The Klingons have been featured in one way or another in every Star Trek movie produced to date — whether as actual characters or as starships on a monitor — but there is only one film in which the Klingons truly took centre stage. And that film happens to be one of the few Star Trek movies that was not scored by Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner, the subjects of the first two parts of this series.
The film in question is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), which served as a bridge of sorts between the original Star Trek TV series (1966-1969) and its follow-up, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). The latter series had shown that the Federation and the Klingons would one day be on friendly terms, so this film — the last one to feature the original series’ entire primary cast, and the first one to feature an actor (though not any of the characters) from the later series — aimed to show exactly how the Cold War between these two powers had ended.
And one of the striking features about the soundtrack for this film, composed by Cliff Eidelman, is how up-front it is about its Klingon elements — to the point where it is the only film in the entire series that does not begin with one of the standard Star Trek themes but, instead, begins with a theme that was written for the Klingons.
Here is the overture that plays over the film’s opening credits — a sequence that ends with the sudden, catastrophic explosion of a Klingon moon, a plot point that was meant to evoke the then-recent Chernobyl disaster (note: you may have to open the music tracks below in new tabs or windows in order to hear them):
The first thing you may notice about the track is that it lacks the “exotic” instrumentation or the “barbaric”, “primitive” quality that characterized the earlier Klingon themes written by Goldsmith and Horner. This was intentional, according to the liner notes for the “expanded” soundtrack released a few years ago:
From its opening bars, Eidelman’s music for Star Trek VI exhibits marked differences from previous scores, which had emphasized the romantic voyage of the Enterprise and heroism of the crew — with darker music used more sparingly for the films’ antagonists. Star Trek VI inverts this relationship. “My Klingon theme is very different,” Eidelman told Altman. “In fact, it’s the main title. I brought the Klingons right into the main title. My Klingon theme is really the theme of Chang and the assassination, which is very mysterious because we don’t know who did it. That’s the essence of this film, that’s the mystery, and that’s why I use it in the main title and why my Klingon theme is very different from the past Klingon themes.”
The Klingon music not only pervades the score — in a sense, it is the score — but characterizes the alien race quite differently than the previous scores had. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Jerry Goldsmith wrote a Klingon theme dominated by the interval of a fifth (like an ancient battle cry), while in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, James Horner used an exotic whole-tone scale. Eidelman’s Klingon music simmers and broods in the minor mode — subconsciously placing them within Prussian drawing rooms instead of charging across Mongolian plains. Eidelman admired the previous Klingon themes but believed they would not be appropriate for Star Trek VI. “The Klingons are not warlike in this movie, they don’t have that kind of warlike energy,” he told Altman. “It’s a different situation and their whole existence is in question. It’s not like writing for Indiana Jones, which is very action-oriented. I’ve given the Klingons more of an ominous theme. It’s violently different from Holst, but that ‘Mars’ pulse is there to create a menacing idea.”
The opening cue — deliberately titled “Overture” as opposed to “Main Title” — consists of three sections. The composer intended the rising-and-falling figure for cellos and double basses that opens the film — inspired by The Firebird — as the theme for another “bird”, the Klingon bird-of-prey. “That was there to help us feel the effects of something we can’t see, and in this film it really had to do with the Klingon ship that was cloaked,” Eidelman recalls. “It had to do with the fact that it’s mysterious, it’s dangerous and we can’t see it, and that theme kind of represented that. As the film progressed it also became something that captured not just the mysteriousness of the story and the cloaked ship but also the danger of the Klingons — it’s a story theme with elements of Klingon within it.” At 0:58 into the “Overture,” the time signature changes and Eidelman develops the bird-of-prey theme in a powerful variation with hammering rhythms (the influence of “Mars” from The Planets, albeit in 4/4, not 5/4): “The first three notes are the same as the opening of the ‘Overture’ except that it becomes more of an adventure theme,” Eidelman says. “It’s a brighter variation that has a little bit more of the heroism of the Federation.”
Interestingly, however, the liner notes do note that Eidelman turned to “exotic” instruments when it came time to write music for sequences set at the Klingon prison colony Rura Penthe — and many of these instruments were borrowed from Emil Richards, the same percussionist and collector who let James Horner use many of the same instruments for his Klingon themes in The Search for Spock.
The liner notes for the expanded Undiscovered Country soundtrack even use the word “primitive” in conjunction with the Rura Penthe sequences. So the “primitive” qualities that were once associated with Klingons as a whole are now located specifically in their prison colony — and it is left to us, perhaps, to discern the degree to which that “primitive” quality is now located in the other aliens imprisoned there, or in the Klingons who oversee that prison colony, or both.
In any case, here is the track that plays as Kirk and McCoy, who have been framed for the assassination of the Klingon Chancellor, are first brought to Rura Penthe:
And here is what the expanded soundtrack’s liner notes have to say about the instruments used in this sequence — including the first-ever use of a men’s chorus on a Star Trek soundtrack, chanting a Klingonese translation of a line from Hamlet that had been quoted earlier in the film by the Klingon general Chang:
The penultimate day of orchestral recording added a sixth percussionist for the Rura Penthe cues: Eidelman recruited percussion wizard Emil Richards and his unparalleled inventory of exotic sounds. “He had a warehouse of percussion instruments from all over the world and I went in there with a pencil and paper one day,” the composer says. “I was just getting into the material for the ice planet and the escape from Rura Penthe, and I wanted something that sounded a little alien that you couldn’t place, something that sound strange to Western ears when combined with Western orchestra. We used drums that bent up and down called melodrums, we used log drums, tam-tams, cymbal scrapes, bending toms, angklungs, prayer stones, slap sticks, bass vibraphone, bass marimba — and an Indian tamboura that was done with synthesizer, because I didn’t have a player for that.”
Eidelman turned to composer and woodwind performer Brice Martin for a variety of ethnic flutes, including screaming pipe, shakuhachi and variations of panpipes, many made from PVC tubing. “Brice showed up with trunks of flutes from everywhere, and I had him audition what he had on the spot. I knew where I wanted to go with it, so I put it in the score and he would sometimes suggest different things instead of what I had.”
The composer also employed a sepulchral men’s chorus, a color absent from any previous Star Trek music. Eidelman’s initial plans merely involved using Klingon lyrics for the Rura Penthe sequence — he consulted a Klingon language expert for the translation of “To be or not to be” (“taH pagh taHbe)” — but given the availability of the chorus at the recording sessions, he opted to use the dark and mysterious vocal shadings during other key moments of the score as well.
Eidelman was pretty much the last composer to create significant new music for the Klingons — until this year’s Star Trek into Darkness, that is.
The next four films all featured the cast of The Next Generation, including Worf, and three of the films had music by Goldsmith, who basically recycled the Klingon theme that he had written for the first film way, way back in 1979. The one non-Goldsmith score among the lot was the score that Dennis McCarthy wrote for Star Trek: Generations (1994) — and even though that film featured Klingon villains in addition to the heroic Worf, McCarthy’s music is more concerned with following the action beats than suggesting any sort of cultural distinctiveness.
But now the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboots are upon us — and while the Klingon sequence shot for the 2009 film was deleted in the end, the new film will apparently feature a significant sequence on the Klingon home world of Qo’noS, and so composer Michael Giacchino found himself writing the first significant new music for the Klingons since Eidelman’s score for The Undiscovered Country — and, like Eidelman, Giacchino makes use of a choir or chorus, but in a very different way.
I have not yet had a chance to see the new film for myself, so I can’t comment on how the music matches the action or anything like that, but Giacchino discussed his work on the score in a recent episode of Movies on the Radio, which you can listen to below. Host David Garland starts asking Giacchino about the Klingon track, titled ‘The Kronos Wartet’, at the 32:28 mark, and the track itself begins at the 35:39 mark:
One of the interesting details to emerge from this interview is that Giacchino initially brought the choir in to work on other tracks, and added them to the track for the Klingon sequence, complete with lyrics, at the last minute — which is the complete opposite of how Eidelman worked the men’s chorus into his own score.
The other interesting detail to emerge from this interview is that the Klingon lyrics consist of what Giacchino describes as “random hurled insults and things that a Klingon might say to an intruder of their planet,” which is qualitatively different from the Klingons’ use of Shakespeare in Eidelman’s score.
And of course, one huge difference between the Eidelman and Giacchino scores is that Eidelman emphasizes the brooding mystery of the Klingons — their cultural otherness, their political ambitions, and of course the true nature of the assassination plot against the Chancellor — whereas Giacchino emphasizes action, action, action.
Will Giacchino, or his director Abrams, pause to consider the Klingons as a cultural entity in their own right, the way earlier directors and composers have done? It’s impossible to say without seeing the film, though I note that one of the few Star Trek into Darkness reviews to actually say anything about the Klingons, beyond the fact that they’re actually in the new movie, laments that they have been reduced to “cultureless monsters, sharing much more in common with Nemesis’ Remans.”
Hopefully that won’t turn out to be entirely true. But if it does, well, the history of Star Trek movies — and the composers who have worked on them — provides ample evidence that the animalistic “bad guys” of one movie can sometimes turn out to be the good guys of another. Time will tell how things turn out here.