We orchestrators and composers are a specialised lot, as far a movie fandom is concerned. We love certain films with a passion, for their composers as much as (or more than) how well they’re scripted, directed, and acted. We can get passionately twisted over such issues as who orchestrated what, or whether a great film composer created his own preview music. When it comes to John Williams, this circle of geek frenzy widens to include a large contingent of non-musicians.
Case in point: the Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens previews. John Williams and Lucasfilm undoubtedly knew that the level of anticipation would be enormous for the first taste of footage – and of music. Therefore the first preview’s release in late 2014 was carefully stage-managed to coincide with the beginnings of work by Williams, who in a very rare and sincere gesture composed the teaser trailer cue himself. It starts with with a simple organ tritone, with just a hint of strings. Then, as the action picks up, Williams exercises that bantering energy he’s so good at: horns and strings in frenzied semiquavers, punctuated on off-beats by trombone/percussion hits. Then the ‘bones take over the bantering, stop, and a fp low octave hits and then resurges accompanied by a signature upward flurry in high winds (with support from other sections). Then finally, a glorious blast of light and colour as the series theme returns with the appearance of the Millenium Falcon.
Williams knew well the job he had to do. As much as the Millenium Falcon’s return would stir the hearts of middle-aged fanboys everywhere (including mine), his contribution would as well. By composing those stray bits of setup, he was signalling that the upcoming film would be authentic to the spirit of the first three films (episodes IV-VI). The loyalty of fans disheartened by the prequels needed winning back, and this was a key offering, as brief as it was.
I’ll stray from the topic of music briefly to mention why the first films were so strong, and the prequels so wanting. The first trilogy already had a back story of an existing set of circumstances that drove the plot (similar to LOTR’s Silmarillion). What’s more, its epic storytelling allowed many viewers to turn off their critical analyses and just experience the flow of the film with a sense of wonder. That hit many adolescents at exactly the right time, who would become the first generation of techie consumers and producers (and film composers!). The prequels lacked this, because they mucked through the worst side of that back story: politics, bad decisions, and blundering by the mythic heroes whom the first films had held in reverence. And this disillusionment became symbolically associated with Lucas’s own lack of judgment and bad timing. It’s a credit to the power of the original trilogy that the prequels spawned hundreds (if not thousands) of YouTube video critiques of the prequels with millions of views.
This is what Williams had to push against in order to restore trust in the brand. It was incredibly canny of Lucasfilm to hire a director whose tastes and insights were forged along with those of the first Star Wars fan generation. In turn, director J.J. Abrams acted wisely in elevating the role of composer to being an equal voice with that of his own, as Lucas had in the original trilogy. We can see what the consequences would have been had he not, illustrated most tellingly in the reactions of the fan community to subsequent teaser trailers scored by other composers, including Felix Erskine. Every step away from the established language was met with resistance, from heartfelt disappointment to loud derision. Mild observations that Williams was far too busy to compose every teaser trailer cue were met with a grudging acceptance at best. But underlying all was the anxiety that the Zimmeresque touches were merely a prelude to an oncoming musical catastrophe.
I understand that anxiety, and felt it myself a little bit as well, despite my role as the occasional voice of reason at Orchestration Online. If you haven’t seen the film or listened to the soundtrack yet, then rest assured. The stylistic integrity of the original trilogy has been maintained, both cinematically and musically. I think we have to give the creators more credit as fellow fans. Possibly the biggest Star Wars composer fanboy of all is Williams himself. There are certain aspects to the production that show he went above and beyond his defined role as a film composer and became more of an auteur in the classic style of Bernard Hermann. The higher the stakes, the more likely Williams is to do this, as such films as Schindler’s List prove most eloquently.
When it was announced that Williams would be joining The Force Awakens production, part of the internet buzz included speculation (and even knowing announcements) about which orchestrator he’d work with. Claims that Conrad Pope would orchestrate popped up here and there along with other touted names. But as Pope himself has attested, Williams’s short scores are so detailed that they’re essentially complete orchestrations. The “orchestrator” on a Williams project essentially realises the very complete vision of the composer onto a page of score. The proof of this is that when Williams conducted portions of the soundtrack, his short score was on the stand, containing all the information he needed to lead the session. A master score was created mainly so that parts could be extracted, and perhaps for his other conductors Gustavo Dudamel and Bob Welch to work from (and to have a reference in the control room no doubt).
And what was the overall character of that score? A predominance of strings, horns, and trombones – lots and lots of trombones. Williams is a master of trombone scoring, using them in a variety of ways. I’ll cover some of those features of the score in the rest of this review, and others in subsequent reviews over the next few days, but keep in mind that I don’t have the score in front of me (nor permission to screen-cap it even if I did). All I can do here is to talk about certain passages in the official soundtrack, which you can hear on Spotify or download from iTunes. But that audio is instructive enough for any film composer, aspiring or established.
One standout appearance of the trombone corps starts at 1:06 of the track titled “That Girl With The Staff.” It’s an example of how trombones can be used in the sparsest way to underline the element of menace. The background itself here is worth discussing: softly murmuring double basses and contrabassoon around low E-flat and D-flat, with stray harp notes from the bottom octave. Into this Williams insinuates trombones playing a low E octave. The background continues as the trombones return on the same note, but this time with a mediant minor of G, which turns into a simple snatch of motive ending on a diminished 5th. Notice how this unsettled calm ends with a bark from those same trombones, followed by cuivré surges. It’s a simple illustration of how differently brass can sound, and what cuivré really sounds like (all apologies to the Sibelius 7 sound set). Then the track ends with a touch of Brahms. Not, not Johannes – sorry, I left out an a or two – that should read Braaahms!!! Note how this is yet another timbre from low brass. Instead of sizzling a la cuivré, or playing it straight, the low brass bellows like a foghorn. I see this actually as a comedic touch, a tip of the hat by the master to the current generation of film composers. Of course with Williams, it feels authentic and not trendy.
Great touches abound in other passages. Williams likes to use trombones to set the pace, pushing at the tempo in rhythmic patterns that don’t just sit in the pocket, but arch up into action to ignite reactions in horns and trumpets, or set off chain reactions in winds, strings, and percussion. But when he gives them the melody, it’s unforgettably exhibitionist. Listen to 0:45 of the track “On the Inside,” in which muted trombones and tuba are given an octave statement of the Kylo Ren Theme, and then bite at the trumpet and horn sextuplets. For the complete opposite effect, check out the subtle touches of pp trombone in the previous track “Snoke.” The cue is mostly a single line of larghissimo basso throat-singing chant unison with double bass. But then from 1:01, bass trombones enter, playing a very slow contrapuntal passage doubled by basses. This is a very cool, ominous texture – one that should be saved up for the right moments and not squandered. Here, it’s exactly right. The energy of the film is at a lull, but the tension is high as we see the source of conflict personified by the leader of the baddies. The music has to be as dark as the dark side. I’d argue that it accomplishes this task better than the dialogue or even the characters themselves. The camera could simply show an empty throne along to this music and the audience would be just as affected. However, it’s a credit to Williams (and one of his major strengths as appreciated by film school teachers everywhere) that he can make a simple accompaniment sound so compelling, and yet completely stay out of the way of the dialogue.
I’ll talk more about those partners of the trombones, the true stars of this film: the horns. That’s coming up in tomorrow’s continuation of this review series: Episode III – The Revenge of the Stop-mutes.