Star Wars, John Williams, and I

A Long Time Ago…

Various styles of music have seen me through some really trying times in my life. From a very early age. Some people take solace in books. Others in writing or drawing. For me it was always listening to music. I developed a very diverse music taste from an early age. Partly out of necessity. Partly out of curiosity. I can find good in almost any style or genre. Almost…

My musical upbringing started with Metal and Hard Rock thanks to a metal-head cousin. Bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden, Slayer, Anthrax and many more were filling my ears from a very young age. Always at the appropriate volume. But I never limited myself to just those styles of music. Thanks to some old LP’s, radio, and MTV, I fell in love with many more styles and artists. Such as: Billy Joel, Boston, Chicago, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins(and Genesis), and Rush*. Then there was the deep deep world of orchestral music. Orchestral music entered my life at a young age as well. And it would have a great impact on my life. But I wasn’t listening to orchestral recordings or radio broadcasts. How did that weasel it’s way into my life?

I remember watching PBS a lot from my single digit years into my mid-teens. Not just because I didn’t have cable for a period of my youth. But rather, PBS really did have some great shows back then. Particularly for kids. It was later on at night though that PBS regularly showed orchestral performances. I remember being awestruck at the beautiful sounds being produced on those stages. I even saw Jazz bands and some old Big Band performances. PBS was how I was introduced to the likes of Glenn Miller, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, and many more. Hell, one night on PBS I saw Fleetwood Mac perform with the USC Trojan Marching Band. Wild. Sure, some of the stuff I heard was unappealing at the time. In those years Opera wasn’t exactly what I wanted to see or hear… ever. I was too young for that. Nowadays though, I can appreciate it’s beauty fully.

But no, it wasn’t PBS that sent me careening downward into the deep rabbit hole that is music. Yeah sure, it helped (after, my ears were opened). I was exposed to(or rather picked up on) orchestral music for the first real time by a seemingly strange source. It was like a massive gate had creaked open in my musical brain. The key that opened the aforementioned great gate was, in fact, Star Wars.

Well, actually it was Star Wars and John Williams.

Though, at the time I had no idea who John Williams was…

* In hindsight, from a young age I was drawn towards bands that used non-standard instruments, like trumpets, trombones, and saxophones. Chicago, particularly in the 1970’s, was outstanding and their horns were electric. Other examples would be Earth, Wind & Fire, and Tower of Power. I was also drawn to heavily percussive music. Which is one reason I love metal so much(Slayer, Dave Lombardo). In particular, technical drumming was always so interesting to me. Neil Peart of Rush is one of my all time favorite drummers. He is a close number 2 to Danny Carey from Tool. But I will stop there before this turns into my top ten favorite drummers list.


Where It All Began

Like many people, the multi-generational Star Wars saga took hold of me after the first viewing of A New Hope. I mean, how could it not, right? A story about far away worlds and battles in space? A Cute princess? Robots everywhere? Good versus Evil fighting with swords of light that hummed when swung? Laser guns? Pew Pew! Laser guns! Yeah! It was perfect for a young loner soon-to-be nerd/geek with a budding imagination like myself. Even if I really didn’t quite understand all of the story at the time.

To set the stage, the VHS we had was either a copy or was recorded from a TV broadcast. So it wasn’t even a shadow of the quality we are accustomed to in this day and age. VHS was not exactly known for having crisp images and stellar audio anyway. It was just okay. The picture would occasionally start going out of focus or getting lines through it, so you had to occasionally adjust a ‘tracking’ setting to zero-in a decent picture. Some tapes were worse than others. It was all very hands on, the home video experience.

Though we had a regular sized(for the mid 1980’s) TV in the living room, my first viewing was on a small black and white TV with antennas sticking out of the back of it in my room. The antennas most likely had a whole roll of aluminum foil attached to them in some fashion to “improve reception”. A little was enough. A lot was better. This is science, and therefor a fact. That TV’s screen was definitely smaller than some tablets nowadays. But it weighed about as much as(or more than) most TV’s 5 times it’s size do now. And it emitted enough heat to keep you warm on a cold night. TV’s like this had tubes, and they actually had to “warm up” before the screen would come on. Depending on the room temperature this meant that it could take some time. The audio would actually come out of the speaker but the screen would still be off.

This is the stuff I had to deal with in the 1980’s. It all makes me appreciate the technology we have now that much more, let me tell you.

Shoddy recordings and minuscule-yet-bench-pressable heat emitting monochrome televisions aside. There is so much to like about the Star Wars series. But one of the biggest standouts to me was the music. The main theme literally smacks you in the face and you actually see stars, all while the movie explains whats happening in scrolling text. The music accompanies what is happening on the screen as scenes emotion rises, falls and hits you in the feels. The music’s mood changes right along side the characters action and drama. The themes that they introduce in episode IV, such as the poetic and wonderful Princess Leia’s Theme, can be heard many times in the movie and in the rest of the trilogy(trilogies) in various capacities.

I spent a lot of time in front of a TV watching movies in my loner youth. But this was the first time that I was caught up in the instrumental music of a movie. And this was music that was playing from a single speaker on a crappy TV, mind you. That first punch from the main theme, probably sounded awful, thinking back on it. At least compared to today’s audio standards. But it grabbed me by the collar and slapped me around for a few moments(and I liked it).

After my first few viewings(oh, there were many) of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back I began to really start taking notice of the music that I was hearing while watching movies. Also, enter PBS, as I mentioned above. It was the 80’s and It was a great decade for movies(the previous decade too!). Many of them had great musical scores. I started watching the movie credits to the end, where they always bury music credits, and I began to notice something. Something big.

A lot of the movies that I loved had soundtracks that were written by the same man.

American composer/conductor, John Williams.

I started to really take notice of his work around the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And by that time, I had seen so many movies with his compositions in them, and hadn’t even realized it! To get a feel for what I am talking about here is a small, but incredible, list of just some of his works that range from the 1970’s to present day:

  • Star Wars IV, V, VI, I, II, III, VII, VIII, IX
  • Indiana Jones 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Superman
  • Jaws
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Hook
  • Jurassic Park 1, 2
  • Schindler’s List
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • full list here

To pull one specific non-Star Wars movie from that list. One of the first cassettes that I ever bought with my own saved up money was in the early 1990’s. It was the soundtrack to Jurassic Park. This was right after I saw that movie in the theater. I fell in love with it immediately and wanted to listen to it more. So I went to a store and bought the tape. It may have even been the same day. Now, while I do not remember what store I bought it at, I do remember the cassettes were behind glass and you needed a clerk to open the cabinet. Stealing cassettes was a big problem around this time. They were small and very easy to pocket. The plastic anti-theft cases weren’t everywhere yet. You were made aware that you were being watched on camera, quite often.

When I found the clerk with the keys, I brought them to the case and pointed to the one I wanted. They grabbed the tape, flipped it over and, for whatever reason, studied it for a second. Then they remarked to me something like, “You know this music doesn’t have words, right?” Now, this was far before I had a decent grasp of how to use sarcasm(I was working on it though), so I just responded with something like, “yeah”, and took my tape to go pay.

The score for Jurassic Park was incredibly captivating to me. I used to listen to it while I read the Michael Crichton novel. I read that book like 4 times in a single week once, during a move. Actually, by the mid 1990’s I would have read many of his books. Sphere, Congo, The Andromeda Strain were all great.

In those early years of the 1990’s my Walkman and stereo had a rotation of stuff that I recorded from the radio(this was stealing music long before Napster and Limewire), a copy of Alice In Chains’ Facelift, the Jurassic Park soundtrack, a copy of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I (November Rain, Slash + orchestral ensemble = you have my attention), and Metallica’s Black album all going, almost 24/7. I ran through batteries so fast that I used to have to steal them from the remotes and whatnot. Still not sorry.

Copyright: Universal Music Group

Take a moment and listen to the wonderful Theme From Jurassic Park. You may ask yourself, ‘How could something so beautiful come from a story about rampaging dinosaurs caught out of time?’ The answer is easy. John Williams understood the assignment. The concept of Jurassic Park(as a theme park) started as an idea to bring the long gone and forgotten to the present with the intentions of providing wonder and amazement to the world.(and to make copious amounts of money…) To me the Theme From Jurassic Park conveys that all masterfully.


Some Influential Pieces From The Star Wars Saga

If asked, I probably wouldn’t be able to choose which soundtrack was the best, or the worst in the Star Wars saga. They all fit the movies so well. And they all blend together. You’ll hear aspects from various themes in all the movies. Like the reprisal of the Duel of the Fates when Yoda fights Darth Sidius in Episode III. So the individual soundtracks could all be put together as one omnibus soundtrack, really.

Williams wrote music for so many characters and worlds. Whether you’re crossing the Dune Sea of Tatooine, or braving the swampy jungles of Dagobah. In the congested skies of Coruscant, or the serenity of Cloud City. The musical pieces fit the scenery and characters. But some pieces stand out more than others. And if I were to pick some individual pieces, from the entire saga to best highlight John Williams’ impact on these movies(and me), it would be these. And a few probably are pretty obvious. This list could be long as a Wookie is tall, so I limited it to just a handful.

Copyright: Universal Music Group, Lucasfilm Ltd.

Star Wars Main Theme 

A given, really. The Star Wars main theme just may be one of the most recognizable pieces of music ever written. It hits you right in the face with those opening notes, and you instantly know that THIS is Star Wars. There is no build up or lead in. The movie and piece starts by smacking you in the face with a shovel and you actually see stars.

John Williams uses horns in his orchestrations heavily. And for me, the impact of the opening theme is the horns. The trumpets sound out the fanfare while the trombones and French horns support it. This is before the strings really play a serious role with their take on the theme. Then the horns come back in with a softer version. It all comes in waves. And I cannot imagine Star Wars without this iconic piece.


Copyright: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Imperial March(Darth Vader’s Theme)

If the Star Wars main theme is the most recognizable piece of music, then the Imperial March(Darth Vader’s theme), just may be a close second. And depending on who you talk to, it could be first. The Imperial March was introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, and this piece is much darker than the main theme. For good reason, really. This is the theme of the bad guy(or good guy, depending on what side of that wall you’re sitting on). It is heavier. Strings and percussion-driven. The trumpets and trombones force out the simple theme as the strings and percussion (particularly the timpani) keep the rhythm. And then there is this mystical part in the middle with the flutes, other winds, and strings before the brass slowly takes over again. With the thunder, mind you. I love the sound that the brass accomplishes in this piece.


Copyright: Universal Music Group, Lucasfilm Ltd.

Duel of the Fates

When Star Wars made its comeback in the late 1990’s, just about everyone was beyond excited. There was a massive buzz all around the world. A large group of friends and I skipped school and traveled quite far to catch a matinee of The Phantom Menace on opening day. Theaters were running around the clock with their showings. As I was watching, (not at all feeling guilty about my truancy) I was loving everything I was seeing(I liked the prequel trilogy, and I don’t care what militant super-fans say), and hearing. John Williams once again scored this movie. And it was wonderful. He largely kept to the patterns he had established all those years ago. And now that we were in a new era, it all sounded so much better.

And then something happened that I was not quite prepared for. It occurred during the Battle of Naboo. Darth Maul versus Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi. The Duel of the Fates. That piece of music Made that movie.

It starts with a choir singing in Sanskrit. And those opening bars that they are belting out is enough to hook you. Then the strings and woodwinds come in so very lightly before the theme quietly makes an entrance. The lower strings foreshadow in the background what is to come with an ominous rhythm, just before the French horns play the theme. The trumpets pierce the climb with their seemingly muted sword-like notes. The first couple of minutes is a giant crescendo before it falls off a mountain and starts again. Only this time the crescendo is faster and more powerful. The French horns make this piece for me. Their tone is just wonderful for the darkness being portrayed. 


Copyright: Universal Music Group, Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright: Universal Music Group, Lucasfilm Ltd.

Battle of the Heroes / Anakin vs Obi-Wan

The music that John Williams wrote for Revenge of the Sith was powerful. It needed to be. I mean, this was THE pivotal moment in the saga. After this movie. We all know what happens to Anakin. The Battle of the Heroes delivers the aesthetic very well. It’s dark and ominous and almost swirls around you. The use of the choir is great. It calls back to the main themes at times.

The power of Battle of the Heroes comes full force in the duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan on Mustafar, which takes its cues from this piece. Like in those fight scenes on screen, there is so much happening in this piece. Its dark, powerful, and just a bit sad. The trumpets pierce the darkness of this piece repeatedly like they did in the Battle of the Heroes. This adds a sense of danger. Throughout the piece bits and pieces of various other compositions and themes break through, like Battle of the Heroes. But this time it is Darth Vader’s theme that is the most dominant. For good reason.

These scenes and this music, much like the Duel of the Fates, gets my heart racing every time.


Copyright: Universal Music Group, Lucasfilm Ltd.

The Battle of Crait

Speaking to my thoughts on John Williams’ use of themes. The Battle of Crait takes many different themes, from many movies, and puts them in a blender. There is so much happening here and it works well with everything that is happening on the screen. The Resistance is pinned down by the First Order, and they mount an almost suicidal offensive while staring down the barrels of some very large blast cannons. This piece also runs the gamut of emotions. Defiance, despair, relief, determination. Williams’ heavy use of horns and percussive elements, as well as the jumble of themes in this piece helps to paint a picture of all these emotions.


My Musical Journey

I would be completely remiss if I did not convey that John Williams’ music was a major driving force in my taking up and learning to play musical instruments. I wanted to play in those Symphony Orchestras and bands that I had seen on PBS. Or I wanted to play in these orchestras that I was hearing in these great movies. I wanted to perform this powerful music too. All of it. These were my goals from early on. 

I started playing a couple of years later than most kids. Around 7th grade. This was for monetary reasons. Music was not exactly a cheap thing to get into back then. My first instrument was the clarinet. This woodwind instrument is a great starting point for learning the basics, really. Not long after though, I moved on to tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone. I always wanted to play the more powerful instruments. By the end of 8th grade I was asked by my band director if I had any interest in learning to play the tuba. Tuba players in schools were few and far between in this time-frame, apparently*. It didn’t matter that I was an underweight wire of a boy, I jumped. I wanted to play a brass instrument. I was always taken by the brass instruments in the Star Wars movies soundtracks and other John Williams compositions. His use of horns always made me take notice. I had also discovered Drum & Bugle Corps a few years prior(again on PBS), so I totally wanted to play some powerful brass**.

*I moved a lot prior to 10th grade. I had two different band directors, at two different schools, when I was introduced to them they asked me what I played. When I said tuba, they laughed because they thought I was joking. One director said I was the first tuba player in about five years. I had to transfer from that school. I felt bad for that guy. He was genuinely happy to have a tuba player.

**If you want powerful brass, watch Drum Corps. Try this one. The Madison Scouts 1995 show titled ‘A Drum Corps Fan’s Dream: A Day in the Life of a Bullfighter’. Turn up the volume and stay all the way to the end. Mercy.

The Madison Scouts are known for their flair and fire. I wanted to perform like this since the first time I saw them on TV. I actually saw them perform live once(a few years later in life), and my ears hurt almost as much as standing next to the amplifiers for a whole metal concert. It was excellent!

Drum Corps have changed a lot over the past decade-plus with the introduction of non-bugle instruments. I’ve gotten into arguments with people on that subject. I miss these days of raw power and hearing only bugles and percussion.


Within three years I was branching out to learning trombone. Within four, the euphonium and the contrabass bugle. A horn not too different from the tuba in terms or range. Though standard tuba’s are pitched in B-flat(Bb) and Bugles are pitched in G(and only had two pistons at the time). I had, with some friends, joined a smaller Drum & Bugle Corps located near-ish to our town. It was amazing! I played some great powerful music like the video above, and I was part of something big! But it was about this time that life began to get harder and harder. And Drum Corps would have to fade into memory.

Potato quality photo circa 1999

By the time senior year came I was still participating in multiple bands in school(marching, concert, jazz, pep, wind ensemble), a community concert/parade band, a regional wind symphony, and occasionally giving lessons on how to play euphonium and trombone. I had succeeded many times over in performing some of the music I grew up loving. The marching band actually did a whole Star Wars show. That was awesome. I had also played so many of John Williams’ other pieces as well. It was wonderful.

In addition to all of that, I had learned about so many other great composers. Such as:

Gustav Holst

Holst wrote The Planets Suite. Some of the movements from this suite, regardless of your stance on instrumental music, I guarantee you have heard snippets of in various capacities. Movies, TV Shows, Cartoons, Commercials. Most likely it was parts from the Mars or Jupiter movements.

Mars is raw and powerful. Again utilizing my beloved horns to bring the thunder.

His First Suite in Eb for Military Band also has a special place in my heart.


David Holsinger

I had learned about Holsinger during my stint with the Spartans Drum & Bugle Corps. They performed his music two years in a row. His works are very powerful and soaring. Ballet Sacra was my introduction to his compositions. It is an incredibly active piece. Imagine trying to march to this. And yes, we did sing. Honestly, when I first heard this piece, I had no idea how it would be put on a football field. The Spartans made it happen. I wish I could have continued the season. But that’s life.


Samuel Barber

Eagle eyed(eared) listeners will recognize this piece from the 1986 Oliver Stone movie Platoon. Adagio For Strings, to this day, is still one of the most powerful works of music I have ever heard. There is so much emotion in this piece. My eyes well up every damn time. And I almost stop breathing from about the 4:00 minute mark to about the 6 minute mark. Those two minutes… Wow. To best appreciate this, turn the volume up a bit and close your eyes. Good headphones will really help you appreciate this work of art.


Potato quality photo circa 2002.

As high school drew to an end, my goals in life were still the same. But it was time for the next level. I wanted to further my playing in a music school and perform for a living. The problem was that I was tired of school for now, and decided I needed time off. I continued performing with the community band and wind symphony though. That no-schooling break lasted about two years before I made moves to get into a music school.

My musical aspirations would be dashed however, when I had an absolutely abysmal audition to enter that music school. It was one of the most humiliating and devastating times for me. At a particularly tough time in my life, at that. I had spent so much time preparing my audition piece and whatnot. I was confident going into it. And I completely choked. Like, I could have dropped dead on the floor in the audition room, it was that bad. When I exited the room I was drenched in sweat. It was a total disaster.

So yeah, I did not get accepted to the school. In fact I never even got a notice of that fact from them. It was actually confirmed(what I already knew) that I didn’t make it when I helped my(then) girlfriend move into the dorms for the new semester. Brutal. And honestly, I never recovered from that feeling. Soon after though, I decided I needed to change things, and my life took a sharp turn. In doing so, I lost the ability to play in an organized environment. And after that, I stopped playing altogether. Even at home. That is a piece of regret that I carry every day. One that could be remedied easily, sure. And one day I hope to enact that remedy. But you know what? That disaster more or less led to a major change for the better in my life. 

Gotta search for those silver linings.

I never lost my love of music. If anything, it became emboldened in those years. I needed music more than ever, seeing as I lost my ability to play it. The digital age was on our doorsteps, and it was getting easier than ever to acquire albums. I would collect a ton of John Williams compilations, soundtracks, and other albums from other composers and performers. I would still watch performances on TV or DVD. Though, Drum Corps performances hit me pretty hard(still hurts). Adagio for Strings would still cripple me emotionally as well(still does).


My Favorite John Williams Pieces

If I had to choose one piece out of the hundreds that John Williams has penned to be my favorite, I wouldn’t be able to. I would have to pick a minimum of two. The first would most likely be one that people have probably never heard of. And it would be from a movie that most have never heard of, let alone have seen.(hell, I have never seen it and I’m discussing a piece from it). The second, is much more widely known. Both are from the 1970’s. Before I was born.

Copyright: Universal Music Group

The Cowboys Overture

This piece is from the 1972 John Wayne western, The Cowboys. The piece itself is very ‘western’. As you would expect with a name such as The Cowboys. You can picture an open range and wild horses based on the notes being played. It has a bouncy and playful start. With all sections of the orchestra playing great roles. It’s fun. For me though, the piece really takes hold in the middle. When the playfulness stops and everything slows down and quiets. The oboe’s solo, to me, brings night to the prairie. The whole middle section is poetic. Then the French horns usher in a rise to the volume just prior to things getting a little mysterious. Then the main theme returns. With a PUNCH. The bass instruments provide a backbone for the soaring overture. 

I had the pleasure of playing this piece on tuba and trombone while in the regional wind symphony that I mentioned. It was a challenge on both instruments. And super fun. The trombones, as are usually the case in John Williams’ works, bring a lot to the table. And the tuba part explores the whole range of the horn. Which was fun. And a great change of pace for me. That middle part that I mentioned above, where the bass provides the backbone, was so fun to play. As the tuba fills in for the missing stringed double bass that a winds-only symphony does not have. It was not a difficult or challenging section. But it is a steady blast of a low foghorn type note that carries the whole piece at that soaring moment. Love it. I have great memories of rehearsing and performing with that group.


Copyright: Universal Music Group

The Main Theme from Superman

I’ve always been much more of a Marvel Comics fan. So I am admittedly not a Superman fan( DC). But the Main Theme from this movie is an example of just about everything that I love about John Williams’ writing and use of brass instruments. From the opening bars you know that this is going to be huge. And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s like he gave the brass carte blanche to sing as loud and as powerful as possible and the rest of the orchestra had better keep up.

The first time I played this piece was on trombone. It was part of a medley of John Williams’ pieces, and it was a treat. Particularly in the middle section where the trombones carry the theme. I was playing second or third chair at the time, so I was covering some of the lower range. And it was still great. I remember finding it way too easy to get carried away. Drawing the ire of the director. But I am sure got it. He was a brass man himself.


Thank You Star Wars

Thank You Mr. Williams

To wrap this up, I will say the following; I am not the biggest con-going Star Wars superfan. And I have never read a single novel or scrap of fan-fiction. I cannot name every character, race, allegiance, etc. But I do love the series, and I owe Star Wars a lot. While I have been heavily influenced by music since before I could comprehend, well, anything. I really do feel that it was Star Wars, and the brilliance of John Williams’ compositions that opened my eyes, ears and mind. Setting me on a musical journey that allowed me to see and accomplish so much.

A journey that allowed me to perform on so many different stages with so many talented people young and old. In front of thousands of people. I was also able to play so many of the pieces that I grew up loving(and learned so many new ones). And even though I am no longer playing or performing, I am grateful for the experiences and the memories. 

And who knows. Maybe I will dust off one of my horns one day, and play again.

[This post was originally published at Otherverse Games & Hobbies]



Robert

All of these are true except for one:

Robert is: a Hobbyist, a Music Lover, an RPG Gamer, a Mustard Lover, Chaotic Neutral, a Japanese Speaker, a Veteran, an Otaku, a Table Tennis Player, an Anime Fan, an Aviation Professional, a New York Rangers Fan, a Chaos Lover With Loyalist Tendencies.

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