Some of the most iconic film scores of all time come from those set in space. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Interstellar and First Man are all different types of films set amongst the stars that feature incredible music, and Netflix’s Stowaway features some standout pieces from composer Volker Bertelmann (who may also find himself in the hunt for an Emmy for his moody work on Showtime’s Your Honor). His work on Joe Penna’s film is absolutely haunting.
Instead of scoring to the grandness of space, Bertelmann chose to focus on the intimacy of the four actors on screen. After all, the peril comes second to the drama of the people on board. Only a few people know what it sounds like to be in space, and Bertelmann discovered a new way to fuse sound design and music composition in a brand new way with elongated, stretched out piano chords.
Stowaway isn’t concerned with action as much as it is with the human condition. Loneliness, strife, and sacrifice are major themes of Penna’s film, and Bertelmann gives it all tremendous weight in a weightless world.
Awards Daily: Space films are such a beloved genre. Is this a dream for a composer?
Volker Bertelmann: It is a dream. Space movies have a lot of freedom and the time is different. There is action but there can be a lot of meditative elements. You are watching from space to the earth and there is a relationship to the earth life. It’s a very spiritual or religious because once you’re out there and you lose the tether, you are diving into the black somewhere. That always resonates with me and I was hoping to do this someday. We all love so many space films and when I read the script, I liked how the focus was on the chamber theater piece with four actors and that’s it. It’s about a human question.
AD: Near the top of the film, Anna Kendrick’s character sees earth through a window. How did you want to establish the mood from the beginning with that moment?
VB: It’s the opening and, in a way, you set the tone and melody of the film a little. I sent an idea to Joe Penna and he took “Earth Rising” and it ended there. I call these cues sound waves. The chords are growing and shrinking and there is a steady note that connects them in a way. It’s an introduction to the space, and when you see her in the ship, there’s not preparation on Earth. It’s all in the ship. I know a lot of astronauts in space recall a very humble feeling, and I had the same feeling when I lived in the mountains with my father in Germany. You could see hundreds of kilometers away, and I felt like I identified with that feeling.
AD: I love the piece titled, “Regaining Consciousness” when Shamier Anderson’s character is revealed. There is a nightmarish quality to it but it’s also very intimate, and the dissonance is very effective. Tell me about that section.
VB: I did a lot of experiments with piano strings. We talked a lot about wires and when the character climb up the tethers outside the ship. I thought it would be nice to have this sound and then I realized in space there is no sound (laughs). The sound is not traveling–you hear nothing. When we were exploring the tethers, we were thinking of taking wires in a building with four floors with a long, escalator hallway with ceilings 15 meters high. We stretched the wires and we were putting contact wires on them and just snapped them. We recorded all of that. Some of these sounds later went to the sound designers to make the sounds of when they are climbing. He is from Cologne and I am living in Dusseldorf so he wasn’t far from me. We had a piano builder who was renovating a Steinway Grand Piano and he took all the strings out but we asked him if we could have one bass string in there so we could pitch it while we were recording. We played the keys and pitched the strings while we played it.
AD: That’s so cool.
VB: You can hear that wobbling.
AD: It’s so effective throughout the film.
VB: It’s sometimes the process that is unrealistic but it brings you ideas to experiment with materials that can be inspiring. I want to make sure I am inspired.
AD: I love how the music washes over us at the end.
VB: It’s very heroic behavior and she has to negotiate with herself how she might be…less to lose? That’s a very difficult thing but she is the only one who can do the job and save the others. My feeling was when she was sitting there expecting to die she has a fulfillment. I thought the music needed to be lonely but an homage to life in its limitation. That’s my general opinion about my own life. If I don’t feel the limitation, I am not fulfilled. But that’s the sad part about being a human. You are in this trap and time might be over and you are investing to build for the future.
Stowaway is streaming now on Netflix.