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Press Reviews for SÓLARIS

Taut. Anguished. Claustrophobic. In this case, to launch too soon into a description of the music would be unfair. Expectations are high, and questions abound: a collaboration between Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason. Production by Valgeir Sigurðsson. A re-score of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of Solaris. A film that — at turns — is said to skewer epistemology, Soviet bureaucracy, or American science fiction. “Film manipulations” by Brian Eno. The modified piano. All manner of jargon regarding the songwriting software. Some reviews of the live performances to which we can only charitably refer as “mixed.” And that album cover: Bjarnason’s attire. Frost’s predatory glare. The grip. The gun.

Indulge us then a moment of exposition: the source material surrounds a fictional planet, once thought by researchers to be covered with oceans, now hypothesized to be a single, living, hyperintelligent creature, rippling with muscle contractions instead of waves. Psychologist Kris Kelvin docks on an orbiting station and finds there a sort of administrative cul-de-sac: a once-thriving station of 85 cosmonauts that has been reduced to three researchers. Or two, now, as it seems his friend Gibarian has opted for self-murder. The explorers are haunted by visitors — “cruel miracles” — and Kelvin will be no exception, as the psychologist comes upon a simulacrum of his dead wife toward the end of the first half. As it happens, this manifestation is a durable one, reappearing days, even minutes after each apparent death. Kelvin sends the first reincarnation away in a rocket, and the second — like the genuine article — commits suicide. The third is as crazy as a bat and, for reasons not entirely clear, convinces the other two scientists to kill her. Given the plot, referring to Solaris as “haunted” is akin to calling Animal House “fraternal.”

The pace of the film has been described as “slow but absorbing,” even “extinguished.” Indeed, silent credits dominate the first three minutes of screen time, and another five minutes pass before a character speaks for the first time. Scenes may seem overlong, and Western audiences might consider taking in this picture in installments (four, here). But Tarkovsky realized, it seems, that a film needs to creep before it can be creepy. And while the Zavrazhye-born director may have noticed in Lem’s book a Soviet-like space station at the end of its own history — where there is no point for Kelvin to stay, and no incentive for him to leave, and where an unseen mirror separates manifested dead from the walking lifeless — this is not a political film. Solaris transcends that, in an agonizing, sometimes unbearable microcosm of a man’s life with a woman. In the first act he flees. In the second, he relents, but she does not buy it. By the third, the courtship has driven her to lunacy. And the near-absolute zero outside (2.7 Kelvin, for those keeping score) does not help her space madness any.

Last year Ben Frost decided to rework the soundtrack, which has not aged as gracefully as the film: “I always felt that Russian composer Eduard Artemyev’s score compounded the external, science fiction elements of the story rather than exploring the internal, the human.” He continues: “It occurred to me that an interesting way to approach the orchestration of the work would be to mirror that materialization. I started playing around with music software designed to recognize tonal and rhythmic structure within polyphonic – that is, complicated – recordings.” Sinfonietta Cracovia re-transcribed the music from software back to string. Unsound presented the composition during an October 2010 performance in Krakow, and again in an April 2011 concert in New York. Bjarnason conducted and played a reworked piano (one blog, named Kogos, reprints an Evon Koprowski article that wrote, “With top lid removed, the modified piano allowed some strings to be struck with a soft mallet whilst others had sustained a metallic transformation to sound tinny and bent.”) Frost performed with guitar and laptop, while the Sinfonietta Cracovia also appeared, for this act as well as the preceding one: selected compositions by Krzysztof Penderecki and Steve Reich.

There is little doubt that the new soundtrack works better than the original, but neither are near long enough. Scenes are often punishingly silent; more often than not it seems intentional, a device for building tension, which Solaris delivers in kilograms. Moreover, if Frost/Bjarnason’s song titles are meant as bookmarks, the tracklist lacks a “Simulacra III” and is wildly out of order, most notably how the “We Need Mirrors” speech occurs a few screen minutes before the “Any Scientific Truth” scene (those two pieces are separated by nine other movements on the soundtrack). This brings us to the point at which the live performance apparently failed altogether. The idea of presenting a 46-minute soundtrack while the 166-minute source film rolled overhead became unworkable, and by all reliable accounts, Brian Eno’s answer for this — the parsed “film manipulations” — was a complete mess. The Village Voice remarks that, by comparison, the visuals made Eno’s “iPhone app look like Avatar.” The Silent Ballet reports, “This all happens at the speed of glue. The face gradually turns younger, then old again. Then we see images of a bucolic town — buildings, trees, ice skaters — which slowly break apart to reveal the image of a murdered woman. At this point, a swiftly rising cacophony gives way to church bells. Then the screen goes yellow for the next 20 minutes.” Yellow? Apparently so. “The colour of a bruise,” writes Koprowski.

It probably did not help that the performance was out of place. Penderecki’s compositions are crowd-pleasing and full-bodied (those familiar with Bjarnason no doubt longed for Processions by evening’s end). Reich’s work would have been familiar to most, and the reader is forced to wonder how Frost/Bjarnason’s soundtrack would have fared against other debut material. Because the music is excellent.

The soundtrack begins with “We Don’t Need Other Worlds, We Need Mirrors,” a brief, glassy string arrangement that traverses from hushed/high-register to large/low register. Bjarnason has remarked that the performers strived to play their albums digitally, even simulating their own delay effects through strictly acoustic means. Those effort seem on display here: “We Need Mirrors” is a cinematic, slightly mental, and perfectly convincing piece of modern composing. Again, the question of sequence: it opens the album and sounds like it was meant to, but the title refers to a late-game realization.

“Simulacra I” follows. The plural form of the word seems to remove the focus from Kelvin’s wife and returns it to all of the visitors, the rest of whom Tarkovsky introduced in brief, merciless glimpses. Given the way the film ambles through other themes, this is surely not an accident. “Simulacra I” begins with a quiet and sustained percolation — Frost’s guitar and laptop? — building tension and interest for well over two minutes, after which a melody finally comes into view: the shimmer of post-rock tremolo at a continental pace. The violins return for the last third of the track, and again, the final view is of lovely, conventional work, which does not ostracize anyone or invent much. The process of composing, introducing the material to software, re-transcribing, and piano modification seems a long road to take to arrive at “conventional.” But things change from here.

“Simulacra II” (again, note the plural form) is one of the album’s capstones. The partnership is finally more evident here, as we can hear Frost literally slapping at his guitar strings far in the distance, while Bjarnason plays his redshifted piano on center stage, one note at a time. Strings confiscate the piece at the midsection, at last abandoning the thick pensiveness for something a little more suitably large, passionate and mad, given the film and the contributors. The quick summit is hair-raising, and the restraint of the album’s first eight minutes starts to pay off.

Another key track is “Saccades,” a reprise of the opening movement, now painted over with machine loops, deranged violin scribbling and atmosphere turbulence. Frost’s thumping guitar method creates eerie and skilled dissonance in a late transition, and again the listener becomes almost too aware of personalities. You could make a pretty strong case either way whether or not the composers intended this. The reader can tell simply by its name that the high point of the album will be “Cruel Miracles,” a slow, facile, and twinkling melody for a slightly out-of-whack piano, with a glacially swelling violin section and a crashing final measure.

This is a smart, sometimes exhilarating tribute to a challenging, heartbreaking and singular film.


Fred Nolan

Fluid Radio (October 20th 2011)

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