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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Rejoinder: Liturgical Music in Science Fiction? I think so!

by Jeanne Van Slyke Evans

Before I was confirmed in the Anglican Church, I had no idea what liturgy was. As a church musician most of my life, that may seem impossible, but thrust into the roles of Music Director, Cantor, Choir Member, Pianist, and Organist (yes, all at once in a very small church), one learns to sink or swim.

Research into actual liturgical music in sci-fi leaves a cold trail so far. That parameter is a little too narrow, when viewed through the lens of Christian and religious liturgy. However, I can think of several instances of quasi-liturgical, almost communion-esque scenes in sci-fi films.

According to Wikipedia:

Liturgy is the customary public worship performed by a religious group. As a religious phenomenon, liturgy represents a communal response to and participation in the sacred through activities reflecting praise, thanksgiving, remembrance, supplication, or repentance. 

In my personal experience liturgy is a pattern of prayers and actions that lead up to a sermon, and usually the taking of communion—or a similar blessing that brings together the people who gather and agree on their set of beliefs. The sections of the liturgical service are prefaced with a short song the choir leads for the congregants to sing, followed by a reading of a passage in unison. Sections of the Anglican service include the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and the vicar directs the congregation along the way.

I have to wonder: what was the background music in various films when characters were gathering and agreeing on common beliefs? In Dune, Paul Atreides becomes the Messiah who will make the waters cover the deserts of Arrakis and harness the former nemesis of the planet, the worms, to defeat the slave-mafia of the Spice Guild. Well, everyone who likes sci-fi knows that—but can some of the music be considered liturgical? Brian Eno wrote more music for the 1984 film than actually made it into the final cut. Eno’s three-hour “Prophecy Theme” on YouTube illustrates my idea:

When Paul—Muad’Dib—stands with his hand in a pose of blessing, in front of a large army of Fremen who intend to conquer the Guild, the tall standards form a cross and there are choristers/monks lining the sides of the elongated cave.


Wordless music, calming a crowd, bringing in the spirit of solidarity: devotional music and hymns can do the same thing, and each has its own purpose within a worship service, but I think the ‘Prophecy Theme’ comes closest to being liturgical in truest form.

Then, we have the Book People of Fahrenheit 451, wandering the forest like monks, nuns, and other devoted believers—of books. They speak their memorized books like a liturgy, each one a part of the larger whole of mankind’s intellectual and artistic history. Have you ever paused to listen to the music there, in the background? I may have heard it countless times viewing this wonderful film, but here is yet another wordless song of worship.

Bernard Hermann, “The Road and the Finale”

This is what I preach to my music students all the time.  Music is everywhere, and in everything. It creates tension in scary movies, sets the moods required for any emotions required of the audience, and makes great sound effects. In this sense, it would be hard to have music in books or stories.  It’s not always liturgical, but watch and listen—especially listen. Music permeates everything from ball games, to commercials, to funerals. Music is often part of any event, organized or not. So, who’s to say that “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” wouldn’t be ‘liturgical,’ since it leads up to a group of people there for a purpose? Expanding liturgy into the universe, and at the risk of being sacrilegious, one could say that this was once a sacred song!

Jeanne Van Slyke Evans holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education and both a BA and MFA in English. A native Minnesotan, she now lives and gardens in Zone 8, and teaches voice and piano lessons and occasionally watercolor painting workshops. Most of her reading is in poetry and non-fiction, but she also loves historical fiction, especially anything related to the Arthurian legends.

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