Monday, December 19, 2005

The true origin of R2-D2's voice?

I recently checked out 10 records from the music library at NIU, conveniently located a stone's throw from home. The selection is a strange mix of mountain music (Ozark and Virginia Blue Ridge), Bob Dylan (Self-portrait), Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chinese music and a Mercury records compilation: "Electronic Music. Musique Concrete: A Panorama of Experimental Music, Volume One."

The second track on side three, Artikulation (3:49), by Gyorgy Ligeti, has many sounds that remind me of the pops, whirs and crackles of R2-D2 of Star Wars fame. Here's what the liner notes say about that piece:

"The composer's aim in Artikulation (1958) was to explore the ground which separates music and speech: to create a sort of language without meaning by purely musical means. For this reason, "articulation" -- prominent rhythmic divisions -- plays an essential part in the piece. The musical structures are composed of simple elements -- sinusoidal sounds, and filtered sounds and impulses, but the composition is extremely complex, especially in the microstructures where the succession of briefly polarized elements gradually lose importance, and the rhythmic factors tend to take on the nature of sound color.

Ligeti biography at

Of note: Ligeti's music appears in two Stanley Kubrick films, 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut. "Atmosphères... was used, along with excerpts from Lux Aeterna and Requiem, in the soundtrack to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; in fact, the music was used without Ligeti's permission." None of those Ligeti pieces are electronic music/ musique concrete. Ligeti only composed three electronic music works.


2001: A Space Odyssey *** Hugo Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Music: Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, Gyorgy Ligeti, Aram Khachaturyan
Visual Effects: Wally Veevers, Douglas Trumbull, Con Pederson, Tom Howard
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain
Released by: MGM/Polaris/United Artists
Date: 1968, 160 minutes. Color.
Based on: The Sentinel, by Arthur C. Clarke (1951).


"Ben Burtt created R2-D2's distinctive voice, and has long considered R2-D2 to be "the toughest challenge" of all his sound design work on the classic Star Wars Trilogy. "The trick was in finding a voice that sounded truly electronic, yet which had character and personality. The breakthrough came when I realized that Artoo should communicate with recognizable but inarticulate emotional sounds, kind of like a baby. When I added modified human-generated squeaks and sounds into the electronic mix, Artoo's voice came to life. I always thought that all the extensive design worked well and created a distinct vocal identity, but you know I still get people asking me if I just used telephone touch tones.""

Two questions: Did Burtt sample tones from Artikulation to create the voice of R2-D2? If not, was Burtt influenced by Ligeti's music when creating R2-D2's voice sounds?

My Internet search came up with nothing. Ligeti's work in 2001 had to have been noticed by Burtt. To my ear, some of the sounds in Artikulation are (or were) unique to R2-D2. This composition came out almost 20 years before the release of Star Wars.

For more about musique concrete:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Twelve years later (almost to the day): I totally agree! I had the same notion, and I'm very surprised that searching google for 'ligeti R2D2' resulted in only this relevant page. It would be very incredible for Burtt to randomly happen upon so many of the exact same kinds of sounds that Ligeti did, even given that they had the same basic intention.

Especially given other examples of Star Wars production culture: eg, John Williams' score was blatantly ripped off Stravinsky's Rites of Spring and Holst's Planets, and the death star battle sequence was copied shot for shot from a few of Lucas's favorite 50's WW2 films.

Great works of art do not borrow from other pieces, they strong-arm rob from them, in public view, without shame.