Having gone through the basic, surface-scratching math that the United States federal government suggests, I, like many, am familiar with the concept of prime numbers in the most simplistic fashion: prime numbers can only be divided by one and themselves. As the number line increases, the prime numbers become further and further spaced apart, which is why twin primes, or prime numbers separated only by a single number in between them, are so interesting. Beyond its mathematical implications, one could read into the twin primes a grander metaphor for a friendship, which is what Italian author Paolo Giordano did in his 2008 novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers. Giordano, a physicist, took an abstract concept of mathematical theory and turned it into a relatable, highly personal novel. In 2010, a film was made of the book, and famed polymath Mike Patton (whose last solo studio recording was an album of covers of ’50s Italian pop) was called to do the soundtrack. No stranger to eclectic music, Patton has crafted a highly unique musical accompaniment that takes its concept so far that even the numbering of the songs mirrors the prime numbers on a number line.
Having neither seen the film from which this soundtrack derives from nor read the book from which the film took its inspiration, it’s difficult for me to gauge how The Solitude of Prime Numbers the album matches up to the themes of either one. On the basis of the concept of twin primes, however, it’s quite clear that this album has it down-pat. The album’s sixteen tracks are numbered in accordance with prime numbers; some are twin primes, others are not (the tracks are numbered 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, and 53). However, upon inserting the CD into an MP3-recognizing software like iTunes, 53 tracks show up. In between the album’s actual tracks, there are four-second tracks that take up the non-prime number spaces. Sometimes these tracks are silent; other times, the tracks will carry over the last note or so of the previous song, providing continuity in between the often spacious gaps in between the prime numbers. Though there are 53 tracks, the album as a whole runs just over half an hour. As a sequencing technique, it’s quite brilliant; it for the most part adds instead of subtracts from the thematic exploration of twin primes. Some concept records can become too wrapped up in the concept to be enjoyable; here, the record is all the much better for it.
This does mean, however, that the album is best enjoyed as a whole listening experience instead of digesting each track piece by piece. This is a nice trend away from the general cultural shift toward emphasizing single songs at the expense of the art of the album, but, at the same time, some of these tracks do stand out on their own. The highlight of the album is “Radius of Convergence” (many of the song’s titles reference other mathematical ideas), which begins with a low drone that eventually bursts into a neo-horror freak-out, driven by a shrill violin section atop an eerie synth. The horror element is successfully done also on “Abscissa,” which recalls Wojciech Kilar’s score for Francis Ford Coppola’s adaption of Dracula. With just one repeated trill on the piano, the song manages to be quite unsettling.
This mood of horror is but one of many on the album: a jaunty, carnie-like mood that Patton so excels at is evident on “Identity Matrix”. “The Snow Angel” features a nostalgically beautiful piano melody, and the slightly creepy but still happy “Twin Primes” opens the album. Until the album’s final moments, the music progresses increasingly into darker and more terrifying territory. The characters in the film must progress through an emotionally volatile journey.
Many will be put off by the album’s unique but nonetheless peculiar sequencing. In truth, the album’s organization is an integral part of the experience; though the four second tracks in between the songs may seem like filler, they play a crucial role in the musical flow of the record. This sequencing does, to a degree, make the album feel like one continual piece instead of an album comprised of several unique tracks, which is a tension that the album never seems to resolve. Either way, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is one of the most unique conceptual soundtracks to come around in awhile, and in its short running time manages to span a wide range of musical emotion. The fact that one can experience the emotive beauty of the record without having seen the film or read the book makes the soundtrack all the much the better. The best soundtracks stand as works of art independent of their source, and this one certainly does that in spades.