It is with very great pleasure that I present what I hope will be the first in an ongoing series of occasional ‘Guest Postings’ by friends, acquaintances and strangers who are active in the musical world and have interesting things to say.
Starting us off is this posting written by Halli Cauthery: a good friend of mine for many years; a composer and chamber musician who studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School — and these days an actual film composer living and working in Hollywood. (For more information about him and his work, click here and here.) I am very grateful to Halli for accepting my suggestion that he write a posting in celebration of a piece of film-musical creativity that has always impressed him.
Over to Mr Cauthery…
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Readers of this blog with long memories may remember that Jerry Goldsmith’s name came up earlier in the year, in connection with his score to the acclaimed film Chinatown (1974). [link] You may also recall that, in the very same posting, the cult sci-fi TV series Star Trek (1966-69) earned itself a mention, and not for the first time: indeed, if you’ve been visiting this blog since its birth and care to cast your mind back to one of its earliest entries, you may even remember its founder informing us that he was probably watching an episode of the series in the minutes before his life-altering discovery of the opening of Mahler’s Third Symphony in the summer of 1979. [link]
Well, despite appearances, these are not entirely unrelated observations about recent topics covered on this forum, because I now have the perfect excuse to say a few words about the terrific score Goldsmith wrote for the series’ big-screen debut, Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a movie released in December 1979 (within months of MD’s formative first encounter with Mahler’s boldly going where no composer had gone before…) Goldsmith (1929-2004), we may remember, was the distinguished composer of scores to, among other films, Planet of the Apes (1968), Patton (1970), The Omen (1976 – for which he won an Oscar), Alien (1979), Poltergeist (1982), Basic Instinct (1992), and L.A. Confidential (1997).
Now, with a body of work as impressive (and as extensive) as that, why single out the score to a film that is not, generally speaking, held in particularly high regard? (The review aggregator website rottentomatoes.com gives the movie, at the time of writing, a distinctly average – and rather ungenerous – approval rating of 45%). Well, for one thing, the marvellously rousing main theme from the follow-up series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) actually made its first appearance here: it was later co-opted for the TV series, having originally been written for The Motion Picture. But for another, more important thing, it’s the type of score which demonstrates what fascinating and ingenious things film music is capable of, when placed in the hands of a great master like Goldsmith. And there’s one moment in particular which provides an excellent illustration of what I mean, which I invite the interested reader to consider… (And don’t worry: a liking for Star Trek is not mandatory!)
Before I get to this, we’ll need some narrative context. The plot of the film concerns an alien entity, ‘V’Ger’ – surrounded by an energy field of enormous size and destructive power – moving inexorably through space on a direct collision course with Earth. The intrepid crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise which is dispatched to intercept it is augmented, relevantly, by two new members who did not appear in the original TV series: Captain Will Decker, and Navigation Officer Ilia. It so happens that these two have a romantic history, which Goldsmith underlines musically: they are given a theme which we hear for the first time at around the 45 minute mark, underscoring the brief moment when the two characters speak intimately about the regrettable way their affair ended: the film’s, as it were, ‘Rick and Ilse from Casablanca’ moment. (Actually, in the original theatrical release, this theme first appeared at the start of the film’s ‘Overture’: but since it would there have been accompanying nothing more narratively significant than the opening credits, we are justified in considering its later appearance as the moment when it first acquires identifiable meaning: i.e. specifically as representing Decker and Ilia and their feelings for one another – in much the same way that Herman Hupfeld’s As Time Goes By tune performs a similar job in Casablanca.) Here’s the theme, whose chief melodic idea – the distinctive six-note stepwise upward climb announced in the cellos beginning at 0:07 – I invite you to keep in your mind’s ear:
At this point, and before we go any further, I must address the objections of the more eagle-eyed of you who will have spotted that the soundtrack album calls this ‘Ilia’s Theme’ – not ‘Love Theme’ or ‘Decker and Ilia’s Theme’. To which cavil I invite you to consider, simply, the way it actually behaves during the course of the film: always a more reliable indicator of a theme’s meaning or signification. Which is another way of saying: yes, it may be called Ilia’s theme, but the way it is used and placed throughout the film suggests unmistakably that it is meant to be associated with something more complex than merely Ilia alone: if you were to watch the film with no knowledge of the literal titles of its music cues, you would be far more likely to reach the conclusion that this theme is representative of Decker and Ilia together, rather than simply of Ilia. If it were truly her theme and her theme alone, Goldsmith would surely have introduced it at some point during her first appearance in the film, at the 32 minute mark. And when, later in the film, Ilia has been kidnapped by V’Ger and then returned to the ship in the form of a robotic, mechanized probe bearing her physical form, it is when this probe sets eyes on Decker – triggering a memory of him – that our theme appears again: further reinforcing the idea that it is specifically connected to her feelings for him, and not just a mere ‘calling card’ for Ilia.
As it happens – if the reader will allow me to cut a long story short – Decker and Ilia will end up playing a crucial role in the way the plot is eventually resolved. For our purposes, the important occurrence to bear in mind is that, at the climax of the film, the two characters allow themselves and V’ger the alien entity to become ‘fused’, joined together at the genetic level – the three of them disappearing off in a haze of bright lights into what is assumed to be a ‘higher dimension’ of some sort. (Clearly the filmmakers were aiming, in terms of tone, more towards something of the existential grandeur of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey than, say, the ‘Space Western’ action style of George Lucas’s Star Wars.) Why and how this comes to pass is not really our concern in the present discussion: the relevant (musical) point is that the plot concludes with these three distinct, separate beings – Decker, Ilia, and V’Ger – merging into one compound life-form.
Well now, you may be asking yourself, what has any of this got to do with the music? And I’m glad you asked, because I’m coming to that. Long before the film’s climax, at just before the hour mark, there arrives the moment when the Enterprise comes face to face with V’Ger for the first time – and, shortly afterwards, enters the vast energy field surrounding it and begins to navigate inside the alien being’s airspace. The dark, brooding nature of the music at this point is in keeping with the ominous and uncertain mood of the scene – the crew still has little idea what sort of a being they are dealing with; and as far as they (and the viewer) are concerned, it may yet have hostile intent. But what interests me about the musical character of this almost four-minute long, virtually dialogue-free sequence is not so much its mood, but rather its thematic content – by now you are doubtless a step ahead of me and have already guessed what’s in store: have a listen to the following passage of music, which underscores this scene:
Recognize that six-note, stepwise climb shape which permeates this sequence, forming one of its chief thematic ideas? (Listen to, for example, the low brass at 0:20, 1:08, and 1:54, just for starters). Correct: it is, of course, Ilia and Decker’s ‘love’ theme, the very same melody that we first heard during what I earlier called the Casablanca scene: now transformed into a dark and insidious shape to accompany a sequence that, ostensibly, has nothing specifically to do with either Ilia or Decker and which could, in fact, hardly be more contrasting in mood. Which is rather clever, if you think about it: during this passage, our attention is firmly fixed on the intimidating, sinister environment our protagonists are entering: in other words, on V’Ger. And by underscoring that with a motif that the film has long since established as ‘belonging’ to Ilia and Decker, Goldsmith draws a subtle musical connection between the three characters, long before the plot reveals to us the literal connection that will eventually bind them together. The score is, in other words, telling us something we don’t yet know and will have to wait almost an hour to find out: accompanying a scene which is clearly ‘about’ V’Ger with music which is ‘about’ Decker and Ilia allows the score to present an enigmatic hint that the ultimate destinies of the three characters are inextricably intertwined.
But supposing you still insist that this should properly be regarded as Ilia’s theme, in spite of appearances? Well, then you and I will have to politely agree to disagree… but here’s the beauty of it: under that reading, it is still the case that the score is ingeniously foreshadowing later events when deploying the motif during the Enterprise’s entering of V’Ger’s airspace. Because, as mentioned earlier, Ilia is about to be abducted from the ship and repurposed, by V’Ger, as a mechanized probe – to act, in effect, as V’Ger’s eyes and ears. So, with or without Decker, her fate is linked with that of the alien: and by underscoring a scene which is ‘about’ V’Ger with music which is ‘about’ Ilia – whether or not you regard that music as being also about Decker – the score is still, either way, playing the role of prognosticator and wordlessly telling us things about the plot we don’t yet know, before they happen.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I reckon that this displays, dare one say it, almost Wagnerian ingenuity. It’s a piece of film music creativity in the very best operatic traditions of what the textbooks call ‘Leitmotiv’ technique – and a moment which shows us that a film score, in the right hands, can do so much more than provide intangible qualities like mood, tone, and so forth (necessary though those aspects certainly also are): it can interpret, as well as merely illustrate, the action on screen. What a very great shame Goldsmith was no longer with us when the new, ‘re-booted’ Star Trek film series hit cinemas in 2009…
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