An auspicious debut release for the short-lived Starlog Records label, Rocketship X-M was one of two film scores with themes by Ferde Grofé that were adapted by orchestrator Albert Glasser - a man still regarded as one of the most prolific composers of B-level and exploitation movies.
Grofé's rare dips into the film world often involved songs, themes, or adapted extracts from his concert work - the best known being his ever-popular Grand Canyon Suite.
Grofé's full-length scores were written for a pair of Lippert Pictures: The Return of Jesse James, and Rocketship X-M (both made in 1950). With Glasser's skill, the score for X-M became a superior work for an already unusual spin on space exploration, with an atypical finale for a movie designed to thrill, sell popcorn, and keep the B-movie crowd happy.
Consisting of 12 tracks (including a rare, unused theremin solo of Grofé's tender love theme), the score's main theme uses Korngoldian brass fanfares and a rapidly quickening tempo before launching into a full thematic rendition (as in the "Main Title" cue) that efficiently conveys the image of experienced seamen (+ one woman) who boldly venture into foreign waters (space), with the wind (interstellar in nature) guiding them towards a distant, mysterious land (Mars) seen only from a distance (big telescope), and enshrouded in various mythic tales of terrain, and/or life forms that may exist (Martians, and their possible civilization, canals, and gondolas).
For film music fans, space exploration movies immediately conjure a sense of epic grandeur, and fans of Leith Stevens will undoubtedly find Grofé's X-M of special interest. Like Destination Moon, X-M was also released in 1950, and the respective scores by Stevens and X-M stand as mature, highly dramatic and atmospheric works that hold their own when divorced from their films.
It's a credit to both composers that each managed to codify high musical standards for the science-fiction genre, but whereas Stevens' music first appeared as a 10" storybook LP, and later as an elegantly re-recorded hi-fi LP in the late fifties (released on Omega, re-issued by Varese Sarabande, and remastered by Citadel Records for CD), Grofé's score remained unreleased until Wade Williams re-issued X-M theatrically (and later on VHS) in the mid-seventies - rekindling an interest in the film, and Grofé's work.
A number of X-M cues are amazingly engaging, including "Into Orbit" - an uneasy, lilting work, with woodwinds replaying a short phrase - or "Floating Free" - which uses primal electric organ reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's ethereal music for the 1959 Twilight Zone episode, "The Lonely."
Grofé also varies the cue's tempo with subtle bass and lower strings - a motif he develops in extraordinarily exciting cue, "The Martian Mutants." The use of interwoven bass lines - a 3/3 couplet, with an overlaid 4/4 variation - is repeated in differing permutations (some tweaked with a haunting electronic echo-warble), starting and stopping as the humans are chased by a rapidly approaching band of Martians. Interwoven is a subtle theremin solo, punctuated (if not smothered) by Glasser's brassy explosions that bracket searing strings passages which heighten the humans' desperate efforts to reach their rocketship.
Glasser also employs percussive exclamations, and alternates the action sections with short, restive bars, featuring a solo theremin that acts as a kind of aural cutaway - visually evoking the unseen but dangerous presence of the aliens, before a rattling sound effect beckons the full orchestra to resume what's essentially music for a human hunt.
"The Martian Mutants" runs a chunky 6 mins. - not unusual among the score's other lengthy cues that frequently range between 2-6 minute narratives - while "Exploring the Red Planet" runs close to 7 mins. That cue is also a great example of musical dynamics, with Glasser's orchestrations slowly dropping the orchestra's intensity - perhaps noticed only by more astute listeners - before an unsettling surge, and sudden shift to a gentle/haunting interlude which again plays with a 6-note motif before a beautiful theremin solo.
The album's liner notes credit Glasser in suggesting the employment of musician Dr. Samuel Hoffman and his theremin for the score, and long before the instrument became a cheap sound effect in lesser movies, it's used with grace and restraint; it evokes the mysterious allure of Mars, and the dangers of wandering too close to a primal life form. (One also can't help recalling Bernard Herrmann's use of the theremin in his own 1951 score for The Day the Earth Stood Still, except Herrmann seemed to go a bit further; not only in pushing the instrument farther in front of the orchestra, but in using two theremins for greater impact.)
Starlog Records used material from surviving transcription discs, and the album still holds its own for maintaining a balance between sonically upgrading archival recordings, while staying as close to the integrity of the original mono discs.
X-M is still unavailable on CD, but at least this gem managed to enjoy a commercial LP release, after a long period of closet hibernation. This album, boosted by Kerry O'Quinn's detailed liner notes and a stunning cover art by Kelly Freas, was followed by The Fantastic Film Music of Albert Glasser, Vol. 1.
Note: for more information on this album's history, click HERE, and read our WKME-enhanced interview with Kerry O'Quinn!
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan