51 Shades of Geek

Journey To Space – music by Cody Westheimer

Journey To SpaceEven as NASA continues planning its much-advertised journey to Mars, the space agency faces a problem that it didn’t have to contend with in the 1960s: selling that vision to a public wondering why we should bother. The push to reach the moon can be credited, in no small part, to the call to action of a charismatic, fallen president. The scientific and technological benefits of Apollo were almost an afterthought; the real mission to the moon was one of projecting America’s technological power (and, by extension, putting the Soviet Union on notice that this technological might could be used against them if they lashed out).

These days, presidents mention that it’d be nice to go to Mars, but we also have so many other priorities, so the funding for the stuff that might get us to Mars in the next 20 years could be cut out from under NASA at any time. Ironically, NASA is now the space agency that has to make agitprop films to push its vision. Journey To Space is one of numerous space PR films in the past decade, using the audiovisual playbook of Hollywood sci-fi to pitch real space exploration to the American public. Cody Westheimer’s music from Journey certainly sounds like it belongs to a sci-fi epic; some tracks have that great nautical questing feel that typified some of James Horner’s best work. Westheimer’s collaborator, Max Braverman, turns in a 3 out of 4uniquely 80s-synthpop-styled cue, “Building A Spacesuit”, that’s a lot of fun.

It’s sad that the human adventure, once said by a purely fictional film’s marketing tagline, is just beginning, if only movies like Journey To Space can convince a skeptical and often uninformed public of the benefits. Just the soundtrack alone makes me feel like it’s time to suit up, strap in, and blast off.

Order this CD

  1. The Endless Horizon (1:43)
  2. To Mars and Beyond (0:47)
  3. Endeavor’s Final Journey (1:45)
  4. Inside the Shuttle (0:45)
  5. An Eye on the Cosmos (1:12)
  6. Docking with Mir (0:29)
  7. Space Science – music by Max Braverman (0:53)
  8. A Home Above – music by Max Braverman (0:44)
  9. ISS Construction (0:48)
  10. Grace of the Brave (1:41)
  11. Orion Training (1:05)
  12. Mars (1:08)
  13. Extended Weightlessness (2:23)
  14. A Spacegirl’s Dream (0:44)
  15. How to Build a Spacesuit – music by Max Braverman (1:36)
  16. Mars in My Backyard (1:39)
  17. Underwater Training (2:48)
  18. The Exploring Kind (4:00)
  19. Red Planet Arrival (2:24)
  20. Meet Me on Mars (1:18)
  21. The Unimagined (0:51)
  22. End Credits (1:41)
  23. Blue Danube (0:40)

Released by: Lakeshore Records
Release date: May 5, 2015
Total running time: 35:04

The Martian – music by Harry Gregson-Williams

The MartianFor the sake of clarification and brevity, it’s important to get one thing out of the way: The Martian is the best Mars movie anyone’s ever made, and its soundtrack is the best Mars music that’s even been made.

The movie’s score (and this is an important distinction, as there are both score and “songtrack” albums from The Martian out there) is a triumph of tone. Harry Gregson-Williams knows when to deploy his full orchestral resources and when to pare things back to a sparer sound fitting Mark Watney’s plight. But here’s where The Martian differs from, say, the overriding bleakness of the later TV miniseries Mars: Gregson-Williams brings percolating synths into play, practically providing a soundtrack for the synapses firing in Watney’s head as he vows to “science the shit out of this” and then proceeds to do precisely that. At times playful, at times dense and technical-sounding, these sequences are the sound of hope and resourcefulness in a movie that many are praising for – somewhat unusually for Hollywood – getting a great deal of the science right.

That’s the difference, both musically and thematically, between The Martian and Mars.

The dramatic stakes are upper orchestrally where appropriate, whether it’s the Ares IV’s initial desperate blastoff to the safety of Mars orbit, or the crew’s even more desperate attempts to recover their crewmate against staggering odds. Where the synth sequences are lighter and energetic, these scenes are heavy on percussion and rumbling bass lines, because Serious Stuff is happening.

It’s easy to forget that there was a great score for this movie when it seems like the studio was so eager to fashion a tie-in album of existing ’70s songs from the movie’s plot device of Commander Lewis’ behind-the-times playlist, but the music for the travelogue of Watney abandoning the safety of his habitat and 4 out of 4setting out on a perilous trek to an already-landed ascent vehicle alone is worth the price of admission here. In terms of both music and movie, it’s scenes like that which keep The Martian as my favorite movie of a year that brought back the Star Wars franchise amid considerable hype. Heat up some potatoes and give this a listen.

Order this CD

  1. Mars (2:25)
  2. Emergency Launch (3:09)
  3. Making Water (2:38)
  4. Spotting Movement (1:49)
  5. Science the S*** Out of This (2:16)
  6. Messages from Hermes (3:31)
  7. Sprouting Potatoes (1:39)
  8. Watney’s Alive! (2:46)
  9. Pathfinder (2:33)
  10. Hexadecimals (2:33)
  11. Crossing Mars (3:36)
  12. Reap & Sow (2:21)
  13. Crops Are Dead (3:26)
  14. Work the Problem (1:58)
  15. See You In a Few (5:11)
  16. Build a Bomb (5:06)
  17. I Got Him! (4:45)

Released by: Columbia Records
Release date: September 30, 2015
Total running time: 51:42

Mars – music by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

MarsThe spare, atmospheric sound of National Geographic’s short-run series Mars fits the show’s tone like a glove – the awe and wonder of exploring another world is jettisoned in favor of claustrophobia and worse.

Nick Cave (yes, he of the Bad Seeds) and Warren Ellis can at least claim a coup with the throbbing, foreboding theme song for the show. I’m of the opinion that it’s almost a waste to have Cave score something without singing a few words, and this certainly satisfies that requirement. It may actually be the best thing on the whole album.

The rest of the selections from the Mars score aren’t musically lacking; everything’s nicely produced. But with the show’s dense sound design, almost constant narration or dialogue or documentary sound, and its pace, this is the kind of whole-note synth-pad scoring that has started to seem less in vogue in the 21st century. It can be a bit of a somnolent listen.

And yet you can’t fault the composers for that – they’re responding perfectly to the show’s perhaps-too-bleak tone, which was really my only complaint with the show as a whole. It was all beautifully photographed, the set design and the spacesuits and other hardware were very convincing, and the actors delivered the goods, interspering the fictional story with relevant present-day documentary segments. If you want the music to 3 out of 4reflect something other than the oppressive bleakness portrayed on screen, maybe…put something a little more noble and hopeful and wondrous on screen?

A good listen, but perhaps not all in one sitting. The Mars score is probably just a little too tied into the visuals of the series to be purely a listening experience.

Order this CD

  1. Mars Theme (1:42)
  2. Mars (4:00)
  3. Daedalus (3:00)
  4. Earth (2:11)
  5. Science (2:15)
  6. Voyage (4:52)
  7. Space X (2:42)
  8. Space Station (4:16)
  9. Symphony of the Dead (9:38)
  10. Planetarium (2:43)
  11. Aftermath (4:42)
  12. Towards Daedalus (3:00)
  13. Life on Mars (3:52)

Released by: Milan Records
Release date: December 30, 2016
Total running time: 49:08