STEPHEN HAWKING’S UNIVERSE – Sheridan Tongue


Original Review by Alan Rogers

Sheridan Tongue has scored music for many UK dramas and TV documentaries. 2010 saw the transmission of two documentary mini-series that featured his scores. One was Wonders of The Solar System (the companion series to 2011’s Wonders of The Universe (reviewed here)). The other was Stephen Hawking’s Universe (aired in the US with the title Into The Universe With Stephen Hawking), a Discovery Channel science documentary mini-series written by Hawking and narrated by actor Benedict Cumberbatch (who incidentally played Hawking in the TV film, Hawking). Having episodes with titles such as “Aliens”, “Time Travel” and “The Story of Everything”, Stephen Hawking’s Universe has grand ambitions and comes across more science fiction than science fact due to the emphasis of the documentary on the physicist/cosmologist’s speculations and “what ifs?”, speculations that are based on theories extrapolated from current thinking. Tongue’s score is also ambitious in scale, using a 56-piece orchestra alongside electronic elements and providing a grand cinematic and dramatic score.

The album begins with “Into The Universe” and includes the music used during the introduction of the show. Tongue sets his stall out early with music full of bold brass fanfares alongside string ostinato figures. It is clear that the music is not only going to support the on-screen visuals, it is also going to grab the viewer by the scruff of the neck and drag them through Hawking’s universe. Ostinato figures – and rhythm in general – feature prominently throughout the score, driving the visuals forward and adding a sense of the dramatic. “Time Travelling”, “The WOW Signal” and “Alien Ocean” all feature ostinato patterns, fuelling the music onward. Tongue does add interest to these rhythms by varying their instrumentation; both between instruments of the orchestra (e.g., strings in cues such as “Time Travelling” and “The WOW Signal” and keyboards in cues such as “The Endless Waltz of Galaxies”) and also between the orchestra and various electronic sounds (e.g., “The WOW Signal” and “The Mad Scientist Paradox”). The way in which the composer moves the ostinato pattern between various instruments and electronics in “Alien Ocean” makes this track interesting to listen to and a highlight of the score. Another highlight is “Be Wary of Little Green Men”. Dramatic brass statements signal the arrival of a huge alien mothership and this is followed by an ominous, pounding drum and string beat as smaller alien ships emerge from the larger craft in order to “harvest” resources from a target world and neighbouring sun. The music would not be out of place in any big-budget science fiction movie (some of the electronic embellishments are reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s score to Mars Attacks!). Both the music as well as the content of the documentary is firmly in the court of the science fiction film.

Sheridan Tongue’s music for Stephen Hawking’s Universe does also have a significant amount that projects the awe and spectacle of the universe. “Circles In Space and Time” features a swirling, cycling pattern in strings and electronics that instils a sense of floating through the vastness of space. And the final track, “The Endless Waltz of Galaxies” brings the album to a close with more vistas of the universe courtesy of a combination of the piano ostinato and meandering string passages. A variety of cues also provide electronic ambiences that add to the sense of space as well as suspense.

The music for Stephen Hawking’s Universe is certainly a different beast to Tongue’s music for Wonders of The Universe, a difference that is probably due to the requirements of the makers of this mini-series. Emotional and dramatic support is the order of the day here. Tracks such as “Be Wary of Little Green Men” certainly showcases Tongue’s ability to compose both very dramatic, cinematic music as well as highlighting the emphasis of the programme on the science fiction side of Hawking’s ideas. I find this style of music more appealing than that heard in Wonders of The Universe, probably because of the cinematic nature of the score. My only real complaint is with the segmented feel of several of the tracks that tends to spoil their flow. For example, “The Mad Scientist Paradox” flits back and forth between keyboard ostinato, pounding percussion passages and quieter interludes leading to a very disjointed listening experience. Perhaps the music in tracks such are these is edited together from shorter cues in order to make a more satisfying listening experience. I don’t know. But they are distracting.

I would recommend Stephen Hawking’s Universe as a preferred starting point for exploring Sheridan Tongue’s music rather than Wonders of The Universe. This album is available generally as a digital download but can be bought on CD in the UK.

Audio samples can be found HERE and then click on blue arrow next to running time for samples of entire album or individual tracks.

Rating: ***

  1. Into The Universe (4:34)
  2. Time Travelling (2:30)
  3. Circles In Space and Time (3:25)
  4. The WOW Signal (3:38)
  5. Alien Ocean (4:03)
  6. Adventures In The 4th Dimension (3:41)
  7. The Danger of Intelligence (3:20)
  8. Why We Must Ask Why (2:16)
  9. The Goldilocks Zone (4:15)
  10. Be Wary of Little Green Men (3:42)
  11. The Dance of Life (5:19)
  12. The Mad Scientist Paradox (6:11)
  13. The Endless Waltz of Galaxies (2:47)

Running Time: 49:46

Right Track Records (2010)

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