In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Stanley Kubrick memorably used classical music by two Strausses — Richard’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and Johann’s “The Blue Danube” — forever linking those pieces with outer space.
That was 1968. A year later, humanity actually made it to the moon — and for 50 years Hollywood, ironically, has explored our future in the cosmos with music that looks back, in a decidedly classical language.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic will provide a primer on that tradition — and recent departures from it — on Thursday with “America in Space,” a program at the Hollywood Bowl conducted by David Newman. Two influential pieces from the repertoire, Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” will be paired with mostly contemporary music from space movies.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge will be celebrated with archival footage and words from Abigail Fraeman, who was on the Mars Curiosity Rover team. A tribute to the female astronauts of NASA will be underscored by a new piece by Penka Kouneva, the lone female composer on the program.
Holst wrote his planetary symphony in the 1910s, after a friend introduced him to astrology. He wrote a “series of mood pictures” — in the tradition of evocative, storytelling tone poems cultivated by composers such as Berlioz, Delius and Vaughn Williams — inspired by the more mythical realm of Roman gods like Mars and Venus. At the time, the idea of space travel was still the domain of fantasy authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Before the moon landing, movie music for space travel mostly dealt in fantasy as well, whether with Wagnerian bombast or ghostly theremin.
Holst’s “Mars” movement, with its pounding timpani and pizzicato strings driving a soaring string and brass melody, continually invaded not only movies about fictional space travel — notably the “Star Wars” franchise scored by John Williams — but also ones rooted in real life. “The Right Stuff,” the 1983 film about the first generation of pilots training to be astronauts, won an Oscar for its Bill Conti score, but its pivotal launch scene was, in fact, set to “Mars.”
The influence of Copland (1900–1990) on space movie music can be traced to the subject’s inherent patriotism, as well as his open-interval writing.
“Wide-open harmonic space,” Newman says, “is evocative of space.”
Copland’s Americana sound can be heard in the late James Horner’s Oscar-nominated score for “Apollo 13.” The 1995 Ron Howard film, which lionized the men on the failed moon mission of 1970, is soaked in the heady optimism of early American space travel. Horner captured that feeling with a score that prominently features solo trumpet and rolling snare drums.
“What I’m trying to get out of the story is the idealism, everything that was great in the guys at Mission Control and in the capsule, the best thing about NASA,” he told The Times in 1995.
“I don’t think we quite feel about America the way we did then,” says his widow, Sara Horner. “It’s a post-war optimism. It just seems like a little boy’s fantasy. That it could actually be accomplished is extraordinary. It’s like imagination driving the science.”
Horner, who died in a plane crash in 2015, was obsessed with flight, space and science from the time he was a boy. He would put on planetarium-esque light shows for his daughters, and his studio was filled with orreries — Renaissance-era models of the solar system.
“We always called his decorating style ‘science museum gift shop,’” Sara Horner says, laughing.
More recently, however, film composers have responded in different ways to the oceanic beauty of space — and sometimes its terror. “Gravity,” which won composer Steven Price an Oscar in 2013, gave audiences a terrifyingly realistic thrill ride of being trapped in space with the astronaut played by Sandra Bullock.
Price departed from neoromanticism for a score that blurs the line between music and sound design — a slowly-building, visceral thunderstorm of throbbing electronics and manipulated vocals.
Harry Gregson-Williams split the difference in “The Martian,” Ridley Scott’s 2015 film starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars. That score looked to the tradition of cosmic terror — perfected in scores like Jerry Goldsmith’s “Alien” and “Outland” — updated with modern electronics, but it also sprouted a leaf of hopeful melody and a tonal nod to ingenuity.
In 2016, “Hidden Figures” revealed the critical contributions of NASA’s black female mathematicians, and the score by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch was a sunny, piano-led affair with gospelized female vocals. (Excerpts from “Gravity,” “The Martian” and “Hidden Figures” are all part of the Bowl program.)
When approaching Neil Armstrong’s life — the tragic death of the astronaut’s toddler from a brain tumor and the quiet heroism of his missions to space — “First Man” composer Justin Hurwitz reclaimed the theremin from the purview of spooky sci-fi. He captured Armstrong’s inner wail with the hundred-year-old electronic instrument in a minimalistic, tuneful score that also featured solo harp and stuttering strings.
The newest music on Thursday’s program is a concert piece by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino. “Advent” was written for NASA to commemorate the anniversary of the moon landing, and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington premiered it in July.
Giacchino, whose childhood obsession was watching every launch on TV, summons his own optimism about the space program.
“People will say, ‘Well, it brought us velcro,’” he says with a sigh. “Even though that’s not really true, but those are the types of things that people talk about. I always thought that the space program gave us the ability to finally look back at ourselves — which we had never been able to do before — from a wide vantage point.”
The piece uses Tibetan singing bowls, piano and solo voice — which will be provided by soprano Diana Newman, an alumna of Chicago’s Lyric Opera and the conductor’s daughter — to evoke the moment when Armstrong finally touched foot to lunar soil.
“It just felt like it was the advent of a new way of looking at ourselves,” Giacchino says, explaining the title. “It brought everyone together, as opposed to the types of events we seem to be having now, which are all about fear and horror.”
“I want to get back to the idea of having events on the planet that stop the world for good,” he adds. “The last time that happened was 50 years ago.”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday