Robert Wilson, the co-creator of the original “Blade Runner,” is known for his idiosyncratic soundtracks for screen and stage. His “Appalachian Spring,” one of his most enduring works, is filled with an array of mournful waltzes, sermons and syncopated chants.
The omniscient narrator of the classic Philip K. Dick short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” who sounds like Edward Norton by way of the Marx Brothers, has the same melodic cadence, and sounds that the score evokes much of the time. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”’s cover sleeve boasts that Wilson wrote the song “in his own voice.”
Credit Wilson for coining the term “sardonic wit,” a word that has since come to mean what it means in “Blade Runner” — juxtaposition, irony and subtlety of delivery that push beyond slapstick and onto thrilling poetry.
Except that “Blade Runner” doesn’t really have all that much in common with Wilson’s score or any other score he’s ever made. (Not that Wilson’s story is well represented, for you nerds.)
Part of Wilson’s challenge was to figure out how to bring a score he’d created for about 1,000 European theater performances and about 10 films into a sci-fi action film directed by Ridley Scott.
The chase is even more expansive and vague than in “Blade Runner,” so how do you find the right tone? “Blade Runner” spent five years in the cutting room to get right, but Wilson was there from the beginning. (Cue “Dream on,” “Caldron” and “Aloneness.”)
“Creating a score for ‘Blade Runner’ was not unlike creating a score for one of my films,” Wilson said in a statement. “However, there are a number of differences between creating a score for a larger-budget, studio movie compared to a smaller-budget, independent film. The first is that the overall budget for the studio movie was large — approximately $22 million. The budget for the smaller budget film was not that much, but the scope of the project was enormous. The importance of the scores in these films is similar, however. The bigger the budget, the bigger the scope.
The stylistic details are similar, but that’s as much a comparison to themselves. In Wilson’s case, if you make a score, you don’t want it to stand in the way of the emotional reality of the story. You want it to provide contrast, but in the right way.
“To create the score to ‘Blade Runner,’ there was no material that we utilized,” Wilson said. “We had to bring a few things into the movie without telling the audience about them. Once the filmmakers explained the relationship between Deckard and replicant, we needed music to color the right notes — the cool ones — the expressions on Roy Batty’s face, of his body, and other psychological moments that grounded the dystopian sci-fi thriller.”
Wilson’s soundtrack set the stage for a long, long run for the film’s themes. Nowhere is that more so than in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” his story, one of Dick’s most beloved and most enigmatic. We know that the score is based on Joni Mitchell’s 1968 record “The Circle Game,” but it has the same breathy, unhurried cadence.
If there is any film music from the 1960s that is akin to Wilson’s work, it is Mitchell’s work. And nobody does it like Wilson. So why is that?
Maybe it’s because he uses two different approaches. The first is the heavy use of metronomic classical music that calls to mind an Ennio Morricone score or Elmer Bernstein’s, which is so heavy, it took musicians 10 hours to set the music down during one recording session. But the traditional keys are augmented, with splashes of massed brass and aggressive tones, just like in “Alien.”