Some years ago I became interested in atomic bombs. I was looking in particular at the tests performed by the US between 1945 and 1963, shortly after the devastating hits on Japan by the bombs known as ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’.
Driven by paranoia and the everpresent desire to provide national security against communism and other threats to the homeland, the US lead humanity into the atomic age, which would furthermore mark the beginning of the cold war.
In 1997 director Peter Kuran released a documentary on the aforementioned period entitled Trinity and Beyond. It showcases the various operations in which the US Military tested atomic bombs in different scenarios, all while tirelessly looking for ways to increase the yield of their monstrous devices, ultimately paving the way into the thermonuclear age. ‘Trinity’, by the way, was the name of the first atomic bomb detonated in the Jornada del Muerto desert near new mexico.
What stands out most in this film besides the breathtaking footage of nuclear explosions, is the impressive soundtrack composed by William Stromberg and performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
The piece that made me curious about the soundtrack in the first place was “Castle Bravo”, which is the name of the test that was conducted at the bikini atoll in march of 1954. Watching the footage gives me the chills, even after having viewed it countless times. That is too thanks to the menacing nature of the orchestra.
With the atoms unleashing their power in the footage shown, a gloomy choir slowly arises and in synergy with a terrorizing high pitched string section and some mighty brass, prophesizes the unimagined power of the thermonuclear weapon. At the peak of tension, which on film shows the massive mushroom cloud climb past the top cloud layer, the choir erupts in some very impressive choral chants.
On a sidenote: the bomb had the explosive power of 15 000 000 tons of TNT. Enough to blast a tremendous amount of human lives into oblivion within the blink of an eye.
Among Stromberg’s most notable work is the restoration and rerecording of classic film scores on the Marco Polo and BMG labels. In cooperation with fellow composer John Morgan, who also composed some of the tracks on the Trinity & Beyond soundtrack, he runs the label Tribute Film Classics.
With this in mind, it doesn’t come as a surprise, that the Maestros behind this grandiose soundtrack were influenced by golden era hollywood composers such as Bernard Hermann, who achieved fame through his work for Alfred Hitchcock.
In fact, Stromberg himself states, that he composes a lot like Hermann, paying a lot of attention to details, accents and dynamics. His efforts result in richly nuanced performances from his orchestras. Having said that, I believe Kuran couldn’t have made a better pick with the composer.
The Trinity & Beyond soundtrack perfectly brings to life the consequences of war and the ongoing psychological terror that engulfed the world’s military superpowers.
Let’s take a short trip back in time:
Works on the first atomic bomb had already started before the end of WWII, since the US suspected Nazi Germany being about to unleash an atomic bomb into warfare. Luckily the Nazis forced some of their leading nuclear physicians, such as Lise Meitner – who would ultimately define nuclear fission – out of the country due to their jewish descent.
Fast forward a few years later, the allied forces met up in Potsdam, in the middle of the ruins of the Reich, to discuss amongst other topics the proceedings in the war against japan. Truman with a mighty new weapon in his repertoire, had now to power to end the war all by himself, without the help of the soviet union.
Two months prior to those events, across the ocean on US soil, the military detonated 100 tons of TNT in order to calibrate the instruments which were used to measure the actual ‘gadget’, namely the Trinity Bomb. The test was a great success and now nothing stood in the way of victory. The 100 ton TNT shot introduces us to this complex historical matter.
Peter Kuran opens the documentary with some impressive shots of the trinity site in the New Mexico desert, as Stromberg and his Orchestra deliver a merciless performance to the listener in the overture entitled “Monument Site/ 100 Tons of TNT”.
The piece starts off with an ambiance that resembles that off a spaghetti western showdown, quickly escalating into a darker, jaws-like sequence, which forebodes the upcoming terror. Then silence; suspense is kept constantly high through the use of strings and epic choirs.
In the present day, a giant obelisk in the new mexico desert reminds us of the genesis of the atomic age. Green glass that came to be due to the extremely high temperature of the explosion which literally has molten the sand surrounding the monument, can be found on the former testing ground.
After having provided a quite apocalyptic entree into the atomic age, Stromberg goes on masterfully telling a story of war, war, and even more war. War it is, that lies deep within the DNA of the orchestral performance. We experience it in powerful eruptions of timpany and choirs that not only perfectly describe the catastrophic force of the bomb, but also highlight the deadly political tensions between Soviet Russia and the US.
Ironically beneath the paranoia, or rather amidst it, was human curiosity and the striving for knowledge that led to the advent of nuclear weapons testing. And it is this ambition, that is also captured and portrayed by the performance of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
In the “Hiroshima/Nagasaki Requiem” I almost sense a theme of Aufbruchstimmung (just google it) paired with diabolical madness and frightening uncertainty, that fueled the pseudo-heroic attack on japan. Essentially it was just a horrible crime against humanity.
After the war was over, the US delved deep into the neurotic undertakings of making the bomb more powerful and thereby supposedly making the nation safer.
As we are introduced to the various military operations performed by the US, in which different battle scenarios including nuclear bombs were carried out, we witness the transformation of man as a frail and insecure animal into an unpredictable and deceiving monster, increasingly resembling its bombastic creation. Always just one step from exploding into sheer terror. Oddly, what unites the bomb and the human at this point, is the primal force and the cataclysmic events that could arise out of it.
In fact, during the cold war the world came extremely close to a global nuclear conflict. During the cuban missile crisis in 1962, the world stood still and waited anxiously for a peaceful agreement between the US and the Soviet Union. Luckily President Kennedy decided to remove nuclear missiles stationed in turkey, which caused the agitation.
The militaristic character of the orchestral compositions can be heard in pieces such as “Operation Ranger-Able”, where the trumpets remind us of a bugle call. In other works, for instance “The Atomic Cannon” or “Operation Hardtack / Teak Orange”, the stirring sound of marching snares is used to emphasize the ferocious nature of war.
Throughout the soundtrack we encounter two powerful main themes. The “Hiroshima/Nagasaki Requiem”, a fast paced piece with a distinctly russian feel, basically we can hear for the first time, when things get really serious, and again, at the end of the documentary. The other main theme is “Deus Vult”, which stays in mind due to it’s awe evoking epic chorus, is used to accompany pivotal events in the history of nuclear weapons testing.
Fear drives man beyond the limits of creativity, and sadly for the most part in history, with a tragic outcome. The golden age of atomic bombs, as wonderfully documented by Peter Kuran, was one such outcome. A tragic outcome, in a series of tragic outcomes.
The cold war shows us how the engineering of mass paranoia can justify almost an entire century of war. How so? Through the use of dangerous propaganda used by those in power, with the sole purpose to express dominance under the cover of an allegedly higher level of security and safety.
In the end the red scare was no different to the eternal jew (which was propagated by the antisemitic Nazis). How can we prevent this in future times? Practice self-reliance. Only in a society where ‘individuals’ lay their destiny in the hands of a government can masses submit to voluntary servitude and allow an elite of a selected few to live out their ill-natured fantasies.
Be it as it may, I could not imagine more fitting compositions than those delivered by William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra to accentuate the development and evolution of one of mankind’s most dangerous ideas.
Listen to the Soundtrack here: