Where Music & Science Fiction Intersect

by Mark W. Tiedemann

What do jazz and science fiction have in common? Quite a bit, according to Mark W. Tiedemann, whose latest story, “The Jazz Age,” appears in our [November/December issue, on sale now!]

All my stories have soundtracks. Science fiction seems incomplete without one. 

I must have “seen” Forbidden Planet on first release, probably at a drive-in. My parents took me everywhere and until I was old enough to understand and not fuss, the drive-in was it. I would have been two, so there is no concrete memory, but I dreamed scenes of that movie—in color—until I finally saw it—on a black-and-white television—some time in the mid to late Sixties. It didn’t occur to me till much later that the soundtrack—”electronic tonalities”—had sunk into my subconscious and influenced my later taste in music. 

What Bebe and Louis Barron created was something that fully represented the idea that “music” could and would change significantly with technology, culture, and time. They “composed” the soundtrack in such a way that the sound effects blent with the score that derived from the discovered music of the Krell. In one example they open the possibilities for music to represent not only the future but alien civilization as well.

More traditionally, the great film scores for classic SF films affected me. Bernard Hermann’s magisterially eerie theme for The Day The Earth Stood Still remains significant. 

And then came 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its brilliant use of Gyorgy Ligetti, bringing the human voice into sympathy with the possibilities of electronic music (which Kubrick combined effectively in A Clockwork Orange with Wendy (then Walter) Carlos’s combination of synthesized interpretations of classical pieces and original compositions.

And then there is jazz. 

I wonder sometimes why jazz is so relatively scarce in science fiction. Because in my opinion, those marvelously evocative “tonalities” Bebe and Louis did are best understood as extensions of jazz. I’m thinking here, as examples, of people like Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Miroslav Vitous, Miles Davis of the Bitches Brew era, bands like Weather Report, Shadowfax, and the wonderfully uncategorizable Soft Machine. Even the synthesizer artists of the late Sixties on—Carlos, or course, but Roger Powell, Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Brian Eno among others—might best be considered on the fringes of jazz.

It’s the improvisational aspect. Science fiction itself is, at its most interesting, improvisational. Blank slate that the “future” is, making it up as we go along is the most reliable path. 

At some point the electronic artists found much of their work categorized as Electronica (or, perhaps more descriptively, Ambient) and this allowed for a further set of possibilities that, when handled too loosely, end up being a kind of aural wallpaper, neither music or sound effect, but which I’ve found reliable as background for writing.

What will we be listening to in those futures? 

Mozart, Bach, Beethoven seem safe bets. Two and three centuries after their time we’re still listening. It seems neoclassical gets little love. (Wagner seems to be wholly owned by fantasy.) Then there’s a long gap until the first wave of rock’n’roll. Psychedelia makes itself remembered in New Wave stories, but after that the jury is out. Grateful Dead? Led Zeppelin? John Williams? 

Science fiction itself is, at its most interesting, improvisational. Blank slate that the “future” is, making it up as we go along is the most reliable path.

Any and all of the above may well survive, but like classical music it will be reinterpreted. The 20th Century gave us the recording industry, so the originals need not be forgotten or ignored. 

But my interest is in what will come along to meet the aesthetic needs of who we will be then. Jazz would seem to be a convenient and not incorrect concept to describe Future Music. Especially if and when we meet other civilizations, which may or may not have their own musical forms, but which if there is to be any interaction will doubtless have their own sounds.

Which we will take and turn into music.

And while eventually we may find new labels and invent new thematic disciplines for it, I suspect initially it will be jazz. 

Because we’ll be making it up as we go along.

Three things have dominated Mark Tiedemann’s aesthetic life:  music, photography, and writing. Eventually, writing took first place, but he never stopped dabbling in the others, and he sometimes feels that if he had it to do all over, he would aim at being a jazz musician. So it’s gratifying when  he can combine his other major interests in a piece of writing. Mark Tiedemann feels that music has a universality that cuts through so much noise and brings people together in ways only partly achieved by other media.

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