A Star Wars Speculation

James Brooks Kuykendall writes one of my favourite classical music blogs, Settling Scores. It’s pretty wonkish: Kuykendall goes into the weeds on the differences between different editions of the same musical score. It’s fascinating, nitpicky, and esoteric.

The other day, Kuykendall posted about something I didn’t expect: John Williams’ opening fanfare to Star Wars. Specifically, he was writing about the first chord of the film—or, more to the point, the chord that almost wasn’t first:

[T]here are substantial differences in [other takes of the fanfare from the recording session]. 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 fanfare—a “flat-VI” G flat major chord, swooping up with a crescendo into the familiar downbeat. Really?!? That famous first chord almost wasn’t the first chord?!?

Kuykendall goes on to explore the differences between the takes. In short, the right orchestral balance was found by having more or fewer of the musicians play their parts. Different parts were left out until the music became too spare, then the preceding take was used:

[I]t is astonishing to discover that Take 20—the 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. … Was this seriously considered for the iconic introduction?

I find this fascinating, partly because it’s the same iterative approach the film took to its logo design.

But back to the G flat chord. The case is interesting, for a reason Kuykendall doesn’t explore. In his post, he states that he’s not sure when the chord would appear in synchronisation with the film, but I have an idea about that.

Star Wars was a deliberate throwback to earlier films, and George Lucas wanted to use the original Fox fanfare, composed by Alfred Newman, to open it. Newman’s fanfare had fallen out of favour by the time Lucas made Star Wars, but the director presumably wanted the “old Fox movie” feel. And Williams set the Star Wars fanfare as a direct response to the Fox one. Quoth Wikipedia:

By the 1970s, the Fox fanfare was being used in films sporadically. George Lucas enjoyed the Alfred Newman fanfare so much that he insisted for it to be used on Star Wars (1977)…John Williams composed the film’s opening theme in the same key as the fanfare (B flat major), serving as an extension to it of sorts.

I would guess that the G flat chord that Kuykendall explored in his post wasn’t intended as an opening to the Star Wars fanfare, but as a direct link from the Fox fanfare to the Star Wars one. Presumably, Williams and his team tried it out a couple of times, but it didn’t work well enough, and was dropped.

My suspicion is that the G flat chord originally appeared instead of the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” (If you think the opening chord is iconic, imagine removing that text!) The music needs something to transition from the big B flat ending of the Fox fanfare to the big B flat beginning of the Star Wars fanfare, and in the end the film uses a long silence over those words. But I think Williams’ original plan may have been to instead bridge the gap with a single transitional chord. When that didn’t work, some kind of transitional image would have been needed to fill the silence. Hence the text.

To test this, I’ve cut together the three takes from the special edition recording—the ones with the G flat chord—with the Alfred Newman fanfare. I think my hypothesis sounds plausible at least. That said, even if I’m right, it’s something that Williams deemed a failure, so the best I can hope for is an inconclusive result.

1.

In this version, the G flat chord passes very quickly. Even for a link, it makes sense for the chord to be a little more sustained, which is exactly what happens in the next two takes.

2.

This version and the next draw out the intermediate chord a little longer, to make for a bigger landing on the Star Wars fanfare.

3.

If I’m right—and I’m not saying I am—then this is the last take before Williams decided to drop the G flat chord completely. The differences between this take and the previous one are pretty small, especially in the extract I’ve included, but I’ve kept it for posterity.

Kurosawa’s Mask of the Black Death Script to Be Filmed Posthumously

Yocelin Acevedo reports for Indiewire:

Akira Kurosawa’s shelved script “The Mask of the Black Death” will finally hit the big screen.

Chinese studios Huayi Brothers (“Dragon Blade,” “Mojin: The Lost Legend”) and CKF Pictures (“Chongqing Hot Pot,” “Mojin: The Lost Legend”) will produce the film based on the late Japanese filmmaker’s screenplay. The studios made the announcement Wednesday during a press conference in Beijing, as reported by Chinese newspaper Global Times.

I love Kurosawa (and Edgar Allan Poe, whose Masque of the Red Death is the inspiration), so I’m cautiously optimistic about this. Cautiously, because I’ve seen too many bad films made from good material.

Toner Quinn: You’re Not an Artist, You’re a Start-Up

I recently reread this 2014 piece by Toner Quinn for the Journal of Music. (It was published a few months before I started writing regularly on this blog.)

Start-ups tell a good story. They are positive, highly ambitious and unapologetic about the funding they need to make their business a success. They are also unafraid of making mistakes, of changing their minds, trying something new, even reinventing their entire idea if necessary—known as ‘pivoting’. Start-ups don’t overly concern themselves with sales in the short-term, they are in the world of ideas, imagination and innovation, and focus on being ahead of the curve. Not even complete failure inhibits them. They are imbued with a philosophy of ‘fail fast’ – if it’s not working, quit and move on to the next thing. To have started several start-ups, fail and then start again, is a virtue.

I think Quinn is right: there’s plenty for artists to learn from the ambition, the organisation, and the nimbleness of start-ups. Not least: figure out what you can make that will attract interest, make it unique, and get the word out.

I know a lot of artists have a knee-jerk reaction against association with any sort of business, so here’s Samuel Beckett with the same suggestion:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

At the Museum of Modern Art, Protesters Demand Something

It’s understandable for artists to protest Trump, both because of his clear authoritarian tendencies and because his administration has cut the two most prominent federal arts programmes. But there’s a major problem when you hold a protest and nobody understands what it’s about:

Many visitors to the museum listened to the words but some seemed to have trouble understanding the message, which was clarified by handouts to the crowd that included a graphic by the Guerrilla Girls. One high school student from Virginia named Miranda was standing on the balcony when the protest began and told me she thought the protest was about: “The state of the world at this time and the election of Donald Trump.” She wasn’t clear about the action’s connection to the museum, but she thought most people visiting probably agreed with the protesters. When I explained to her that the action was directed at a MoMA board member connected to Trump, she said she understood the protestor’s intention. “I don’t agree with the state of the world now, it’s not safe,” she added to explain why she was unhappy with the new government.

Another group of visitors on the ground floor also had trouble understanding what was going on even as they were reading the handouts. When I approached two visitors from Charlotte, North Carolina, I asked them what they thought the issue was and one said, “Cultures are not being represented correctly, is that it?”

If your explanatory leaflet doesn’t explain, you need to work on your messaging.

Varied Listening

Steve Smith, on the Log Journal, recently posted a nice meditation on a day in the life of a record addict.

And at some point it hits you: The amount of excellent music out there that you just don’t know about yet is quite likely infinite.

There’s so much music, period, being made and recorded nowadays that this isn’t at all unlikely. Or if not infinite, it’s effectively so: more than any human can expect to hear in their life. Smith also commented in an earlier post that when Simon Cummings, author of the excellent blog 5:4, posted his “Best of 2016” list, it “included any number of fascinating recordings I hadn’t even heard of.”

The other day, I posted a quote from Brian Eno about the ephemerality of music. Here it is again:

I really think that for us, who all grew up listening primarily to recorded music, we tend to forget that until about 120 years ago ephemeral experience was the only one people had. I remember reading about a huge fan of Beethoven who lived to the age of 86 [in the era before recordings], and the great triumph of his life was that he’d managed to hear the Fifth Symphony six times. That’s pretty amazing. They would have been spread over many years, so there would have been no way of reliably comparing those performances.

All of our musical experience is based on the the possibility of repetition, and of portability, so you can move music around to where you want to be, and scrutiny, because repetition allows scrutiny. You can go into something and hear it again and again. That’s really produced quite a different attitude to what is allowable in music. I always say that modern jazz wouldn’t have existed without recording, because to make improvisations sound sensible, you need to hear them again and again, so that all those little details that sound a bit random at first start to fit. You anticipate them and they seem right after a while.

The promise and the curse of being a music fan in the early 21st Century, I think, is a new kind of ephemerality. There’s simply so much great music out there, and it’s so readily available thanks to the Internet that, regardless of how good it is, it’s going to be harder and harder to listen to anything more than a couple of times. Every album you listen to a second time is a new album you can’t hear.

I’m the sort of music fan who will listen to the same album twenty times on repeat, when I like it. That means that my natural tendency is to miss an awful lot of great music. Over the past half-year or so, particularly since I’ve had a kid on the way, I’ve been trying to vary my listening more, to avoid the trap of only hearing (or playing for her) stuff I’m familiar with.

I try to be systematic, because imposing systems on myself is the best way I’ve found to avoid being lazy. I thought about the types of music that I tend to listen to most often (six months ago, mainly orchestral and piano music written by white men in the 18th and 20th centuries, and rock music from the 20th), and came up with six categories of work that defy those types:

  • Something written since the year 2000
  • Something I haven’t heard before
  • Something more than ten minutes long
  • Something by a composer I usually don’t like
  • Something not written for solo piano or for orchestra
  • Something written by a woman and/or a member of a minority ethnicity

I try to tick each of those boxes at least twice a day. And I try to take it easy on myself too: one work can tick multiple boxes (which is useful on heavy-workload days, when bedtime comes and I’ve barely listened to anything). There’s a handy iOS and Apple Watch app I use to encourage me, called Streaks. It tracks the number of consecutive days you’ve succeeded in doing something. (I was somewhere in the 40s for all of mine, before a couple of rough days last week broke everything.)

The other side of the coin that’s made this possible is Bandcamp. I’ve made my opinion of streaming in the context of classical and other niche-interest music clear in the past (more than once), but I see Bandcamp as fundamentally different: it gives far more leeway to musicians to make and sell what they want, to make money from their sales, and to control what can get streamed. The music on the service is also often far more interesting.

I’ve found some great music through this system: Caroline Polachek’s (free!) electronic album Drawing the Target Around the Arrow, Alarm Will Sound’s Modernists, Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder. There’s been plenty I don’t like too, but that’s not the point of this effort. The point is to find my boundaries, and push them.

Ned Beauman on Mica Levi

Profile by Ned Beauman of one of the best film composers I’ve ever heard. I love this character moment:

“I know it must seem like I live in a cave,” she said to me at one point, and indeed I sometimes felt not so much like a journalist as like a clippings service, updating Levi on the progress of her own career. She was surprised to learn that she was the first female nominee for Best Original Score in sixteen years, and only the fifth in the history of the Academy Awards. She was surprised to learn that Alex Ross, a critic she admires, had praised her work on this Web site. She was surprised to learn that Karl Lagerfeld had used two pieces from her “Jackie” score for his recent Chanel couture show of sixties-inspired twinsets. Watching the video on my phone, she marvelled at the excess of the event, which was held in a mirrored arena in Paris’s Grand Palais. I asked her if she would be getting royalties from Chanel. “I should look into that!” she said.

Alex Ross on Julius Eastman

At The New Yorker, Alex Ross has an excellent piece on the resurgence of interest in Julius Eastman.

The major revelation, though, has been the brazen and brilliant music of Julius Eastman, who was all but forgotten at century’s end. Eastman found a degree of fame in the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, mainly as a singer: he performed the uproarious role of George III in Peter Maxwell Davies’s “Eight Songs for a Mad King,” in the company of Pierre Boulez, and toured with Meredith Monk. He achieved more limited notoriety for works that defiantly affirmed his identity as an African-American and as a gay man. (One was called “Nigger Faggot.”) As the eighties went on, he slipped from view, his behavior increasingly erratic. When he died, in 1990, at the age of forty-nine, months passed before Gann broke the news, in the Village Voice.

I hadn’t come across Eastman’s name before, but I’ve spent some time recently listening to his work. It’s confrontational minimalism, political and in-your-face; not content to drift into the background.

A Conversation With Brian Eno About Ambient Music

I really enjoyed this interview from Pitchfork. Eno’s approach to music is interesting—he composes while doing his email. But for a person who deliberately writes background music, that’s surely the right way to do it.

I’ve been quoting his story about the loss of ephemerality in music to my friends for days:

I really think that for us, who all grew up listening primarily to recorded music, we tend to forget that until about 120 years ago ephemeral experience was the only one people had. I remember reading about a huge fan of Beethoven who lived to the age of 86 [in the era before recordings], and the great triumph of his life was that he’d managed to hear the Fifth Symphony six times. That’s pretty amazing. They would have been spread over many years, so there would have been no way of reliably comparing those performances.

All of our musical experience is based on the the possibility of repetition, and of portability, so you can move music around to where you want to be, and scrutiny, because repetition allows scrutiny. You can go into something and hear it again and again. That’s really produced quite a different attitude to what is allowable in music. I always say that modern jazz wouldn’t have existed without recording, because to make improvisations sound sensible, you need to hear them again and again, so that all those little details that sound a bit random at first start to fit. You anticipate them and they seem right after a while.