An Interview with Ron Jones 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
34-year old composer Ron Jones learned his trade in the highly-regimented musical choreography of high school Drum & Bugle Corps before going on to major in music at Seattle Pacific University. Jones began work as a copyist for Hanna-Barbera, working with composer Hoyt Curtin on Saturday morning TV cartoons. A friend of his persuaded him to turn in a demo tape to Harry Lojewsky, then head of MGM’s music department, who was advising the STAR TREK producers on likely candidates to score the new series. Lojewsky was impressed with his demo and arranged a meeting with Robert Justman – and Jones quickly found himself on the job scoring the weekly series. Alternating episodes with composer Dennis McCarthy (and. occasionally, with Fred Steiner, George Romanis in the 1st season, and Jay Chattaway in the 3rd). Jones has found himself on the forefront of TV scoring with STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. Initially interviewed at the end of the show’s first season, and then again at the end of its third, Jones describes the musical identity and how it has developed.
What was your biggest challenge when you first came onto the STAR TREK series?
I scored Episode 3 which was actually the first episode filmed, and then Dennis McCarthy did the pilot after that. So I had the whole weight of Paramount and all the history of STAR TREK on my shoulders! Gene Roddenberry and everybody had a definite Idea at that point what they wanted, though they since changed it and made It even more contemporary.
What were their initial Instructions to you as far as what they wanted at the time?
They told me, “first of all, the studio has decided to use the first part of Alexander Courage’s theme, and then we’re going to go Into Jerry Goldsmith’s theme.” Although I knew those themes, I went over to the music department and got a copy of the actual scores from the music library. This was “The Naked Now”, which was kind of a rip-off of one of the earlier shows where everybody kind of gets goofy. I had a theme for the so-called virus, and for the rest of it I was developing and Goldsmith’s themes in ways that are not typical of their work. Everybody was really very pleased with it. There was no contract, they just say “well, now you get to do all of these” or “you get to do half of these” – there was just no indication whether there was a future or not, and then eventually I got the next one, next one, next one and I ended up doing eleven out of twenty six last year. And then this year [Season 2. 1988-89], 1 guess I’m supposed to be alternating and doing every other one, Dennis does one and I do one.
So you two don’t actually work together, you just alternate on the episodes you do.
Yeah. And really, we’re like apples and oranges. We have a completely different approach to it, but it works. They like not having just one way or one point of view.
Initially, in the original STAR TREK series, Gene Roddenberry had real strong ideas as far as the kind of music he did or didn’t want; like he didn’t want “space” type music” he wanted people music, character music.
Did you receive any kind of instruction like that from people?
I think that Robert Justman really wanted things to be more obvious, that the music had to be less subtle, whereas on the other side of the coin was Rick Burman, who wanted less music overall. Every spotting session was really a sparring session. it was always very well-intended, but sometimes we got into some real locked opinions and it was just by force that one opinion would rise above another, and I wasn’t just sitting there meekly either! I had definite ideas also, so there were definitely three of us in the room coming up with our opinions. I would always request that they send ole a script and a video tape as soon as possible, so I was already forming my own opinions, I didn’t just come in cold, I was very prepared.
So I take it you scored each individual episode as a separate entity rather than writing cues to be used throughout different episodes?
There were leitmotifs. There was one for the Captain that was like a 5th. And when the ship was in danger (as opposed to the Captain), I would use a fragment of the STAR TREK theme. But when the Captain was in danger, I used this 5th thing, which was kind of a noble, battle type of a bugle call, which again goes back to that people—music thing as opposed to space-music. I didn’t matter to me if it was on Mars or if it was GUNSMOKE or whatever, I tried to go beneath what you obviously saw and tried to write what the human story was. I would spend longer days on that than almost I would spend on writing, and every session I came there, everybody was used to me coming there writing cues; I was writing cues on the breaks – not because slow, I mean I’m as fast as anybody, but because if they gave me two months to do an episode I would still be writing the day before the session! In fact I wrote so many scores that I didn’t use during the first part of the season, I have a stack that could almost be a whole score for another show, because I was so self-critical and wondering if it was good enough. I’d just beat myself to death to get in right, so not only was I trying to please them I was really trying to please my guts, and my guts knew when it was right.
Do you re-use any of your own themes throughout the episodes you compose?
Yeah. I have that little theme for the Captain. I have a theme for the Romulans which I used when It alludes to the them and then also when they actually appear. I have a Klingon theme. I always try and find a character or the idea that writer wanted to bring across and I write from that point of view. An example of where that can go sour, though, is on the one where the cloud takes the Captain [“Lonely Among Us”], I decided to write this from the point of view of this being who’s terribly lonely and needs to get back to his home and he’s In the ship crying for help, so the whole thing to me was minimalist, as if the computer wrote the music. At the end I tied it in with Picard’s desire to go exploring and all that conflict that came in the end, and it became more of a build-up to the natural climax of the thing.
How would you contrast your approach in scoring STAR TREK with that of your colleague, DennIs McCarthy?
I think Dennis sees the whole thing as a saga, a continuation. I see it like separate books on a bookshelf.
Or each one an individual movie by itself.
Exactly, like a different feature. And the bands are different for each one. On the show “We’ll Always Have Paris” I didn’t even hire an orchestra. I had six percussion, two double basses, two EVI’s [Electronic Valve Instrument), and four keyboards, and no strings, no horns, nothing. And then the Romulan show we had sixty guys in the band the next week. So even the orchestration changed.
I would sometimes do the quote-unquote sequenced/minimalist things with the orchestra, and I would do the melodic orchestral things with the synths, so that I was juxtaposing the technology and the humanness, so that there was a contrast that you could really feel. I wanted everybody to not think that, okay, if a violin plays it’s a human moment – because, then why are they out in a spaceship? Isn’t a spaceship a human-manufactured thing like a violin? So I tried to use the computers and the synthesizers to speak the feelings of the heart too, rather than say “okay it’s a sensitive moment, let’s get an oboe out.” And then also to make it seem mechanistic I tried to make the man-driven things like the woodwind and the brass, and make them mechanical. I tried to turn the whole tables on the whole orchestration, to make a point.
I think the one thing that maybe some of the producers didn’t like is that there’s too much Ron Jones up on the screen, because I definitely had an opinion beyond just “let’s score this TV show.” If we ever had conflicts it was always that Ron stuck his neck out and didn’t get everybody’s approval on it!
About how much music do you generally write with each episode, if there is an average?
We would write, and I speak for Dennis too, anywhere from probably seventeen or eighteen minutes to almost up to thirty two minutes. It really varies. I usually use a big orchestra with a lot of electronics, and in the morning we’d have the big orchestra, 55 guys, in a very strict, disciplined session. Then we’d go to lunch, come back, and it was just the three keyboards, there percussion and EVI, and maybe a couple double basses.
About how long do you have to write each episode?
Oh they give us plenty of time, they give us anywhere from a week and a half to two weeks. And, because we alternated, we could almost treat it like a feature film. And Paramount is very generous with their budget on the music; they don’t want us to hack it out. Somebody really said “Music is important”, and whoever made up that budget really had some feeling for treating it right.
Are you at liberty to indicate what the music budget is, per episode?
Well, you just figure out what scale is, for each player, and you imagine that I have fifty five guys at various degrees of scale, and it’s deceptive, one violin player is not going to cost you what a keyboard player will. I would guess that they must be spending, with copying, orchestration, probably $40-$50,000 per episode. That’s a lot. Especially for TV, which seems to be known for a lack of budget for the music and a horrendous kind of “we need it tomorrow” kind of attitude. A lot of the composers, I mean they don’t call up and say they’re jealous, but they’re really amazed at Paramount’s commitment to giving us the tools to really do it right, and this Is a syndicated show! As you recall, they got a Peabody Award and the only other show that got it for television was L.A. LAW That’s amazing. Working on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION is like a dream, or going to Disneyland. I’m only 34, so still young enough to have been really a kid when the original show was on… I had grown up watching STAR TREK and I never dreamed I would be doing it, so it’s really like a fantasy.
How are you integrating the electronic Instruments with your STAR TREK orchestras?
Most orchestras have woodwinds, brass and all this stuff, but the way that I wrote, none of the synths were doubling the other guys, they were doing their own thing, so we had seven sections in the orchestra rather than four families. We had wind-controlled synths, keyboard-triggered synths, we had guitar-controlled synths and we had percussion-controlled synths. I had one keyboard player who never played a note of music; all he did was hit the start button on his computer. It’s not unusual to have all these computers but we do that live with a big orchestra, and that’s pretty wild.
You’re really taking advantage of modern technology to do something new rather than try to fake an orchestra or something like that…
And you know, I think that’s hip, too, because really we are at the end of the 20th Century, we should not be scratching our heads and saying “Gee does it have any validity?” We’re already there; I figure this has been a long time coming, so I’ve been using it. I have this library of sounds for all the different synths I use, when the call goes out for the keyboard players, they have to have a long list of particular system software and computers that match, so that when they come up they’re getting a bagel and a cup of coffee and we’re loading up their computers. They come in and everything’s ready for them. I don’t just say, “Gee, I’d kind of like an icy synth, uh, kind of thing…” while the band is sitting there going to sleep and the clock’s running. They come in and it’s done. I let them have about twenty percent of leeway how they may, if they put it through a signal processor or they add some other synth that they particularly have a pet enjoyment about, I may put it in there, but in general, if I write for a clarinet and I’m specific about that, I’m also specific about what synth patch and who’s playing it.
Have there been any major changes in direction, as far as the music is concerned, during the show’s first three seasons?
The first season, of course, the show was produced by Rick Berman and Bob Justman, and they both had their points of view, which at many times were conflicting, but the overriding concern, in addition to underscoring each episode, was to Somehow bridge the gap between the first series and the new series. We used a lot of the STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE theme, and the old STAR TREK fanfare, and so we had felt like we were given a little more direction that we had to incorporate that. But in the second season, as the show began to get on its own legs, so to speak, we abandoned that. Ever since the second season we felt there was more of a free reign to be creative.
Over the last three seasons that you’ve worked on the show, have there been any particular episodes or other aspects that gave you any particular problems or challenges that you had to surmount?
There have been some very difficult ones. For the show called “Who Watches the Watchers?”, about a conflict of cultures, I chose an orchestra that was a lot of low woodwinds and different percussion things so that I could express the score through a different culture and, that was kind of a tough, musically. Some of these grandiose ones, like “Q Who”, where you’re being attacked by this unbelievable alien force and you have to stretch the resources. I think for that show I had sixty-five musicians, and the cues were really long and involved; a lot of battle type scenes, and going aboard the vessel. Each show is a challenge, which is why I think it’s been so enjoyable over the years. For a cop show, you know always in the 5th Act a car chase. This one, you never know. I think every time I get a new episode, that’s the hardest one!
Who are the producers you’re working with now?
Peter Lorton is full producer but his primary concern is post-production. He knows what the feelings are from the producers, and his job is to make sure that the post-production end of it comes together. Rick Berman is Executive Producer and his Influence is felt, as is Gene Roddenberry’s. Everybody makes their Imprint into what we do, but nobody’s sitting there commanding. At least, when I go into spotting, they’re not forcing me in one direction or another.
You mentioned earlier that, thematically, you’re getting away from the old series type music and into kind of your own characteristic, or THE NEXT GENERATION’S own musical identity. Can you describe that a little more?
I really feel that you have to give information that people find relevant or they don’t want to watch. So I try to find the emotional chords of the story and write themes based around those things. I’ll find a new theme for that, so the audience doesn’t think that I’m using STAR TREK propaganda, you know what I mean – The Star Trek Theme. I through them a curve by finding something that’s a human element – sometimes it’s very tonal and sometimes it’s way out there, and like when Data created his own daughter, It was a sweet, kind of human thing, even though It was a story about an android, and when finally her emotions were her undoing, It was an opportunity to do something really very human for these androids. That’s the kind of problem that we’re presented with. I don’t think that you always have to use the same themes. I just want to create music that is right for that episode. I don’t really think about it being STAR TREK anymore.
You’ve been pretty much locked into STAR TREK for the last three years, are you still finding time for other music projects?
One series I did for a long time was DUCK TAIIS, for Disney, and that’s still ripping right along. I did MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, the first season, and I had an animated series called SUPERMAN that was on CBS on Saturday mornings, a lot of people didn’t hear it because it was so early in the morning, but we really did a knockout thing on the score. So I had four series at the same time, and I walked away from all of them but STAR TREK because it had more substance and gave me more time to develop these Ideas. The other ones were just, like, MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE you get three days to do 39-minutes of music, and they don’t show any appreciation, they don’t treat you like a human being. Whereas STAR TREK has always given consideration to the amount of time that was necessary to do it.
You feel like you’re part of a team and you’re all working together…
Right. I was also invited by the Soviets over to meet their film composers and I brought a whole bunch of STAR TREK stuff and they commented on how much like a feature it was, and I said, “Well, yeah, they give us two weeks, they don’t give us three days to bang out stuff like most television shows.” Most people can notice that there’s a quality emphasis there.
Now that you’re coming into the season, which is something the original STAR never had, what direction do you see the music in?
I see it maturing. The show itself is maturing, the characters are maturing. Each show is almost like a test-tube kind of thing, where they put one character under a test tube, you see all kinds of sides to them that are very interesting. I think the first season they were trying to establish so much, that they had to spread it thin, but now they can really get into a story, and I think that the music will continue to reflect that. I think you’re going to see less of a traditional sound and more of an electronic instruments. The show I’m doing right now, “Menage-a-Trois,” which is the second to the last show of this season, I’m only calling 24 men, and most of it’s electronic. I think we’re going to see more of a reliance upon new orchestral colors, and not trying to make it sound so Holst-ish.