An interview with the editor of Off the Planet: Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema
Molly Sheridan: I know the idea for this book was born out of a class you were teaching in Sydney. Can you talk a bit about how that led to this collection?
Philip Hayward: I’ve been teaching a third year undergraduate class in Screen Soundtracks at Macquarie University in Sydney (Australia) since the mid-1990s. Both Music and Media studies majors take the class and I have had to find ways of presenting the material and my analyses that both groups can engage with. Science Fiction films were one area that I specialized in teaching, since there was material in them that seemed to attract interest and debate from both groups. This led me to think of pulling in some of my colleagues and my favourite international writers to produce a focused anthology on the topic.
Molly Sheridan: The basic premise for this book, especially coupled with the cartoon-y cover, left me unprepared for the rather serious, academic nature of the essays inside. What sort of readership were you aiming for while you edited this collection? How did that influence your selections?
Philip Hayward: I LOVED the cover!
Science Fiction films are obviously part of a popular cultural mainstream and the cover was meant to represent that. But as an academic concerned with popular culture I am involved in academic analyses of it. So the anthology reflects that. It’s aimed at final year undergraduate and grad students, academics and researchers and also what might be termed an “educated general readership” interested in the genre.
Molly Sheridan: I’m curious about the evolution of this distinct slice of composition. Can you offer a trend/descriptive highlight reel based on your research/editing?
Philip Hayward: At different periods there have been different approaches to composition for sci-fi films. Obviously one element is the expression of ‘strangeness’ and ‘alienness’—usually through fairly well established approaches to musical exoticism [of the type that was covered in my previous volume Widening the Horizons: Exoticism in Postwar Popular Music (1999)], or else through using the latest electronic instruments. Another aspect is—with those terms sketched by Caryl Flinn—a nostalgicism for epic scoring that creates epic effects in more recent films.
Molly Sheridan: To date, what has been, in your experience/opinion, the most effective sci-fi score? Why?
Philip Hayward: In terms of effective sci-fi scores, there are several that I’d identify. Two are analysed in detail in the book by Rebecca Leydon, who must be the most insightful film score analyst around at present. Forbidden Planet is an electronic music epic, really stretching the boundaries of how electronic sounds can be used as a thing-in-themselves, rather than as an application (or pale shadow) of orchestral scoring. As for orchestral scoring, Bernard Herrman’s score for The Day The Earth Stood Still remains the pinnacle of the genre. Two more recent films also stand out for me. The eclectic mix of Danny Elfman’s score and Slim Whitman recordings in Mars Attacks (that I have a chapter on in the book) produces a really deep level of meaning and affect in the film. I also have a lot of affection and interest in the score for 1960s sci-fi flick Barbarella. It’s all apparently light-hearted and throwaway but combines with and expresses the narrative and visual texts in a manner that has to be taken seriously and appreciated.
Molly Sheridan: Since a lot of sci-fi films draw on the wonder and anxiety posed by the unknown future, do sci-fi composer have more significantly more leeway to be ground-breaking and “experimental” in their writing than traditional film composers do?
Philip Hayward: The futuristic and/or alienist aspect of sci-fi scenarios and settings are “liberating” for composers, within a certain spectrum. They allow for noise and dissonance as a conventional pleasure-orientated element of the audio-visual text rather than a challenging or abstruse one (as in various kinds of musical post/modernism). Put another way, they invite composers to “have fun” with noise, dissonance and impact, allow them to “entertain the idea” of otherworldly otherness (and entertain the audience at the same time). There are of course clichés in this, and much recent sci-fi film work has been very generic (in the negative sense of that term). Sci-fi cinema should allow the composer to “boldly go” anywhere but, inevitably, industrial expectations come into play.