Tuesday, December 22, 2015

THE SCORE AWAKENS: Listening to the Soundtrack to Star Wars VII

The cassette soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back was my first musical purchase way back in 1981. I listened to it until the tape wore out, by which time I had two CDs of the score, each one claiming to be more or less “complete” (yet they never quite have all the music, do they?). John Williams’ scores not only lead me to his other film music, but to classical music itself, becoming a ‘gateway drug’ to Orff, Holst, Mussorgsky, and within a decade, to the entire canon of classical musical from Bach to Bartok. Williams’ music offered me the greatest musical appreciation course of all, since he showed me—and a million others, I imagine—how orchestral themes and colors ‘painted’ the various moods and emotions of a film. After watching the film umpteen times, I could ‘see’ how each piece of music conveyed these ideas to the listener, and before long, I could ‘read’ other music along the same lines, even when there was no story attached. While many composers argue that there is a strict difference between absolute and programmatic music, a keen listener can find the program in anything—even a twenty-second piano prelude by Chopin. So even though I went on to hundreds of more established composers, I always returned to John Williams’ music, particularly when a new film came out boasting his signature themes and orchestration. I still remember the thrill of running to the Tower Records on Wabash Avenue in Downtown Chicago the day The Phantom Menace soundtrack was released (you won’t find that place anymore). New Star Wars music—that was as exciting as a lost symphony by Beethoven or Sibelius! That score didn’t disappoint even if the film did, and his music for the Prequels almost (almost) made those clunky films worth watching. Hell, at least those three films gave us The Duel of the Fates and Anakin’s Theme! 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Composing Jane Austen: The Soundtracks

In Volume II, Chapter VIII of Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine intrudes on a conversation with Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam on music. Delighted by the subject (or simply the chance to monopolize the conversation), she replies, “Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient...I often tell young ladies, that no excellence in music is to be acquired, without constant practice.”   

Of course, this scene largely convinces the reader that she has absolutely no taste or understanding of music, and that she is far keener to give advice than take it herself. Yet it also underlines the importance of music in Jane Austen’s society: music brought young people together (as it does today), and was a necessary backdrop for all the dances and card playing that gave life to an endless round of social engagements. Young and old, rich and poor, everyone knew something about music, or at least thought it was worth knowing about. Elizabeth herself plays—though very ill, as she informs all her acquaintance—and Darcy complements both her and her sister’s abilities, and takes great pleasure in their performances. In a world without the ability to play pre-recorded music, one had to provide one’s own entertainment, and a skilled musician in the family must have shortened many a long winter’s night. In a famous letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen is willing to take the burden of entertainment on herself, writing, “Yes, yes, we will have a pianoforte, as good as one can be got for 30 guineas, and I will practice country dances, that we may have some amusement for our nephews and nieces, when we have the pleasure of their company” (1808).