Sunday, May 01, 2005

Exploring the CD Collection, #12

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Original score by John Williams
London Symphony Orchestra

This score holds a very special place in my heart, and not just because it's the score to a Star Wars film, although that's right up there. It's also the first recording I ever bought, with my own money from my own allowance. I was eight at the time, and I remember the day I got it quite clearly. My father, sister and I went to a mall somewhere outside Portland, OR (where we lived at the time), and I specifically wanted to get the TESB record. If I recall correctly, the mall's record store was sold out, but for some unknown reason we found the thing on sale at Sears. I honestly remember that it was at Sears. (No, I don't remember which Portland mall it was, although I'm dead certain it was neither the Beaverton Mall, Washington Square, or Jantzen Beach.)

Anyway, I bought the album and happily read the liner notes and looked at the pictures on the way home. That release, on RSO Records, was a double-LP with a gatefold jacket and a booklet inside with nice, big photos from the movie. (As much as I adore CDs, I still miss big albums and their artwork.) And of course I played the thing when I got home - - although I had to sit in my parents' bedroom to do so, because that's where the record player was. (My sister owned her own record player, but as is the case with all little brothers, I was staunchly forbidden entrance into her room. I was to finally get my own record player -- complete with 8-track tape deck! -- the following Christmas.)

I played the living crap out of that poor record. I mean, that record never had a chance. By the time I played it for the last time - - the summer before I went to college, nine years after the initial purchase - - the thing was so scratched and pitted that the recording just sounded, well, sad. But here's the thing: when I listen to the 1997 RCA release of the TESB score (released in conjunction with the Special Edition of the original trilogy), I sometimes hear those "pops" in my mind in the places where the record needle slipped particularly badly, and over sixteen years since the last time I heard the score as John Williams sequenced it for that original album (with the cues well out of film order), my ear still occasionally strains against the "correct" sequencing.

So it's safe to say that I know The Empire Strikes Back better than probably any other film score. Probably better than any other musical work as well, I'd guess.

I'm not really sure what new I can say about the score itself. As far as I am concerned, it belongs on the shortlist of the finest scores ever composed for a film -- I'd put it right up with the great masterworks of Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rosza, personally. It's just that good. Williams goes beyond the pure pastiche of A New Hope here, looking less to ape a pre-existing conceptual sound world and establishes a sound world of his own, a Star Wars sound world. You can hear this as soon as the familiar strains of the Main Theme fade away after the opening crawl, and we hear darker, more mysterious music for the Imperial Star Destroyer dispatching the probe droids. Gone are the allusions to Holst and Elgar; gone too are the Korngold-esque action riffs (except for one notable fanfarish passage during the Battle of Hoth, accompanying Luke's single-handed defeat of an AT-AT).

Of course, the TESB score yields new themes, one of which has become one of the iconic themes of all film music. I'm referring, of course, to the Imperial March, or Darth Vader's Theme. This theme pretty much dominates the score (almost to the point of being heard too often), but there are other new themes here: Yoda's Theme (which opens with a phrase that follows almost the same contour as the first phrase in Vader's Theme) and the Love Theme (for Han and Leia) are the main ones, as well as a stately theme for Cloud City and a brooding motif for Boba Fett and the bounty hunters.

Where this score really shines, though, is in the emotional architecture that Williams is able to create. TESB is the emotional center of the Star Wars saga, when relationships are either exposed or deepened and the conflicts become internal as well as external. The most emotional cue in the entire saga, as far as I am concerned, comes in the cue "Yoda and the Force", when Yoda gives his most notable lesson to Luke Skywalker (levitating the X-Wing from the swamp after Luke fails because it's "too big"), and the entire series's finest action cue ("The Duel" or "The Clash of Lightsabers", depending on the release) underscores the flight of Leia and company from Cloud City just after the segment of the Luke-Vader fight in which Vader uses the force to hurl large pieces of machinery at his son. Much of this track, unfortunately, is lost in the mix of explosions, blasterfire, and shouted-out dialogue during the sequence, but it's masterful anyway -- listening to the track always makes me shiver, especially during the last section where a bouncing passage for brass gives way to the score's most desperate rendition of the Love Theme.

And then there's the spectacular ebb-and-flow of the Battle of Hoth music, which is finally collected in one long suite on the Special Edition issue of the score. Williams is able to keep ratcheting up the tension throughout, and I love the way he shifts from the heavily percussive music of the battle's opening sequence (when the walkers are first sighted) to the more desperate battle music, featuring a searing statement of the Ben Kenobi/the Force theme, as it becomes clear that the Rebels are going to lose this fight, followed yet again by the intensely suspenseful music accompanying Han Solo's attempt to get Princess Leia off the planet.

This score is dark, moving, exciting, and involving. It's everything I think a film score should be - - wrapped around strong melodies, forceful in its action music and haunting in its quieter moments. In truth, no film score written since has come close to it, until Howard Shore's monumental Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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