Composer Michael Giacchino has finally managed to realize a long-held dream: his first solo album, released Friday, which combines science-fiction storytelling with lounge music and an overall theme that is unexpectedly relevant to our times.
It’s called simply “Travelogue, Volume 1,” and is credited to “Michael Giacchino and his Nouvelle Modernica Orchestra.” Mondo is releasing it on vinyl as well as to streaming platforms and digital retailers.
The Oscar and Emmy winner (“Up,” “Lost”) has been working nonstop for years on films in the “Star Trek,” “Jurassic World,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Incredibles” and Marvel Universe franchises. So when the pandemic hit, he decided to write something just for himself.
“I love old radio dramas,” he tells Variety. “I love the music of Arthur Lyman, Martin Denny and Les Baxter. And I loved Captain Kirk’s ship logs from the original ‘Star Trek.’ I took those and just mashed them all together into a concept album.”
The 55-minute album is narrated by an unnamed astral traveler (Janina Gavankar) searching for a better planet than the one she left. She discovers Earth and is initially entranced by its beauty and people, but eventually dismayed and repulsed by their behavior. The music is a mix of orchestra, pop, lounge, jazz, electronics and exotica, all played by a handful of L.A. soloists plus strings recorded in Sydney, Australia.
“I wanted to tell this weird cosmic tale of responsibility and the idea of what do you do when things get bad? Do you run off and try to find a better place that isn’t so horrible? Or do you stay and fight to try and make it better?” says Giacchino. The narrator’s home planet is rife with political unrest, racism and pollution, and she eventually finds things aren’t much different on our planet.
“I don’t know if it was 100% intentional, it just sort of happened that way,” Giacchino concedes. “I was thinking about all of this so much. It was in our face every day, all the time. We were dealing with the virus, the political situation, and the fact that we were turning into a society that can’t listen to each other. All of these things just came out.”
He turned his story over to writer Alison-Eve Hammersley, who penned the narration — “little soliloquies,” Giacchino calls them, modeled after William Shatner’s occasional narration in the ’60s “Star Trek.”
Giacchino, meanwhile, turned his attention to the music. He chose several soloists who had played on his film soundtracks, including such veterans as bassist Abe Laboriel, guitarist George Doering and percussionist Danny Greco, and had them record their parts separately, in their home studios.
Initially worried that assembling these tracks into a musical whole might be difficult, Giacchino “was amazed at how much it sounded like a band playing together. I realized we’d all been playing together for 20 years, and we’re very much in tune. The spirit, what we normally have on the recording stage, really remained.” Knowing that some of his string players were in Australia, where recording was continuing while American studios were closed, led to a Sydney string date, the finishing touch for the music.
Giacchino — whose film scores include not only three “Star Trek” features but also “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” — is a space buff who has also penned two concert works with space exploration themes. Shannon Jennings, the soprano on the new album, sang his “Advent” at last year’s Washington, D.C., commemoration of the first lunar landing.
And in an homage to Voyager’s famous “golden record” containing Earth sounds for any extraterrestrial who finds the 1977 spacecraft sailing through the universe, Giacchino not only opens the album with the original “hello from the children of planet earth” by Carl Sagan’s then 6-year-old son Nick, he concludes it with a reading of the same phrase by the now 50-year-old Nick Sagan.
The notion of film composers releasing non-soundtrack albums is not new, but it is unusual. For the most part, they are excursions into the classical world, such as last year’s violin concerto by Danny Elfman. Howard Shore’s piano and cello concertos were recorded in 2016; John Williams’ cello concerto in 2002, oboe concerto in 2013 and trumpet concerto in 2019 are other examples. In a somewhat different category is Thomas Newman’s experimental “35 Whirlpools Below Sound,” released in 2014.
“I just did it for myself,” Giacchino says, “with the hope that the enthusiasm put into it will spread to the people who hear it. The thing about the old concept albums was, you’re supposed to listen to them from beginning to end. You get to sit back and remove yourself from the world for one hour. For me, it was about creating a little place where I could go amidst all the craziness that was happening.”
As for that “Volume 1” title, Giacchino reports there will definitely be a sequel. “I have the whole story mapped out for Volume 2,” he says.