Review: Stephan Mathieu - Before Nostromo

Stephan Mathieu - Before Nostromo“Minutes before the Nostromo crew awakes from hypersleep, each member has a dream.”

Before Nostromo takes place inside the diegesis of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien. Specifically, it takes place at the beginning of the film, minutes prior to the awakening of the crew. Moments before the introduction of the alien itself. Each of these pieces represents the dream of a different crew member, acting as a soundtrack for the transition between hypersleep and consciousness; perhaps a curdling of memories and character personality traits, perhaps a swirling of anxieties and astral nausea, perhaps a prophetic siren that whispers, wordlessly, of the imminent extra-terrestrial threat.

I hear the sounds of corporeal environment – the Nostromo spacecraft, to be precise – refracted as they infiltrate each dream state. The hisses of decompression are stretched into infinite strands of expelled static. Bleeps of cockpit monitoring equipment are softened into gentle, peripheral pulses. The voices of the crew are warped into hums of the gong, which flail like gushes of amplifier feedback. I feel the proximity of emergent consciousness; high-pitched drones piercing like spotlights through water, tilted like ladders leading back to the surface of the awoken state.

I can’t help but try to unpack the implications of what I hear, reconciling sound with each character’s forthcoming fate. Ripley’s dream is the longest at 20-minutes. I hear glimmers of methodical melodic progression; tiny string sections that unfurl from the corner of my right ear, like composure extending into the mire of dissonance and violence. I am torn between two different interpretations of the cloud of shimmers that engulfs the final minutes. Either this pleasant conclusion forecasts Ripley’s survival, or it embodies the resilient tranquillity that enables Ripley to conquer the threat to her life. In contrast, the dream of Jonesy (the ship’s cat) is more fleeting and harsh – I hear the shrieks of confusion and daggers of senseless noise, as the cat prepares to navigate a scenario that circumvents his understanding. Inside the dream of Ash (who is eventually revealed to be an android), I hear piano notes dropping like intermittent rainfall into a brain of spotless, process-driven clarity, only disturbed by the buzz of awakening circuitry.

What strikes me most is the evocation of micro-experiences. Mathieu plants tiny sounds inside the corners and crevices of each dream, tucked away like dormant memories or innate anxieties, decorating the main image with the flora of distraction and subconscious inhibition. Listening to each of these pieces is like staring into an aquarium: I can examine the large fish that whirl directly in front of me, glimmering in drone and overtonal glamour, or I can pull my focus back to see the specks of minute life drifting through the water. At certain points during the experience, I’m struck with a feeling of dread I can’t quite place. I harbour distrust for a sudden outbreak of harmonic symmetry. Invariably, it’s because I’m not listening right; Mathieu sneaks a drop of dissonance into the background while I’m allured by the fore, like a discolouring ink that gradually blackens the seas of unconsciousness. Like a prophecy, I sense the unease before I truly hear it.