In 1987, when The Next Generation went into production, 33-year-old Ron Jones was already a veteran of the Hanna-Barbera and Mike Post music teams and had scored a number of independent films (Naked Vengeance, The Fighter, Return of the Kickfighter and Warlords of Hell). He had begun work on Disney’s animated series DuckTales when he heard from drummer Steve Schaeffer that Paramount was working on a new Star Trek series. “He said, ‘Why don’t you get together a demo and bring it down to Paramount where [music consultant] Harry Lojewski will be and I’ll give it to him right there,’” Jones remembers. “I put together a demo of things I thought would work for Star Trek and I asked my wife, Laree, for her opinion and she said just go for energy—forget sci-fi and all that stuff. I had things from independent movies that were spooky but I just put together a bunch of ‘energy’ cues, and we went over and Steve grabbed Harry on a break and he said, ‘This is the guy to do your show.’”
After listening to several of Jones’s cues, Lojewski got on the phone. “I thought great, he’s not interested and he’s calling his broker, or he’s calling security to get rid of me,” Jones says. Instead, Lojewski arranged for Jones to meet with TNG producer Robert Justman, a veteran of the original Star Trek who had been instrumental in hiring composers. After being shown footage from the new series, Justman hired Jones. “Dennis McCarthy was doing episodes one and two, which was ‘Encounter at Farpoint,’ but he wasn’t going to be ready, so I was going to go first,” Jones says. “So I had all the executives from Paramount and Gulf+Western and they had to put risers in the [control booth] so everyone could watch because I was first up.”
After “The Naked Now,” Jones was scheduled to rotate episodes with McCarthy and original-series veteran Fred Steiner. (The episodes required too much music for a single composer to score each one.) But after Steiner’s first show, “Code of Honor,” the producers decided against his inherently “retro” style, leaving the series in the hands of McCarthy and Jones. (George Romanis scored a lone first-season episode, “Too Short a Season,” as a favor from Robert Justman.) “We had about 12 days to turn around a show,” Jones remembers. Scoring sessions were held at Paramount Pictures’ Stage M, then operated by The Record Plant, and recorded by Gary Ladinsky. The sessions were divided between a large “A” orchestra and a smaller “B” group, taking place in the morning and afternoon of a single day. “I broke it down and got more forces for the big cues—we’d have four or five cues that were huge act-five cues or the teaser at the beginning, and the rest would be the B orchestra to do play-ons and stuff like that.”
Jones was adamant that a keen understanding of the storytelling of each episode was vital to his ability to score the series. “I would read the scripts early and I had a list of what I called the ‘Star Trek Questions.’ I kept saying, who are the main characters? What’s the story about? If this character was an instrument, what would it be? If this character was a harmony, what would it be? If the overall theme of the show was a melody, what would it be? I’d ask myself all those questions to bring it from the story structure into musical material. And then when I have all that material it’s like Wagner—I have all these motifs, leitmotifs, scales, and I had it serialized down to that level. I was meticulous in the design of the themes and I would spend the first season writing a cue, let it sit and before I turned it in I’d go back and redo it because I wasn’t happy with it. I’d score the first act two or three times until I got it the way I wanted it. I’d spend four days on themes—that was after I’d done all the Star Trek Questions.”
Jones and McCarthy—ten years Jones’s senior—had compatible but somewhat different philosophies towards scoring the show: “My approach was to get into each one to do something different for every life form, whereas Dennis said it was more like Wagon Train, where every day was another day in space. He was approaching it in a Beethoven mindset and I was going from Strauss forward where it was Ligeti and things that were ‘out there.’ We both shared a little bit of Holst because that’s where they wanted it to be, but I was just as into Jimi Hendrix or something like that because to these people that would be ancient music. I kept saying, ‘Why can’t that be part of the fabric?’ And I was always difficult to deal with because I always kept asking people questions and pissing people off.”
Jones’s orchestra in season one ranged from 35 to 48 players, except for “The Naked Now” (31 players) and the budget-saving “We’ll Always Have Paris” (15). In subsequent years, Jones would experiment with unconventional orchestras—omitting certain instrumental sections in favor of enhancing others, in the best tradition of Bernard Herrmann or Jerry Goldsmith—but his biggest aural experimentation was with synthesizers. Today, high-tech digital editing allows synthesizers to be “pre-recorded” in a home studio and mixed with the orchestra with relative ease. But in the 1980s, synthesizers were often played “live” and recorded—and mixed—with the acoustic instruments on the scoring stage. Jones used both “live” and “sequenced” (pre-programmed) synthesizers to push the envelope of 1980s sonics. “The hardest thing for me was the technology aspect of the score because we were locking to all this gear which had never been done before,” he says.
“I’d done all these cheap independent films and they’d want it to sound like Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he explains, “so I’d learned all these techniques using different kinds of ‘synch’ on extra recorders, so we had a dedicated sequencing thing right from the start. It’s common now but I was the one who got all that started. In fact it’s funny, we had a couch, like a La-Z-Boy, where this guy sat and the players would always say, ‘Why’s that guy getting paid just to sit there and push the start button?’ So we put a lamp and a doily by this couch and coffee, and he’d sit there and hit the button because he’d have to catch synch so many seconds before the count—we’d hit the slate and he’d hit the button and the time commander would catch up.” In actuality, the player—usually Steve Hallmark—had to arduously program the “sequenced” synthesizers in advance of the session.
Jones used his synthesizers—particularly the sequenced keyboard player, “Keyboard Three”—to create loops, pads and ostinati that often characterized mysterious alien forces, technical problems or exotic extraterrestrial diseases that threatened the ship and its crew week after week. The electronic tones he created immediately sounded otherworldly and hi-tech, standing outside the more organic sounds of the acoustic orchestra. “I was trying to get into the idea that electronics meant something within the orchestra. Jerry Goldsmith would do that—when he’d choose which instruments were going to be used in a movie score, each instrument would symbolize something, and I tried to do that on steroids and say okay, electronics are going to represent these things and the orchestra was going to represent the humanity of the ship and the people that were on the ship. If it was an entity that was going to be not human, or it could be alien but human-like, than it would be in this category, electronic but in a human scale.” Producer Robert Justman encouraged Jones to voice some of the series’ musical signatures (like the Courage fanfare) electronically in early episodes—an approach the producer thought would help differentiate TNG from its predecessor.
Even with his conventional musical materials, Jones tried to reinvent his compositional vocabulary on a weekly basis to impart a unique character: “I chose to find thematic little cells to deal with and lots of harmonic things. I have a chord scale ‘synopticon’ that has all the chords and all the scales of planet Earth. I would go through and write down in between shows, and I would look at these scales and say ‘this looks like a Klingon thing.’ It might be an 8-note Upper Mongolian thing or something else, but it wasn’t like 12-tone, it was ethnic tone. I’d find an ethnicity so the ship and everything was its own thing.”
The composer was equally meticulous in constructing music that could be heard through the show’s complex layers of sound effects. “They had erected quite an elaborate dubbing stage with sixteen 24-track machines, 96 channels of looped sound effects for just the ambience. There were 14 just on the bridge of all the telemetry looping, so whenever I did a show I would ask the sound effects guys for samples of all the loops so I would not write the theme right in the range of the sound effects. I went to every dub and I knew the music wasn’t going to win—in their storytelling the visuals and sound effects that were spacey were more important than the score. So I worked with them and considered the sound effects part of the orchestra. I did the same thing with the actor’s voices—I’d look at Picard’s voice, figure out what pitch it was on and Troi, every cast member had a pitch where they were at. So it was like opera, when they were speaking, don’t write right where they were. I did the same thing on The Flintstones—all those characters were in F, and if I wrote over that, the music would be brought down.”
The complexity of the project established a standard that Jones fought to meet on every episode. “I wasn’t afraid to fail,” he says. “My idea of failure was if I didn’t get in there and do all that work. I was trying to be Jerry Goldsmith Jr. and follow that mold the whole time, the way he would get into it and find a unique instrument and a unique voice for each project. All I was trying to do was get inside that character to the point where the music would become organic to the piece. Composers try to do that and most composers have played the piano so much they get into a groove, like a muscle groove, so if they like [suspended] chords or something they go to that so they have a Tinkertoy set that they play with. I didn’t want to do that so I said I’m not going to have a Tinkertoy set, I’m going to let the show tell me what the music will be. Then I just had to use my constructivity and logic and problem-solving to work that into the score. So if I had a long cue that was playing, I could construct it and build it, but I could never have done that if I hadn’t built all the materials first. If you have an office building and the contractor comes in and asks how many windows are going to be there, you can’t just crap out an 80-story building, you have to have the materials to do that. That’s why I didn’t see the light of day the whole time I was working on the show.” —