Jerry Goldsmith was already a veteran film composer with numerous iconic scores under his belt by the time he was enlisted to work on Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). He’d worked in radio and television through the 1950s, contributing music to classic shows such as The Twilight Zone (1959) and Perry Mason (1959) before making the move to film, writing scores for films as diverse in subject matter (and sound) as Stagecoach (1966) and Planet of the Apes (1968) in the 1960s and Chinatown (1974) and The Omen (1976) in the 1970s. Goldsmith’s rich orchestral scores for such films, which were informed and influenced by early 20th century modernist composers, are both experimental and economical in their use and development of thematic material. He explained, “What I really try to do is to take one simple motif of the material for the picture, and a broad theme, and construct it so they always can work in concert with each other or separately. The repetition of an identifiable motif does have a cumulative effect upon the audience if they hear it enough times.”1 An incredibly empathetic and innovative composer (not to mention prolific), he understood when music could strengthen a scene, as well as when to pull back; when understatement was more powerful.
Unfortunately, despite his years of experience as a film composer working with numerous directors, Goldsmith and director Ridley Scott did not see eye to eye (or ear to ear?) when it came to the use of music within Alien, most notably in how they felt the film’s opening theme music should sound. After watching an early cut of Alien, Goldsmith felt that although the film was genuinely terrifying there was still an innate beauty to its setting, a dichotomy he considered whilst writing his score. In an interview for the documentary The Beast Within: The Making of Alien (2003), Goldsmith stated:
"I always think of space as being the great unknown, not as terrifying but questioning…there’s an air of romance about it…I thought well, let me play [Alien’s] opening very romantically and very lyrically and let the shock come as the story evolves…don’t give it away in the main titles."
Goldmith’s original theme for the film reflects this sentiment towards outer space as the great unknown, a place of mystery and fascination, but also hints at Alien’s sinister undertones. Opening with a sustained dissonant chord in the orchestra, the theme initially sets up a mood of foreboding. However, around 35 seconds in a solo trumpet motif emerges above a sparse accompaniment that mirrors the vast expanse of space. The trumpet motif is elegiac, its mournful melody sitting atop a sustained ‘C’ in the orchestra, but is also imbued with a sense of wonder through its slow, cautious delivery. The motif seems to give voice to the lone spaceship (the Nostromo) we see on screen suspended in the nothingness, or even shipmate Ellen Ripley, who will emerge as the heroine of the piece and sole survivor of the horrors that will befall the rest of the crew of the Nostromo. At around 1:25 a slow crescendo begins with mounting sustained dissonance, climaxing at 1:45, and then pulling down to allow for swirling harmonies in the strings and revolving chords in the horns, and a reappearance of the solo trumpet motif at 2:04. It is all rather glorious, reminiscent of the grandeur found in early-20th Century symphonic works such as Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1914-16) and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.9 (1908-09). Around 3:06 we hear oscillating Bb and Eb minor chords in the woodwinds, sounding out like a beacon in response to rumbling low register orchestral dissonance, symbolic of the Nostromo navigating the malevolent forces of the universe. It’s a distinct motif that I even noticed being reprised in the brooding harmonies and industrial soundscapes of Jed Kurzel’s score for the Alien franchise’s latest installment, Alien: Covenant (2017).
When Goldsmith shared his original theme with Scott, it didn’t go over well. Scott wanted the film’s opening music to be far more frightening; to immediately set up a mood of overwhelming dread. Goldsmith acquiesced and rewrote the theme, quickly turning out a piece of music that immediately makes the hairs on one’s skin stand on end. String timbre is exploited using extended techniques such as sul ponticello (playing near the bridge of the instrument), col legno (slapping the strings with the back of the bow) and tremolo (rapidly moving the bow back and forth over the string) to garner a ‘spooky,’ sometimes abrasive sound. This is combined with reverbed percussion and a low register, mournful woodwind motif that reappears elsewhere in the film and seems to express the loneliness of space travel.
Goldsmith disliked the new theme written at the behest of Scott, saying that it was just a “bunch of effects…it gets boring when you’re just writing fear all the time,”2 but it is an undeniably an arresting piece of music that really sets up the atmosphere of what is to come. In the end, it’s strictly subjective—the same could be said of Goldsmith’s original theme, which also creates a feeling of unease but in a far subtler way.
Sadly, this wasn’t the only challenge Goldsmith was to encounter writing the Alien score. When Scott and the film’s editor Terry Rawlings had originally cut the film, they had used older Goldsmith scores as a temp-track to inform the mood and editing of scenes (standard practice before a composer has finisher their final score). Even after Goldsmith had written, recorded, and submitted his score for the film, Scott and Rawlings decided to retain some of the temp-track music, going so far as to purchase music Goldsmith had written for the film Freud (1962) for use in Alien as well as excerpts of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No.2 (1930) to close the film. Goldsmith, upon seeing the final cut of the film, was understandably disappointed when he discovered that not only was the score he’d painstakingly composed mixed-up with music he had written years earlier, his final musical comment in Alien had also been replaced by the music of another composer.
It seems that in the end there was a breakdown in communication when it came to the director/composer relationship of Ridley Scott and Jerry Goldsmith. The film and its soundtrack are both very strong, and it’s obvious that there was method to Scott and Rawlings choices. There are scenes in which Goldsmith’s score was removed and ambient noise functions to great effect (for example, when Ripley is attacked by the facehugger), it’s just a shame that Scott and Rawlings didn’t include Goldsmith more in their discussions about what they wanted for the film’s score. One wonders how Goldsmith’s unusual scoring, his use of the unfamiliar timbres such as that of a conch shell or serpent (a medieval woodwind instrument) could have helped in characterizing the film’s title alien. Fortunately, Goldsmith’s original score was released in 2007 as part of a 2-CD set by Intrada featuring liner notes that explain Goldsmith’s intended placement of cues within the film. It’s a fitting tribute that gives a second life to a beautifully dark score by a movie music master.
Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.