Max Richter’s latest soundtrack score reflects and enhances the drama and psychological impact of James Gray’s new sci-fi thriller Ad Astra. The loneliness of interstellar travel and a son’s quest to find his missing father lie at the heart of this Golden Lion nominee, described by the New Yorker as a “masterwork” and hailed by the New York Times as “unambiguously a film of its moment”.
The Ad Astra score emerged from conversations between the composer, director James Gray and Brad Pitt. Pitt’s character, astronaut Major Roy McBride, sets out in search of his father, who disappeared years earlier while leading a failed mission to contact intelligent life in the Solar System’s outer reaches. The younger McBride’s voyage into deep space is simultaneously a journey into his own psyche. Having confronted present violence and past trauma, he discovers the truth behind his father’s disappearance, which in turn determines his view of the future.
Max Richter began work on Ad Astra at an early stage in production. His imagination fired by a rough-cut of the film, he then sketched ideas away from the visual images, exploring the themes of loss and love as well as the implications of a solitary existence within the infinity of space.
“I wanted to make a piece of music which as well as illustrating the cinematic experience also embodied the journey itself,” comments the composer. “The film centres around a journey in the physical dimension and, in the psychological dimension, it’s an attempt to recover a relationship – a son trying to find his father, and a son trying to connect to his father. That almost doomed quest is something I wanted the music to convey.”
While drafting his score Richter recalled NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Mission, spearheaded by two spacecraft launched in the late 1970s which have both now entered interstellar space. He converted plasma wave data, detected by the Voyager vehicles’ receivers as they passed planets in our Solar System, into sounds for use in his composition.
“When Brad Pitt’s character is flying past Jupiter or Saturn, we can hear data recovered from that site in the score,” he explains. “The way I’ve done that is by manipulating and turning that data into sonic objects.”
Music’s long association with mathematics also inspired Richter while he was composing the Ad Astra score, bringing to mind, for example, the work of astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler, who revived the Ancient Greek notion of the “Harmony of the Spheres” during the Renaissance and used music as a metaphor for the natural laws of the universe.
“Calculation and computation is very much one side of what I do,” notes Max Richter. “The writing of music is a hybrid activity between something very technical and rule-based and also pure chance, randomness and intuition. And those things colliding allow us to evoke emotions, which is really peculiar: we are musical creatures; music is one of the really defining things about being human. All of these activities come together to make a musical project happen.”
Ad Astra, he adds, involves the marriage of music and science, two faces of the same coin. His soundtrack score employs electronics, strings and vocals to intensify onscreen emotions, to mark transitions between Roy McBride’s inner and outer worlds, and build what Vanity Fair has praised as “a stunning kind of symphony” of sound and cinematic images.
“This film has been a major endeavour,” concludes Max Richter. “It’s a heartfelt project from both Brad and James, who poured everything into it and meticulously chipped away at the story over years till they were happy. I have nothing but admiration for this dedication.”