Monday, February 18, 2013

Someone Find the Fountain of Youth -- Quick!

Or, in other words:
Dear John Williams: please don't die. 

It all began with this
One harmless little post on Facebook. 

But, come on.
I think we can all agree that the only way the 'latest and greatest' installation of the Star Wars franchise will be any good is if it is paired with the best music. 
Plenty of pitiful movies have been saved by the soundtrack; it's a guarantee the new SW films won't flop, no matter how terrible they are, but it is also an absolute guarantee that the right composer (or, conversely, the wrong one) could help the franchise sink or swim. 

The discussion of just who sci-fi extraordinaire director J.J Abrams will pick to carry on the Star Wars legacy will probably go on even after the fated composer is chosen. 

(For a fairly good rundown of fairly good potentials, check out this blog here. I just found it and I love it so far. I even agree with most of his/her predictions: Williams should definitely be the man, but if he's not in good health--perish the thought!--or Abrams thinks it's time for a fresh new start--perish the thought even more!--Giacchino would be a likely, and probably appropriate, choice.) 

But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. 
For now, I want to focus on the brilliance that is John Williams. 

I love Spotify. 
(No, no, hang with me, this has a point, I swear)
And, just yesterday, Spotify did me the great service of deciding to play "The Birth of the Twins and Padme's Destiny--Medley" from RotS (yeah, we're using cool abbreviations now, deal widdit) and "The Funeral of Qui-Gon" from TPM back to back. 

And I remembered just how much I ADORE John Williams. 

[Captain Obvious:] IT'S THE SAME IDEA, YOU GUYS!

Anyway, all of this led to listening through the entire "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" album (well, the poorly constructed commercial album, anyway), while following along with this great review.
(I think I've said this before, but just in case, go check out one of my favorite online soundtrack review blogs, "Filmtracks". Seriously. It's my go-to every time a new score is released and contains usually very solid and accurate reviews of today's "latest and greatest.")
Which aforementioned listening really just led to lots of fangirling about John Williams. 
'Cuz, seriously? The man's a freaking legend. 

As a self-diagnosed music nerd, who maybe loved her music history courses in college just a bit too much, I have always, first and foremost, commended Williams for his refreshing use of the leitmotif, bringing this timeless musical concept to a modern audience and shaping the way many film scores are now written. 

When the history of the world is examined at some later date, what will be named the
 "Music of the 21st Century" ? 
Film Score.
Sure, you have a composer who every now and again tries to resurface the glory days of symphonies, or the great American days of Bernstein and Copland, but the majority of the music that is produced---and certainly the majority of the music that is enjoyed by the general public--is music for the movies.

Not that I'm complaining. 
As much as I love me a Shosty Symphony or good ol' "Appalachian Spring," I first fell in love with the world of music through film score. 
And what a rich world it can be. 

The two tracks I posted above both contain the same "funeral" cue, used, potentially purposefully, in the bookends of the prequel series; first, as a lament for the character Qui-Gon; then, in the third movie, as a lament of young Anakin Skywalker's eventual transformation into Darth Vader. 

One thing that never fails to amaze me is Williams' mastery of emotion. In this funeral cue, you feel the full force of a huge chorus in the same way you enjoy a great Requiem of the old. The chorus' weighted dominance of the track--broken only briefly by a short restatement of the "Force Theme" before diving back in--lends itself perfectly to the point that is being driven home: sometimes things happen, and you can't wish it away. The inevitability of this track is marvelous; it sounds so impossibly sad, but in a trudging, laborious manner that reminds us that we knew. We knew from the beginning of "The Phantom Menace" that the sweet, little, blonde boy was going to turn into Luke's evil father.
 We knew there was no other way these prequel trilogies could end. 
And yet, still we hoped. 

Another interesting fact is the actual use of the funeral cue to tie-in the two movies' scenes. 
-Qui-Gon died in the hopes that young Anakin would be trained in the right, brought up to bring balance to the Force. His death was, in a way, a sacrifice to bring about a balanced and just universe. 
-The use of the same funeral lament when it is discovered that sweet little Anakin has turned now completely to the dark side and has become masked and cold Darth Vader is perhaps a clever way of reminding us, again, of the inevitability of it all. 
A bit of brilliance by the composer to recycle a powerful, emotionally charged cue and maybe bring a bit of continuity into the whole situation. 

Another point on which to honor maestro Williams is his brilliant ability to weave his own cues, themes, and ideas together to create something new and relevant. 

While there are many who complain--and perhaps rightly so--of the lack of regurgitated themes during the birth scene in RotS, one thing you cannot fault the seasoned composer for is his use of "Leia's Theme" to introduce the new baby-girl Skywalker--and a softer, muted rendition of the "Main Theme" to introduce our future hero, Luke. 

The statement of "Leia's Theme" is fairly straightforward, an almost "textbook" rendition, which ties neatly to the original trilogy; it is the use of the "Main Theme" to celebrate the new hero which is truly the focus. Giving the theme to the string section, over soft woodwinds and harp, tones down the drama of the bombastic "Main Theme," making it appropriate for baby Luke, but also gives audiences and listeners alike a bit of gentle nostalgia and, for the first time in what seems like a while, a bit of hope

We still know what happens.
But, this time? It's a reminder of the good that is to come. 
The only complaint I have is that this clever little foreshadowing (maybe "past shadowing"?) is too short. 

Other favorite things about this particular album? 
"Anakin's Betrayal"

One of a few tracks that contains worthwhile brand-new music, this theme accompanies Anakin's decision to abandon the way of the Jedi, and join the Emperor and the Sith. 
Opening with a somber idea in the strings, the music builds to include a first-gentle, then overpowering, choral idea, building finally to the brass' inclusion about a minute into the track.
From there, the cue ebbs and flows, painting with several different portrayals of grief; from angry and terrible brass bellows, to bitter and heartbreaking string refrains, to mercurial "gentle-then-weighty" choral entrances. The cue ends quietly, setting the tone, really, for the rest of the movie; there is no going back now. 

Besides being a truly brilliant example of heavy emotion, flow, and composition, "Anakin's Betrayal" is also an interesting study on the use of the "Dies Irae" in modern-day music. 
Found in everything from Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" to Zimmer's "Lion King," the "Day of Wrath" melody is often used, in bits and pieces, in fragments of ideas, to portray sorrow or funeral music. 
And Williams jumped right on that train. 
If you're unfamiliar with it, here is the main idea of the "Dies Irae:" 
(you really only need to listen to the first few seconds; the first four notes are the most commonly recycled)

Now take a second and re-listen to the track, "Anakin's Betrayal."
Probably completely stated only once in its entirety, but towards the middle of this cue, the influence of the ancient Gregorian Chant is obvious--and brilliant. 

Yet another favorite is the other track that contains the most new--and worthwhile--music, 
"Anakin's Dark Deeds."

Beginning with, as dear Filmtracks described it, an almost-ode to Howard Shore's "Lord of the Rings" franchise, the strange, eerie calm is broken suddenly with crashing brass, unsettled back-up strings, and angry chorus. A march-like theme begins in the lower-registers of all string instruments, which gradually builds and leads into a terrifying brass, woodwind, and choral moment--very reminiscent of the "Battle of the Heroes" cue--that crescendoes to its terrible end, before a new (and absolutely beautiful) theme is introduced at about 2:15 into the track.
A descending idea, based over a sort of passacaglia-like bass-line, grows into a powerful brass/string movement, a sneaky "Dies Irae" fragment, and finally, a fanfare-like ending.

Though accompanying one of the most absolutely soul-destroying parts of this "final prequel" (where newly-Dark Anakin sets out to destroy all enemies of the Sith--including tiny Jedi children), it is one of the most glorious and heartrending examples of Williams' best work.

It perfectly walks the line of setting up the horror that is felt when seeing little Anakin go completely crazy, and forget everything he ever cared/fought for (with rushed strings, determined brass, and Wagnerian chorus, it's plain that there is no turning back from the decisions he is making) AND playing to the audience's need for a little moment to grieve; to mourn not only the loss of all those tiny Jedi padawans, but to mourn the loss of Anakin himself, to mourn the little blonde pod-racer that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan found and brought before the Council; the little boy who was supposed to restore balance to the Universe.

There are many who may justly complain that more of this type of music was missed in this particular Star Wars installment, but in any case, this track provides more than enough hefty and emotionally-driven material to satisfy even the snobbiest of listeners.

It's hard to explain just why John Williams is one of the greatest of his kind--though it is definitely easier to explain that he is the last of his kind. The best way, really, to drive the point home is to refer listeners to some of the composer's finer moments.

In an filmscore world that is slowly being dominated by Cage-like "non-music" (see: The Social Network's Oscar win for "Best Soundtrack in a Motion Picture) and pounding bass/synthesizer cues a la Zimmer (Inception, Batman, etc etc etc), it's so refreshing to listen to Williams' more traditional style; to hear flecks of Wagner, Shostakovich, and Holst in "everyday" movie music. There is absolutely room for experimenting and new ideas, but I truly worry that when Williams dies, his art and this more traditional style of composing will die with him, leaving us in a sea of pounding bass rhythms and scouring soundtrack albums for the thirty-second representations of real, weighty, emotional music.

To think more positively, I hope and pray that Williams will remain well enough to take on the responsibility of continuing the Star Wars franchise


And if that's not to be, then I sincerely hope for another composer who can truly leap out of the woodwork and take up Williams' mantle. 

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