Part of my ‘Brought to your attention’ series: Peter Schickele scored a free-flowing, and at times, boombastic soundtrack to the early 70’s science-fiction classic  ‘Silent Running’.

Silent Running



Silent Running

Composed and conducted by Peter Schickele.

‘Rejoice In The Sun’ & ‘Silent Running’ written by Peter Schickele and Diane Lampert, performed by Joan Baez.

Originally released 1972 on MCA Records, reissued in 1978 on Varese Sarabande both as limited edition green vinyl and straight vinyl versions.

Available on CD/ MP3 Download.

Side One

1.    1. Rejoice In The Sun – Sung by Joan Baez  (2:10)
2.    The Space Fleet   (3:28)
3.    Rejoice In The Sun Instrumental   (1:58)
4.    No Turning Back   (2:50)
5.    Driving Crazy   (2:26)
6.    Drifting   (2:08)

Side Two

1. Silent Running – Sung by Joan Baez   (2:01)
2. The Dying Forest   (2:24)
3. Tending To Huey   (2:55)
4. Saturn   (4:09)
5. Getting Ready   (1:45)
6. Rejoice In The Sun Reprise   (1:30)

The partial acclaim and attention recently lavished upon Duncan Jones’ small budget but big ideas science fiction movie ‘Moon’, owes much of its success to directors such as Douglas Trumball, whose early 70s explorations into film mixed both the social concerns of the day with an inspiring jaunt into deepest space: In particular the sense of isolation and redundancy, which then turns to a sudden realisation that eventually sets the central character on a new enlightened course, one usually of sacrifice to their principles.

Trumball’s 1972 film Silent Running is very much of its time, evoking the last remaining echoes of the lost Woodstock generation with the onset of what would become a more cynically politicised decade.
The dreams and aspirations that lightened up the kids in the 60s now became all too apparently just that – a dream, though our film still manages to adhere to the ideologies of the protest era, this time round a strong environmental message.
Our director had just picked up much acclaim for his special effects work on Kubrick’s mind bending and thought provoking space opus ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’; the Stargate sequence being his most memorable contribution. This sequence originally featured shots of Saturn but was eventually dropped in favour of Jupiter, though these effects didn’t go to waste and popped up in Silent Running.
Trumball would later go on to be involved in ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ and ‘Blade Runner’, picking up numerous nominations for his acute sense of spectacle and awe.

Silent Running basic plot outline follows one mans fight against a faceless corporation aboard a fleet of space freighters, orbiting the planet Saturn.
Their precious cargo is made up of the last remaining specimens of plant life left from Earth, an ecological disaster having previously destroyed all the flora and fauna on our world. Now housed in a series of massive greenhouse domes, carried by the fleet, the intention is to cultivate these forests floating in space and eventually return them to reforest our now rather grey sparse planet.
Manning the crafts is a skeleton crew of pilots and maintenance workers, including the green-fingered resident botanist Freeman Lowell, our central character.
Lowell is kind of a hippie astronaut left alone to tend his green friends, who he cherishes and nurtures like his own Garden of Eden.
One day an omnipotence command from ground control calls for the cargo of foliage to be destroyed, apparently head office has decided to abandon the cultivation project and return to a more commercial venture, somehow Earth is doing fine without any greenery!
Botanist Lowell doesn’t take to this news very well, having we assume spent considerable time and effort bringing to fruition this difficult and originally important task. In fact to say he doesn’t take too kindly to the new orders is putting it mildly, in fact he goes kind of postal, resulting in an ensuing fatal fight with the crew, who have come to carry out their bosses commands. A few minutes later and half the crew is dead and the remaining few trapped in one of the greenhouse domes; later being thrust out into the dark reaches of space.
The before quiet man now turned murderer finds himself suddenly alone aboard the ironically christened Valley Forge freighter, alone apart from a trio of service droids.

Attributing human characteristics and naming these droids as Huey, Dewy and Louie, Lowell’s mind starts to unravel as he teaches them how to play poker and tends to his sacred garden, building a certain camaraderie with these new friends, all the time hurtling ever deeper into space.
Tragedy strikes when the plant life starts to wilt and die, a sudden moment, an epiphany dawns on Lowell as both regret and sadness take a grip, leading to much hand wringing and deliberation before he pulls himself together and figures out why his precious cargo is dying.
They need a dose of sunlight to awaken from their stupor and slow decay, quickly Lowell finds as much light source as possible on the ship, raising enough power to fill the last remaining greenhouse dome with the much needed energy they need to survive.
It’s at this point that a second freighter appears in the distance, carrying orders to apprehend our protagonist and to destroy the load.
Understanding only too well the fate that awaits him, Lowell decides a course of action that will save the forest but take his own life in the process. Jettisoning the dome he blows both himself and the freighters up, sending the secret gardens into the ether, tended to and looked after by Lowell’s protégé – the droid Huey.
The last parting shot is of this dome greenhouse drifting through the galaxy, left to forever journey through the cosmos.

The soundtrack itself is half wrapped in the remnants left over from the folk enchantresses and troubadours Buffy St.Marie, Melanie and Joan Baez – who performs the two main title songs here.
The composer and satirist Peter Schickele conducts the orchestral suite, managing to weave the gentle effete emotionally charged social issues of present America with a classical European bent.
Both he and Baez had already collaborated together in the late 60s, Schickele arranging the music on a trio of albums – Noel, Joan and Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time.
Schickele, a world-renowned bassoonist and teacher, used the traditional orchestra set up to caress the space drama in a way that is never too overbearing or conventional.

Silent Running is book ended by the delicate and breezily sung ‘Rejoice In The Sun’; Baez delivering a shrill vibrato as a Jefferson Airplane evocative sounding-backing band magically takes us to the stars.
Written by both Schikele and Diane Lampert, and nominated for an academy award, this slice of west coast feel good folk ideally represents the mood, with its sweetly tainted percussion and allegorical lyrics that talk of growing and tending your forests like children in a romantic charged serene slice of escapism.
This song features again two tracks later as an instrumental, though now with a twinkling piano melody and a probing bassline, and again at the end of the album as a reprise, neatly bringing the whole listening experience full circle.

‘The Space Fleet’ anthem of sorts begins with some low rolling timpani and military style recall. The orchestra starts to swell and surge into life as we glimpse the majestic scenes of the convoy, the planets light kissing the gleaming outline of the freighters.
Tensions build as more low rumblings and heavy snares bounce into play with an undercurrent of eerie whispering flutes joining the melee.
On ‘No Turning Back’ ominous moody melodies prevail, helped by the suspense of the reminiscent footsteps played out on the bass and cello. This taut atmospheric instrumental is used to heighten the dire decisions now facing Lowell as his sudden moment of madness now decides his destiny. Otherworldly spooky percussion is replaced suddenly by a burst of freak out sound collage, emphasising the momentary loss of rational thinking our protagonist now becomes forever tied to.
Soon a moody stomping melody infringes on the wild sound effects, an added fuzzed up guitar darkening the track even further.

Carrying on the sinister mood is ‘Driving Crazy’, with yet more of those controlled drum rolls bearing down upon us like a well-timed avalanche. This time around we are treated to some nerve tingling Xylophone and slow drawn out violins, all foreboding and menacing. They creep along almost dragging the tune towards the abyss before a warning shot of sorts is shot across our bows before reaching the exit.

Side two includes the title track ‘Silent Running’, originally included alongside Rejoice In The Sun and released as a single on Decca.
Once again sung by Baez and written by both Schikele and Lampert, this floating slice of upbeat folk balladry acts as a companion piece to Rejoice In The Sun.
Slightly more uplifting in tempo, though using near enough the same musical palate, our lamented tale induces images of our Woodstock spaceman faraway in the cosmos, his lover left behind on Earth stirring up memories of rolling in the meadows and condoling under the once optimistic skies.
Some well timed exotic finger cymbals and chiming bells accompany this nod to The Quicksilver Messenger Service, sunshine pop straight from San Francisco bay.

 
This sunny disposition soon blows over as a return to that omnipresent looming atmosphere comes back to haunt us on ‘The Dying Forest’. Stirring flutes and brass stress the increasing drama played out aboard the Valley Forge, the foliage now looking grave and ill.
The now saddening and slightly distressing tone continues onto ‘Tending To Huey’, a much tender piece of sorrowful oboe and cellos sonnet, the result of one mans new found companionship with his robot.
Piano scales are deliberated under hushed melodies until brought to rest on a long drawn out sustained chord, breathless in execution.
‘Saturn’ kicks the soundtrack back into life with a chorus of familiar timpani, joined with the rhythmic gesticulation of hand drums and anxious sounding xylophones. Hell even a glockenspiel is thrown into the mix, as layer upon layer is carefully and effortlessly placed, conjuring up images of the giant planet revolving in deepest space.

Silent Running encapsulates perfectly the concerns of early 70’s, Vietnam, the hangover left from the 60’s, the Nixon administration and trampling of rights and social change that were so hard fought.

The times were turning ugly indeed, ethics becoming soiled with the on set of globalisation, which pops up in the movie, apparently the barren landscape of Earth can be left without its plant life and forests if commercial concerns take president; though we are not given the exact history and background to conclusively decide if in the future our planet manages to overcome such ecological threats.
Bearing all this in mind, the soundtrack almost acts as a mirror reflecting the present state of affairs back at the listener, without pursuing a preaching soapbox of opinion, much in the same manner as Duncan Jones Moon.
It is perfectly fine to listen to this album without prior knowledge of the movie; really it works well as a pure audio experience on its own terms, evocative and stirring in equal measures.

 

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