04.01.2012, Words by Charlie Jones

How synths and sci-fi are totally linked

Fact-filled piece on the links between science fiction and machine music makes for interesting reading.

The sci-fi (of “SF” as its fans prefer to call it, for some reason) magazine Clarke’s World recently published a pretty interesting list of moments when technology, music and science fiction interacted. Among the list are great facts about Doctor Who, Daft Punk and Ada Lovelace. Ideal lunchtime reading, dorks!

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 Space, Operation Moon—and much later in Tim Burton’s retro-futuristic Mars Attacks.


Metal Heads, “Terminator” (1992)

The rise of hardcore dance music in the ’90s took dub’s innovations firmly into the computer age, creating a whole new world of beats, samples, and rhythm-heavy effects. Under the project name Metal Heads, Scottish-Jamaican DJ Goldie pioneered a technique called “timestretching,” which slows down a piece of audio without affecting its pitch, giving his beats a distinctly metallic tone. The track “Terminator” picked up on that vibe by taking its name—and sampling Michael Biehn’s and Linda Hamilton’s dialogue from—James Cameron’s SF thriller about an unstoppable time-traveling killer robot.

Read the full list at Clarke’s World

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