Star Trek Composer Jay Chattaway Strikes a Chord

“Many times, viewers look at these shows as just a development of technical wizardry,” says Star Trek composer Jay Chattaway, “and in reality, there’s something deeper going on, a subtext, and it’s amazing that in the 24th century, people, even though they aren’t all human, still have emotional relationships.”

Chattaway is one of the few composers to work on all three of the most recent Star Trek series: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. The primary purpose of his music in these shows, he says, is to underscore the fact that the future — no matter how many Vulcans inhabit it — hasn’t eliminated emotional interaction. Many times, the music can play a role as active as any character written into the script.

Music as Communication

“In the pilot to Star Trek: Voyager, the Ocampa people living underground didn’t really have an aural speech pattern,” explains Chattaway. “I tried to convey in the music the fact that they did communicate telepathically. The music was quite contrapuntal and electronic sensing, made to sound like speech patterns, as though they were communicating telepathically, and that this was actually being done through the music.”

Composers often play an active role in the development of certain points in the script, even long before a final draft has been written. Chattaway describes a particular problem the producers faced when planning the production of “The Inner Light,” the episode in which Star Trek: The Next Generation Captain Jean-Luc Picard first learns to play the flute that becomes integral to his character throughout the series.

“One of the producers came to me, and said, ‘I really want this to be a flute, but I want to be able to see Patrick’s face, the expressions on his face, as he learns to play this instrument. What would be appropriate for that?'” he remembers. “So we looked around and ended up using the penny whistle. There’s nothing blocking the view, so that instrument was written into that script and then it was written into a later script, ‘Lessons,’ and also the Western episode, ‘Fistful of Datas.'”

Patrick Stewart actually learned to play the “Flute Song” on the penny whistle which is not, as Jay pointed out, an easy thing to do. Chattaway wanted to convey the working folk culture depicted in the episode with an easily recognizable tune. Picard’s “Flute Song” is the most requested piece of music in Paramount’s history, and in fact, Jay once led a huge orchestra with many penny whistles in a live performance of the famous song.

One famous Star Trek: TNG episode involved Picard learning to play a yet another musical instrument for a marriage ceremony. At the time that Jay received the script, the instrument itself had not been decided upon and the script itself was just in the conceptual stages. The episode became “The Perfect Mate.”

“It was a ritualistic pattern that Patrick had to learn to play on this as part of the bonding ceremony, so we chose a marimba-looking instrument with a very unique sound. When you hit it a certain way, it emanates certain light patterns as well as certain sounds, and all of this had to be written even before the script was finished.”

Music as Madness
Much requested also is Dax’s song from the episode “Equilibrium” in which she recovers buried memories of a host who was a composer . . . and a murderer. Jay found the depiction of the crazed composer to be humorous, but he enjoyed the opportunity take part in the production of the episode before it was filmed.

“Of course, they depicted a composer as being a wacked kind of individual who wasn’t very emotionally stable,” he laughs. “I don’t know if that describes all composers. The song needed to be a central theme that she would play on the keyboard and hum. When it was approved, I had to teach Terry Farrell (the actress who plays Dax) to play it, and then I interwove that theme into the score.”

Music as Character

The music plays a part in the development of the characters themselves, according to Chattaway. While recognizable themes associated with a particular character or event — such as the “beautiful woman music” from Star Trek: The Original Series — is considered a dated approach to scoring, certain thematic elements have been attached to certain Star Trek characters to enhance their roles.

“There was always a question of whether Data had human emotions or not,” he explains, “and there was an instrument which we devised. It was a combination of various samples, some being very mechanical and electronic and some being very warm, such as that of a saxophone, and when they were all combined, it gave Data an interesting thematic musical sound which was bordering between electronics and music.”

In the series Star Trek: Voyager, Chattaway says, the show’s theme music was often attached to Captain Janeway. “I did develop a motif for the holographic doctor for the pilot,” he says, explaining that he wanted to incorporate some of the electronic sounds, because the character was a light kind of a character. Chakotay, the Native American character, had some typical Native American thematic background music.

The composers aren’t usually actively involved until post-production, says Chattaway. Since the special effects aren’t finished until the morning the orchestra records the score, as a composer, Chattaway had to be prepared to be flexible. With only an average of five hours to record each episode’s score, he was never given much time to make changes.

Computers help, he says. “Without the electronics and the computers, it would be impossible to do all that computation and get everything in place in the time frame we have,” he says. “It’s a very mathematically complex equation to get 45 musicians to go ‘kaboom.'”

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