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The Magical Sounds of the Stars

“Drummer beat, and piper blow

Harper strike, and soldier go”

Anne McCaffery


Music. A not-so-simple collection of sounds that can change the way a person looks at the world. It has the power to move us on an emotional level and alter our outlook from happy to sad, from pain to joy, and even from complete depression to utter rapture. With such power, it is unsurprising to find music tightly wrapped within speculative fiction.

For many fans, there are two distinct groupings of music that tie directly to our love of speculative fiction — filk and scores. Filk music, the name itself a corruption of the term folk music due to a typographical error in the essay “The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music” (Lee Jacobs, 1950s), is a styling of music which uses fantasy and science fiction as subjects of the lyrics. The term was first used intentionally by Karen Anderson (wife of Poul Anderson) in her essay “An Introduction to Filk Singing” in West By One and By One (Poul Anderson, self-published, 1961). By the time she wrote the piece, filkng had already gained some popularity in the convention scene.

By the 1970s, the number of songs and performers had grown significantly. Robert Asprin famously organized a singing group, the Dorsai Irregulars, at Worldcon in 1974. The group of volunteers played and sang well into the night. By the end of the 1970s, filk had grown to a level where not only were artists invited to conventions as guests, but had begun having dedicated conventions. FilkCon (Chicago, 1979) was the first one, but others like BayFilk (California), GAFilk (Atlanta), FILKONtario (Toronto), and even overseas at FilkCONtinental (Germany).

Interestingly enough though, the topics of the songs are often science fiction and technology, the instruments used are often acoustic and even some archaic items. The groups will form in a circle and sing as long as the crowd stays, not unusually well into the late night. There is a sense of a much earlier time period when listening to the tunes and participating in the filk circle. Even if the songs themselves are about fantasy gaming (“Gamers,” Leslie Fish), favorite shows (“Star Trekkin’,” The Firm, 1987), horror (“Sheep Marketing Ploy (The Ballad of Fenton)”, Tom Smith, 1994), or future (“Starfire”, Cynthia McQuillan, 1983), the style is reminiscent of a much earlier time.

Scores, on the other hand, are possibly some of the earliest pieces of music people associate with science fiction and fantasy. It is hard to think of how less intimidating the movies King Kong (Max Steiner composer, MGM, 1933) and Godzilla (Akira Ifukube composer, Toho Co. Ltd., 1955) would be without the amazing brass intros, the deep notes cutting across the theater and letting the audience know that something big is coming. This type of brass-driven music would also find its way into the science fiction films of the 1950 and 1960s such as 20 Million Miles to Earth (Mischa Bakaleinikoff composer, Columbia Pictures, 1957), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Paul Smith composer, Walt Disney Pictures, 1954), and Journey to the Center of the Earth (Bernard Herrmann composer, 20th Century Pictures, 1959).

Brass instruments weren’t the only player in the science fiction music scores. Starting in 1950, a new electronic instrument began adding its haunting sound. The theremin, invented in 1919, uses electrical field interference to produce sound. The music would become synonymous with science fiction through films like Rocketship X-M (Ferde Grofé composer, Lippit Pictures, 1950), The Thing From Another World (Dimitri Tiomkin composer, RKO Pictures, 1951), and The Day the Earth Stood Still (Bernard Herrmann composer, 20th Century Studios, 1951). Even today, the ghostly sound brings a certain level of expectation to a scene.

Strings and brass would regain the primary position of science fiction scores starting in the 1970s with scores to films such as Star Wars (John Williams composer, 20th Century Fox, 1978), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Jerry Goldsmith/Fred Stiener composers, Paramount Pictures, 1979), The Black Hole (John Barry composer, Walt Disney Pictures, 1979), and Superman: The Movie (John Williams composer, Warner Brother Pictures, 1978). Fantasy soundtracks, like Conan the Barbarian (Basil Poledouris composer, Universal Pictures, 1982), The Dark Crystal (Trevor Jones composer, Universal Pictures, 1982), and Labyrinth (David Bowie/Trevor Jones composers. TriStar Pictures, 1986) used strings and drums as the primary drivers of the score, giving them a feel older than the higher technology sounds of brass and synth. The music created for these films would, in many ways, become the template for science fiction and fantasy instrumental music moving into the new millennium.

Filk, movie scores, and television themes aren’t the only place speculative fiction appears in music though. One of the first rock and roll songs to be documented as having been influenced by science fiction is “Purple Haze” (Jimi Hendrix, 1967). The song was written after he’d read Philip José Farmer’s Night of the Light (Berkley Medallion, 1966). On the fantasy side of the genre, Leonard Nimoy of Stark Trek fame released “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” in the summer of 1968, a rocking retelling of The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien, George Allen & Unwin, 1937). Throughout the 1970s, rock singers regularly touched on science fiction and fantasy in their lyrics. From David Bowie’s Space Oddity (1969) to Cygnus X-1 (Rush, 1977/1978) to The Battle of Evermore (Led Zeppelin, 1971) to Come Sail Away (Styx, 1977). Full album sides created as fantastical stories were also produced. 2112 (Rush, 1978) is possibly the most famous, a story of an Earth ruled by the priest of Syrnx and a rebel with a guitar. Close on its heels is Kilroy Was Here (Styx, 1983). The rock opera delves into a world where rock music is outlawed (“Don’t Let It End”), musicians are imprisoned by the MMM (Majority for Musical Morality) (“Heavy Metal Poisoning”), and robots run the prisons (“Mr. Roboto”).

Other groups have taken on the styling of science fiction or fantasy creatures. GWAR, a heavy metal band formed in 1984, wears hyper-stylized fantasy barbarian and creature costumes on stage. For a more technological look, the duo Daft Punk maintained robotic-looking personas, to the point that even today it seems no one is certain who really was underneath the masks. Even singers who aren’t normally in these types of costumes sometimes reach into the area of speculative fiction. As MTV took off, artists sometimes created videos with speculative fiction trappings. Tom Petty chose a post-apocalyptic setting for his video “You Got Lucky” (1982) as did the group The Police for “Synchronicity II” (1983). Genesis took a more surrealistic side, delving into puppet-derived dreamscapes with the video for “Land of Confusion.” Of course, the science fiction/horror setting of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982) with the added voice acting of Vincent Price cannot be left out. Modern examples include the alien-inspired costumes of Katy Perry and Kanye West in “E.T.” (2011) and the dystopian future styles worn by Taylor Swift and others in the video for “Bad Blood” (2014).

There are, of course, other songs influenced by, honoring, or creating their own stories within speculative fiction. What are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook.

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