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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Five: Guilty Pleasures -or- The Great Convergence

31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 5: “My Guilty Pleasure”

 

If you’ve been paying proper attention to the Blogge, in the five-plus years it’s existed, you know that I’m an utter, squealing geek when it comes to two subjects.

One is the universe according to George Lucas.

When “Star Wars” hit theaters in May 1977 … it became an almost-instant genuine cultural phenomenon, and it’s cast its shadow over nearly four decades of American life, since. (Although a few stories have since surfaced detailing the disdain that some of the movie’s own production crew members had for the project while they were making it. Admittedly “Episode IV” must have looked like every other bewildering or pathetic attempt at science-fiction movie magic that had come before it, and more than a few that came after.)

But honestly, it could still be filed under “guilty pleasure” because honestly … weird creatures and zap guns and really not-that-great acting? I mean come on. And then “The Simpsons” invented their Comic-Book Guy character, thereby creating a capsule review of every mid-thirties American male who waxes authoritative about the galaxy far, far away from the comfort of a parent’s basement very, very nearby.

The other geek-out subject is that of the good old American marching band. (On this Blogge, I suppose you could think of it as “the universe according to George Parks”.) Sadly, no matter how much dignity and seriousness we try to infuse into the activity, for every “Drumline”, it seems like there are several “American Pie: Band Camp” examples out there.

From inside the bubble of the marching band universe – the place where its participants and adherents rehearse music, learn marching drill, and practice throwing and catching flags and rifles and other implements of destruction – the activity can be a remarkable and beautiful experience both from an entertainment standpoint and from a “life skills you will learn while marching that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life and make you lifelong friends”, etc. etc. angle.

From outside that bubble, it can look like just a bunch of odd ducks wearing feathers on their heads.

Everybody is right.

 

One day in 1999, my two guilty pleasures intersected. It was a moment of guilty-pleasure geekdom that I fear will never come again. Although perhaps that’s for the best.

As has been chronicled here and elsewhere, when the marching music activity is done right, it can be great, and when it’s done poorly, it’s cringeworthy and look-away territory.

Until that day, and since then, when marching ensembles have attempted to reproduce the John Williams “Star Wars” musical scores, it’s been anywhere from “almost; good try” to “oh put that away, it’s not even close and it’s embarrassing”.

I come at the “Star Wars” scores from the perspective of someone who considers himself, rightly or not, something of a “Star Wars” score savant. When I hear any orchestral cue from the original trilogy of films, I can hear the dialogue from that scene in my head at the same time. I can hum along with most of those cues, accurately. You could say I’ve marinated in the stuff for nearly forty years. That “Episode IV” double-LP album has long since had its grooves worn away.

And having invested that kind of ridiculous time in listening to those recordings, I’ve gotten used to what the London Symphony Orchestra sounded like, making those recordings. As glad as I was, when “The Force Awakens” opened, to hear the first new “Star Wars” film score in ten-plus years … still I was a little puzzled at the opening blast of brass because it didn’t sound quite right. I wondered if it was (ironically) some new recording technology that was making the brass sound a little different, not quite the same … and then I read somewhere that the score was recorded in Los Angeles (a nod to not forcing the octogenarian Williams to cross the ocean to London, repeatedly). Ah ha. So, different. Not bad; just not … quite.

 

So, at the fourth annual Collegiate Marching Band Festival, held at J. Birney Crum Stadium in Allentown, PA, came a moment of “will it or won’t it?”

I sat up in the stands amongst the Boston University band folks with whom I had traveled (and the legions of other college band members, and local high school band kids, and lots of other spectators), watching the mighty Penn State Blue Band take the field. I had never heard Penn State live. Their reputation preceded them. The Festival, which to that point had taken place on the last weekend of September, had been moved to the first weekend in October to accommodate Penn State’s schedule. Yes, you do that for certain groups which reside in the pantheon of American marching bands.

Their PA announcement declared that they would open their exhibition show with The Theme From Star Wars!! …

And my heart sank.

Because any other time I’d heard an outdoor band go there, whether they’d played well or not, it had not been … quite.

(And sometimes – many more times – it had been not at all.)

Penn State took a deep breath … and so did I. I didn’t trust a big-10-style, high-stepping, spats-wearing band to make “Star Wars” sound like anything other than a marching band trying to approximate that sound that I was so familiar with, and knew could not be reproduced – certainly not by a marching band.

I prepared to be disappointed.

Penn State did not give me that opportunity.

In the time before, and in the time since, I have not ever heard a marching band nail, completely nail the opening introductory few measures of John Williams’ “intro to a galaxy far, far away”. But that afternoon, Penn State nailed it. I sat up very much straighter on those not-quite comfortable benches in the J. Birney Crum home stands. I listened very much more closely to the chords, the rhythms … the voicings in the arrangement … trying to see if I could spot watered-down rhythms, not-quite-correct chords. I couldn’t. To my ears … with no orchestral string section present … outdoors, with no acoustical shells to direct the sound properly to my precise location in the audience … Penn State delivered a sound so authentic, so true to the original, that I wished I could hit rewind and listen to it again, right then.

The phrase “I couldn’t believe my ears” is thrown around with such abandon now.

But I couldn’t.

But I was forced to, because those were live humans down there – no lip sync, or the band equivalent (whatever technology *that* might require!). No faking it in any way. What you hear is what you get.

I got an earful.

Penn State put an arrangement very much like that one back into its repertoire ten years later, and they almost, almost reproduced that Allentown sound. But I think it’ll never happen again. And that’s okay. The wind was blowing just right – the winds were blowing just right – and at least one particular geek in the stands got his perfect storm, his Great Convergence of Guilty Pleasures.

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May 5, 2016 Posted by | band, blogging, BUMB, marching band, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

Somewhere Out There

Quick! Name your favorite film composer!! Don’t think, just react. Who?!”

Well, if you know me at all, you know that my instant answer is That Guy From The Star Wars Films.

I first banged into Mr. Williams’ score for the first Star Wars film pretty much when everyone else did. “Everyone else”, for the record, includes the Hollywood filmmaker types, who forcibly re-learned that American music history is littered with fine pieces of symphonic music created specifically for film. Williams (and his co-conspirators, some otherwise unlikely fellows named Lucas and Spielberg) kicked that door back open, after some years of the movie orchestral music tradition having lain fallow.

And a number of new composers barreled through that door.

 

Sad news yesterday, that began in an odd way. First came reports that a small airplane that was registered to motion picture composer James Horner had crashed. There was a short period of dogged resistance to declare that he had actually been in the thing (somewhere between responsible journalism and not wanting Horner to have been in it, perhaps). Finally, Horner’s publicist confirmed that he had been in the crash.

Since the online world allows for such things, tributes have been popping up madly. I would like to join the rush.

 

Horner Thought #1: with respect to the justly-famous Jerry Goldsmith, I have felt that Horner’s Star Trek theme was the best of the movie-franchise music. If Star Trek was originally thought of as Horatio Hornblower in space, then Horner’s unabashedly naval score launched the USS Enterprise out of drydock in high style in “The Wrath of Khan”, and made some of us forget that we were watching stock footage cannibalized from the first movie.

That’s where I first became aware of James Horner – because it was probably where the very most people became aware of him. It was arguably his first work for a “major” motion picture. He was not quite 30 years old when he wrote the Trek II score.

 

Horner Thought #2: According to sources cited by Horner’s Wikipedia entry, he “has been criticized for writing film scores that incorporate passages from his earlier compositions and that feature brief excerpts or reworked themes from other classical composers, [including Sergei Prokofiev, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner and Carl Orff] [although honestly, what composer in the last two decades hasn’t gone all “Carmina Burana” at least once?]. The movie-soundtrack review website Filmtracks said that Horner was “skilled in the adaptation of existing music into films with just enough variation to avoid legal troubles.” (And yes, the eight-note Trek II title theme is unquestionably hiding somewhere in Mr. Prokofiev’s catalog.)

I’m not here to tell you this is not so. There is a particular passage that I first heard at the end of the Trek II main title, a rhythmically-active sequence of rising harmonies that is very exciting and very effective and very Horner … and very prone to reappearing often in the remainder of Horner’s scores (all the way to his work just a couple of years ago in “The Amazing Spider-Man”) … such that when I hear them, it does take me out of the cinematic moment. But John Williams also has taken flak for sounding a lot like Wagner, Gustav Holst, and Erich Korngold. I’m not advocating for plagiarism; but at what point is it poaching, and at what point is it merely homage or influence?  And at what point does it become in the style of Horner?

 

Horner Thought #3: I would suggest that an undeniable truth about James Horner is that he was successful as a film composer because he knew what to do musically that supported – and sometimes greatly enhanced – films’ visual moments.

From the destruction of a flying American entertainment icon to the creation of a set of spacegoing American heroes to the launch of a flying comic-book jetpack-wearing hero, he was particularly good at getting movie audiences airborne.

Even amidst the bloated budgets and overwhelming visual effects of the two highest-grossing movies ever released, Horner managed to find ways to allow audiences’ imaginations to be carried away … by using musical conventions that those audiences were all too familiar with. And made those conventions work.

He even made grown men weep, contributing to a scene that, minus music, might have been somewhere between cheesey and truly odd.

 

But, although Horner was often tasked with adding musical accompaniment to bombastic, grandiose and fanciful images, he did manage less sweeping but equally memorable movie moments. From a movie that is best remembered for this tear-jerking little number, featuring a six-year-old boy voicing an animated mouse …

this little item might be my favorite of all.

June 23, 2015 Posted by | entertainment, movies, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment