The sound of Soviet Science Fiction

By Robert Barry

Eduard Artemiev first met Andrei Tarkovsky at a house party thrown by the painter, Mikhail Romadin, in the spring of 1970. The conversation somehow turned to the subject of electronic music and, to Artemiev's surprise, the director soon invited himself to the electronic music studio in Moscow where the composer worked, keen to see the working methods behind the ANS synthesizer that was housed there.

Artemiev had been one of the first composers to work with the ANS, after its inventor, Yevgeny Murzin, posted a note up at the Moscow Conservatoire where Artemiev was a student, looking for composers interested in electronic music. This machine, the first Russian synthesizer, operated using a unique system of drawn sound synthesis. The composer would paint on a sheet of glass which was scanned by the synthesizer, becoming a kind of graphic score, allowing the composer to work like a painter, tinting and shading, forming textures and tone colours directly. Due to the similarities such a method conjured up with the colouristic music of Murzin's idol, the Russian composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, the device was named after his initials.

Tarkovsky was evidently impressed with what he saw at Artemiev's studio for he soon asked him to compose all the music for a new science fiction film he was working on with Romadin, Solaris, having recently fallen out with regular musical collaborator, Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov. Tarkovsky gave Artemiev a completely free hand on Solaris, insisting on just one stipulation: that the film must include JS Bach's Choral Prelude in F-minor, ‘Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesus Christ’.

Though the soundtrack to Solaris uses both orchestral and electronic textures (from the ANS), Artemiev has said in interviews that in terms of its treatment, the orchestra "functioned like one giant synthesizer." From the composer's notes written before he started work on the film, we can see that he delineated five general areas: landscapes; personal sound perceptions; various transformations and distortions of the Bach theme; recollections of the Earth; and the sounds of the living ocean, Solaris, itself. Of this final category, Artemiev remarked, "It is, obviously, composed of the sounds of terrestrial life as if processed by the Ocean. . . The characters of the film hear (or are trying to hear) sounds either similar to terrestrial ones, or sounds which are kind of little cells or islands remaining from the Earth which they manage to identity out of the mass of strange and yet incomprehensible noises."

As Tatiana Yegorova notes in her study of Artemiev's "musical universe" (1), there is something strangely homely about the space station upon which much of the film is set, and Tarkovsky and art director Mikhail Romadin at one point considered basing the design for the interiors on that of an ordinary Moscow apartment. Artemiev's score thus becomes one of the sole sources of the sense of the alien and exotic in the film. Characteristically, though, some of the most alarming music is reserved for a scene set on earth, as Henri Berton (played by Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) drives through a tagliatelli of motorway underpasses and flyovers (shot in Osaka and Tokyo). Here, the 'natural' sounds of the road and passing cars are swollen with feedback echoes and combined with coruscating electronic textures to create a maelstrom of sound, as if we were experiencing the Earth through the eyes – or rather ears – of the Solaris ocean itself. This scene exemplifies perfectly the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky's notion of ‘otstranenie' – the experience of one's own everyday lifeworld as observed by an alien being.

Seven years later, Artemiev would return to many of the techniques he developed in Solaris, for another Tarkovsky collaboration based on a popular science fiction book, this time Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, filmed as Stalker. Though Artemiev is now using a British-made Synthi 100 synthesizer (the same model used by the BBC Radiophonic Workship and Karlheinz Stockhausen), we can recognise many of the same techniques of natural sounds transfigured and combined with traditional instruments and pure electronic textures in a manner that makes the three almost impossible to disentangle.

There are essentially two different species of music in Stalker. At the beginning and end of the film, we hear fragments of popular classics, distorted beneath the noise of passing trains: fragments of the Tannhäuser overture, the Ninth Symphony or Ravel's Bolero, crushed beneath the wheels of industry. Tarkovsky has insisted he meant no great significance by this gesture beyond the simple everyday misrecognition by which one sometimes feels as though one recognises the ghost of a popular song amid the heavy noise of a passing locomotive. Then there is the sound of the Zone itself, this alien landscape on earth, the site of a fleeting visitation by unknown life forms – the cosmic 'roadside picnic' of the Strugatskys' novel. This simple theme is composed of the improvisations of an Armenian tar player, extemporising around a fourteenth century Italian motet over a bed of electronics played on the Synthi 100 synthesiser. It is the sonorous image of a different, perhaps more profound kind of misrecognition – of two radically different cultures meeting and struggling to communicate without obvious common ground; an intractable problem of translation in which the alien stubbornly remains alien without succeeding in relating the nature of its otherness.

Toward Meeting a Dream

Solaris was not Artemiev's first film score, nor was it the first Eastern Bloc science fiction film to make extensive use of electronics. Kurt Maetzig's East German-Polish co-production, The Silent Star, saw a spaceship land on Venus to discover an ancient alien sound archive, and the alien 'voices' held in its library were created at the same Polish electronic music studio where Krystof Penderecki was, at the very same time, having his ears opened to a new universe of sounds that would inspire much of his subsequent work. Artemiev's first soundtrack gig was on Mikhail Kraiukov's second feature, Toward Meeting a Dream ('Mechte Navstrechu', still above). Here Artemiev puts the ANS to work for the first time to create a radio signal from another world, the electronic 'response' to the 'call' of the slightly cheesey Aquarian pop song that had drawn the visiting Centurians hopefully in search of Earth.

Many years later, orchestral and electronic music would be combined once more in the service of what was to be one of the last Soviet science fiction films. In Konstantin Lopushansky's nightmarish vision of the future, A Visitor to a Museum ('Posetitel Muzeya', filmed in 1989), a man who calls himself a 'tourist' stumbles into a bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape, equal parts hell and rubbish dump, in search of a submerged museum. The music, composed by Alfred Schnittke, a former colleague of Murzin and Artemiev from the Moscow studio who had enthusiastically embraced the ANS synthesizer, is as astringent and inhuman as the landscape it sonorises. Segueing with the seemingly omnipresent howling of nuclear winds, the juddering of locomotives and the tolling of church bells, Schnittke's music freely intermingles electronic with orchestral timbres in a way that seems to dissolve any distinction between the two, its drifting tone colours showing the clear influence of his work with the ANS. Where once electronic sounds in Soviet science fiction had signified a voice of hope from another world, with Stalker and A Visitor to a Museum, they became the sound of the estrangement of Earth itself, the transformation of the homeworld into a landscape at once alien and hostile.


(1) Edward Artemiev's Musical Universe, by Tatiana Yegorova, Rybina, T.Ye (trans.), Moscow: Vagrius, 2008


Kosmos: A Soviet Space Odyssey runs at BFI Southbank until 28 August for further information visit

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