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(Quite a) few thoughts on SW Prequel scores


Incanus
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I have been listening intensively to the Star Wars prequel scores for a quite a while and comparing them to the scores of the old trilogy. It is interesting to hear just how different the prequels are from the old sound of SW. I am here trying to clarify to myself (and perhaps to others as well) the differences and unifying characteristics of the old and new SW scores. I am just voicing my opinions so these are solely my views on the music of SW (in case you want to argue about the points I'm making) .

In my mind John Williams' musical voice has changed. He is not the same composer as he was 20 years ago. Williams has grown and matured as a composer and perhaps grown more experimentalist than before. Someone pointed out that when comparing Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams their careers are complete opposites when we view the experimentalism in their music. Goldsmith was known for most of his career (especially in the beginning) as an experimentalist of electronics and strange soundscapes whereas Williams a composer whose music had its roots deep in the symphonic and classical tradition. As Goldsmith matured his experimentalism lessened to a degree whereas Williams has only lately begun to use vastly different musical devices alongside his traditional palette. This new style is mirrored in his new SW scores. The basic sound of the scores is symphonic but there is an addition of very different musical choices compared to the old SW. I am a avid fan of the Maestro and have learned to love all of his styles and I accept the fact that the prequels do not sound the same as the old SW scores.

One of the most notable differences to the old scores is the increased use of choir whose part in the music has grown very prominent. From the Duel of the Fates to Anakin's Dark Deeds the choir adds an element of raw emotional power that only human voice can give and adds a completely new level to the music. This is not to say that the older trilogy did not have its share of powerful choral moments (especially ROTJ with Emperor's Theme featuring prominent choir) but that the choir is used in a more diverse and inventive ways. Williams has the choir singing wordless lamentations, furious stanzas of lyrics in harsh tones in Sanskrit, wordless treble female choir evoking the wonder of the underwater world, female soloist singing a chilling melodic line evoking foreboding and whispering choir chanting as Darth Maul appears to name few examples of the variety of the choir work in the scores. It is an intertesting point that Episode II has the least amount of choir pieces of the three scores as the focus of the score is different from the other two and it features choir only on key moments. Choir also adds some degree of spiritual sound to the scores (for good or for evil) which I think is very appropriate as the prequels deal with spiritual matters (for good or for evil) and as the movies are set in the times when Jedi order existed and practiced its religion. As their counterpart the Sith are also presented by the choir music. Emperor's theme has become synonymous with the Dark side of the Force and his theme is used prominently in the prequels and Darth Maul is heralded by Sith chant which is a derivation from DotF (that is actually his theme). The duel in the first movie seemed to Williams like some pagan ritual and he thought the setting ( vast cathedral like reactor room) only enhanced the feeling of the spirituality and ritualistic performance of the physical combat onscreen. And thus he thought that a choir singing (in this case in Sanskrit which sounded best to Williams' ear) during the confrontation would be appropriate and would bring a deeper level to the battle. Williams does not use lyrics in the choir pieces but in a few specific points in the movies where they give momentum to the picture or are dramatically correct. He knows the great dramatic effect of human voices. Otherwise choir is there to enhance the sound of the orchestra.

On the nature of the three prequels scores:

I think the Episode I is the most youthful, energetic and closest to the spirit of the original SW scores. It has a boundless feeling of invention, fresh sound that still reminds you of the old scores. It shows Williams' inspiration and dedication to the SW music in its themes, structure and orchestration which is superb and complex. This was of course the intention of Lucas and Williams as the score reflects the rather innocent first chapter of Anakin's life. In Episode I Williams adds to his instrumentation synthezisers to add depth and enchance certain instrument groups but otherwise refrains from using them heavy handed way. Thematically the new score is complex with many musical ideas that are developed in a satisfying ways. Themes from the old trilogy are quoted sparingly as Williams obviously wanted to create new material not to seem treading the same old tracks as in previous scores (Which seems strange when this is a musical structure of Wagnerian variety). The music seems really like a natural extension of the SW musical lexicon. My favourite prequel score. But then again the other two have their moments.

Episode II took the SW music into a new territory. The subject matters were never tackled in the SW movies or music before apart from a love music which Williams had handled with class in the old trilogy. The score takes a more darker tone right from the start with only little traces of the innocent musical style in it. Apart from few light hearted moments in the beginning half of the movie the tone of the score is mysterious and foreboding with a sense of doom and tragedy. As the movie details Anakin's initial fall from grace the music becomes more psychologically charged than in the first movie and Williams is scoring as much the inner turmoil and feelings of the characters as he is scoring an adventure movie. There are three bigger separate story lines in the movie with Anakin and Padme relationship, Obi Wan's hunt for the Assassin and Palpatines rise to a dictatorship through careful machinations behind the scenes. These stories offer a wide variety of musical challenges for a composer. How to write interesting underscore for a SW movie that contains quite many dialogue scenes and how to express all the mystery behind the happenings? The love of Anakin and Padme is on center stage in the score and all thing wound around the passionate love theme but aside from the theme Williams takes his cue from Bernard Hermann here and writes many smaller motif instead of themes to accompany the story. This could have been Williams' conscious decision not to add too much new material to an already large library of themes since the musical continuity of the prequels would propably suffer from it. He has to think for the larger whole and as we know that many characters, places and ideas do not make a transition from one movie to the next or to the older trilogy they should not have musical identification outside one movie.As we can hear that nearly all motifs from Ep II are left unused in the Ep III as to tie loose ends musically. In many cases the people or things are destroyed in the movies as well so the disappearance of the musical identification is not a problem but there are some missed musical opportunities such as the development of Anakin's theme which is absent untill the ends of the End Credits in Ep II.

Music of the Episode II is much more subtle than of its predecessor's.This comes as a stark contrast. The dark love affair, the conspiracy and mystery require new musical sound and Williams provides yet again refreshing take on the SW sound. Orhestrations are complex and sound sometimes very un-Star wars and modern. Lucas pushed for a new sound for the score and got one. For Coruscant Williams delivered percussion driven chase music unlike anything heard in SW score before. Williams' music moves the mystery of plot along and delves into the psyche of Anakin as he begins his descent to the Dark side. The action music also takes a turn into a more abstract momentum carrying and seemingly unthematic direction but the complexity of Williams' writing hides the smaller motifs into the frenzied action set pieces. All in all Episode II is a strong if very different SW score than its predecessors. To some it is a weak score but I like it's dark atmosphere.

I was anticipating Episode III to deliver a glorious finale for a great musical saga (my faith in the directorial skills of Lucas were dashed along with Episode I so the movies had very little interest to me). The score fulfilled these hopes for the most part but one of the most dissappointing things (atleast initially) was the discarding of DotF from the final duel between Ankin and Obi wan. Duel of the Fates is something of a problem since Lucas took liking for it and it became a theme for Anakin's fate even if it was not Williams' first intention.The theme was composed for Darth Maul. But these changes tend to happen in movie collaborations and they some times produce great results. I had waited and hoped for two years that Williams would unleash something wonderful and inventive in the duel scene and would deliver a musical pay off that would include DotF. But there was no DotF atleast in a way I would have wanted. Battle of the Heroes is a great theme but I was expecting a new powerful and final version of DotF to finish things off. Well you can’t have it all your way can you.

Williams wrote many new themes for the movie though they were once again doomed to have life in this movie only. I think the Battle of the Heroes could have benefitted from a set of lyrics. In the present form it is very traditional choir piece which have been coming very ordinary in film music these days. Not all too dissappointing but little too ordinary.

The Lament is for me the most heartfelt and emotional of all the themes for the new trilogy. Of course there are other themes (which I do not have time or energy to mention) but the main point is that Williams scores a finale and he obviously was moved by the movie (to an exstent) and responded with beautiful music and varied themes. Once again the absence of the pre-established themes outside Emperor’s theme and Force theme is a major gripe for me. Anakin’s theme pops up for a meager 10 or less seconds in one scene so that doesn’t really make a gradual trabsition from Anakin’s theme to Darth Vader’s theme that Williams was trying to achieve. Yoda's theme receives 2 little short iterations. The themes are used in a very economic way which I think is odd. When you have a library of so many great themes why not use them? Is it because Lucas dictates not to or is Williams shy of using old material if fear of being branded unoriginal when there is no fear of it? Who knows but the fact is the themes are subtly used. Underscore does not use themes so often as one would like and much of the conversation scenes underscore just meanders with no themes to hint to things on screen which quite frankly is boring.

And after all the whining I still must say that Episode III ends the trilogy in a grand fashion and Williams pulls all the stops to bring us a emotional ending for the saga.

Whew! There were some of my ramblings for all to enjoy and suffer.Ta ta!

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Ordinary means that it is nothing special. Special means different. So you are saying the prequel scores are not very different from other scores. If you limit your criteria of comparison to present day, we can hear similarities between Williams' prequel scores and other recent Williams scores. But this can ALSO be said of the Original Trilogy scores when compared to their contemporaries written by Williams.

If you are comparing the prequel scores to non-Williams contemporary scores, you might find more similarities than the OT scores compoared to their contemporaries. The reason for this is simple. In 1977, there were fewer symphonic scores. Williams' output in the late 70's and early 80's put the symphonic film score in vogue once at a time when pop and electronics had taken over.

Now, there are many more "epic" symphonic film scores written by other composers to compare Williams to.

So calling Prequel scores "ordinary" compared to the OT scores says nothing about their quality, and everything about the way Williams, Lucas and Spielberg changed the landscape of entertainment.

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Ordinary means that it is nothing special. Special means different. So you are saying the prequel scores are not very different from other scores. If you limit your criteria of comparison to present day, we can hear similarities between Williams' prequel scores and other recent Williams scores. But this can ALSO be said of the Original Trilogy scores when compared to their contemporaries written by Williams.

:) Agreed.

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You bring up some very good points Incanus. Especially about Duel of the Fates being Darth Maul's theme. Perhaps maybe if Maul hadn't been killed in the first film (let's face it: one thing the prequels lacked was a consistent main villain), we COULD have seen DotF more prominently in the last two films. Oh well.

And I definitely agree that tossing Anakin's theme aside so early was probably a mistake. Sure, he's not that little kid anymore, but he's not Darth Vader yet either. Anakin's theme really should've stood under him on the level Luke's theme did in the Original Trilogy, except gradually becoming less prominent as the films progressed. Just my opinion.

I won't even get started on the tracked music.

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I don't think Duel of the Fates is Darth Maul's theme. For one thing, it isn't used as such. Duel of the Fates underscores the palace infiltration, the space battle, Qui-Gon's death, the Gungan-droid battle, Anakin's heroics... it is, quite simply, the Battle of Naboo theme. For Episodes II and III, it was extended to a "conflict" theme. Yes, the chants indicate Darth Maul, but their origin is dubious... not present on the original soundtrack, probably designed partially by Ben Burtt (sound designer).

Besides, Darth Maul already has a theme. It's at the end of "Enter Darth Maul" and "Darth Sidious and Darth Maul," and it's also in "The Sith Spacecraft." Maybe in "The Tide Turns."

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Yes,there's an 8 note motif for Darth Maul in those cues.DotF is for the conflict between good and evil,and was meant to be in all 3 prequels,although we didn't any new twist on it in RotS,unfortunately

k.M.

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In 1977, there were fewer symphonic scores. Williams' output in the late 70's and early 80's put the symphonic film score in vogue once at a time when pop and electronics had taken over.

Yes, that's what makes them EXTRAordinary.

Now, there are many more "epic" symphonic film scores written by other composers to compare Williams to.  

So calling Prequel scores "ordinary" compared to the OT scores says nothing about their quality, and everything about the way Williams, Lucas and Spielberg changed the landscape of entertainment.

You are seriously overreacting here. Yes, today there are many many scores similar to Williams' work, and that makes Star Wars more ordinary. It's not Williams' fault, but that's the way it is.

I didn't compare the prequels with the original, and I said nothing about the quality of the prequels; all I say is: the original Star Wars was special, the prequels are not.

And what on earth makes you think I want to deny the influence of the trio Williams/ Spielberg/ Lucas?

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In 1977, there were fewer symphonic scores. Williams' output in the late 70's and early 80's put the symphonic film score in vogue once at a time when pop and electronics had taken over.

Yes, that's what makes them EXTRAordinary.

Correction: That WAS what made them Extraordinary.

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Williams says it quite clearly on the Wal Mart bonus track (interview) of ROTS :

It's quite a musical tapestry. It's orchestral, and there are some choral sections in it also. And for Darth Maul we've had this 'Duel of the Fates.' You know people always ask me what the text of what the chorus is singing [is]. We have the chorus singing with the orchestra in 'Duel of the Fates' and then also in Revenge of the Sith.

Of course Maul has the dark 8 note motif featured on many tracks but Duel also represents him as the Dark Side of the conflict. The Sith Chant is also a derivation from the DotF which is used also to represent Maul (I do not know if it was Williams' intention as the original tracks have no whispering chorus set atop of them).

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Yes, that's what makes them EXTRAordinary.

But you should take music out of its historical context to judge its value. This isn't VH1's "remember the 80's"

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. Yes, today there are many many scores similar to Williams' work

That was only true in the 80's and 90's when Goldsmith,Barry and Horner composed in the same way.I don't think it applies with the MV garbage beeing composed today for fantasy/action films in such scores as Pirates of the Carabean and Batman Begins..Williams is more an exception today

K.M.

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