Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Music of The Book

I listened recently to the original radio series of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I always regarded as the best realisation of Douglas Adams’ creation. Having not heard if for many a year, I was surprised to hear what a wealth and range of interesting music was used in the background, mainly to accompany Peter Jones’ inimitable readings from The Book. The fact that I now recognised many of the pieces used suggests that my youthful self, listening repeatedly to the cheap cassettes on which I’d recorded the series off the radio, was having his ears attuned to sounds which would spark an unconscious thrill of recognition when I came across them later in life. Alongside Doctor Who, it certainly seeded a fascination for electronic music which lasts to this day.

After Tim Souster’s sonically enhanced arrangement of Journey of the Sorceror by The Eagles which gives the programme its memorable space banjo theme music, we are plunged straight into the dizzying world of 20th century Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti as Peter Jones puts the story into its cosmic context. I think the piece is Atmospheres, famous for its inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s religiose SF survey of the aeons, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The use of music associated with that imposing film serves as an immediate indication of Adams’ intention to puncture the grandiosity of such high-minded science fiction with bathos at every possible turn and corner, although he also manages to retain the genre’s starry-eyed sense of wonder. Ligeti is used on various occasions throughout the series. His diffuse, tonally indeterminate ‘clouds’ of orchestral and choral sound are perfect for conveying a sense of terrified awe and disorientation in the face of the immense infinity of the universe and the bewilderingly alien experiences to be found within it. Indeed, it was his music which did much to lend 2001 its air of slightly frightening, transcendent mystery. The hovering, shifting swarm of melismatic voices in the Requiem, used in the moon monument sequence in 2001, here provide the heavenly choir which accompanies Arthur and Ford’s comedown from their first experience of the Infinite Improbability Drive which powers the spaceship Heart of Gold. It’s incongruously mixed with an organ on Southend Pier chirping out ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’.

Ligeti in Klaus Kinski mode
A crashing, rumbling explosion of a chord from Ligeti’s astonishing organ piece Volumina provides an over-the-top prelude to cliff-hanging pronouncements, as when the captain of the Vogon constructor fleet pauses before offering to Ford and Arthur his alternative to certain death in the vacuum of space. This is a good lead-in to a typical bit of Adams bathos; The implicitly horrific nature of an experience in the stead of which summary death seems an option open to serious consideration turns out to be an unpleasant but non-lethal subjection to a reading of excruciatingly bad poetry. Ligeti’s harpsichord piece Continuum, which requires the player’s hands to scurry unceasingly across the keyboard like a particularly workaholic cadre of ants, accompanies an entry from The Book on the rise and fall of the Galactic economy and the part which the luxury planet-building business of Magrathea plays in its fluctuating fortunes. Appropriately enough, it’s a piece of music which is scarcely credible to picture as the product of any human agency.

Such could also be said of the electronic sounds which comprise the bulk of the rest of the background musical radiation of the Hitchhiker’s universe. Electronic music has long been associated with science fiction and space, going back to its use in Bernard Herrmann’s theremin and electric guitar driven score for The Day The Earth Stood Still (recently heard in the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Electronica concert, broadcast on Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago), and Louis and Bebe Barron’s ‘electronic modulations’ for Forbidden Planet. Perhaps the technological element of electronic soundmaking creates an association with the advanced technologies required to reach space in the first place. Or perhaps it’s just that these strange, alien sounds, which no longer have their origins in any familiar musical objects, are an effective aural analogue to the psychological experience of exploring entirely new worlds of the imagination. They’re equally adept at portraying states of mental disequilibrium, after all, as the theremin featured prominently in Miklos Rozsa’s scores for The Lost Weekend and Spellbound (also featured in the Electronica concert) demonstrates.

Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air is the most frequently used piece of electronic music here. His echo-delayed loops of burbling and cascading organ notes provide the sound of the selections from The Book’s teeming streams of digital information. There’s also a single use of an extract from the more sombre and stately Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, the second side of the Rainbow LP, with Riley’s sax snaking out shehnai-like lines into intertwining coils. The opening of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno’s Wind on Water from the Evening Star LP breathes its shimmering breezes behind The Book’s ruminations on several occasions. It accompanies the description of the planet to which lost biros make their pilgrimage, there to join the wide variety of biroid lifeforms which inhabit it. The tentative opening triads of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene are used a couple of times, giving a poignant emphasis to Peter Jones’ summation of the fates of the newly created whale and instantly world (or universe?) weary bowl of petunias. Tomita’s synthesised arrangement of Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie (The Drowned Cathedral) plays during the description of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. John Carpenter also wrote a synthesiser version of this piece, in collaboration with Alan Howarth, to add atmosphere to the scene in Escape From New York in which Kurt Russell’s grizzled adventurer negotiates the air corridors between the futuristic Manhattan’s deserted skyscrapers in his one-man glider.

Digging the Floyd
I distinctly remember that when I first heard the programme on the radio, Pink Floyd’s pacific held-chord meditation Shine On You Crazy Diamond heralded the spaceship Heart of Gold’s arrival on the planet of Magrathea, Arthur’s first sight of an alien world. It turns out to be the depressive robot Marvin humming. A comment on the Floyd’s less than joyful ‘concept’ of the world, perhaps. This scene has disappeared from the show in subsequently released recordings, the issue (or expense) of rights evidently having become a problem. Strange, since that Roger Waters always comes across as such a reasonable and accommodating chap. It’s funny that a radio programme from the year’s of punk’s ascendancy (it was first broadcast on 8th March 1978), which was supposed to have cleared away the dead weight of the 60’s increasingly bloated legacy, should feature Pink Floyd and the music of synth players with varying degrees of Prog-association. Apparently there’s even a track from one-record x Yes keyboard player Patrick Moraz’ solo LP in there somewhere, although I can’t claim to be familiar with it. His album with Yes was Relayer, by the way, and it's quite a good one, with a nice Roger Dean cover (gatefold, of course). Perhaps such musical choices are not so surprising, given that Ford and Zaphod are, essentially, a couple of interstellar hippies.

The Radiophonic Workshop played its part in the production, of course. Dick Mills created the ubiquitous sound-effects essential for evoking a space-based SF universe. Amongst these is a short piece which rivals his earlier magnum opus Major Bloodnok’s Stomach (created in 1959), a nine second eruption found on the 1975 Radiophonic Workshop LP, for complex creation put to the service of absurd humour. The apocalyptic roar of the universe’s destruction diminishes to a gurgle as it drains down some sort of cosmic plughole. Its can be heard in its full 30 second splendour on the BBC LP Science Fiction Sound Effects (no. 26). There’s also a brilliant piece of Radiophonic music resurrected from the archive to be used as the fanfare for the Magratheans’ automated non-welcoming message from the distant past. This is Delia Derbyshire’s Tutankhamun’s Egypt, in which the echoes of ancient trumpets seems to rise like sonic phantoms from the half-buried and sand-eroded ruins of empires long since faded into legend. You can hear it here. The Radiophonic Workshop would take over the music for the second series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, using the latest generations of synthesisers. Paddy Kingsland composed pleasantly melodic synth backgrounds, with prominent use of the whistling, flute-like sounds which also characterised the late Tom Baker and early Peter Davidson Doctor Who soundtracks to stories like The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis and Castrovalva. He switched on his arpeggiator to provide the auditory sensation of the tickling of the brain’s pleasure centres (a reward from a teaching machine in a technologised schoolroom). Synth arpeggiators have always had a similar effect on my brain, so I’m very glad that they’ve recently featured to a significant extent on Oneohtrix Point Never’s sprawling collection of analogue electronic music, Rifts, a gorgeous paean to futures past.

The Magrathean story is also accompanied by some rhythmically enhanced Gregorian-style chant overlaid with Eastern-tinged sax. There is some similar music (minus the chant) playing during the pointless meeting of hairdressers, TV documentary producers and telephone sanitisation engineers (obviously bugbears of Adams’) to discuss their plans for life on the prehistoric Earth upon which they, along with Ford and Arthur, are stranded. This has the sound of a sprightly medieval dance. I thought it might be The Third Ear Band’s music for Roman Polanski’s film of Macbeth, or perhaps even a 70s early music troupe along the lines of David Munrow’s consort. But no, it is in fact a group who were called Gruppe Between, one of the more organic (ie acoustic) of the ‘krautrock’ bands of the period. Both of these pieces were taken from their 1971 LP Einstieg, which you can read about over at Julian Cope’s Head Heritage site. It’s appropriate that this record was released on the German WERGO label, better known for its recordings of modern classical music by the likes of Ligeti.

The radio show, like the TV series, goes out on a bittersweet note with Louis Armstrong singing What A Wonderful World. It’s a song which has, it seems, become synonymous with a wistful observation of what a wonderful world it isn’t, Armstrong’s warm tones becoming an insistent invocation of beauty in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Its fading out here unveils the melancholy at the heart of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and perhaps of Adams himself. In the end, there is no meaning behind it all, no answer to the great question of life, the universe and everything. It’s all just a cruel and hollow farce. Still, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you.

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