A Conversation with Craig Huxley by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Craig Huxley has been quite active behind the scenes in film music for several years. Well-known as a synthesist, Huxley has collaborated with various composers, performing synthesizers or creating electronic sound effects. Previously known as Hundley, Craig played synthesizers for THE BLACK HOLE and PSYCHO II; created synthesized sound effects for MOTEL HELL the recent CAT PEOPLE (the zoo sequence) and all three STAR TREK movies; he also assisted in synthesizer processing for THE HAND and FIREFOX. Huxley also composed original musical scores for ALLIGATOR, SCHIZOID and THE DISAPPEARANCE. Before getting involved with music, Huxley was a child actor for television, which included several appearances on STAR TREK as Captain Kirk’s nephew. Huxley is also active in commercial recording, acting as performer and synthesist for artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Jean Luc Ponty, Michael Jackson and Giorgio Moroder.
Recently, Huxley produced the score for DREAMSCAPE and 2010, working closely with composers Maurice Jarre and David Shire, respectively, in creating the overall sound design for each film. Huxley has also launched his own record label, Sonic Atmospheres, releasing records, tapes and compact discs of soundtracks (like DREAMSCAPE) and other music. Interviewed in January, 1985, shortly after the release of 2010, Huxley discussed his work on that film as well as his background in the field of synthesized and motion picture sound.
You were formerly known as Craig Hundley. What brought on the change to Huxley?
For a long time I’ve been a fan of the Huxley family of open-minded philosophers, and philosophy is a key interest to me, as if affects life, politics and music as well. So a lot of my friends have called me that name for a long time and I just decided to go with it.
Would you briefly describe your background in electronic music?
I began my musical training as a jazz pianist, and I studied classical piano also. I was playing concerti with orchestras as a teenager. I was never interested in electronic music until I quit my musical career as a pianist at the end of my teens and studied philosophy for a couple years. I got interested in delving into some of the more cutting edges of musical expression, and that’s so much more acceptable with electronics. The control of tonality and timbre, for one player, is so much more powerful with electronic instruments.
How did you begin your involvement with motion pictures?
As a little kid I was an actor, so all my life I’ve been involved with tv and movies. At the end of a day’s shooting, I used to go and hang out with all the studio musicians, and I was always really interested in that. When I was in my early 20’s I started getting calls to play some of the instruments I had designed and built, and I just ended up being a session player. That led to my building my own studio and gradually getting involved in producing movie scores with various composers.
You mentioned that you’ve created a few of your own electronic instruments. How did some of those things evolve and what purposes were you wanting them for?
For what I’m calling flexitonal tuning, which means more notes per octave and tuned in a way that gives more flexibility for both exotic tuning and actually for more in-tune tuning, plus the ability to play authentically within the modes that are used in Japan and Indonesia, Africa, Peru – these cultures and even the European culture for the last couple hundred years had much more interesting tunings. Even pentatonic scales in tune are different than the black notes of the piano. That was the main purpose in building these instruments.
The Blaster Beam was sort of a step off the deep end. It has a lot of dramatic impact and I really was just having fun with aluminum, building many different aluminum instruments, so that was the motivation for that. Are you familiar with that instrument?
Not entirely. Would you describe what it is and how it accomplishes its sound?
It’s an aluminum beam about 18 feet long, of the type used in construction, but it’s been welded to make a sounding board resonator. It has strings and magnets and crystals and it’s played with artillery shell casings, which the performer crashes down right onto the strings, like a gigantic steel guitar. I’ve used it in many movies, but it’s almost a characteristic of STAR TREK, many people are familiar with it from that series of movies, particularly when there’s anything to do with the Klingons or during the Vulcan ceremony. I also myself composed and produced a section of STAR TREK III, having to do with the Genesis Project, that used a modular system and the Blaster Beam.
You’ve composed your own music for a few films as well, such as SCHIZOID, ALLIGATOR and THE DISAPPEARANCE. Would you describe your work for these films?
THE DISAPPEARANCE was a good case of a film which was re-edited. It had been scored once before, and the scoring was very elegantly done in a classical orchestral style, and it certainly fit the film. The problem was that many people felt the film was beautiful but utterly boring, so the challenge was to re-edit the film and through flashbacks create more of a dynamic, and through the music provide the feeling of a rush of energy, the attending climax to the film, and I felt it was somewhat successful in doing that. It’s interesting to see a film having been scored in different ways. I would love to have seen 2001 as it was scored by Alex North.
ALLIGATOR was an attempt by a small independent company to re-do JAWS, and the idea there was for me to electronically and with instruments like the flexitonal clavichord and the blaster beam, create the feeling of the presence of the alligator even when he wasn’t around, that sort of idea, so it was a three-week homage to John Williams! One of those rush jobs when it’s almost supposed to be out by the time I was first contacted.
How did you become involved with the STAR TREK films?
I was called to play on STAR TREK I, which Jerry Goldsmith scored, and I programmed all of the synthesizers on that film. It was all done live. And so it was just a natural for me to be called back on II and III. Also, the blaster beam was really a signature sound on those movies.
What was your approach to scoring the Genesis Project scenes for STAR TREK II?
I really worked to treat different frequency bands as if they themselves were instruments, to create multiple layers of frothy bubbling sounds. It’s a weird effect. I really love that kind of texture that seems to go right into the brain. That is what serious synthesis does for me.
What sort of sound effects were you called on to provide for films like MOTEL HELL, FIREFOX and CAT PEOPLE?
Many times I’ve been asked to take a musical motif that a composer has created, or else come up with something of my own, and make it have the effect of a sound effect but without being naturalistic. To tie it in with the musical rhythm that’s going on, or the tonality, as if the hearer were in an altered state of consciousness perceiving a naturalistic effect. I found actually that often taking real effects and putting them through a vocoder could achieve a kind of inner mind distortion of the effect, then by combining that with our synthesis for the rhythm of the tonality, we would achieve something that’s indeterminate. I guess it must be effective, tonally, in a film, because it’s one of the most requested devices.
You’ve done a lot of varied things in motion picture sound, from providing effects and odds & ends to scoring complete pictures. Is there any area of these that you prefer?
Only working with gentlemen on the level of David Shire. That’s my one preference.
Would you describe your role in producing the sound track for DREAMSCAPE?
On DREAMSCAPE, Maurice Jarre, who’s worked with me on many movies and television movies, came in with the challenge of taking the lead actor, who plays saxophone in the movie, and integrating that saxophone sound throughout the film, but everywhere else using totally synthesized music to achieve the effect of having gone into the mind. I was very pleased with the way it was actually dubbed, one of the few times that a film has pulled the music down underneath dialog and then brought it back up for the action. I was really surprised, especially in light of some other experiences I’ve had.
How closely did you work with the filmmakers and Maurice Jarre in establishing a sound design for the film?
Maurice is very much the definitive author of his music. I like to provide timbral ideas or rather possibilities, and Maurice really spends a lot of time choosing very carefully and precisely the sounds he wants. His background as a timpanist is something I find evident in a lot of his music – he pays particular attention to the low rhythmic sounds, the rhythm is a very important part for Maurice. I’m really dazzled by the kind of orchestration he was able to achieve on that.
On a technical level, what were some of the challenges you faced in DREAMSCAPE to achieve some of those inner-mind effects?
It really was a challenge, because once you’ve layered so thick of an orchestration with synthesized sound, the frequencies will start interfering with one another. They don’t have that many gaps in the frequency spectrum, so many of them are layered together even if they’ve been narrowed in their band of frequency emphasis. After a while they bleed together. It became an incredible challenge to make the music keep its dynamic, to not only hear all the lines but to bring out the surge. It becomes a matter when mixing of re-playing the instruments.
How did you become involved in 2010 and what was your precise role here?
On 2010 I co-produced the score with David Shire. I had been recommended by Harry Lojewski, the director of music at MGM, who’s been familiar with my work as a synthesist and as an engineer for the electronic realization of film scores for many years, ever since METEOR I guess. They wanted to have an all-electronic score for 2010, except for the very end of the movie, where the orchestra (made up of the L.A. Philharmonic, by and large) would come in and sort of overwhelm the electronic tone.
Peter Hyams isn’t so much interested in electronics being a mind-altered descriptive sound as is in in the fact that he likes some of the mystery of electronic sounds. He likes them when they’re close to acoustic sounds but not exactly – you’re not quite sure what the difference is, it just has that slight other element or portamento or of multiple timbres whose pitch start to move away from one another. So it was a more restrained use of electronics. I’m very satisfied with the way that David and I were allowed to produce the album, because we weren’t restricted by the conflict with the sound effects or dialog.
2010 went through a couple of composers, what with Tony Banks and finally David Shire. What were some of the problems here?
I don’t really know what the difficulties were first hand, but I am aware that it would be difficult for pop compositions to take the attitude which I pride myself on, that of being the professional executor of the overall design that the director and/or producer had in mind. I think that’s an essential ingredient. I know that David and I worked on several different initial approaches before getting the go-ahead, so for me the approach is quite malleable and I’m more than willing to offer any ideas I have, and then do my very best at achieving whatever the director has in mind.
How bound up were you and David Shire in the fact that the classical music from 2001, and the use of Also Sprach Zarathustra, has become so characteristic of 2001 and the 2010 milieu?
This sequel is such a vastly different film that none of us felt it should be like the music from 2001. The film that Peter made was purposefully a polar opposite to 2001 in many ways. I’ve worked with Peter before on OUTLAND, and I know that he likes a very industrial, non-aestheticized outer space; an outer space that humans are in and they’re busy and their machines are pumping away.
You did have to use Zarathustra at one point towards the end, though. Did you have any qualms about this?
I think it was rather a requirement.
Electronics are being used to a great extent to current films music. What do you think the future holds for electronic experimentation and development in music in general, and film music in particular?
I look forward not only to films but to a lot of the new video projects that are being done. I can see a lot more creative scoring going on using electronics, as opposed to using canned music or else newly-written music that’s very hackneyed. I see it as very exciting.
What are your current and future motion picture projects?
I’m busy now as the creative director of a new album company called Sonic Atmospheres. I’m doing an album that’s a pop version of David Shire’s theme to 2010, the New Worlds theme, and I’m directing an album by Michael Stern for an Imax film entitled CHRONUS which is in six channel. It’s the follow up film by the makers of KOYAANISQATSI, and I must say it’s the most brilliant electronic realization I’ve ever heard. It’s really incredible, all composed and performed by Michael Stern.
I’m interested in scoring music for videos now, also. I’d really like to do some creative video work.
Yeah. Not rock and roll and not dramatic, but environmental. That’s something I look forward to.
Music videos seem to be coming up as a new kind of art form which I think has a lot of potential.
I love it. You can have a great sound system in your home, and you have the control over your time, as far as when you watch it. Sonic Atmospheres is releasing the video of this film, CHRONUS, and I just think it’s great. The poor quality of sound systems in theatres is much more devastating for electronic music than it is for orchestral, because electronic music really counts on the extreme frequencies for a lot of its color, and if you chop that off then you’re really only leaving the great mid range. It can really take a lot of the sparkle and the meat off of electronic sounds. That’s another thing I like about video. In using hi-fi equipment, actually the sound will be better in a good home system than it will in a theatre.
I got interested in delving into some of the more cutting edges of musical expression, and that’s so much more acceptable with electronics. The control of tonality and timbre, for one player, is so much more powerful with electronic instruments. – Craig Huxley