06 October 2008

Music to smash atoms by

A couple weeks back, I had the pleasure of attending the premier of The Atom Smashers at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. (I had this pleasure because my friend Clayton Brown is one of the directors.) The Atom Smashers documents three years in the lives of a group of physicists at the DOE's Fermi National Accelerator Lab (or Fermilab) in Batavia, IL, as they search for the Higgs boson, an elusive and for the moment purely theoretical sub-atomic particle (sometimes referred to as the God Particle), which promises to unlock the origins of the universe.

Clayton and his co-director Monica Ross turn what could easily be a geeked-out, yo-Poindexter snoozefest into a compelling and moving story by focusing on the people behind the search. Their search takes place against a backdrop of increasing cuts in US spending on basic science research as well as the prospect of the opening of an even larger particle accelerator at CERN in Switzerland.

One aspect of the The Atom Smashers that works especially well is the score by Kate Simko. I bring it up in this ostensibly (some would say allegedly) musical venue to direct you to a pair of illuminating posts on the subject. Simko's short essay about composing the score appeared on the blog Modyfier (coincidentally on the same day as the premier). This prompted a post by Clayton on the Atom Smashers blog about how creating the score fit into the overall four-year-plus process of putting the entire film together.
The Tevatron (Fermilab's 40-year old particle accelerator) was a beautiful, ugly, advanced and primitive machine with percolating valves, hi-tech computers, rusting bolts, dirty concrete, gleaming surfaces, and a devious personality. What's more, it was located smack in the middle of a prairie, with native grasses and buffalo wandering around. We knew that somehow we needed music to reflect this crazy combination of unfathomable technology and raw nature. A tall order.
In the end, they nail it (and I was pleased to find that Simko had used an accordion, albeit "highly-effected" samples from one to achieve many of the effects). But don't take my word for it. A slightly abridged version of The Atom Smashers will air in November as a part of the PBS series Independent Lens. Check your local listings, dammit. Smashers is also being screened at festivals including the Vancouver International Film Festival last weekend and, later this month, the Bergen International Film Festival in Norway (try the herring).

And someday soon, you'll be able to buy yourself a copy. Stay tuned. In the meantime, congrats to Clayton and the crew at 137 Films. [UPDATE: Here's the link to buy a copy and support 137 Films in the process.]

(Image above pilfered from 137 Films.)

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