STAR WARS: The Orchestra Awakens

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by Linda A. Rapka

IN A GALAXY NOT SO FAR, FAR AWAY….

For the first time in the epic film saga’s history, the music for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was scored here in Los Angeles with AFM Local 47 musicians.

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Composer John Williams with guest conductor Gustavo Dudamel during one of the scoring sessions for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” at Sony Studios. Photo courtesy Don Foster

John Williams, a Life Member of the musicians union, composed the music once again for this seventh installment in the “Star Wars” franchise. He has written the music for every film in the series since its 1977 debut, but while previous films were scored at Abbey Road with the London Symphony Orchestra, “The Force Awakens” marks the first time a “Star Wars” score was recorded stateside.

“This experience of working on the latest ‘Star Wars’ in Los Angeles is probably the most momentous of scoring occasions in our long history of recording,” said Bruce Dukov, a violinist who has recorded on over 1,800 motion pictures over the past 30 years. “The main reason is that for 38 years of that franchise, all the music was recorded in London. For us to be involved in this venture now is nothing less than fantastic, and worthy of major historic notation.”

Los Angeles, once the single major hub of film scoring work in the world, now shares this role with a handful of other orchestras around the globe. Though Hollywood remains a major player in the motion picture scoring industry, this work is increasingly shared among London and Eastern Europe. The decision to score the latest “Star Wars” installment in Los Angeles was made after director JJ Abrams and the producers heard Williams’ original music for the film’s first trailer, recorded with a Los Angeles orchestra put together by the composer’s longtime contractor Sandy De Crescent.

“There was an excitement about this that was palpable. It was just incredible,” said De Crescent, whose work with Williams began in the 1970s with Los Angeles orchestras contracted for such films as “E.T.,” “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park.” Scoring sessions for “The Force Awakens” took place at the historic Sony Scoring Stage (formerly MGM) over the span of several months beginning in April by freelance members of Local 47, sometimes dubbed the Hollywood Studio Orchestra. While Los Angeles musicians have long been widely acclaimed for their consummate musicianship, these particular sessions were jobs not taken lightly.

“There was not one person in the room at Sony that did not realize the gravity, the responsibility of the work that we were doing when we were scoring ‘Star Wars,’” said principal clarinetist Don Foster. “However, we are all human beings, and there was nothing more evident of this than when during one read-through we were simply scoring some background atmospheric music — then seemingly out of nowhere, the low brass entered with the original iconic Darth Vader motif. One could hear an audible ‘gasp’ from the entire orchestra, and while that take was essentially ruined, it proved two things: how timeless John’s music is, and how at that very moment we were all suddenly 11 years old again.”

The influence that “Star Wars” has had upon not only film culture, but upon popular culture around the world, cannot be understated. From casual moviegoer to students of film and of film music, the lasting frenzy surrounding everything “Star Wars” is a testament to just how huge an impact it made upon the way motion pictures and franchises are not only made, but also experienced.

“For virtually everyone who watched the original ‘Star Wars’ in 1977, the experience was an incredible revelation,” said percussionist Greg Goodall. “And for musicians, the main title was an astounding beginning to a powerful and moving soundtrack. I was a huge fan from bar one.”

Alongside “Jaws” and “Superman,” the composer’s most famous works are from the “Star Wars” saga — that loud blast from brass horns settling into a theme beloved by fans around the world. Williams has been nominated for 49 Academy Awards, winning five, and currently holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for a living person. He is the second most nominated person in Academy Awards history behind Walt Disney, whose legacy company acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 adding the “Star Wars” mega-franchise to its stable.

“The original ‘Star Wars’ series is special,” said Don Williams, timpanist and brother of the composer. “It is a great body of work on many levels. When I watched it for the very first time I was captivated by the ‘force’ and power of the movie as a whole and, of course, the music. I remember dreaming of the day when perhaps I would get my turn to play the music. And my dream came true 38 years later when Los Angeles musicians got the opportunity to record ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Doing this film was as thrilling as anything I’ve ever done. Everyone in the room and in the booth had a sense of being part of such a huge legacy. A sense of being part of history. It was ‘The John Williams Orchestra.’”

“John Williams is without a doubt the epitome of a great film composer,” Dukov said. “He has an impeccable sense of what is needed to support the film, whether the scene be seriously dramatic, swashbuckling action, or comedy. His writing for the orchestra is on the highest level of musical and instrumental prowess. He is a wonderful presence on the podium, and always is fully committed to conducting each take, with full energy and dedication. It is truly amazing to see a man of 83 years giving that level of energy. It inspires the orchestra to do the same! Also, he knows exactly what he needs to repair or redo, and never enervates the orchestra with needless and repetitive takes.”

“John Williams is a consummate professional in every way, and playing for him is always an honor — and especially so on such an historic film as ‘The Force Awakens,’” Goodall said. “He is an excellent and emotive conductor and that helps the musicians understand the emotional qualities that he is interested in capturing.”

Though not the most traditional, Williams’ direction is certainly descriptive. “Some of my favorite directions from him I could not help but jot down,” shared oboist Jessica Pearlman Fields. “‘Scare the children!’ he once yelled; ‘Play to the tenth row, shake the theater!’ and ‘Get louder on the long note, earn the eighth notes.’ Another favorite, of a particularly beautiful phrase, ‘That bar is a gem, we could steal it!’ He has a way with words, gestures and patience which earns such deep respect and admiration from his musicians — yes, his. I am so very grateful to have been able to work with and learn from him on this most memorable film.”

Hype around “The Force Awakens” began months before the first frame was even shot. Because of this, the scoring sessions were extremely secretive. The orchestra did not perform to picture as is typical for a major motion picture. Most photography was off limits. Sessions were closed, and were even reported to the union under a code name.

“Working on this film was very different from my experiences on other projects,” Pearlman Fields said. “The secrecy and yet total hype surrounding the film completely set it apart. We all had to sign NDAs and the film was never played behind us as we recorded. And yet, the music in and of itself is so strikingly poignant, setting up an entirely foreign and unique universe, I couldn’t help but let my mind wander to the deserts, creatures, in and out of action and reverie, that it alone could conjure.”

Being the first time any “Star Wars” film has scored in the United States, one would imagine that this would add even more pressure to the already demanding business of studio recording. But not so says Don Williams. “The Los Angeles studio musician is a unique breed. We are freelance musicians who come together as an orchestra over and over again. Playing the music as a single unit always supersedes any pressure. This is the bond we musicians thrive on while we wait for that red light to go on. So in this case it was business as usual. However, everyone knew how large this project was, and being part of it brought out the best in all of us.”

Dukov explains it like this: “I always look upon our super gifted L.A. studio musicians as thoroughbred race horses; we NEED to run, and when given that opportunity in a score such as ‘Star Wars,’ we are SOARING! As a string player, it is so gratifying to play passionate themes and technically challenging fast passages. This is our element, and being allowed to let loose gives us an immense satisfaction. JW really knows that, and his background is rich in the tradition of real Hollywood writing.” He played the piano in the studios before he was given the opportunity to compose for Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Waxman and Korngold, and if that isn’t enough of a fantastic infusion of old Hollywood, he also studied orchestration with Mario Castlenuovo-Tedesco, a real luminary as a composer and master orchestrator.”

JJ Abrams left a note left for the orchestra on the final scoring day. Photo courtesy Armen Ksajikian

JJ Abrams left a note for the orchestra on the final scoring day. Photo courtesy Armen Ksajikian

From the reaction in the sound booth during each session, it was clear that something special was happening. De Crescent described how the expertise of every single member of the orchestra put everyone at awe. “Everybody was talking about that,” she said. “In the booth, people were blown away. And what a credit to our musicians. JJ Abrams was wonderful. I don’t think you could find a more appreciative, generous director. It was like a love fest. He was absolutely knocked out with this orchestra. I have never in my 45 years heard an orchestra like this. It was just thrilling. I had to wear waterproof mascara to work. To see them come in and sit down and bam, they’re playing this like they’ve been rehearsing for months. These are freelance people; they don’t get rehearsals ’til they get to the stage. It was glorious. At the end (of the sessions) there was a standing ovation that went on for at least three to four minutes. They would not sit down.”

The admiration and respect the orchestra felt toward Williams and Abrams was shown right back to the musicians. Two days before the general release of the film, Abrams arranged a special screening for the orchestra. “I was absolutely amazed by the brilliance of the film, technologically speaking, and the magnificent score, which was mixed to perfection,” Dukov said. “At no time did I ever feel the music was lost in the special effects and sound design. And the music is still buzzing around in my head!”

Don Williams said when he first saw the film, “all of my thoughts flew out of my mind. The feeling of joy overwhelmed me as I realized that this orchestra was part of this great film. Gustavo Dudamel, who conducted a couple of sessions, said that he would like this orchestra to play Mahler together. That speaks volumes as to how well this group of musicians perform together, on every film and every session.”

Released Dec. 18, 2015, “The Force Awakens” blew apart the box office its opening weekend. By the end of December global earnings crossed the $1 billion mark, and the film is poised to shatter every box office record ever.

“I have had many amazing and meaningful experiences in my career,” shared harpist JoAnn Turovsky, “but this is the first time I have gotten some real ‘street cred’ from my students.”

Acclaimed by film music critics around the globe, the excellence of the musical score of “The Force Awakens” speaks to the magnitude of what Los Angeles musicians and composers can accomplish together. It serves as a glowing example of why our musical community is lauded as one of the very best in the world.

“I’m hoping that having the ears of the world listen to Los Angeles musicians perform John Williams’ superlative score will help to bring additional film work to Local 47,” Goodall said, a sentiment shared by the entire Los Angeles recording community.

“Amidst all the bickering or confusion about ‘the business’ these days,” said Foster, “while scoring ‘Star Wars’ there was never more evidence of a sense of togetherness, indeed a sense of family, a sense of union as we all beamed proudly for one another and wished each other well: the gorgeous flute playing, the astonishing brass, the simple need and want to have us all knock it out of the park together. It reminds me that there never really is such a thing as ‘solo’ in this business. And what more obvious vehicle to prove this notion than this masterful score and film?”

– View the orchestra and music prep rosters at listen-la.com. Originally published in the AFM Local 47 Winter 2016 Overture Magazine.

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