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Classical 101

Star Wars: 'Rogue One,' Wagner, and A New Minimalism

Rogue One Gallery: www.starwars.com
A screenshot from the 'Star Wars: Rogue One' official gallery shows Storm Troopers patrolling through tides in an erie display of calm.

The Empire, The Rebellion, The Force; They've all got their visual cues and they've all got their own sound in the Star Wars SciFi-Fantasy universe.

We recognize The Imperial March and Luke's Theme as cultural icons at this point, because that is what a strong theme, or leitmotif, does. It brings to mind the image and the feeling of the character or situation that it describes. 

But times are a-changing. And now we have "BRAAAM!"... Wait, what?

Soundscapes vs. Movie Soundtrack Compositions

Before we get to the epic-ness of Star Wars: Rogue One, let's take a look at "BRAAAM!"

You may be scratching your head and wondering what on earth "BRAAAM!" is, but I promise you have heard this sound effect/compositional tool in a movie soundtrack, if you have seen a single action film in the last nine years. 

It seems to have started with the film, The Inception

Wherever it began, we must come to terms with this sound being the new normal for about 90 percent of movie compositions. So where does this leave us with Star Wars, the epitome of Romantic era-inspired music? How will the evolution of sound-scaping effect a series that is not exactly known for minimalism?

Credit www.starwars.com
What musical theme comes to mind from this image? A horse breathing sound through a dark mask, maybe?

Romanticism in The Movies

"What is Romanticism and how is it a characteristic or defining element of the music of John Williams," you ask?

Simply put, music of the Romantic period is suggestive of the primacy of an individual's experience; it's music that describes how events or a narrative make you feel. This can be compared to the primacy of Structure and Order in Classical music or the primacy of explaining a Narrative in programmatic music. Likewise, this is also very different than the sound-scaping nature of Minimalism.

Minimalism often focuses much more on the process of composition-- think of John Cage's use of I Ching's methods of chance-- than of the product-- think of the compositions of John Williams and how he uses specific sounds to achieve an aural effect. 

Let's take a look at the Romanticism of Star Wars soundtracks: 


This style of composition is reminiscent of Beethoven and Brahms, whereas the music of the "BRAAAM!" era is more suggestive of the style of  Penderecki.

The music of John Williams plays upon Romantic themes and even delves into Wagnerian uses of the leitmotif. The leitmotif is a musical suggestion, typically of a specific character or event.

Here, let's listen to all of them.


And here are some typical Wagnerian leitmotifs: 


See how similar these can be? Obviously these two composers, John Williams and Richard Wagner, are from completely different worlds, but they were also scoring somewhat similar dramas. Even down to the incest between Luke and Leia .... oooh, burn!

Comparable to the incest in the Ring Cycle's Die Walküre between Seiglinde and Seigmund. Blegh.

Credit Wikipedia
"The Valkyries" by artist Robert Engle.

The Music of Rogue One 

So where does this leave us in terms of deciphering how the music of Rogue One will be used in the upcoming film? Will it comment upon the narrative a la Williams' usual Romantic influences, or play as less of a frontal lobe role like the "BRAAAM!" sound effect? The composer, Michael Giacchino, has a lot riding on his shoulders, so let's take a listen.

Let's look at the two main trailers: 


This trailer takes motivic elements, uses them as piecemeal for theme and variation interludes, and pastes it together with the "BRAAAM!" sound and other sound effects like Darth Vader's iconic breathing sound. So it's a marriage of old and new in a sort of patchwork. 


Ostinatos. Lots of ostinatos.

Although there are epic brass gestures similar to the Romatic Williams Suite, the bulk of this trailer features a repetitive string ostinato. If, "Rebellions are built on hope," then this trailer is built on stepwise motives typical of minimalist compositions.

But — I highly doubt that it was composed in the style of minimalism a la John Cage or Steve Reich. It simply borrows the string ostinato as a platform for the "BRAAAM!" sound and the slow, grand gestures of the Williams themes. 

Credit www.starwars.com
Is this our heroine decked out in armor? Whoever it is, they look awesome.

So, what can we guess from these two trailers and two independent tracks? Basically, this film will attempt to ride the line between the fantasy of old Star Wars and the expectations of contemporary audiences.

We, as listeners, have come to expect much more soundscaping and much less narrative explanation in our film scores. The soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings is often regaled as a legacy in film scores for SciFi-Fantasy major motion pictures, but those are about 15 years old now. 

Let that sink in for a minute. 

And pass the popcorn.