Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Grand Pause

So, here’s the thing about the new Star Wars movie that comes out tomorrow …

For various reasons, I won’t end up seeing the thing until it’s been in theaters for about ten days.

Weep not for me.  I have a roof over my head, and food in the ol’ icebox.

But aside from my desperate attempts to avoid spoilers for a week and a half (and still somehow remain connected to my friends on social media) … and aside from my insane curiosity about things like, “who is this Daisy Ridley running-toward-exploding-spaceships character?  And who is this John Boyega heavily-perspiring-stormtrooper character?  And is there truth to the rumor that Han Solo and Princess Leia didn’t actually stay together, in this new Abrams-verse?  And does Luke Skywalker ever take off that hoodie?  And how in the world did they build that insanely fast rolling droid thingy?” … and all of those questions undoubtedly will transform into the dumbest questions imaginable, come January …

Aside from those mere trifles, the real suspense for me is … what it was when the last batch of prequel things came out, sixteen years ago:

What’s the score going to be like?

Even now, nearly forty years since Star Wars became A Thing, the same John Williams is at the helm of the Star Wars film music juggernaut as was in charge .  Give or take an animated series (i.e. “Star Wars: Clone Wars” spent its first three seasons unsure about whether to avoid the classic sound or embrace it; and the more recent “Star Wars Rebels” has done a very nice job of honoring the good ol’ movie scores, and in some cases gleefully ripping them right off) … the Williams sound has been the sound of the Star Wars franchise.

He and the other handful of composers who have tackled Star Wars projects over the last four decades … have largely been creating new arrangements of that great old material.

The prequel scores, I thought, had the great potential to “reverse-engineer” the original scores (just as the stories were reverse-engineering Darth Vader’s life story) – in addition to being opportunities for more fun treatments of the music that has become, for some of us, like the artistic version of family.

Let’s find out where all those leitmotifs and themes got their start!, I thought. … Ah well.

With the exception of a really clever melodic turn at the end of what was essentially a “kindergarten with ominous foreshadowing” theme for Episode I’s young Anakin Skywalker, the occasional “Force motif” quote, and a marvelous re-setting of the Imperial March as the clone troops inexorably head off to war at the end of Episode II … the music was mostly fresh and new and struck me as the end result of a head-on collision between Harry Potter and Hook, or at least those films’ incidental music.

Well, can you forgive a composer for having a compositional style that has evolved somewhat over forty years of work?

To my eye and ear, the musical scores sold Episodes I, II and III as nearly nothing else did.  And yes, there were blasts of identifiably “Star Wars-y” music.  But that Star Wars Main Title theme only appeared a handful of times in the prequel trilogy, and … I don’t know about anyone else, but (as chronicled in a previous post hereabouts) I thought the Episode IV music had a certain bombastic charm, and I kinda missed it.

It was as if the extended family had come to visit after being away for a long time, and they were sorta recognizable, but there were more than enough things different about them that we had to get reacquainted again.  And it didn’t feel quite the same.

Conceivably, Williams may just have been reacting compositionally to what he was seeing, in the final cuts of the prequels: [1] a story that inevitably will end badly, and darkly; and [2] an editing pace to these films that mirrors the accelerating pace of American entertainment in the years since Episode IV – i.e. there’s barely any time to linger on a visual, or bask in a great extended musical moment.  The goal of a film composer is to reflect and amplify what’s on the screen; and so Williams did.

So, since “The Force Awakens” has threatened to reference the Episode IV-V-VI story and characters so much more directly than the prequel trilogy …

… the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance in Episode VII has the potential to be the world’s most Wagnerian-scale cover band in recorded history.

Whatever it is, I’ll listen to, enjoy, and in all likelihood lay out bucks for, Johnny Williams’ latest hits.  He is arguably at least the greatest living American film composer.  Guy knows a little somethin’ about cinematic sound.

But I’m really hoping he goes back to his Star Wars roots, if you will, on this one.  I hope the family looks more like it used to.

We’ll see.

Can’t wait.

December 17, 2015 Posted by | arranging, entertainment, film, media, movies, music, science fiction, Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

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.

November 4, 2015 Posted by | entertainment, film, movies, music, science fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Canon Fodder

Over the course of more than 275 posts to this blog – I know, right? – I have been a good boy.

In spite of the fact that at age 10, I was a burgeoning science-fiction / fantasy / space opera fan, having spent any time at all in front of episodes (and in fact published fiction titles) of the original Star Trek TV series …

And in spite of the fact that not long after I hit eleven years old, my dad took me to see this little B-movie called Star Wars, and that pretty much sealed the deal …

And in spite of the fact that in the intervening years, while I have have offered up tepid protestations like “I watch it, but I don’t wear it,” I have historically done spectacularly well at those online quizzes with titles like “How Devout a Trekkie Are You?” and also tended to quickly give up on the online articles that claimed to be all things Star Wars-ical when they didn’t even know that the little red droid that blew a head gasket and gave R2-D2 the opening to get bought by Owen Lars and the rest as they say is history is not *either* an R2 unit!! …

And I’ve come to appreciate items like the Battlestar Galactica re-boot TV series as doing what good sci-fi is supposed to do – making veiled but pointed commentary on our earthly issues.

With all this borne in mind … only a couple of times in this space have I gone Full-On Nerd Alert.

You have been warned.

It was not a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, that the lunatic fringe barked. It was maybe several months ago.

J.J. Abrams is helming the next Star Wars movie! We’re all gonna die! You saw what he did to the Star Trek re-boot movie! Lightsabers with crossguards? ‘The Force Awakens’?? From what, a nap?! And did you see all that lens flare?? That’s not what Star Wars looks like!!”

Because that’s why the original Star Wars trilogy was so good: we all, every one of us who saw it more than once, got so into it that we thought of it as ours. When Mr. Lucas, who, ummm, came up with it in the first place, added lame things like Jar Jar Binks, those little nasal-voiced battle droids, and Hayden Christensen to the saga [I was going to say “Jake Lloyd” but then I thought better of it; he was a kid in that movie, so let’s lay off the acting critiques] … a great many of us were so protective of it that we wanted to protect it from its own creator.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t horrified that those three items, and more besides, were part of the official canon. But it wasn’t my call.

In many cases, I could have pointed to numerous characters and concepts from the <*ahem*> several Star Wars novels published in the years between the two trilogies’ releases. Timothy Zahn, and a few other justly-famous sci-fi writers, created sidekicks and villains and fleshed out little tiny movie-era scraps of detail into fully-realized interplanetary cultures that would have been great to see on the big screen. Or at least I thought so. And it could have been done – clearing both creative and copyright hurdles.

Because everything in all those novels, and all the ones since – at least until a few months ago – was considered canonic. From the wonderful to the woeful, everything that made it onto the printed page and into stores was part of the “Expanded” Universe.

Star Trek had gone in the other direction, all those years ago.

The Trek legal department decided that, whether the published Trek fiction was well-written or not, it was not canon. Even if it deserved to be. Only the Trek that made it to the silver screen or the boob tube was Official. And for every story or character or reference that was awkward, embarrassing, or really pushing the bounds of credulity for us die-hard fans who knew everything about everything (I know, but we’re working on a sliding scale of credulity here to start with, so ease up) … there was a story or character or reference or whole novel in the Trek fiction world that by rights should have been included in the Official Trek Universe.

(See my thoughts about Diane Duane’s exquisite historical novel, “Spock’s World”, and how it was so much more elegant and logical than a lot of the planet-Vulcan details that made it into Star Trek V, and then J.J. Abrams went and literally blew it all up anyway.)

Also, if a novel was fluffy or poorly-written or just plain unlikely – I mean, how can one single starship crew save civilization as we know that many times? – a reader could chuckle, park it on the bookshelf again, and forget it.

It was also easier to keep track of everything.

So, some time ago, the Disney juggernaut had laid out untold billions of dollars to buy the rights to the Star Wars franchise from its creator – and the fan base twitched.

And then the new keepers of the Star Wars flame determined that the extensive Expanded Universe of the SW fiction world … just wouldn’t do. So they effectively hit control-Z. Busted the whole project back down to “six movies, two animated series [now that a certain former Jedi Padawan has shown up in the “Star Wars Rebels” season finale] and that’s all, thank you.”

And the fan base largely freaked.

I not-so-humbly assert that I didn’t. I did pause to offer well wishes to Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, Kal Skirata, and the Jedi mental-group-battle-meld (what… the actual… frak??) as they settled in to their new home in the Star Wars Phantom Zone, yes. But the logic of the move quickly became obvious.

The Expanded Universe had expanded beyond the point where any screenwriter was going to have a prayer of writing Episode VII without banging into some other author’s established reality.

At this writing, there are at least a hundred and fifty-nine Star Wars novels in print. And that doesn’t include the myriad of lighter-weight items pitched at the kiddies, or the e-books, or the short story collections.

Not only was that going to be unwieldy, but … sorry, but not everybody knows all the details of “The Courtship of Princess Leia”, not everybody has read “Han Solo at Star’s End”, and not everybody is aware that Princess Leia and Han Solo had a daughter and two sons, and one of the sons killed the other one in a lightsaber duel, and went on to become a Sith Lord himself. And some yahoo somewhere in the online world (possibly me) was going to get on their cases about screwing up the Established Order Of Things.

You can’t do that in our Universe!”

J.J. Abrams didn’t have that to contend with, when he re-booted Star Trek. And on top of that he created an alternate-universe story that allowed him to thumb his nose at established Trek canon. There are a few of us Trek fans out here who would have preferred that maybe he and his writers had lashed themselves a bit more firmly to the canonic mast.

But anyone with experience in alternate-reality stories knows that the “prime” universe is still there. We’re just not looking at it, right now. I’m living in this house, right now; but the house I grew up in is still there, just like it was. I’m just not there at the moment.

Perhaps the reason that the second trailer for the upcoming Episode VII movie fractured the Internet somethin’ fierce … with utter whoops of joy … was that ol’ J.J. saw fit to park at the end of it a single line of dialogue, Han Solo’s first new one in more than thirty years, and one that was tantalizingly reassuring:

Chewie… we’re home.”

This might be okay, after all.

At the end of the day, that’s the beauty of all this: while the actual, moneymaking franchises belong to Lucas (okay, now Disney) and the Roddenberry estate (okay, now Paramount Pictures) … and therefore we out here in Fandom Land don’t get much of a say in what shows up on the Official Entertainment Screens … it’s a free country. You can make your own personal decisions.

If ya don’t like what they’ve done to “your” Trek, you can choose to not ever watch “Star Trek V” again and instead put “Spock’s World” in a prominent place on your coffee table.

Not happy with a droid that looks like R2-D2’s head got caught on a madly-rolling beach ball? By all means, huddle on your couch with Karen Traviss’ thought-provoking series of clone trooper novels (you heard me), or even go cue up your VHS cassette copy of the “Star Wars Christmas Special”.

Okay, that might be pushing it.

But I know what “characters and situations” are included in my personal Wars and Trek canons. And inside my head and my hovel, they’re what count.

What’s in your wallet?

April 21, 2015 Posted by | entertainment, film, media, movies, science fiction, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment