It’s Christmas. Time for Star Wars.
Just how deeply the connection between Xmas and the ultimate space opera, exemplified by an ever-growing corpus of Christmas Yoda memes, has embedded itself in the collective consciousness is difficult to say, but it’s clear that Disney grasps it. Of course they trot out a new Star Wars movie every Christmas for those of us who woke up one CRT-blasted, C-3PO-cereal-sated morning to our very own AT-AT. With extra pack of D batteries. They know what we want for Christmas.
If such thoughts make me fret about being predictable, about consumer bingeing, about overthinking memes, it is immensely restorative to sit and listen to the double album of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), always my favorite single film of the franchise. In the last entry, while listening to the final movement of Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony, I had exclaimed excitedly at the mere hint of mildly crunchy American neo-romantic brass fanfare, “That’s Star Wars!” And now I lay claim to my Xer birthright and treat myself to a pre-Episode VIII session of OST, John Williams-style.
John Williams (b. 1932) gives so generously—too generously, I’m sure many have said—and so the experience of listening to a soundtrack album by him is like discovering a secret cache of fascinating deleted scenes. Of course there are many brilliant cues that appear more or less unscathed in the film. One is the opening of “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” the tune that everyone knows from Star Wars and the one that seems to me most like Wagner, because it both retains its identity in various contexts and suggests multiple powerful referents (the third movement from Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata being the most obvious). Another is the moment when Yoda raises Luke’s X-wing from the swamp on Dagobah, which is given over almost entirely to the music to “narrate.” (Hey, he gives Luke a present—he really is Yoda Claus!)
Another favorite moment is during the chase through the asteroid field, the music for which is so very exhilarating that C-3PO’s scream of terror seems like a natural extension of the climactic brass line. (How did this little piece of magic happen? Did John Williams hear Anthony Daniels’s scream and think, “Hm, the brass need to do something like that. I’ll write a screaming brass line. C-3PO screams, the brass scream, we all scream. . .for asteroid fields.”) A fraught favorite is the truly beautiful “Love Theme,” which finally gets the orchestral treatment it deserves in the closing scene of the film, as Luke and Leia, his arm around her, stand at the window on the medical frigate, looking out over the sweep of the whole galaxy. Right, so the only time we have the “Love Theme” as we’ve longed for it, it’s for. . .sibling embrace. Granted, they (and we) aren’t supposed to know this yet. But does this use of the “love theme” inject an intentional dose of ambiguity about the Luke/Leia relationship into the saga? Like Harry and Hermione dancing in the tent in The Deathly Hallows? Like Siegmund and Sieglinde in the first act of Die Walküre before the “reveal”? I’m pretty sure that the younger me just heard this moment as the uncomplicated and entirely sufficient love of all things Star Wars. Living in the nexus for a few decades has a way of complicating things.
All the moments just mentioned are easy to hear in the film. But then there are moments that the OST reveals that either didn’t make it into the film or that are obscured in a scene by (possibly) well-meaning foley artists or other sound design wizards. Two that struck me on this listen to the Empire double album were. . .
“Yoda’s Theme.” So this might not have been one of JW’s most impressive creations. It sounds a little like Close Encounters, a little like E.T., so much so that Williams might be accused of extraterrestrial stereotyping. The OST track has at certain moments a surprisingly saccharine quality, and listening to it changes my impression of who Williams thought Yoda was, at least in 1980. Too cloying, too sweet, too easy. The filmmakers knew better, so they cut out the overly sweet bits.
And then there’s “The Battle in the Snow,” which must count as one of the great tableaux in all the Star Wars movies. The emergence of the imperial walkers from the mist is one of those unforgettable filmic images. In the film itself the sound effects people go crazy here, adding all sorts of (arguably appropriate) battle noises. But the OST track reveals some shockingly creative music, much of it buried or absent from the film’s final cut. In the double album’s liner notes, John Williams describes this cue’s “unusual orchestration, calling for five piccolos, five oboes, a battery of eight percussion, two grand pianos, two or three harps, in addition to the normal orchestral complement.” He goes on to explain, “This was necessary in order to achieve a bizarre mechanical, brutal sound for the sequence showing Imperial Walkers, which are frightening inventions, advancing across a snowscape.” Five piccolos and oboes playing together?! That really is a frightening invention!! The more stunning thing to me, though, is the presence of piano timbre, which seldom comes through in the film.
This reminds me of a recent conversation I had with Bill Gokelman (Chair of the UIW Department of Music), who had played the piano part for some excerpts from Star Wars (as performed by the San Antonio Symphony) some years ago and was stunned by the demands placed on the pianist. With so much piano activity, why is there so little evidence of it in the film? Why hide the piano? Is it too human a sound, suggestive of real people playing real instruments? It’s certainly a sound that never emerges from Wagner’s pit. Or maybe the timbre itself comes across as too American neoclassical? Whatever the filmmakers might have thought when dusting the piano under the sonic rug, when I hear John Williams’s “frightful invention” on the OST, the reference that leaps to mind is George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique (1924), a fitting source of inspiration for the “dance” of AT-ATs on ice. Do you hear that, Disney? “AT-ATs on Ice.” There’s a fertile idea for a post-Episode IX theme park attraction. Yoda Claus can lift an X-wing from the impenetrable muck of Dagobah, so I’m sure he can manage a Star Wars ice show. Just don’t skimp on the lightsabers. Oh. And ask him to bring back C-3PO cereal. At least for the holidays.