A new Star Wars score by the one and only John Williams is a big deal. For fans of John Williams, there is no bigger deal as for many fans and musicians, it was his first Star Wars score that ignited their passion for music. A new Star Wars score is certainly a big deal for me for that very reason – I’m a huge Williams fan and somewhat of an amateur musician. I began jotting down some thoughts on John Williams’ new score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but quickly found myself detouring into some reflections on anticipating and experiencing this and previous Star Wars scores.
The Music Awakens is unique in that it is the first Star Wars score released since Web 2.0 came of age with all the social media tools and sites it brought into our daily lives. It is also the first Star Wars score released since smartphones became ubiquitous.
Those experiences of anticipating and discovering the prequel trilogy scores as they were released in 1999, 2002, and 2005 were aided and enhanced by the gradual growth and expansion of the still relatively young internet. The same period of course also saw development of music players and storage size. It was only a 6-year period, but much changed between 1999 and 2005.
I was living in Australia and still listening to cassette tapes in 1999 when the first prequel, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), was released at a time when the internet was still in its pre-YouTube infancy. 1999 was the year that Napster first came alive, but I was oblivious to that at the time. The Internet in 1999, as far as I was concerned at least, consisted of hotmail and two John Williams fan sites. This is how the oldest site, The John Williams Fan Pages, looked back in 1999. Considering that the site hasn’t been updated since 2008, it is surprising it is still online. The Force is strong with that one.
The second site, The John Williams Fan Network, was created during the lead up to the release of The Phantom Menace to help connected fans worldwide anticipate, discuss, experience, and argue over the first new Star Wars score in 16 years. Here is how it looked according to the Internet Archive’s earliest capture from 2001. The site is still alive today, and its forums are quite active, aided and fuelled by the buzz surrounding The Force Awakens and Williams latest score, The BFG (2016). The site has grown to become the premier John Williams site in the galaxy. While I post quite rarely, I visit it everyday and had the surreal experience of being recognized as a poster there by a fellow John Williams fan I met at a party in Seoul in May, 2016.
I was listening to music on MiniDisc in 2002 when the second awful prequel, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, was released. That was one year after the release of the iPod. Although I considered myself an early adaptor, my first iPurchase didn’t take place until 2008.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005), was released three weeks after the first video was uploaded to YouTube, a year before the birth of Twitter, and some 16 months before Facebook was opened to the public. I had moved to Korea by then where my music collection was soon in MP3 format and played daily on my trusty iRiver H340 that sometimes broke.
I assumed that John Williams’ days of writing Star Wars music were over, but thanks to The Force and to George Lucas for selling all things Star Wars to Disney, I was wrong.
Internet buzz among film score enthusiasts about a possible seventh John Williams’ Star Wars score began in October 2012 when Disney announced it had bought Star Wars from George for the bargain price of $4 billion. The announcement was sweetened with promises of numerous new films in the years ahead. Regarding John Williams’ involvement, “Would he or wouldn’t he?” was the question on the lips of film score enthusiasts and wizened Star Wars fans.
It was a while though before hints that John Williams would return were given. On April 30, 2013, J.J. Abrams held a press conference to promote Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) along with its stars. A few reporters, however, were more interested in Star Wars. Abrams was asked if Star Trek composer, long-time collaborator, and friend Michael Giacchino would write the new Star Wars score. After talking about Giacchino in the glowing terms he deserves, Abrams said that he expected that Williams would return since he was there from the beginning. It wasn’t a confirmation per se, but it certainly was A New Hope.
Giacchino, himself a life-long Williams fan, said around the same time that he would rather hear a new John Williams score than write one himself. While he would get his wish, he wasn’t left out of the Star Wars loop entirely. Like James Bond’s Daniel Craig, Giacchino appeared in the film under the mask of a stormtrooper. He had also previously contributed music to Disney’s Star Tours ride.
A couple of weeks later at the 2013 BMI Film and TV Awards, Williams himself all but confirmed his involvement when said he planned to and fully expected to return:
A week later, Williams further firmed up his involvement: “We’ve certainly talked about that, and I’m happy and willing to do it.” The rest, as they say, is history. And it is a history quite well preserved on the Internet through all Web 2.0 has to offer. Over the next two and a half years, more and more tidbits were revealed as Williams began the enormous task of creating new themes and hours of mostly new orchestral music.
On July 27, 2013, Williams announced his gratitude at being asked to return and his excitement at the task ahead. He had yet to learn of the film’s plot, but he described his expected approach of referring to older material while writing new themes and material for new characters, new situations, and new worlds.
Speaking of Twitter, which didn’t exist when the last Star Wars film was released, it also played a role in building exciting Williams fans. The Twitter account of JoAnn Kane Music Service provided us with a few of the maestro’s quotes from the podium as he endeavored to elicit from the orchestra the exact sound he heard inside his head.
A few days before the premier, 60 Minutes delivered a wonderful look at the recording process.
Another pre-release highlight was this 22-minute interview that includes snippets of a separate interview with J.J. Abrams talking about working with the Jedi Master.
I do not recall this amount of publicity for Williams contributions to the previous films nor any other projects for that matter. As I said at the top, a new Star Wars score by John Williams is a big deal. Not that Williams needs the attention, but it sure is nice to see his vital contributions not go unnoticed.
Finally, the day of the score’s release arrived – I was more excited about the music than that film, but that’s not to say I wasn’t excited about the film. It had to be better than the prequels, right? Off topic, the important point to note here is that the music was now inside my computer and my iPhone where it belonged.
Surprisingly, I remember being quite underwhelmed by my first few listens. While I easily recognized and enjoyed the appearance of older themes from the first trilogy including “Leia’s Theme”, “The Force Theme”, “The Rebel Fanfare”, the “Han Solo and the Princess” love theme, but sadly no “Darth Vader’s Theme”, the new themes and the new material in general didn’t initially excite me nor fill me with wonder and awe. A few tracks stood out though with an initial favorite being the beautiful melody that opens “The Jedi Steps and Finale”, the final piece of music in the film that leads into the end credits.
I did have more time to get used to and appreciate that melody as it was the only piece of score from the film to appear in one of the plethora of teasers, trailers, and TV spots that appeared in the lead-up to the film’s release. Some doubted that the then unidentified piece was from Williams’ new score, but I was certain it was from the moment I first heard it. There was no doubt at all in my mind that it originated from his pen and pencil at his piano.
My first viewing of the film helped me to acquaint myself with Williams’ new themes, but there were times when the joy of seeing The Millennium Falcon roar, soar, and swerve while taking on TIE fighters again for the first time since 1983 distracted me from the all-important music. Sure, the music is written to support the film, but as a long-time Williams fan, I’m of the opinion that only the music matters.
The end credits should have provided the chance to hear the music loud and uninterrupted with the movie as fresh in my mind as its possible to be, but alas, I had attended a charity showing to raise money for Doctors Without Borders, and the end credits music was turned off so the MC could speak. Doctors Without Borders? Doctors Without Respect for John Williams more like it. I booed and hissed and threw popcorn.
Seeing the movie and experiencing the music matched with the visuals that inspired it did help me to appreciate the score more, but it was still a few weeks before the score really clicked with me and all its themes revealed themselves. The motive for the Skywalker map, for example, is so short and fleeting, I might never had identified it as such if it hadn’t been pointed out by a helpful poster on the JWFan forums. Beyond identifying shorter less-obvious themes, the more obvious themes and the score proper began growing on me. The magic of John Williams, which I should never have doubted, had begun weaving its inevitable spell.
My second viewing of the film allowed me to concentrate more on the music and by then, I had begun to fall in love with “Rey’s Theme”. My third viewing allowed me to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
The film’s release didn’t mark the end of Williams-related news and surprises. Many goodies still awaited Williams fans unknowingly. There remained more than a few rewards for the long wait we die-hard Williams fans had to endure to hear John Williams’ seventh.
A first for a Star Wars score was its legitimate presence on YouTube almost as soon as the score was released – recall that the last Star Wars film was released around the same time that YouTube was born. At the time of writing (July 30, 2016), the upload of “Rey’s Theme”, which can be considered the score’s centerpiece, has over 4.2 millions views. More than twice the number of views of “March of the Resistance”, the score’s other major new theme. And I might as well add a few more favorite tracks.
Another surprise came in the form of 13 unreleased minutes of music courtesy of Disney’s The Force Awakens Academy Awards promotional CD which Disney was kind enough to share in MP3 format with the world free of charge barely weeks after the film’s release.
Hearing Williams himself share his thoughts on the score helped me to understand the score more and the thought process behind it. It also helped me to appreciate the man himself more although I wouldn’t have thought that possible.
Also released were photos from the recording sessions which offered further behind-the-scenes glimpses into a process that is not often revealed.
Another happy surprise came in the form of a recording of an extended concertized arrangement of “The Jedi Steps.” Williams included the arrangement in his official The Force Awakens suite published by Hal Leonard. While Williams has yet to record the piece, conductor Simon Pedroni, who recently recorded a solo piano album of Williams’ music, shared his orchestra’s performance of the piece on YouTube:
New Williams soundtracks almost always take me repeated listens to fully appreciate save for perhaps one or two tracks that are usually arrangements of new themes for concert performance. One major theme from Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) as explored in the piece “Where Dreams Are Born” is one such example. Its wordless and haunting siren call weaved its magic immediately, and 15 years later, I’m still well and truly under its spell.
The same is true for new albums by other favorite artists of mine. At first, the new album or soundtrack exists outside the artists body of work and can feel like an intruder until enough listens convince me it isn’t. Only then does the new album or soundtrack feel part of the artists’ oeuvre. When first heard, the new Star Wars pieces did indeed feel like intruders into Williams’ galaxy of Star Wars music. They were, after all, the new kids on the block, and I wasn’t quite ready to welcome them.
The Force Awakens lot longer to grow on me than previous Williams scores. In particular “March of the Resistance” was a piece that took a long to time for me to connect with. It wasn’t until around the 30th listen that the piece got my blood pumping. It was this arrangement for solo guitar that first helped me hear the piece in a new and favorable light. The guitar performance starts at the 2:22 mark. After that enlightening experience, I couldn’t stop listening to it.
Once the score grabbed my attention, it really grabbed it and refused to let go. Three months after its release, it was still the score that screamed “Pick me!” when I decided it was time for some music. For a while there, it felt like the only music I needed. The music has indeed awakened, or at least my mind had awakened to it. I can’t recall having such a long honeymoon period with a score. Pieces that initially didn’t grab me now feel like quintessential Star Wars pieces that belong on any Star Wars playlist and in any Williams concert. New kids on the block no longer, they are part of the family.
Of course once the dust had settled on The Force Awakens, the obvious question was again: “Will Williams return?” Without an official confirmation, we were left with hints that Williams himself offered at his May 6 concert in Philadelphia. His comment from the podium is the basis of this article entitled “John Williams May Not Return for Episode 8”, but I didn’t read anything in Williams quote to indicate an unwillingness to return. I assumed his comments were jests that offered hints of a willingness to return rather than an unwillingness: “I told the producers I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do the next one, but told them I didn’t want anyone else doing it either.”
On June 9, a day before Williams was honored by the American Film Institute (AFI) at a gala event, he was a little more concrete: “If I can do it, I certainly will. I told Kathy Kennedy I’m happy to do it, but the real reason is, I didn’t want anybody else writing music for Daisy Ridley.” Steven Spielberg also confirmed Williams would score his fifth Indiana Jones film. It was a good day for fans of Williams and his most famous franchises.
On June 10, John Williams became the first composer to receive AFI’s lifetime achievement award. Since the event took place so soon after the release of The Force Awakens and since Star Wars music is so iconic, it is fitting that there were numerous mentions of it from the man himself and from those lucky enough to have worked with him. Here are some highlights:
Finally, just as I was editing and rewording all of the above, Williams confirmed at an August 13, 2016 concert that he will indeed return to score Star Wars Episode 8. Furthermore, he will view an early cut of the film in September. His confirmation came as no surprise, but his upcoming viewing of the film did. It boggles my mind to think that in a few weeks Williams will begin thinking about what existing themes will need repeating and what environments, situations, and characters will call for new themes that will I’m sure be as brilliant and memorable as their predecessors.
And with that, I think it’s time to finish, the music of John Williams deserves the last word. Let’s go back to where it all began with the concert version of the “Star Wars Main Theme” composed way back in 1977 when Williams had no idea there would be a sequel nor any idea he would be adding to the body of work he had just started some 40 years later.