Friday, 18 December 2015

Journal of Whills: Part 28 - The Music of Star Wars

If there is one score that permeates cinema history unlike any other, it is the soundtrack to ‘Star Wars’. Composed by John Williams, it is a masterful symphony of enduring brilliance and performed on an epic scale. Williams’ score is truly the one of the most widely recognised pieces in modern music.

When George Lucas wanted to introduce an element of grandeur to his project that was even more reminiscent of the science fiction serials of his youth, he sought to replicate a soundtrack of their magnificence. Initially Lucas feared that no composer would understand his requirements for the score and considered simply featuring existing scores of classic Hollywood as the soundtrack. His friend and fellow director Steven Spielberg recommended his composer for ‘Jaws’ (and virtually every subsequent Spielberg movie since) to create the music for ‘Star Wars’ in between writing the score for Spielberg’s next film, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Lucas was surprised to find that Williams shared many of his views on what the soundtrack for ‘Star Wars’ should be, with a push towards a grand orchestral sound.

The choice to use an orchestra was a rarity in cinema by that point, especially for a science fiction film as many relied on electronic sound mixing for their scores as it was considered to match the tonal nature of the film more so than any earth based sound music would. The Silver Age of Music had awarded pop music in film had swayed even the most stoic composers for using it, let alone in a film with as much riding on it as ‘Star Wars’.

But Williams possessed this ability to take one of most notable aspects of ‘Star Wars’, its ability to feel foreign yet strangely familiar, and reflect that in its music. The fact that the soundtrack was orchestral gave it a feeling of acquaintance yet the fact that the particular assembly of notes that the orchestra was playing was so staggering and fantastic meant that the entire symphony had a wonderful and majestic sense to ii, filled with emotion, character and awe.

Another remarkable thing about the soundtrack to ‘Star Wars’ is just how iconic it is. With most films, even the most successful ones, general audiences will recognise their signature theme or their main theme, but little else. How many themes can you remember from Indiana Jones or ‘Back to the Future’ (not to say their scores are mediocre, they are in fact brilliant) but most will remember just the main theme. But the music of ‘Star Wars’ is so universally known and admired that nearly everyone can recognise a part of it, whether it be the opening theme, the Imperial March, the Force Theme or even Han and Leia’s theme. They can all be instantly associated with the film without any hesitation.

The theme also conveys so many key elements of each unique and intricate detail, from the fast paced action of its central theme, the sheer scale of its opening crawl theme as we are introduced to this galaxy far, far away and given a barrage of information to introduce us to this universe. Then there is that domineering and repressive form of the Imperial March theme, without losing any weight to emphasise the power and magnitude of the force in question. It exudes a sense of dread and fear, just listen to that theme, it is evil. If a President or Prime Minister ever chooses that as their inauguration music, the free world should be very worried indeed. But of course it’s not just these sweeping grand themes that inspire brilliance, just look at the more intimate themes in question such as Han and Leia’s theme, highlighting all of the romance and tragedy of their relationship, yet still retaining a sense of hope, which is so suitable as it is used once again right at the end of ‘Empire Strikes Back’, when tragedy and hope are two of the key elements of that ending. But consider also how compliant the theme is to the context of the scene, as by the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’ it is used again as a source of happiness and joy.

When it was announced that so many original cast members would be returning, few seemed as excited that John Williams was returning to compose the theme again. Now at 83, Williams may not be able to continue working much longer (although I dearly hope he will continue forever) but the fact that his music still holds such relevance is remarkable and astonishing.

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