Soundtrack to Your Escape
Evolution of Cinematic Soundtracks
Sonata of the Screen and Grid is an exposition on film and animation directors’ work and compositional comparison of the musicians and composers who scored them. For this piece we’ll look at the evolution of speculative fiction cinema scores and “Rise of the Synths”, dissecting their flirtation with cyberpunk style synthesizer riffs.
We’ve begun this in-depth series with an introductory examination of how traditional music theory and composition has been adapted for video game soundtracks; now, it’s time to go further back to look at the origins of music in media such as films, television, and radio have developed.
The Hollywood Synergy
Since the inception of motion pictures in the late 19th century, there has almost always been a presence of sound, specifically organized sounds that carry a melody. Music has been an integral part of evoking an emotion or feeling from a live-action or animated feature. Even silent films were usually accompanied by big band jazz stylized melodies. Although the films were devoid of dialogue and sound effects, it was solely up to the composer and musicians to perfectly encapsulate what is on the screen with the music they create. Fast forward to a contemporary setting and Hollywood box office films that fall into common vernacular, some film directors and composers have become renowned for their synergetic approach presented in their films. Among the most recognized are directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas with John Williams and the London Philharmonic, Tim Burton with Danny Elfman, and Hayao Miyazaki with Joe Hisaishi. It’s a popular misconception that film composers and the directors may not always have the best relationship when tackling the creative process when preparing a composition and performing it. With introspect on how each artist works in tandem with one another, it becomes clearer how much emphasis is put on film scores and how they affect the final product.
In a 2012 interview with Steven Spielberg, who is known for such films as Jaws, E.T., and Jurassic Park, the director reveals his feeling toward renowned composer and long-time friend, John Williams. “My admiration for him grows with every picture he scores, whether they’re my pictures or someone else’s,” said Spielberg. “I’m more awestruck by John today than when I was when I first met him in the early ’70s” [ 1 ]. If it weren’t for directors and composers like Spielberg and Williams, exploring the contemporary dynamic of film composition could be viewed as a minefield of voicing options and tasteful melodic choices. Williams’ work with Spielberg and George Lucas of Star Wars and Indiana Jones fame, certainly set a precedent for modern film scoring in the late 1970s and onward. With Williams’ approach to film composition and performance, the director-composer dynamic blossomed a culturally impactful creative powerhouse that resonated throughout the decades for future filmmakers and musical artists.
Identifying the Narrative and Themes
Just as a video game’s soundtrack has undergone an evolution due to technology, it’s no secret that a film’s soundtrack of compositions likewise evolved drastically since the first silent films. In addition to rapidly advancing technologies used to record and perform said compositions, the techniques have evolved too. Among these techniques for writing a film score, and that is composing a film’s main theme. Embellished and widely recognizable melodies tend to parallel the events coinciding the film typically presented in the presentation’s intro, end credits, and reprised and rearranged throughout the film peppered through crucial or impactful scenes. Many could easily hum a few bars of John Williams’ melodies from everyone’s favorite adventuring archaeologist’s adventures — Indiana Jones, or Alan Silvestri’s triumphant brass section in Robert Zemeckis’s time-travelling adventure trilogy, Back to the Future. It is in the main themes of a film’s score that holds a lasting appeal throughout the movie’s duration as distinguished composers are tactful in creating a tasteful, memorable, or “catchy” melody that immerses the audience into what they’re viewing. While a film’s composer may not have direct influence on a film’s plot, narrative and themes, they are the ones tasked with embellishing and complimenting those literary and cinematography components and their complexities.
“Whether to court or avoid complexity is an important consideration for a number of reasons, but it really boils down to what is right for the film in terms of style, genre, aesthetic, and the taste of the filmmaker. There is always a balance to be struck between interest and change versus familiarity and repetition. If you restrict yourself to on over-arching theme and repeat it verbatim ad nauseam, you will run the risk of boring your audience. On the other hand, if you have a giant number of themes in your work it can sometimes loose a feeling of unity. Even though Howard Shore wrote a staggering 80 themes for his The Lord of the Rings scores, he made sure they were thematically unified” [ 2 ].
In addition to engaging with the complexities and number of themes present in any given film, the composer’s choice of melody, voicing, timbre, and tempo are crucial to the final creation. Some fans and critics will speculate whether the importance of the films narratives and themes are truly integral to the film’s overall presentation, but many will agree the soundtrack is just as important as the film itself. Interestingly, music in film scores while often prone to the orchestral arranged method, some artists choose to explore their tonal options and opt for synthesized programmed sounds.
Rise of the Synths: Electronic Music in Films
Since the late 1960s, the introduction of the analog synthesizer has made a tidal wave in the music scene. Jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, and even heavy metal were all becoming notorious in utilizing an electronic organ or keyboard in their arranged instrumentation. Although Micky Dolenz of The Monkees was among the first to introduce the synthesizer into popular music in the 1960s, among the most recognizable artists of the era were that of Keith Emerson of the classic rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Emerson’s modular Moog analog synthesizer created a signature sound for the band which resonated throughout the music world for decades to come, as more and more artists and bands began incorporating the synthesizer sound in their music. If it weren’t for the early analog synthesizer popularized by Emerson, music in the 1980s would have evolved into something completely different. Bands like A-Ha, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, and Tears for Fears are among some of the most recognizable bands of the 1980s and onward that utilized synthesizers heavily in their music – and it’s these same synthesized sounds that inspired the earliest video game composers as well.
When analyzing film score, it is often topical to understand the kind of music that was popular at the time of release of a film. When comparing films produced in the 1980s, it’s fair to assume that the utilization of the synthesizer played a heavy part in shaping the soundscapes of many motion pictures of the era. To condense the essence of synthesizer film scoring and filmmaking, one would look to acclaimed horror movie director and composer, John Carpenter. Carpenter, who is known for such films as Halloween, 1982’s The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China, was not only the director of said films, but he was also credited for composing their soundtracks. “But he’s always been more than “just” a film director – he also composed the scores for his own films, many of which have become as iconic as the film themselves, thanks to their pioneering use of synthesizers” [ 3 ].
Carpenter, who is no stranger to the horror movie genre, has always intrinsically created unsettling, spacey, and ethereal soundscapes in his movies that can be haunting, moody, or downright creepy at times that couldn’t be possible without the use of the analog and eventually digital synthesizer. Carpenter also can be credited for conceptualizing the musical sub-genre that many recognize today as synth-wave. Although Carpenter continues to build his legacy to this day with his solo compositional studio work, the films and full-length features that almost canonically claimed the unique sounds of the synthesizer fit into the science and speculative fiction category.
Cyberpunk or Retro Futurism
It’s no surprise that the characters and worlds of literary environments have made their way onto the big screen in more ways than one, just as there have been depictions of these characters and worlds in video games as well. Shakespeare and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters could be seen on film as far back as the dawn of the 19th century. When exploring the literary sub-genre that is cyberpunk, the images of rain-slick rooftops cascaded in bright neon lights and dystopian themes of artificial intelligence and uploaded consciousness. The most prominent authors of the genre include Isaac Asimov, Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson. While Dick’s and Gibson’s stories were never fully realized on the big screen, preceding films following their narratives are heavily influenced by their literary works. The pinnacle of the cyberpunk sub-genre within science-fiction is often compared to that of Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic Blade Runner. To even be considered science-fiction, Blade Runner draws much of its inspiration from Phillip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? To fully understand whether movies like Blade Runner can be considered post futurism speaks to the time it was released. Much of the technology portrayed in the film, like smart tablets and virtual reality, came to fruition in the modern age. Incidentally, Scott’s futuristic slow-paced gumshoe drama takes place in 2019. By today’s cultural standards, many could label many facets of cyberpunk as retro-futurism much like “astropunk” deriving its speculative post-futurism aesthetics from the space race of the late 1950s or “steampunk” portrayed as retro-futurism derived from the late 19th century Victorian era. While the perceivable timelines of speculation and certainty of worlds created in fictional works is variable when comparing to the real world in its cultural and societal intricacies. What remains clear is the subtle and intentional use music in such films like Blade Runner that raise further investigation – just as the use of music in the modern video game title Cyberpunk 2077 continues that tradition.
Mr. Scott, I Presume?
Director Ridley Scott, who is most well-known for his work on the Alien movie franchise, is widely regarded as one of the forefathers of science-fiction movies. While Scott’s first foray into filmmaking and directing was that of 1977’s The Duellists (a feature length film portraying the short story of Joseph Conrad’s The Duel), it was 1979’s Alien that garnered Scott’s fame and set new precedent for not just science-fiction and horror, but the innovations used on character, creature and set design, screenplay, practical visual special effects, acting, and of course sound design. “The iconic, avant-garde score to the film Alien was composed by Jerry Goldsmith and is considered by some to be one of his best, most visceral scores” [ 4 ]. Rather than focusing on themes, Goldsmith creates a bleak and dissonant soundscape that fits the film’s dark and intense atmosphere, with only a few “romantic” cues” [ 5 ]. While Alien was nothing short of a masterpiece at the time, three years later Scott delivered Blade Runner to audiences, and once again reinvented how storytelling in a science-fiction film setting isn’t always fit for action-packed, gun-blazing heroics, and the tired plot device of the protagonist saving the damsel-in-distress trope used in more action and old west films than it should be. Much like Alien’s soundtrack that was composed by Jerry Goldsmith (of The Omen and Star Trek: The Motion Picture fame), Blade Runner’s soundtrack follows the moody, atmospheric, bleak, and visceral heavy-driven synth composition throughout the film’s 117-minute runtime with—a soundtrack that really cemented the foundation for the synth-driven cyberpunk correlation.
The Mind of Vangelis
Blade Runner composer Vangelis “was born Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou in the Greek town of Agria, and he mostly taught himself to play music. In 1968, he co-founded the popular prog-rock band Aphrodite’s Child. Vangelis began experimenting with synthesizers early on and they came to define his sound as a solo recording artist, and particularly his work as a film composer.” Because Vangelis began his musical career experimenting with synth sounds, his big break in Blade Runner would change the way electronic composition in film scoring was done. According to an NPR interview with Vangelis in 2016, “Vangelis says that most synthesizers aren’t well-designed. ‘They have complete different logic than the human logic,’ he says. So, he built his own elaborate synthesizer system, which allows him to perform his music like a full orchestra: all by himself, in real time. He says most of his published work, even work from years ago, comes from his first take, with no overdubs. While the use of overdubbing is considered industry standard for musical recording, Vangelis had a unique approach of bringing a fully synthesized orchestra into his performance in real time, which is exemplified in his live shows. According to the Greek artist, when approached about scoring the 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, he said, “We are part of the universe, and the music is the code. Music is science more than art, and it is the main code of the universe. But that’s a big subject, and I don’t think it’s the right thing to discuss right now” [ 6 ]. While renowned film composer Hans Zimmer was credited for composing for Blade Runner’s highly anticipated sequel, it became clear to audiences that 2049’s soundtrack still borrowed heavy inspiration from Vangelis’ moody soundscapes of the original.
New Age Punks
While Blade Runner is still widely considered a pinnacle example of a speculative science-fiction movie, successor generations of filmmakers and composers that drew inspiration from Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic took the cyberpunk aesthetic and crafted it into a palpable sub-genre for the 1990s insurgence. When approaching most science fiction or action movie fanatics pre-dating the internet boom, many are quite familiar with the cyberpunk sub-genre of fiction and correlated media of tabletop, videogames, literature and cinema. Among the earliest accounts of cyberpunk and music working synergistically post-Blade Runner in the western hemisphere was entirely removed from the cinema setting. 1993 would yield the release of ’80s punk rocker Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk LP. “Cyberpunk, a 20-track concept album that took Idol’s world-famous persona and multi-platinum sound and attempted to bring them into the ’90s—both in terms of the lyrical subject matter, which focused on futuristic themes, and in terms of the computer-driven production methods used to create the music.” While Idol’s experimental album never received the recognition or notoriety of his previous efforts in a grunge-tinged generation, the album alludes to Scott’s Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Neuromancer on several occasions. “Unfortunately for Idol, all that enthusiasm—not to mention a heavy promotional campaign that included a video for ‘Shock to the System’ directed by effects guru Stan Winston (Terminator 2)— didn’t seem to translate to the music, which inspired widespread indifference and/or derision. In fact, he found himself beset by criticism from all sides; first from members of the nascent Internet community who felt like Idol was trying to co-opt their culture for his own gain, then by rock pundits who accused him of writing subpar material for the album, and finally by the fans, who more or less ignored Cyberpunk completely.
Author William Gibson, whose 1984 novel Neuromancer helped inspire Idol’s Cyberpunk journey, hinted at the cultural disconnect that probably doomed the project from the beginning. “I just don’t get what he’s on about,” Gibson admitted when asked about the album. “I don’t see the connection. A London journalist told me when Billy did his Cyberpunk press junket over there, he made it a condition of getting an interview with him, that every journalist had to have read Neuromancer. … Anyway, they all did but when they met with Billy, the first thing that became really apparent was that Billy hadn’t read it. So, they called him on it, and he said he didn’t need to … he just absorbed it through a kinda osmosis. I don’t know” [ 7 ]. While Idol’s foray into the cyberpunk sub-genre to bring it to the mainstream foreground was met with harsh critical response, film and animation that presented the sub-genre in new narratives at the time also brought fresh ideas and renewed compositional approaches for film scoring.
The 1990s were rife with big-budget blockbuster films of the science fiction, action, and horror movie genres. While many of the recognizable films of the era typically follow the same trends of orchestrated arrangements in their compositions, much like the Hollywood synergy dynamic, there were some features that revitalized the speculative fiction setting and cyberpunk sub-genre whose scores and soundtracks deserve further insight – especially since video game technology of the day developed sufficiently for better fidelity in reproducing sounds on CD-ROM games. Recalling William Gibson’s literary work once again, 1995 saw the release of Robert Longo’s cyberpunk action-thriller, Johnny Mnemonic, which is based on Gibson’s 1981 short story of the same name. It’s easy for critics to scoff at the cinematography, acting, and use of special effects that dredged Mnemonic into a 13% score on Rotten Tomatoes. However, films like Johnny Mnemonic remain a hallmark of the cyberpunk sub-genre of filmmaking and incorporated the heavy use of synthesizers within its soundtrack. Johnny Mnemonic’s soundtrack was composed by Brad Ira Fiedel who was more recognized for his work on James Cameron’s The Terminator and its critically acclaimed sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Sure, the James Cameron Terminator films can arguably follow one of many cyberpunk narratives as rogue artificial intelligence is one of the many tropes of cyberpunk.
Sometimes it’s the approach of retro-futurism that is open for interpretation as films that strictly adhere to a set timeline. Devoid of time-traveling robots, Iain Softley’s 1995 Hackers is an American crime film about a group of teenage hackers. While Hackers was never met with same critical praise as epics like Scott’s Blade Runner or Cameron’s Terminator, its contributions to youth culture, the cyberpunk sub-genre, and “slice of life” drama turned the film into a cult classic. Far removed from large-scale productions that included a post-futuristic setting, Hollywood special effects, and an orchestrated score, Hackers’ accompanying soundtrack was quite unique and spoke to the outcast youth generations. Hackers’ soundtrack combines electronica, pulsating tribal rhythms and techno/house music of early hardcore groups like Prodigy, Underworld and Orbital. It has been well received with 4.4 of 5 stars from 72 reviewers [ 8 ]. The soundtrack was released in three separate volumes over three years. It was this type of new-age revival and rebelliousness that was featured in Hackers and its correlating soundtracks that enamored teenage audiences and helped earn the film’s unique reputation.
A New Age for Sci-Fi and Fantasy
While Johnny Mnemonic and Hackers weren’t the only films that fit the cyberpunk cult film status in movie history, there were many other films that fit the niche center for the unique, bizarre, or intriguing. Alex Proyas’s 1998 Dark City or David Cronenberg’s 1999 Existenz are both examples of cult classic films that find themselves within a speculative and fictitious world, each with their unique approaches at soundtrack and composition from even more recognizable composers. Dark City was scored by Trevor Jones of Labyrinth and Last of the Mohicans fame, while Existenz’s soundtrack was composed by the legendary Howard Shore. Although these films were not widely received by critics or audiences until much later, their musical compositions remain a breath of fresh air to this day. These compilations of niche cinema however would serve as a primer of what would follow in 1999 as the narratives, themes, tropes, and of course musical arrangements of cyberpunk would come directly into the face of mainstream notoriety.
1999 would yield the release of one of the most critically acclaimed, widely received, and most recognizable films of the century, The Matrix – and one that received its fair share of video game adaptations, complete with their own orchestral scores. Directed by the Wachowski sisters, The Matrix set the bar higher not just for science-fiction and fantasy films, but filmmaking in general. Widely received by critics and fans, The Matrix’s sharp visuals, visceral action scenes, cyberpunk/dystopian themes and imagery and imaginative art direction propelled the film into one of the most recognizable movies of all time. To stylistically approach the songwriting and arrangements for The Matrix’s soundtrack, composer Don Davis details in a 2019 interview with Hollywood Reporter about his secrets and what it took to satisfy the Wachowskis’ vision.
“For many involved, The Matrix was life-changing. But many scores are the result and product of previous works. Were there not Alan Silvestri’s Romancing the Stone, there would be no Back to the Future. As such, it feels that without Bound (jazz cues aside), we might not have The Matrix. Bound has a number of instruments in common with The Matrix, but the Wachowskis resonated with Davis’ “pile driver. (Its use in their 1996 film had used a manipulated recording of an actual pile driver.) “It was very rhythmic, and they loved those slams,” says Davis. “They were very happy with my approach to compose the score in a very minimalist and post-modern way” [ 9 ].
Davis’ post-modern approach may not have anything new for the genre, but the resounding success of The Matrix would propel the franchise into several sequels and subsequent animated features like 2003’s The Animatrix. The Animatrix would tie in the elements that made the original film so captivating for audiences and delivered on the platform of Japanese style of animation known as anime. The Animatrix, directed by the Wachowskis, was also credited with Don Davis’ return to musical arrangements.
Towering Mech Suits and Impossible Plots
Much like western influences on cyberpunk, its widely known that the sub-genre borrows more than its fair share from Japanese and Southeast Asian cultures. Typical of a post-modern cyberpunk universe, pan-culturalism is often considered the societal standard. If one were to immerse oneself into the pages of a William Gibson novel, the cinematic world of Blade Runner, or the titillating episodes of streaming service Netflix’s Altered Carbon series, one would find the heavy use of Cantonese, Japanese, German and Arabic throughout the sprawling cityscapes, from the brightly lit neon signs to the warning labels in the subway station. It’s unquestionable that the cyberpunk sub-genre of themes draws much of its influence from the land of the rising sun with anime being such an integral part of contemporary Japanese culture. Anime has set the standard for many western film adaptations to this day. Among two full-length animated features that follow the progression of cyberpunk evolution are that of 1988’s drama/thriller Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and 1995’s drama fantasy Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii. Undoubtedly the two franchises are monoliths in the anime ethos, however even Akira and Ghost in the Shell draw their influences from even earlier anime series like 1990’s Cyber City Oedo 808, 1985’s Megazone 23, and Otomo’s contributions towards the 1987 anthology, Neo Tokyo. While the cyberpunk sub-genre in anime does still carry a wide array of western influences thanks to Blade Runner, perhaps the musical arrangements are where the two take a stark divergence.
With J-pop, or Japanese pop, music among the most popular and broad genre of music in Japan, its inclusion in animated features, series, and video game adaptations would soon follow. Composers like Tsutomu Ōhashi of Akira and Kenji Kawai of Ghost in the Shell paint examples of the type of music used in those films. A blend of J-pop, a dash of J-rock, a peppering of synthpop and jazz fusion would all be considered credible examples of the evolution of music used in sci-fi fantasy animated features from the 1980s until today. Many indie musicians and artists who find inspiration in anime relevant to that time and genre have helped contribute to the ever-evolving underground music scene. Sub-genres like city-pop and future funk begin to come into common vernacular as video compilations with titles like lo-fi hip hop/ synthpop beats to study to gain as many hits on YouTube as any given Billboard Top 40 artist. While some may argue that inventing new sub-genres for this retro revivalist movement of low-definition pop, jazz fusion and funk are becoming blurred by the boundaries of labeling music. While many of the artists who compose for the new retro-wave/synth-wave/vaporwave realm remain anonymous, some have come forward to legitimize this type of music from internet bootleg obscurity.
In an Opuszine article, they define city pop as more than just a musical sub-genre. Elias Blondeau writes,
“city pop… represented a sort of new start in the Japanese music industry. It deliberately implemented a more Western sound in terms of instrumentation and tempo. Slick and production [sic], complicated beat patterns, elaborate synthesizer and saxophone riffs. At the time, there was a futuristic sound to it that was unique—a soundtrack to Japan’s economic miracle and global reputation as a futuristic, technological wonderland. In crafting a deliberately new sound, producers and musicians alike were hoping to capture a futuristic feeling that could be sold to and consumed by the masses. It was, in theory, to provide a soundtrack to Japan’s newfound reputation among Western countries as a futuristic wonderland. Long nights in neon cities and perpetual sunsets in beachy countryside’s, instilled with a celebration of wealth and capitalism—these were the images conjured up and pressed to vinyl, to be taken in by listeners caught in the allure of this promising future” [ 10 ].
While city pop isn’t relatively anything new, it represents a cultural expression that encapsulates pan-culturalism to its most modernized audible and aesthetic form. While city pop or relevant sub-genres aren’t entirely personified by the animated series or features they stem from, the commonality between the two remain relevant to their overall and imperative appeal.
To condense the early Blade Runner influences of Vangelis’ heavy synth soundscapes and the synth pop/city pop cohesions utilized in animated features, one would look to contemporary films within the sci-fi fantasy and cyberpunk sub-genre to get a full taste of where the music has gone since the 1980s. One modern example of this synthpop fusion could be heard in 2015’s indie sci-fi thriller, Turbo Kid that featured arrangements from Canadian synth-wave artist Le Matos. Another example of this evolution on a larger production scale is that of 2019’s CG animated sci-fi thriller, Alita: Battle Angel, which featured arrangements from electronic composer Tom Holkenborg better known as Junkie XL. To some degree, modern synth artists do carry a significant advantage to their predecessors due to the confines of hardware and recording technology available at the time, however these advantages have created an overwhelming prosperity of synth based artists with filmmaking in mind in the underground music world and into the mainstream spotlight.
- “Alan Silvestri’s triumphant use of Brass sections in Back to the Future remains iconic, invoking chills, echoing in fans heads whenever they so much as glimpse a DeLorean.”
Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/delorean-london-film-comic-con-2017-687311458 (Shutterstock, “DeLorean at London Film and Comic Con 2017” by Dan Jamieson)
- “A huge part of Blade Runner’s enduring influence, with its dystopian view of the LA Skyline and selectively blended multiethnic culture set against the backdrop f climate change and pollution, was Vangelis heavily synthesized soundscapes.” Source:https://www.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/futuristic-chinatown-market-rain-2187209375 (Shutterstock “Futuristic Chinatown Market In The Rain” by Sola Solandra)
A classically trained musician, when paired with her talents in creative writing, her career as a technician and industrial electrician, and her education in journalism and the arts, Kyla’s a force to be reckoned with. Having served in SFS’ core and intermediate writing staff, she’s made her mark, both on The Living Multiverse and, of course, The Unconventional. Her series Sonata of the Screen and Grid, provides in-depth analysis of the usage and evolution of music in video games and cinema.
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