only really be used as mile markers along his journey. The story is told through this character’s feelings as he interacts with his environment, feelings that are presented through the music.

I should mention now that I hate instrumental music.

I’m a big fan of stories, so when a musician bypasses the lyrical method and doesn’t use words, which are generally a fundamental building-block for stories, I get a little put out. It’s for this reason that I also don’t generally stand and look at a painting for ten minutes, or however long a concerto is supposed to last. Most instrumentals that I have heard have attempted to ‘paint a picture’ of a person, place, event, or feeling, and I, a sucker for narrative and character development, don’t tend to spend much time on these things that seem static in nature. However, by marrying instrumental music with the concept of narrative, Clone has encouraged me to take another look at this ‘static’ art form.

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image source: http://projectclone.com/city_nighttime2.html

What Clone presents is a series of dynamic paintings, moving pictures, which could hypothetically be dissected into images of individual feelings, but when experienced in sequence, along with the accompanying media, create a story. After all, what is a story but actions and reactions to feelings? We often say the best stories are the ones that make you feel, and Clone simply removes the middle-man and plops the feelings right at your feet (or into your ear-holes, I guess).

Unfortunately, this method of musical narrative is not particularly common on its own. Upon discovering this, my first thought was “Why am I just now discovering this? Is there anything else like this out there, or is this the only one?” The answer is yes, to both.

Firstly, Clone has not been my first introduction to musical narrative, or at least attempted musical narrative, nor will it be yours, if you’ve liked anything I’ve said and choose to check this out. In fact, every time you watch a movie or TV show, the score contributes to the narrative. Far be it for me to call them music, but even laugh tracks play on the same idea of auditory cues in narrative.

At the same time, we rarely see musical narrative uncoupled from its visual narrative, which I would wager is because of its vast popularity as film score. It has found its niche so to speak—and it does a dang fine job where it is.

However, if we don’t push outside the limits and comfort zones that are established in these niches, then who knows what possibilities are going unexplored? It is only through the marriage of narrative with music, and the separation of music from its reliance on visual cues, that makes Clone so successful. It is both narrative and music, without sacrificing either, but it took a leap to get there. I guess Cooper’s Radical Face persona lives up to its name.

This isn’t to say that what Clone has done is the be-all and end-all, or even that it’s objectively good; some people might reject it as vehemently as I initially rejected instrumental music. However, the sort of work done in Clone is the sort of leaps we need if we want to keep the genres of speculative fiction fresh and thought-provoking. There are a lot of stories out there, and we’ve been looking for them for a long time. Maybe it’s time to listen.

people in Sopelana beach with haze
image source: http://projectclone.com/hall.html

The music, video, visual art, and prose of Clone can be found at projectclone.com (it’s separated into 6 acts, so start with Act 1: The Laboratory). Also, all the music and videos are available on YouTube, and it is encouraged that you find a playlist there and consult the prose (Act Info) on the website as necessary.

Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

David Bowie and Alan Rickman in the Speculative World

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paolomarzola.com

January 2016 saw the loss of two great figures in the speculative world when David Bowie and Alan Rickman passed away within days of each other. Throughout their careers, both influenced and contributed to science fiction and fantasy in their own ways.

David Bowie’s albums were generally highly conceptual, working with not only music but also stories and characters that he ‘became’ as part of the immersive art experience. Throughout his discography, space travel, extraterrestrials, and the grand, sometimes dystopian, themes common in science fiction have majorly influenced his work.

Space Oddity, a 1969 mega-hit, is about the death of Major Tom, an astronaut persona whose spaceship crashes. Bowie would revisit the Major Tom character in subsequent pieces. Recently the song gained even more fame when in 2013 astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded a cover of it aboard the International Space Station.

Blackstar, the album released just days before Bowie’s death on January 10, is also the name of a type of spacecraft, and the music video for the titular track continues with the themes of astronauts and stranded aliens that have been recurring motifs throughout his career. Bowie is also the only musician to be inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum, a museum dedicated to popular culture.

Bowie’s career took off at a point when space exploration was a new and exciting reality, making science fiction more relevant than ever. Unlike the grand and feel-good space operas of the time, like the original Star Trek and, a few years later, Star Wars, Bowie’s work was often weird, anxious, and uncomfortable. His The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars follows Ziggy, Bowie’s self-insert persona, a rock star alien attempting to bring a message of peace to an ailing Earth who is eventually consumed in the final number, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. He captured the anxiety that space travel brought to humanity alongside the wonder, in terms less black and white than the good versus evil morality science fiction often offers.

As well as bringing science fiction into his music, Bowie is well-known for his portrayal of Jareth, the goblin king, in Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth. A cult classic, the plot follows a girl named Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, who has to make her way through a labyrinth full of fantastical creatures to save her baby brother after he’s kidnapped by the goblins. Labyrinth is a wonderful work of fantasy, brought to life by Jim Henson’s puppets. Bowie’s character is a powerful monarch with powers of illusion and transformation. Labyrinth is remembered to this day as a creepy, beautiful cautionary tale of what happens in fantasy when you get what you wish for.

Alan Rickman, who passed away on January 14, is also remembered for his roles in speculative movies, though he was also a very accomplished stage actor and starred in films ranging in genre from Die Hard to Love Actually.

Rickman provided the voice of Marvin, the paranoid android, in the 2005 film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Rickman gave a great voice to one of the most famous robot characters, the bored and very depressed Marvin. While it was hardly the best or most notable book-to-film adaptation of a science fiction novel, as a media series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most influential, funny, and classic pieces of science fiction. As seen with this series, Adams’ love and use of technology—he was apparently the first European to own a Mac—fed in and out of his science fiction stories.

Rickman also ventured into space in 1999’s Galaxy Quest, a loving parody of Star Trek and other similar popular shows. He played a cast member of Galaxy Quest, a fictional television series about space travel. When aliens mistake the show for reality, they reach out to the cast for help.

Of course, Rickman’s most prominent speculative role, if not role in general, was as Severus Snape, the great villain-hero of Harry Potter. He played the character to great acclaim among both critics and fans, shaping Snape from the cold, unlikable bully he starts off as to the complex, tormented double-agent who sacrifices everything in the final installment. Bringing the character from harsh and cruel to a sympathetic hero over Snape’s whole character arc, Rickman brought real life and depth to one of the series’ most beloved characters.

Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling described him as “a magnificent actor and a wonderful man,” and Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger in the films, said, “I feel so lucky to have worked and spent time with such a special man and actor.”

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

We’re Walking in the Air: Tracing the Snowy Tracks of Sentient Snowmen

We’re walking in the air, we’re floating in the moonlit sky.”

(“Walking in the Air” from The Snowman, 1982)

From The Snowman (1978, 1982), the classic short read that has adorned coffee tables for decades, to the surprisingly heartwarming Jack Frost (1998), and even to Doctor Who (2012), snowmen have been depicted as living, breathing, sentient beings for longer than we might think.

So how did this come about?

Well, shockingly enough, it didn’t all start with Frosty.

An earlier recorded case of sentient snowmen is the German short Der Schneemann (“The Snowman”), which was created under the Nazi regime in 1944 (and is now available on Youtube for all to enjoy). Running just under thirteen minutes in length, it tells the story of a snowman who comes to life, becomes determined to see the month of July, and waits out those long months in a fridgeuntil, at last, he gets a taste of the sweet summer days he so longed for.

This portrayal of a snowman enraptured by the wonders of life—a carrot for his nose and a big grin on his face—is likely very familiar to you.

Frosty the Snowman, is a fairytale, they say.

He was made of snow, but the children know he came to life one day”

(Frosty the Snowman, 1950)

This classic song was recorded by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys just over sixty-five years ago, and still remains popular today. It was through this song that most people became familiar with Frosty’s story: he comes to life with a magic hat, cheerfully roams the town with the children, and eventually flees with a promise to be back someday.

Curiously, the original song never mentions Christmas, despite its contemporary association with the holiday.

Frosty the Snowman was made into a storybook that same year, and the beloved snowman started appearing on screens just a few years later in 1954, perhaps the most renowned adaptation being the Frosty the Snowman Christmas special that aired on CBS on December 7, 1969.

Skipping ahead a few more years, we arrive at Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman (1978), a charming picture book with no words at all. It tells the story of a boy who meets a curious snowman, come to life at midnight on a cold winter’s day, and explores the world with himuntil the next morning, when the snowman melts away under the sun.

The Snowman was adapted as a twenty-six minute short in 1982 and was nominated for an Academy Award. This short is just as wordless as the book on which it is based, featuring just one song with lyrics: the haunting “Walking in the Air” by Howard Blake, which plays as the boy and the snowman soar over the dark winter landscape.

(Many of you may not know that an equally delightful sequel—The Snowman and the Snowdog—was released in 2012, with many of the original team having taken part in its creation.)

While Frosty and its many derivations leave the ending ambiguous as to where he goes, The Snowman, as well as its sequel thirty years later, beautifully illustrate the tragic and inevitable fate of any being created from snow.

Nowadays, it is not difficult to see sentient snowmen portrayed in various forms of media.

You may have spotted a familiar carrot-nosed figure in Phineas and Ferb’s Christmas Vacation!, or cheered on the quirky Olaf in the 2013 film Frozen.

A significant portion of sentient snowmen tend to be depicted in a manner that resembles the friendly, lovable Frosty: one who trots to and fro, inspiring smiles on the faces of children everywhere.

Sometimes, however, the storyline can be a tad unusual.

Take the movie Jack Frost (1998), for example, wherein a fatherkilled in a car accidentis resurrected in the form of a snowman by his grieving son. Despite being a box office flop, this rather unconventional movie still uses the image of a snowman as a symbol of joy, friendship, and love to tell its story.

However, not all snowmen have good intentions.

Now, what are you? Eh? A flock of space crystals. A swarm!

But the snowmen are foot soldiers. Mindless predators.”

(The Doctor, The Snowmen, Doctor Who Christmas Special 2012)

In Doctor Who’s Christmas special, snowmen are terrifying, sharp-toothed villains (whose faces might give you nightmares) that appear by the hoards at your feet, conjured simply by thought.

You’ve also likely seen an advertisement for the 2014 Nissan Rogue in which angry snowmen, armed to the buttons with shovels and crowbars and snowballs, mow down crowds of screaming people with their attacks, their power unmatched and undefeatableunless, of course, you’re in a sturdy Nissan Rogue.

There have been a significant number of snowmen that go against the Frosty stereotype, the ones listed above being just a small sample. Can you think of any others?

Something about a smiling—or in some cases, a snarling—semi-humanoid figure that we create with our own two gloved hands seems to captivate us. It’s magical enough to make the imagination come alive and to warm (or stop!) our hearts in the coldest of times.

-Contributed by Sophie Cho

The Every Day Speculative Playlist

Are you looking for great new music for your study time, work time, or downtime? Well, here is a suggestion: look to the speculative. Speculative fiction has entertained you with books, stories, comics, and movies, and now it can be used for all your music-listening needs. All of the amazing films that you have admired for years and those that have just recently come to the big screen have a soundtrack. Even the movies that have never piqued your interest or given you goosebumps may have something to offer. Some may ask, “What is a soundtrack without its visual counterpart?” Well, as many probably already realize, a film’s soundtrack is part of what makes it iconic. When people think of Harry Potter, it’s very likely that one of the first things that comes to mind is the haunting melody of the theme song—also known as Hedwig’s Theme—by the sensational John Williams. Pieces of music such as this and many other magical movie tunes and ballads have become representative of people’s experiences, life stages, and love for film.

While soundtracks can be intimately connected to their movie origins, they can also have a separate, special existence, appreciated for their own unique beauty and emotion. So go ahead and explore those dystopian, utopian, apocalyptic, and brave new world soundtracks from films old and new, but don’t limit yourself there. Search up the soundtracks for all your favourites, be they sci-fi, fantasy, drama, or documentary films. Are you into all-time classics? Then search up the “best soundtracks and movie themes of all time” and you are guaranteed a phenomenal musical experience, whether it’s the unbearably romantic Titanic tracks written by James Horner and performed by Celine Dion and Sissel (a Norwegian singer chosen for her emotive and powerful vocals); the chilling score of The Godfather composed by the incredible Nino Rota; or other award-winning scores such as those from The Gladiator by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, or Chariots of Fire by Vangelis. You may just discover a truckload of music you’ve always heard in the background while being occupied by the action happening on screen or while watching the end credits roll, but that you had never really listened to on its own. So why not turn it on at the park bench or while writing a paper at your desk? Who knows—maybe it will be the inspiration for your next masterpiece.

As for speculative films, the soundtracks not only contribute to the unforgettable action but also have the doubly difficult task of creating a completely alternative or futuristic feel for the audience. For non-speculative movie genres, filmmakers and composers can look to ancient or recent geographical, cultural, and historical details while constructing the desirable score. For thriller, horror, and crime movies, composers can employ psychologically and emotionally appropriate musical devices, but the composers for speculative films often have no such luxury. How does one score a world that does not yet exist, that hides under the surface, or that, as many stories try to show, does not really exist at all? While everything must, of course, be reflective of the past, the speculative must also encompass possibility and question the present. These scores must be both foreign and familiar, recognizable yet unique, futuristic but ordinary, both exciting and haunting. Not an easy feat for any composer, and so let’s give credit where credit is due.

Here are some speculative sounds you may already know:

Cloud Atlas

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image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_Atlas_(film)

Released in 2012, Cloud Atlas is a German-American film with an all-star cast that follows six different storylines through the perspective of a single reincarnation. It explores the connections between individuals and actions across time and space, starting in the 1800s, continuing through to the present era and even into the distant future. Beauty, violence, rebellion, and love are intertwined in this historic-futuristic narrative about the power of kindness and hope. From clones to cannibals, conspiracy to comedy, and a bright future to the apocalypse, this film is a medley of impressions with something for everyone. The original soundtrack, written by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil, successfully connects the events of several centuries and manages to unify the themes and emotions of each time and place. The main musical theme, “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” is a simple but haunting piano melody with a slightly melancholic and nostalgic sound and a hopeful resolution.

Blade Runner

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image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blade_Runner

This classic 1982 cyberpunk film, set in the very near future (2019), deals with man’s unending quest to master cloning, and explores the dangers faced by humanity when this ambition goes terribly wrong. Police and clones face off in this complex action thriller, and the epic fight travels from Earth to space and back again. Life and love are overshadowed by moral darkness and the disturbing aspects of advancing technology. The original soundtrack by the masterful Greek composer Vangelis is the perfect complement to this futuristic masterpiece. Electronic, jazzy, and unusual, the tracks incorporate sounds and synthesizer effects to create a strange, foreboding, and eerie listening experience. The tracks “Love Theme” and “Memories of Green” provide a great contrast to the more techno pieces of the film, adding a calmer classical element.

The Hunger Games

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image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hunger_Games_(film)

Based on the dystopian series by Suzanne Collins, the Hunger Games films (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay: Part One) provide an action-packed representation of a disturbing future in the post-war North American country of Panem where, every year, two children from each of twelve districts are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the pampered Capitol folk and the government of Panem. The 2012 score for The Hunger Games was written by James Newton Howard, a composer also known for the great scores of The Dark Knight, Water for Elephants, Blood Diamond, and many more. The film’s music varies beautifully between grandiose choral segments, powerfully orchestrated themes, and catchy, single-instrument tunes, making it a perfect fit for both the action scenes and the heartbreaking emotional scenes. The soundtrack of the movie featured songs from more than fourteen artists including Birdy and Arcade Fire. Fun fact: Rue’s famous four-note whistle in the movie originated from the melody of composer Nino Rota’s “Love Theme,” from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film Romeo and Juliet.

Have any suggestions for life-changing movie scores? Comment away!

-Contributed by Polina Zak

Music of the Spheres: Sci-Fi Soundtracks and the Classical Tradition

There has always been a connection between space and music despite their differences. Long before the space opera genre rose to prominence, space and music were both viewed as conveyors of awe and mystery, respective wonders of the natural and human worlds. Early medieval musical and academic theory considered music to be a science more than an art—not surprising, given the complex physics behind it. A concept passed down from Pythagoras and other classical philosophers known as “musica universalis” or the “music of the spheres” suggested that each of the planets produces its own sound based on its size and rotation. Similarly, in the physics of music, the length and vibration of a string or pipe determine the sound it produces. While the “music of the spheres” was said to be inaudible to the human ear, it was nonetheless an important philosophical and mathematical concept that brought music to the center of the universe, so to speak.

Besides physics, the mythology of the planets also works its way into music. Western classical music is full of references to classical mythology, which itself brings in much from the sky. Baroque composers in particular were fond of mythology in their music. Many of the gods of the Roman pantheon share names with the planets, leaving deities like Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus scattered throughout music spanning centuries. In 2014, Toronto’s own Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra organized a special event called The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, which combined texts from astronomers, baroque music, and images of space in a celebration of the first telescope. We use mythology and music to explore things that are meaningful and fascinating to us, and the universe beyond our planet is near the top of the list.

There are some orchestral motifs that we can’t help but associate with space, and while John Williams’ Star Wars score is partially to blame, there is more history at play. We hear these sounds in incidental and classical music alike: triumphant brass lines mimic the grandeur and glory of space; rapid, fluttering passages of strings and upper woodwinds suggest the anticipation and excitement of going beyond the final frontier; soft, haunting music with unexpected intervals or time signatures, played on rare or even electronic instruments, paints the picture of unexplored new worlds. George Lucas reportedly used orchestral music as inspiration and as a stand-in for the Star Wars soundtrack before Williams’ score was done; Lucas wanted the music to be familiar, as the world of the story was not. So Williams drew from tried-and-true classical motifs and created the most iconic soundtrack ever. (Compare Gustav Holst’s Mercury with “Landspeeder Search/Attack of the Sand” from Star Wars Episode IV).

Arguably the common ancestor to all of these space opera soundtracks is Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets. Written in the early twentieth century, Holst portrayed the planets (excluding Earth, as it has little astrological significance, and Pluto, yet to be discovered) according to the emotions and influences associated with them by astrology and hints of mythology. Mars, the Bringer of War is a dark, rhythmic piece, constantly moving. It could play aboard the Death Star and make perfect sense. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity is the most-well known movement of the suite, and features a beautiful moving passage in the middle that was later adapted as a hymn tune. Jupiter is quintessential, containing the “space sounds” of exploration and vastness as well as the most tender, emotional moments of space opera.

Of course, there are instances of classical music directly used in science fiction as well. The opening section of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra is well-known now for its role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Inspired by the book of the same title by Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra was a ‘soundtrack’ of sorts from the beginning; it was ‘program music’. Both Nietzsche and Kubrick examine similar themes in their respective pieces. The triumphant fanfare mimics the glory of space and the dawn of humanity; it is a celebration of the ingenuity, creation, and wonder to follow.

Program music is orchestral music that tells a narrative. Whereas opera, or anything with text, is direct in its musical storytelling, program music is subtle and open to slightly more interpretation. As large-scale orchestral works became prominent, so too did this kind of musical narrative, like The Planets. Program music also includes symphonic poems, like Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and film music, such as Williams’ soundtracks. Symphonic poems convey a certain story, poem, or work of art, or more abstract narratives like landscapes—operas without words. And once film became a common medium in the twentieth century, program music led to incidental music and soundtracks, highlighting the action on screen.

One does not have to be a musician, or indeed know anything about music, to hear Holst as a precursor to some of John Williams’ soundtracks or the various reincarnations of the Star Wars theme. In our current culture, it could very well be that we associate the orchestral motifs mentioned earlier with space because of the undying popularity of space operas. This is not a bad thing. There is no reason why we shouldn’t access elements of classical music, human emotion, and science this way; the most wonderful thing about culture is that it is constantly reworking and reusing past stories in new contexts. The mystery and beauty music inspires within us is only matched by the mystery and beauty of the unknown—of distant worlds and the infinite reach of the universe.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege