In early 2015, a momentous decision was made that would deeply affect the character of the upcoming blockbuster-to-end-all-blockbusters, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. By mid-March, John Williams went public with an extremely diplomatic announcement: “I’ve had the privilege of working with the very best musicians in both the U.K. and the U.S. The London Symphony Orchestra has consistently performed with great artistry on all six of the prior films in the Star Wars saga, and I will be forever grateful for their commitment and dedication. Equally, it has been my honor to have worked with my brilliant colleagues in Los Angeles, and always appreciate the invaluable contribution they’ve made to my scores and to those of other composers.”

Consider the implications. One of the reasons why the 1977 Star Wars (now called “A New Hope”) release’s soundtrack spoke with such power and confidence was precisely because its musicians were not only old hands at film scoring calls, but also a world-class symphony orchestra. Their members played together every day, all day, and could judge each other’s playing style to match down to the subtlest articulation. That’s a level of synergy that few freelancers can match, as film orchestras are often assembled arbitrarily from a pool of available musicians. Yes, some of these are the top film musicians in the world – but it’s a different kind of energy: rawer, more intense, and usually far less spontaneous or subtle. Of course, that’s where film scoring is going these days.

Another outcome rests so heavily on this decision that it’s as potent as any casting of a major role (especially for a Star Wars film): what are the horns going to sound like? The LSO players have a specific sound: round, warm, and glorious in fanfares, and richly dark in low unisons. Part of this comes from their tradition. Different symphonies have regional flavours, especially from their horn sections, and these styles can reach back for decades as existing players accept only those who fit their sound one after another. Another big factor is choice of instrument. The LSO horn sound owes a lot to the Paxman horn, which has a beautifully centred intonation, a generous midrange, and extremes that speak with focus and colour.

The quintessential L.A. horn sound, a combination of Conn 8D’s and Wagner tubas.

By bringing the scoring over to his own L.A.-based freelance orchestra, John Williams was making a deliberate decision to dispense with this approach. The Paxman sound would be traded for the L.A. Horn sound, which is based largely on the Conn 8D horn, a very different-sounding instrument to be sure. It’s a far darker sound than the Paxman; so dark, in fact, that at times an experienced player can approach the timbre of a trombone or even a Wagner tuba. And yet it’s a fairly easy horn to play for a pro, almost like a toy in a way, with a range of different timbres quite easily available. Its roots as a film scoring staple lie in its first use by session hornist Vince DeRosa, whose approach in the 1950’s was quickly embraced until it became not just the standard but legendary. As Williams himself wrote upon DeRosa’s 2008 retirement, “He represented the pinnacle of instrumental performance and I can honestly say that what I know about writing for the French horn, I learned from him. DeRosa was an inspiration for at least two generations of composers working in Hollywood and beyond.”

If there are differences between the previous soundtracks and that of The Force Awakens, then the horn sound is surely the biggest. In Star Wars films, the horn section is a character as prominent as any on the screen. Set aside the solos for a while and think about all the ways in which the combined horns motivate, comment, interject, subvert, and in many other ways bring meaning to a scene. A prime example is the track “The Falcon.” Listen to it now – the stereo placement of the horns is centre-left, as it would be on stage (in fact, the stereo field mostly maintains a stage layout throughout). The track starts with William’s signature bustling action scoring, with the horns adding a stray long note and punctuating bark here or there, then entering with a hint of classic Star Wars horn chorale at 0:08. After that, the horns lead the 11/8 groove, then drop out as the music swirls and then the trumpets boldly emerge. There’s a bit of background rhythm from horns here, so offhand that it would be easy to miss it. After the big ascent, the horn section comes back with a vengeance at 0:35. It’s typical of John Williams: following such intricate flurrying and scurrying, he gets so much impact out of a simple E-flat minor triad.

From there, listen for how the horns are used in just about every way: patching a timbre, answering a challenge from the heavy brass, pacing a rhythm, and changing the energy. My favourite spot is at 2:14, where a massive unison of all 6 horns blares out a theme over a A sus2 chord/C# – classic Hollywood scoring – then group in chorale, and measure by measure work their way back into the rhythmic texture. There are a few great moments after that, but listen to that final chord in the strings, and how just a touch of horn harmony behind it enriches its resonance until it glows. That really shows that the horn pad isn’t dead yet.

I invite listeners to take it from there, using this introduction to Williams’s characteristic horn approach as a springboard to further observations. I’ll just add a few other observations. In the track “The Ways of the Force” from 0:13, the horns play the Skywalker theme in another blazing unison. To me, this really has the L.A. horn sound written all over it: dark, tough, and edgy, with a fatness that produces an octave overtone so strong that it sounds like oboes are following along above.

Another standout track is “The Abduction,” with great horn scoring throughout, showing how clear and consistent top L.A. hornists are at low-register playing. At their 0:13 entrance, it’s a massive unison, full-bore cuivré with stop-mutes (initially centre-panned, but then moved leftward in the field). As the rest of the muted brass come in, also at fff, listen to how the horns fit into the picture. Also check out the lovely muted solo at 0:45, how it eerily combines with a single trombone into a texture that feels both ancient and electronic.

In tomorrow’s Patreon-only review, I’ll dissect the exquisite orchestration of “Rey’s Theme” in Orchestration Review Episode IV: A New Trope.