John Williams: Star Wars

So as I'm going through this whole round-up of post modern music that doesn't sound like giraffes stampeding through a Guitar Center, I find myself thinking, "Ed, you're sure picking a lot of instrumental works."

I get sort of indignant with this accusation and retort, "Yeah?!  So what's 'Hey Jude' then?  I even had two versions of it!"

I calmly counter, "And both were jazz bands."


"Maynard Ferguson didn't sing."

So, despite whatever your preconceived notions may be, I did actually consider shooting for something with some vocals in it.  That's about as far as I got.  Not that I have any sort of apprehension towards vocal music.  If you comb through previous entries, you will in fact find a good handful of such works.  So choral people can go whine about having to actually read music or some other such nonsense.

Today we're going to look at an artform that has been married to music since essentially the beginning of mankind's attempts to create aural art in any form.  Today we're looking at movie music!

Now, you may be wondering, "Ed.  Movies are only like 130 years old."  Yes they are, however before movies if we wanted to see celebrities acting we actually had to get our duffs off the couch and go find a theatre.  And almost since the beginning, there has been some kind of underscore to the action via live or recorded performance.  Going back to silent movies you'd have someone pounding away on an upright piano at the corner of the screen as Charlie Chaplin bounced around in black and white flickering light.  Predating that, you had live opera all the way back to the 1500's.  Before that you can find examples like our own Hildegard von Bingen and her Ordo Virtutum.  Prior to that you had the ancient Greeks who often employed music in ceremonies and in their theatre.  So, going the majority of the span of human history we've got a mix of acting and music.

The logical progression of this is to the screen as our technology has made it feasible to share information and data with a large percentage of the population in an insanely short amount of time.  Opera tended to be for the well-to-do, upper crusters of society.  It was (and continues to be) a cost-prohibitive endeavor as the capacity for observers of the artform is limited to the size of the venue in which it is performed.  It's also limited by its own ability to draw a respectably sized crowd and therefore there has always been a fine line to walk in the financing of such performances.

Movies on the other hand, while comparatively expensive, have the ability to be disseminated and reproduced without the requirement that the original cast, musicians, technical and administrative staffs be present at every screening.  It has a much broader reach.  Due to the greater number of people bearing the expense of production, the costs of tickets in comparison are relatively low, unless of course you want to see Jar Jar in 3D.

"Meesa gonna kill the franchise!"

So here's the point: Movies are a logical extension of that most sacred activity of dramatic theatre.  There are similar requirements within both.  Plot, characters, set, music.  For some time music remained unchanged from the stages of the Palais Garnier and Broadway.  Scores written for movies could easily be used in the same fashion on the stage.  One of the ideas that was a stay-over from the stage was the concept of the leitmotif which is essentially a musical phrase written for a specific aspect of the work (e.g., character, location, etc.).

This concept of "theme music" began in the end of the Classical era in French opera where we might hear a familiar passage as a character appears or does something integral to the plot.  However, the leitmotif blossomed in the Romantic era, where composers became enamored with the concept of melody.  Composers like Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner both employed heavy use of the melodic character in their operas.  It provided a link for the audience member between past and present events.  The leitmotif could be played in different textures or styles to magnify emotions felt on stage.  For the first time in history, music became as much a character of the performance as the actors themselves on stage. We as audience members can "feel" a scene by how it sounds as well as by how it looked.

So, naturally we see this style of composition grow and mature and as theatre gives way to moving pictures it gets swept up into the mix.  You'd get pictures with a good guy and a bad guy and a girl in the middle and each of them would have a theme.  Sometimes it wasn't so much about the character themselves, but perhaps their relationship.  Between the good and bad guy you might have tension, fast-paced exciting music. Between the good guy and the girl is your love theme, between the bad guy in the girl maybe a dash of forbidden love.  Or if it's an adventure theme maybe a dramatic rescue theme as Mario rescues Peach from the clutches of the evil Bowser.

So, this is all fine and good, but somewhere in the past few decades we've seen a change. Somewhere noise was introduced into the music.  It's as though the sound effects guy and the composer had a few too many brews while doing post-production and everything became blurred.  

Foley artists and cellists living together, mass hysteria!  

The score became the soundtrack and the theme got lost in the mix.  A soundtrack that comes to mind immediately is "The Dark Knight".  Now, before I begin I do have to point out that the score to this movie does in fact use some thematic material.  However, I challenge you to find a tune you can hum on your way to get another popcorn.  Even Hans Zimmer himself said the theme was comprised from all of two notes.  Listen to this excerpt from the beginning of the film.

Silence plays a big role in the beginning and as the scene progresses percussive and subharmonic notes also add to the building tension, like subatomic gunfire. There's no discernible melody, but lots of unison percussion/orchestral attacks and a constant pulse under the current of the action.

It's like Adam West writing the soundtrack with his fists.

So, let's examine then a post-modern composer who still clings to the idea that too much melody is not necessarily a bad thing.  I speak of none other than John Williams (b. 1932). Now, much like Saturday Night Live, at some points in history it is a popular idea to hate the music of John Williams.  There are those among us who claim that his scores all sound alike and that there is a certain similarity between each of the blockbuster films he's associated with.  Well, OK. That argument is akin to saying you don't like Van Gogh because all his sunflowers look alike.  An artist will develop and demonstrate a similar style throughout their career.  You do get those like the Salvador Dali's of the world who are seemingly good at everything and can encompass multiple influences successfully within their work.  But even Dali could be taken apart by saying the dude just really liked melting clocks.

An artist's style is their signature much in the same way a composer's "sound" is their's. John Williams is good (if at nothing else) at writing melodies.  I have never heard a bad melody written by that man.  He is adept at capturing the spirit of a character and embodying all the flaws and defects as well as the latent altruism in those "heroes of convenient timing" that he and Spielberg and Lucas seemed to like to develop. He is one of the few film composers alive today that still believes whole-heartedly in the idea that the score is a character all its own. That it shouldn't merely be relegated to the confines of the soundtrack.  That it should be nurtured and allowed to grow.

One of the best examples of this (at least for me) is Star Wars.  Now here's a movie that was unlike anything we had really seen in the mainstream before.  Aliens and lasers and spaceships and Darth Vader.  And the London Symphony Orchestra.  So George Lucas and John Williams pile all these musicians into the studio, put on what essentially appeared to be 'Cowboys in Space' and recorded a masterpiece.  Many of the musicians weren't interested in the movie itself.  I know for a fact that the principal horn player, David Cripps, at the time has never seen the movie.  This is the man who played the famous horn solo as Luke looks out over the sandy hills of Tatooine and watches the binary sunset.  Professor Cripps was for a time a horn professor at Florida State.  Incidentally, I even had the privilege of being in the same restroom as him for a brief time.

The movie was far off-base so the producers knew they needed something solid to ground the audience, to relate the off-world antics on screen to their own personal experience.

John Williams was the tether.

He wrote the score in such a way as to be reminiscent of many popular classical works of the time.  Mars from Holst's "The Planets" is echoed frequently as is pieces of William Walton's "Crown Imperial".  Heck, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was actually used as a literal placeholder in some of the desert scenes as Williams finished the score.  The music is rooted in some of the greatest Romantic and Modern classical music we know.

Unfortunately, John Williams is also highly protective and litigious when it comes to his music, so once again we'll have to play second fiddle when it comes to an example.  Back in 2009 when I got married, I did the whole proper groom thing and basically let my lovely bride make every single decision possible about the wedding.

Most of this was in fact not only a good idea, it actually saved our marriage before it began.

However, I did have one trick up my sleeve.  I was arranging all of the music for the ceremony and as I am a trombonist at heart I felt it appropriate to arrange for a trombone quartet selections of music from important aspects of my bride's and my lives.  I pulled from Brahms, Grainger, even Rodgers and Hammerstein!  It was cool.  So it came down to the recessional and I needed to pull out one for the win.  Now, flashback about 2 years before when we're sitting down and watching a New Hope on television.  UNSOLICITED, my blushing then-bride-to-be comments how cool a wedding based on the Throne Room scene would be.

I took that gem and saved it for a rainy day.

My one sole contribution to the wedding ceremony (outside of simply attending) was this piece.  It is recorded poorly and in a ridiculously short amount of time by your's truly, so I do apologize for the hackingly bad quality.


Homework: Go to the movies.  Listen to the soundtrack.  Determine if what you're hearing is actually more musical or physical.  

See you next Friday.


All Star Wars stuff belongs to John Williams or Lucasfilms, LTD.
The Far Side comic is exclusive property of Gary Larson
Adam West and Batman belong to Warner Brothers