Sunday, November 16, 2014

Exploring the frontier with music

Earlier this week I listened to the album “Symphonic Star Trek” by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. It’s a collection of music from the Star Trek television shows and movies, and much of the music stands on its own, even when you set aside images of star ships flashing past and battles with Klingons, as good classical music tinged with a touch of popcorn. I especially liked the theme from “Star Trek: Voyager,” a television show, fourth in the franchise, that ran from 1995 to 2001. The Voyager theme is typical space show fare, grand and celebratory, capturing the affection that sci-fi fans have for outer space and star ships. It reminded me somewhat of the theme from “Dances With Wolves.” The DWW piece is more melancholy, the woodwinds and brass supporting the strings, which carry the main theme, whereas Voyager is more celebratory, opening with tympany, which always serves well as a fanfare percussion instrument, presenting the theme on brass supported by strings, and as I listened to Voyager instead of futuristic ships in space I could picture a cowboy guiding a herd of cattle across a western river.
This grand orchestral music has become a tradition in science fiction movies, firmly established by “Star Wars” in 1977. For that ground-breaking film, George Lucas and John Williams eschewed 1950s-style sci-fi music filled with electronic effects and the eerie theremin and instead opted for awe-inspiring classical themes that enhanced the passing of a spaceship or the entrance of a villain with new levels of drama and grandeur through the magic that only music can bring to a film. The first Star Trek movie, “Star Trek The Motion Picture,” was released in 1979, and the success of “Star Wars” compelled the Star Trek creators to follow suit with a redesigned Enterprise (that’s the ship, for you non-fans) and classical themes. Jerry Goldsmith proved equal to the task for the first movie, and his main theme was adapted for “Star Trek The Next Generation,” the long-awaited sequel to the original series that first aired in 1987; and succeeding movies continued the tradition.

Perhaps it’s no mistake that outer space themes resemble western film music. The two types of movies share many themes, and “Star Wars” upon its release in 1977 was described as cowboys and bad guys in outer space. Both deal with heroes on the far frontier. Our American West in the mid-1800s was similar to space in that it was little known, it was populated by hostile natives, it was far enough removed that you were on your own if you got in trouble, and it led to a host of stories about good buys versus bad guys. Both types of movies often deal with the classic good-versus-evil confrontation, although good sci-fi goes far beyond that simplistic and too oft-repeated theme and tackles a universe of social and psychological issues in the context of futuristic technology as imagined by writers and movie makers.
But whether it’s a story about good versus evil or a psychological drama, both sci-fi and westerns, while employing a wide range of stories to observe the human condition, have used similar music to bolster the films’ emotions and action. The only difference at times are the special effects added to the music: horse-galloping percussion and whip cracks in westerns and laser blasts and passing ships in westerns, although anyone with a passing knowledge of physics will know that passing ships make no sound in space. If memory serves, to quote Mr. Spock, the producers of the original Star Trek discussed that issue but decided they would ignore physics in the name of drama and included a swishing spaceship sound in the show.
Sci-fi movies and westerns are set centuries and sometimes light-years apart, but in the end they portray people in similar situations. Whether we’re watching a cowboy with a six-shooter or a space explorer with a laser gun, a person on a galloping horse or Han Solo negotiating the Millenium Falcon through an asteroid field, or Kevin Costner befriending the natives or Capt. Janeway leading a crew of former enemies into unknown territory 75,000 light-years from home, we enjoy a good story and a look at the essence of humanity, supported by strings, woodwind, brass and percussion.

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