Andrew Lahr is a guest writer on the Axanar blog.
Andrew: Prelude had some truly powerful music, heavily utilizing horns and percussion. Are you planning to carry any of those sounds over into the feature film?
Alex: Oh yes! Prelude was a wonderful way to set up the material you’ll hear in Axanar. The main themes are all there in one guise or another, but there’s all kinds of exciting stuff coming up for the feature. I experimented with choir on a piece for a character in the film this past winter and I hope that it finds a home in the film somehow. It is an interesting response to the largely orchestral sound of Trek.
Horns and percussion will definitely be in the final product, too. The orchestra is vital and essential to Star Trek music for me and I want to build on the sound of the scores that have come before. If all goes to plan, we are hoping to actually record key portions of the score with a real orchestra. Computer samples have come so far – Prelude was entirely “in the box” – but I think Axanar needs the undisputed power of real musicians.
I want to introduce interesting musicological elements as well. Soval’s theme is on Turkish ney flutes, and there’s also the use of the aforementioned choir. Something that worked out well too was the solo violin for the scene on Vulcan. The violin arpeggios over their discussion speaks to the sometimes cold, undulating, and logic-driven thought process of the Vulcans. War is raging, and still the Vulcans take time to gestate and think. It felt very authentic to use that solo texture going up and down as the fate of the Federation was so coolly discussed. All of those elements, and many more, could be a really interesting way to celebrate the diversity of life that appears in Star Trek.
At the end of it all though, I just hope the score is something that fans can enjoy in the film, on album, and live up to the amazing legacy that already exists.
Andrew: Composers will often incorporate a recurring theme throughout their films, entering into the background when certain characters, locations or objects are shown on screen. Are you experimenting with any such themes within Axanar? If so, what is the process like in assigning a piece to an onscreen presence?
Alex: Absolutely. Star Trek has a fantastic legacy of memorable and rich music themes. Similar to how Jerry Goldsmith anchored his later Trek scores around one primary theme (as in First Contact, Insurrection, etc.), Axanar has one unifying melodic idea that encompasses the entire story. To hear it best, listen to Ramirez’s speech or the reveal of the Ares in Prelude, or as Soval looks to Mt. Seleya in the feature. The latter scene also has Soval’s theme – heard on Turkish ney flutes right after he is accused of having emotions toward Earth. Kharn’s theme is very important as well and has two sections that appear in Prelude. More will develop as I learn about the feature and work on a musical plan with Rob [Burnett]. Any and all of the important story elements will have some kind of thematic element, or be derived from the main theme to create a through-line.
In terms of process/methodology, I usually try to detach myself as a composer and just watch what I’m working on as an audience member during the early stages. Such a process is useful to see what melodies/instrumentation come into my head as a gut/visceral reaction. After that, I’ll sit at a piano and roughly sketch out anything that seems like it’s worth keeping. Most of it isn’t, but that’s the gig. Eventually you have something that rings true to yourself and the film, then you put your best foot forward from there.
Axanar has been unconventional for me in the sense that I’ve been involved for almost three years! To have so much time to explore and mess around is really a privilege. Everything started for this project in a big suite of music I wrote for the team as a demo just based on the script and a brief discussion. That initial suite went over very well and a lot of it stuck – the main theme, ideas for Kharn, and how to use previous Trek themes all have their genesis within that.
For the feature, I really hope to take everything to a whole new level in order to live up to the pantheon of amazing Star Trek music. Hopefully the fans will agree
Andrew: Star Trek has quite a history of instantly recognizable music. Did you feel any extra pressure to create something memorable for Axanar?
Tremendous pressure. Just looking at the feature films alone, they all have fantastic scores. There’s a unique personality for each, and I hope people will feel the same way about Axanar.
Thankfully, I literally grew up listening to this music so working in the musical world of Star Trek feels incredibly natural. I try not to get overwhelmed by the canon of music that already exists and just try to approach this as a great story that needs great music. Writing the suite so long ago and having the time to experiment was a chance to work out a lot of those kinks, so that helped mitigate the pressure as my relationship with the team progressed.
Composing wasn’t easy going at first, though. I stopped and started that suite a handful of times and threw out a lot of music. Once I got over how this theme or that theme from the previous movies/series would show up and just focused on the incredibly rich story of Axanar, the music came.
Like all great Trek scores though, you’ll definitely hear some familiar themes here and there which will help properly plant it in the canon. Since this is essentially a coming of age story for the Federation, I hope to do a lot with Alexander Courage’s fanfare and opening lines from the TOS intro. James Horner uses it wonderfully to begin and end Star Trek II – I’m also a big fan of the full blown treatment the TOS theme gets in III – and I think the context of Axanar will give it an even stronger presence that it usually doesn’t get. Also just by virtue of being such a big Trek fan myself, you’re definitely going to hear some fun callbacks.
Andrew: Being a younger member of the community of film composers, are there any veterans you’re particularly inspired by or seek to emulate?
Alex: Being an artist isn’t too dissimilar from driving a car – you spend time looking in the mirrors behind the car while wrangling the road in front of you. It’s all very much a balancing act of knowing your influences, but not losing sight of your artistic identity and where you want your personal voice to end up.
Even still, the list of veterans I admire is embarrassingly long so allow me to focus on just a few from the film world and I’ll spare everyone from my Jazz and Classical geek outs.
Alan Silvestri is probably who I really look up to the most in terms or orchestral film score writing. He’s cracked every genre and developed throughout his career – listen to Predator then jump ahead to Mummy Returns, for instance. Back to the Future is my favorite score of all time too, and was one of the first soundtracks I ever owned.
Basil Poledouris is another huge inspiration for me. I remember finding the score for Robocop 3 – no one EVER stocked the first score – in a Sam Goody and feeling like I’d found the Ark. Clear, emotional writing that was ferociously powerful when it needed to be.
Jerry Goldsmith has a special place in my world as well. There was a summer in high school where I listened to nothing but his music. The melodic sensibility he had was truly unlike anyone else. You can usually follow a lot of film composers back to where they got inspiration from 20th century composers, pop music, etc., but this exercise is much trickier for him. He has such a unique voice and always tried experimenting with different ideas, instruments, and styles. Audiences are more savvy than they get credit for sometimes; you have to always be ready to try unconventional methodologies to be able to get their attention and engross them in the story.
I hope it doesn’t sound patronizing but I honestly am inspired by Star Trek music as its own distinct entity, too. The franchise is special to me in a very heartfelt and comforting way as I’m sure it is for all of the fans.
The motion pictures have a particular resonance with me. Each film has something I love. Eidelman’s VI is a gorgeously dark and sinewy soundscape. Nothing else sounds like it. Rosenman’s IV is the lightest of them all, but I can’t imagine another score for the film – my favorite example being the reveal of the Enterprise-A. There’s a weight and majesty to Generations that I also love – McCarthy did so much great work on TNG and he got to swing for the fences with this one. Giacchino’s new scores have so much raw energy and intensity – the opening sequence of the first film is incredibly gripping film making. James Horner’s contribution is one of the reasons I’m a composer, and Goldsmith’s scores… well, what is there really to say? “The Enterprise” from TMP stops me in my tracks to this day. I was lucky enough to study Jerry Goldsmith’s original pencil sketch scores of TMP at the Academy library when I was in grad school and it was something I’ll never forget.
The ferocity of Goldsmith’s action writing is something I hope to use for Axanar. One idea I’m messing around with now is focusing on some of his late career writing, like The Sum of All Fears, and a lot of Nemesis. Both of the aforementioned scores feature some great low string/timpani/piano writing that instantly sounds like Trek music to me and it will be fun to work with that sound a little.
Music is an endless world of inspiration so I could go on endlessly, but all of the above really speaks to me about my inspiration for Axanar in particular. We’re at the stage now where I can experiment but eventually the movie will be sitting in my lap and work will have to begin!
Thanks a lot for your time, Alex!
If you want to check out some Alex’s other composing work, be sure to check out his website.