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  • Thom Holmes

Strange Sounds from the Movies 1931-1972

Examples of Electronic Music Used in Film Soundtracks


Author: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music



In life, we see things and we hear things. While watching a motion picture, these two sensations are fused more strongly and given more emphasis. In our minds, we create a new experience based mostly on sight and sound.


French film theorist Michel Chion called this phenomenon the added value of cinema., “the expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression, in the immediate or remembered experience, that this information or expression naturally comes from what is seen.”


I am fascinated by film and even more fascinated by the role that sound plays in underscoring the mood and meaning of the experience. Take the same length of footage and apply five drastically different soundtracks to it and you will get five different impressions of what is happening. That’s an elementary film student exercise that demonstrates the weight of the soundtrack to the movie experience.


In this episode, we listened to examples of electronic music used in film soundtracks from the years 1931 to 1972. This was largely an exercise in the kinds of instruments being used. This was a selective list aimed more at showing the variety of electronic sounds in films rather than trying to be a comprehensive list of examples.


Here is a rundown of what we heard, with details about the films, composers, and instruments used.



Alone (Odna), Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, music by Dmitry Shostakovich

Russia 1931

The Snowstorm

Theremin

Perhaps the film sound film to incorporate a Theremin in its score. The audio for this part of the film has been lost but we have this reconstruction by Mark Fitz-Gerald based on Shostakovich’s score. The work was recorded in 2006 and features Barbara Buchholz playing both tracks of Theremin.


Le Roman D'un Tricheur (The Story of a Cheater) by Sacha Guitry, music by Adolphe Borchard

France 1936

Short sequence while traveling on a train.

Ondes Martenot

Played by Ginette Martenot, sister of Maurice Martenot.


Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock, music by Miklós Rózsa

US 1945

The dream sequence from the Spellbound suite.

Theremin

The name Dr. Samuel Hoffman will come up several times in this episode for his theremin playing. The podiatrist from Hollywood had a side gig as a session musician on this difficult instrument. The most famous Theremist in the world was Clara Rockmore, but because she refused to use the instrument to make “spooky sounds” for movies, many of these jobs came to the unapologetic Hoffman. This recording was by Al Goodman and his orchestra and featured Hoffman, who was in the original soundtrack a year earlier. Note that there is a vocalist doubling the Theremin but at a higher octave.


Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock, Miklós Rózsa

US 1945

The dream sequence from the Spellbound suite.

Theremin

For comparison, I wanted you to hear a recording from 1958 by Raymond John Heindorf and his orchestra. The fidelity is a little better on this track and the theremin is played without the added vocalist.


The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise, music by Bernard Hermann

US 1951

Gort / The Visor / The Telescope

Theremin

Samuel Hoffman again, on Theremin and a wonderful orchestral score by Hermann. Making the Theremin such a prominent part of the mix provided a terrifyingly strange sound to audiences of 1951. This music is as scary today.


The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise, music by Bernard Hermann

US 1951

The Captive, Terror

Theremin

Here is Hermann again, with Hoffman on Theremin and I think a Hammond Novachord in the ending part. He blended the electronic instruments with the timbres of the orchestra so well that it really disarms the listener.


Early electronic instruments such as the Theremin and Ondes Martenot were intended to be played live in musical performance. The arrival of magnetic tape in the 1950s also inspired an entirely new school of strange movie sounds created using tape effects and sounds that could only be produced in a studio. A prime example of this is the music that Louis and Bebe Barron created for the movie Forbidden Planet. We’ll hear three tracks showing the diversity of their work.


Forbidden Planet, Fred McLeod Wilcox, music by Louis and Bebe Barron

US 1956

Main Title

Handmade circuits

Music for this next segment was created using tape composition and handmade circuits rather than by specialized electronic music instrument for performance such as the Theremin and Ondes Martenot. This work for the movie Forbidden Planet was labeled in the credits for the movie as Electronic tonalities provided by Louis and Bebe Barron. Perhaps the first composers to create a work for magnetic tape in the United States, the Barrons had their own private studio for making electronic sounds and music for television, commercials, and motion pictures. Bebe explained to me once that they would essentially handmake little circuits—oscillators, filters, ring modulators and such—and then play them with the tape recorder running until the hardware literally fizzled. They then listened back to what they had captured and used a tape editing process of to put together their compositions. This might not give them as much credit as they deserve for dreaming up some highly specialized sounds and effects that could only come from their expert tinkering. While putting their music together, they would refer their self-destructive circuits by name, almost like members of the family. This plot of this science fiction movie is about a starship crew that goes to investigate the silence of a planet's colony only to find two survivors and a deadly secret that one of them has. First we’ll hear the main title theme. This will be followed by a track they called Battle with the Invisible Monster. Then, I want to play a track we don’t often hear, one that reproduces the music of the ancient Krells, the extinct inhabitants of the planet. What does their music sound like? Well, it sounds a lot like the electronic tonalities of the Barrons back on Earth.

Forbidden Planet, Fred McLeod Wilcox, music by Louis and Bebe Barron

US 1956

Battle with the Invisible Monster

Handmade circuits

See above


Forbidden Planet, Fred McLeod Wilcox, music by Louis and Bebe Barron

US 1956

Ancient Krell Music

Handmade circuits

See above


Although most of the examples in this episode are from motion pictures, the two that begin the next segment are from television programs in the US and Germany.


Music from One Step Beyond, music by Harry Lubin

US 1960

Fear

Trautonium

I always thought that the instrument used in this theme was the Theremin. A raspy version of the Theremin, but a Theremin nonetheless. But closer inspection of the liner notes for this album only mentions the Trautonium. So, the Trautonium it is, recorded in Germany. The instrument had ribbon controllers to make the gliding notes entirely possible and measure against notes of the scale so that the musician could hit his notes accurately.


Raumpatrouille - Space Patrol – The Fantastic Adventures of the Spaceship Orion, Theo Mezger and Michael Braun, music by Peter Thomas

Germany 1966

Outside Atmosphere

Siemens "ThoWiephon"

Peter-Thomas and his Sound-Orchestra were responsible for the music of this popular German science fiction series in 1966, which was only 7 episodes long. Working with the Siemens corporation, Thomas created a musical instrument called "ThoWiephon", today being exhibited in the Deutsches Museum in Munich. It was a small, upright device with 12 oscillators and a three octave keyboard. The oscillators could be tuned independently to achieve some strange tonalities. Thomas did a lot of film and television work. Among his credits are, curiously enough the soundtrack to Chariot of the Gods and the main title music for The Big Boss, a Bruce Lee kung fu movie.


Girl on a Motorcycle, Jack Cardiff, music by Les Reed

UK 1968

Dream

Tape composition

Electronic music composition for this film starring Marianne Faithful was credited as being made at Shepperton and Putney, the first a movie studio, and the second the private electronic music studio of Peter Zinovieff, two years before he would found Electronic Music Studios, or EMS in 1969 and manufacture the famous British portable synth called the EMS VCS3. Before that, Zinovieff offered his studio and services for special effects and music editing. The sounds heard in this movie were created there using a grab bag of technology and recording techniques.


Girl on a Motorcycle, Jack Cardiff, music by Les Reed

UK 1968

Surrender to a Stranger

Tape composition, oscillators

As above.


Sebastian, David Greene, music by Jerry Goldsmith

UK 1968

Sputnick Code

Tape composition

The only contribution to this soundtrack not credited to Jerry Goldsmith was this number by Tristram Cary, a British composer and in 1967, the founder of the electronic music program at the Royal College of Music, the first of its kind in Britain. He had an extensive home studio which is where this work was most likely composed. In 1969 he joined Peter Zinovieff to co-found EMS, the synthesizer company mentioned earlier.


There was a resurgence of the Ondes Martenot for movie sounds in the 1960s, just before the arrival of the big, bad Moog Synthesizer. And one of these tracks features the Ondioline, an electronic organ invented in the 1940s.


Lawrence of Arabia, David Lead, music by Maurice Jarre

UK 1962

That is the Desert

Ondes Martenot

Maurice Jarre composed the music for one of the most famous soundtracks of all time. Here we have two of his uses of the Ondes Martenot, the first to provide atmosphere for a desert scene and the second a rendering of the title theme on the electronic instrument.


Lawrence of Arabia, David Lead, music by Maurice Jarre

UK 1962

Lawrence and the Bodyguard

Ondes Martenot

As above.


Billion Dollar Brain, Ken Russell, music by Richard Rodney Bennett

US 1967

Anya 2

Ondes Martenot

Richard Rodney Bennett composed the music that included passages played on the Ondes Martenot.


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Robert Ellis Miller, music by Dave Grusin

US 1968

Married People

Ondioline

Dave Grusin took a delightful side turn during this soundtrack of mostly chamber jazz, playing this song on the Ondioline, a monophonic electronic organ invented in 1948.


Enter the Moog Synthesizer.


The Name of the Game is Kill, Gunnar Hellström, music by Stu Phillips

US 1968

Main Title

Moog Modular Synthesizer

The name Stu Phillips is synonymous with some of the most creative and jazzy soundtracks for what could only be called B movies of the 1960s and 1970s. In this main title for the film The Name of the Game is Kill, he employed Paul Beaver to overdub tracks of the Moog Modular synthesizer onto tracks recorded with other instruments. This is one of the earliest uses of the Moog on film. The soundtrack also features versatile percussionist Emil Richards who had a Moog record of his own called Stones in 1967, which I argue is the first commercial recording of the instrument. Also done with Paul Beaver.


On Her Majesty's Secret Service

US 1969

James Bond Theme

Moog Modular Synthesizer

After Wendy Carlos and Switched-on Bach was such a success in late 1968, the Moog Modular synthesizer was all the rage in popular music for the next three years. Record companies seemed compelled to add a Moog whenever they could. This even extended to the James Bond movie franchise. The story goes that John Barry was reluctant to use the Moog synthesizer for a James Bond movie but did so while insisting that it be played live in real time with the orchestra. In comes Phil Ramone to help produce, and probably play, the Moog for this pretty strange rendition of the James Bond theme used at the end of the movie.


Follow Me, Gene McCabe, music by Stu Phillips

US 1969

Hawaii—Waimea-Straight Down

Tape composition, multi-instrumental mix

Another wonderful mix of genres and sound by Stu Phillips for this surfing movie. There is no obvious synthesizer heard, but there are tape effects galore and an amazing arrangement with many strange combinations of textures and sounds.


Now for the unique sounds of electronic music from two not so familiar movies. The first two tracks are by Gil Mille from the 1971 film The Andromeda Strain. The second two tracks are from the Russian composer Eduard Artimiev and his marvelous, ambient electronic soundtrack for the 1972 film Solaris.


Andromeda Strain, The

US 1971

The Piedmont Elegy

Percussotron and tape composition

Gil Melle (Gil mi-LAY) was a jazz leader who invented electronic instruments that his players could use alongside their trumpets, drums, and saxophones. He was hired to create the all-electronic soundtrack to this science fiction film from 1971 in which scientists are trapped inside their lab with a killer strain of virus. Many of the sounds were constructed around Melle’s use of an instrument called the Percussotron. This was played with mallets while standing up. The instrument itself consisted of a round central core about the size of a snare drum that housed the electronic controls for 8 smaller satellite drum surfaces attached to the perimeter of the core. Melle could get an amazing variety of sounds from this device, as evidenced on this soundtrack. There is a delightful promotional video of him demonstrating the Percussotron on YouTube.


Andromeda Strain, The

US 1971

Strobe Crystal Green

Percussotron and tape composition

As above.


Sacco and Vanzetti, Giuliano Montaldo, music by Ennio Morricone

Italy 1971

La Sedia Elettrica

Synket

Music by Ennio Morricone. As always, his music is an eclectic mix of striking instrumentation and arranging. For this track, he singled out one electronic instrument, The Synket. Invented by Paul Ketoff in 1963, only about six instruments were ever made. Morricone and John Eaton were two of the only composers to write for the Synket. To play this piece, Morricone called upon his friend Walter Branchi, with whom he played music in a free improvisation group that used electronic instruments. The Synket was a small synthesizer by comparison to the Moog and Buchla models of the time. The desktop instrument was essentially three identical monophonic synthesizers in one, all controlled in real time by three separate mini-keyboards. The keys could also be wiggled from side to side to add expression to the tones.


Solaris, Andrey Tarkovsky

US 1972

Movement 2

ANS photoelectronic synthesizer

We have now reached the year 1972. Our final two tracks were recorded for the movie Solaris, a Russian film by Andrey Tarkovsky with music by Eduard Artemiev. The original album states that “Music and noise recorded on the photoelectron synthesizer ANS.” The ANS synthesizer is a photoelectronic musical instrument created by Russian engineer Evgeny Murzin from 1937 to 1957. To create sine-like waves, light was shown through an etching on a glass disc to activate a series of twenty photocells to generate audio signals. Each disc could have 144 individual tracks, the system was microtonal and polyphonic. There was only one such machine. Artemiev used it to create the ambient, haunting electronic sounds for this science fiction film. We will hear two tracks that demonstrate the variety of sounds that the ANS synthesizer could produce.


Solaris, Andrey Tarkovsky

US 1972

Movement 14

ANS photoelectronic synthesizer

Eduard Artemiev



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