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15 March 2017

16. Forty years ago in a galaxy far, far away....

That a work of creation struggles and insistently demands to be brought into being is a fact that no genuine artist would think of denying.  Often, the demand may impose itself in defiance of the authors considered interests and at the most inconvenient moments.  Publisher, bank-balance, and even the conscious intellect may argue that the writer should pursue some fruitful and established undertaking; but they will argue in vain against the passionate vitality of a work that insists on manifestation.  The strength of the insistence will vary from something that looks like direct inspiration to something that resembles a mere whim of a wandering mind; but whenever the creatures desire for existence is dominant, everything else will have to give way to it; the writer will push all other calls aside and get down to his task in a spirit of mingled delight and exasperation. [pp. 140f.]
Thus the always fascinating Dorothy L. Sayers in The Mind of the Maker, her examination of the human creative mind via a Trinitarian analogy.  She argues that even before a creator may have a clear conception of it, a creature (artwork?) has an existence of its own and insists on being realized in form knowable outside of the creators mind.  Elsewhere in the same treatise she writes
[Let us imagine that] Our perfect writer is in the act of composing a worklet us call it the perfect poem.  At a particular point in this creative act he selects the right word for a particular place in the poem.  There is only the one word that is dead right in that place for the perfect expression of the Idea.  The very act of choosing that one right word automatically and necessarily makes every other word in the dictionary a wrong word....  Now, the mere fact that the choice of the right word is a choice implies that the writer is potentially aware of all the wrong words as well as the right one....  Potentially and contingently, his intelligence knows all the wrong words.  He is free, if he chooses, to call all or any of those wrong words into active being within his poem....  But the perfect poet does not do so, because his will is subdued to his Idea, and to associate it with the wrong word would be to run counter to the law of his being.  He proceeds with his creation in a perfect unity of will and Idea, and behold! it is very good.   [pp. 104f.]
And all of this is in an analogical discussion of the origin of evil....  But it is this ex post facto sense of inevitability that I want to highlight.  That was the word used in a particularly purple Leonard Bernstein passage, expounding on why Beethoven was a great artist:
Always probing and rejecting in his dedication to perfection, to the principle of inevitability.  This somehow is the key to the mystery of a great artist:  that for reasons unknown to him or to anyone else, he will give away his energies and his life just to make sure that one note follows another inevitably.  It seems rather an odd way to spend ones life; but it isnt so odd when we think that the composer, by doing this, leaves us at the finish with the feeling that something is right in the world, that something checks throughout, something that will follow its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.  [p. 93]
My interest in variant texts is sometimes an idle curiosity about what publishers have seen fit to present a buying public, but most of the time it is the drive to know more about uncertainties and second thoughts that composers faced as they tried to bring a work to fruition.  The final product may seem as if it were inevitable, but even in works generally accepted as masterpieces of their kind, the progress toward the familiar versionwhether or not this is the Fassung letzter Handis not inevitable nor even inexorable, and may unfold with various fits and starts.  A few summers ago I was fascinated to read Dominic McHugh’s account of the challenges that Lerner and Loewe faced in trying to morph G. B. Shaws Pygmalion into a musical.  My Fair Lady was a hit musical by the time they were done with it, but at many points along the line it was not at all obvious what to doeven how to end it.  With a good portion of the work done, they aborted the project, only to return a year later to bring it to fruition.  And similar tales could be told of a great many piecesmany more, Im sure, than I will ever know about.

The artists perennial divine dissatisfaction notwithstanding, I tend to think writers and composerswith rare exceptions like Felix Mendelssohngenerally know when theyve produced something that is pretty much what they were trying to say, or at least the best version of it they can get on paper at the moment.  Or at least something they can live with.  (Sure, they may change it later.)  So I was startled a few months ago to be reminded of a musical moment which in my estimation is pretty much perfect, but of which the composer was unsure even in the recording studio, recording five substantially different takessubstantially in that the musical substance was different each time.  It wasnt just a matter of the performers playing to his satisfaction, but rather of not being certain which performers should play what and when.

And so we go back exactly forty years ago this month:  March 1977, when 86 musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra sat for eight days of sessions under the baton of composer John Williams to record the music for the soundtrack of STAR WARS.

I was a little too young for STAR WARS (and somehow I feel like I have to capitalize it), being just over two years old when it came out.  But I had two older brothers, and my childhood was inevitably saturated with STAR WARS stuff, including the LP record The Story of STAR WARS, which juxtaposed soundbytes from the film with narration, and a generous share of Williamss score.  I must have listened to that album many times, as when I saw the film again in the theater in 1997 I was surprised how the lines of dialogue excerpted in that LP jumped out at me as intimately familiar, despite a general unfamiliarity with the complete film.  Coinciding with the 1997 re-release, I bought the re-released soundtrack for the first of the films, figuring it was the sort of thing someone of my generation and background needed to know better:  STAR WARS as cultural obligation.

Now as my children get older (and as the franchise of films keeps expanding), I sensed the same obligation.  So I borrowed the DVD from a friend and one night sat down with the kids to watchknowing I was going to be pausing every 20 seconds to explain (at the 7-year-old and 5-year old level) what was going on.  There was the familiar 20th-Century Fox fanfare, and then the pregnant silence under the words A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....  And then that memorable cymbal clash + B-flat explosion, the fanfare that opens the main title music blasting at us, over the iconic opening crawl.  (Watch it here, almost as in 1977.)  Suddenly I was in tears, and I couldnt say why exactly.  Sentimental memories from childhood?  But those opening three bars are as close to perfect musicdoing the right thing at the right timethat I know; and Im usually a snob about such things.

They liked the movie, and so a few days later I took the soundtrack CD off the shelf and put it on in the car while taking them to school.  A while later, driving and without even noticing that the music had gone off, suddenly a voice crackled over the speakers:  Take sixteen.  And then for the next two minutes or so, there was the first musical cue of the film, starting with the main title music.  Then Take seventeen, and there it was all over again.  The 1997 release (and apparently some subsequent reissues) includes a hidden extra, an archive of the five session takes of the main title music.  I had heard all these years ago but had totally forgotten them.

As I said above, there are substantial differences in the takes.  To use a philological term, the takes are actually variant readings.  The most stunning of these to me was that three of the five takes started with a pick-up chord before the B-flat fanfareflat-VI G-flat major chord, swooping up with a crescendo into the familiar downbeat.  Really?!?  That famous first chord almost wasnt the first chord?!?  Searching around on the web, these tracks are not generally available from legal streaming services.  (For the moment, at least, these can be accessed on archive.org (starting at 05:00 on this track [Track 119]), although I can't imagine that theyll always be accessible there.)

An authorized score for this music has been published as a concert suite for full orchestra, but I avoided consulting it until after listening and transcribing (sometimes from half-speed files) what I could hear, and consulting others with acute ears.  When I finally compared my five transcriptions with the published score, there were even more surprises.  Here is the middle of the scorebrass and percussionfor the three-bar opening fanfare as published:
SOURCE:  cropped scan of p. 1 of STAR WARS:  Suite for Orchestra, I. Main Title
There are a number of differences between the published version and the five takes from the 1977 sessions; indeed, none of those takes is accurately represented by the published score, at least as far as my ear can telleven Take 19, which was the one used for the film soundtrack for this passage (complete with a very obvious cracked trumpet note on beat 3 of b. 3).  For example, while it is a most effective and even obvious idea to have the first trumpet on the high B-flat (written C here) tonic for the initial chord, I dont hear this on any of the takes from the 1977 soundtrack.  In all but Take 20 that pitch is there in woodwinds and tremolo strings, but not trumpet.  That trumpet top B-flat is very clear on the soundtrack of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and so perhaps it was a very early revision.  (I also have my suspicions that the Empire main title is using a larger brass section, maybe 4 trumpets and 4 trombones; I have no way of confirming that, but it sounds thicker to my ear, even when the parts are in unison.)

Another way in which the score differs from the 1977 takes is the thirty-second notes in (at least) the trombone part in b. 1.  I have puzzled over this:  is it just sloppy playing?  Were the 32nds on the part, but the players just werent able to articulate them fast enough?  When I listen to it at half-speed, I hear something that sounds like triplets (i.e., only three iterations in each of those half-beats).  Are the 32nds being muddled up by the players, or were they reading triplet 16ths?  With the trumpets in b. 2, it is harder to tell, as in each of the five takes I hear the trumpets play four iterations, but except for Take 19 (the one on the film), these notes slightly too early and too slow, as if triplet-16ths.  The effect is this:
SOURCE:  my transcription of the rhythms suggested by the playing on Take 16, 17, 18, and 20; only on Take 19 are the trumpets late enough for me to believe they are reading (but not quite playing) 32nds.  With the trombones, sometimes the first of the triplet groups isnt clearly articulated (Take 17 especially).  Also, in Take 20 there is no initial chord from the trumpets (nor indeed anyone else).
As it happens, on the soundtrack of Empire, the trumpets are very clearly 32nds, but the tromboneson which it is admittedly more difficult to make such quick notes speak cleanlyare still pretty muddy.

I mentioned above the G-flat swoosh into the downbeat on Takes 16, 17 and 18.  (This upbeat is even slightly elongated in Takes 17 and 18just a bit longer than a beat of the ensuing tempo.  And I havent tried to calculate where this extra beat would need to begin on the film to preserve the rest of the synchronization, but I think it would have to be when the screen is still completely black just before the text STAR WARS appears.)   For these takes the harp glissando that appears in b. 3 of the published score happens instead as a component of this initial swoosh (and presumably with the harp set on a G-flat major scale, although it is devilishly hard to discern).  When the upbeat was deleted for Take 19 (and 20), the glissando was moved to the end of b. 3 and adapted to the dominant harmony.

The upbeat of the first three takes also has a woodwind flourisha scale leading up to the high B-flat.  The strings seem to have this too, and certainlyas in the familiar versionfrom the downbeat the violins prolong high B-flats (in octaves) with a tremolo for most of these three bars, doubled by the triangle roll.  (Trill?  What do you call it on the triangle?)  That shimmering background is a memorable hallmark of this musical moment.  Thus it is astonishing to discover that Take 20the last of the takes, the one just past the keeper (no. 19)begins very sparsely:  no big chord, no string tremolo, no woodwinds.  Just the cymbal clash, the rolling triangle and the unison trombones.  The horns, trumpets and tuba accumulate gradually, but there is no hint of the rest of the ensemble until the pick-up to b. 4.  (This starts at 14:38 on the track on archive.org, and its spareness really must be heard to be believed.)  Was this seriously considered for the iconic introduction?  Shocking as it may seem with the benefit of hindsight, this was a plausible alternative in the studio.

I havent attempted to scrutinize the remainder of the main title music on these five tracks so carefully, but as far as I can tell, all of the variants in the first portion (except for the relocation of the harp gliss. mentioned above) were accomplished by having various players remain silent at designated places.  Thus all of these could be accomplished with the same parts on the stands.  In that case, maybe in Take 20 they recognized that they had just gone too far with the tacet instructions.  In any case, these are all orchestration details.  Did Williams orchestrate this passage, or his collaborator Herbert W. Spencer?  Was Williams just editing from the podium?   Probably these questions could be answeredthe composer is still with us, after allbut answering them is beyond the scope of my blog.  (There's a reason I work with dead composers:  they cant answer back.)  Still, examining these more closely has been a good reminder for me that the inevitable may rarely seem that way at the time.

[ADDENDUM   22 March 2017:  Brendan Finan responds to this post on his blog at http://www.brendanfinan.net/wordpress/a-star-wars-speculation/]

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I also had no idea there were these variants.

    I also shared Star Wars with my kids (the older two, who are 6 and 4 now) for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I was young enough that the initial Star Wars fervor had subsided before I could become aware of it, but I did catch on when the remastered versions were released.

    BTW, great writing and presentation, as always.