Trinity and Beyond (1996, produced and directed by Peter Kuran) is a documentary about the atomic testing regime of the 1940s through the 1960s incorporating beautifully restored and enhanced prints of archival footage. The ironic tone, mode of presentation, and juxtapositions of theme clearly place the movie within the category of anti-nuclear polemic, even if the sheer beauty of the footage often undercuts the horror we are meant to feel. William Stromberg's impressive score comments continually on the action in the movie, often in a tongue-in-cheek way through musical quotation or allusion. Stromberg's score, and the interplay of music and image is my main focus here.

1. Monument Site / 100 Tons of TNT
2. Newsreel
3. Fat Man and Little Boy
4. Hiroshima / Nagasaki Requiem
5. Operation Crossroads
6. Armada Annihilation
7. Deus Vult
8. Nautical Graveyard
9. Operation Sandstone
10. Improved Stockpile Bomb
11. Russia Gets the Bomb
12. Operation Ranger-Able
13. Operation Greenhouse
14. Boosting with Tritium
15. The George Device
16. The Atomic Cannon
17. Castle Bravo
18. Operation Wigwam
19. Cherokee Deliverable H-Bomb
20. The Hood Device
21. Operation Hardtack / Teak and Orange
22. Russian Monster Bomb
23. Operation Dominic
24. Christmas Island Tests
25. Thor Missiles
26. China Gets the Bomb

For those who have never seen the documentary, it is somewhat campily cast as a mock horror movie, and Stromberg, who has a long association with that genre, was not only a fitting choice but wrote an exciting, appropriate score. Stromberg's score is eclectic but establishes the relationship to the horror genre from the beginning: no atomically mutated giant ant ever rose from its hive in a 1950s horror movie with more musical punch than Stromberg's "Monument Site" cue (1) offers as we pan in on the Trinity test site monument.

The melodramatic "Newsreel" cue (2) adds to the period feel of Trinity's backstory exposition, which is given as a 40s newsreel style montage. The music is appropriately dire behind the bad guys (Nazi scientists) and progressive behind the good guys (Manhattan project). Stromberg's mickeymousing (using sound to add the equivalent of highlighting and emoticons to visuals) when he (for example) makes the music express steam-gush factory noises over that part of the montage devoted the the US industrial effort is acceptable and in line with the tone of the scene. Mickeymousing is an inherently naïve technique and mirrors the gung-ho naïveté of the American effort depicted in the montage.

Stromberg amusingly quotes (appropriates, actually) Prokofiev's musical theme for the resurrected Ivan in Ivan the Terrible, Part I to accompany the frightful first Russian nuclear test ("Russia Gets the Bomb", cue 10); so, too, "Cherokee Deliverable H-Bomb" (19) has an unmistakeable 50s Hollywood style Native American tatoo in the middle of it; and "The Hood Device" (cue 20) alludes clearly to Holst's "Mars, Bringer of War". This rich intertextuality, ranging from pun to pointed reference, adds much to both score and film. Incidentally, filmmaker and composer evidently agreed not to put any music at all behind some of the interviews (see the Teller interviews), thinking perhaps that they were already too self-parodic to require emphasis.

The nod to Russia (noted above) is not solely prompted by humor, however, because Stromberg evidently has a strong fascination with Russian music. We see this not only in his many recordings (including this one) made with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra but also in his "Hiroshima/Nagasaki Requiem" (cue 4), which trumps an oriental opening theme with a noble vocal theme reminiscent (IMHO) of Borodin.

But if the score is tongue in cheek and elsewhere has an eye cocked towards the horror movies of the 1950s, it is nevertheless endlessly inventive, as Stromberg seeks to express the program of each cue in the music, and thus finds himself now at sea, now in the desert, and now in the ethereal realm of outer space as the footage on screen demands. In a movie specifically about atomic explosions, it's kind of hard to avoid acknowledging them: but how many times can you say "bang" in music? Stromberg earnestly seeks to bring variation and a thoughtful program to what he terms the "long mounting cues" accompanying the actual footage of the explosions. A fine example of this variation occurs in the four cues dedicated to Operation Crossroads, the famous Able and Baker explosions of 1946 at Bikini Atoll.

Over stock footage of ships ostensibly sailing to Bikini for the test we have a bold theme ("Operation Crossroads", cue 5) sailing over rolling arpeggios representing the sea, giving aural expression to the images; the cue opens with a lead-in to its theme in the form of a fanfare. The tenor of the cue is precisely that of the old Victory at Sea, but its proud tone is undercut at the end by the note of contemplation and expectation: this voyage will not end in victory. The following track ("Armada Annihilation", 6) accompanies stock footage of a B-29 approaching the doomed fleet of empty US and captured target vessels and subsequent real footage of the aerial Able explosion. It is an unstoppable march, which, like fanfares of the sort mentioned above, forms part of a continuing commentary on the relentless militarism represented by the test (and the testing in general); but while it is effective, its repetitiveness makes it is the dullest cue in this sequence.

Where Stromberg really shines, though, is in the "Deus Vult" (cue 7), which accompanies a CGI of the Baker device sitting under the USS Saratoga and then footage of the explosion from three different vantage points. The Latin title is an apt followup to the preceding cue's unstoppable march: Deus vult! ("God wills it!") was the cry of the crusaders. The program is that of the wanton destruction of the harmless test fleet (and test animals tied to the ships) by the bomb-crusaders caught up in their mission--like little boys knocking over toy soldiers. The cue begins with stick percussion pitched more or less to the tone of sonar pings (the accompanying CGI image shows the device sitting menacingly under water) which issues a spooky fanfare leading to a wonderfully understated buildup to the detonation footage. It is an eerie piece of music, employing uneasy violins chromatically skirting above and below one another, punctuated finally by three triumphant chords, each time followed by the chorus. The chord understandably echoes the visuals in its rapid attack, but also fittingly captures the mood hinted at in the title: we are witness to the powerful, destroying, hand of God. The religious associations of choral accompaniment help emphasize this. The final cue of the sequence, "Nautical Graveyard" (cue 8), has quiet, slowly descending sequences of notes under a troubled, or perhaps refractory theme in the upper strings. It appears to comment not only on the CGI of the sinking Saratoga but also perhaps, still tongue in cheek, to register the idea "triste est omne animal post coitum," which suggests another reading of the triumphant chords in the preceding "Deus vult": the interplay of sexuality and aggression inherent in this crusade.

Cue 16, the "Atomic Cannon", is another march, accompanying the most obviously militaristic tests of the bomb--as an actual projectile codenamed Grable launched by a giant cannon. It is stunning footage, because you can see the cannon and bomb in the same frame, and not only is the bomb close, but it has a much more tangible connection to the viewer than the blasts which seemingly arise from nothing. The march accompanying the humans' actions is not nearly so interesting as that which accompanies the slow motion effects of the bomb blast as it moves--marches, really--through buildings, a grove of trees planted for the test, and parked vehicles. It is in the same tempo as the first march, but understated in its use of oboes and bassoons in a simple rising and falling pattern over the basses--the actual blast gets no emphasis whatsoever. Only towards the end (over the most violent portions of the footage) do snare drums and (I think) trombones come in.

Cue 20, "The Hood Device", combines several elements we have seen; it begins with a subdued march which, when it breaks into full power, suddenly takes on a striking resemblance to Holst's Mars, Bringer of War. All of this symbolism is fitting, because the test involved live exercises with US troops and was designed to show our willingness to expose troops to atomic effects on the battlefield (as shown by our willingness to expose them for mere training purposes--the footage, some of it perhaps stock, is nevertheless pretty sobering).

The penultimate track, "Thor Missiles" (cue 25), begins once again with pensive percussion, but quickly resumes the sad retrospective quality of "The Christmas Island Tests" (cue 24), as if to say, from the atomic crusaders' viewpoint, 'all good things must come to an end.' But what a surprise awaits us! It is worth the price of the album to hear the exciting fugue which accompanies the images of the expansion of the atomic testing race into a new domain: detonation of multiple warheads in outer space: a vigorous 2-step march is capped by another theme in the violins, which play a sort of figuration high above the march; and this is capped by a bold march in the winds. At the end, it all dissolves into a bumble bee sound of muted trumpets which harks back the eerie sound of the classic 50s sf instrument, the Theremin. It is also fitting for the new science fiction venue of outer space.

The final track ("China Gets the Bomb", cue 26) begins with a simple and attractive Chinese folk song accompanying footage of the Chinese preparing for their first atomic test. When the bomb detonates, we are treated to a reprise of the "Hiroshima/Nagasaki Requiem" as we see Chinese troops (horrifyingly) charging on horseback (!) into the atomic blast while firing off machine guns. The symbolism of the music operates on several levels, but most directly, it signifies a return to the beginning: the Soviets and Americans may have signed the test ban treaty, but the genie is out of the bottle again with the Chinese.

It is hard to characterize Stromberg's score in terms of who he sounds like (when he's not quoting someone). I like it a lot, and my taste in soundtracks runs to Jerry Goldsmith and Basil Poledouris: YMMV. It is entirely acoustic, and employs the entire orchestra. Despite the programmatic nature of the score it makes remarkably good listening as absolute music apart from the movie, though the newsreel cue can get old. The score is available on CD from the filmmaker.

On Stromberg, see Film Score Monthly magazine 5.7 (2000), 13-14.
The filmmaker's website:
I beg your forgiveness for any misappropriation of musical terminology--I am barely literate musically.

Since writing the above I have discovered another review of Trinity and Beyond, as well as the related movie Atomic Journeys--Nukes in Space by David Coscina in FSM 9.4 (April/May 2004) 34-35. Interestingly, the CD liner Coscina publishes differs substantially from the one I received from VCE in 2000, chiefly in that whereas John Morgan, Lennie Moore, and Edgardo Simone are credited with orchestration on my liner, the liner appearing in FSM 9.4 credits them with "additional music."