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Jerry Goldsmith was one of the few film composers actually born (in Pasadena) and raised in Los Angeles. His early TV work, particularly for shows such as The Twilight Zone and Thriller, allowed him to experiment with a variety of contemporary modes. But horror, fantasy, and particularly science fiction films have always allowed composers to venture into more outré stylistic modes. Planet of the Apes (1968) is one of Goldsmith’s key excursions into genre scoring with serial music techniques. “The Hunt,” for the scene in which the apes are first seen rounding up humans, is one of the most ferocious and terrifying action cues ever composed. Cited by Jon Burlingame in his book Sound and Vision as “one of only a handful of truly original movie scores,” the avant-garde effects for Planet were all achieved acoustically, i.e., without electronics.
Also in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey introduced the atonal concert works of György Ligeti (1923-2006) to movie audiences. An eastern European modernist who refined the technique of tone clusters, the arranging of notes into dense chromatic chords that eschewed conventional melody, pitch, and rhythm, Ligeti referred to this new mode as micropolyphony. Another cinematically influential 20th-century modernist was Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1922), whose astringent Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima became well-known through many classical recordings (and reportedly was used to temp track parts of Close Encounters). In Off the Planet – Music, Sound, and Science Fiction Cinema, Neil Lerner describes this mode as “a certain kind of musical modernism that encodes that which is meant to be perceived as ‘alien’.”
However, the key element of Goldsmith’s concentrated score for Chinatown (1973) is a bittersweet (and tonal) love theme for a golden, somewhat world-weary trumpet. It’s set in a wash of strings that evokes both the doomed romance at the core of the film, and the luminous 20th Century-Fox strings under Alfred Newman. But ensuing cues induce alternating acrid and bittersweet visions of 1930s L.A. with wavering sonorities influenced by the Ligeti/Penderecki school, combined with a sultry sheen of Goldsmith’s characteristic percussion, suggesting the otherworldly exoticism of Planet of the Apes in a more hypnotic mood. Another element in these cues is Goldsmith’s use of multiple pianos, sometimes played in the experimental modes of American composers such as Henry Cowell and John Cage.
Concerning Chinatown Goldsmith once commented: “I grew up in Los Angeles and that’s amazingly the way it looked. I can remember the whole ambiance.”