The sound is out there

A sci-fi film's score is integral to creating its ambience. But what to go for: spooky electronic gimmicks or epic orchestral pomp?
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A combination of electronic sounds in 1963 produced a generation of children's nightmares. "I didn't think of the Dr Who theme as music," recalls the science fiction writer Neil Gaiman. "It was just a signal for terror."

Appropriately, for a science fiction series, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used the latest technology to transform Ron Grainer's original composition into an original piece of music. Techniques included an early form of multi-tracking, placing echo on individual notes and using reverse white noise for the effects of hissing steam.

In the 1970s, the composer Peter Howell put his own stamp on the incidental music with a new arrangement. It took six weeks to complete - four days spent on the bass line alone. "If you copy that phrase on to a tape in echo, then turn the tape over and play it backwards, you have the echo approaching you," explains Howell. "Consequently you have this feel of it snapping at you with every phrase."

Technical innovation is often associated with science fiction. The recording pioneer Joe Meek, for instance, literally used anything he could lay his hands to produce Telstar. "One rumour has it that the sound effects on the front of Telstar were created by him flushing the lavatory," Meek's biographer, John Repsch, offers gleefully. "He suspended a microphone down the loo while it was flushing. Then he would overdub this sound, speed it up, play it backwards, compress and limit it."

Although Meek's best-selling instrumental was inspired by a communications satellite, SF music doesn't have to redefine recording techniques. A great tune is often enough.

Gerry Anderson agrees - the music for 12 of his television series, including the ever-popular Thunderbirds, was composed by classically trained Barry Gray. "When you're making a science fiction adventure with puppets that can't talk properly, walk properly or move properly," says Anderson, "the finished programmes need every bit of help they can get."

Gray made each theme as distinctive as possible - using an ondes Martenot in Fireball XL5 - and a wonderfully funky Hammond organ for UFO.

"In the case of Stingray," Anderson recalls, "I had coined the phrase 'anything could happen in the next half hour' before the opening emergency sound on drums. Barry wove in the music beautifully and together they made one of the best intros of all the programmes I've made."

Gray used a conventional orchestra for his themes, which is why, according to Anderson, the music doesn't date. It also explains why a piece of classical music, composed in 1896, became synonymous with space travel and science fiction. Richard Strauss's tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra is considered one of his best orchestral works but in 1969 it was hijacked by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Surprisingly, it wasn't the director's original choice: a score had already been commissioned from Alex North and the Strauss piece was only intended to give a sense of pace and atmosphere during editing.

"Kubrick was right to go with it because there's a tremendous sense of passion and power with Richard Strauss," says the composer Francis Shaw, "and the language of classical music is relevant to almost any situation."

Despite using existing music, 2001 is considered by many to be the first classic SF score. Until then, the future was usually represented by electronic weirdness.

"There's something corny and heartwarming about old science fiction soundtracks," admits the electronics composer Robin Rimbaud, "but you do get the sense that the composer was trying to create another world."

Rimbaud's studio reflects this admiration, containing a thereminthat, apart from being one of the first electronic instruments, was liberally used in The Forbidden Planet and accompanied the alien Klaatu when he descended from his flying saucer in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

"Maybe the sound is a bit of a cliche as it does instantly remind you of people in silver outfits," he says. "But it's otherwordly. I think the earlier SF film music was a lot more original because essentially all you get nowadays is an orchestral score."

Orchestral scores have long been used for science fiction (Russell Garcia's for The Time Machine is a personal favourite) but Star Wars provided the benchmark. "Almost all the great science fiction movies with original soundtracks have been written to establish an epic feel," states SF critic John Clute. "And Star Wars is an epic."

John Williams won an academy award for the Star Wars soundtrack; gained a nomination, in the same year, for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and also wrote the music for Superman and ET. Yet not everyone is a fan.

"It's basically orchestral marching music," says the music critic Charles Shaar Murray. "Danny Elfman's Batman music was much more appropriate because it was brooding and gothic - but the definitive custom-built music for SF films is Vangelis's score for Blade Runner."

It's easy to see why Blade Runner became a cult success - based on a short story by Philip K Dick, director Ridley Scott provided a stunningly depressing vision of a dark, rain-sodden future. Finally, but of equal importance, the music perfectly complemented both storyline and atmosphere. "In a sense it's not really film music but mood music," says Francis Shaw, who has orchestrated several pieces by Vangelis. "I think it suggests sadness and wistfulness."

"It fits the ambience perfectly," agrees Shaar Murray, "and it's timeless because it's not hooked to any musical trend."

Trends are often difficult to avoid as SF music is like SF itself and tends to reflect the time it is made instead of the future. It's not difficult dating the Ran-Dells' doo-wap "Martian Hop" or Spizz Energy's frantically punk "Where's Captain Kirk?", for instance. But novelty singles aside, SF and popular music is best represented by one man: David Bowie.

"Bowie had some sense of what it means to write a song about an SF subject," says Clute. "It's not a poem with SF metaphors, it's a situation which exists within an SF story. So in "Space Oddity" we understand the terrible estrangement of his character Major Tom. This alienation is part of a story and that story is science fiction."

There are plenty of musicians around interested in SF. Gary Numan is a huge Star Trek fan, while D:Ream's keyboard player, Brian Cox, enthuses about the Voyager music - "It reminds me of Wagner" - and would love to write a Star Trek theme tune. Mark Snow's X Files music is a huge success, while the Orb's album UFOrb contains X File-style references to US army bases hiding alien corpses.

Even Babylon Zoo's "Spaceman", Britain's fastest selling single ever, was originally written for a short SF film.

Many critics detected the unmistakeable influence of David Bowie in "Spaceman", but all music is recyclable: "Space Oddity" was written in response to the film 2001; Bowie's Low album was inspired by Kraftwerk - who in turn were admirers of Stockhausen.

As for the future of SF music, there are several options. John Clute sees SF opera as an untapped source since few have been produced on a large scale, with the exception of Karl-Birger Blomdahl's Aniara, in 1959, which is set in a spaceship. Meanwhile, Jez Turner, composer and Club Alien DJ, believes that technology-based "techno" music holds the key.

"We are children of the sci-fi age," he declares. "Our music is digital and computer generated so we beam it into outer space in the hope that a passing space traveller with a sentient computer will hear our music and interpret it."

After all, he points out, the use of five notes to communicate with aliens in Close Encounters was a basic form of techno...

n Sue Nelson is the writer and presenter of 'The Music Machine: Music and Science Fiction' on Radio 3, 27 to 31 May at 5pm