FSFT5 – Influential Science Fiction Scores

I’m going back to my roots a bit here on this one, loyal readers.  As I’ve mentioned before in these here web pages, I grew up on science fiction.  My mom was an avid sci-fi reader and viewer, and my dad enjoyed it very much having grown up reading the Tom Swift novels.  But where my dad was more of a casual fan, my mom passed along her love of the genre to me.  I wholly believe that part of the reason I love film music is that, in my humble opinion, science fiction films tend to have some of the most enjoyable and unique scores of all the genres.  The reasons for this could be many, but the adventure element of many of the genres finest outings help to contribute to this, along with the compositional challenges of having to depict a cultural “other” via music for many of the genre’s alien species and environments.  Not to mention that it helps the film suspend disbelief if the audience can be swept along via the music; it helps to bridge that realism gap between the events on-screen and the audience.

To this end, science fiction scores have often times helped to push the envelope in terms of film scoring.  Many “avant-garde” compositional practices found a wide audience only in sci-fi film scores, and what I propose in today’s edition of Film Score Friday Top 5 is a list of influential sci-fi scores.  Score that have a lasting impact or left an indelible mark on the film music consciousness.  For the sake of this list, science fiction as a genre will be defined as films having to do with space as a setting, other worlds, aliens, possible future societies arising from technological advances, etc.  Not under consideration are horror, monster movies (either traditional or those monsters created by man through science), or fantasy films (even though Sci-Fi and Fantasy are many times combined into an über-genre).

Enough chit-chat…to the list!  The score will be listed in chronological order and are presented today by Blue Sun, Tyrell Corp., Cyberdyne Systems, and Rekall. (And if you can name the films that each of those companies are from, then you are truly a sci-fi nerd…like me.)

The Day the Earth Stood Still – Bernard Hermann (1951): When people think 1950s science fiction, they think theremin, and when they think theremin, they think The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Even though it wasn’t the first sci-fi film to feature one or even the first film to do so (those distinctions fall to Rocketship X-M (1950) and Miklos Rozsa’s Spellbound and The Lost Weekend (both 1945) respectively), the high quality of DtESS, its timely message building on the growing fear of nuclear war, has ensured that the film has remained in the American mind, and along with it Hermann’s score.  I must admit that it has been years since seeing the film myself.  It was between 15 and 20 years ago when it was on a local TV station’s Saturday afternoon theatre and my dad and I watched it together.  I didn’t quite understand everything it was about, but I do remember Hermann’s theremins.  On a trivial note, the film was directed by Robert Wise, who would later direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture (one of his final directorial efforts) which featured a great sci-fi score by Jerry Goldsmith.  Alas Goldsmith’s score did not make this list for reasons described below.  The score is also a great example of Hermann’s always interesting orchestrations.  Besides the two theramins, there are two Hammond organs, a large studio electric organ, three vibraphones, two glockenspiels, two pianos, two harps, three trumpets, three trombones, and four tubas.  Sometimes his orchestrations read like a joke.  I mean, really, who needs FOUR tubas?  Seriously.

Forbidden Planet – Louis and Bebe Barron (1956): In simple terms, the first all electronic score in major studio film history.  It’s hard to evaluate this score because is flies in the face of so many conventions.  When watching it with the film, it’s hard at times to separate out what is “score” and what is “sound effects” because the Barrons seemed to be doing both.  As a separate piece of music, listening to the score album released only some 20 years after the fact, it is a remarkable composition.  The sounds created by the Barrons in their New York studio with little monetary support is breathtaking.  It is fascinating to read about how they went about creating everything, and I highly recommend James Wierzbicki’s book on it (part of the Scarecrow Film Score Guide series).  I only really became acquainted with the film because I had seen the Wierzbicki book in my school’s library and also read about it in Mervyn Cooke’s recent A History of Film Music.  In preparing this list, I finally checked out the film from the library and also downloaded the score from iTunes, and even if no other films have ever had a score quite like Forbidden Planet, the sounds themselves created by the Barron’s changed the soundscape of sci-fi films forever.  Also, on a separate note, notice the similarities between the FP and DtESS posters?  The robot carrying the girl, instilling the fear that these evil robots are stealing our women!  Of course, in both of these movies, neither of the robots are evil, are they?  The true menace of these pictures is man himself.

Planet of the Apes – Jerry Goldsmith (1968): Even though Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t on this list, Goldsmith is represented.  How could he not be?  With such sci-fi scores as Logan’s Run, The Illustrated Man, Total Recall, Alien, to go along with five films in the Star Trek franchise and the theme song to Star Trek: Voyager, and countless other sci-fi related projects, having a Goldsmith penned score was not only inevitable but practically a necessity!  The reason that the original Apes score appears is are many.  Like Day the Earth Stood Still, it is an early example of a 20th Century compositional technique being used to such a degree and effect that it becomes synonymous with the score, in this case, serial technique.  This has been described elsewhere in this blog, but for those just joining, serialism is a technique developed by Arnold Schoenberg in which all twelve pitches of the Western chromatic scale are ordered to create a “tone row” from which the composer then creates a piece.  Apes was not the first time it was used in a major Hollywood film nor the first time Goldsmith had used it (Leonard Rosenman’s The Cobweb (1955) and Freud (1962) respectively), but combined with the unique instrumentation and sound of the orchestra, the effect of a serialized score is heightened and melds perfectly with the film’s story and visuals.  I did a music theory project on this score, with transcription assistance by Herr Vogler (check out his blog, listed in my blog roll), and it is a fascinating score.  I hope to one day do hands on research with the sketches held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Library in LA and turn that project into a proper article (and maybe book in the style of the Film Score Guide series).

Star Wars – John Williams (1977):  Well you knew this was going to be here, right?  Not having it would be like the Louvre without Mona Lisa, but it does raise a question…why be on a list of most “influential” sci-fi scores?  Yes, it’s a great score, but in every way possible, it’s strictly conventional.  It’s straight up orchestral music using leitmotivic technique, and yes, there are great themes and moments, but what about it makes it “influential?”  Well, it’s because of its conventionality, and use of traditional orchestra.  Star Wars not only helped to mark a new era of symphonism in film scoring, but after years of modernist and “other worldly” sounding sci-fi scores (like those mentioned above), Star Wars brough back the orchestral sound that had marked all early Hollywood films, and especially those of sci-fi.  The traditional sound of Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture score is partially a result of Star Wars (though Goldsmith does manage to sneak in some more modernist sounds like he always does, and to great effect), and go down the list of great sci-fi scores of the last 30 years and you’ll hear parts of Star Wars in most of them.  Its influence on film scoring, not to mention an entire generation of musicologists like me who love Star Wars and the music of John Williams, is almost endless.

Blade Runner – Vangelis (1982): This score is like Forbidden Planet in many ways, not only is it (almost) entirely done by electronic instruments, but there really hasn’t been anything quite like it before or after.  And while the ambient musical nature of Vangelis’ score is lightyears away from the Barron’s work for Forbidden Planet, they are kindred spirits in the realm of using bleeding edge electronic technology for compositional purposes.  What also makes this score interesting is how Vangelis reinterprets music and style from film noir conventions by incorporating them into his electronic idiom.  But in many ways the score is distinctly early 80s, just as Planet is distinctly 1950s, which means that, in many ways, it hasn’t aged well.  It is too much a product of its time.  I would make the argument, though, that many of the 1980s sci-fi scores that utilized electronic instruments were in some way directly or indirectly indebted to Blade Runner, notably Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator (1984), which should get an honorable mention nod from this list.

Speaking of honorable mention nods, I would also like to give a nod to Goldsmith’s Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Total Recall scores.  While maybe not “influential” in terms of this list, they have certainly influenced me and many other film music fans.  And lastly, how cool are these movie posters?  If I had a copy of each of these nicely framed and hanging on my wall, I would be a happy camper. 

Well, I bit you adieu until later this weekend with more reviews and updates (hopefully), and until then…keep watching the skies!

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