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Mellé explored new worlds of unorthodox sounds

This Tuesday, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge presents director Robert Wise’s 1971 science-fiction thriller “The Andromeda Strain,” featuring a groundbreaking electronic soundtrack by composer Gil Mellé. Wise wanted a score devoid of conventional musical signposts, but still effectively atmospheric. (Wise remembered getting Mellé to change parts of the score by telling him, “That little passage in there sounds almost like music.”) Mixing synthesized and musique-concrète elements, Mellé’s score paralleled the film’s eerily antiseptic tone.

It was an unorthodox project, but Mellé had an unorthodox résumé. Born in New Jersey in 1931, Mellé taught himself saxophone and learned theory by sitting in with local jazz enthusiasts; by the age of 15, he was playing professionally in Greenwich Village. He signed with Blue Note, releasing a series of albums that started out in cool-jazz territory, and then moved into a more angular, Bartók-influenced style Mellé called “Primitive Modern.” Encouraged by Blue Note cofounder Alfred Lion, Mellé pursued an interest in visual arts; many Blue Note releases carried Mellé-designed covers. (Mellé even helped to shape the Blue Note sound, introducing Lion to legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder.)


By the end of the 1950s, Mellé’s experimental bent led him to electronics. Not being able to afford synthesizers, Mellé characteristically taught himself to build them. His Tome VI, a saxophone-like synth, lent its name to Mellé’s 1968 album of electronically-processed jazz; his Percussotron III drum machine featured prominently in “The Andromeda Strain.”

Film and television were Mellé’s musical focus from the late 1960s on. The synthesizer became a trademark — witness Mellé’s theme for Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” series — but his scores ran the gamut: cool thrillers, lurid horror, a hyper-romantic TV-movie version of “Frankenstein,” several episodes of “Columbo” (a series that was a high-water-mark of television music). Over time, Mellé became pigeonholed into genre projects, but they offered stylistic freedom: His score to the infamously bad Canadian science-fiction film “Starship Invasions” was actually one of his favorites, a freewheeling mix of jazz fusion, serial-adventure fanfare, and electronic shimmer.


In later years, Mellé refocused on visual art, as well as typically unconventional hobbies, collecting everything from airplanes to microscopes. He died in 2004. A friend (interviewed by journalist Marc Myers) recalled Mellé explaining his philosophy. “When I was younger I used to hear older people talking about all the things they wished they'd done with their lives,” Mellé said. “I decided that would never be me.”

The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge screens “The Andromeda Strain” (in a double feature with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”), August 26 at 7pm (Tickets $7-$10; www.brattlefilm.org).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.