Tag Archives: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Disturbing music

The Quietus published a piece yesterday in which contributors wrote about the pieces of music they find most disturbing. There’s some good choices in there, some interesting discussions, and some properly creepy stuff.

Inevitably, there’s lots of black metal – not my thing, but as long as neither the fans nor the bands are killing anyone or burning any churches I bear it no ill will. There’s lots of avant stuff: Nurse With Wound and Residents and Diamanda Galas. Unfamiliar with the latter’s oeuvre, I listened to all 11.44 of This is the Law of the Plague from her Plague Mass live album. It’s hard work, but it is undeniably powerful in its intense sincerity. Her brother died of Aids and Galas’s fury at the moralising of the Catholic church (and its recourse to Old Testament authority to justify its callous disregard for the suffering of Aids victims), is evident in her every word and ululation.

There are some idiosyncratic choices, too. I mean, I get finding What’s New Pussycat distasteful. I get finding it annoying. But disturbing seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Lists like these are often pointless clickbait, and contain little insight or depth. This one’s good, though, because the subject is interesting, because the contributors bring mostly interesting insight to their nominations, and because its something many music fans will have spent time thinking about themselves.

Like many people, I have strong emotional reactions to music, and I can definitely think of music that has disturbed me. That moment where the Mellotron voices come in at the end of Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me still sends a shiver up my spine. It’s the way their inhuman blankness and mechanical vibrato supplant all the warmth and humanity of Gaye’s preceding performance, ending the song on an ambiguous, doom-laden note. Some of the more extreme moments on Radiohead’s OK Computer unnerved me when I first came into contact with them: the brutally distorted and compressed bass guitar that gatecrashes Exit Music; the eerie noises of Climbing Up the Walls, and Thom Yorke’s feral screams that bring the song to an end. When I first heard Nirvana’s In Utero at, what, 12 years old, it was all too much for me: I could put no name to the emotions the songs expressed. I put it away in a drawer for about a week before coming tentatively back to it and slowly coming to understand it, as best someone who’s never shared those experiences ever could, anyways.

But if asked what music I find most disturbing now, I’d have to, like Bob Cluness in the Quietus article, plump for György Ligeti’s Requiem.

Like many, I was first exposed to Ligeti’s music when watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much about the film disturbed me. I find the idea of space oppressive, bordering on terrifying. The idea of nothing – of nothing on a cosmic scale – is close to unimaginable, and whenever I come close to imagining it, it scares me all the more. The idea of so much nothing is more than I get my head around. Perhaps it’d help if I were a scientist and could understand these things on a theoretical or molecular level. As it is, moments like that shot of Frank Poole drifting off into nothingness without end, cut adrift by HAL and his oxygen supply severed, are just horrifying.

And to add to the dread, Kubrick chose to set some of the heaviest, tensest moments in the film (the encounters with the monoliths on the moon and near Jupiter, and the stargate sequence) to Ligeti’s music: Lux Aeterna, Requiem and Atmosphères.

These pieces are exercises in micropolyphony. Polyphony (“many voices”) is the simultaneous use of two or more independent lines of melody (as opposed to a melody with supporting harmonies, whether vocal or from accompanying instruments). Micropoyphony (a technique developed by Ligeti) is the use of many independent lines, each moving at a different speed or in a different rhythm, so that individual melodic lines themselves become hard, or impossible, to discern, instead creating a kind of cloud of sound, resembling a cluster chord except for the fact that it constantly moves. Ligeti’s music is disturbing on a second-by-second basis because it’s amorphous, because its shape is impossible to discern, because we can never get a handle on it: try to follow one voice and you’ll be defeated as others swarm around it, merge with it, transform it.

Technically speaking I have always approached musical texture through part-writing. Both Atmosphères and Lontano have a dense canonic structure. But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb. I have retained melodic lines in the process of composition, they are governed by rules as strict as Palestrina’s or those of the Flemish school, but the rules of this polyphony are worked out by me. The polyphonic structure does not come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible. I call it micropolyphony (such a beautiful word!)

György Ligeti, quoted in Jonathan W Bernard’s article Voice Leading as a Spatial Function in the Music of Ligeti

I am in awe of Ligeti’s ability to create this music. It’s is the closest music has come, maybe the closest any artform has come, to grasping and properly invoking the infinite, or God, or whatever you want to call it. I wonder if listening back to his creations unnerved even him.

Space music – Holst’s Neptune, the Mystic

Like most kids, I was interested in space as a boy. I used to read the space section of my family’s junior encyclopaedia over and over again. I read sci-fi books, had space-themed toys, wrote little spacey stories. This was the late 1980s, and though the Challenger disaster was a terrifying recent memory to those older than me (I was only four when it happened) and therefore able to process and absorb what had happened, near-space exploration still seemed to be just the beginning of what we could, and in time would, do. The moon landings still weren’t that far in the past, I suppose.

In recent years, I’ve come to find the idea of space (as well as the idea of ocean depths) oppressive, bordering on scary. The idea of so much nothing is more than I get my head around. Perhaps it’d help if I were a scientist and could understand these things on a theoretical or molecular level. As it is, I find just thinking about space overwhelming, a situation perhaps not helped by seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, around five or six years ago: that dreadful shot of Frank Poole drifting off into nothingness without end, cut adrift by HAL, his oxygen supply severed. I probably hadn’t thought about space much as an adult, and to an adult – with an imagination more vivid and powerful than that of a child, but simultaneously more grounded in physical reality – the idea of being out there in such a blankly hostile environment wasn’t cool and exciting, it was terrifying.

We aren’t meant to be up there. We’re not built for it.

It’s improbable that these things were occupying Gustav Holst all that much when he wrote The Planets between 1914 and 1916. Holst was an amateur astrologer, and his movements are named after the qualities associated with the planets in astrology rather than astronomy.

The Planets‘ two most famous movements are Mars, the Bringer of War, the barnstorming opener, with its hysterically aggressive final section (emulated thousands of times in Hollywood movie scores) and relentless 5/4 ostinato, and Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, which contains at its heart the beautiful melody Thaxted, grievously misused (with Holst’s weary acquiescence) by Cecil Spring Rice as the tune for I Vow to Thee, My Country – loathsome, sentimental, nationalistic nonsense. (Thaxted was Holst’s home in my native county of Essex – in the 1910s and 1920s, Thaxted was a hotbed of Christian socialism, with Conrad Noel and Daisy, Countess of Warwick at its centre, and Holst as a sort of orbiting moon.)

The movements that interest me most are very different: Venus, the Bringer of Peace and Neptune, the Mystic. Venus’s beauty is heavenly, lulling flutes, a tinkling celeste, soft harps and mellifluous French horns, with only the double bass hinting of mystery and danger hidden behind that impassive-looking cloud structure.

Neptune (like Mars, in 5/4 time) is something else again, with its emphasis more on texture and atmosphere than melody (not to say that its melodies aren’t exquisite). This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. It’s most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble from the organ accompanied by arpeggios on the celeste. Harpists play continuous ascending and descending glissandos before, finally, the cellos and oboes play an ascending melody that just won’t resolve; Holst leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be. At this point the voices enter.

Holst does thrilling things with this chorus. Ralph Vaughan Williams, fellow composer and a lifelong friend of Holst’s, wrote penetratingly on its effect:

Such a work as Neptune, the Mystic seems to give us such a glance into the future—it ends, so to speak, on a note of interrogation. Many composers have attempted this, sometimes bringing in the common chord at the end as an unwilling tribute to tradition, sometimes sophisticating it by the addition of one discordant note, sometimes letting the whole thin out into a single line of melody; but Holst in Neptune actually causes the music to fade away to nothing. We look into the future, but its secrets remain closed to us.

The chorus does, as Holst says, “fade away to nothing”. The singers, screened so as never to be visible to the audience, slowly walk out of the concert hall into an adjoining room, and a door is closed quietly behind them. This in itself was a daring, near unprecedented, move, but in its totality, Neptune creates a vocabulary of space music that is still being employed today in movie scores*: delicate, sparse orchestration and quizzical chords, high, sustained strings, the interplay of deepest bass and lightest treble, the choice of instruments to create uncanny timbres – Neptune succeeds so well in evoking space (in a way that the other movements of the suite, no matter how successful, don’t try to – as they are intended to, they evoke the moods and humours the planets are associated with in astrology) that it spawned hundreds of imitators in the movies, and may fool us into thinking that Holst himself was working in an extant tradition rather than calling one into existence through the sheer scope of his imagination.

Neptune_Full
Neptune, currently somewhere between 4.2 and 4.4 billion kilometres away

* Perhaps the most obvious Planets reference is in John Williams’s Star Wars music, which quotes the ending of Mars almost exactly. The mood of Neptune, meanwhile, is Hollywood’s default “mysterious space” mood, with the gentle moments of James Horner’s Aliens score, for example, deeply in hock to it.