The Jazz of Star Trek

Music in Science Fiction & Fantasy

By Dennis W. Green

 What jazz standard shares a melody with the Star Trek theme? And what rock & roll tune tells its story against the background of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity?

Artists have always been inspired by the art of others. Musicians and writers have traded inspiration for centuries. Science Fiction and Fantasy are no different. But these genres are unique in how fans are touched by the music.

In this post, we’ll explore the unique connections your favorite movies and TV shows have with classical and jazz music. In Part II, we’ll move on to Rock and Pop.

 Sci-Fi At The Movies – A Classical Gas

When I started researching for this article, I thought I would spend most of my time discussing the various classical pieces that have found their way into science fiction and fantasy movies, beginning with “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Turns out, it’s pretty much Zarathustra and… well, not a lot else. Most of the music we know and love from our favorite movies are original compositions, which we’ll cover in the next section.

Now, cartoons are another matter. If not for Bugs Bunny, I would know nothing about classical music. I can’t ever hear “The Barber of Seville” without seeing that wascally wabbit wielding a shaving brush and razor. But that’s another article.

If there is another classical piece that has been so totally intertwined with any movie, let alone a sci-Fi movie, as much as Strauss’s meditation on Friedrich Nietzsche, I don’t know what it would be. No other “pre-composed” movie theme even comes close.

But Stanley Kubrick is not the only director to mine the archives of classical music for inspiration.

A good example is Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13, used to excellent effect in The Avengers. Other fairly recent examples include Prometheus (Chopin), and Elysium (Bach).

Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” has been called “the most overused piece of music in film history,” and shows up in dozens of movies, movie trailers, commercials, and TV.

For me, its most memorable usage is when King Arthur and his knights charge into battle with the choral epic in the background in Excalibur. It also pops up in 2007’s Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, not to mention The Doors, Speed, Last of the Mohicans and even Jackass.

 Putting The Original into Original Soundtrack

Where original movies scores are concerned, let’s start at the top of the mountain, John Williams and Star Wars.

The Star Wars Soundtrack was the first non-rock and roll record I ever bought, and I listened to it over and over again after seeing the movie. Remember, this was in the days when if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to a theater. So in between viewings, listening to the soundtrack was a great way to re-live the movie. If you’ve never sat down and listened to the full 5:51 of the Main Title, do it now.

Leitmotif is a musical term that means a phrase or melody that is associated with a particular character, place, or emotion. Common in symphonic music and opera, It was not used much in film until Williams revived it for Star Wars.

It’s really a very simple device, but it is now impossible to imagine the Star Wars movies without the unique musical signatures associated with particular characters and scenes.

The re-stated melody of the Main Title which plays under Luke’s first appearance, answering Uncle Owen’s bellow, will come to represent him throughout the films. The same for Princess Leia, the Jawas, even The Force, whose theme first appears in the Binary Sunset scene, and returns in each of the films.

The Star Wars soundtrack remains the highest grossing non-pop recording of all time. But it was just the beginning for John Williams. He would go on to compose the five-note figure the aliens implant in Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not to mention the music to Superman, the Indiana Jones films, and the entire Star Wars saga.

As far as other original music composed for sci-fi movies goes, the music from Lord of the Rings comes very close to achieving Williams-esque status. Howard Shore used over ninety leitmotifs, the most identifiable of which would probably be “History of The Ring,” which plays during the title sequence of all three films, and “Pippin’s Song,” with the hobbit sings to Denethor at the same time the Steward’s son Faramir makes his suicidal charge into battle in “Return of the King.”

The lyrics to “Pippin’s Song” are not from Tolkien at all, but were composed by Billy Boyd, who played the character. He wrote the song on just twenty-four hours notice, the day before the scene was filmed.

Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture theme introduced us to the “new” Star Trek theme. A decade of Star Trek: The Next Generation on TV would burn it into our minds.

Honorable mention to Queen, because there are very few themes that captured the essence of their films (that is to say, ridiculous camp) better than Flash.

( More about Queen later)

 The Jazz of Star Trek

At first listen, the original Star Trek Theme seems to be a pretty conventional orchestral piece. But Alexander Courage’s composition has its roots in jazz.

In a 2000 interview, Courage explained that his inspiration for the main part of the theme is from “Beyond The Blue Horizon,” a pop tune from the 1930s. Courage said it gave him the idea for a song which was a “long thing that…keeps going out into space…over a fast moving accompaniment.”

See if you make the connection when you listen to this swing version of the song, by Jack Hylton and his Orchestra.

But the most interesting musical parallel is coincidental. The Star Trek theme shares a harmonic progression with the jazz standard, “Out of Nowhere.” That is to say, the two songs share the same several notes, played in the same order, to form each tune’s main melody (“The Hook” in music parlance).

“Out of Nowhere” was Bing Crosby’s first Number One hit. You can definitely hear the melodic similarity in Bing’s original version, but when Charlie Parker and Miles Davis slowed it down and made a ballad out of the tune in 1947, the resemblance is downright eerie:

It’s difficult to believe that Courage wasn’t familiar with “Out of Nowhere,” but he never mentioned it as an influence. Absent an “unconscious plagiarism” ruling of the sort that led George Harrison to pay a bunch of money to the composer of “He’s So Fine,” we are left with the resemblance as a coincidence.

But a coincidence that the show has had some fun with.

In the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry suggested doing a detective story based on the holodeck, and writer Tracy Tormé got the job of writing “The Big Goodbye.” In the process, Tormé created the character of 1940s literary detective Dixon Hill, one of the most memorable additions to the Star Trek canon.

As Captain Picard enters Dixon Hill’s office for the first time near the beginning of the episode, a radio is playing “Out of Nowhere.” It was producer Robert Justman who suggested the Easter Egg. A jazzer would say he was “hip” to the connection.

(It’s interesting to note that Tracy Tormé is the son of legendary jazz singer Mel Tormé. The younger Tormé would go on to co-create “Sliders,” and cast his famous father in the show.)

Jazz plays a small but significant role in almost every Star Trek series:

  • Jonathon Frakes happened to play the trombone, which led the Next Generation writers to send Commander Ryker to a holodeck jazz club to unwind. Ryker complained he could never master a fictional standard called “Nightbird.”
  • The Deep Space Nine crew also liked to hang out in holodeck bars. Their favorite hologram was lounge singer Vic Fontaine, played by former teen heartthrob James Darren. Eventually, Fontaine would come to serve as a father confessor of sorts to various members of the crew.
  • Lieutenant Harry Kim led a jazz quartet on Voyager called the Kimtones, with Kim on clarinet. Unlike Frakes, Garrett Wang did not play the instrument, but memorized the correct fingerings, no small task.
  • And on Star Trek: Enterprise, we learn that free jazz has an interesting effect on the Vulcan psyche. When T’Pol hits a San Francisco club in the episode “Fusion,” she describes what she hears as “…unusual, chaotic, but I was drawn to it. I felt… invigorated.”
  • This idea popped up in Voyager as well. In “Riddles,” Tuvok loses his intellect and quits repressing his emotions. During this time, he develops a fondness for jazz.

A word of advice: Don’t tell a jazz musician you have to be illogical to enjoy the form.

NEXT TIME: SF & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Are All My Brain and Body Need!

(This is an expanded version of an article that was originally published in PerihelionSF under the title “More Than Zarathustra.)

“Traveler,” Dennis W. Green’s first novel, is a sci-fi thriller in the tradition of Daniel Suarez and Dean Koontz. It has dozens of 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon, and scored in the Top Ten in the Ben Franklin Independent Publishing awards.

The adventures of parallel universe-jumping cop Trav Becker continue in “Prisoner.” The final volume of the trilogy, Hunter, is due in 2019.

A popular radio personality in his native Iowa, Dennis’s adventures as a DJ have been covered by newspapers from Anchorage to Los Angeles. He has also worked on the

stage, TV, and independent film.

By day, he is the general manager of Iowa’s only jazz radio station, KCCK-FM. And if It’s 5:30 am, you can probably find him in the pool, working out with the Milky Way Masters swim club.

Follow Dennis online at http://www.denniswgreen.com, facebook.com/TravelerTrilogy, or @dgreencr on Twitter.

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