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Science Fiction Music: Bernard Herrmann, synthesized sound,
silence, the human voice, and the female influence

April 25, 2000 | Most sf movies use the standard orchestral soundtrack, often to success. The great film composer Bernard Herrmann always scored for an orchestra, and his work in sf movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966) stand as some of the finest in film music. One of the reasons that Herrmann is regarded so highly is that his understanding of the traditional orchestra and its repertoire allowed him to effectively stretch the orchestra in ways that were completely new to filmgoing audiences. For instance, Herrmann was a master with both Wagnerian brass choruses (like in Citizen Kane, 1941) and transparent Ravelian textures (like in Psycho, 1960). Herrmann also brought usually ignored instruments to the forefront. Extensive use of the vibraphone is a distinctive mark of the "Herrmann style," and is particularly prominent in Fahrenheit 451 and Vertigo (1958). In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Herrmann uses the wailing, imprecise effects of the theremin, and in Taxi Driver (1976), Herrmann’s last film, a saxophone wail comprises film’s main theme.

While the orchestra remains a traditional Hollywood and sf film staple, science fiction has been a breeding ground for experimentation in synthesized sounds. The 1956 film Forbidden Planet, the first with an all-electronic score, used sounds recorded from special circuits. The invention of the Moog synthesizer in 1964, with its keyboard interface, made electronic scoring and performing much easier for musicians used to the piano. Consequently, synthesized sound exploded on to the cinematic scene, particularly in movies that evoked strange, menacing, or ethereal moods. A Clockwork Orange (1971) featured a mostly-Moog score, and composers like Vangelis, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Phillip Glass began to use electronics in their film scoring.

Though electronic instruments are certainly capable of creating eerie sounds that "match" with the eerie moods and settings of science fiction films, I think that one of the most effective ways to create aural bewilderment is to create strange sounds with unexpected combinations of familiar instruments. This technique is a reason why the killing theme in Psycho is SO unforgettable. In that film, Bernard Herrmann used screeching violins, but I think this technique can be taken a step further through the use of the most familiar instrument, the human voice. There are certain aural expectations for the voice, but when these expectations are deliberately skewed, I think the result can be chilling. One of my favorite cinematic musical moments is the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the man-apes first discover the monolith. Without the music, the scene is made ridiculous: it’s just a bunch of monkey-suited men jumping around a stone slab. However, for me, this scene is one of the most frightening of all the scenes of al the films I’ve seen–mainly because Gyorgy Ligeti’s choral work Atmospheres gives the scene its menacingly transcendent quality. If Kubrick had chosen an orchestra or electronic instrument to accompany this scene, it would have lost some of its effectiveness, for it is a scene that emphasizes on the raw, animalistic side of human ancestry. The homo sapiens voice, the rawest of musical raw materials, is used in Atmospheres to convey both this rawness and an omen of the strange fate of man.

Another aural technique that is very effective in conveying science fiction strangeness is the use of silence. It seems to me that while many foreign directors understand this technique, most American directors (Kubrick and a few others aside) DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE USE OF AURAL RESTRAINT! This over-busyness and lack of restraint has bled into film trailers, where practically the whole movie (plot, noisy score, sound effects, and all) is revealed in the space of two minutes. Another reason that 2001 was so effective was that Kubrick understood where tension would best mount through the use of silence. Part of the impact of the conflict between HAL and Dave Bowman was their isolation-- bringing an implied third presence (through music) would have diminished the intensity of their isolation. I applaud Kubrick for being one of the few directors that thinks about film music as he uses it!

A final feminist note: In reading about electronic scores, it seems that women play a large role in the development of electronica, and that the electronic movement was a vehicle to help women come to modern musical prominence. Bebe Barron, the female half of the husband/wife team who composed the score for Forbidden Planet, is one of the earliest female film composers. Walter Carlos composed the score for A Clockwork Orange, but since then, he’s gotten a sex change and is now a woman named Wendy. Anne Dudley, one of the founding members of my favorite electronica group The Art of Noise, won an Oscar for her score to The Full Monty (1997). Finally, the largest world prize for Electronic Music–it goes by some French name that escapes me right now–has had very many women winners.

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