01 October 2016

"Star Trek: The Astral Symphony"

Star Trek: The Astral Symphony
Album Compiled and Produced by Cliff Eidelman
Original Release Date: 1 October 1991
List Price: $14.99 (CD) | $11.99 (Cassette)
Star Trek: The Astral Symphony takes you where no musical journey has gone before…
This historic compilation of memorable music from the original soundtrack recordings of all five Star Trek motion pictures will charge the senses and expand your listening pleasure, over and over again. The Astral Symphony is a unique and thrilling musical experience that will send you beyond the frontiers of your own imagination!
Admittedly, it's not particularly original, but it's the use of the word "historic" that merits consideration. Today, of course, digital music has made it possible for us to throw together playlists at will, but listeners of my vintage (or older) will recall a time when we were at the mercy of record labels to present us one-stop shopping for our music survey needs. It was a huge deal in 1994 when Garth Brooks released the 18-track compilation, The Hits, spanning his first five studio albums (excluding the Christmas album, Beyond the Season). Now, consider being the kind of nerd who actually cared about the music from Star Trek movies. We were lucky to even have soundtrack albums, abridged though they were. Any compilations were strictly homemade, copying from vinyl or cassette to another cassette.
In 1991, though, Paramount threw quite a merchandise-heavy party for the silver anniversary of their flagship franchise. They even took the (nearly) unprecedented step of commissioning composer Cliff Eidelman, hired to score that year's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to create an entirely original piece of music to be featured in that film's release trailer. That's right: the trailer got its own music. '91 was a heady time, y'all.

Paramount also handed over to Eidelman the soundtrack albums of his predecessors in the series, from which he assembled The Astral Symphony. It truly was "historic", in that it was the first ever legitimate, mass-produced compilation of music from the series. Eidelman, who in interviews claimed Jerry Goldsmith's works on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as his favorites, eschewed chronological sequencing and instead favored an arrangement designed purely for listening.

I concede my own bias, but in my world it's still among the finest playlists of all time. Sixteen tracks culled from five films, written by three different composers, spanning a full decade (1979-1989), and the only thing they have in common is that they're from the same movie series. Of those five films, only Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (both scored by James Horner) have strong aesthetic similarities. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is considerably more lighthearted, punctuated by Leonard Rosenman's jazzy cues, seemingly so irreverent that it's a wonder Eidelman squeezed in any of it, let alone a third of that album!

1. "Life Is a Dream"/Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Jerry Goldsmith
The most obvious piece of music to include would have to have been Goldsmith's theme for The Motion Picture, which series creator Gene Roddenberry loved so much he reused it eight years later for the TV spin-off, The Next Generation. There were two dilemmas to using the theme from that first film, though. Firstly, Goldsmith composed it without including Alexander Courage's iconic fanfare from the TV show, something Roddenberry had composer Dennis McCarthy rectify for TNG, and which Goldsmith himself adopted when he returned to the series for its fifth big screen outing.

The other issue was that the original music is a fairly long piece that bleeds into "The Klingon Battle". To be sure, Goldsmith's Klingon motif is memorable and worthy of recognition all on its own, but "The Klingon Battle" also introduces us to Vejur's theme. It's simply too complex and too long for a compilation. The solution? The end credits music from The Final Frontier. It's got the Courage fanfare, the Motion Picture/TNG theme, and even includes the Klingon motif, all in a tidy four minutes!

2. "The Meld"/Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Jerry Goldsmith
"Life Is a Dream" conjures images and feelings of adventurism, which is why cutting immediately to "The Meld" is so daring. This is the eerie, uncertain climax of the first movie, as Kirk, Spock, and McCoy bear witness to a fusion of man and technology. It's by far the most cerebral payoff the franchise has yet had in a movie, and Goldsmith's music is central to how we experience it. Initially tentative, it intensifies as the characters begin to realize what is taking place, until its triumphant resolution. On the surface, I doubt "The Meld" sounds particularly sensuous, but that's precisely what it is.

3. "Returning to Vulcan"/Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - James Horner
We shift from Goldsmith to James Horner, though at a peculiar moment in time. Admiral Kirk has just left behind the body of his son, David, on the doomed Genesis Planet and has arrived at Vulcan with the remnants of his crew. McCoy converses with Spock, wondering how they'll manage to transfer the latter's spirit to his resurrected body. This is a deeply intimate, poignant moment in their relationship, one that not even Kirk is allowed to observe. Only us. It's a sensitive, forlorn piece of music and it follows "The Meld" more organically than I would have even thought to have tried.

4. "Battle in the Mutara Nebula"/Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - James Horner
There's a lot to love about The Wrath of Khan, and chief among my personal favorite elements is its submarine-style final showdown between Admiral Kirk's U.S.S. Enterprise and Khan's U.S.S. Reliant. Horner leads us into battle with his main march, alternately suspenseful, thrilling...and scarily silent. Music, we're told, is the space between notes, and Horner deftly navigated the space between the notes just before the last volley of the firefight is exchanged. Just as we've begun to hold our breath, Khan is announced; his attack motif erupts so violently that it can be startling to hear all on its own away from the film.

5. "Enterprise Clears Moorings"/Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - James Horner
What an odd choice this was, to jump back to an earlier point in the same film here! This is the martial(-esque) sendoff for the Enterprise at the outset of the film, entirely unaware of what awaits. For this moment in time, all is well. Sure, the footage is reused directly from the same scene in The Motion Picture, but Horner's music manages to reinvent the experience. Plus, at this point in the album, we could frankly use some wide-eyed optimism.

6. "Chekov's Run"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
I've often wondered if Eidelman placed this cue here because Chekov is the one principle member of the bridge crew who was not aboard the Enterprise when she cleared moorings. At first blanch, Goldsmith and Horner are different enough one might be hesitant about putting their works together, but then comes Rosenman and somehow, it actually works to consolidate the album. "Chekov's Run" is something of a time-out between weightier pieces, but it's also catchy and a standout all on its own.

7. "Ilia's Theme"/Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Jerry Goldsmith
To date, the only overture to play before a Star Trek movie, and it's gorgeous. Some have accused it of being derivative of John Williams's "Princess Leia's Theme" from his Star Wars soundtrack. I've always found "Ilia's Theme" more sophisticated and fuller. The opening piano and soothing strings evolve into an auditory world all its own. This is probably the single piece of all Star Trek music I believe could stand without any context whatsoever and still engage the same senses of curiosity and wonder that are evoked for those of us who know what it is.

8. "Without Help"/Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Jerry Goldsmith
The aforementioned Goldsmith Klingon theme dominates this piece, and more centrally than it was permitted to do in its lone appearance in his Motion Picture score. It does feel a bit redundant, given that it's also incorporated into the album-opening "Life Is a Dream" from this same movie. To be honest, I've always kinda wished Eidelman had instead opened with "The Mountain", which segues from the TMP/TNG theme into a wondrous theme for Captain Kirk's mountain climbing. That would give "Without Help" a little more spotlight. As it is, it draws our attention (at least, eventually) that Eidelman omitted Horner's own Klingon theme. Still, there's little point following "Ilia's Theme" with another thoughtful work so here's as good a place as any to stay within the same composer's aesthetic for an action piece.

9. "The Enterprise"/Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Jerry Goldsmith
"Ilia's Theme" may be the most perfect standalone composition here, but "The Enterprise" is my favorite single work in the entirety of Star Trek. The sequence it accompanies is completely self-indulgent and ought to be cut by at least an entire minute, and I don't care. I could watch the camera play peekaboo with the Enterprise model all day long, provided this lush and majestic piece by Goldsmith accompanied it. This concluded the first side of the cassette edition of the album.

10. "Prologue and Main Title"/Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - James Horner
I've often felt it was important to understand this selection and placement in the context of the cassette, because somehow it just isn't as dramatic a followup to "The Enterprise" on CD. Much of this is a revisitation of Horner's Wrath of Khan "Epilogue/End Title", but with a key difference: this music does not resolve with a reprisal of Horner's swashbuckling main theme. Instead, it remains ethereal throughout, its final bars not a declaration of any sort, but rather an open-ended query, underlining Admiral Kirk's lonesome log narration in the film. There is promise somewhere in this music, but isn't for traditional heroic antics.

11. "Hospital Chase"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
After twelve and a half minutes of Goldsmith's elegance and Horner's moodiness, Eidelman splashes us with a 76 second romp from Rosenman. "Hospital Chase" and "Chekov's Run" both serve much the same purpose in their film as well as on this album; they're madcap dashes, placed where hopefully they'll ensure our attention hasn't begun to lapse. Between the two cues, I favor this one, though I do give Rosenman credit for infusing "Chekov's Run" with just enough Russian flavor to be noticeable without devolving into caricature.

12. "The Whaler"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
This is as close to a "serious" action cue as Rosenman gave The Voyage Home. I don't know that it's the piece I'd have gone with from that soundtrack here ("Gillian Seeks Kirk", "Time Travel", and/or "The Probe" would have all been just as fine), but I do appreciate the purpose that it serves, which is to transition us back into the relative seriousness of the Goldsmith/Horner compositions.

13. "An Angry God"/Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Jerry Goldsmith
Even though we know it isn't really God, our intrepid explorers are confronted with an encounter with a being powerful enough to be convincing as Him, which presents a musical challenge. Goldsmith had to convey the awe of the moment without overselling it; the suspicion without exposing the fraud prematurely; and the fear without reassuring us that it will all be okay in the end. It becomes outright frenetic by the end, evoking Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcock vibes. "An Angry God" isn't a cue I would have selected, to be honest, but I get why Eidelman went with it.

14. "Genesis Countdown"/Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - James Horner
What's scarier than God turning out to be a fraud? Khan. Khan is scarier than fraud God. And more perverse, in a way, given that he's using a weapon called Genesis to kill everyone. Horner's march sets the countdown in motion: can we escape certain doom? The resolute percussion, chased by the taunting horns, makes clear that this is a race, pure and simple. Fanfare erupts in false hope intermittently, dashed by Khan's relentless motif. The pace slows agonizingly as the cue continues; we're not moving as fast as death. Horner tells the entire story musically...down to the triumphant conclusion betraying us all.

15. "The Katra Ritual"/Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - James Horner
The entirety of the first five Star Trek movies ultimately comes down to this one sequence: can Spock be made whole again? Horner's cue is unsettling, befitting the occasion, certainly, but also almost liturgical with its gongs and understated strings. This isn't quite as somber as "Returning to Vulcan", but neither is it wondrous as "The Meld" or majestic as "The Enterprise". It's something else entirely, and while it isn't necessarily hum-mable, it's thoughtfully written and really, the most appropriate climax to the album.

16. "Home Again: End Credits"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
Since Goldsmith's main theme opened the album, and Horner's "Prologue and Main Title" opened the second half, it stands to reason that The Astral Symphony should conclude with Rosenman. It's also a surprisingly smooth segue from the resurrection of Spock, being that "Home Again" opens with a reprisal of Alexander Courage's iconic TV show fanfare. This is the moment that both III and IV had been building to, after all: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest, back aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. By withholding Rosenman's main title until the end, it plays more jubilantly here than anywhere else, and it's an inspired choice.

I have no idea how many times I played my Astral Symphony CD over the years (including sleepovers with my friend Justin -- shout out, ya nerd!). I remember when I got a 6-CD changer, and I would load up the soundtracks to these first five movies, with the sixth slot dedicated to this compilation, and play through all of them. Even though I'd already heard "Ilia's Theme" and "Battle in the Mutara Nebula" by then, there was something different about hearing them in this order. Sure, I can make my own Star Trek playlists now (and I have), but really, they're all just my feeble attempts to capture the same wonder and excitement that Cliff Eidelman assembled on The Astral Symphony.