Beware of SPOILERS for SGU‘s “Air,” Parts 1 through 3!
Music influences our entertainment more often than many of us seem to realize. A flat scene can be livened with color and substance with a single note. But too many notes can drown the meaning and destroy a sequence. It is a careful balance that must be weighed every step.
Joel Goldsmith has been charged with weighing every moment on Stargate going on 16 seasons . Baton in hand, he has braved the challenge of “reinventing the wheel” for this third live-action incarnation of the Stargate television series with fresh faces and a grittier atmosphere.
In GateWorld’s exclusive interview, Joel reveals his struggle — and ultimate satisfaction — in finding SGU‘s voice after more than 300 hours of Stargate. He talks about his favorite moments in the pilot, weaving the tapestry of a more “minimalist” score, and gaining satisfaction from the unfolding plot.
GateWorld: What were some of the things you guys talked about when starting from scratch for this new show? Because in many ways the music feels like it’s starting from scratch.
Joel Goldsmith: Rob [Cooper] and Brad [Wright] were specific in that they wanted a combination of electronic and organic elements for the show. And they specifically mentioned piano and guitar which I have utilized in the series quite a bit.
With a couple of exceptions, I’m not using any traditional woodwinds and I’m using less traditional brass than I have for previous shows. Instead I’m using ethnic winds, and electronic, Vangelis-type brass. Otherwise, I’ve been using strings, guitar, piano and various other electronic sounds.
We talked about it being a dark score because the show is fairly dark, but we’ve been trying to keep kind of an open beauty to it. We’ve tried to be very aesthetic as well as being dark and I think that’s important. I think that I’ve also kind of been playing on the loneliness of their isolation.
It’s been a learning process for all of us. Certain things I’ve done that I thought they would hate, they loved. And certain things I thought they would love, they didn’t like so much. But it’s been a very successful collaboration with them so far.
I think one of the big differences on this show, also, in the developing stage is Rick Chadock, who’s been the music editor since day one on Stargate SG-1. On SGU [he has] taken on the role as producer of the music as well. And it’s been [a] very, very rewarding collaboration. He used to work from home, now he’s coming to my studio every day. He commutes. He was spoiled for many years, being able to just work at home. He’s now ever-present in the studio taking care of his music editorial chores as well as music production chores.
It’s been a long time since I’ve worked with a music producer. Which generally a composer doesn’t do and it wouldn’t be appropriate really to do with a more traditional score. But in a lot of ways, there is a lot more contemporary music and we’re kind of developing things in a contemporary way when it comes to recording the stuff.
And it’s very helpful because a lot of the music is very minimalist. And minimalist music is very difficult to do because you just want to orchestrate. You almost feel like you’re cheating by having things so empty and open. It’s like, “I can’t just leave it like that, I’ve got do some counterpoint …”
GW: “They’re paying me for this!”
JG: Yeah, exactly! “They’re paying me for this.” And Rick has been invaluable in helping me say “Hey, no, that’s good. That’s soulful.” Because we’ve been trying to put a lot of soul into the music, which has a lot of electronics in it, being tempered again by the guitars and piano.
GW: My favorite movement in all the three hours is when Scott [Brian J. Smith] finds whatever it is that he’s looking for in the third hour. He’s getting up the courage to get back on his feet and someone is helping him. And we cut back to the crew and the ship and there’s no dialog and it’s just the struggle to accomplish the mission. And it just kind of took me aback how different it is from the other two shows in terms of sound but how human it is, none the less.
JG: Yeah, I’m fond of that piece as well. It was temped with a song. And then I went and scored it. I think we did a couple of passes at it. It was one of those situations where Rob sent me back to the drawing board. But I was very pleased with how it turned out.
I think that’s actually a good example of using emotional counterpoint in scoring. Because traditionally I would have scored that scene in much more of a dramatic, desperate way where I simply played his emotions straight on and really didn’t play the action at all. We’ve done that on numerous occasions. And I plan on using it more. Again, everything is developing as we go.
GW: When [the ship] stops, it initiates a countdown before it takes off again. Much like in the climax of this pilot you’ve got a ticking clock. Have you found that helps you in some of these episodes where that ticking clock element is present? Or is it a road block for you when you’re creating the theme?
JG: It’s helpful. For one, in the third episode I’m playing the ticking clock. I use that in the music. I have a ticking clock in the music. In other situations I don’t. The ticking clock has actually given pace to the music even if it’s not there, just because the audience is feeling that rhythm of the clock going.
In the pilot and episode three, I have a lot of movement when the clock is ticking. But later I’ve done it without movement yet it almost seems like there’s still movement there just because the clock is ticking. The audience is feeling that rhythm of the clock even though I’ve not established it in the music. So it has worked both ways. For various reasons I used it in the pilot and episode three as the clock was ticking.
GW: You do a lot of music with action and the pilot really only has one major action sequence. This show is going to be a lot … I don’t want to necessarily say slower moving but it’s going to take time to explore characters. Is this allowing you to explore your musical abilities as well?
JG: I think relying more on emotionally-driven scenes rather than action-driven is very rewarding. [It] can be challenging at times but it also allows the music to be heard a little more. You have a lot of sound effects in action sequences and it can cover up the music quite a bit. I think that on a few situations in Stargate we did play action sequences in a more ethereal, kind of slow-moving way.
There is a lot of action in this show I should say, but obviously the action isn’t the same kind of action as we had in earlier Stargate episodes. A lot of the action is just really mentally driven. It reveals itself in a more emotional way and in battles that are happening emotionally rather than physically.
GW: You don’t have pompous snakeheads trying to take over the world every single week that we can go and fight. A lot of the time we’re fighting each other.
JG: Yes! And as well as not physically fighting, often we are fighting emotional battles. And so it is conflict and it’s just a little bit different and so it is changing. You know, Stargate Universe is a really, really good show and is progressively, as the shows go on, getting even better. It’s one of those situations because it’s such a character-driven show.
As you get to know the characters you get much more emotionally involved, personally involved. And I hope the audience will be giving the show a fair chance to do that. There are so many characters and they are being clever about the way they’re doing it. So much is being revealed slowly through the show.
I’ll watch a show — I guess I’m starting on episode 11 now. All of a sudden something will come out and it’ll be kind of casually put out there but I’ll be, “Oh my God, this is a big deal.” And it’s going to be very exciting for the audience as things develop like that. As issues, people’s issues, people’s pasts come out and you find out what is happening. They’re taking their time doing that but it’s very exciting in its way.
You know, the show is not a comic strip by any means. [Laughter] I loved SG-1 and Atlantis. But no matter what, there was a certain light-adventure about a lot of the stuff. These are real-world issues. This is a more mature team — and I’m talking about the creative team making the show. We’re dealing with more sophisticated issues, more sophisticated emotional issues. But still with a lot of humor. There’s a lot of funny stuff that’s happening. It gets funnier as it goes on. Have you only seen the first three episodes?
GW: I’ve seen the first three.
JG: There are some spectacular episodes coming that you’re going to be very thrilled to see.
GW: David Blue [Eli Wallace] and I have already spoken and he already named “Life” and “Time” as two of his favorites. So there’re definitely some good ones sticking out there.
JG: [I was] actually working on “Time” just right when you called. “Time” is just huge — the end of “Time” is really quite something. I got to tell you, I’m loving the show.
You know, it took me a little time to switch gears from Atlantis to Universe. Before shooting began, I was sending Rob and Brad some ideas I had for the show. The first thing I sent, Brad called and said that he absolutely loved it. Unfortunately not for Universe. He said, he planned on using them for the next SG-1 movie, so I had to go back to the drawing board.
GW: Well, at least it’s going to get used!
JG: Yeah it is. And it was a good theme but it was just different. There is not as much of a traditional theme on Universe — the score is not going to be that tune-driven. But there is a certain Stargate vibe to it. Even though we are reinventing the show.
I think that one of the reasons that they chose to use me on this, other than they’re nice guys and they have fantastic taste in composers. [Laughter] … They told me that they wanted to reinvent the show, but they knew that, “You know something, no matter what, Joel can reinvent the show, but it’s still going to be Joel.”
And David Arnold set the tone of the show [in the feature film]. Still, over all these years, these 12, 13 years, there was a signature sound as my style was developed on the show. And they know that even though we are reinventing it — we are using a new palette, we are using a new orchestration and we are doing a new approach to the show — they know that there is going to be a certain amount of Stargate in it just because I am writing the music.
And the same thing can be said about Brad and Rob writing the shows. Even though it is a very different show, there is a certain continuity because it is a Stargate show, and they’re the same writers. It gives you a little bit of a warm and fuzzy feeling even though you’re in this completely foreign environment with foreign characters. You don’t know the characters at first and then when we touch back on Stargate it gives you a little bit of a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Did you have that feeling when you watched the show?
GW: It felt like a separate bolt of cloth from the same manufacturer. There was very — and this is a good thing — I’ve not been saying, “We want the same old stuff, don’t give us something new.” I want pretty much 95 percent new with whatever comes out of Stargate Universe, and just enough of the old to let me know that, “Yes, it is still Stargate.” We are not starting from scratch — this is not a new universe — this is the same universe, just bigger.
JG: Then I think we’ve succeeded. Because I believe that is what we have done. And I think that as we develop more, you’re going to see the show is really coming into its own. Because I know I had a lot of trouble switching gears.
GW: Well, you’ve been doing this for 15 seasons.
JG: It took me a while. I mean, I do other projects as well and sometimes I have to completely switch gears but still we’re in the Stargate universe — excuse the pun. So, it took me a little bit to get away from that. Especially the palette, the orchestration and going to an oboe when I’m doing [something else]. It took me a little bit. But it’s very rewarding being successful and moving away from it.
GW: You know, I always … I’m a Star Trek kid at heart. I grew up with Next Generation and those really are my core shows because they make up who I am. And you know, Star Trek: Next Generation they always had the six french horns. DS9, Voyager largely always had six french horns. And that kind of what was the foundation of what the show was.
But the most exciting thing to me about Enterprise was how organically different it was musically. You can love Enterprise or hate it but it was so different musically. And there is nothing wrong with having something new for the third Stargate series.
JG: No, I don’t think so. And I think that the changes have been very successful. And like I said, it was hard for me to kind of switch gears like this. I can’t imagine how hard it was for the writers to do the same thing.
Brad and Rob did a great job. And again, I wish you’d seen the first five episodes because by episode five, all of a sudden you really feel the characters, you really understand them on a different level. You understand them in the first three episodes and the pilot, but all of a sudden they become more three dimensional. They become more dynamic. I remember the first thing when I showed it to my kids, my 16 year old immediately picked up on, “What’s Rush’s [Robert Carlyle] deal?”
We’re challenging the audience because we don’t necessarily have a clear cut good guy, a clear cut bad guy. I mean, we know Scott — it’s pretty straight ahead. But you come to Young [Louis Ferreira] and Rush, it’s like “What is the deal? Are they good?” And they are really challenging the audience with that. I hope that the audience will appreciate how much credit the creators are giving the audience by doing that.
GW: I watched the pilot the first couple of times with some friends. And we were all talking and there was a lot of silence. But the third time that I went through and watched it, at the end of that second hour when the team is going through the gate to the lime planet and Rush turns and looks to Young.
That music is playing in the background, we’re getting ready to go through to the planet and Young nods to him basically as a good luck and Rush doesn’t smile, doesn’t do nothing. And you play this one note through it. This deep resounding “Oh-oh,” kind of a sound that this guy may not be all that he seems to be and then he goes through the gate and that’s how the episode ends.
And it gave me chills because the music is always a reflection of the characters’ emotions. If it’s really good music, it’s a reflection of what we’re seeing and there’s more to this guy than meets the eye. He has an agenda here and I just love that. Just that single note says so much about everything else that’s going on. The subtext of what’s going on.
JG: Well, you caught on David, we talked about that note, too. There was a discussion on it, about that note. And also there was discussion about that cue as we go on, as we went in, as they were going through the gate. Because there was a certain … well, that is about as Stargate as you can get. The team is coming together going through the gate.
GW: Yeah, a little adventure, right.
JG: And there was a little adventure in the music. I actually, on my own … I did it first, we mixed the show and then there’s a day two mix. I actually watched the show again from the beginning and I actually went back and I toned that down. Before, it was bigger. It was actually more heroic. It was more traditional. It’s still changed on Rush, on that look. But still, the whole “gearing up to go” was bigger. And I actually toned it way down. And Rob really, really liked it when I did tone it down.
I mean they liked it both ways, but it had a lot of guitars, it was big. When they started going through the gate it was exciting when I first watched the show. It was like, “Oh wow it was cool.” They’re going on an adventure …
GW: Exactly. Well, that’s what’s familiar to you as a musician. They were always going on adventures.
JG: Exactly. But you know, I got to tell you, what I also did is I thought about, “Where are they going?” And then we go directly to that planet and I said “I’ve got to tone it down a little bit,” Because of what’s about to happen, I don’t want the audience to completely think that they’re about to go into a gun battle. And Teal’c’s about to jump out …
GW: And staff weapons and gliders are going to fly over the dunes!
JG: Exactly, it ain’t gonna happen! But “Air, 3” is a terrific episode too. And again, it starts slow. You get plot development, you get character development, the whole thing with Scott which was so nice, and that’s important because that’s going to be important to his motivation and for the rest of the series.
GW: It’s not who’s attacking the Destiny this week. It’s so much more about the characters. And that’s just tremendously exciting. And the exploration aspect of it.
JG: It really is. And it’s not like they’re completely leaving bad guys behind, things happen especially as we develop the series. But it’s really a matter of the audience connecting. And I think they will.
I think sci-fi people are going to really like it. I think that in a lot of ways this is purer science fiction than the other shows were. And again, the show is a bit more mature than SG-1 and Atlantis. And when I say that, I say that very fondly, I say that because I love those shows too.
GW: Those were action-adventure, Indiana Jones swash-buckling kinds of shows. And yes, there is much more of an operatic overture about this show. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t Stargate.
JG: No, it’s definitely Stargate. And the communication stones allow interaction with familiar characters.
I’m very happy to be working on this show because there is a great sincerity in trying to make a special show. There is a great sincerity in trying to make a more mature science fiction-based show. At the beginning we’re really simply talking about our survival. As things get a little more under control, things get a little more complex.
GW: We start addressing other issues. When it’s not a matter of “Oh, what are we going to breathe today?” “What would you like to breathe today?”
Everyone has been talking about the kino and one of my favorite cues in the first three hours … The second hour, when Scott goes into the elevator, he turns around and this floating ball is just floating by, there’s a sense of “What is this thing?” And that had a very unique sound to it too. Is the kino allowing you to express yourself as well?
JG: Yeah! It’s a fun gadget that they use. And they use it in a lot of different ways. It’s integral to some of the stories in how they solve things and sometimes it’s used in a little naughty way as well. [Laughter] We’ve kind of made the kino the keyword here at the studio whenever we need to use the Internet to answer a question. We quote Eli: “We can use the Kino to find out!”
GW: Let’s go to the elephant in the room here. Both SG-1 and Atlantis had wonderful opening scores and the trend for television is to do away with the opening score hopefully so that more of the show will go to the show rather than commercials. And the third hour did not have an opening score so much as it had a ten second SGU beat. Is that going to be consistent throughout the rest of the show?
JG: As far as I know.
GW: OK. So you haven’t written an opening title sequence yet.
JG: The closest I have to that is the one-minute end title. I don’t think you saw it, you probably saw a 25 second end title. On the DVDs [there will be] a one minute end title. There’s also a large suite I did that’s six minutes long, which I did before I received any shows. That’s really not in any show, but it will be on the CD. I’m using bits and pieces of it throughout the show. But there’s an actual coherent piece of music. I believe I called the piece Elements.
But there really isn’t a main title. We’ve been doing what we call a preamble on the show, which is basically a 30-second explanation of the show’s premise followed by a recap, which is also about 30 seconds, but it changes every show, of course. You saw it in “Air, 3.” And it’s been at the beginning of a lot of the shows. I don’t know if they’ll continue it on Season Two.
GW: Is it just an eventual plan for an SGU CD release? Or is this going to be like “Children of the Gods” was released and “Rising” was released on CD? Like relatively soon, within the next six months or so?
JG: I think that I would like to do it quickly. Again, it’ll be dependent on MGM’s cooperation but I believe they will be. We had really good success with the Continuum and Ark of Truth releases that we did.
We have two releases that we really want to do right away. One is going to be kind of the best of Atlantis release. That’s going to bring up a lot of Atlantis music. Rick and I have been talking about whether we would do the pilot and the first three episodes or whether we would do the best of Season One. We haven’t quite decided yet.
GW: Well, if you’re looking for a suggestion box, please seek us out because I’m sure some of the fans in the forum would love to ask for certain motifs and certain pieces. I mean, I’m already voting for the end of “Sunday” right now. [Laughter] Keep that in mind.
JG: OK, you got it. I will, absolutely. I may appear over there and ask for some suggestions.
GW: So, when you receive the first cuts, is that the first time you’re given certain pieces of information in the plot?
JG: Yeah, I don’t read the scripts. I could read the scripts and know, or I could just simply ask. But I just tend not to. I like to see the shows just the way that the viewer would, except without the music.
GW: Universe has ten characters in my opinion. Destiny … It’s just so subtle that I don’t know if it was intentional or not but the ship has a heartbeat and that’s how I interpret that sound, that throbbing sound.
GW: As the ship’s heart. And it’s old, and it’s decaying. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of motifs you tap on for the ship as the show evolves. [The Destiny] has been through a lot. It has been through battles, it looks like, it has been on its own. I’m really, really looking forward to how you address the ship from a musical standpoint.
JG: Well, I do kind of have it now. I’m using the Dilruba.
GW: I have no idea what that is. [Laughter]
JG: A Dilruba is a bowed string instrument from India. I use it right at the beginning of the show. After the big guitar hit.
GW: It feels old to me. It’s very ancient-sounding. Like, “traveled the universe alone for a very long time.”
JG: Yeah, and that’s what I was playing off of. I was trying to give that. And I’m going to hopefully continue with that motif. But again, things are changing. As things have happened, themes have been developed. I have more themes at this early point in the show than I did on either of the other shows. Because really the other shows were based on four or five characters, maybe six. Whereas now there are a lot more characters and they’re more confined and the opportunity arises more quickly.
GW: Yeah, exactly. I will speak to Michael Giacchino for a moment. When I watch Lost I always wait for Sayid’s episodes. Because his theme for Sayid is one of my favorites. I’m looking forward to watching Universe and seeing certain episodes focus on certain characters perhaps. And then there are themes coming out and emerging from that.
JG: Yes, I think that it’s definitely going to happen. And again, it’s a matter of letting the show develop on its own.
GW: Who are you rooting for in terms of characters? Who are you finding yourself most attracted to as a viewer?
JG: Most attracted to? I would have to say Chloe [Elyse Levesque] and TJ. [Laughter]
GW: OK, from a story standpoint who do you find most interesting?
JG: You know, that’s just a great question. To me the success of the show is directly related to why that’s such a hard question to answer — you want to know what’s going on with every single one. Rush is a great character. I don’t trust him. You know what I mean? But what an interesting character.
Eli is such a warm … What a great character he is. You want to be friends with Eli. Chloe, you kind of want to take care of her. TJ, what a great character, she’s so trustworthy, and in a difficult situation you want TJ around. The same thing with Scott, you’d want them there.
And Young who could have developed as a stereotypical military type is much more complex and three-dimensional than that. You can see it in his relationships, which we only have hints of so far, and also in his morality. It’s very interesting. There are four very clear-cut characters, I would say, in Scott, Eli, Chloe, TJ. They seem clear-cut. But Greer, Young, Rush and a couple of the other characters that you’re going to meet, you just don’t know. And that makes it very cool.
GW: You have heroes like Scott who’s able to traverse vast distances of White Sands, New Mexico and survive. But you know, he still has his demons. He’s not a superhero.
JG: Nope. And we establish that. Right before his heroic act we establish that he’s a flawed person as well. Which is great because we’re all flawed. With the exception of my wife. [Laughter] Or at least she tells me.
SGU pays off. The show pays off. It’s like a fine wine. It gets better and better as it goes on. It really does.
Interview by David Read. Transcript by Kerenza Harris.