Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Long Time Ago

My Facebook friends have endured the beginning of what will end up being my two-month Facebook-status countdown to the opening of the first new Star Wars movie in more than a decade.

I’ve been posting a new Star Wars line of dialogue daily – the goal being to work with the quotes that don’t always make it into Internet memes. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” is just too easy. Everyone knows “May the Force be with you” and “No … I am your father”. Nerd that I am, I find it far more fun to post things like “I am NOT a committee!” or “It’s a wonder you’re still alive” or “I believe they think I am some sort of god”, and see who answers with an equally near-buried line of dialogue.

Curiously, that’s been my interest, if not my original strategy, when listening to and thinking about the musical scores from the various Star Wars films.

John Williams’ sweeping musical creation – six film scores that have produced literally dozens of themes and motifs to represent characters and situations created by George Lucas – is a Wagnerian achievement (leitmotivically as well as in scale) that will stand alone in the history of filmmaking, past and future.

As any good movie score does, the score for the original film, Episode IV (retroactively titled A New Hope) both reflected and amplified what was on-screen in 1977. In the ensuing years, The Empire Strikes Back took a darker, more complex turn, and so did its brilliant score; Return of the Jedi was an unwieldy combination of climactic and cartoon-y, and for better or worse, so was its score (in which existed both a howling, wordless men’s choral accompaniment of the Darth Vader’s final lightsaber duel with Luke Skywalker (wherein he finally gets inside the kid’s head) AND a goofy tuba theme for Jabba the Hutt, a villain who was chuckled at, not feared, by everyone except the movie’s characters).

But Episode IV had no subtext, had no place yet in any “saga”, and so was free to be musically what it was on screen: giddy, swashbuckling escapism (with a dash of serious in a couple of spots).

It was a better score than any “late-1970s space-opera movie on a shoestring budget” had any right to expect. Part of the reason why Star Wars was taken so seriously (so to speak) when it premiered was, yes, the special effects, and yes, the story which hit on ALL the mythological archetype cylinders, … but it was, at least equally, the music – which grounded the movie in sounds that were instinctively recognizable by audiences. As Filmtracks.com founder Christian Clemmensen suggests, Williams was hired by Lucas on the strength of “the composer’s ability to write classically-inclined music for foreign environments”.

He didn’t deal in the typical (for the time) bleep bloop, electronically synthesized Walter/Wendy Carlos “Switched-On Bach” –type scores which were created as such because filmmakers thought that’s what the future, and science fiction, sounded like.

But Star Wars was, after all, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

As he was writing the music for the original Star Wars film, there were two important realities in play: first, a sequel or series of sequels were no sure thing, so Williams likely had no sense that he was writing anything other than a one-off, flash-in-the-pan adventure score. And second, there was no larger storyline (no “Leia is my sister!” revelations, no “we shall watch your career with great interest” foreshadowing, no “wee-sa in moo-ey moo-ey trouble!” larger context in which to write music … so everything was created, musically, for that moment, for that single story, and nothing else.

There’s no “Imperial March” in Episode IV. Says Filmtracks’ Clemmensen, “The secondary motifs in Star Wars are a curious bunch, because most of them are not touched upon again the subsequent movies. The most intriguing of these is a belligerent, stomping identity for the Death Star itself, the theme that represented the evil Empire before the ‘Imperial March’ took over in the next film.” It was this little short thing that was almost over before it began.

[Ed. Note: by the way, not to nitpick, but … that’s not the Death Star motif.  This is … and it’s glorious.]

And it was frankly a relief to watch the “Special Edition” in 1997 and not hear the “Imperial March”. For whatever logical or fan-fiction reason, Episode IV is both part of the continuum and a stand-alone treat – cinematically and musically.

Yes, the major themes of the Star Wars saga – the swashbuckling title theme, the “Imperial March”, even the noble but relatively brief Obi-Wan/Force theme – have made their mark on American popular culture (don’t know what percentage of college bands play the Vader march when their team goes on defense, but guaranteed it’s large). But there are moments in the Episode IV: A New Hope score, the very first one, that don’t get nearly as much press or air time – moments which in my mind mark this single score as one of the most effective scores ever.

The double-LP Star Wars soundtrack album was the first record I ever bought that featured strictly instrumental music, and certainly the first movie soundtrack album. A couple of years earlier, I had gone to the public library and borrowed the LP of (curiously) John Williams’ score for Earthquake, but was rather disappointed when there weren’t any sound effects, and lost interest. (Give me a break. I was eight years old.)

From the opening, obvious blast of glorious London Symphony Orchestra brass, I was entirely enthralled. I was the embodiment of “wearing down the record’s grooves”. I played this thing incessantly. Sides one through four, over and over, around and around.

And because I spent so much time with it, I soon got really good at humming along with it. And not just the obvious blasts of Luke’s theme and Leia’s theme and that marvelous syncopated full-orchestra riff that accompanies the Millennium Falcon’s desperate bid to escape the Death Star and its attacking TIE Fighters. I got good at humming along with the strikingly bluesy flute cadenza in the middle of the concert version of “Princess Leia’s Theme” … with the motif that accompanies the Jawas … with the bouncy little leitmotif of Luke’s landspeeder as Luke tracks the wandering Artoo-Detoo through the desert … with the roiling orchestral underscore that heralds the imminent destruction of the planet Alderaan

Yeah, I was a little bit immersed.

But, having effectively done score study (without having an actual physical score) on this opus, I feel like when I go on a bit about how great the big AND the little moments in the first Star Wars movie’s musical world … at least I’m not inventing silly notions. I can back it up, when I say …

This guy Williams … he could write.

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November 4, 2015 - Posted by | entertainment, film, movies, music, science fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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