Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Exploring the CD Collection, #11

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
original score composed and conducted by John Williams
performed by the London Symphony Orchestra

(This is the first post in what should end up being a series of six posts in a mini-sequence within the ongoing "Exploring the CD Collection" series. If all goes according to plan, there will be six of these when I'm done, culminating sometime in May with my thoughts on the score to Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I will be listening anew to each score in the Star Wars series and posting thoughts on those listenings.)

I can remember a time in my life when the music from Star Wars was not a big part of things, but that time in my life is really brief, being confined to my first six years. John Williams's Star Wars music isn't the first music that I remember, but it's the first orchestral music I distinctly remember. (My pre-SW memories are a mishmash of country and Broadway stuff, a lot of which I have come to love dearly as I explore those areas.)

The film opened when I was five, but since we didn't get to see it until the fall of 1977 (or late summer), I might well have been six by the time we saw it. Or maybe I was still five, since my birthday is in September. Ach well, who knows. Anyway, being a dumb-ass first grader, I didn't like it the first time I saw it - - in fact, I actually fell asleep watching it, and I didn't start to grok Star Wars until my sister basically wore me down with her own enthusiasm for it. I agreed to go see it again with her, and that was that. I've carried the mortal wound ever since.

Shortly thereafter, in a record store in Portland, Oregon (where we lived at the time), my older sister bought the soundtrack album. It was a double-LP release in a gatefold cover in black with a giant Star Wars logo on front and a big picture of Darth Vader on the back, if memory serves. My sister played the hell out of those two records, and a few years later when her own Star Wars fandom subsided, she gave them to me. Strangely, though, she gave them to me after I had bought my first record with my own money, from my own allowance: the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back, so I actually didn't get to know the music from Star Wars really, really well until after I already knew the music from TESB really, really well.

Anyway, I played those records into the ground for a while, and then my musical interests went in other directions, and I didn't return to SW all that often, except as mood-music for when I sat around late at night writing my grand bit of SW fanfic. College came, and I stopped listening to SW entirely, until I bought that OST album on cassette. Truth to tell, I did not own any SW music on CD until late 1993, when a 4-disc boxed set of music from the films was released. I still own that set, and though I rarely play it anymore in favor of the 1997 deluxe CDs released in conjunction with the Special Editions, it occupies a place of honor on my CD shelf and I'll probably insist that it be buried with me when I fall under a Sith lightsaber.

And of course I have ripped the SW scores to my hard drive for easy, point-and-click listening when I want. So I've heard the scores (of the original trilogy, at least) on LP, cassette, one CD release, then another CD release, and as MP3s on my hard drive. That's devotion, folks.

As I've become older and as I've learned more and more about music, I've still returned occasionally to the Star Wars scores, which have become old, reliable friends to me. Playing them every so often gives me a feeling not unlike listening to a Beethoven Symphony after months of, well, other stuff: there's something relieving about coming back to a long-known masterpiece after a long while of playing new music, other music, music that might be as good but not as well known. And the experience almost always finding something new in John Williams's work.

So, what shall I say about this, the first-ever score to a Star Wars movie? Much has been written about Williams's use of the leitmotif method in his music for these films (including this post of mine), so I don't have anything new to add on that front. What struck me on this listen was the way some of Williams's prime compositional influences can be detected, but not in the way that people usually claim.

It seems to me that a lot of the standard clich├ęs about John Williams's work don't really apply. To mention just two: The orchestration in a couple of very brief spots within the score really does sound like Holst's "Mars: The Bringer of War" from The Planets, and a couple of bits of action music - - notably in the Death Star escape sequences - - have a Korngold-esque sound. Williams blatantly blends a Korngold-esque march in the Throne Room scene with an Elgarian one, and there are more modernistic moments during the Tatooine scenes that hark back to Stravinsky. Williams combines a lot of styles in this score, so much so that he's often accused of doing "pastiche" at best or simply ripping off his forebears at worst. I don't think that either claim does justice to his work here.

Williams, it is true, has never been much of an innovator. His is a musical voice that looks backward rather than forward. For some that is a criticism, but it's always been that way: while Wagner was breaking musical boundaries all over the place, his contemporary Brahms was staunchly looking back to classical form. While Stravinsky was causing riots with The Rite of Spring, Rachmaninov was looking back to the height of Russian Romanticism. Many other examples abound. What John Williams has always done is blend disparate elements into a unique musical voice (and it is unique: to the experienced ear with this music, John Williams is as instantly recognizable a composer as you'll find).

As far as I am concerned, two remarkable sequences of music in Star Wars: ANH show where Williams breaks free of simple pastiche into something all his own. The music underscoring the dogfight between the Millennium Falcon and the four TIE fighters takes on a punching sound that stands apart from the rest of the score, nearly perfectly mirroring the rapid-fire editing of the sequence. When Roger Ebert once asked George Lucas to pick a "signature shot" from one of his films to represent what he is as a filmmaker, Lucas picked the entirety of this sequence, since he values editing above all else. There are few action sequences I've seen that more perfectly blend editing with the music.

The other such sequence comes during the Battle of Yavin (the Rebels' attack on the Death Star). The battle as a whole features some very thrilling music, some of it militaristic, some of it not. The score in this sequence does so much to add to the kinetic energy as the fighters first leave the Yavin moon and then pick up speed as they attack the Death Star, but that's not the part that always stands out for me. For a score often derided as being merely derivative, the passage that leads up to Darth Vader's shooting down Biggs stands out, as muted trumpets peal out dissonant chords over screaming strings and woodwinds that provide rhythm. That passage, brief as it is, always makes me shiver, and it's a passage that I've yet to find presaged in Korngold, Herrmann, or anywhere else.

Of course, all of that would be irrelevant if John Williams did not possess an extraordinary gift for melody. In addition to the Star Wars Main Theme, which is probably the most famous single cinematic melody of the last thirty years, the score also boasts Leia's Theme and Ben Kenobi's Theme, both of which are benchmark themes of the overall saga, almost instantly recognizable as Star Wars music - - in fact, what was originally Ben Kenobi's Theme has become more of a "Light Side of the Force" motif as the saga has developed through the years.

Star Wars is one of the warhorses of the film music world, and with good reason.

Next week: The Empire Strikes Back.

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