Composing for the sci-fi genre


When discussing the music of the sci-fi genre, it's virtually impossible to overstate the influence of composing giant Bernard Herrmann, the man who practically invented science fiction scoring and created approaches to the genre that still influence scores today, from his application of the electronic theremin to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to the outlandish orchestration he brought to fantasy projects like the 50s version of "Journey to the Center of the Earth."

While Andrew Lockington's big, tuneful score for Warner Bros. new 3D remake of "Journey" avoids paying conscious tribute to Herrmann's earlier work, the composer still found himself working in the shadow of the legendary composer. "The 3D version of the film is really quite different," Lockington says. "It uses the book as more of a guidebook to find our way down to the center of the earth. But the director comes from the Steven Spielberg school as a special effects supervisor which is definitely an offshoot of the Bernard Herrmann era of writing music for film. I think in hindsight we can look at the scores Bernard Herrmann did and draw comparisons to Debussy in the way he used clusters of notes unconventionally to create textures. He almost used a stipple brush approach at times and it's a kind of orchestration we are comfortable hearing in adventure film scores."

Indeed, film composers tackling science fiction movies today don't have to start out blind -- they have over six decades of tradition, convention and experimentation behind them. The techniques of the genre, many established in the 50s, still hold sway today even though they have mutated like the giant insects that populated so many sci fi films of that era.

Ironically, composer Mark Snow cites Herrmann's original "Journey to the Center of the Earth" score as an influence on his score for Fox's "The X-Files: I Want To Believe." "('Journey's') score was all about low instruments and big percussion and a battery of French horns, so I went along with that. The orchestra on this (includes) violins but there are no trumpets and no high woodwinds," he says.

Snow, whose famous "X-Files" television theme combines the whistling Theremin-style ambiance of Herrmann with echo/fade effects popularized in many Jerry Goldsmith scores, says his own grounding in music's avant garde period of the sixties and seventies has served his work in science fiction well. "I was a huge fan of avant garde music-and to have a feeling for that and be able to write a good melody, you've got a great combination there."

Snow's new "X-Files" score blends his trademark harsh, multi-media attacks with some surprising lyricism. "Alan Myerson, the scoring mixer, suggested we do an effects orchestra session: Get 75 musicians and (give them) nothing but verbal instructions, just have them make different noises," Snow says. "Plus we did something I've always wanted to do which is use this vocal sound, a counter-tenor. It's a male singer who sounds like a mezzo-soprano female-it's an amazing, eerie, weird sound, and he's in this score from time to time."

While Pixar's "WALL-E" is as much silent film as sci fi, it's also packed with references to the biggest films of the genre. Thomas Newman's score pays homage to the classics while staying true to the composer's influential, personal style: His haunting first cue sketches out the empty, trash-strewn landscape of a future Earth with an undulating harp figure that echoes many Herrmann scores before moving off into its own idiosyncratic direction. "It's not like I went to Herrmann or any of these guys and studied them," Newman says. "But there is a language and it's somewhat of a chromatic, complex language in terms of the ways harmonies move, and Herrmann does these complex arpeggiated figures so you can't help but draw comparison to them."

But it wasn't just Herrmann looming large over the "WALL-E" score -- the composer invokes everything from classic sci fi to classical for some of the film's biggest sequences, including a docking scene with the starship Axiom. "I did some major/minor thing there that hearkens to Strauss. I listened to both 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek,' but, again, I didn't do so much research. I even listened to the Dvorak and the New World Symphony -- things that were hugely scaled and gave you a sense of big screen excitement but less the harmonic vocabulary. The look of the film was so new and unique, the idea of just doing a retro space score really limited how smart you could make the music because the images were so smart."

When Bebe and Louis Barron wrote the first all-electronic score for "Forbidden Planet" in 1956, the technology proved so unwieldy that electronic music didn't become a staple of science fiction scores until almost a decade later. But the Barrons could hardly have imagined how electronic textures would become integrated into the fabric of the orchestra half a century later. "We went through a time when people were quite happy to have electronics as a replacement for live instruments," Lockington says. "But one of the things I really tried to use to bring 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' into present day was a lot of organic analog synth stuff in with the orchestra and down low, not at the forefront but underneath just to give it a little more weight. The irony is that I'm using some of the technology from that period, it just wasn't employed that way back then."

Newman still found he could use electronics in a sci-fi mode in his "WALL-E" score. "When we tour the spaceship Axiom and see all the robots and all the mechanization, I decided I would use more computer-generated sequenced motives and contrast them to strings just as a way of finding some sonic refreshment. I felt that to play to psychology in a funny way I needed quirkier kinds of instruments."

For all of the genre's opportunities for experimentation, it's John Williams' throwback score to "Star Wars" that most moviegoers think of when they visualize spaceships and robots. "There's something about his approach-it's a timeless, orchestral/classical approach," Kevin Kiner, composer for George Lucas' animated "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" movie, says. "Throughout the feature we've been really cognizant to keep elements that John founded and started, because those elements proved to be some of the most definitive examples of science fiction and movie music that exists-the 'Star Wars' theme is probably one of the most recognizable music themes on Earth."

One of the ways sci fi scores have kept pace with film scoring at large is in the increasing use of ethnic percussion and instrumentation over the past decade. Once relegated to travelogue effects in films set in exotic locales, the work now ranges from the wailing duduk in Bear McCreary's "Battlestar Galactica" scores to the driving percussion that stands in for John Williams' Holst-inspired battle music in the new "Clone Wars" movie. "In a traditional 'Star Wars' score almost all of the motion in terms of musical pace is derived from melody instruments like violins and trumpets and flourishes in the woodwinds," Kiner says. "In this score, and maybe in some other newer scores, a lot of the propulsion is derived from ethnic percussion. And that can be said of film scoring in general. In terms of getting the mystery feeling of sci fi we also got some really interesting flute textures and idioms so now there's a bit of ethnicity to say a race of people on another planet, so instead of playing the mysterious chords that are a staple of sci fi music we're using ethnic flutes and other instruments to get that feeling." Even in this cutting edge territory, however, some of Hollywood's past masters have been there before: Jerry Goldsmith used a Brazilian instrument called a cuika to create the crazed sound of simian hooting when he scored 1968's "Planet of the Apes." In sci fi scoring, what goes around comes around.