Star Trek: Interview: Ron Jones

Star TrekMention the music of Star Trek: The Next Generation and one of the first names that comes to mind is Ron Jones, who scored 42 episodes for the first four seasons of the show (the music from which can be found on the collection The Ron Jones Project released by Film Score Monthly in 2010). Jones returned briefly to the Trek universe to score two videogames – Starfleet Academy and Starfleet Command – and music from these will feature in the 50th anniversary multimedia extravaganza, Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage, premiering at the Royal Albert Hall on 1st November. Jones chatted with Paul Simpson about his Trek days from his new home in the Pacific Northwest, where he has set up a new studio, starting by discussing the CD box set…



Cover_OST_TNG_Ron_Jones_ProjectThe Ron Jones Project was a labour of love – it took about 20 years discussion with Paramount and then CBS, who own the property, to be able to release that. I’ve got to hand it to Lukas Kendall for hanging in there, because we talked about it for at least two decades. To get 14 CDs out there – I’ve never seen a whole composer’s work come out for a whole series in one set like that. It was pretty amazing work – and also the liner notes that Jeff Bond did were incredible. It was like 200 pages of notes. It’s like a huge book: Jeff, Lukas and I did a big interview once a month, for a year, there was so much to talk about. Then they would go into detail about what was going on with the cast, and the writers. I enjoyed reading the liner notes because it wasn’t just about the music, it was about the context of what went on, and behind the scenes. I thought that was quite astounding. [The liner notes can be read here.]

How much of what was going on behind the scenes were you aware of when you were working on TNG?

The different guilds – the directors, producers, etc. – and the studio run everything and they have rules; writers can’t talk to the directors, writers can’t talk to the composers, and composers can’t talk to whoever. Everybody’s kept isolated in terms of interaction because they need to get the show made. They don’t want the writer to go on the set and say “we want the planet to be green rather than dark blue”, and change everything. They keep us in our little cubbyholes so you never get any interaction – you might see people at the wrap party, or walking on the lot – but we were barred from talking. You’d get the associate producers or the producers who’d just want to get the job done. They wouldn’t tell us a lot about what else was happening. We had to totally fabricate the reality to do what needed to be done and then it all came together.

Naked NowIt’s like the assembly line for a car company: the hubcap guy doesn’t knows the guy who puts the windshield in, and the windshield guy doesn’t know the guy who does the bumper but it all comes out and it all works.

When you were working on the series, were you working from scripts or from a spotting session [where the producer would explain where in an episode they wanted music, and often the type]?

You would get a script. With a major studio they would make a rule of always sending you the first draft, and then a couple of months later you’d get a second draft. Meanwhile you got other scripts – they were all overlapping. Not everyone would read the scripts, but I did diligence and always read them, because I was always trying to figure out what the emotional content was. My job is not really to score from A to B – that’s the job of the filmmaker and the director and the editor; my job is to underscore the emotions and use music in that way.

I’d read the scripts, and I developed a process called The Star Trek Questions: seven pages of questions that were specific. They would be like: “What is the show about?” It’s a conflict of man against the universe. “Who are the main characters?” This is about Wesley and Captain Picard – or a little bit of Worf involved because they always have their sub-structured stories.

Booby TrapThen I would just sift it down and down until finally I would say, “If this character was a melody, what sort of melody would it be? If this character was a harmony, what would it be? If this emotion was a rhythm, what would it be?” Then I’d create pages and pages and pages of motifs or leitmotifs and thematic material that I could pull from like a tinker toy set. I worked more like Wagner, how he would structure an opera, than try to treat it like a regular film score where you see the picture and just go at it.

I’d do two to three days of this breaking down and the scripts were key to that. I would always go back to the scripts, and even though I was barred from talking to those writers, every once in a while they would write me a note, and secretly somehow get it to me. They’d say, “Bravo, you’ve captured what the story was about, even though the director and everybody else dropped the ball”! Maybe they didn’t like the editing or they didn’t like the direction but my score reminded them of the story. They would sit at the typewriter and type out a story, and I would capture that.

So yes, the script was primary to me.

How long would it take to actually score the necessary minutes for an episode?

They were five acts, which is 42 minutes (without commercials); that is a lot of landscape to drive through, so to waste two or three days on motifs was something that a lot of people didn’t do, but I would do it for each episode. Each show had its own set [of motifs]; they go to different parts of the universe, so I had different [musical] scales. My approach was, each show is a feature film – like, it wasn’t even Star Trek. This wasn’t a soap opera called “Space Condo”: here is the crew, and it’s another day, and this person doesn’t like that person, and there is a conflict… I chose in my own mind – nobody told me – to treat it as individual stories. They go to different parts of the universe and what connected the stories was that we had Alexander Courage’s [original Star Trek] theme and we had Jerry Goldsmith’s theme [for The Next Generation].

Human nature shifts – in one story the captain would be very sensitive to what’s going on in the crew and their relationships, and in other ones he would be very mathematical, very tactical and like an Admiral: “We’ve got to get Starfleet to do blah”. Sometimes he’d be very objective about things, and on other shows he would be very subjective. You couldn’t just pull out a standard way to do each episode – at least to me – because you wouldn’t be true to the story.

And a Hero Theme for Picard or Riker wouldn’t be appropriate in every circumstance…

BestYeah, because they’re different every time. When in The Best of Both Worlds Picard became a Borg, Worf was conflicted. He had always looked up to Picard as a sort of father figure. Now he had to try to kill him on the ship because he’s a Borg. I used the start of Alexander Courage’s theme there in clusters because I was trying to indicate that Worf was probably very troubled about having to fight someone who he cared about so much – but it had to be bold, because he was trying to save the universe.

You have to reflect the emotions with the harmonies and orchestration and how you tighten up things and stretch things, what the tempo is going to be. All those dialects are my territory. I have to come up with them and nobody can tell me what to do there. That’s very subjective to me – and then I have to fix it within the objectives of the episode, the production and the time frame.

So if they gave me eight days, I had eight days to cram all that into it. The fun thing was that for me the scores would start to flow really well once I got all those motifs and all that material. It’s like a painter: when they want to paint they have to mix all of the colours, and have them ready to go. Then they can fill in their charcoal sketch and make their painting. They might make minor mixes of sub colours but they have their palette. That was like having my palette.

The concert at the Royal Albert Hall includes a suite from the videogames score…

StarfleetWhen they asked if I would like to do something, I didn’t think I’d be coming over. I thought they just wanted some scores. Paramount couldn’t find the video scores in storage, so they called me and said they needed this piece of music. I recorded one track with the Prague Philharmonic, and they said they liked that one, could I get that together? I grabbed that out of my stacks of music that I’ve done – I’ve done 40,000 compositions so it was a real challenge and it took about a week to do that.

I did a few tweaks to the orchestration since we are going to have the London Philharmonic and we didn’t have them when we did the gig. We didn’t have an English horn [cor anglais] sitting around then, but I can add that. And there were a couple of other cues that they wanted so I prepared those. I won’t know till I get to the rehearsal exactly what will happen – do I conduct this piece, then sit down and come back for the next one?

I think the point was that everybody has heard a lot of the usual music, so they wanted to present some things that would be very interesting and different, things they could be exposed to that were also Star Trek. It’s a deep subject: there’s a lot of different music that they can draw from, and then they have everything projected on the big screen. I think it’s going to be a very interesting sonic and visual joy ride.

It’s a perfect time to look at how this works. I bet you there’ll be a 100th anniversary and a bunch of new Star Trek stuff, but they’ll look back and say, wow it’s amazing what these people came up with.

Star Trek will be like Shakespeare – it’s got a classical theme to it, and it’ll be something that people will still watch.

Why do you think that is?

If you boil it down, it comes to one word: hope. Somehow in the future, people on planet Earth come together, band with other beings and try to do something positive rather than try to kill each other! Everybody has a place, nobody is excluded. I wish everybody could move together like that!

Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage is performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 November. For more details click here

Thanks to Rick Burin at the RAH for his assistance in arranging this interview

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