Undertones: Volume 6
The classic science fiction film emerged during a period of great societal paranoia in the US in the early 1950s. The post-WW2 environment saw an increased concern with nuclear armament and a fear of the infiltration of communism on the American way of life. Essentially, the sci-fi film was Hollywood’s great metaphor for these threats; its power largely dependent on playing on the fears of the cinema-goer. Many of the films were low-budget affairs pumped out by the studios; a steady stream of high-camp and cheap thrills in order to provide what one can only assume was constant necking-fodder for teens at drive-ins. Amongst these ‘B’ pictures, many of which have been long lost in time to the more technologically-savvy audiences of recent years but considered charming nostalgia to retro film junkies, are films that stand out for their innovation and social commentary and are considered classics by modern cinophiles. Despite their differences in quality however, what many of the films had in common was a standard in scoring that has since become firmly ingrained in audience’s consciousness and consequently synonymous with the genre, even to the point of cliché.
When we think of classic sci-fi scores what most of us would immediately recall, whether we are aware of it or not, are the haunting tones of early electronic music, most notably the theremin. Developed in 1919 by its Russian namesake, Leon Theremin, the theremin produces its tone by way of two radio-frequency oscillators that are tuned identically and controlled through the movement of the player’s hands near the instrument. One of these oscillators controls pitch, the other, volume. The first recorded use of the theremin in cinema was by the composer Dmitri Shostakovich in the 1931 film Odna in order to convey the momentum and urgency of a snowstorm forming. The theremin’s major Hollywood debut followed years later in 1945 with Miklós Rózsa’s use of the instrument in his scoring of the psychological thrillers Spellbound and The Lost Weekend (see Undertones: Volume 2). The highly unusual tones of the theremin and other electronic instrumentation was a logical choice for composers seeking to give a voice to the alien ‘Other’ and its perceived threat, and the instrument made its first appearance in the scores of early sci-fi films such as Rocketship X-M (1950), scored by Ferde Grofe. It seemed that the use of electronic music, still confusing and confronting to audiences at the time, was as much a symbolic choice as it was aesthetic.
The Thing aka The Thing from Another World (1951) directed by Christian Nyby, was one of the first of the period’s major sci-fi films to utilise the theremin. Composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, the theremin only appears in the score when the menacing extraterrestrial is shown or alluded to on screen. In a scene depicting the discovery of the creature’s flying saucer lodged in ice, the instrument is accompanied by dissonant, wailing strings and brass suggesting the harsh conditions of the freezing terrain. The abrasive capability of the theremin’s tone is exploited to full effect here, cutting through the verbose supporting ostinatos of the orchestra in order to create a sense in the listener/viewer of a sinister presence at work.
Bernard Herrmann’s score for Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is an incredibly innovative and bold example of film music, even by today’s standards. Comprising of an orchestra of no less than two theremins, electric violin, electric bass, electric organs, vibraphone, four pianos, four harps and a chorus of brass (amongst others), Herrmann’s musical vision for the film initially perplexed not only studio executives at Fox, but director Wise as well. When recording commenced it was soon evident that Herrmann was on to something special, as Wise commented later upon hearing the cues that it was “beyond anything [he] had anticipated.” The film’s opening credits are accompanied by Herrmann’s cues “Prelude” and “Outer Space”. What appears on screen is a steady zoom-in from the constellations of outer space to Earth; a point-of-view that we will soon come to learn is that of the alien Klaatu as he journeys in his spaceship to our war-happy planet in order to spread the message of pacifism. The two theremins open the “Prelude” cue and, given the association of the theremin with alien life-forms already having been cemented in audience’s minds from previous films of the genre, alert the audience to the presence of a creature from another world. The jarring brass chords that accompany also seem to act as the harbingers of an impending disaster, though we eventually realise that Klaatu is not necessarily its source.
A sense of urgency and timeliness, probably that of Klaatu’s desire to warn Earth of its foolishness before it is too late, is also mirrored in the score via hectic use of speedy arpeggios in the harps, organs and pianos as they frantically move in contrary motion. This mood continues in the proceeding “Radar” cue through use of an equally-urgent, repetitive motive in the lower register of one of the pianos alternating with one in a higher register on the other piano and vibraphone. Heard in the soundtrack whilst folk from around the world are shown excitedly picking up Klattu’s spaceship’s signal on their radar systems, the interchanging melodic lines in the different registers of the cue mimic the conversation going on between the spaceship and the radars in the action on screen. Throughout his score for The Day the Earth Stood Still, Herrmann used these techniques as well as others (e.g. extremes in volume, the diverse instrumental colour attained in pitting different groups of his unusual orchestra against each other) in order to create a mood of uninhibited urgency and doom that further propels the film’s powerful warning about nuclear foolhardiness .
Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet was released in 1956 with a score by experimental composers Louis and Bebbe Barron comprising solely of electronic instruments though, interestingly enough, no theremin was used. Their score to the Freudian re-working of Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in deep-space, was the first of its kind and consists of highly-resonant atonal blips and beeps with no discernable or, rather, conventional melodies or harmony. In the liner notes to the soundtrack release, the duo explained that they “design and construct electronic circuits which function electronically in a manner remarkably similar to the way that lower life-forms function psychologically… individual cybernetics circuits for particular themes and leitmotifs [were created], rather than using standard sound generators” and that “each circuit has a characteristic activity pattern as well as a ‘voice’.” The result is a genuinely haunting score, even to modern audiences who have are familiar with electronic music. Though electronically created, there is something of the base or, to refer to Freud, Id instinct reflected in the score in its minimalist construction. It does not demand one’s attention (except perhaps, for the occasions it appears to function as a sound effect) but simply ripples under the surface, alluding to the more subliminal aspects of Forbidden Planet’s narrative.
In modern cinema, the scoring that came about in the early sci-fi films of the 1950s tends to only be utilised as a form of pastiche, as exemplified by Danny Elfman’s score for Tim Burton’s intentionally campy Mars Attacks! (1996). It seems it would be impossible nowadays to score a sci-fi with wailing theremins without some snicker at the apparent corniness; even Herrmann complained in an interview in 1973 that the sound he helped pioneer for the genre had become rife with “electronic clichés”. In any event, the scores that were composed for the sci-fi films of the 1950s, whether low or high budget, reflect a time of great change; be it musically, cinematically or socially.
Clare Nina Norelli