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
1. Monument Site / 100 Tons of
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.
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.
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
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: http://www.vce.com/atomcentral.html.
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."