Sound, music and monsters: the sequel

Apocalypse Now
By Robert Barry

Robert Barry continues his survey of sound and music in monster and alien movies, listening in on some of the monsters – both extraterrestrial and human – of the 1970s, and asking how these have influenced the soundtrackers of new films like 2010's low-budget Brit horror, Monsters.

In the last years of the 1970s, three directors, associates of long-standing now perched on the brink of an equally lasting hegemony, each made films that would stand as definitive, not just for their own future reputations, but for the whole way we have come to hear the inhuman, and listen to the monstrous. Each of these directors looked back, and not without a certain nostalgia, to the golden age of the big studios; but in so doing came to reframe, quite self-consciously and reflexively, our sense of cinematic sound and aural space. At the same time, they proposed a new approach to the grotesque, unspeakable figure of the other – both external and internal.

Science fiction had changed a great deal since the saucer movies of the fifties. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), in particular, had moved the goalposts – in terms of the soundtrack just as much as anything else, as sound designer, Walter Murch, admits on the DVD extras to George Lucas's first film, THX 1138 (1971). But it was in his next foray into the genre that Lucas's conception of a "used future" came to its most influential realisation. In the sonic arena, what this amounted to was a rapprochement between the two warring camps of electronic music: French musique concrète, composed of treated and edited found sounds, and German Elektronische Musik, made with sine tones and filtered white noise. What couldn't be brought together in Darmstadt was reconciled in outer space.
Some years previously, working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Dick Mills had developed a system for crafting noises for the various inhuman encounters in Dr Who. Organic life forms would be given concrète sounds, usually adapted from the sounds of more earthbound lifeforms, whereas robots and androids would follow the German model of purely electrical signals. Whether knowingly or not, Ben Burtt largely adopted the same system when working on the Star Wars trilogy: the difference being that R2D2's 'voice' was created not by the painstaking slicing together of brief sounds from an electronic signal generator, but using an ARP 2600 synthesizer (borrowed from Francis Ford Coppola).
While we can see the influence of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on Star Wars – and Burtt admits the influence of Louis and Bebe Barron's groundbreaking Forbidden Planet music – where Lucas's film differs from Forbidden Planet and the best of Dr Who is in the iron fence that remains to distinguish 'music' from 'sound effects', a distinction thoroughly breached in the older material. And what lies on the other side of the fence, in the hands of composer John Williams, is pure Wagner.
Compared to the monster movies of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, however, we are offered a different side of Wagner. Jabba the Hutt is presented with no wurm-motiv. Rather, Williams's motifs – and Star Wars is the first film in several decades to use a Wagnerian leitmotivic score – seem tailor-made to draw out the similar themes in Star Wars and the Ring cycle. Analysis shows clear similarities between the musical themes used to represent Wagner and Lucas's respective orphaned heroes who must learn fear before they set off on their quest (Siegfried and Skywalker), between their incestuous twins (Siegmund/Sieglinde and Luke/Leia), between their world-destroying – and circular – objects of power (the ring and the Death Star).
ARP synthesizers also feature prominently in another film from 1977, directed by Lucas's old USC classmate, Steven Spielberg. This time the synths are brought onscreen for a finale which, with its arc lamps and whooping crowds, resembles a rock concert. Throughout Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the possibility of communication with an alien intelligence is conceived in musical terms, from the Joe (Sesame Street) Raposo song that spontaneously bursts out of a child's record player to a hand signal language attributed to Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodàly.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 

Though the initial contact of the extra-terrestrials is experienced through mechanical sources of music – record players, radios, etc – and the initial human response is through 'organic' massed voices, by the film's denouement, with the aliens encountering humanity less as individual than institution, it is the humans who represent themselves with electronic music, while the visiting creatures are given the sound of a tuba (an instrument specifically chosen by Spielberg and Williams for its "human" sound). Only in the film's 'Special Edition', released three years later, do we enter the alien mothership, in the new final climax of the film. In this scene, the emergence on the soundtrack of choral singing appears to have precisely the opposite effect of that ascribed by Wagner to the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: not the sudden emergence of the future in a music enriched by poetry, but nostalgia for the lost humanity of the past. It takes an alien civilization to reflect this back at us and remind us of it. Their 'humanity' may be ours, but it is one that we have neglected.

The genealogy of surround-sound technologies leads us from Disney's Fantasound system, used by Leopold Stokowski in Fantasia (1940), through Edgard Varèse's Poème électronique at the 1958 Brussels Expo, Stockhausen's music for the German pavillion at the 1970 Osaka Expo, and back to Disney as purveyor of theme parks. But the Dolby Stereo Surround, which is the direct predecessor of today's 5.1 systems, was first used in Apocalypse Now (1979). There are no creatures from another world in Francis Ford Coppola's sprawling epic, no superhuman behemoths, but it is no less a film about monsters, a more thoroughgoing investigation of the monstrous than a score of Hammer productions. “Horror has a face,” as the “unsound” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) declares, and it is a face we can recognise.
The film's sound, designed by Lucas's former collaborator, Walter Murch, took the best part of a year to mix. It unleashes the full arsenal of extra-terrestrial sonics. Now our technology is the alien technology, our guns and our helicopters are created by synthesizers (the ARP again), swooping over our heads, mutating into musical ostinati. In the hands of synth players like Bernie Krause (one half of the team behind the Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music) and Nyle Steiner (inventor of the Electronic Wind Instrument, as played by the alien bar band in the Tatooine space port in Star Wars), the distinction between music and sound effects is thoroughly transgressed. We are in Forbidden Planet territory here. Rarely have humans seemed more demonic than when dropping napalm from helicopters, soundtracked by Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries'.


In a roundabout way, this brings us back to where we started, to Gareth Edwards's Monsters, from 2010. As the soldiers ride into do battle with the alien creatures in the scenes that bookend the film, they sing 'Ride of the Valkyries' to each other. "That's my theme song," says one, and we know on which side our sympathies are supposed to lie. The score, by Jon Hopkins, is composed largely of violins – since Beethoven's Concerto in D, that most humanistic of instruments – heavily processed, to the point of being indistinguishable from the synths Hopkins provided for Coldplay's last album. Only towards the end of the film, on the track the OST labels 'Encounter', do we get some of the eerie tension that fills much of the early part of John Williams's score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The monsters themselves, when we hear them 'speak', sound rather like super-sized wookiees, and I would be most surprised if they weren't created in a similar way, by electronic manipulation of sampled animal noises. The sound of Monsters, then, compliments the ideology of the image, in line with those late seventies films we have already discussed: technology has made monsters of us all, and that only an alien invasion can recall us to nature, and teach us to love again.

Robert Barry is a freelance writer and composer, based in Paris. He writes a regular column on film soundtracks for Electric Sheep Magazine, and blogs at He is currently working on his first book, about opera and science fiction, for Zer0 Books

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