October 22nd, 2012

Sci-Fi & Music:A Marriage Made in Space

Written by Imran Mirza
Music can put forward a very strong argument for being dubbed the unsung hero of sci-fi.  Not many people would perhaps acknowledge, or realise it, but there’s a natural and unique aesthetic and dimension that music gives to sci-fi on the screen that even the greatest CGI in the world could never truly capture.  Rousing orchestral scores by legendary composers like John Williams, Howard Shore, Richard Strauss and Clint Mansell bestow revered pieces of music upon generations through synonymous themes including the pump-out-your-chest-and-stand-tall nature of ‘Superman’, the I-can-take-on the-world fantasy of ‘Star Wars’, or whatever it is about ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that makes you want to yell ‘Woooooooo’.
As timeless as these pieces of classical music compositions have become – and as much as they have cemented an identity for their respective stories and characters – they’re perhaps not the best examples to illustrate the synergy between science fiction and music.
Act I: Courtship
"Come with me if you want to live" – The Terminator
A key thread to sci-fi is the emerging threat of our reliance on technology potentially contributing to our own undoing.  Music addressing this – or scoring this – has to look to the (imaginary) future, downplaying traditional band arrangements in favour of electronically generated music.  Drum’n’bass, house and the dance scene that sprang up from the 1990s have long been the supposed soundtracks to our futures on screen ('The Terminator', 1984; 'The Matrix', 1999), and the relative ease in which this form of music can be generated from the comfort of your own bedroom in front of a computer screen, encapsulates this reliance upon the digital world.
But these sounds are the result of an evolution in thinking and perspective – as technological advances improved, so too did our fear of it.  However, early examples of music in science fiction could best be described as emanating from the 1950s with the use of the theremin.  Designed by Russian scientist, Lev Terman, in 1919, and actually employed in movies as early as the 1930s (‘King Kong’, 1933; ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, 1935), ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, in 1951, marks the instrument’s breakthrough film soundtrack, confirming it as something of a sci-fi staple for more than a decade following.  The instrument’s eerie sound is actually created without any physical contact, but by moving your hands between two antennas, one controlling pitch and the other, volume.  Lev Terman’s own fascinating life tells like a movie that would be perfectly theremin-scored – married to an African-American ballet dancer in the 1930s against immense social pressures, followed by an unexplained absence from the US with theories ranging from kidnap by the Russian government for espionage work to imprisonment and execution to being set to work in the Kolyma gold mines.
Act II: Matrimony
"It's life, but not as we know it" – Commander Spock
Professor Ken McLeod of humanities at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, has carried out extensive research in analysing the links between popular music and science fiction, citing the work of David Bowie, along with his creations of Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom, as a major ambassador in exploring the themes of alien existence as a form of liberation: “I looked at David Bowie and how he used an alien character and images of space in songs like ‘Space Oddity’ as a metaphor for his own sexual liberation.”
But while Ziggy Stardust was ultimately a short-lived persona, another, perhaps under-appreciated out-of-this-earth-musical-being was fantastically brought to life by funk legend, George Clinton.  Leader of two bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, it was a fascination with the other-worldly that breathed life into the groups’ ethos.  Parliament’s discography is of particular interest here.  Try and stay with me: in 1975, the group’s album ‘Mothership Connection’ introduced us to the divine being, Starchild, who came from the Mothership to bring funk to the earthlings.  On the 1976 follow-up album, ‘The Clones of Dr Funkenstein’, we find out that Starchild is the agent of Dr Funkenstein, who is the mastermind of outer space funk, and had hidden the secrets of funk in the pyramids as mankind had not previously been ready for it.  Apparently, in the 1970s, we were ready for it.  The plot genuinely goes on to include further albums including ‘Funkentelechy vs The Placebo Syndrome’ (1977) and characters including Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk (with a name like that, he could only be the villain, couldn’t he?!) among others in the Chocolate Milky Way Galaxy.

Act III: Offspring
"So, my son, speak" – Jor-El
While music can be tailored for its respective sci-fi theme, and, vice versa, also be able to draw from sci-fi’s themes as a source of its own inspiration, it can also be born from its own fandom.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you are unfamiliar with ‘filk’ music, then it’s my pleasure to be the person to put it your way.  Filk music is music that is rooted in science fiction themes and performed by science fiction fans, notably at sci-fi conventions.  Probably clear from the name, musically, aptly described as an off-shoot of folk music (and rumoured to be named with the ‘I’ following a typo), it incorporates instruments including guitars, kazoos, synthesisers and cellos – all welcome sounds within a ‘filksing’ (yes, that’s another genuine term within the world of the filk). 
Popular topics include the natural suspects – ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Dr Who’ and ‘The X-Files’, all lovingly brought to life through another in the pantheon of intertwined affection between music and sci-fi. 
Sci-fi’s reliance on music to help capture viewers’ imaginations and the awe of the unfathomable that is played out on our screens is no second-tier relationship.  Conversely, it’s a favour returned in kind as music’s ingenious delving into the world of sci-fi’s themes as metaphors for personal alienation, social commentary, as well as a genuine exploration of the weird and wonderful make for the perfect marriage! 

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