Star Wars Orchestration Review Episode VII: The Sforz Awakens

Reading over the Star Wars: The Force Awakens reviews that I wrote back in December, I’m struck by how much I had to rely on the soundtrack to illustrate my points, and often avoided specific references to the timing of cues in the movie. Part of this was to avoid the horror of revealing spoilers on this film, something that nearly the whole internet went along with back then. But the main reason was practical: I simply didn’t have a copy of the DVD to refer to timings.

But now I do, and that’s particularly useful in writing this last orchestration review. I’ll address two specific tracks from the soundtrack album, “March of the Resistance” and “Scherzo for X-Wings,” going beyond their orchestration to discuss the issues of form and function.

One thing that a developing film composer will notice is that the cuts on a soundtrack album often differ from the film itself. Sometimes this is simply to continue a specific theme for an allotted time, or to create a lasting mood or groove. But in John Williams’ case, especially with regard to his Star Wars scores, the reasons are more complex and emphatic. Firstly, there’s a recognition that this music is essentially symphonic – that is to say, the score allows the sections and soloists within an orchestra to work together to create a conversation in which musical points are discussed and developed for the listener. It’s not merely that the music artificially resembles a symphony because an orchestra is playing it. Secondly, there’s an awareness that the music has a special appeal and relevance for the listener, which may easily translate to serious individual appreciation all the way to attendance at a concert hall. So several cues from each film are usually rewritten as concert pieces in their own right, and bear only a passing resemblance to what’s on screen, at least in form.

So in this review, let’s discuss the form of the two tracks mentioned above, and compare them to the appearances of the same music in the film. I’ll mention the timing of such cues as they appear on the DVD for your reference.

But before we get too tied up in form, let’s talk about the orchestration of the March. For all its brassy bluster, what I’m immediately struck by in this track is the immediate and recurrent prominence of the bassoons. Right after the opening salvo of A’s by heavy brass, the bassoons enter with a hint of the A theme to come, smoothed by what sounds like first desk cellos. This touch of strings serves to consolidate the bassoonists’ intonation, the tiny imperfections of which might otherwise sound too exposed. What follows is one of John Williams’ characteristic windups where he escalates a theme in strings enriched by winds. This dovetails right into the first clear statement of theme A at 0:15, but in G minor.

Notice another Williams trademark: the horns state the first four bars in chorale, and then the next four in a solid unison. The trumpets double the top two pitches of the horns in the former, and play unison doubling on the latter. Developing orchestrators take note: this is what 8 horns and 4 trumpets sound like when played cuivré. Functionally, this is very simple, just double each horn pitch in four-part harmony, with I doubled by V, II by VI, and so on. Trumpets are the same but in miniature and with side-by-side distribution of harmony: I & II on the upper voice of an interval; III & IV on the lower.

One effect of cuivré in the horns is that the upper buzzing of tone almost completely blots out winds and strings, especially when you’ve got 8 of them driving away at one pitch and trumpets to boot. So Williams doesn’t even try. The upward sweep of the upper strings/winds setup before the first statement simply stops and is filled in by the horns’ awesome tone. They don’t return until the second half of A, in which octaves zigzag down over a dominant horn unison. This leads to the B theme at 0:34, with driving low G’s in lower strings and timpani under another horn chorale, of a different character and lower register. Notice the mastery of the orchestration here: touches of strings and winds go from icing into full-blown expansion with the ever-rising horns, alongside subtle reaction from heavy brass. You can hear this easiest with headphones, listening for the horns on the left and the heavy brass on the right.

When A returns at 0:52, the tables are turned somewhat for a different flavour. The first half of A is handled by the heavy brass, with emphatic leading trumpets and punchy trombones. This allows the strings a greater role: violas and cellos doubling the trumpet line at an octave lower, after which the whole section opens up.

I could on like this for pages and pages and I’d only scratch the surface of this great bit of scoring. Every page is worth at least a thousand words. But that would rob from you the motive to take these comments further and make your own observations. So let’s look at the form, and then compare it to the DVD.

The first thing to understand about form in film is that it’s at the mercy of the footage. Williams is one of those who’s learned this lesson to its fullest and thereby abandoned the concept of permanent tonal centres. If a theme needs to build, and then have the rug pulled out from under it with a quick modulation, then that’s where the tonality leads. There’s no need for a master plan with mapped-out key relationships. That’s evident here in a track that starts in A minor, and then modulates to Gm, then Fm, Dm, and finally ending on B-flat minor. So we’ll dispense with key relationships and simply analyse the form, which is very simple and clear:

Intro (A) – A (A1/A2) – B – A – A1 fugato/development – B development – A – Outtro (A)

I love the fugato and development sections in the middle. The fugato is more Beethoven than Bach, with contrapuntal lines quickly relinquishing into standard classical functions rather than maintaining a strict fugue. But this is because the clarity of orchestral colour demands a certain simplicity of treatment here so as not to become an intellectual exercise. Note the difference between the exposition here and the one at the start of the track. Instead of bassoons, we have a more pointed blend of double basses, bass clarinet, and piano (a great use of this orchestral colour).

Now to compare this to the March’s appearances in the film. At 1:12:16 of the DVD, a squadron of x-wings come flying in over a lake pushing a wavefront of spray before them. The intro bears some resemblance to the soundtrack cut, but is more spontaneous and immediate – and in my opinion more artistic and less obvious. Notice the excellence of the timing. The A theme is stated in its entirety right up to the first bit of dialogue, upon which the music riffs on the last two chords, riding the energy of the footage and gaining momentum until the next full statement. It puts an explosion right on the modulation that leads to the outtro in the soundtrack cut, whereupon the rhythm of the final chords follows the action of laser strikes, but not slavishly so. It’s a good compromise between having music with its own integrity on the one hand, and monkeying the hit points on the other.

The next appearance of the March is at 1:36:17. This is the B theme leading back into the A theme, similar to the chart above but with no rising development. The orchestration is also different – more low-key, mindful of the human moment that lies ahead, and toning things down a bit so as not to make the transition clumsy or abrupt.

What’s even more subtle is the final main appearance of the theme from 1:29:22, though I recommend backing up to the start of the scene in question, a tense war-room conversation from 1:28:25. Elements of the March slowly insinuate themselves into the mood as the Resistance slowly hatches a plan to destroy the First Order’s super-weapon. The firmer the plan, the more insistent the music. Finally, when the plan goes into action, so does the March. One note worth pointing out here is that no appearance of the March is necessarily in the exact same key or orchestration as it appears in the official soundtrack (the exception being its appearance in a highly abbreviated form during the credits music). This just brings home the workload involved for a composer that still writes scores by hand – not just to score nearly continuous 2-and-a-half hour films, but then to adapt several themes into separate recordable scores that can stand on their own.

I’m going to end this very-long review with a few words about the even more heavily-rewritten track, the Scherzo for X-Wings. This also stands alone very well after being manufactured from many individual moments in the final sequence of the film. In fact, I recommend that the reader listen for themselves, first to the track linked above and then to the DVD from 1:35:23. You’ll hear that the film is nowhere near as definitive in its use of the material as is the soundtrack cut. In fact, though Williams is a master of the hodgepodge of action scoring, with themes madly chasing the action hither and yon, I sense that tracks like these are essentially a resolution of the frustration of having to score for many minutes without a definitive direction. Perhaps if the essentials can be distilled into one satisfying track, then the composer can put certain creative impulses right within himself – but that’s only a guess by a fellow orchestral composer.

As to this track on its own, its clearly an homage to four decades of scoring Star Wars on the one hand, and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra on the other. In particular, the hint of quartal melody and imitation in isolated, overlapping brass statements is a reflection of Bartok – yet the diving, pulsing action from strings goes further into the realm of action scoring. And the brass statements aren’t transformations of Romanian folk music, but rather playing around with the March Majestic theme of the original 1977 release opening music. I love the tambourine driving the rhythm and tension – it’s a great use of an instrument that orchestral film scoring tends to neglect in this day and age.

My final observation here at the end of seven reviews of the latest Star Wars film score (and several other Oscar-nominated scores as well) is that I didn’t really need to see the pages to understand what was going on. Yes, certain scoring procedures would be a bit clearer to me if I had the score in hand – yet after decades of score-reading (not to mention scoring my own orchestrations), I can hear what’s what in a score. And so can you, if you just train yourself to listen to the details and not get overwhelmed by the assault on your senses.

One of the hardest things for an artist at first is learning to deconstruct a great work – and once that’s learned, it’s even harder to turn off the critical voice and just enjoy something! Yet both skills are necessary: the first, to understand how it’s done; and the second, to remember why something has an effect on someone. Fearlessly be both kinds of listener, and you won’t need to buy every score that you love in order to understand it.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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