The girl and her protector speed through traffic, pursued by a merciless, robotic killer on a motorcycle. Changing lanes while hurling crude handmade explosives, the fleeing pair desperately try to shake the killing machine as bullets pepper their truck. What sounds like a random generator of notes, punctuated with brash hits of metallic noise, heightens the action. Like the killer itself, the score is intense, relentless.
For some who came of age long after the eighties, The Terminator (1984) may come across as particularly dated. Despite its visions of a dystopian future, James Cameron’s first feature as both writer and director is a film of its time, resplendent in eighties fashion, hair, and (make no mistake: wonderful) special effects that have shown their age. Nevertheless, the gripping story of cyborg assassin (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) remains a definitive sci-fi thriller, providing vital source material for innumerable installments.
One of the original film’s key strengths is its leanness. The Terminator moves swiftly from set-piece to set-piece without much fluff. And pushing the narrative along is an agile electronic score by Brad Fiedel. Working on the fly and using a variety of synthesizers, Fiedel represented a new guard of film composer.
A New Order of Intelligence
By the early eighties, competition in the marketplace had led to a greater variety of synthesizers at more affordable prices. Companies such as Akai, Oberheim, Roland, and Yamaha rolled out products to challenge and expand upon the efforts of industry trailblazer Moog. A major refinement over monophonic keyboards of the past was the ability to produce chords and save custom sounds. In an interview with Łukasz Waligórski, Brad Feidel recalled the march of progress:
Late 70′s, the synths were mostly mono. One note at a time. You had to overdub to create harmonies. There were some keyboards that were polyphonic, but they were more like organs or the string ensemble. All sounds were created with patch cords. The ability to store settings was just coming. It was a lot of work and took a lot of time to record something that had a lot of layers. I got one of the first Prophet 10s … it was amazing to be able to create complex sounds and store them to a memory bank and then call them up by number.
Oberheim factored largely in the sound of electronic synthesis in the early eighties, lending distinctive tones to albums by Rush, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, and even catapulting Van Halen to number one with “Jump.” Fiedel used the Oberheim models OB-Xa, DMX, and DSX throughout The Terminator. As Retrosound‘s Marko Ettlich demonstrates, the Oberheim packs a punch while granting a convenient means for manipulating tone.
Surrounded By Living Tissue
After a stint in pop music — including as a touring member of Hall and Oates — Fiedel embarked on a career scoring for television and film. Though renowned for his electronic work, Fiedel considers himself a composer first and foremost. “I think this is an opportunity to clarify something,” he told Waligórski. “During my early film scoring career, I was just as likely to use acoustic instruments as electronic ones. My third score, for a film called Damien, was full orchestra.”1
With a decade of reputable work under his belt, Fiedel’s scoring skills were touted to Terminator producer Gale Anne Hurd, leading to a meeting between the composer and director James Cameron. Skeptical at first, Fiedel became a believer in Cameron’s wild vision upon seeing rough cut. As he explained in a featurette for The Terminator DVD,
Jim had a lot of big feelings about the film and passion for it, so when we spoke about it, it was very impressive; and I’m sure part of my brain is going “we’ll see.” … I’m watching the film and ten minutes in, I’m going, “…it’s here. Wow, it’s really here, what he was talking about is on the screen…”
Suddenly nervous that he might not be up to the challenge, Fiedel immediately went to work. By the following day, he had composed The Terminator’s signature theme. Cameron liked what he heard and hired Fiedel, who commenced scoring duties in his garage studio.
Man Versus Machine
Like the synths it was performed on, the theme to The Terminator is a powerful and flexible device. Heard over the opening credits, the synth melody sounds sweeping and triumphant; when stripped to its core, a yearning vulnerability appears as heard about a minute into this delightful interview from Japanese television:
A motif of four cold and metallic sounding notes recurs throughout the film. Created on a Phophet 10, the inspiration came entirely from the title character. “It was the idea of this mechanical man and his heartbeat,” Fiedel would later explain. The theme is often low in the mix, resonating like a far-off thunderstorm that’s headed our way.
The Terminator showcases several thrilling chase scenes, with music just as chaotic. While synth technology had improved exponentially, Fiedel still had to grapple with gear that didn’t speak to each other via MIDI. Fiedel explained:
I had all these individual keyboards, and they had to be played individually … every note was live performed with the exception of this Oberheim situation where I could put a little drum machine and a little [mimics sequencer] — those things were chained together but … it didn’t interface with anything else … I had to literally sit there — live — and change the tempo, and try to get them match. While the machines are trying to get control of the people in the movie, I’m sitting here desperately trying to get control of the machines!
During a crucial scene (which introduces Arnold’s catchphrase) Fiedel contrasts the non-stop carnage of the police station massacre with a throbbing, Carpenter-esque soundscape. When Sarah and Kyle Reece (Michael Biehn) manage to escape, Fiedel had intended to insert the main theme, but advised against it. James Cameron didn’t want the score at that moment to offer any relief for the audience.
The indestructible, unstoppable Terminator soldiers on with rumors of sequels, reboots — even threats of Schwarzenegger somehow stepping back into the role that made him a global sensation. As long as the fictional battle rages between cyborg and man, the music of Brad Fiedel will continue to captivate new listeners.
As John Carpenter showed with Halloween (1978), in the right hands, synthesizers could provide both indelible themes and atmosphere without requiring a big budget. Unfortunately for many films crafted in the wake that film’s incredible success, emphasis was often placed more on cheapness than ingenuity. The horror and sci-fi genres flooded with retreads of Carpenter’s work. Few electronic composers distinguished themselves with thoughtful music.
In The Terminator’s case, the film’s constricted budget continues to pay dividends.Equal parts thrilling and aching, the score put Brad Fiedel in league with the significant composers of his time. It reminds us that technology without heart is a frightening thing indeed.
IMDB lists Fiedel’s third film as composer under the name Damien’s Island. No alternate titles are given in the entry.