There is no more oxygen-hungry corner of the cosmos than Hollywood on Academy Awards night. Consumption of the life-sustaining substance reaches dangerously high levels each year on the first Sunday evening of March in the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. If the Dolby were a coalmine the canaries would be dropping dead by the dozen.
The heavy breathing of the onlookers arrayed along the red carpet; the panting questions of the interviewers; the aerobic exercises in narcissism that are the acceptance speeches; the off-gassing of the host’s monologue and subsequent toxic star spills; the hyper-ventilations of the performers charged with singing the Best Song nominees — these and other occurrences suck the nourishing molecules out of the celebrity atmosphere. The reason that the orchestra is sequestered a mile from the theatre at Capitol Studios is not for reasons of space as is usually claimed, but so the laboring musicians don’t pass out in the pit. Given the lack of breathable air, it’s no wonder so many foolish things are said and done on Oscar’s stage.
Oxygen deprivation accounts for the most ballyhooed blunder of the evening, John Travolta’s rearrangement of the syllables of Idina Menzel’s name into the far more alluring sequence “Adele Dazeem.” That’s how he introduced her before her performance of the eventual winner of Best Song, “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen.
It was not this unexpected new identity that flustered Ms. Menzel, but respiration difficulties that made her sound like a kitten suffocating beneath a pillow. The off-the-shelf ballad she delivered stitched together a patchwork of musical and poetic clichés, from the music-box piano doodlings of its introduction to the doggerel couplets struggling to swim to the surface of the orchestral tsunami that duly came at the song’s yawning climax. It was as if the singer herself were also underwater holding her nose as she was pitched and rolled by the swirling musical waters that trapped her. Her strapless dress heaved in the expected places, but her pinched and painful voice revealed far more: she was not pulling any air into her lungs.
Ms. Mendel’s frighteningly stifled performance confirmed in retrospect that the dubious interventions of Travolta’s plastic surgeon did not explain his difficulties with the singer’s name. Instead the contortions of his lips within the straightjacket of his newly made face had much more to do with his own efforts at conserving his breath in on-stage atmosphere about as rich in oxygen as outer space.
It was only fitting, then, that the statuette for Best Original Score went to Gravity, whose heroine (played by Sandra Bullock) not only tumbles and turns weightlessly — both fully-armored and scantily clad — but also endures several ordeals of life-threatening airlessness. As is the case in all movies set in extreme locations, from the desert to the bottom of the ocean, those films placed beyond Earth’s atmosphere raise the question of what the hell music is doing there, since sound itself requires air — molecules that can be excited and formed into waves — for it to exist at all.
Cinema frequently sought to fill the intrinsic silence of space with the spooky emissions of the Theremin and other Space Age electronics charged with forecasting the futuristic technology that would launch humans towards the stars and, in reverse direction, accompany extraterrestrials as their flying saucers whizzed towards panicked earthlings. Bernhard Hermann set the standard for such otherworldly evocations with his richly textured, relentlessly queasy 1951 score to The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Stanley Kubrick’s answer to the dilemma in 2001: A Space Odyssey was to dramatize the infinite expanse of space with classical monuments, from the ponderous might of Also Sprach Zarathustra to the weightless poise of The Blue Danube. The movie embraced a cyclic sense of time and so did its score: György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna seemed to echo both into the future and into the medieval past, when astronomers, theologians, and musicians were sure that the revolutions of the planets emitted a celestial music. The human voices revolving in harmonious discord in Ligeti’s choral masterpiece suggested the order to be discerned in the apparent chaos of Kubrick’s cosmos. Suspended in timelessness, the singers never seem to need to breathe.
It is no surprise that many of these Kubrickian influences flow through this year’s best soundtrack laureate, a 36-year old Brit named Steven Price. Jamie Foxx was one of the presenters of the award, and during his introduction he mimed the slow-motion runners of Chariots of Fire while singing falsetto that movie’s famous theme. It was an appropriate touch, since that melody was composed by Vangelis, the man whose synthesized creations for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos have so profoundly shaped subsequent space music.
As Price’s name was called to receive the Oscar the camera sought him out as he stood up from his seat next to the venerable John Williams, who had himself been nominated this year for his score for The Book Thief and who cordially congratulated his younger colleague in a symbolic passing of the composerly baton. Among the plastic sheen of Hollywood royalty, Price had the appealingly abashed look of an authentically eccentric Englishman. In a quick and quirky speech, he thanked his family for putting up with all the noise he’d made as a guitar-playing kid. It seemed a genuine human moment — a speech made short and sweet, as if the speaker could not long survive in the artificial environment that threatened to engulf him.
Price’s soundscapes did much to keep the flimsy tale spinning on its axis. The movie is not about its story; what little of that there is merely provides a pretext for special effects displaying humans and their machines either hurtling through space or suspended in its stillness. It is perfectly logically then that Price’s score should similarly be a collation of effects and allusions, a backdrop for the magnificent cinematic illusions of director Alfonso Cuarón, rather than a classic score of symphonic strivings toward epic grandeur.
Price’s soundtrack pays significant tribute to previous cinematic confrontations with the cosmos: the cyclic motions of piano and plaintive cello above drones that seems to move according to the mysterious attractions of gravity; the disembodied vocalizations that summon images of Plato’s sirens perched on their planetary spheres singing a music to which human ears have become deaf; waves of synthesized shimmer that grope outward into infinite space; the mechanical shifts and pulsations that presage disaster and the immense crescendos that mark its arrival. These and other effects are expertly summoned and mixed together by Price. Most memorably of all of them is his use of the glass harmonica, whose interlocking bowls as designed by Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century themselves recall the celestial spheres of model universes prepared by cosmologists from Ptolemy to Copernicus.
Oddly, the glass harmonica’s fragile but penetrating sound has something of the Theremin’s antic energy, but its beauty is infinitely more delicate and more unsettling. At the opening of the soundtrack’s final number, a cue fittingly entitled “Gravity,” the harmonica traces almost gravely slow arabesques around the fixed stars of the electronic sounds and the prayerful flight paths of cello and voice. The pull of this most compelling of glass instruments is irresistible.
Price has said that he kept percussion out of his instrumentarium because the film itself had so many collisions that musical drum blasts and cymbal crashes would be confusing and detract from the on-screen destruction. Thus the sound of the film as a whole is a vivid and ever-evolving combination of the celestial music evoked by Price’s score and the sonic effects resulting from the onscreen spectacle — the harmony of the spheres in concert with the disharmony caused by humans in space.
The Gravity soundtrack is just the latest effort in the millennia-long contemplation of the impossible music of the heavens. Perhaps the message for the space cadets of Hollywood is that even in airless environments it’s still worth listening out for sounds of intelligent life and art.