Theremin versus Ondes Martenot
A few years ago UK Film Critic Mark Kermode made a short video extolling the virtues of that curious musical instrument the Theremin. However his performance was far from edifying, so to redress the balance, I’ve posted below the main theme from Mars Attacks by Danny Elfman. It highlights the ubiquity of this instrument in the science fiction genre. All of which stems from the wonderfully atmospheric score for the 1951 classic, The Day the Earth Stood by the great Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann. It was a milestone in the evolution of film scores. Both tracks illustrates the point made by Mr. Kermode perfectly. The Theremin, due to its frequent use in a genre during its most formative years, has virtually become the de facto “sound of space" in popular culture.
Or is it? There is another instrument that vies for the crown of the definitive sound of science fiction; namely the Ondes Martenot. This esoteric French instrument, has been used in many films and TV series, such as The Twilight Zone, Lawrence of Arabia, Billion Dollar Brain and Ghostbusters. The original design was similar in sound to the Theremin. The instrument's eerie wavering notes are produced by varying the frequency of oscillation in vacuum tubes.
Composer Barry Gray often used this instrument to great effect and I would argue that some of his compositions are the equal of those by Bernard Herrmann. Here is the classic "Sleeping Astronauts" theme from the 1969 film Doppelgänger AKA Journey to the Far side of the Sun. It remains one of Barry Gray’s finest tracks.
It is often a mistake to make generalisations when it comes to fandom, due to its subjective nature. Genres that are so liberally populated by fanboys will be rife with debate over the most minor and esoteric of points. However I do not think that either instrument trumps the other and I like the eerie ambience of both musical instruments. These two tracks are outstanding in their own way and I think that pop culture can happily give them equal billing with regard to their contribution to the “sound of space”.