The Future Sounds of Yesterday: A Sequence of Synthesizers in Science Fiction

Music and technology have always gone hand in hand—and the explosive flowering of music as an art form in the last century is also the story of the explosive growth of technology. Indeed, people have recognized the potential of computers to revolutionize music since before there even were computers. In 1842, writing about the theoretical uses of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, computer-science progenitor Ada Lovelace enthused that once the fundamentals of harmony and musical composition were properly understood, “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” (And there’s something wondrous about a woman at the dawn of the Victorian Age dreaming of something now commonplace with electronic groups such as Daft Punk.) Like computing itself, electronic music began as the arcane province of technology specialists and slowly became a truly democratic force that put the power to change the world—or at least soundtrack it—in the hands of everyone. And because cutting-edge technology is particularly good at sounding alien and futuristic, it’s meshed perfectly with science fiction as a subject matter. Below is a brief history of the ways those three elements—the music, the tech, and the SF themes—have intersected and influenced each other, in various media, over time.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

In 1919, a Russian scientist named Lev Termen invented one of the earliest electronic instruments, which came to be called after the anglicized version of his last name: the theremin. (Termen himself has a history at least as fascinating as his instrument: After emigrating to the U.S. where he scandalously married an African-American ballet dancer, he was kidnapped by Soviet secret police and repatriated to the USSR, where he worked on espionage tech including one of the first bugging devices.) Although its ethereal sound is now practically synonymous with ’50s SF movies, the theremin made its way into cinema 20 years earlier, first via Russian composers like Dmitri Shostakovich, then as a background element in 1933’s King Kong and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein. In 1945, the theremin’s weird warble was used in a pair of thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, to illustrate the emotional chaos of their amnesiac and alcoholic protagonists. But the theremin was first used as a major foreground soundtrack element in the alien-contact classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. Composer Bernard Hermann put two theremins at the center of his score to highlight both the wise and gentle alien ambassador Klaatu and his deadly robot Gort. For a decade after, the theremin was de rigueur for any movie about alien creatures, showing up in It Came from Outer SpaceOperation Moon—and much later in Tim Burton’s retro-futuristic Mars Attacks.

Originally published in Clarkesworld magazine’s June 2012 issue. Read the complete article on the original website.

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