Sunday, July 9, 2017

TRON's Sonic Legacy

Walt Disney Studios' landmark masterpiece of CG/live action wizardry, TRON, turns 35 today. Produced during Disney's "Dark Years" experimental period, TRON represented a monumental transition in creativity and focus from the WWWD (what would Walt do?) old guard to the new field
of story tellers responsible for the animation renaissance of the late 80's. The film was a painstakingly improvised hybrid of live action, CG, and traditional hand drawn animation, which is why Disney was the ideal studio for such an undertaking. Much of what audiences thought was CG was actually animation hand drawn on the film cells. While not considered a commercial success at the time, the film has gone on to spawn a franchise with a dedicated following, and has left an impression on pop culture.

The score of TRON is as much of a hybrid as the film, seamlessly combining electronic and symphonic melodies into a musical landscape for both the real and electronic worlds. The original concept was for a traditional symphonic score during the "real world" scenes, transitioning to purely electronic as we enter the electronic world of "The Grid". To helm the electronic score, Disney tapped synth pioneer Wendy Carlos. Carlos had provided early synth-based soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange and The Shining and was known for atmospheric soundtracks relying primarily on synthesizers.  In the liner notes for the 20th anniversary CD release, Carlos states that she lobbied Disney to compose the entire soundtrack, citing her extensive education and background in composing for full orchestration.  The studios agreed, and the result is a full, rich score melding electronic and analog instruments for the first time in a major motion picture soundtrack.  While Carlos has revealed that time constraints enforced by the studio strained her relationship with the orchestra, she is pleased with result.

There were to be songs contributed by director Steven Lisberger's favorite rock band; Supertramp. The band, who was reportedly on the outs, declined and the studio then chose the hottest rock band of the early 80's; Journey.   Journey was riding at the top of the charts at that time with the the album "Escape" and the hit single "Don't Stop Believin'".  The song, "Only Solutions", was referenced in the film by Jeff Bridges' character, Kevin Flynn, in the line "Like the man says, 'There are no problems, only solutions'".   In an interview, guitarist Neal Schon states that they essentially threw the song together in the studio. The other song the oddly named "1990's Theme", was an instrumental by Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain. Both songs can be heard playing in the background during the scenes filmed in Flynn's Arcade.  The soundtrack was released on LP prior to the movie opening, however, instead of being released on  the Disneyland Records label, it was released under the Columbia records label, possibly to attract an older audience.

It would be 20 years before the soundtrack would be available on CD with a re-release on Walt Disney Records label.  Again, the studios turned to Wendy Carlos for the release, but the master tapes were in a severe state of deterioration.  In an interview, Carlos relates that she had to use a baking method to restore the masters to their original condition. The CD was released in conjunction with the 20th anniversary DVD release of the film.  The soundtrack has remained a milestone in the fusion of electronic and traditional instrumentation, and has influenced recent artists like Trent Reznor, Micheal Giacchino, and Daft Punk for their own TRON Legacy soundtrack. The soundtrack to TRON later became available (appropriately) as a digital download, coming full circle back to the Grid from whence it was conceived.