Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Bach at the Space Station: Hermeneutic Pliability and Multiplying Gaps in Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Bach at the Space Station: Hermeneutic Pliability and Multiplying Gaps in Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris

Article excerpt

In a memorable scene from Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) a man and a woman engage in a loving embrace while levitating slowly through a beautifully furnished room.1 The room in question is a library at an almost-deserted space station, the engines of which have been temporarily shut down, resulting in a brief moment of zero gravity. Behind the levitating couple we see miniature reproductions of a series of paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and during the scene two brief shots are inserted providing us with close-ups of specific details from one of the paintings, the famous Hunters in the Snow (1565). A fully lit candelabrum comes drifting through the air followed by a copy of Cervantes's novel Don Quixote. Before long the engines restart and the couple are now seen seated peacefully on a sofa, the man's head resting on the woman's knees. Next to them on the floor is the candelabrum, some of its candles still burning.

This whole sequence proceeds without any dialogue. Other sounds as well are reduced to a minimum. Instead, the soundtrack is dominated by the chorale prelude 'Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ' from Johann Sebastian Bach's Orgelbüchlein. This piece of music has been heard twice before and it will be heard again at the very end of the film. In this scene, and in the other scenes where it occurs, it plays a vital role in the construction of an emotional atmosphere marked by tenderness and intimacy, while also betraying the male protagonist's strong yearning to escape the desolated space station and return to the tranquillity and the fertile soil of his earthly familial home.

How does this music relate to the narrative of Solaris? Is it part of the narrated world of the film or is it rather some kind of extra- or non-diegetic music? Sonically, it is placed very much in the perceptual foreground of the viewer/listener, but in a way that seems to disfavour rather than support an understanding of it as belonging to the diegesis. And where would the music come from anyway? There is no organ to be found in the library or anywhere else on this sinister space station, nor, by all accounts, any cassette- or record-player or other such device. If the choice is between diegetic and non-diegetic music, it appears more sensible to ascribe the prelude a non-diegetic status. Thus understood, it is, in Robynn Stilwell's words, not 'part of the film's story world' but rather an 'element of the cinematic apparatus that represents that world' (2007: 184).2 Conceived of as occupying a position external to the world of the space station it may be taken as commenting on, framing, or narrating something about that world and the people inhabiting it.

But maybe the Bach prelude really is diegetic music of a more subtle kind. Maybe it is an instance of what film music scholars call metadiegetic music: music heard, remembered, or otherwise imagined by a character within the diegesis. As such, Bach's music would perhaps most obviously be understood as an integral part of the male protagonist's experience, something that he feels, undergoes, perceives, and engages with. In the levitation scene, at least, this may be an entirely plausible way of making sense of this music.

While the presence of classical music in Tarkovsky's films is often mentioned in passing in the scholarly literature, his inventive use of sound has been more extensively discussed (see, for example, Truppin 1992; Chion 1994; Shpinitskaya 2006; Smith 2007; Fairweather 2012). One of the more fascinating aspects in this regard (especially in 'science fiction' films like Solaris and Stalker) is the way Tarkovsky often blurs the distinction between electronic 'music' and (apparently) realistic sound. However, in what follows, even though I will occasionally discuss parts of Solaris's electronic score, I will have very little to say about the treatment of sound in the film. Instead, my objective is to show how different interpretive constructions of Bach's music may shape the way we understand its diegetic status in the film. …

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