Star Wars: The Force Awakens Orchestration Review, Episode V – The Trumpets Strike Back!

There’s no denying that Williams has a settled approach to scoring trumpets, particularly for his Star Wars cues. While it’s been criticised, I feel that some of this is simply because trumpets stand out. It’s impossible not to notice them, so any tried-and-true approach may feel grating at times. The new soundtrack for The Force Awakens has its share of uplifting fanfares, double-tongued and triple-tongued passages, and upsweeps – but fortunately, not mindlessly so. I feel that in this case, Williams doled out these elements sparingly, to prevent them becoming a self-replicating cliché.

It’s very important in analysing elements such as these for study to really listen to the whole approach of a composer to an instrument over the breadth of a cue (if not an entire score) to entirely grasp the scope of what’s going on. Too often I’ve heard or read careless comments that seize on one particular feature of an instrumental section’s contribution and propound that such a feature is all that section does for the whole movie. In the case of Williams, no, it’s not at all.

Let’s return to The Falcon track, which is not only a showcase for the brass section in general, but also a grab-bag of signature approaches to trumpet scoring for the Star Wars saga. I’ll outline this track in detail, pointing out how the trumpets function throughout. As you listen, keep in mind once again that the trumpets are panned in stage layout, to the centre-right of the stereo field.

It’s actually easy to miss the first entrance of the trumpets, because they’re not calling attention to themselves at all. At 0:11 they’re playing along with that 11/8 riff (subdivided 2/2/2/2/3): blending discretely and slightly behind the strings, horns, and percussion; but still giving a touch of crispness to the motive. 0:21 develops their role a bit more, as they sit isolated in a little pocket of the texture, adding energy to the rhythm with occasional triple-tonguing.

The real action starts in the passage from 0:26 to 0:49. Listen to the sound of those rising octaves: two trumpets on each note playing accented tenuto, a full-bodied articulation setting up the excitement of the coming fanfare. Notice how well-written that fanfare is for the trumpets, and the brass in general. Great moments of collusion and antiphony, with plenty of places to breathe and momentarily rest one’s chops. The sweet spot is at 0:37, backed by horns and sweeping harp (another Williams signature texture behind a fanfare): the trumpets double tongue semiquavers on a root A major triad, leaping up to a C major triad. Note a very subtle diminuendo on the last note of each semiquaver group – this is an old trick or habit, helping the player hit following beat with more of a pronounced accent. Though the bustling comes back, I don’t feel the passage really ends until the little F# minor concluding statement at 0:46, where a couple of root triads are repeated twice and then inverted upwards to a high 6/4 chord that descends a full octave chromatically. That’s a nice turnabout to the expectation that cinematic trumpets only flurry in one direction: upwards.

As you listen through the rest of the track, carefully note all the different touches, both obvious and subtle. The recurrence of well-known themes is merely incidental – don’t let these moments distract you. Instead pay attention to ways in which trumpets can support strings by playing an octave below them (as at 0:49). That’s something developing orchestrators so desperately need to learn: how the overtones which give a more piercing character to one particular instrument may fill the fundamental notes of another from below, and how that sound is usually so much nicer than a cruder unison (though crudeness is also necessary). Another cool spot occurs from 1:08, where the trumpets have less than three seconds to apply mutes (though in the studio, this was probably striped) before the sizzling starts at 1:11. I love the carcinogenic quality to the harmony there. And notice that even when trumpets are a part of the foreground, they’re not always the leading voice; such as at 1:30, which is more about the real stars of the film, the horns. (For another great muted trumpet moment, check out The Rathtars! track at 2:19, where they go all the way up to a strangled high C#).

When it comes right down to it, a listener who’s really paying attention will note that the trumpets in a Williams score aren’t just four flying aces – they have to do busywork and support just like any other instrumental group in the orchestra. Listen to The Abduction from 1:30, as a lyrical episode rises to a concluding statement. The trumpet scoring here is perfect. Touches of harmonic colour charge certain bars with emotional meaning (watch the film to see how this heightens the emotions of the characters as well). The trumpets rise up to push behind the string melody, then pull it down to the top line of a final sombre chorale with the brass section, lending weight to the horns rather than dominating them. The result is a glowing tone, as this combination can so easily produce.

The last The Force Awakens orchestration review for 2015, Episode VI – Return of the Jeté, will be released tomorrow exclusively on Patreon. I’ll take an extra-long look at the many techniques, roles, and unique moments Williams so generously doled out to the string section. All reviews will be released for general reading when The Force Awakens is released for home viewing on DVD and Blu-Ray in April of 2016. At that time, I’ll analyse two key cues, “March of the Resistance” and “Scherzo for X-Wings” in the final orchestration review: Episode VII – The Sforz Awakens.

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.

2 thoughts on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens Orchestration Review, Episode V – The Trumpets Strike Back!

  1. Fascinating. It can be a challenge for a new orchestrator like me to figure out what to do with trumpets when they’re not carrying the load. Even if they are in a supportive position, knowing how to voice them – like an octave under the strings, etc. – is crucial. Great post. Thank you.

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