Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

SF Music

Entry updated 22 April 2024. Tagged: Music.

This article is in two parts: 1, Science Fiction in Classical Music; 2, Science Fiction in Popular Music. For discussion of music as it is portrayed in sf, see Music.

1. Science fiction in classical music

The fullest interaction between sf and music is in the broad sense a twentieth-century phenomenon, although there are various examples of earlier classical music that treats of or finds aural structure for sf, some of it surprisingly early. It is fair to say that sf music, broadly, reflected particular developments in literary sf rather than the other way around. During the vogue for voyages extraordinaires to the moon and sun, for instance, a number of composers worked in this idiom: for example, to a libretto by Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793), Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785) wrote a comic opera with the title Il Mondo della Luna ["The World of the Moon"] (first performed Teatro San Moisè, Venice, 29 January 1750), followed by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) setting the same text (first performed Eszterhazy, Hungary, 3 August 1777). More directly attributable to sf is the musical adaptation by Jacques Offenbach, as Le Voyage dans la lune (first performed Gaîté, Paris, October 1875), of the Jules Verne book known in English as From the Earth to the Moon (2 parts, 1865, 1870; trans 1873). The Moon is again the scene of the action in the first part of the opera The Excursions of Mr Brouček (1917) by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), based on the novel by Svatopluk Čech (see Czech and Slovak SF): the leading character dreams he has been transported there while in a drunken stupor. In The Makropoulos Secret (first performed Brno, 18 December 1926) Janáček adapted Karel Čapek's play about Immortality. In the anthology Les soirées de l'orchestre (1853), Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) provides an interesting footnote in "Euphonia", a short sf tale of a musical city.

Other musical works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century have taken on sf connotations because of their subsequent use, such as Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), which was featured in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The Planets suite (1918) by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) has often been used in sf contexts. Many compositions since 1950 have followed Holst's astronomical (in his case, astrological) lead, especially those for which avant-garde instrumental techniques or electronic music might make more traditional titles seem incongruous; thus numerous titles such as "Cosmos", "Galaxy", "Nebula" and "Orbit" can be found. Works are named after star charts (Atlas Eclipticalis [1961] by John Cage [1912-1992]), inspired by types of celestial objects (Neutron Star [1968] by Jan W Morthenson [1940-   ] and Quasars [1980] by Christian Clozier [1945-   ]) or by individual heavenly bodies (Sirius [1968] by Karlheinz Stockhausen), and dedicated to or illustrative of the journeys of early astronauts and cosmonauts: in the USSR many songs and ballads were composed in honour of Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968).

Electronic music for illustrating "the music of the spheres" – a phrase that has been used of the work of Terry Riley (1935-    ), François Bayle (1932-    ) and others – and stories of outer space can be found not only in film soundtracks (see below), but also in short pieces commissioned or adapted by music-hire libraries, like Desmond Leslie's Inside the Space Ship and Music of the Voids of Outer Space (both circa 1957). Works with similar titles also appeared early on in concert programmes, with pieces such as Visions of Flying Saucers (1966 with Leo Nilsson) and Robot Amoroso (1978) by Ralph Lundsten (1936-    ). The use of electric instruments permeates the avant-garde reaches of jazz and jazz-rock as with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Sun Ra's Arkestra (whose varied names, including Blue Universe Arkestra, Solar Myth Arkestra and Cosmo Love Arkestra, testify to their sf allegiance).

Another relationship is the direct linkage of a piece of music to an existing sf story. In rare cases this consists of a vocal work with an sf text, as with the song-cycle The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula (1969) by David Bedford, from Arthur C Clarke's story "Transience" (July 1949 Startling), and The Music and Poetry of the Kesh (1985) by Todd Barton, musical settings of the poems in Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home (1985). More often a purely electronic or instrumental composition was inspired by or evokes the atmosphere of the original story, as in Quatermass (1964) (see Nigel Kneale) by Tod Dockstader (1932-2015), Alpha Ralpha Boulevard (1979; based on the June 1961 F&SF story by Cordwainer Smith) by Ralph Lundsten, the cycle Kristallwelt (1983-1986; in homage to J G Ballard's The Crystal World [1966]) by Michael Obst (1955-    ), and several further works by Bedford, including Jack of Shadows (1973; based on Roger Zelazny's 1971 novel), Star's End (1974; refers to Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy) and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1976; based on the story by Le Guin in New Dimensions 3, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg). The Birthplace of Matter (1975) by Sten Hanson (1936-    ) refers to sf concepts, while his The John Carter Song Book (1979-1985) is more unusual: it is based, we are told, on the minimal information about Martian music in Edgar Rice Burroughs's novels supplemented by Hanson's direct contact with Carter; for lack of available recordings these examples of Martian music were perforce recreated by means of computerized vocal synthesis.

Operas and operettas and musical comedies that take a Satirical view of the world, though often surrealized beyond any plausible sf impulse, are sometimes sufficiently grounded to be mentioned here. Most of the satirical operettas by W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan exploit neverland venues, though Utopia, Limited; Or, the Flowers of Progress (1893) is set on a Pacific Island governed as a Utopia at the point of being transformed into a capitalist corporation. Of Thee I Sing (1931) and its sequel Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933), with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin and book by George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, comprise a political satire of Near Future America (see Politics); and Anyone Can Whistle (1964) by Stephen Sondheim with book by Arthur Laurents seemingly light-heartedly satirizes an American small town which has emblematically succumbed to the rule of a narcissistic populist demagogue. Dramatic cantatas and music dramas concerned with sf subjects but without the involvement of an sf author include the opera Co-O-Za (performance not traced; 1922) by Theodore Stearns, the Radio drama Comet Ikeya (1966) by Joji Yuasa (1929-    ) and Cometose (1987) by Kristi Allik (1952-    ). In the latter, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who was born and died during consecutive appearances of Halley's Comet, is transported with his house to the Comet's core, returning to Earth's vicinity in 1985 only to have the Giotto satellite destroy the house. Halley's Comet is celebrated also in The Return (1985) by Morton Subotnick. Deep concern over humanity's future can be found in the work of the composer and poet Lars-Gunnar Bodin (1935-2021), such as his Cybo (that is, Cyborg) trilogy (1967-1968) and the cantata For Jon (Fragments of a Time to Come) (1977), the final section of which is called "Instruction Manual for Interdimensional Travel".

Staging and costumes have emphasized sf elements in certain musico-dramatic works, including Licht ["Light"], Stockhausen's cycle of seven full-length operas to his own scenarios (in progress since 1977), and the Surrealist Le grand macabre (1977) by György Ligeti (1923-2006), loosely based on the play by Michel de Ghelderode (1898-1962). Among the operas for children by Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) are the tongue-in-cheek Help, Help, The Globolinks! (first performed State Opera, Hamburg, 21 December 1968), which tackles alien Invasions, and A Bride from Pluto (1982), a modernized fairy tale. An Alien being provides a suitable updating of the role of deus ex machina in Michael Tippett's opera The Ice Break (1976), and three alien visitors play significant parts in his New Year (1988). The prolific Elliott Sharp experiments with compositional logics determined by mathematical algorithms; the "science fictional atmospherics" of Sferics (1996), Arc 3: Cyberpunk & the Virtual Stance (1998) and Xenocodex (1996), though occasionally rebarbative, are complex and stimulating explorations of the machinic structural logic of sf. Belgian composer Boudewijn Buckinx (1945-    ), a student of Stockhausen, uses serial composition to open-up extraterrestrial spaces (Piotr Lunaire [1985]; In der buurt van Neptunus [1987]; Embarkation for Uropia [2004]).

Some of the most substantial connection between sf and classical music can be found in twentieth-century operas based on sf stories. One of the most successful has been Aniara (first performed Royal Opera, Stockholm, 31 May 1959) by Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916-1968), a musical version of Harry Martinson's epic Starship poem featuring the Mima Computer. Other operas that fall into this category include Vaclav Kašlík's Krakatit (1961; based on Karel Čapek's 1924 novel), VALIS (1987; based on the 1981 novel by Philip K Dick) by Tod Machover, and two operas by Paul Barker, Phantastes (1986; based on George MacDonald's 1858 fantasy) and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1987; based on Doris Lessing's 1980 novel). The composer who has had the greatest success in radicalizing and popularizing opera in the late twentieth century, Philip Glass, likewise selected Lessing's The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four and Five for an opera he had been working on since his 1988 setting of the same author's The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982); see his entry for more. Australian composer Richard Meale (1932-2009) collaborated with novelist David Malouf (1934-    ) to create an experimental operatic adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) called Mer de glace (1986-1991). More recently, American composer Michael Daugherty had expertly blended avant garde musical idiom with Pulp and sf energies, not least in his Metropolis Symphony for Orchestra (1988-1993), based on the Superman comics, and the suites UFO (1999) and Time Machine (2003). The situation of Aniara (cited above) is partially reprised in the sf opera Red Giant (2014), composed by Adam Matlock with libretto by Brian Francis Slattery. [HD/MJ/AR]

2. Science fiction in popular music

The twentieth-century rise of popular music, chart-oriented "pop' and "rock' especially, has been predominantly a postwar phenomenon. Accordingly the sf with which this music has had most significant overlap has been 1950s and 1960s Golden Age, the New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s and the Cyberpunk of the 1980s. There are musical analogues for all these movements, although sf pop in the 1950s was a relatively low key affair. This was, broadly speaking, a time when pop had humbler ambitions: simple, energetic songs in praise of youthful love and ballads mourning its troubles were the norm. The advent of the nuclear age did produce some borderline sf singles (see Atomic Platters), but the genre is represented in the 1950s charts if at all by novelty singles like Sheb Wooley's goofy "Purple People Eater" (1958). It is from the 1960s onwards that sf becomes more than a marginal phenomenon: hippy and psychedelic interests in outer space, fed by excitement at the Apollo programme as well as sf stories and novels, resulted in a burgeoning musical discourse of space-themed rock and pop.

As with classical composers, pop musicians have often adapted specific sf texts – Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End, for instance, has been turned into pop songs by Genesis, Pink Floyd and Van der Graaf Generator amongst others – and equally often drawn more generally on the tropes or conceits of the genre. A great many artists have recorded one or two songs with science-fictional content, but a small group of artists have built whole musical careers upon sf. With regard especially to these latter certain broad currents can be discerned. So, for example, there was a popular vogue for "space rock" in the 1960s and 1970s (but not confined to those decades). This was a largely white rock-band phenomenon cross-pollinating hippy and psychedelic musical subcultures with New Wave science-fictional interests, both in North America (see Grateful Dead; Rush; The Byrds; Jefferson Starship) and the UK (see early Hawkwind; Moody Blues; and – an American, though resident in England – Jimi Hendrix). A latter-day example was the US group Monster Magnet, active from 1989, with lyrics inspired by sf texts and such Comics as Métal Hurlant. "Space rock" fed into the largely 1970s phenomenon of "prog rock", short for "progressive rock": again, mostly white guitar-bands fond of recording very lengthy, musically complex, lyrically pretentious songs that very often drew on sf (see for example Area, Alan Parsons Project, Ash Ra Tempel, Eloy, Emerson Lake and Palmer Genesis, King Crimson, Omega, Pink Floyd, Van der Graaf Generator, Yes). These bands' specific musical interpretations of genre tropes and moods are discussed in their individual entries, but some more general points can be made. One is that part of the appeal of "prog" is its mode of hospitable worldbuilding, the creation of texts with science-fictional or as often Fantasy elements that listeners can explore, lose themselves in and in a sense inhabit. The music of Yes, associated with the alien landscape art of Roger Dean that illustrated its album covers, is a good example of this. In the case of Hawkwind, a prolific and enduring group which from time to time included Michael Moorcock as a band member, album releases were adjuncts to vibrant live shows, as were spin-off novelizations by Moorcock and Michael Butterworth; the music is part of a larger identity, to which the phrase coined by Dick Hebdige (1951-    ), "subculture", is the best description.

This space-oriented, outward looking and speculative music is a major iteration of popular sf; although it should be added that Prog and "Space Rock' largely fell out of popular favour after the 1970s, becoming viewed by many as pretentious and too removed from real-life concerns. A second school of sf music, arguably of more lasting importance, was a mode of machinic and robotic music, primarily dance-oriented or at least in some sense somatic, that can be bracketed under the rubric "electronica'. The seminal text here is the self-consciously androidal music of the German synthesizer band Kraftwerk, a group with a good claim to being amongst the most influential in modern music. Scores of subsequent bands have imitated them, and in fact their influence has bifurcated in a striking and perhaps unique way. On the one hand they inspired a large number of white European synth-bands in the 1970s and 1980s (Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Gary Numan, Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and many others) who mostly pursued variations of a modishly alienated, science-fictional, robotic theme. On the other hand a number of Black American musicians appropriated ("sampled") Kraftwerkian riffs or imitated their style (see Afrika Bambaataa) as a ground against which to make rap and hip-hop music of much greater colour, variety and joyousness. This latter, as Hip Hop and Rap, was a musical style that has long outlasted the 1980s vogue for synth-pop, and has drawn in longer African-American traditions of interest in sf topics – either the jazz of Sun Ra, or the more somatic funk of George Clinton (see also Funkadelic) both major figures whose work is saturated with sf.

It is worth reiterating that by the 1970s sf music had become (to use Hebdige's term again) a collection of subcultures as well as a set of aesthetic styles. By this is meant that fans of this music performed fannish social and cultural roles, including certain "futuristic' or "space-y' fashions, argots, mannerisms and shared references, creating an "in-group' or "urban tribe' shared identity. An example might be the international success of David Bowie, which derived as much upon the appeal of his stage persona, the alien "messiah' from Mars "Ziggy Stardust' (from his 1972 album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), as upon the music. Bowie's 1970s fans called him "the space captain", and some claimed to believe he was actually an alien. The point is that the "sf'-ness of Bowie has as much to do with this public persona as with his music (for instance, it was Bowie's subcultural cachet rather than his musical talent that made him so canny a piece of casting in Nicolas Roeg's 1973 film The Man Who Fell to Earth). Through the 1980s and 1990s these expressions of fan social-identity solidified, or if you prefer calcified, into more fixed identities; and of these, some included significant sf stylings into their interactions and musical tastes. The "New Romantics' of the 1980s blended the exuberantly foppish excesses of 1970s Glam Rock with an interest in new cyber-technologies and a streetwise stance (the argument has been advanced that the title of William Gibson's influential novel Neuromancer [1984] makes punning reference to this subculture). More recently "Goths", and in particular a subset of this sub-culture known as "Cyber-Goths", have followed a dark, industrial visual aesthetic that owes much to Cyberpunk and technophilic logics.

One further example; a fertile if occasionally alarming interplay has taken place between sf and heavy metal rock music, whose aggressively loud, guitar-based wall of noise and howl-style singing often apprehend near-future Dystopian or Cyberpunk sf worlds. "Classic" heavy metal had an interest in both fantasy and sf: Led Zeppelin lyrics include references to J R R Tolkien's imagined world, Iron Maiden adapted a number of sf texts into songs and bands like Lone Star, Slough Feg and Muse have continued this tradition. More recently the music has become more deliberately repellent; extremely loud rock that verges on the atonal, and a yelled or demonically growled vocal line that sings about very unpleasant things. American bands Metallica, Slipknot and Nine Inch Nails have achieved global success with an updated version of this idiom, and occasionally record music of genre interest. As "Death metal" this musical movement is particularly associated with Scandinavia; and a list of the names of only some of the key bands gives a sense of how far removed this music is from easy listening: Carnage; Nihilist; Dismember; Bloodbath; Repugnant; Paganizer; Entombed; Impaled Nazarene; Visceral Bleeding. A dominant aesthetic here is Satanic, anti-Christian and Sadean; although there is also significant crossover between some of these bands and various science-fictional tropes. (See also the atypical and idiosyncratic BlöödHag.)

This is not to suggest that sf music lacked appeal beyond subcultural "tribes". On the contrary; some of it has enjoyed very broad success indeed. Individual hit songs often tapped the zeitgeist: Bowie's "Space Oddity", first released in 1969, rode the wave of excitement at the Apollo moon landing and eventually became an international number one; the 1978 number-one single "I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper", by Hot Gossip, deftly cashed-in on the success of Star Wars (1977); and Babylon Zoo's international hit "Spaceman" (1996) followed the track's use in a widely-seen sf-themed TV advertising campaign for Levi's jeans. And if Hawkwind, Funkadelic and Jefferson Airplane appealed to a large but dedicated fan base, artists like David Bowie, Electric Light Orchestra and Pink Floyd were enormously, and globally successful.

These three broadly drawn currents – space rock/prog and heavy metal, European electronica and Black American jazz, funk and hip-hop – cover most of the SF music that has been produced in the idiom of contemporary pop. A fourth area of importance is to be found in contemporary orchestral composition in its most commercially successful mode, the film soundtrack. Bernard Herrmann's (1911-1975) score for the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) combines traditional orchestration with electronic instrumentation, most notably the groundbreaking use of the Theremin to create an eerie, otherworldly sonic effect. A few years later, Bebe Barron (1925-2008) and her husband Louis (1920-1989) composed the first all-electronic movie soundtrack to accompany Forbidden Planet (1956). The Barrons were pioneers, inventing many of their own instruments, and the effect is a sweetly and effectively estranging sonic palette. But it is perhaps surprising, especially considering the prominence electronic synthesizers came to play in chart music, how few soundtrack composers followed the Barrons in this. SF movie soundtracks, broadly speaking, trod a more traditional, orchestral path. Stanley Kubrick commissioned an original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), but discarded it in favour of a collection of already existing classical pieces, including not only the pyrotechnical opening fanfare to Richard Strauss's (1864-1949) tone-poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1896) and György Ligeti's (1923-2006) otherworldly orchestral suites, but such overused concert classics as Johann Strauss's (1825-1899) Blue Danube Waltz (1867). Only a fool would deny the effectiveness of this soundtrack of trouvées. This is despite the fact that the least obviously science-fictional pieces are the ones that work the best (the waltzing accompaniment to the film's first sequence of space flight, for instance) something that presumably has to do with the creative irony of juxtaposition between the semiotic of the music and the images. Certainly Kubrick's next film, A Clockwork Orange (1971) generated impressive dystopian affect out of the contrast between the violent anomie of its content and the thoroughly mainstream music chosen for the soundtrack (the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Rossini's Thieving Magpie overture and the musical number "Singing in the Rain").

At any rate, most of the scores composed for the big blockbuster successes of cinematic sf in the later 1970s and 1980s inhabited entirely conventional, if bombastic, orchestral idioms. John William's (1932-    ) popular score for Star Wars (1977) loses nothing of its effectiveness from being a confection of pastiched Wagner and Tchaikovsky. For Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) Williams derived a five-note theme, via the effortful process of eliminating all other combinations of five-notes that had already been used by composers. The conceit of the movie is that humans and aliens must use this partial tone-row, and Bach-like variations upon it, to communicate: a cinematically effective but conceptually anthropomorphic notion. By the 1980s, the cultural logic that a big, blockbuster SF movie required a big, bombastic but traditionally-scored orchestral accompaniment was so deeply embedded that the exceptions – for instance, the plangently effective synthesizer music Vangelis composed for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) – though often significant, are relatively few and far between; this at the time, outside the movies, when post-Kraftwerk electronic was one of the dominant idioms of SF music. This has continued into the twenty-first century: familiar and indeed over-familiar big orchestral scores accompany all the main sf films of the decade, sometimes inflected via (for instance) rock – a track by the US heavy metal band Rage Against the Machine concludes the score for The Matrix (1999) – or world music, as in James Horner's score of Cameron's Avatar (2009). The use of carefully distorted chamber textures in the score by Mica Levi (1987-    ) for Under the Skin (2013) is, on the other hand, inherently more science-fictional than any of the Big Bow-Wow scores.

All this raises the question of the extent to which any music can have "intrinsic" connections with cultural discourses. A nice joke in the first season of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978) underlines this point. The cast land on a mysterious, long dead planet; weirdly beautiful, spacious instrumental music plays on the soundtrack to establish the mood. But the music is not extra-diegetic; it is part of the story, and is being generated by one of the characters, a gloomy android called Marvin. "Did you know your robot can hum Pink Floyd?" Arthur Dent asks, adding: "What else can you do?" "Rock and Roll", replies Marvin, and the soundtrack jarringly changes to Bill Haley. The unexpectedness is funny, of course; but it also speaks to the larger question of the essential arbitrariness of musical signification, something also manifest in the show's title music – for the success of Hitch-Hiker has transformed a previously little-known, non-sf album track by the US soft-rock group Eagles ("Journey of the Sorcerer", from One of These Nights [1975]) into something ineluctably science-fictional.

This in turns touches on the question of the extent to which purely instrumental music can legitimately be called sf. When Tangerine Dream release an album of wordless electronica called Alpha Centauri (1971), we may perhaps feel justified in calling it sf. To what extent is it safe to do the same with albums where the music is similar but the releases lack generically determined titles? – for instance, the same group's Rubycon (1975), Stratosfear (1976) and Force Majeure (1979) It could be argued that the electronic synthesizer, along with certain other musical instruments newly minted in the twentieth century (for instance, the Theremin) are taken as in some sense science-fictional by virtue of their modernity, even if the connection is associative rather than intrinsic. By this logic, work by Brian Eno, Mike Oldfield, Magma and Tomita are all to one extent or another purveyors of sf music, despite the paucity of deictic sf-tags within the music itself.

Popular music has proved itself a mode of art (like many others) that continually churns through subgeneric styles and modes, with certain favoured styles becoming intensely popular for a short period, before falling from the commercial pinnacle. Through the 1980s, 1990s and into the 2000s, the cultural dominant was often occupied by music (for example: punk rock; grunge; rap; Britpop; manufactured bands and TV talent-show music) either antithetical to sf or else only glancingly interested in it. By the same token, musical subcultures rarely vanish altogether. The twin heydays for sf pop music were the prog-rock early 1970s and the electronic of the mid-1980s, and there have recently been signs of a revival of interest in both. The first decade of the twenty-first century saw prog enjoy a minor comeback, associated with so-called neo-prog bands such as Dream Theater, The Flower Kings and Muse; their fans divide between middle-aged men nostalgic for the heyday of prog and younger followers, often with enthusiasms for Steampunk (literature and cosplay) or Fantasy. 1980s electronic has also seen a comeback, with artists like Biosphere exploring "ambient" sf texts, and Irish band God is An Astronaut using "post-rock" to create evocative, textured sf soundscapes. As long as both sf writers and rock musicians continue to share a vested interest in the hegemony of the imagination, the relationship is likely to remain a fruitful one. [AR/CSM]

see also: Scientist.

previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies