Thursday, May 27, 2010

Forgotten Music: May 2010 - The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack

An interesting exercise is to examine your musical tastes and, for every style of music, try to determine the first song/album that started you liking that style. For example, for me, all rock and roll started with KISS. It doesn’t matter that I’ve grown to love many more acts better than KISS, KISS opened the door to rock. Graceland opened the world music door. The Garden State soundtrack opened the indie door. Roger Miller opened the country door. And, for all instrumental music--classical as well as jazz, John Williams’ soundtrack to Star Wars was the key. From 1977 to 1980, I wore out one copy of the album and had to buy another. I had that soundtrack memorized cold. It was part of the stuff I used to recreate my own Star Wars stories as well as “see” the film in my head as I listened to the music.

When The Empire Strikes Back premiered, I was just as jazzed to hear John Williams’ new score. I can’t remember when, in relation to the day I saw the movie, I bought the soundtrack, but I can remember, distinctly, when I bought it. My mom had to run a few errands and the record store was one of them. We got the double album and I convinced my mom to let me stay in the car for all her other errands. I was too engrossed in the cover. The front had the image of Darth Vader peering out from the stars. The back cover had the original, gorgeous movie poster artwork by Roger Kastel (also on the novelization cover). Inside was a little booklet, pasted to the gatefold, with twelve pages of photos. The last two pages had a short interview with Williams, the names of all the members of the London Symphony Orchestra, and liner notes of every track by Alan Arnold*. If push came to shove, I could make a good case that my love and appreciation of album liner notes and “extras” started here. You might be marveling about my excellent memory. Don’t. I still have the gatefold album sleeve, even though the LPs themselves are long gone.

If Empire the Movie was a lesson in storytelling and taking familiar characters and putting them in new settings, Empire the Soundtrack was a master class (at least for a ten-year-old) in how familiar music and themes could be toyed with, manipulated with new pieces, to create something altogether original.

The sequencing was odd and I can remember thinking that back in 1980. Unlike the complete, two-CD set that came out in 1997 that had all the music in chronological order, the original 1980 soundtrack didn’t. It did, however, begin with the fanfare. My first lesson in Star Wars Musicology was how the main theme linked up with the new music (basically after the scroll). This was the score that accompanied the probe droids being launched from the Star Destroyer.

Three major themes debuted on this soundtrack, none more iconic than “The Imperial March.” In the film, it’s first played when the fleet of Star Destroyers, overshadowed by Vader’s Super Star Destroyer, assemble. The theme is as iconic as is Vader. There hasn’t been a year since 1980 in which I haven’t played this track and it never gets old. My favorite part is the last refrain, where the French horns and baritones take the theme up an octave. Even just now, listening to it again for the second time today, it still gets me jazzed.

Less well known (outside Star Wars music geekdom) are Yoda’s theme and the love theme of Han and Leia. As befitting the small yet powerful Jedi Master, Yoda’s theme is string-based, opening with a slow, magisterial cadence that breaks into a playful mini-theme with the flutes. What I find fascinating is a subtle aching quality to the piece. It’s almost as if Williams was channeling the true history of Yoda that we learned with the three prequels. The love theme opens with Leia’s theme from the first soundtrack, again with flute. Soon, however, the oboes take over. The cue is for Han and Leia’s first kiss on the Falcon when they’re making repairs in the slug so the actual theme is quite short but memorable. The theme repeats throughout the entire soundtrack, in little bits and pieces, most notably during the scene where Han is frozen in carbonite, although the music isn’t as happy in that instance.

There are, of course, tracks that allow you to see the movie in your head while you’re listening to them. Two of these tracks stand head and shoulders with The Imperial March as favorites from the soundtrack. “The Battle in the Snow” accompanies the Imperial invasion of the Rebel base on Hoth. Using a piano in the low register, Williams musically symbolized the Imperial AT-ATs as the lumber toward the entrenched Rebels. Xylophones punctuate the entire piece, almost as if standing in for all the bone-crushing power of the Empire. Many of the individual sections have dissonant chords, adding a sense of dread to the piece. Incredible piece of music. “The Duel” corresponds to the middle section of the lightsaber battle on Cloud City. This would be the part where Vader starts throwing all the hunks of metal at Luke. That isn’t the best part. The music cuts to the escape of Luke’s friends through Cloud City. It’s a typical action piece of music, with lots of fast strings. What makes this particular piece special is the simple part, complete with cymbals, where Artoo Detoo finally manages to open the blast door so that everyone can flee to the Millennium Falcon. It’s a direct sibling to the piece from the first film where Luke and Leia swing across the chasm.

I could go on and on describing this soundtrack, I love it that much. It’s my favorite Star Wars soundtrack and pretty much always has been. Of all of the movie soundtracks I have, mostly by Williams, Empire pretty much beats all comers, with Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade coming close. As I mentioned earlier, the two-disc soundtrack from 1997 has all the music. It’s the version to get.

*The opening quote of the liner notes. For those who know, you’ll see why I’m quoting it. “In the wake of the success of Star Wars, George Lucas’ desire to create a nine-part saga set in that distant galaxy far, far away became viable and The Empire Strikes Back is a manifestation of that dream.”


George said...

Loved the films, and loved the music in them, Scott. I own all the STAR WARS soundtracks and this may be the best of them all.

Charles Gramlich said...

Rock and Roll started with Z. Z. Top for me. The first soundtrack I remember finding myself intersted in was "Once Upon a time in the WEst."

David Cranmer said...

I had this and all three early Star Wars film soundtracks on audio cassette and at the time listened to them quite often.

Richard R. said...

Yep, still waiting for Episode VII...VIII....IX.

So rock started with Kiss, eh? You young pup. You have no idea what it was like to grow up with it, from "Rock Around the Clock", "At the Hop", "Blue Suede Shoes" and just about everything by Chuck Berry, it was quite a time. Then the Beach Boys, and as rock stretched it's legs the British Invasion came along. KIss? You young pup, you.

I have this one, of course, I have them all (all six that is) and I would say this and SW are the best, but listened to as a set (in order 4,5,6,1,2,3) they mostly work though Williams got tired, I think, and rehashed instead of cleverly reworked, many of the themes.

Very nice review of this one, tied in with the personal account.

Martin Edwards said...

Good stuff. I've just added my own entry to your series, 'Waiting for Charlie to Come Home'.

Evan Lewis said...

This sounds great, Scott. Interesting how a film becomes a whole different experience once you're familiar with the soundtrack album.

Paul D. Brazill said...

It's nice stuff, for sure, and part of our cultural landscape. Good film,too.

Perplexio said...

Williams was/is a brilliant film score composer. Not my favorite overall, but certainly in my top 3 or 4 (after Ennio Morricone and John Barry).