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The Science of Sci-Fi Music - Andrew May ****

If you had to write a description of the target audience for this book - interested in science, science fiction and serious music - I am such a perfect match that I confess my rating of it may be slightly inflated. Andrew May takes on the whole gamut of the interaction between science fiction and music, from the use of music in science fiction films to the influence of science on music which gave it a 'sci-fi' feel. Along the way we get a whole host of revelations, and though May makes it clear that there will be very limited consideration of the theory of music itself, even there for many there will be discoveries.

We begin with 'alien sounds' - what makes music sound in some way alien or spacey. This mixes musical ideas and the move away from classical techniques in serious composing. From the 1950s, music for science fiction movies had a tendency to look to both electronics (for example in the downright weird soundtrack of the classic Forbidden Planet) to using much more modern sounds and musical structures than those of the largely lush romantics that typically influenced other film music of the period. Although not science fiction, I was delighted Scott Bradley's music for Tom and Jerry got a mention - if you listen to the soundtrack of these cartoons they are pure twentieth century serious music in style, though they most resemble Stravinsky (one of my favourite composers, and one who May sadly doesn't really bring into the discussion). 

We also see in this and later chapters some of the key electronic instruments including the theremin and Moog's synthesisers, though I would have liked to have known a little more about how the bespoke circuits used by some of the early SF film composers worked. Inevitably and importantly we hear about the stunning use of Ligeti's music in 2001, A Space Odyssey - one of May's fascinating revelations is that this was done without Ligeti being aware of it.

We then move onto the interaction of maths and music. As May points out, this has always been the case, whether used explicitly, or implicitly through the 'rules' that composers were taught (and the best composers broke) - but in the twentieth century, with concepts such as 12 tone, serialism and aleatoric (randomly selected) music, these principles came more explicitly to the fore. This is followed by an exploration of electronics in music, from the earliest hand-built circuits, through Moog to modern digital electronics. This is not just for the inherently 'scientific' aspect of the construction, but also because electronic music continues to be something we associate with the science fiction theme.

We then get onto music based on science, which May points out is often pseudo-scientific, either making use of scientific concepts in a way totally unrelated to the science itself or trying to provide some kind of bridge between science and the arts, which tends to be beloved of funding bodies but has very little benefit for either the sciences or good music. Finally we explore the relationship of science fiction and musical culture, from SF-inspired music to the representation of future music in science fiction stories.

The weakest aspect of the book is its structure. As the linking theme is relatively tenuous it tends to jump around - the sections overlap too much, and present the reader with collections of facts without much of a continuous narrative. Occasionally the writer's personal enthusiasms are allowed a little too much exposure - there seemed far too much on writer Philip K. Dick's work, for example. And if you are familiar with music, May's approach of using numerical MIDI-style representation of notes and chords tended to obscure rather than help. But these are all relatively minor points.

If either the development of electronic music and avant garde musical techniques or science fiction is an interest, this book is likely to pique your attention. If both interest you, this is a book that has to be added to your collection.

The author has produced a short video that pulls together the themes of the book:

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Review by Brian Clegg


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