In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an item called the Total Perspective Vortex uses a piece of fairy cake to present a construction of the universe, giving its victims a glimpse of how insignificant they are within the ‘entire unimaginable infinity of creation’. Used as a successful torture device for everyone bar the president of the galaxy, the TPV is the remarkably prescient Douglas Adams’s comic precursor to the overview effect: a term coined in 1987 to describe the psychological shift in how astronauts view Earth once they’ve seen it from space. It’s an unassuming name for a profound experience; it’s also an unassuming title for an astonishing record, which is remarkably a debut for both composer and label.
Like the gravitational pull of a planet, Overview Effect draws you in surreptitiously and inexorably. Its home is vast. Committing fully to the cognitive concept, London-based composer Roger Goula mixes chamber and orchestral elements with analogue synths to produce canvasses of immense scope, stark beauty and – at times – thrilling drama. Incorporating electronics is nothing new in the contemporary classical scene, but their inclusion here is so purposeful and apt that their impact is all the greater. Through piano notes of extended decay in “Looking Back to Self-Awareness” or the gentle synth arpeggios in “Awe”, the electronics are the backdrop of perennial dark and celestial wonder. Soft and droning, conveying the stillness and the vastness beyond our atmosphere.
Closer and more immediate in the mix are the different orchestral elements, which are played by a quartet and represent the astronaut’s perspective. Goula set out to compose solo pieces for each instrument, and with expert sequencing charts a course to convey the cognitive shift of the astronaut as they drift farther from home. Creating gripping development through the set, most of its eight pieces feature a different dominating voice or tone. Some of these may surprise – the dulcet tenor ukulele in “Soon Will Wake Up”, the meandering electric guitar in “Cognitive Shift”. Both occur in the record’s first half, where melodies are often glacial and textures complex. Deviations from this, such as the polyrhythmic build in “Awe” and the frenetic cello lines in “Looking Back to Self-Awareness”, evoke tension and uncertainty, but emotions are kept in check.
The transition occurs, appropriately, in the title track. After fitful scratching and clawing at an ebbing synth, the violin is eventually soothed, and starts to find its voice. The drone recedes as the violin’s song gains momentum, commanding attention with an ostinato-based solo at the mercy of baroque’s gravitational pull. By the track’s close it too has receded, but has already hinted at greater majesty to come. “Pale Blue Dot” is that majesty – its title a description of the Earth as perceived by an astronaut experiencing the overview effect. From such vast distances does our world seem insignificant, fragile. With such incomparable perspective is new perspective gained – our conflicts seeming petty, our borders invisible.
Mere Earth-bound mortals can only imagine.
But at least our imagination now has a soundtrack. Rather than a crescendo of volume, “Pale Blue Dot” offers one of intensity – passages of frenzied, florid violin soloing that build, crescendo, disappear, then repeat. The purity of its tone, enhanced by the singular absence of surrounding instruments, likens it to an existential awakening. There is another instrument, but it’s far, far away: a cleansing synth drone, staid and continuous. Ubiquitous space, untroubled by the tumult it has wrought in the minds of its subjects. An astonishing eight minutes.
Once subject to the awesome, where can we possibly be led now? Wherever it is, “Something About Silence” is the right place. It comforts with the familiar – creaking sounds redolent of human presence, a lumbering rhythm that reminds of weight, of gravity. In the next and final piece, garbled voices emerge to count us back to home. A slightly surreal curtain draw, it feels unnecessary given the success of the prior track at re-acclimatising us to Earth. It’s but a small deviation on a journey that talks of the sublime, and reaches similar heights in conceptual and musical execution. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Reviewer’s plea: As you listen to “Pale Blue Dot”, embedded above, please bear in mind how much brighter this piece shines after hearing all that has gone before…