30 March 2007

John Barry’s Soundtrack for The Black Hole

Update: Sadly, Mr. Barry has gone “In, Through, and Beyond” himself, dying of a heart attack at age seventy-seven on 31 January 2011. Read my memorial here.

In my years as a film score fanatic (this goes back to approximately 1989 C.E.), few albums have retained their constant popularity with me as a listening standard as John Barry’s score to The Black Hole. The 1979 science-fiction film was Disney’s answer to Star Wars, although development on it had started before 1977, and usually receives a critical thrashing. Much is wrong with the movie, but I have a personal affection for it that I might go into on another post. The music, however, is the core of what I love about the film.

I saw The Black Hole when it hit theaters in 1979, and the music made an enormous impression on me even as a six-year-old. When I started to collect scores and fell in love with John Barry’s music from listening to his James Bond music, The Black Hole instantly shot to the top of my list of scores I wanted to own. My mother gave me an LP copy as a Solstice gift in 1991—signed by Barry himself! One of her clients had done promotion on the album back when the film came out, and gave my mother one of the signed copies she still had. My mom still thinks fondly of the moment I got the record: it was one of the few times she managed to surprise me with a gift. (I’m notoriously hard to buy for, although my brother claims this isn’t true.) The album has yet to make it to CD except in bootlegs. Fortunately, it has shown up on iTunes recently, and I’ve been able to enjoy it in pristine sound after many years of listening to it on a cassette copy of the LP and then burned from the LP onto CD and my iPod. The sound quality is phenomenal because The Black Hole was one of the first digital recordings ever made of a film soundtrack; it even displays “a digital recording” proudly on the LP sleeve. The fully digital realm is where it always belonged.

The best descriptive for the score’s music is dark melodic. It has much in common with another Barry science-fiction score from that year, Moonraker; the two make an interesting musical back-to-back experience. With one important exception, Barry’s music sounds nothing like the scores that copycat John Williams/Igor Stravinksy during the fantasy and science-fiction boom of the era. Barry instead dugs deep into the orchestra for sinister and sonorous tones, lyrical and mysterious, with a hypnotic main theme that weaves through much of the score.

However, the “exception” opens the album, with an “Overture” played before the movie begins (one of the last U.S. films to follow this old cinema tradition). The heroic track is Barry’s nod to Star Wars mania. And, damn, if it isn’t one of the most thrilling, triumphal fanfares ever committed to wax (or bytes). An old trumpet-man himself, Barry knows how to power up a horn section. But the cue ends with a sudden downbeat and trails into a menacing electronic rumble that presages the rest of the album and the film.

The “Main Title” follows, and we hear the film’s central theme. It’s an earworm, to be certain: hear it once, and you will never get it out of your head. This is the piece the six-year-old version of me was humming when he came out of the theater. After the strings play a suspenseful opening motif that will recur in moments of tension throughout the film, the main theme launches. It consists of seven repeated notes that create a hypnotic whirl to match the vector-graphic image of a black hole on the screen. While the seven notes play on strings, woodwinds, and synth, the lower brass takes on a dark and gradually building secondary motif, until all the instruments converge into a loud statement, only to then “spiral” down into a single electronic voice that quotes the seven-note motif.

Next is “The Door Opens,” which begins as the Palomino docks with the ghost ship the Cygnus and the crew explores its mysterious interior. The lengthy piece is moody, with a slow build as the crew moves toward the control tower. Barry keeps building the suspense until the orchestra rises into a powerful concluding statement as the crew emerges from an elevator (which must be opening door of the cue’s title) and witnesses one of the film’s staggering visuals: the star-lit dome of the tower and monastic-appearing humanoids silently at work in it like a futuristic scriptorium. (Wow, the film sure sounds better than it actually is, huh?)

“Zero Gravity” occurs earlier as the Palomino passes under the darkened Cygnus and gets trapped in the pull of the black hole. As the crew desperately tries to make it back to the zero gravity surrounding the Cygnus, the music turns into an action version of the main theme, played at a faster tempo and with the high strings and electronic sounds of the seven-note motif absent to give the brass a stronger statement. The cue opens with the same notes that started “Main Title,” a motif that now becomes associated with the Cygnus. The action rush is driven with accents from snare drums, a warm passage from the strings when Kate manages to contact V.I.N.C.E.N.T. outside the ship, and interruptions from trombones and trumpets on the Cygnus motif.

A funeral-bell tone opens “Six Robots,” which closes out Side One of the original LP, as Captain Holland sees six humanoids carrying what appears to be a casket. Barry’s sorrowful elegy on strings informs the audience immediately what is occurring. As Holland moves through the empty crew quarters, a motif connected to the mysteriously vanished crew develops (it’s also heard during Harry Booth’s encounter with a “limping” robot, a cue that doesn’t appear on the album). A powerful but inconclusive two-note fanfare sounds as the humanoids fire the capsule into space, and Holland suddenly comes face to face with the giant crimson robot Maximilian.

Side Two of the original LP opens with the action-driven “Durant Is Dead,” which starts with V.I.N.C.E.N.T. speaking those very words. Barry uses strident rhythms on bass and cellos with sinister horn passages above them as the Palomino crew rushes back aboard the Cygnus to rescue Dr. McCrae while Dr. Reinhardt starts to move the Cygnus toward the black hole in his mad messianic scheme. (“And life . . . life forever.”) In one of the most astonishing moments of music in the film, Barry underscores a visual of the Cygnus’s engines blasting to life with a statement both heroic and portentous—a perfect portrait of Dr. Reinhardt. The cue concludes as Holland, B.O.B., and V.I.N.C.E.N.T. break into the hospital, guns blazing, to rescue Dr. McCrae from a lobotomy via laser. (This scene uses an edited version of “Laser,” based on the “Overture.”)

The next track, “Begin the Countdown,” immediately precedes “Durant Is Dead.” This is Barry’s most perfectly staged suspense piece in the score. Reinhardt finishes the final preparations for his ship’s voyage into the black hole while Dr. McCrae tries to talk Dr. Durant out of staying aboard for the insane mission. Meanwhile, the Palomino crew, aware that Reinhardt is a madman who has lobotomized his crew into cyborg-zombies, waits tensely for McCrae and Durant to return. A repeating motif on the low strings mixes with a sinister low-electronic growling noise, with a strange quote from the Cygnus theme as McCrae learns through V.I.N.C.E.N.T.’s ESP about the fate of the crew. The suspense reaches a fever pitch signaled by a solo woodwind that segues into a rising string drawl as Dr. Durant learns the horrid truth of the Cygnus when he pulls off the face mask of one of the humanoids and discovers the zombiefied crew member beneath.

After a a few tense notes of build-up from the cellos and basses, “Laser” launches into the most heroic music in the film. Barry uses the “Overture” theme to underplay a laser gun battle against the sentry robots in the Cygnus’s main corridor. (Some of this music appears earlier, edited into the hospital scene.) The track closes quietly, absent the electronic rumble heard in “Overture.”

“Into the Hole” offers a golden opportunity for a film composer: pure music with no dialogue or sound effects to interfere. After a fast swirling opening to throw the probe ship containing the Palomino crew into the black hole along with the crushed Cygnus, a harp glissando and a quote from the Cygnus motif (now apparently a signal for Reinhardt’s madness) signals the bizarre “heaven-and-hell” visuals of the inside of the black hole. Barry plays heavy and harsh melodies as we see the brimstone pits and Reinhardt imprisoned within Maximilian, with a creepy warbling electronic tone beneath it all. The score reaches completely otherworldly, yet beautiful, heights here before a warm string passage with harp notes brings us through the “heaven” segment. Abruptly, the probe ship emerges from the hole, and the orchestra rises into a overpowering, completely new fanfare based on the “heaven” motif as the crew sees a planet and sun above them. A last harp glissando closes out the final scene.

The “End Title” reprises the “Main Title”’s seven-note theme in an elongated version and with a more conclusive resolution, closing out this astonishing album.

The album last only thirty minutes, which is common for LPs from the time (and sadly, still common for many score CDs today because of union fees). The iTunes release contains the same music, with no bonuses. Disney has been very stingy about releasing extended albums of their films to CD, so the chances of seeing a fuller album is remote. About fifteen minutes of music from the movie is absent from the album, including: The Palomino crew looking at a hologram of the black hole; the Palomino's first approach toward the Cygnus; Harry Booth discovering the garden and the limping robot; the action cue for the laser-fight in the de-pressurized garden; and B.O.B.’s elegiac death music. It would be wonderful to see these tracks emerge some day, but the album as it currently exists is still one of the best structured score albums from the era.