Jerry Goldsmith was one of the greatest film composers of all time, and there is no better example of why than the score to Alien. It also happens to be one of the most tampered with scores in movie history on top of being so effective and innovative.
This was a result of two things: disagreements between composer and director, and also lack of communication between the two. Goldsmith stated to director Ridley Scott:
You can’t communicate! I was on the picture for four months and I talked to you three times. All during the recording you didn’t say a word to me, and I need some feedback.
Add to that the frustration of stubborn creative adversity. The best example is the main title the composer wrote that captured the “romance” of space exploration and saving the surprise and terror mostly for later in the score. The director (and the majority of the filmmakers) wanted to be scary right off the bat, so he re-wrote it. It apparently took him an hour, as opposed to the day-long process of writing the original. Everyone loved it but Goldsmith. In spite of how a composer needs to be OK with this (as it is how the business works), I can see how it can be frustrating at times.
But this isn’t even half the story. Jerry completely scored and recorded the entire film before the whole thing was cut down by eleven minutes, with the film editor essentially treating the score as library music. He ignored sync points, grabbed parts of tracks and not the whole…because certain sequences no longer had the same pacing or even tone at times. So the entire musical arc the composer had in mind was more or less gutted. In fact, in some points, the temp tracks were brought back, which were famously all taken from a previous work of Jerry’s: Freud (1962). Ironically, this was done because the editor had much respect and admiration for Goldsmith. But Goldsmith hated temp scores and so ignored them altogether as he went about his creative process. Jerry was also apparently criticized for repeating himself due to the inclusion of his old score, which is doubtless a very frustrating thing to hear when it was outside your control.
It’s worth noting that Scott was very young with little experience interacting with composers, whereas Goldsmith was a veteran and expected certain things as a matter of course. Ultimately, I think both the composer and director were to blame in this case. We still ended up with a fantastic movie…though it does teach us that communication is important when it comes to scoring, if for no other reason than to maintain one’s own sanity.
Now, let’s dive into why the soundtrack was a masterpiece. Probably the largest criteria I have when I make remarks like “greatest composer” is what kind of innovation is going on as well as command of techniques that have been honed by centuries of music history. Alien has both of these things in spades. There’s gorgeous traditional thematic writing when the Nostromo is preparing to land (actually contains the main title theme that was scrapped when he was asked to re-work it):
But then, once we start getting a glimpse of the actual aliens, he introduces brilliant new sounds. Namely the use of the Echoplex with various instruments. It starts off with a single Conch, giving us the “alien effect.”
Then when the “space jockey” is discovered, more traditional instruments are used. Snap pizzicato, random high-register whole tones and sudden rips in the strings are sent through:
That cue never fails to send chills through my spine. It isn’t even fear at this point…more like timid curiosity and unease. But it is so effective that when something does eventually happen, you are thrown out of your own seat. I also particularly love how the devastating use of the Echoplex reflects how open and devoid of life the chamber is.
During some of the classic horror moments, he introduces a Serpent and even Didgeridoo:
Many of the effects I just listed survived the brutal editing process. While there are still examples of both in the film, I’ve noticed that the less dense, more atmospheric stuff tended to survive more often than the larger, more traditional cues.
By the way, if you want to hear the original score in its entirety, Intrada released a 2-disc set that contains both the original soundtrack release (that Goldsmith oversaw) and the actual full score before it was cut up for the final release. It’s a listen as fascinating as it is frightening, and comes with some great liner notes.