This week I attended the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience. At least I think that’s the official name for it. Stadium acoustics aside (it was in the arena where they often host hockey matches), it’s an amazing touring event led by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, who serves as the evening’s conductor, musician, and host. The orchestra that played was a local one, which was a nice touch for this particular show of a touring performance.
Sound is such an important part of a science fiction world. I’m always listening to the big hit soundtracks, like Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy and the score for the first Mass Effect game. But what’s interesting to me as a fan sci-fi as well as music is that some of the earliest electronic music composers were inspired by a certain sci-fi film.
Around this time last year, I was researching early electronic music for a personal project I was working on. I’m talking music before Kraftwerk, back when it took John Cage and his collaborators three months to painstakingly slice magnetic tape in order to create a totally-sampled track in 1953.
The science fiction film that sparked many composers’ careers as electronic musicians was Forbidden Planet (1956). The composers were a married couple named Louis and Bebe Barron, who’d been given a tape recorder as a wedding gift. The score they composed for Forbidden Planet was the first ever entirely electronic soundtrack.
The music is far from melodic. Instead, it’s a series of bleeps and whirring, with a distinctly alien feel. To create the sounds, the Barrons took recordings of everyday noises — a common thing to do in the pioneering days of experimental music — and added effects such as reverb to them. The result was a flood of haunting tones, sirens and alien noises.
Sound designer Ben Burtt, creator of Star Wars’ R2D2 voice and many other science fiction sounds, names the Forbidden Planet score as one of his major influences. In an interview with Wired magazine, he describes the first time he saw the film and heard the music:
“The film created this really eerie, complete world — another world. I really felt like I was off the Earth, in another place that was very frightening. In fact, I can remember being in the theater, wishing that it would be over so I could get back to Earth… I realized a lot of the effect of that on me was the sound of the movie. The electronic tonalities that were… both music and sound effects at the same time.”
Burtt says that electronic music is part of science fiction’s language, and I agree. Of course, it doesn’t have to be; after all, some of the most moving and intriguing science fiction music has a classical bent (2001: A Space Odyssey, A.I., Prometheus, Mass Effect 2 and 3). But there’s something about the electronic soundscape that makes drifting through space feel so lonely and alien worlds seem so foreign.
It’s not surprising to me that a lot of early experimental composers featured in the documentary Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution talk about how outer-space-like electronic instruments sounded, especially at that time. Those instruments were sprawling technological triumphs — they took up half the room or covered entire walls — and they suited this era of the ’50’s and ’60’s, when the “space race” was on between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It seems the Forbidden Planet soundtrack was a big part of that scene.
On a related note, if you’re into early electronic music and want something catchy (that’s pre-Kraftwerk), I highly recommend Tom Dissevelt and Dick Raaymakers (sometimes credited as Kid Baltan). They composed electronic music for Royal Philips Electronics in the late ’50’s and ’60’s, with the aim of making this type of music catchy and accessible. Songs like 1962’s “Syncopation” are so melodic and easy to listen to, they sound way ahead of their time.
As a massive Kraftwerk fan, I was thrilled to find a totally original tribute to Kraftwerk called 8-Bit Operators. On this CD, a number of chiptune musicians retool Kraftwerk’s hits using mostly 8-bit video game systems. It’s a riot for the ears. Must-hears include Nullsleep’s “The Model” and Herbert Weixelbaum’s totally video-gamey “Tanzmusik,” which sounds like a theme song from a retro, Mario-style game. (Another one that goes all out with the 8-bit is Oliver Wittchow’s “Kristallo.”)
Bear in mind that not every song works. A few silly ones like Bit Shifter’s “Antenna” and Gwem and Counter Reset’s “The Man-Machine” are only intriguing to check out once or twice, in a what-the-hell-is-this sort of way. For me, the CD’s most disappointing track is “Radioactivity.” By Kraftwerk, this one of my absolute favorite songs of all time… but in the hands of David E. Sugar, it’s unrecognizable. It’s one of the least chiptune-sounding songs on the album, with trying-to-be-hip vocals and a weird disco flavor that doesn’t seem a tribute to either Kraftwerk or 8-bit. (At least it’s sort of fast-paced, which always helps a song feel catchy…)
For Kraftwerk fans worried that these musicians will rip apart Kraftwerk’s songs beyond recognition, “Computer World” by Firestarter and “Computer Love” by Covox are easy gateways into the CD, as they don’t force too much of their personalities onto the originals. And though some people complain about the vocals on this CD, I don’t think they’re terrible… and vocals were never Kraftwerk’s strong suit anyway.
The real fun of this CD is hearing Kraftwerk’s songs with retro technology — a fitting tribute to an innovative band that proved just how far early electronics could go in producing catchy, complex music.