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Sci-fi & Music: BFI Southbank

19 November 2014 | Chris Mugan

"Cutting-edge musicians have long been drawn to the possibilities of sci-fi, though in the past their contributions tended to be dismissed as gimmicks."

As a genre, science-fiction has accelerated advances in film and special effects, but its impact on music has been less explored. Now, though, the British Film Institute (BFI) is making composition an integral part of its current season Sci-fi: Days Of Fear and Wonder at BFI Southbank.

Cutting-edge musicians have long been drawn to the possibilities of sci-fi, though in the past their contributions tended to be dismissed as gimmicks. The uncanny strains of early electronic instrument the theremin and the Moog synthesiser were seen as novelties. Even in the late seventies, the BBC's experimental Radiophonic Workshop worked in comparative obscurity at the broadcaster's Maida Vale studios.

The fortunes of this motley crew of technician-composers shows how the input of music into sci-fi has gained belated respectability. While their Doctor Who theme was being covered or sampled, its creators remained largely unknown, though they have since taken on legendary status, encouraging a group of surviving workshop members to regroup and claim their dues. 

Paddy Kingsland, Dr Dick Mills and Roger Limb will appear at the BFI to discuss their contribution to the BBC's children's drama The Boy From Space, which will be screened beforehand with clips from dystopian chiller The Changes and Out of the Unknown. They will follow this in the evening with a live set of their futurist work, including themes from the likes of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Quatermass (Dec 6).

Sci-fi and space has also influenced pop music more widely, from Joe Meek's 'Telstar' to eighties electro and robot-dancing. In black culture, this found a particular political and social slant in the emancipatory dreams of Afrofuturism, an influence on Sun Ra's self-mythologising jazz odysseys, George Clinton's space-age funk and even Detroit techno. This will be explored via a conversation between DJ/film maker Don Letts and hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, discussing Afrofuturism in cinema and music (Dec 1).

DJ Yoda has helped take his profession into a brave new world by manipulating visual samples alongside sonic cut-ups. He is set perform a specially themed mash-up set as part of the season, DJ Yoda Goes to the Sci-fi Movies (Nov 15). Other audio-visual presentations will be more collaborative: John Foxx – the original lead singer of Ultravox - will be setting music with colleague Steve D'Agostino to the unsettling visuals of artist Karborn in Evidence of Time Travel (Nov 21).

Later that evening, the talented Charlotte Hatherley will be perform her soundtrack to post-apocalyptic short The Last Man, directed by Gavin Rothery, previously known for his visual effects work on Duncan Jones's sci-fi hit Moon. And for light relief, the night will be rounded off with a club set by Johnny Trunk, head of Trunk Records, the label that has resurrected such gems as the UFO TV series soundtrack and music from The Clangers. After all, we don't have to take sci-fi seriously all the time.

Sci-fi: Days of Fear and Wonder runs at BFI Southbank until December 31.

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