Distant Ecologies: Sci-Fi Film Scores and the Music of the Final Frontier
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Distant Ecologies: Sci-Fi Film Scores and the Music of the Final Frontier


In 1950, sci-fi entered its Golden Age in Hollywood with film premieres that established sci-fi as a major cinematic genre. These films, however, sounded dramatically different from other films at the time, as sci-fi’s extraterrestrial settings and characters encouraged composers to experiment with their scores and distance themselves from the classical Hollywood style. This dissertation investigates science fiction films from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, which I believe are the most decisive decades in the development of cinematic science fiction. Film music scholar Vivian Sobchack wrote in 1987 that sci-fi lacked a notable sound compared to genres like westerns and noirs, but through these three decades, I show that composers not only experimented in their scores, but also established cliches and tropes that would define the sound of sci-fi and used these associations to construct the soundworlds of outer space. My ecomusicological study of Destination Moon (1950), Rocketship X-M (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956), Planet of the Apes (1968), Alien (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Star Wars (the original trilogy) pushes the boundaries of ecomusicology to the distant ecologies of outer space. By studying the interaction between these scores—which included electronic instruments like the theremin and state-of-the-art synthesizers, serialism, primitivism, unfamiliar timbres, and several other unconventional Hollywood practices—and distant ecologies, charting a new area in the Final Frontier for film music scholars and ecomusicologists to explore. While composers like Ferde Grofé, Bebe Barron, and Jerry Goldsmith paid close attention to how their scores represented outer space landscapes, these films also explored a variety of social and cultural critiques, many of which are ecological and related to the developments of the Space Race and the Cold War. Firstly, I explore the ambivalent attitudes toward technology. These films celebrate our ability to travel to distant planets but critique nuclear weaponry and its capability for immense ecological destruction. I show that composers often paired strange timbres and unconventional instruments with outer space settings and aliens, suggesting that we should be frightened by advanced technology. On the other hand, more conventional, swashbuckling themes conjured feelings of excitement and adventure at the prospect of exploring other planets and galaxies. Secondly, many films present a blurry mechanical-biological binary. I show that characters like Robby the Robot, Darth Vader, C-3PO, and the Krell complicate the distinction between man and machine, and that the Barrons’s life-like cybernetic sound circuits for Forbidden Planet further blur the mechanical-biological binary, for example through Ben Burtt’s processing of organic sounds to create inorganic sound effects. Lastly, I examine issues related to imperialism on the Final Frontier. The human interaction with other planets and extraterrestrials evokes the concepts of manifest destiny and imperialism, which map onto varied narratives of conflict between humans and extraterrestrials. Through my analysis of these films, I show that extraterrestrials are sonically “othered” using electronic instruments, atonality, or strange timbres, standing in sharp contrast to the conventional Hollywood orchestra, representing the familiar and the human.

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