The Sounds of Star Trek
As a huge nerd, I prepared to interview Emmy-winning composer Jay Chattaway by watching one of my favorite shows, Star Trek: Voyager.
For nine years, Jay Chattaway kept a speech folded in the pocket of his tux. And for nine years, it stayed there: he didn’t remove it, unfold it, smooth the creases, and recite how honored he was to receive an Emmy. Each of those years was the same. Rubber chicken dinners. Tables of smiling competitors who won, and bitter, envious ones who lost. And then home to feel depressed.
For his 10th and final nomination in 2001, Chattaway thought there was no way he was going to win. He hadn’t won before. So he stayed home, composing music.
Then his wife called. He had won the Emmy for the series finale of a little show called Star Trek: Voyager.
His Emmy was sitting in a plastic bag in the lobby of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood when he went to retrieve it a few nights later. “I’m here to pick up my Emmy,” he told the night watchman.
The security guard, a 75-year-old man from Tennessee, said he was an artist, too. But in a segregated South he hadn’t been able to go to college and develop his talents.
“That would have meant everything for me if I could have gotten an Emmy or something awarded for my work,” Chattaway recalls the man saying. And so Chattaway, the Pennsylvania boy who was only able to attend West Virginia University because of a scholarship and fed himself off the proceeds of band concerts, said, “Let’s go outside.”
About 10 p.m. on the plaza with the towering, golden Emmy fountain in the background, the watchman spoke about his artistic struggles, what his art meant to him. And Chattaway presented him the Emmy. Then the man spoke about Chattaway and handed him his long-awaited award.
“It was so meaningful. It was much more meaningful than being there with my peers and people that would have thought they should have won instead of me. It was just the two of us, and it was a very sweet, poignant moment.”
THESE ARE THE VOYAGES
As Henry Mancini conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra one day, a 15-year-old from Monongahela, Pennsylvania, sat in the audience.
Chattaway decided then that he wanted his future to look like Mancini’s past — he wanted to compose popular music.
So he went to high school fine arts camp at WVU. Then, a Board of Governors scholarship allowed him to attend the University. There his professors with new doctorates and an appreciation for jazz taught him about music — in class, during private lessons and while playing golf.
And then it happened, a rarity in arts colleges. His professors asked him to compose for the marching band, the orchestra, and some ensembles. He started feeling the rush that comes from creating and hearing the sounds no one’s heard before.
Milliseconds away from completing his master’s degree, Chattaway was drafted during the Vietnam War.
The WVU director of bands, Bud Udell, made some calls and recommended him for the U.S. Navy Band, where he became composer-in-residence and wrote music for impromptu gatherings at the White House.
From there he went into the record industry and eventually scored his first film, “Firepower,” an action piece starring Sophia Loren. As he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra with the footage of the stunning actress in the background, he thought, “I gotta do this; this is it.”
It was the score that incorporated whale song for a National Geographic film on whales that would lead him to TV.
His agent sent the soundtrack to Star Trek: The Next Generation producers, who needed someone to fill in as composer for an episode. The agent told him nothing would probably come of it. And that set his mind at ease, because, really, TV didn’t seem like it would be his thing.
“When the Star Trek people heard that, they thought, ‘Here’s a guy that’s just wacky enough — he’s using whales and making them play songs — he’d be perfect for Star Trek,’” Chattaway said.
The producers wanted him to use his whale sounds to score “Tin Man,” an episode, he was told, about an organic mammal-like being that roamed space.
“When I did my first score, the head of music at Paramount said, ‘Don’t listen to what other people are doing,’” Chattaway recalled. ”’They hired you to be original and different, and so just do your imitation of what you think epic space adventure should sound like musically.’”
Producers told him the space being would be an ethereal, bright, orb. It turned out to be something that looked like a living asteroid, lumpy and earthen. Thus began the quick changes and the constant turnaround for a show regularly produced the week before it aired.
By May 13, 2005, when the last episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise closed the franchise’s TV life (for now, anyway), Chattaway had composed on Star Trek for 18 years and nearly 200 episodes.
“Tin Man” kicked off a career that narrated the subtext of stories ranging from an android searching for his father, one doctor’s fantasy of being James Bond, a crew’s pact with the alien version of the devil, and a couple cuddling their recently discovered baby who lay dying.
AN INNER LIGHT
Through all of Chattaway’s sounds for Star Trek, there was one song for one story that has stayed with the franchise’s loyal following. They may not know whom they have to thank for it, but it’s Chattaway.
The story goes like this: Under the harsh brightness of a dying sun, a man watches his world decay. He mourns his family’s lost chance at a full life. He plays his flute, made of metal from his planet’s mines. And then he wakes up as Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise, who had just relived life on a planet that died more than 1,000 years before.
The tune he played is wistful and nostalgic. It’s hopeful. And Chattaway composed it for a penny whistle primarily because no one wanted to block Sir Patrick Stewart’s face with a flute.
If you’re at a wedding, funeral, concert, or music store, you may run across “The Inner Light,” one of the most requested and popular songs from Star Trek. Chattaway said he knows he’s successful when he creates a feeling with music that causes the hairs on the back of your arms to rise.
Recently, with no one but a TV crew to watch him, Chattaway sat at a Steinway and played in the Bloch Learning and Performance Hall on WVU’s campus. It’s like a long hug, a whisper in your ear to tell you that you’ll get there, wherever there is.
“Music is meant to be a language,” he said. “It’s not a private thing that you just play for your own amusement or amazement. I don’t think it really becomes music until somebody hears it. It’s meant to evolve emotional impact in one way or another.”
Chattaway said he fit well at Star Trek. The group was very intelligent, he said, and went with the philosophy that the audience should decide how they feel about the story, deciphering each character and deciding who was worthy and if anyone was too far gone to be saved.
So Chattaway made his Klingon and Romulan themes less judgmental by taking out the third, middle tone of chords. The themes are still authoritative and dramatic, but somehow less sinister than, say, the Imperial March of Star Wars. While George Lucas’ Emperor is known through his theme to be evil until his last breath, Chattaway translates the alien Klingons as friends that we probably won’t make this decade but could make some day.
And then there was the Borg, the automaton collective that is a mass of those who are no longer allowed to be individuals. So he came up with a score that has individual elements but is dominated by a grand, overpowering theme.
“The Borg theme was written in my sleep,” he said. “I do keep a pad of music paper next to my bed. It doesn’t make for a great romantic evening, but I would get up and write my musical thoughts down.
“Sometimes it was just horrible what I wrote. But when I woke up this time, it was pretty good.”
SET A COURSE — FOR HOME
The Voyager finale that won Chattaway his Emmy was about going home. After battling hunters and betrayers, finding out that many back home had moved on, and living the overdramatic life that is required in space, the crew got the one thing they wanted most: a plot twist taking them to Earth.
While they were getting home, Chattaway was still building his. His musical home always has room for a new theme or phrase. It’s of his own making and has room for triangle, piano, and wolf howls, in that or any other order.
But another of his homes is where he wore a blue sharkskin suit on Friday nights with his band The Abductors, where at 11 p.m. everyone from the dorms to the frat houses rushed home to see William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy reprise the original Star Trek, and where a young professor infused some jazz into Chattaway’s musical thoughts.
It’s been 40 years since Jim Miltenberger was that younger man instructing Chattaway, a trumpet and composing major, on the piano. And when Miltenberger celebrated 50 years at WVU recently, Chattaway called him, as if to say, ‘hey, I remember you, let’s pick up where we left off.’
And they did.
The composer and the school thought it would be great if he could donate his collection of handwritten Star Trek music to the school. If he could speak at commencement. If he could teach a distance-learning course and instruct the next generation of composers how to make their own music, using his Star Trek creations.
This fall, he’ll be a new face to WVU’s students who may one day be the next influential composers.
They might go into records. They might reach the big screen. They may go on TV.
They could even start dreaming music for the Borg.