An Interview with Fred Steiner by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/No.35/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Fred Steiner started in radio in New York City in 1943. Initially working as an orchestrator for Nathan Van Cleave, Steiner soon found himself composing and arranging music for radio shows. When one of the shows Steiner was doing, THIS IS YOUR F.B.I. moved its production to Hollywood, Steiner came out as well, renewing his acquaintance with Van Cleave and Lyn Murray, with whom he had worked in New York. Steiner often provided uncredited work for Nathan Van Cleave, such as the unique all-piano score for THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958) and ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964), but found most of his work in television music. Initially these were television versions of the shows Steiner bad done for radio, but ultimately he became an important contributor to the music for two of television’s most remembered shows, TWILIGHT ZONE and STAR TREK.
Would you describe your work for THE TWILIGHT ZONE? Did the show have a particular musical philosophy, haying resulted in so many fine scores?
There’s an interesting thing about my career. I must tell you this, because it’s so typical of Hollywood. You know what I mean by typecasting? Well, I was very busy at CBS, composing mostly for their comedy radio shows like MY FRIEND IRMA, LIFE WITH LUIGI, DECEMBER BRIDE, that kind of thing. When we went into television, Lud Gluskin, who was the music director at CBS, kept assigning me to these same things. I got shows like MY FAVORITE HUSBAND, the TV version of MY FRIEND IRMA and LIFE WITH LUIGI. Meanwhile, at the same time, I was working (up until 1952) on the F.B.I show at ABC, which was cops and robbers with a documentary approach, and over at NBC I was working on some documentary films of historical genre, and the funny thing was that nobody would give me a job doing anything else at those various networks. I’d go to the contractor and say, “how about one of the comedy shows” and he’d say, “gee, I thought you only wrote cops and robbers stuff.”
Cluskin, bless his heart, kept giving me these comedy shows and I kept complaining. He finally relented, at some point along the line, and gave me an episode of TWILIGHT ZONE to compose. I think the first one that I wrote was “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.” As soon as I had completed the first cue, Gluskin, who was listening in the control booth, pushed the talk-back button and said to me over the intercom, “Gee, Freddy, I didn’t know you could write music like that!” And that’s what I’d been trying to tell him for years!
There was a tendency to typecast all of us in those days, and it was hard to break through to some other show. I even run into that today. I ran into a music director last year, who I know very well and who should have known better, and I said “You’re doing a fantasy picture” – I think it was something about spiders or something – “Gee, I’d love to do that.” He said, “1 thought you were mostly good for comedy.” So we have this problem. But anyway, when I had shown Gluskin that I could write fantasy or TWILIGHT ZONE-type music, from that point on I did some other episodes.
Lud Gluskin supervised the music for TWILIGHT ZONE?
Yes. He’s a very important name because he was in charge of the west coast operations of Columbia Broadcasting System for many, many years, and he ran the department virtually singlehandedly. He was the one who would hire all the composers, whether it was Lyn Murray or Jerry Goldsmith or Fred Steiner or whoever; he was the final say-so.
In order to understand how TWILIGHT ZONE was scored in those days you have to know the general approach to scoring television in those days. Because of a deal that the networks had with the musician’s union in those days, it was not necessary to score every single episode with a new score, it’s a little more complicated than that, but basically the contract was written in such a way that the networks were able to use what we call library or stock music for certain episodes. Therefore, the fact that I’ve scored maybe only a few episodes of TWILIGHT ZONE doesn’t mean that my music wasn’t used over and over again. There were many composers who wrote for TWILIGHT ZONE, including myself, Van Cleave, Lyn Murray, Jerry Goldsmith, Benny Herrmann, and whatnot, and the music was all eventually put into this common stockpile of recorded library music. Gluskin would take a score that I had written, let’s say “A Hundred Yards Over The Rim” and then, during the summer break, he would take my music, and Benny’s music, Lyn’s, Jerry’s, everybody who had written specific new scores. He would take them over to Europe and record them in what we call library format. He comes back with this huge library on tape, which would then be used to score other episodes. That was certainly true of almost every TV show that was done in those days. The trick then was for a guy like Gluskin to pick out episodes which would not only need new music (which perhaps couldn’t be satisfactorily supplied by the existing stockpile of library stuff), but would also be useful for subsequent episodes when it was recorded for use that following year.
Now, the second part of your question — was there any particular philosophy about TWILIGHT ZONE? No, there wasn’t because, in spite of the fact that it was a fantasy show, it was an anthology format, and the shows were so different that there might be some that would demand a kind of science fiction approach, with electronic sounds or weird sounds, but then there might be another one that – for example, I wrote a show called “The Passersby”, a Civil War story, which had a lyric sound, scored with strings and a harp. So I don’t think there was any specialized philosophy except that, depending on the story, some of the music could be rather advanced, harmonically. Certainly much more advanced, harmonically, than the stuff I would write for a comedy show, or even for a historical show, or GUNSMOKE.
How long were you normally given to write an episode of TWILIGHT ZONE, and how big of an orchestra did you get to use?
It’s hard to remember how long I was given. I probably got around ten days. For a half hour episode, of course, that was more than sufficient, because there were rarely more than ten or fifteen minutes of music needed in the typical half-hour television show. The orchestras were usually very small for TWILIGHT ZONE; I would have about twelve or fourteen players. Most of the time I had twelve, not only in TWILIGHT ZONE but the early versions of GUNSMOKE. The reason was basically an economic one, which had to do with the union contract, but many of the shows I did were scored for only about twelve players. Some were scored for even less – I think Tommy Morgan scored some for just harmonica and guitar.
Did Rod Serling at all have any input in the musical end of the shows?
No. By the time the composer came in to do the show, the only liaison that he had was with the music director, Lud Gluskin.
My checklist here lists six episodes for which you wrote original music. I’m very interesting in hearing you describe your specific musical approaches to these episodes. The first, as you said, was “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.”
That was a very interesting one because it sort of dictated its own style. Since it took place in two different historical eras, there was to be a definite stylistic musical contrast between the two different eras. The trick that I did there was to use just a guitar and I think a harmonica for the first part, the wagon train portion. It was a simple and an almost banal folksy tune. I wanted it to be almost mindlessly simple so that when you get to the highway and these big trucks are barreling down, the music that would come in then would be a tremendous shock, not only from the orchestral color standpoint, but dynamically: and the greatest contrast that I could think of was an orchestra consisting of percussion – a sound as unlike the guitar and harmonica sound as I could possibly get. For that I had even less than twelve players. I think I had four percussionists, two pianos and a harp, plus the guitar and a harmonica player who only played the beginning and the end of the show, so we’re talking there about nine players. The whole modern part of the score, that is the highway and the roadside cafe, is constructed on basically one chord, which is a combination A-major/A-minor. Almost everything is founded on that, while the guitar-harmonica tune is straight modal C-major.
Number two I have as “King Nine Will Not Return”
Basically, I used what you would call a conventional orchestra; it was mostly strings with a couple of horns and some percussion. I also had some woodwinds. It’s hard to remember now exactly why I did that, but the whole score is founded on a passacaglia (a passacaglia is a musical form which consists of what we call a ground bass. It’s a pattern set up in low Instruments that’s repeated, over and over again, and on top of this the composer constructs variations). The passacaglia, in this particular case, was a series of about six or eight very slow notes, which represented the desert, the dry, hot feeling. I believe that was played with low instruments, like bass clarinet, bassoon, contra-bassoon, and so on. Then, over that, variations were constructed depending on the situation in the show. The basic orchestra color, again, was a contrast between two opposing types of orchestral color. One was a very low, passacaglia tune, and the other were some very high string sounds – harmonics and what-not – so that the score really comprises very low sounds opposing very high sounds. The idea, if I remember correctly, was to provide a kind of dreary, bleak color backdrop, rather than any specific dramatic content. When the hero, Robert Cummings, sees these images, I did have, a kind of weird, murmuring effect, but there were no electronic sounds in that at all, it was all done with the orchestration effect on the strings.
The next, as you’ve already mentioned, “The Passersby”, was much more lyrical than these others.
Yes. That’s a completely conventional score, very lyrical, very pretty-sounding, very sentimental. I didn’t want to play to the strangeness of the men passing by, because that would have, in a sense, tipped off the end of the story — and one of the rules in music scoring for films and TV, is that you’re not supposed to tip off the end with your music, or reveal a secret. Much of the dialog is concerned with reminiscing and nostalgia, so that was the color I played, and just let the story carry itself.
And then we have “Mute.”
“Mute” was a score I enjoyed very much. That was basically a string orchestra, with a piano a harp. The only effect that I constructed there was a very strange string effect, when you hear the little girl’s voice (she can not speak, but her thoughts are implied), and I did that with some highly divided violins in a very high register. The only other thing was that I opened and closed the show, again somewhat in the spirit of “Hundred Yards”, with a very simple unpretentious little folk-like melody, with was supposed to set the scene. I did the usual movie music schtick. I set the scene in Germany by paying a very simple kind of thing that would sound German-folksy, but it was modern, it wasn’t like the Lorelei or anything like that. Contrasting with that, I had the strings playing to the pain and anguish that the girl is feeling. There was nothing electronic in that score.
Then you scored “Miniature”, with Robert Duvall.
The only thing I remember about that story, which was a lot of fun, was when the little doll is being chased by the doll villain, I played some kind of little silent movie music chase, but in a very high register. I scored it so that it sounds like a miniature orchestra playing, by taking out the bass. I don’t remember anything else in particular about that score. I think I had some kind of cute little dollhouse sound, but the music was in a modern harmonic idiom so that when the chase took place with the silent movie music, which was very conventional, harmonically, you would have a contrast.
And finally we have, “I Dream of Genie.”
I don’t really remember too much about that one, I’d have to look at my music for that. That was a kind of straight out comedy thing.
When you were working on the STAR TREK television series, what was the musical philosophy on this show?
Well, that was really interesting. When I came in to do that show, Gene Roddenberry was insisting that the music should not be electronic – what he called “beep-beep” music. When I came in to the show I was not aware of that – in other words, I did not get any specific instructions from Gene that I can remember. When I saw the show, I just felt, intuitively, that the music should not be science fiction music, with electronic Instruments, the Bebe Barron kind of score – none of that stuff. I just composed the way I felt. I wrote heroic music, real adventure music in a grand style, and as it turned out that was exactly the kind of music they were looking for. The philosophy, basically, was to write human adventure music, and that is certainly what I did, and what most of them did. We did occasionally use some electronic effects – have to in a show like that, where you had so many varied situations – but the basic underlying philosophy was good old blood-and-guts adventure-romance movie music. And I felt it should have a certain kind of grandeur to it, because this was a grand, human adventure, going to the stars for five years in this enormous spaceship. We had pretty good-sized orchestras; I usually had about twenty-four or twenty-five players. That doesn’t sound like much today, but believe me it was a lot for television.
Better than twelve or fourteen!
Yeah. And one of the things that I did on all my scores for STAR TREK almost without exception, was not to use violins. I set up a color in which I used violas and cellos, the low strings, and lots of brass and woodwind, and sometimes just cellos, so that we could get as big and as grand a sound as possible from the horns and trombones. I also worked very hard in getting the right sound when we recorded. I didn’t like the recording set-up when I went in to record the score at Paramount. I’d worked there before and I’d found that the orchestra was, from my point of view, set up in exactly the wrong way. I persuaded the engineer to try reversing the position of some of the instruments, and I also asked him to put up what I can an overall microphone, and that’s one of the reasons we got a very good sound, particularly on my scores, because I insisted on this set-up. We also got a very rich Sound for the STAR TREK scores: we had a big orchestra, a good set-up, various other technical things that were just being brought in by the studio at that time, and a very good artificial reverberation. They also had a good echo-chamber at Paramount. We did strive for a really good sound — when I say “we” I mean the other composers and I, and the associate producer, Bob Justman, who was very sensitive to music and who wanted to do the best possible.
Unlike TWILIGHT ZONE, STAR TREK retained a running series of characters. Did you treat each episode separately, or did you try to link them, musically, either through your own themes or those from earlier episodes?
I had a theme for Captain Kirk which I introduced in my first episode, “Charlie X”, and I found that to be very useful. There were no other themes for running characters. The only one that kept recurring was the Captain Kirk theme. I did not use Sandy Courage’s title theme for any of the scoring. Some of the other composers did. I did, occasionally, use the fanfare, but I didn’t use his STAR TREK theme. Maybe it was just me, but I didn’t find it easy to work with, it didn’t lend itself to the show.
However, like most film scores, there were motives set up for the various other characters, like in “Spock’s Brain” there was a theme for the girl. I made a practice, and most of the composers did, of introducing a theme for the new characters. There was a theme for Elaan of Troyius, which I would treat in a very lyric way for her, but then when the battle would start I would treat it in a kind of militaristic style. I also wrote a theme for the Romulans, which was used quite a bit. A lot of those shows were tracked, as I explained before, and the music editors told me (and I’m saying this with no modesty whatsoever!) they liked my music best and used more of mine than anybody ease’s. They were particularly partial to this Romulan theme, which I also used in subsequent episodes. In the “Mirror Mirror” episode I was able to turn this theme exactly upside down, and it worked in reverse. It was a reflection – no pun intended – of the story of “Mirror Mirror.” There were little motives like that which I would use for the Romulans, and for Kirk, but outside of that, each show would have a special motive for the characters that were introduced in that show.
I understand you were also involved in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. Would you describe your contribution to this film?
Yeah, one of the magazines reported on that, and I honestly don’t know how they found out about it! Jerry Goldsmith is one of my oldest and dearest friends — we go back together to CBS when he was one of Gluskin’s staff people over there doing television and what-not — and because of the special effects, there was an inordinately long delay on that picture, It was slated for Christmas release, and there was just no way that Jerry was going to make the scoring date because they just weren’t getting the picture to him on time. I happened to be free, and it was one of those fortuitous things: I called Jerry just to say hello, and he said “Hey, are you doing anything?” I said “no” and he said “you’ve got to help me finish this picture!” I ended up writing somewhere between fifteen and twenty minutes of music, all based on his themes, It was a typical example of ghost-writing, but, again, using his material, his themes, He had a problem with the end title — they changed the timings on him, and his orchestrator, Arthur Morton, was completely tied up with orchestrating Jerry’s stuff, so Jerry handed it to me and said, “here, you can re-time this end title, it’s shorter now.” I orchestrated what I had written, also.
You’ve attained a reputation as a respected authority on both the theory and practice of film music. Do you feel there are any special approaches or techniques unique to the horror, fantasy or science fiction film?
Well, that’s an interesting topic. One thing that has been apparent over the last twenty years or so is that the use of electronic instruments has sort of gone along with the increase in production of science fiction films. Even on shows like TWILIGHT ZONE, Van Cleave used things like amplified violins, which was one of the first, crude attempts at an electronic sound. So I think that is one of the hallmarks, you might say, of scoring science fiction and fantasy films. The methods of scoring, the kind of music we write, of course changed with the kind of music that’s been written for any kind of Hollywood film. In the early days, during the ‘30s, there was a large use of certain kinds of dissonances, certain chord formations, particularly whole tone triads, that kind of thing, but that music went out of fashion very quickly. The only thing that was new for this kind of picture was the exploitation of new sounds.
THE STAR TREK SCORES OF FRED STEINER
The Corbomite Maneuver
Balance of Terror
What Are Little Girls Made Of?
The City on the Edge of Forever
Who Mourns for Adonais?
By Any Other Name
The Omega Glory (flag music only)
Elaan of Troylus