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The Sounds of Science Fiction

‘Did you know that your robot can hum Pink Floyd?’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

This summer, the Centre will be filled with the sights, sounds and stories of science fiction in Into the Unknown. To complement the exhibition, we’ll be hosting a series of gigs including our Jeff Mills residency and a new live-score to Solaris by Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason.

Music journalist – and science fiction fan – Lisa Blanning helps us dig deeper into the connections between science fiction and music to see how musicians have transported us into alternate dimensions through sound…

If science fiction as a genre of narrative prose can be traced at least as far back as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 – or perhaps even Johannes Kepler’s Somnium in the early 1600s – then we have been spending centuries speculating on science, outer space, and technology. And while classical music is full of myths, fairy tales, and fantasy, marrying the concepts of sci-fi to music is a more modern trend; let’s call it at Holst’s The Planets from 1916.

Holst’s characterizations of the heavenly bodies – reportedly more inspired by astrology than astronomy, but surely a concept suite about the solar system counts – still inform how they’re viewed today. Techno pioneer Jeff Mills’ 2017 album and performance The Planets is not directly based on Holst’s score, but does rely on the moods that the English composer laid out.

Mills’ own project with fellow Underground Resistance comrades Mike Banks and Robert Hood, X-102, Discover[ed] The Rings Of Saturn in 1992, using facts about Saturn’s rings and measurements for details like titles and lengths. And Saturn was an even greater source of inspiration for Sun Ra, who claimed, as early as 1952, to both have had a visionary trip to the planet and to have been from there. Ra’s heliocentric vision was not only a recurring musical theme, but also a way of life.

Both Jeff Mills and Sun Ra are important Afro-futurists, and while the movement encompasses all forms of creativity, its music feels especially important. From the outer-realm jazz of Sun Ra, the space dub of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the flamboyant funk emanating from Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership, or the Kraftwerk-inspired Planet Rock of Afrika Bambaataa, we are only now recognising the importance of the Afro-futurist legacy. As for Mills, UR, techno and a slew of other electronic genres and artists that came after, perhaps Mills said it best when he explained, ‘It wasn’t designed to be dance music, it was designed to be a futurist statement.’

As many artists in both techno and hip-hop have acknowledged, Kraftwerk were the single act that most helped to launch those two important African-American genres, and in some cases, it was more than the sound of their electronic rhythms that proved influential. Cultivated in the mid-‘70s, Kraftwerk’s man-machine image was aligned with the ‘robot-pop’ they made using keyboards and machines as opposed to traditional instruments and the facelessness they favoured as ‘operators’, instead of musicians. Similarly, a whole generation of UR artists wore masks and kept their identities concealed for years. In the case of Drexciya, they manufactured an entire backstory explaining their underwater evolution from slaves thrown overboard during the Atlantic passage.


Bowie’s alien makes music in hopes of it reaching his home planet via radio

David Bowie took the opposite approach to anonymity in his persona as an alien masquerading as a human rock star, first as Ziggy Stardust in 1972. But perhaps his affecting role was in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth, where his alien makes music in hopes of it reaching his home planet via radio. That poignancy was a far cry from the outrageous alien of rapper Kool Keith’s Dr Octagon, debuted in 1996 as a time-traveling gynecologist from Jupiter.

While Bowie didn’t perform on the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth, some of the music accompanying sci-fi TV and cinema has been significant. Marius Constant’s 1960 theme to The Twilight Zone, Delia Derbyshire’s Dr Who theme song (1963), the mostly unused but still switched-on performances by Wendy (née Walter) Carlos for A Clockwork Orange in 1971 (Kraftwerk used to come on stage to Carlos’ Clockwork version of Beethoven), John Williams’ 1977 five-note signature melody and plot point for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and Mark Snow’s 1993 theme to The X-Files are only a few sci-fi soundtrack moments that have become ingrained in popular culture.

It’s impossible to list all of the meaningful intersections of sci-fi and music, and in the digital era, choices grow exponentially. Take Scratcha DVA’s 2016 album NOTU_URONLINE U, Gatekeeper’s hi-definition prog-trance, Kode9’s drone-inhabited luxury Nøtel album suite Nothing, live-coding Algorave events, music written by AI… Interestingly, we’ve now reached a stage where we’ve generated enough culture to have a feedback loop of work created for already existing fictions, too. There’s u, a 2011 Klingon opera; Jeff Mills’ live cinemixes for films such as Fantastic Voyage, Metropolis, and Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City, to name a few; and Ben Frost & Daníel Bjarnason’s Music For Solaris, with warped Tarkovsky visuals by Brian Eno & Nick Roberton, no less.

We have finally reached the point where truth either fulfills our wildest predictions or it’s even stranger than fiction

And now speculative music exists independently, asking, ‘what if?’, of its own accord (almost all experimental music can fit in this category, even if it’s not explicitly sci-fi). In a world where technology outpaces our comprehension of it, we have finally reached the point where truth either fulfills our wildest predictions or it’s even stranger than fiction. Music is one way to help us cope with that.

Browse Into the Unknown events across our music, film and talks programme
Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction takes place from 3 June–1 September.

One Comment

Frank Hull

Awesome experience. One of the evocative exhibitions, taking me back to my childhood and through my teen years, so much so I hope to go again very soon. Thank you for putting it on and bringing the years of experimentation and innovation back to the forefront of my mind. I forgot how wonderful, enjoyable and just how much they meant to me some of these pieces of music were and are.

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