The Musical Pioneer Whose Work Shines in The Hunger Games 

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Slate's Culture Blog
March 30 2012 3:58 PM

How The Hunger Games Righted a Musical Wrong

hunger-games-josh-hutcherson
Josh Hutcherson in a still from the "cornucopia scene" in The Hunger Games, which uses music by Laurie Spiegel

Yesterday on Wired.com, Geeta Dayal spoke with the composer and electronic-music pioneer Laurie Spiegel. The reason? A bit of Spiegel’s 1972 piece “Sediment” has cropped up in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. A 9-minute slice of pure atmospheric portent, “Sediment” is a perfect fit for any dystopian flick. Unlike a great deal of self-styled “experimental” music, it manages to deploy a mood of grimness with a counter-intuitively light touch.

An underground legend—not only for her excellent music, but also for her engineering work at Bell Labs and her invention of the Music Mouse program for Macintosh computers—Spiegel deserves to be brought as far above-ground as can be managed. Countless synthesizer-driven acts in Brooklyn are, right this very second, criminally unaware of the debt they owe her, as she helped develop and codify the approach to a variety of early synths. Here she is playing the Alles model in the mid-70s:

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And a bigger reputation isn’t the only thing Spiegel is owed: In addition to suffering from the persistent sexism of the music world—in the orchestra scene, women composers are still rarely commissioned—Spiegel has been the victim of straight-up theft, too: If you search for “Sediment” on Amazon, the album that will show up is volume 4 of An Anthology of Noise and Experimental Music, which never paid Spiegel for the song. How do I know? Because Spiegel reviewed the album on Amazon.

“Sub Rosa Records was very friendly up until I sent them the master tape they had
requested,” she wrote, identifying herself as “Laurie Spiegel ‘Music Mouse.’” “When they said they wanted to use it I asked to be sent their license agreement. I never heard from them again.” With startling equanimity, Spiegel concludes: “I’m marking this with 3 stars because that averages the good and bad of this CD set as described here.”

A lot of artists would have taken legal action—or at least given the album a 1-star rating. Spiegel, though, is cut from more meditative cloth—and she wants people to be able to hear her music, which for years only reached people well-versed in the avant-garde scene.

When The Hunger Games came calling, Spiegel was “as surprised as anybody,” as she told me over email. These “sounds that were only allowed in avant-garde, underground films at the time they were made are now mainstream.” I had written to Spiegel to confirm that the producers of The Hunger Games had been in touch properly—and that they’d finally offered her some money for the piece. “They aren’t paying me a fortune,” she replied, “but yes, certainly it’s an awful lot more than Sub Rosa would ever have paid for that piece on CD.” And while the track didn’t make the film’s official soundtrack or “songs from” album, there may be royalties when the movie starts appearing on TV.

So the composer who calmly waited for her just rewards finally got them from a movie about the savage and unmitigated competition of all-against-all. And Spiegel is pleased by the growing popularity of Katniss, the Hunger Games heroine, whom she describes as “an authentic person in a sea of artificiality,” who “takes responsibility and cares for other people.”

The film’s producers put their fee to good use: While Spiegel feared they would use the song “for rumble or presence or something under a bunch of other sounds,” instead the piece is “prominent and clear, with nothing else going on in the track, at a pivotal transition in the film.” (You’ll hear it, she says, “when they emerge onto the fields of battle for the first time, the so-called ‘cornucopia’ scene.”)

Sadly, those who walk away from the movie wanting more Spiegel have a bit of a task ahead. Two of the best and most representative CDs of her electronic music, Obsolete Systems and Unseen Worlds, are infrequently available. (They sometimes show up, used, on Amazon; snag them if you see copies under $20.) And Spiegel’s landmark LP The Expanding Universe—which features both Renaissance-style isorhythmic motets and modern-sounding drone pieces—has long been out of print. That one will be reissued, though, in a lush 2-CD edition, later this fall, via the Unseen Worlds label. (Yes, the label, which was not created by Spiegel, is named after one of her out-of-print albums.)

For now, about half of the original version of Expanding Universe is hear-able in a 90-minute radio interview stored on the indispensable Archive.org—and that site also features other important Spiegel performances that can tide you over until The Expanding Universe is available again. In “Hearing Things,” a piece for chamber orchestra, the sweetly tonal opening is quickly scattered by rumbling percussion and pizzicato effects, before crescendoing with blasts of harp, marimba, and strings. (It’s the third track in this 1984 performance by the Mostly Modern Chamber Players, conducted by Laurie Steel.)

Like many women composers of her era, Spiegel turned to electronics in part of out of frustration with the institutional sexism of the classical world. (The New York Philharmonic will play zero pieces by women composers in the 2011-12 season.) The invention of electronic music, as a field, afforded composers the ability to write pieces that people could actually hear—no orchestra required.

“I did get something into Avery Fisher Hall once, in one of their less conventional moments,” Spiegel once told me, when I asked about her unpublished and unknown catalog, “but it too was electronic. I have really been disappointed in how slow gender equality is creeping into our world, and not only in music. But we’ve come a long way since I was a student when ‘composer’ was almost universally assumed to mean ‘man who writes music.’”

With any luck, The Hunger Games will not only bring Spiegel the money she should have earned (and then some) for “Sediment,” but also the more widespread attention she has long deserved. This process might be helped along if the current generation of modern music performers went deep into the same Spiegel catalog that past generations foolishly frittered away their chance to celebrate.

Seth Colter Walls is a freelance reporter and critic whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, the Village Voice, the Washington Post and the Awl.

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