Chris Siddall Interview – Aliens Score

An interview contributed by Scott Middlebrook of ALIEN UNIVERSE TIMELINE

Late 2020 saw the release, quite out of the blue for Alien fans, of the published score of the late James Horner’s soundtrack for Aliens.  Horner faced a punishing schedule for Aliens which resulted in him revisiting and reworking previous pieces from Battle Beyond The Stars, Wolfen and his two Star Trek films.  Despite the similarities, the music fit Aliens perfectly and remains an iconic soundtrack in its own right to this day.  For Chris Siddall, who produced the book, it was born out of a love of listening to and performing film music and being really good with notation software.  He very kindly gave us some more details of the project.

What’s your musical background?

I trained as a classical violinist, second study pianist and played and sang in various ensembles.  I’d always had an interest in film music and amassed quite a sizeable soundtrack collection covering the whole range of composers and genres.

A few years ago the conductor of the orchestra I play with mentioned wanting to programme a particular piece but that the score and parts which were available to hire were notoriously difficult to read, due to being copies of the original hand written manuscript.  I had quite a lot of experience of using notation software to typeset hand written scores so I investigated what would be needed in terms of copyright licensing, acquired the license and produced a “proper” score and set of parts which we used to perform from.  That really sparked the idea of doing this more commercially, and in particular with music from film, TV and videogames because there is so little which is available for study or performance. 

How does a project like this start and then progress?

Acquiring the copyright license is the first major hurdle.  Until that is secured any work may end up being fruitless if the application is rejected.  The next step is locating and acquiring reference material (ie. the original manuscripts).  The other alternative is transcribing everything by ear, which is OK for small ensembles or simple music, but a full orchestra with extended techniques and a total length of over an hour?  No thank you!  After that it’s a case of entering notes, cross-checking with available recordings and the movie and finally editing for layout.

How did you get hold of Horners score?  Did you acquire it independently or approach Fox/ Disney about putting a book together?

In this case there were two sources.  Initially I was working from a copy that had been deposited in a library, however I had been warned by the curator that it was not in the best of conditions and also incomplete, so was going to require some audio transcription and a lot of time to decipher from the less than high definition scan.  Thankfully later, after the Fox/Disney acquisition, Disney gave permission to access another source with a much clearer image that I could use to both continue and also check the work already done.

Did you need to make changes between the handwritten score and what ended up being produced?  If so how significant were the changes?

It was necessary to make quite a few minor changes that would have most likely been dictated from the conductor’s podium during the recording session.  There were a few cut bars, and also a few which were spliced in from elsewhere in the score.

Do you ‘test’ the score by playing different parts to ensure they match the recordings?

My notation software allows me to playback everything I’ve entered; either as a whole or isolating particular tracks.  This is hugely helpful when the manuscript scan is difficult to read as you can usually spot a typo by ear right away.

Since cues often get chopped up when put on screen, did you use the film as reference or the released soundtrack?

Aliens is legendary for how the score was sliced, diced and scattered throughout the picture in a way that was completely different from how James had intended, written or recorded it.  Normally I would use the movie but not in this case.  This version matches the Varése Sarabande Deluxe Edition release, which is the music as it was recorded.  You can also hear this version on one of the Blu Ray bonus features, which has this original soundtrack placed as best as possible, back with the scenes it was written for.

Were there any cues that were, based on the notes, written but not recorded?

There were a couple of revised cues which were recorded, so the original was not.  There wasn’t any new material in them that warranted inclusion in the book though.  One “cue” would have been dictated to the synth player and was not written down.  This is the track named “The Queen” on the Varése album.  Since it is essentially one long held synth note with various effects applied I left this one out of the book.  Any attempt to transcribe it would have been a complete guess as to the synth, sound(s) and effects used, and would have detracted from the integrity of everything else which had the authenticity of being taken from the manuscript.  (Editors note: The synth piece titled “The Queen” on the Deluxe soundtrack, is, according to the 2010 Blu-Ray, actually composed by Robert Garrett.  The film ultimately used an orchestrated cue (rather than electronic) when Ripley meets the Queen in the hive.)

What’s are you working on now?

I’m currently working on the next “In Full Score” books.  The next one due out in April is The Iron Giant by Michael Kamen and the next title after that is going to be huge – Independence Day by David Arnold – aptly due for release in early July.  Aside from that, we have three 20-minute concert suites in the works, each containing six cues each from Ben-Hur by Miklos Rozsa, The Dark Crystal by Trevor Jones and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by Harry Gregson-Williams.  So when orchestras can come out of COVID-19 hibernation and start performing again, we will have some fantastic new material for them to play and audiences to enjoy. 

And finally – which of the soundtracks in your collection is your favourite?

My favourite scores are Hook and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but there are so many others that I love.  Too many to list, but hopefully you’ll see some of them in print one day!


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