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On “Spooky” Music: Is The Truth Out There?

Twenty years ago this month, Fox executives followed its likely Friday night hit The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., with episodes of a filler series that they believed would quietly wither away after just a few months. The latter series was founded on a bizarre and implausible conceit, reeking of potential failure: two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents investigating very mysterious deaths and disappearances, whose explanations went beyond the mundane and could be accounted for by a number of seemingly unlikely phenomena, including ghosts, mutants, highly virulent microorganisms, cryptozoological beasts, and (last but not least) extraterrestrial visitors. All of these, along with shadowy government figures keeping it all hush-hush by any means necessary, challenged the two protagonists in their mutual search for the truth.

On the other hand, how could anyone not want to watch something with a commercial like the one below, promoting the show’s pilot episode?

After one season, Fox wished happy trails to the oddly-named Brisco County, Jr., due to low ratings (which, to be fair, did form a cult following of its own). Its sacrificial red-headed stepchild continued for another eight seasons. Within that timeframe, between 1993 and 2002, the adventures of skeptical FBI forensic pathologist Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), along with the also oddly-named unorthodox profiler and “true believer” Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), had become a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon. Along with the inventive premise developed by series creator Chris Carter, as well as the chemistry between the two leads (despite Duchovny’s eventual weariness with the series), The X-Files reflected a new mal de siècle and undercurrents of millennialism that had come to the fore in the 1990s, the period between the end of the Cold War and the “War on Terror.” More broadly, its ideas and aesthetics filtered into subsequent series labelled science fiction, as well as more mundane crime procedurals.

While I was curious about The X-Files myself, given my own interest in various things “unexplainable” (or at least not readily categorizable), I didn’t start watching regularly until about halfway into the second season. Among other things, I find the slightly askew sense of the quotidian one of the show’s most appealing aspects; what lurks beneath the surface of apparent “normalcy?” Filming locations in and around Vancouver, standing in (with varying degrees of credibility) for various locations throughout the United States, effectively set this mood during the show’s first five seasons. Of course, there are some things I would’ve done differently in the overall story arc for greater dramatic impact, such as having Scully’s sister in at least a few more episodes to build greater emotional impact. But, hey, that’s what FanFiction is for!

As X-Files aficionados may know, Mulder acquired the derisive nickname “Spooky” from others in the FBI. This derived from his interest in the eponymous files, started by J. Edgar Hoover in the 1940s as a way of categorizing “unsolved” cases, on account of implausible explanations being the most likely ones. But what does the term mean? It seems suitable to look at definitions of words that share some affinities, as found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s “horror,” which dates back to the 14th century:

A painful emotion compounded of loathing and fear; a shuddering with terror and repugnance; strong aversion mingled with dread; the feeling excited by something shocking or frightful. Also in weaker sense, intense dislike or repugnance. (The prevalent use at all times.)

A century later, “terror” emerged:

The state of being terrified or extremely frightened; intense fear or dread; an instance or feeling of this.

Spooky is much more recent, a colloquialism that dates back to 1854:

Of, relating to, or characteristic of spirits or the supernatural; frightening, eerie.

Certainly, the show has many moments of palpable horror and terror, as we witness victims meeting unusually macabre and mysterious fates. But there’s something else as well. The sense of something that’s “not quite right,” even if we don’t know what it is, or we aren’t aware of a clear and present threat. The sense of something… spooky.

The music composed by Juilliard-trained Mark Snow (1946- ) portrays numerous emotions. This is especially true in the “mytharc” episodes, which typically focus on the characters’ personal lives, as well as the eventual revelation of an international conspiracy of (mostly) men complicit in making a Mephistophelian bargain with extraterrestrial colonists, or whatever direction the show meandered into after several seasons. With the necessities of a quick turnaround time for a weekly series, Snow drew upon the less logistically challenging tool of a synthesizer to convey the more “ambient” atmosphere initially desired for the show. Nonetheless, Snow mentioned in an interview that, as the series progressed, he wanted to lend the series a more “orchestral” sensibility, while still using a synthesizer for the same practical reasons (Goldwasser 1998). Given that this posting focuses on “spookiness,” though, it seems more suitable to zero in on how Snow developed two main themes underscore this aspect. More specifically, the one-off theme used in the closing credits of the pilot episode (which, unfortunately, can’t be found on YouTube), as well as the more iconic Materia Primoris (known colloquially as “The X-Files Theme”).

The X-Files pilot episode, which premiered on 10 September 1993, contains two standard elements that would appear in practically every episode: a teaser that establishes the case of the week (with slight variations in the so-called mythology episodes), followed by the appearance of Scully and Mulder discussing the case, whether in Mulder’s basement office in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, or upon arriving at the proverbial scene of the crime. However, it lacks opening credits and a main musical theme. A likely candidate appears in the end credits, however, after the cigarette smoking “dark father” (William B. Davis) of the series salts away evidence from the pair’s first investigation in an unassuming storage facility within the Pentagon. The theme begins with a somewhat high-pitched single note that simulates a string instrument. After a few seconds, a dissonant piano chords breaks the near-silence, softly echoing as its fades into the ether. A similar effect appears a few more times, in slightly different keys to add to the tension.

While nothing “happens” within the music, it remains unsettling at the very least, almost conveying a sense of quiet existential dread in its lack of resolution, or even of a “confident” starting point. It seems to portray a cold universe with beings that are, if not hostile, at least antipathetic to our well-being… “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic,” as H.G. Wells described the Martians that invaded Earth in his 1898 novel War of the Worlds. And where the very agencies that are supposed to protect us are more concerned with covering up their own role in whatever is happening, most likely due to their own impotence.

In some ways, the almost toxic-sounding closing credit theme portrays a more abstract “feeling,” and not so much a motif to announce the appearance of a character, or to portray a particular thing or concept. This very fine distinction isn’t always easy to parse out, given that a motif can carry with it feelings as well, depending on how a musician manipulates its pitch, tempo, orchestration, and the like. However, as a rule of thumb, one would hear a motif in John Williams’ scores for the Star Wars films (which, of course, have a musical genealogy going back at least to Richard Wagner’s operas); among numerous others, there are definite themes for The Force and Darth Vader (“The Imperial March”). Here are some deeply contrasting variations on the latter, just to underscore the point:

Snow’s method of portraying “feeling” shares greater affinities with the film scores of Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), who focused relatively more on affect (whether psychological or physiological), and not nearly so much on portraying specific “things.” Herrmann’s best-known snippet of music is likely from the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), certainly enhancing one of the most merciless moments of terror committed to film (despite our tendency to use it casually as a signifier for people we perceive as blowing small things way out of proportion).

While Herrmann portrays abject fear, Snow more or less takes the same approach in the pilot episode’s closing theme, but (to me at least) more closely conveys a sense of “spookiness” instead. Some might say horror or terror or fear, which could be right as well. I would argue, however, that nothing is actually “happening” in the same sense as in the Psycho shower scene; hence, “spookiness,” or perhaps the other vague portent of “dread.” That said, it’s useful to note the broader affinities between the two. In an interview (Pertout 1998) given prior to the release of the first X-Files movie (Fight the Future), Snow mentions Herrmann first among film composers as an influence on his own work, along with a number of 20th century composers whose works are almost exclusively for orchestral and vocal performances, and not specifically for film or teevee. A comparative analysis of their music alongside Snow’s X-Files work would likely constitute a posting in itself, but I can attest that I have picked up definite affinities with Béla Bartók (1882-1945) and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). Interestingly, I finally started listening to the works of Alban Berg (1885-1935), a student of Schoenberg, around the same time I watched X-Files initially, and I made my own personal connections there as well; more specifically, with the first movement of the concert suite for Berg’s opera Lulu (which he left uncompleted upon his death):

It seems most suitable to focus on Schoenberg in particular, given that his apparent influence on Snow ties in with the nature of The X-Files. Schoenberg is perhaps best known for “atonal” compositions that, to the uninitiated (and perhaps even the initiated), sounds like “a bunch of noise” and “wrong notes” thrown together. There is a method to the apparent madness, however, as such works deliberately have no central “home” key, with no perceived sense of tension, release, and resolution. Or, perhaps to many ears, there only tends to be tension, enhanced by simultaneously playing notes whose intervals create psychologically and physically “unpleasant” sensations.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Schoenberg’s works can create unease among listeners who are used to hearing music that has tension, release, and resolution, which pretty much everyone listens to regularly, whether Romantic pieces by Johannes Brahms or Top 40 Hits. For a more detailed, but still accessible, discussion of atonality, as well as the contexts that made Schoenberg see its development as a “necessity,” Alex Ross’ 2007 book The Rest Is Noise provides a helpful introduction (pp. 55-61).

Schoenberg was known as an iconoclast, but, as Ross points out:

In a way, Schoenberg was most persuasive in justifying his early atonal works when he emphasized their illogical, irrational dimension. As far as we can tell, he composed them in something like an automatic state, sketching the hyperdense Erwartung (or “Expectation”) in only seventeen days (2007, 57).

Perhaps for the aforementioned reasons, it’s a technique that composers for film and television have drawn upon for years. In particular for anything that has a sense of terror, horror, fear, spookiness, or whatever other similar adjectives one might use. Or, as Ross points out, “horror movies need atonality as they need shadows on the walls of alleys” (2007, 35). Perhaps, then, a context is necessary in order for broader audiences to make sense (inasmuch as they’re able to) of atonal composition techniques.

Herrmann brought Schoenbergian techniques to mainstream culture many years ago, once again most notably in Psycho. Approximately 40 minutes into this wonderful documentary on the composer (even if it spends an inordinate amount of time on Psycho at the expense of other great stuff by Herrmann), Howard Goodall discusses this aspect:

So there’s a direct lineage of Schoenberg’s influence on Snow, and likely some degree of indirect influence through Herrmann. At least, one can find affinities in that relatively obscure closing theme for the pilot episode. What better than uncertainty in the identity of a “home key” to portray uncertainty more broadly? To portray, so to speak, “alienation.” Perhaps even “spookiness.”

One final interesting footnote before moving on to the theme “everyone” knows from The X-Files. In October and November 1973, during his time as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, Leonard Bernstein gave a series of six talks about music under the broad title The Unanswered Question. In the fifth lecture, which spends some time on Schoenberg’s contribution to “The Twentieth Century Crisis” in music, Bernstein happens to mention a couple of works that seem to have some connections with X-Files-ish themes. They include Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet (1908), his “renunciation of tonality” whose final movement consists of the words (roughly translated), “I feel air from another planet.”

Regarding Pierrot Lunaire (1912), a cycle of 21 songs by Schoenberg, Bernstein refers to it as “the clincher… that wild and spine-chilling masterpiece of Expressionism.” What’s more, Bernstein describes Schoenberg’s usage of Sprechstimme (wherein singers start to sing a note, but let it fall or rise to make it sound like everyday speech) as a “blow at tonality, and lends a new spookiness to the music.” Carrying on the vaguely extraterrestrial (and spooky) theme, Bernstein mentions Der Kranke Mond (“The Sick Moon”) as an example.

It’s perhaps not too distant from the opening of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (1905), a relatively more tonal opera from just a few years before, with its own air of initial spookiness and lunar-kissed decadence presaging something vaguely horrific (the spooky opening begins around 1:25; just the first one or two minutes from that point are necessary to get the effect).

As well, Bernstein mentions a direct antecedent to both, noting offhand how the opening notes from Der Kranke Mond sound like the opening from the Prelude to Wagner’s headily erotic and spiritual opera Tristan und Isolde.

In the second episode of The X-Files, “Deep Throat,” Mulder meets a more or less friendly eponymous “insider” contact (Jerry Hardin), whose codename evokes strong associations with the Nixonian America of series creator Carter’s (and Mulder’s) formative years. Also appearing for the first in time after the “teaser” is Materia Primoris, better known as the iconic “X-Files Theme.” Like its single episode predecessor, this piece conveys an air of spookiness itself. And yet, it doesn’t have the same menace as the theme from the end of the first episode. There’s perhaps a sense of optimism, too. That, as the show’s tagline states, “The Truth Is out There,” and that it might be found as one whistles in the dark.

After being plunged into a sonic space amidst enigmatic synthesizer sounds, some of which more or less resemble the unresolved echoing piano chords in the end credits of the first episode, one hears variations on a theme that consists of six “whistling” notes. This seems to signify a sense of mystery, and our own dialogue with things that we have difficulty explaining, or even conceptualizing, in part due to the limitations of (1) our personal frames of reference and (2) “official” received narratives, handed down to us by religious and secular high priesthoods. Whether or not the six note theme “resolves” is up for debate, although I suppose musicologists would have more of a definitive answer. Certainly, compared to the theme from the first episode, there’s a relatively greater sense of resolution. However, the last of the six notes also makes it come across as a question: “The truth is out there,” followed by an ambiguous, “Yes?” But, again, an echoing note seems to follow each variation as a form of negation, and the search for the truth begins again. Rephrased, perhaps, but again with a six note theme.

At the end, another variation on the whistling theme starts again, but stops on the second note, which is sustained until it is negated as well.

And the story recommences.

Interestingly, despite using techniques that tend to eschew motif, Snow mentions in the Pertout interview that Materia Primoris does appear as a motif after all in Fight the Future (which also consists of an orchestra for the soundtrack).

The other thing that is interesting and different is that the X-Files theme with the whistling is never used in the TV show as background music, and in the film score it’s used quite a bit, where the orchestra plays it with different harmonies, and you know, fast and slow, and sad, dangerous, different variations of it. So that turned out to be the theme of the movie score, but never used in the TV show. (1998)

Perhaps it’s a motif for “the search for the truth,” and all that comes with it, including the sense of uncertainty?

Naturally, the whole notion of “spookiness” is subjective, but the lineage of how it’s likely notated (as exemplified by the German tradition through Schoenberg, and filtered through Snow’s work on The X-Files) remains an interesting realm to explore. But what is it that makes certain music that way? One can claim that Materia Primoris is spooky due to its inseparable associations with The X-Files, but that’s actually an extramusical connection. More to the point, what makes the music itself that way? Is it inherent, culturally conditioned, or both? Or, what tools and techniques in a musician’s “toolbox” help with crafting such music? What amalgamations of keys, chords, melodic structures, and other musical facets create such an effect? Also, how does one distinguish “spooky” from other similar terms in describing music? Perhaps it’s for this reason that formal subject headings (as one finds in library catalogues) for sound recordings tend to focus primarily on genre, but not on what music is “about.”

With the ubiquity of tagging in numerous sites that provide and / or describe musical content, one can at least make some assumptions about the intersubjective notion of what constitutes “spookiness.” The truth may be out there, but it might take on many forms, inadequately described by the terminology we use, as Elaine Svenonius (1994) points out, regarding non-text things. For the phenomena we observe and attempt to categorize in the “everyday world,” and perhaps beyond.

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