Monday, February 14, 2005

Star Wars, the MUSIC

EDITOR'S NOTE: SOME REPORTS FROM THE STAR WARS EP3 RECORDING SESSIONS. (MORE GOOSEBUMPS, EH?)!

I SHOULD MENTION THAT SOME OF THE SCENE DESCRIPTION THAT ACCOMPANIES THE MUSIC CUES COULD BE CONSTRUED AS SPOILERIFIC. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Post Notes: The Score Begins
February 03, 2005
When theater lights darken this May, and the rolling drums and fanfare of the 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm logos fade out, fans will brace themselves for that first triumphant blast of brass that signals the start of Episode III.

The famous main title theme is not what started off today's scoring sessions at Abbey Road Studios -- like the filming process, scoring is rarely ever done in movie-sequence.

The first piece of music recorded for Revenge of the Sith was instead something six reels into the story.

Composer John Williams has written over 40 distinct cues for the Episode III score, to be performed over the next few days by the London Symphony Orchestra. The recording order is delineated on an oversized printout, marking the title of the cue and the reel where it resides.

These titles are more for internal use -- they rarely ever make it to the liner notes of soundtrack albums since these cues are often combined and edited to make playable tracks. My guess is that cues like "Boys Into Battle" and "Palpatine's TV Set" will likely get renamed before readied for public consumption. EDITOR'S NOTE: GIGGLE. YA THINK?!

Today starts with "Padmé's Visit," the music that accompanies a tense and dramatic encounter between Anakin and Padmé. The young lovers have shed the starry-eyed innocence of Episode II, worn down by witnessing years of warfare and deception. Though the love theme from Attack of the Clones appears in this cue, there's a sense of desperation behind it, of time ticking away. Anakin's troubled nature is signaled by the creeping approach of the Imperial March -- Darth Vader's theme from The Empire Strikes Back. The deep bass tones that lurk behind the love theme color the drama.

The next cue jumps to the early moments of film, to the first lightsaber duel in a movie packed with many. It's the three-way rematch that sees Anakin and Obi-Wan once again square off against Count Dooku. The frenetic on-screen action is accompanied by aggressive combat music devoid of any familiar character-based themes. The percussive music, accented with cymbal hits, underscores the lightsaber attack, but it isn't particularly timed to each hit. To do so would be impractical, given the intensity of the sound design that will accompany this lightsaber action.
An angry roll of timpani accompanies the fight's denouement, silencing the orchestra in its wake. Then come some tentative strings, exploring the uncomfortable silence that follows.

"Can the clicks be louder," asks Williams of the control room. The assembled musicians all wear headphones that play a "click track," a series of timed clicks meant to keep them all in the same beat. "They sound a bit wooly," says Williams. EDITOR'S NOTE: 'WOOLY'? A MUSICAL TERM?

Shawn Murphy, the Scoring Engineer complies. He sits in the control room, carefully listening to the orchestra as they are recorded. He makes notes on any irregularities in the music, citing measures that need to be revisited.

After each take, Williams comes into the control room along with principal musicians to hear what the microphones captured. From there, they can make adjustments for subsequent takes. Together, Murphy and Williams gauge each performance and determine how much to re-record. Rather than wear down the orchestra by re-recording entire cues, they often target specific trouble spots, prompting the orchestra to replay certain measures to be edited into the surrounding music. Still, sometimes the entire cue is re-recorded.

The next selection for the day is "Palpatine's Seduction." Even in the heavily soundproofed confines of the control room, I can still feel the low vibrations. The music covers a conversation between Anakin and Palpatine within the Chancellor's office. We in the control room hear none of the dialogue. The picture, played on a regular television monitor in the booth and on a relatively washed out screen on the scoring stage (projection in a fully lit room will do that) has graphical pops and streamers atop the image in sync with the click track.

Perhaps my ears are playing tricks on me, but I think I can hear a little refrain of Shmi's tragic last moments in this scene. A strong connection stirs between Anakin and Palpatine, as voiced by the strings. A bass drum is responsible for the tremors. By scene's end, the Emperor's theme rises -- played here without a choir -- with the luring strings continuing underneath, finally culminating in a growing cymbal roll that accompanies the scene-wipe that takes us to Utapau and Obi-Wan's continued hunt for General Grievous.

"I love the dark stuff," says George Lucas, relishing the tones prevalent throughout this score. EDITOR'S NOTE: IT'S THOSE QUIET ONES YOU HAVE TO WATCH OUT FOR, HMMM? TEE HEE......

Next up is "Heroes Collide," the much anticipated start to the duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin. A new theme, carried mostly by the brass section, follows the two Jedi as their duel takes them from an outside landing platform to the inside of an industrial facility. The music alternates between sweeping strokes and fast punctuation -- not unlike the lightsaber duel itself. As is common in the final reels of a Star Wars movie, the action intercuts from one story to another. Those concerned about the action being compromised by cutting away needn't worry -- what's playing opposite this duel is a confrontation just as big and anticipated, though it doesn't last as long, so the remainder of Obi-Wan and Anakin's battle plays through uninterrupted.

At one point in this cue, the music sounds almost exactly as it did in The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader begins pummeling Luke with equipment tossed telekinetically. In both that Episode V moment and this Episode III moment, we hear a grandiose presentation of the Imperial March with sharp brass accents.

Closing your eyes, you can still track the progress of the battle. The music holds to accommodate dialogue during the fight. When lightsabers lock and opponents stare at each other over crossed blades, the strings vibrate brilliantly, building the tension and drama. At one point during in the duel, Obi-Wan and Anakin are caught in competing Force pushes, outstretched hands locking a few centimeters apart. Here, the elegant Force theme emerges from the frantic fighting, but it sounds pained, echoing the struggle.

Shawn notes that the sound quality of the loud percussion affects that of the rest of the orchestra, so William conducts the next take without percussion. As it turns out, even this huge stage is too small to contain the powerful drums. They may be recorded later, under different circumstances.

Lucas points out that this portion of the fight seems to be lacking an expected ingredient: the Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace. "That comes later. In the big duel," says Williams.
According to the schedule, those were the only four pieces slated for today, but the orchestra continues, and four more cues are performed. "Another Happy Landing" is a short piece of music, the first cue to occur after the hectic pace of the chaotic space battle. Now, we can take time to peacefully introduce Coruscant and its skyline with a pageantry reminiscent of the first majestic introduction of the city-planet back in Episode I. "Yoda's Fall" is a very brief piece, less than a minute in length, that underscores a specific action.

Next is "Revisiting Padmé," which covers the reunion of the lovers, Anakin and Padmé, in the film. It contains the familiar love theme from Episode II, but there's an interesting juxtaposition in tone. Proof that music greatly affects the perception of a scene, I remember seeing this sequence un-scored and feeling one way about it. In the rough cut, creepy temp music was inserted to an otherwise tame scene of tender exchanges. Here, in the final score, it's not so much creepy, but there is an undercurrent of dark uncertainty. Padmé brings a purity to it, in the form of a unblemished woodwind recitation of the love theme that crescendos to the next wipe.

"So, people, what I'm proposing what we do for the remainder of today is 7M1," says Williams. It's title is, currently, unprintable for the sake of the spoiler-free majority that reads these reports. That's the case with almost everything that happens in the 7th reel. And, true to the film's end, it is tragic and emotional. EDITOR'S NOTE: YOU TEASE YOU TEASE.....

Disclaimer: Of course, a dozen people can listen to the same piece of music and come away with a dozen different impressions, but I can't think of how else to report what I heard than by expressing what I felt. Please keep that in mind when reading these Post Notes from scoring.

Spotted today: Hayden Christensen couldn't resist the opportunity to witness the scoring session -- a first for him. Also visiting today is Director and Jedi Master Frank Oz, who will soon return to the backwards-patterned speech to record some loop lines for Yoda this weekend.

Oh, another thing: The main title isn't part of the planned scoring sessions -- a pre-existing recording of the famous Star Wars theme will be used instead.

Recording "Revenge"
February 04, 2005

With each Star Wars film, composer John Williams has selected a particular composition to stand apart. It's removed from the context of the film, and generally has its start or end reworked so that it becomes a standalone musical piece.

In the past, these have become singles on the soundtrack, concert suites or music videos. Examples include "Main Title," "Darth Vader's Theme (Imperial March)," "The Forest Battle," "Duel of the Fates," and "Across the Stars."

For Episode III, a dramatic cue from the sixth reel gets that treatment. Called "Revenge of the Sith" -- or less colorfully, 6M9 -- it appears in the film during the thick of the duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker.

The first half of the second day of scoring sessions consists of capturing this piece for both inclusion in the film, and as a modified version for the soundtrack release.

In the end, it will include moments of heavy percussion, as well as the emotional sweep provided by a choir. EDITOR'S NOTE: OOO...I LOVE THOSE CHOIR-ENHANCED PIECES. THEY ARE OFTEN THE BEST OF THE BUNCH, THE MOST EVOCATIVE AND POWERFUL. These elements will be layered in later -- today, it's the orchestral foundation that's recorded. The music carries a nine-note sentence that is a new theme that carries throughout the duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan, memorable enough that I find myself whistling it later in the day.

As with most of the combat and action music, the timing and tempo are carefully controlled by the click track piped into the musician's earpieces. "We have clicks that will help things vertically," says Williams, "But, it doesn't always help pitch, because we don't hear ourselves so well. We made it through the first three Star Wars without click tracks, but we really need to use thse clicks in this."

At moments in the music, the Force theme emerges, accompany instances of dialogue between Obi-Wan and his fallen student. The duel's most shocking event is built up by a crescendo of drums that suddenly cut out, leaving enough room for the audience to gasp. Sure enough, when the principal musician crowd into the control room to listen to a take, and they see the video that's been playing behind them for the first time, they do gasp at the right part.

"It has energy. It has sound. If we can get more beauty to it," says Williams. "It's hard to do, because it needs to be big and energetic. It's a tough trade off."

"I can't wait to hear the chorus," says George Lucas. "It has a tendency to smooth things out and add a lot of emotion." EDITOR'S NOTE: SEE. UNCLE G LIKES THE CHORUS TOO! (GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE....)

"Even though it's large and somewhat military in its sound, find a way to add some nobility to it," Williams advises to the orchestra before another take. "Timpani and bass drums, rather than have it play angrily, do it with something that has a noble feel."

Other pieces scored today included "Good-Bye Old Friend," which starts by covering the departure of Obi-Wan from his assault ship, as he says farewell to his loyal clone officer, Commander Cody. The sound is full, heavy, militaristic. At first listen, I'm reminded of the opening refrains of "Belly of the Beast," one of my favorite compositions from the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade soundtrack. A stirring and proud rendition of the Force theme plays as Obi-Wan docks his starfighter to the six-engine hyperspace transport ring and blasts off on an important mission.

The opening of the piece is revisited later in the day, as Lucas has requested a change. He felt that a small moment of horns heard during the clone briefing was too light, too happy for the scene. Williams later recorded the pertinent measures sans that flourish.

What's truly amazing for me, watching the London Symphony Orchestra, is realizing that this is their first time seeing this music. There's no extended rehearsal to grow familiar with it. They play it through once, and then start recording. That first play-through is not accompanied by video, leaving me to imagine just what events might be transpiring in the film.

For instance, there's a part of "Good-Bye old Friend" that turns dark and surreal. The harp plucks away and there's the hiss of a cymbal. The violins hold a chilling chord, accompanied by an ominous rumble from the bass drums. There's an interesting rattle of percussion, signaling danger, like a serpent coiled, ready to strike.

When I see the picture that goes with this, I can't help but smile. Because, it's not a scene of terror, but rather, a scene of Padmé and Anakin, discussing things in her apartment. Without scoring, it could have played as an innocuous domestic scene. But with this music, it's so obvious that there's something terribly wrong with this picture, and the orchestra is foretelling the young lovers' fates.

Though I'm trying to steer clear of some of the material that appears in the 7th reel, there was one piece that really stood out today. "David said he's been waiting 25 years to play that," says Williams of one of the horn players.

With gentle harp accompaniment, we will hear graceful and beautiful quotations from "Princess Leia's Theme" in Episode III. EDITOR'S NOTE: PRINCESS LEIA'S THEME IS ONE OF MY ALLTIME FAVORITE PIECES OF MUSIC. I HAVE AN ORCHESTRAL VERSION OF IT, THAT IS SO INCREDIBLY LOVELY.

An Energetic Start
February 09, 2005

"This is going to be an energetic start," says George Lucas, looking at the list of the cues assembled today.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. 6M7 is the first of the day," says Composer John Williams, stepping up the podium with his baton. The orchestra members straighten in their chairs. The baton drops with the first downbeat, and a very familiar refrain plays -- not 6M7, but instead the last part of "Happy Birthday to You."

Williams smiles, as the orchestra offers their applause at a prank well executed. It is indeed a special day for John Williams. "I'm so happy to be sharing my 42 birthday with you," says Williams. "Thank you so much; that was very sweet."

That surprise aside, as Lucas predicted, it was an energetic start, with music from the heart of the duel. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi swipe at each other with single-minded determination in their heated struggle. So focused are they that they ignore the volatile landscape surrounding them. The Mustafar refinery that they clamber and leap through serves only as an obstacle to their combat. They seem oblivious to the setting, except when one can use a steam pipe or gantry as an escape route or an advantage.

Likewise, the music ignores the hellish geography, staying focused instead on the characters. That is, until it is too late. The energy shields that should be protecting the building have faltered. The fight stops for an instant as a swelling sheet of lava geysers up into the collection facility. The characters snap their heads back to look... and they are cued by a dramatic upswell of music signifying the danger.

Scoring Engineer Shawn Murphy listens to the playback, advising his assistants to reposition the microphones. "It sounds like the chimes are a mile away from the mic and the [suspended] cymbal is right on top of it."

"I'd like to think of those bars as tragico," Williams tells the orchestra. "Something very operatic. That should be the spirit of those few bars of tune."

A very different flavor of combat is scored later in the day -- the knuckle-dusting brawl between General Grievous and Obi-Wan Kenobi. To keep the orchestra in tempo with the music, a click track of quavers -- eighth notes -- ticks away relentlessly in the musicians' headsets.

The first run-through is energetic, a rousing rehearsal that Williams is reluctant to finish -- the sheet music ends without him. "Shawn, I got lost," admits Williams with a chuckle. "Now that is active."

Imagine the plodding of the AT-ATs, heard with heavy piano in "Battle in the Snow" from Empire, but played much more up-tempo. Grievous has the mass and speed to be dangerous -- it's like brawling a dexterous freight train. Obi-Wan barely holds his own, but when he lands his best punch, he has the weight of the orchestra behind him.

"I wish those drums weren't so recognizable as concert snare drum," says Williams. He suggests that the drummers turn the snare off. "What does a timpani mallet sound on that? Maybe felt here and wood there," Williams suggests. EDITOR'S NOTE: HOW EMBARRASSING TO BE A RECOGNIZABLE SNARE DRUM, HUH? GIGGLE.

Aside from these standout combat pieces, there were other, more atmospheric cues heard as well. Including a quiet refrain that accompanies what is probably Darth Sidious' only moment of compassion ever recorded, played on chimes.

"Think of it as church bells gone wrong," describes Williams. EDITOR'S NOTE: LOL! GREAT LINE.

I didn't hear much of the afternoon scoring sessions, as preparations were underway for an online chat with Producer Rick McCallum. At his insistence, I brought the webcam up to the producer's lounge above the control room, so that fans could spy on his digs. As usual, his chat proved popular, with our shared screen of questions choked so much by the incoming messages that we only ever saw six or seven at a time, leaving hundreds un-read. But McCallum spotted a few he wanted to field, including spontaneously inviting one lucky Hyperspace member to tomorrow's sessions.

The chat also marked the closest we came to getting George Lucas on a chat -- that is, about five feet. Rick would occasionally lob Lucas a question or two, but he was preoccupied in discussion with his guest to the recording, Grand Prix racing legend, Jackie Stewart. EDITOR'S NOTE: AH THE PERKS OF THE WEALTHY AND FAMOUS.....

Finale
February 10, 2005
I'm no musician, so I'm certain there are nuances to each performance and recording session that breeze past my amateur ears. Nonetheless, there are feats I suspect would impress me no matter what level of knowledge I possesed. I am continually amazed by the level of skill exhibited by the London Symphony Orchestra, particularly when the players perform a piece for the first time. I don't know what I assumed exactly, but I figured there'd be a more involved rehearsal. That the musicians wouldn't be tasked to play a piece cold, at first look, not having been previously acquainted with the sheet music.

There's no lengthy rehearsal. Upon turning to a new cue, the orchestra plays it once, without a click track, without video playback. Composer John Williams and Scoring Engineer Shawn Murphy listen for trouble spots. Williams revisits any troublesome measures with words of guidance or necessary modifications -- oftentimes, the music sounds different with all 110 musicians assembled within the studio space, necessitating a tweak here and there. And then, a take is recorded.

For the first cue of today, there was perhaps more familiarity with the music than with other pieces. "Good morning, people," says John Williams to the orchestra members. "We'll start with 7M8: the end credits."

As all Star Wars fans know, the end credits sequence follows a very specific structure. With the iris out of the last frame of the film, there's a triple-attack of brassy fanfare that kicks the music into the main title theme. The up-tempo rendition of the Star Wars theme -- Luke Skywalker's theme -- continues until it is overtaken by a new theme. Then what follows is a reprise of the main themes of the film, before fading out or ending triumphantly.

With the end of Episode III serving double-duty as a finale to the entire saga, but also the end of the first trilogy, the end credits are slightly different this time around. They contain a major piece of music that otherwise has no place in Episode III. EDITOR'S NOTE: OOOO....MORE GOOSEBUMPS......

After the fanfare of the main theme dies down, the glide of a harp segues into Princess Leia's theme, now indelibly associated with peacefulness of Alderaan, one of the closing worlds of Revenge of the Sith. It is, perhaps, the most passionate and emotional cue in all of the Star Wars saga. EDITOR'S NOTE: YEP. In the recording session, when it builds to its final crescendo, Williams finishes to a rousing applause and cheers of appreciation from the orchestra.

"It'll be another 25 years before we do this again," jokes Williams.

"That's my goosebump fix for the session," says Scoring Assistant Andrew Dudman. EDITOR'S NOTE: SEE...IT'S NOT JUST ME!

As the end credits are always a montage of multiple themes, this cue is not recorded as one piece. Rather, Williams isolates the sections. He picks up the piece around measure 58, where the new "Revenge of the Sith" dueling theme appears. This then segues into a surprise, and not an unwelcome one.

The stately "Throne Room" from Episode IV, the music that accompanies the Yavin 4 awards ceremony, appears in the End Credits. It's the unedited version of the piece, that is different from what appears in A New Hope. It's been recorded as a concert piece this way: instead of the iris out to Episode IV's end credits, it goes into a reprise of Princess Leia's theme.

"We haven't recorded it in this configuration here with this orchestra since the very first film," says Supervising Music Editor Ken Wannberg.

With each cue running over six minutes, Shawn Murphy describes the next two pieces as "monster cues."

"In the old days, when we were using those little reels, each one would have taken up a reel," points out George Lucas.

The first of the two, "Scenes and Dreams" starts off sweetly, with a violin playing during a tender exchange between Anakin and Padmé. It is night on Coruscant. She has changed into her nightgown and stands on the balcony of her apartment, while Anakin leans against the curving wall, admiring the beauty of his beloved wife. The "Across the Stars" love theme plays, and unlike some of the other Padmé and Anakin scenes, there's no nebulous threat lurking in the lower registers, no undercurrent of uncertainty.

This makes the contrast to the music's next turn all the more pronounced. Anakin experiences a chilling nightmare, played with shrill strings in an increasing crescendo that peaks with his sudden awakening. He leaves his shared bed with Padmé, dons a robe and heads outside, to the airy verandah to stew over his unsettling vision. EDITOR'S NOTE: HE'S PRETTY, BUT BEING MARRIED TO HIM SOUNDS LIKE A LAUGH-RIOT, HUH?

Padmé soon joins him, and the music brings up Anakin's innocent boyhood theme from Episode I. Very fitting as he notices the token of affection he gave her all those many years ago, the japor snippet Padmé wears around her neck. There's a fragile twinkle of bells to accompany the shot of the jewelry. The music is moody as Anakin explains his fears to Padmé.

These somber tones continue as Anakin next confers with Yoda about his vision. There's slight intonations of the Force theme on a bassoon as the discussion turns philosophical. An interjection of brass moves us away from the moody introspection to more objective issues, as Anakin arrives late to the Jedi briefing room, and then the cue ends.

The next lengthy cue, which ends the day's recording session, is named simply enough "Moving Things Along." It isn't very thematic -- mostly background music to establish mood, with flourishes to accompany establishing shots. With the visual introduction of fiery Mustafar, we're given a bellicose, percussive passage with blasts of hard brass. The camera glides in to the mountainside processing facility, soaring past platform-riding Mustafarians skimming the molten rivers for precious ores, past the flea-riding aliens that walk along the hardened surface of the lava flows.

The music gets more atmospheric and smoky as we cut inside the facility, and see Darth Sidious holographically communicating to the Separatist leaders.

Before the cue's end, we'll hear Darth Vader's theme and the Emperor's theme -- which is truly appropriate as it accompanies Palpatine's formal declaration of a New Order.

It's a satisfying finale for this leg of my personal Episode III journey. The scoring sessions will continue for another week -- including isolated percussion and choir sessions, but I am returning to the U.S. after today.

As I write this, there are less than 100 days before the world gets to experience Revenge of the Sith.

Let Peter Cavanna's once-in-a-lifetime experience prove the maxim: it never hurts to ask. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," he beams. "I've done that all my life: I've always asked for things that were sort of impossible."

During Rick McCallum's online chat on February 8th, a Hyperspace member with the screen name GazelleUK boldly ventured the following query:

Rick, I live just a few miles from those studios. Any chance of me coming down now and having a prevue???

The answer was classic McCallum, a shoot-from-the-hip, take-everyone-by-surprise response:
It's too late for today. But if you're here at 10:30 tomorrow, I'll let you have a little peek. Ask for John Singh. But if you tell anyone else, I will have you terminated.

Now, I typed that for Rick, and I wasn't a hundred percent sure if he was serious. John Singh, (LFL International Publicity) and I exchanged an incredulous look before asking Rick if this was for real. "Yeah, let's do it," he said. So, John made it happen by sending GazelleUK (a.k.a Peter) an email inviting him to the studios.

"I thought he was just joking," says Peter. "You can't just do that! Not on a forum, where everyone can read that. I mean, who knows who else will show up?"

As he recounts it, Peter wasn't entirely willing to believe it was real until he showed up at Abbey Road studios this morning. "I didn't tell my girlfriend or anyone anything about it, because I thought it wasn't going to be true." EDITOR'S NOTE: DISPELLING THE STEREOTYPE THAT DWEEBS DON'T DATE.......

John Singh met Peter, and took him upstairs to briefly meet Rick. From the Producer's Lounge, Peter got a bird's-eye-view of the orchestra as they performed the End Credits sequence for Revenge of the Sith. "I'll admit I was a little bit confused. I was trying to think how that particular music would fit in. In my head, I thought this a very familiar tune that will appear in a very unfamiliar place," he says.

"My eyes were watering just listening to that music," he continues. "Not only is this Star Wars, but they're great musicians as well and it just sounds fantastic. I thought, these people aren't making movies; they're making magic. And it was absolutely magic."

EDITOR'S NOTE: TO ME, READING MUSIC DESCRIPTIONS IS A LOT LIKE READING SOMEONE TRY TO DESCRIBE ARCHITECTURE OR ART OR FASHION. ALL OF THEM ARE BEST EXPERIENCED INSTEAD OF READ ABOUT. AND I CAN'T WAIT TO EXPERIENCE THE MUSIC DESCRIBED HERE!



2 Comments:

Anonymous Chewyandy said...

More cowbell.

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Karla said...

WELL

More cowbell is always the right answer.

But I actually appreciate reading about art, architecture, fashion and music more than I do experiencing them "naked." Maybe it's because I'm word-oriented or maybe because I don't that much about any of them. But reading something about one of those will enhance and affect my experience with it profoundly.

2:18 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home