Friday, December 14, 2012

Kharah Matah, Kharah Rath Amah

(Originally written for Jedi News. Check out the new article collection link at the end of their version!)

This is a season of joy and giving, regardless of what religious denomination you are (if indeed you have any at all). In this spirit, this week’s article will be strictly celebratory.

Music unites the world. Like the Force, it surrounds us and binds us. It makes us feel like luminous beings amidst crude matter. Like all art, music is subjective, and we can’t always explain what moves us and why.

John Williams’ score for the Star Wars Saga has been nearly universally praised, and as far as I’m concerned that’s exactly how it should be. For nearly 35 years, his scores for Episodes IV-VI have wormed their way into the hearts and minds of pop-culture. The second you hear the grand overture, or the Imperial March, or the Force theme, you know you’re listening to Star Wars. Many of the films’ themes are so complete that they work as concert suites. Indeed, many concerts have been centered around these very suites.

Like everything else, Williams’ score was one of the more anticipated elements on Episodes I-III. Thankfully, it’s one of the few areas that the various sides of the fandom actually tend to agree lived up to expectations. You’d be forgiven for only remembering one of the new themes if any. The fact is that Episodes I-III only have about four explicit concert suites, a far cry from its predecessors. Which is a real shame, since what is there is probably amongst the best of Williams’ work to date, even in the Star Wars sphere.

The one most people would remember is Duel of the Fates. Like most things Phantom Menace, this was everywhere in 1999, and is pretty much synonymous with I-III. Its menacing chorus (pun intended) of Sanskrit words translated from a Celtic poem was a perfect backdrop for the scene where the Jedi and the Sith battle for the fate of the galaxy (though none of the three combatants know that as of yet).

Wonderful as Fates is, the underrated Anakin’s Theme from the same film seems far more important to me in the grand scheme of things, and I was actually disappointed that I didn’t really hear it return in the following films (if there’s a scene I missed, tell me). It at once captures the innocence of Anakin Skywalker and sadly hints at his eventual fate. It starts out hopeful and gets more melancholy as it progresses, finally ending on the ominous final notes of the Imperial March. Beautiful and haunting.

Words that can also describe Attack of the Clones’ big showpiece, the love theme Across the Stars. I’ll admit it took this one a while to grow on me, but now I see how brilliant it is as an allegory of Anakin and Padmé’s entire relationship. It begins softly, grows more passion, runs into chaos and danger, and then ends on a sad and depressing note. I love this theme so much that when my now-wife and I needed processional music for our wedding and wanted to do something different, I immediately thought of Across the Stars. Okay, so naturally I had her listen to it before I told her what it was. But she thought it worked and we ended up using it (she eventually had second thoughts of doing something so geeky, but when I offered her Jurassic Park as an alternative this piece looked a hell of a lot better).

Of the main concert themes, though, my favorite pick would probably be Battle of the Heroes. The music that wove around Revenge of the Sith’s climactic duel…I’m staring at the screen in a literal loss of words. The way that theme just gets me. I’m charged every time I hear it. It brings me to Mustafar, to a fight where I’m not sure who to root for, if I can root for anyone. When I pick up a toy lightsaber, it’s that softly dangerous violin and French horn intro that pops into my head first. Not much more I can say about it without just babbling and humming it.

Of course, it’s not just the concert pieces that true fans remember. How many of us can pick out Boba Fett’s theme despite it being four notes played sparingly in the middle of certain scenes? I-III is chock full of these wonderful leitmotifs for the likes of Qui-Gon, Jar Jar, Grievous, and even Boba’s father Jango gets a good one that subtly hints at his son’s.

Probably Williams’ greatest use of music for subtlety is the seemingly unsubtle Augie’s Great Municipal Band, the celebration music from the end of the Phantom Menace. At first listen, it seems like your basic celebratory music. Fun to listen to and feels good, but nothing too special. Then you listen to it again and again and you realize that it’s actually a feel-good reorchestration of the Emperor’s theme from Return of the Jedi. The Phantom Menace is actually Palpatine, and his theme is celebratory because he wins in that movie by becoming Supreme Chancellor. The implications are chilling.

But like most aspects of the saga, while the I-III scores lie at the top of my favorites list, IV-VI follows nipping at their heels. I’m a Star Wars fan, and I love all of Star Wars. And while George Lucas IS Star Wars, in many ways John Williams is as well.


  1. "Like all art, music is subjective"


    If you've ever taken a look at music theory, it's fascinating, fascinating stuff, mostly to due with how chords, scales, progressions, and the like help to create certain feelings, emotions, etc. in a work. Music is undoubtedly one of the more subjective arts out there, but there's still an objective aspect to it that can be really interesting to study.

    If you ever get a chance, check out the videos on YouTube of musical theatre composer Stephen Sondheim discussing his music- particularly for Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Pacific Overtures (I can give you links if you're interested). He explains a lot of the thought and work that went into his musical choices, and it provides a really fascinating look into the sort of work composers do- and the kind of thought I'm sure Williams puts into his film work.

  2. Also, Duel of the Fates is in Sanskrit? Did not know that. It's such a great language, though- really perfect for song lyrics (Philip Glass apparently wrote an opera entirely in Sanskrit, it's supposed to be pretty good).

    I've always been a huge fan of Episode I's score- Empire has always been my favorite, probably followed by the original, but Phantom Menace's score sits as a definite third. So many great themes, glad to see Anakin's Theme get some recognition (Williams' callbacks are very subtle and add a lot to the scores).

    I'll admit to never being a big fan of "Across the Stars", but it's mostly due to how similar it sounds to Hook's central theme- and I always preferred Hook (hands-down my favorite Williams score). And I'm not at all familiar with the music to Revenge of the Sith, unfortunately.

    1. Seriously, Battle of the Heroes is where it's at.

      And my father is a musician, so I know all about objective qualifiers when it comes to music. The thing is, even "bad" music moves many people, so who is to say what's what?

    2. There are both subjective and objective values to art, is just what I'm saying. We can be moved by a piece of art just as we can acknowledge the objective worth of art- it's the distinction between one's "favorite" film and one's "best" film.

      Neither distinction discounts the other, it's just acknowledging that there are two separate measures of worth that you can apply to art- one entirely centered around personal opinion, and one centered around critical discussion.

    3. There is truth in that. I just don't think anyone can tell the difference nearly as easily as they think they can. Also, most art has some merit.

    4. Oh, naturally- I'd say all art has merit of some sort- I think it was Tarantino who said we should never hate a bad movie because it can be a thousand times more instructive on film-making than a good movie ever could. Certainly even weak films have moments of brilliance or rewarding moments that make the experience worth experiencing, even if it wasn't completely worthwhile.

  3. If it weren't for John Williams score, it simply would not be Star Wars.