The mysteries that lie beyond our world have baffled, intrigued, motivated and captivated humankind since the very beginning. We see this fascination with outer space permeate nearly every level of human society including of course, film, television and music. But how does one capture and quantify that which is so overwhelmingly infused with the unknown? In 1959, Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) perhaps said it best when stating, “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination”.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful aspects of a never-ending universe is this limitless potential for possibilities. For as much as we know about the vast world of outer space, there is an unspeakable amount that we remain blind to. While this fact may sound heavy, it also leaves the door wide open for creative ideas and interpretations. Over time we’ve seen countless sonic depictions of outer space in film and television. And while some retain more effectiveness than others, all exhibit the fascinating and magical capacity for human inventiveness. Today, with the help of some talented friends, I’ll touch on some of the many ways creative individuals have translated the wonders of outer space into sonic realities.
“The vibrating, eerie nature inseparable from the [theremin] added (and still adds) a level of mystique perfectly suited to the alien visitors.”
When it comes to science fiction and creating space-age soundscapes, many will immediately associate the world of electronic music. If looked at practically, this makes perfect sense. On one level, space is literally a cold, unfamiliar vacuum that most humans can imagine, but not directly relate to. There’s an inherent separation in the medium of space that lies between it and most humans. To expound on this idea, I reached out to composers (and certified synth wizards) Gavin Brivik (Cam) and Gene Priest (Skeleton Beach, Cemetery Gates):
“The reason I think synths and electronics are perfect for sci-fi is because the sounds are ‘otherworldly.’ Throughout history, we’ve been trained to recognize the sounds of the traditional orchestra and associate these sounds with humanity and culture. Once the synth came along, we were able to make new textures and sounds that humans had never heard before. Because of this, we can easily see how these ‘alien’ sounds became a staple in science fiction.” –Gavin Brivik
First and foremost, I think about silence. For example… when you think of space, in general, you get the imagery of how silent and serene everything is as it floats around your ship. To begin, modular synthesis is where I tend to lean in the creation of my own music. It is also a massive tool for me when creating space and science fiction sounds. If I go into a project knowing it has sci-fi and space elements, it’s a no brainer for me. I can literally sit behind my modular/ eurorack setup and put headphones on and quickly transport my mind into a foreign place light-years away.” –Gene Priest
One of the first major examples of electronic sounds in film came in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. Scored by the iconic Bernard Herrmann (Psycho), the film utilizes traditional orchestral instrumentation along with the theremin. Created in 1920 by Russian physicist Léon Theremin, this rather new and intriguing technology contributed an important piece to the film’s overall effectiveness. At times, the theremin is utilized as mere sound effect. At others, a contributing member of the orchestral score. Perhaps the moments the theremin is most effective comes when accompanying the all-important final scenes with Klaatu and Gort. The vibrating, eerie nature inseparable from the instrument itself added (and still adds) a level of mystique perfectly suited to the alien visitors.
A few years later came Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet. One of the first totally off Earth sci-fi films, MGM wanted a new and inventive film score to accompany this unprecedented endeavor. This is where the husband and wife team, Louis and Bebe Barron come into play. After receiving a tape recorder as a wedding present, the duo began experimenting with it’s capabilities and eventually created their own circuit technology. This fascination with sound manipulation quickly made a name for the couple in the world of avant-garde music. Before long, they were actively working with experimental composer John Cage and eventually, film.
For Forbidden Planet, the Barron’s created a staggering amount of sounds, pulses, oscillations, waves, bleeps and bloops all on homemade technology. This reverberating batch of new and inventive sounds was as unprecedented and unexplored as the mysterious planet it represented. The lines between score and sound design became particularly blurred creating a whole new approach to sound design and editing in film. In fact, when Forbidden Planet‘s sound was nominated for an Academy Award, the Academy didn’t know where to put it. Rather than nominating the Barron’s in the Film Score category, the nomination fell to the head of the sound department and the Special Effects category. Needless to say, a lawsuit occurred and proper credit has been restored to the Barron’s since then.
This 1950’s approach to synthetic sound exploration made famous by the Barron’s is one that remains relevant to this day. While the technology has certainly expanded in terms of availability, capability and diversity, the core process of experimentation has persisted.
There is something subtly calming, yet slightly unsettling at the same time when you patch a singular note drone, or a low rumble and begin running it through a series of reverbs and delays, which are always my go-to pieces of kit for sounds of space. You can quite literally take the purest and most raw sine wave (or wave of your choice really,) and via the reverberation, delay, and modulation this pure sound has now become not only more significant in its sonic spread, but it also takes on an evolving life of its own. This evolution in sound, by starting simple, is something I find really important in creating a soundscape that reflects the vast possibilities and sheer terror of what could exist out in the unknown depths of the galaxy. -Gene Priest
As the world of sci-fi cinema expanded, the challenges of social acceptance and ingenuity we see in the Barron’s score for Forbidden Planet becomes rather common. Many developments in ‘space sound’ would come out of pure experimentation and imagination. Perhaps the best example of this idea can be seen in the work of the original Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt. (Star Trek is another fascinating example) While the world of Star Wars and its sounds are second nature to audiences today, those sounds had to originate somewhere.
Imagine if you will, pre-1977, what would a lightsaber sound like? How would a droid like R2-D2 connect with audiences? These were the questions and challenges laid before Burtt’s creative and capable feet. To create the infamous buzzing of a lightsaber, Burtt combined sustained hum recordings from a film projector and an everyday television. Then, playing the unified tone back through a speaker, Burtt mirrored the fight choreography while waving a microphone in front of the speaker. This combination of pieces gave the lightsabers their iconic tone as well as the all important feeling of movement and proximity.
Now, when it came to R2-D2, things were a smidge more complicated. For this Burtt required the help of a semi-modular analog subtractive audio synthesizer known as the ARP 2600. Lucky for Burtt, he knew a man who had access to one of these fairly new pieces of synth technology; Francis Ford Coppola. (You can hear the ARP’s contributions all over 1979’s Apocalypse Now) By utilizing the ARP 2600’s seemingly endless combinations of patches, effects and filters, Burtt was able to mic and manipulate his own vocalizations and thus creating Artoo‘s conversational style. While R2-D2 is unquestionably mechanical, this subtle human element in his dialogue helped create one of the most endearing characters in all of science fiction.
This idea behind R2-D2 brings up another common approach to ‘space sound’; augmented reality. The more we learn about space and the more we see it represented in film and television, the more it becomes seemingly familiar. While it will never be viewed the same as our Earthly realm, there are points of congruity. For more on this idea, I once again refer to Gavin Brivik:
James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith wrote incredible scores for Alien and Aliens. They used the orchestra, but the reason it worked so well was due to the compositional techniques they used called ‘extended techniques.’ Basically this term means playing an instrument in a non-traditional, non-classical way. For example, tapping your fingers on the wood of a violin, scratching the strings with the bow to create scary sounds, woodwind players blowing air through the instrument without playing a note, or hitting the keys of a clarinet and making ‘clacking’ sounds that are not necessarily pitched. These composers, and many before them, approached the orchestra almost like a sound designer.
In Alien, we see this technique implemented immediately during the opening title sequence. While familiar instruments utilize the ‘extended technique’ Gavin mentioned, these more melodic sounds are underscored by a low, foreboding synthetic hum. It’s a slightly familiar sound, but also difficult to pinpoint. This ambiguity in sound was no accident. To achieve this sound, Jerry Goldsmith took a totally normal wind sound and combined it with a static, atonal noise. Then, this augmented 50/50 combo sound was run through a synthetic filter to further modify and manipulate the sound. Similar to the Barron’s approach decades earlier, Goldsmith’s opening piece functions as both score and sound design in a frightfully effective manner.
While synthetic electronic sounds are certainly a common approach to creating ‘space sounds,’ it is certainly not the only approach. An excellent example of a different interpretation comes from Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi masterpiece, Interstellar. Rather than focusing on the abstract unknown that permeates space, Interstellar focuses on the humanity and heart of mankind. Yes, the backdrop and mechanics of outer space are central to the film, but the emotional focus is certainly centered around the human characters. In order to achieve this goal, Nolan called upon the talents of the incomparable Hans Zimmer (Inception).
When it came to choosing instrumentation for the Interstellar score, Zimmer and Nolan chose to feature a massive church organ located at Temple Church in London. In a 2014 interview Nolan explains this choice stating, “The organ, the architectural cathedrals, they represent mankind’s attempt to portray the mystical or the metaphysical…what’s beyond us and beyond the realm of the everyday.” Connotations of religion are clearly evident, but it’s not a far stretch to apply this association to space and its infinite wonders. The resonance, emotion and full-bodied sound that’s innate in the organ itself adds a shocking amount of weight, beauty and magic to Interstellar and the astral world it portrays. Despite the obvious grounded nature of the instrumentation, Zimmer creates a sonic, cosmic space unparalleled in its sheer emotional vastness.
As time continues to march on, space has begun to talk back to us revealing its own unique soundscape. Surprisingly, early innovators in the world of science fiction and sound design were not all that far off. Scores like Gil Mellé’s iconic, all-electronic score for 1971’s The Andromeda Strain strikingly resembles sounds that NASA has revealed to the public. For more information on the incredible, terrifying and fascinating sounds that space has given us in recent years, check out NOFS Contributor Nina Nesseth’s article HERE.
Over the years we’ve seen the world of science fiction film expand and shift in nearly every way imaginable. Despite our ever-increasing knowledge of what lies within the murky darkness, the universe still holds a never-ending capacity for possibility. This beautiful potential for ingenuity and imagination has already given us so many incredible sonic interpretations, it’s hard to believe we’re really only just beginning. As outer space continues to remain the ‘final frontier,’ sonic explorers will undoubtedly continue their eternal quest towards translating the cosmic mystique. And I for one can’t wait to hear what’s next.
Special thanks to both Gavin Brivik and Gene Priest for their contributions to this article. You can learn more about Gavin and his projects HERE. Also, make sure to check out his amazing score to Cam, HERE. You will definitely want to make sure and check out Gene as well and his work with both Cemetery Gates and Skeleton Beach. You can find a direct link to his work HERE.
What are some of your favorite science fiction sounds? Have a favorite sound effect or score? Let us know what you think over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!