Listening to Ligeti in the Godzilla Teaser

When classical music is associated with popular entertainment, the result is usually to trivialize it (who can listen to the “William Tell Overture” without thinking of the Lone Ranger?). Kubrick’s film is almost unique in enhancing the music by its association with his images.

—Roger Ebert, in his review of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

So the latest trailer for Gareth Edwards forthcoming Godzilla reboot has arrived, and so we come to the necessary discussion.

I’ll dispense with the obvious: the teaser is indeed tantalizing, and intriguing to say the least. And since I’m often intrigued in saying more than most, I thought I might comment on the use of music in the teaser. In lieu of a traditional discussion and dissection of the trailer (because really, what is the bloody point in doing that? Just watch the damn thing), I thought I might talk more specifically about that track underscoring our first tenebrous glimpse of the titular creature.

For those few curious individuals who didn’t already know (or yet to google it) the music is György Ligeti’s “Requiem”. You may remember it from its most famous usage in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey as the leitmotif for the enigmatic and alien monoliths at the core of the film’s mysterious story. Given this association, it seems only fitting that the makers of the Godzilla teaser would trade on the Kubrick allusion to underscore the introduction of modern audiences to a new evolution of the Godzilla franchise. Though it may seem that the teaser borrows merely on the allusion to Kubrick, perhaps it also draws meaning from Ligeti’s own work.

In a 1974 interview, Ligeti espoused his philosophy of art, describing art as a distinct contrast to the happening movement of the 50s and 60s (which sought to sustain and cultivate discrete ambiguities between art and life). Ligeti clarifies: “They believe that life is art and art is life. I appreciate very much [John] Cage[1] and many people, but my artistic credo is that art—every art—is not life. It is something artificial. And for me all the happenings are too dilettante.” The same rebuke could no doubt be levied at the people who make movie trailers, who sub in esoteric music in the service of creating mood, and often at the expense of the meaning of the movie and programmatic intent of the music.

Take for instance that infamous example of Clint Mansell’s minimalist yet energetic “Lux Aeterna”, a leitmotif of Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream that could more broadly correspond to the musical theme of the first half of the first decade of the new millennium. For a brief, yet all too protracted period, the song was featured seemingly whenever manufactured gravitas was required, from the zenith of its popularity when it provided the sonic resonance for the trailer to Peter Jackson’s 2002 Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (as the re-orchestrated “Requiem for a Tower”), up to as late as 2007 for the teaser-trailer theme for Danny Boyle’s schizophrenic Sunshine. In that instance, as it often is for other songs that undergo the same rehashed fate, the incessant reworking and re-use creates a sort of harmonic aphasia—the notes replay so often they lose all meaning. I won’t pretend music is my forte, nor will I pretend I understand the often confounding musical allusions in many programmatic pieces (where various notes and chords correspond to specific thematic and symbolic motifs), except to say that when the same piece of music can be used to express the tone and mood of works as broad-ranging (in the case of “Lux Aeterna”) as a war-mongering romp through Middle Earth (The Two Towers) to a mission to jumpstart the sun (Sunshine), something is amiss indeed.

A more recent trend can be seen in the familiar bass thumps which unfortunately underscore seemingly every post-Inception action movie trailer (most notably and painfully in the odiously clichéd trailer to World War Z). In the case of Inception the thudding bass formed an integral part of the story, in all the trailers which have since used the similar strain of bass the effect has been more often than not only to sound “cool”.

The typical excuse “they don’t have time and money for the trailer” simply won’t offer the necessary reprieve from my ire. Studios spend millions (sometimes tens and even times hundreds of millions) of dollars on advertising a movie, and we are meant to accept that a sufficient work could not be commissioned for the nonce? I’m not suggesting that the trailer music needs to correlate with the film score (since the trailers are sometimes created almost a year before the score is conceived), but instead mean only to compliment the makers of this trailer for their effective invocation of Ligeti’s artistic credo.

A further elaboration: Throughout his career, Ligeti cultivated a theory known as micropolyphony, which also functioned as a compositional technique. It was, in brief, an evocation of musical texture, “a very densely woven cobweb,” as Ligeti himself would define it in 1994.  This unique texture is achieved by eschewing harmony in favour of sustaining sound that contains both dissonant and consonant notes. He first began this technique in his 1961 piece “Atmosphères” (which served as the overture for 2001), in which chromatic clusters cover more than five octaves, played by various instruments which interchange throughout the piece, all of modulating duration. Despite the presence of this texture however, “The polyphonic structure does not come through,” he argued, “you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible.” And yet we do hear it in a sense through the layering of the atonal harmony in the “Requiem”. Words fail to express it accurately, and function as poor substitutes to the experience. Listen to its structural density, its apposition of oppositional melodies. The dissonance is discombobulating, no? The effect is suggested by the very prefix of the two terms: dis, from the Greek δίς, or twice, derived from δύο (two). Thus “dis” takes its meaning as “of two-ways” or “in twain” (OED). The prefix suggests a split—in this context represented as a fissure between the surreal and the real, between art and life, the symbolic and the literal.

And yet in Edwards’ photorealistic depiction of the fantastical Godzilla we have the conjunction of real and fantasy (con being the oppositional prefix to dis), of photorealism and imaginary surrealism. So too do we find the conjunction of cultures, between the Japanese and American cinema, and more prosaically between the Japanese studio Toho (responsible for the original Godzilla and overseeing Japanese distribution of the new film) and the American Warner Bros. (producing and distributing the film domestically). It is this very meaning of dis and dissonance that Kubrick would invoke and rely upon for his own film 2001 (and which in no small way led him to infamously dump Alex North’s original score—much to the man’s surprise on opening night when he heard Ligeti’s work and many other composers in place of his own compositions).

On the subject of juxtaposing discontinuity and contiguity (I’m going to drive these prefixes into the ground, aren’t I?), the inaudibility of the musical texture that Ligeti sought finds a visual correspondent in the elusive creature evoked by those familiar back plates of Godzilla canon. The music is submerged in texture, the creature in mist. Both rely on this submergence in the creation of effect. Both rely on the indecipherability of their composition for power. Godzilla is powerful in this opening teaser precisely because the creature eludes the frame paradoxically as it dominates it. The music is powerful (especially in this opening teaser) precisely because it eludes hearing (it almost sounds like rushing wind at certain moments, doesn’t it?) paradoxically as it dominates the sound space. Perhaps ironically then, the micropolyphony of Ligeti’s music corresponds to the macrovisuality of the creature (a term I’m making up right here, right now to mean “the enigmatic and verbose image infused with the aura of the sublime”–for more examples of macrovisuality see Pacific Rim), and the macrovisuality in this instance seeks to achieve that same submerged quality as the musical texture. The creature is ensconced in mist, suffused in mystique, and only revealed by the teaser’s end, with the Ligeti score entirely absent.

So instead of the usual contrefacta we find in trailer music, where melodies spread like aural herpes through the sonic space, Edwards and his team effectively grabbed the perfect song to impart and sustain the perfect mood and theme for the work in question. It may be that my leniency for the use of Ligeti in this trailer stems from my profound respect for Edwards as a tireless one-man-army overseeing all aspects of his first film, 2010’s Monsters (The making of which, I must point out, is more interesting than the film itself; and though it is often the case for most films, the documentaries included on the DVD and blu-ray are rare among their ilk that they effectively manage to capture this intrigue.) Even if I believed Edwards to be a hack, however, I would still be forced by my principles to give credit where it’s due. I would not invoke the same level of praise as Ebert did in the epigraph of this post, nor would I suggest Edwards is a genius for managing to craft a passable and subdued homage to Kubrick and perhaps even Ligeti under the guise of a summer tentpole movie teaser (if not the least because I have no idea the extent of Edwards’ involvement in the trailer), but I do wish to stress that whoever was responsible for the trailer deserves more than just the obligatory high-fives for the feat. But allow me to at least get that obligation out of the way: bravo you brilliant bastard. All the rest, meanwhile, should ponder and reflect before they dare to drop in a rehashed background track.

Let the Ligeti bombardment in modern movie trailers begin.


[1] Cage (1912-1992) was an avant-garde American composer who, depending on who is asked and when, was responsible for the first “Happening” in the US, staged in 1952 and entitled “Theatre Piece No. 1”. Cage is undeniably best known for his 1952 composition 4’33”, where the “music” is comprised solely of the ambient noise produced in the 4 minute and 33 second duration.

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4 thoughts on “Listening to Ligeti in the Godzilla Teaser

  1. I instantly recognized the music as something I had heard before, the music leaves a long lasting imprint on the human imagination. Truly creepy when used with the idea of a god coming to destroy a world.

  2. I knew watching the “Godzilla” trailer that music was different than the average score. I didn’t realize it was from that scene in “2001: a space odyssey”. It is nice to see a post that appreciates the value of the right music. To the average viewer music is just a mere after thought but if I actually purchase a soundtrack for a movie it means a lot. The amazing work that can be heard in music comes in layers. And in the Godzilla trailer it is a nice payoff. While, I am not sophisticated enough to always catch it I know it when I hear it. Reading this post made me realize that googling for this song was a worthy search. As I always try to explain to my “It’s just a movie” crowd, No! there is a craft that is deeper than what you experienced in the theater. By the way I am totally going to use “macrovisuality” when discussing this trailer amongst my film posse.

    • A film lover after my own heart! I’m glad to hear I’m not merely tilting at windmills in my vain quest to prove that very idea which you yourself struggle to express amongst your friends. These images and sounds have meaning and so contain power. Perhaps paradoxically, the inverse holds true: they have power because they have meaning. It’s reassuring to know that neither feature is solely limited to my own perception. Thanks for the comment! Let me know how the ensuing discussion goes, I’d be interested to learn what others make of all these connections.

  3. Pingback: Godzilla the Messiah Monster, and other atomic-age aberrations | digital didascalia

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