Friday, February 16, 2018

Quick Take — A Rose by Any Other Theme

By Naomi Graber

Like it or not, one facet of the Star Wars universe is absolutely clear: girls run the galaxy. Or at least they should. Women have been at the center of the rebellion since Princess Leia grabbed Luke’s blaster and ordered him and Han into the garbage chute in 1977. After Leia, we’ve had Mon Mothma, Jyn Erso, Rey, and most recently Admiral Holdo. Even the much-maligned Padme Amidala held her planet together through war with the Trade Federation, and served as one of the few dissenting votes in the senate during Palpatine’s rise. The Last Jedi introduced audiences to yet another heroic woman: Rose Tico, a rebellion grunt who, along with Finn and Poe, attempt to disable the imperial fleet just long enough for the rebels to escape. Their plan fails spectacularly, but their delusions of grandeur embody one of the primary lessons of the story—that one must learn from failure rather than abandon all hope. Perhaps that is why John Williams chose to give Rose the most prominant new theme in this film; she embodies many of the ideas of these new chapters in the Star Wars universe: the power of hope and friendship, the necessity of perseverance, and the value of learning from your mistakes.

With Rose’s theme, the music catches up to gender dynamics of the rest of the Star Wars universe. Williams and Michael Giacchino (who scored Rogue One) mostly draw on the sounds of the “classical” Hollywood style established in the 1930s, which treats heroism as an almost exclusively male trait, while women usually fall into one of two categories: “virtuous wife” or “femme fatale.”<1> Most of the women of Star Wars are scored like the former, undercutting the characters’ heroics, and filling in the gaps of their femininity.<2> Princess Leia’s theme highlights none of her determination and grit, but rather opens with a rising sixth (scale degrees 5 to 3) followed a delicate, skipping musical “sigh” down to scale degree 2. By Empire Strikes Back, that theme is joined by the “love theme,” which has the same melodic contour: an ascent from scale degree 5 to 3, followed by brief rising “yearning” gesture, and then fall back down to scale degree 2. In the Prequel trilogy, Padme and Anakin’s love theme (“Across the Stars”), again begins with a rising sixth (this time minor), followed by a short “sighing” descent to scale degree 1 before spinning out. Jyn’s theme follows the same pattern, followed by a further (decorated) reach up to scale degree 4, although she lacks the romantic “sighs” of Leia and Padme.

Like most aspects of the “classical” Hollywood sound, Williams and Giacchino’s themes for these women are rooted in the gendered tropes of the 19th century. They bear faint traces of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde, which begins with a similar melodic contour, and Berlioz’s idee fixe, with its prominent rising sixths followed by musical “sighs.” For Padme and Leia, these themes do not represent how they see themselves, but rather how male characters see them: as potential romantic partners (particularly given that Williams has said that he original conceived of Leia’s theme as a love theme for her and Luke).<3> Leia, despite her grit and determination, and Padme, despite her political acumen and skill with a blaster, only exist musically to soften their potential partners’ harsher edges (although in the more recent films, Leia’s theme has become her own rather than connected to a romantic pairing).<4> While Jyn lacks a romantic story, her theme emphasizes her tragic past, and helps soften her rather gruff exterior. In all these cases, these themes reassure audiences that something gentle and feminine lurks beneath their tough, savvy, sarcastic exteriors.

Rey is more interesting. There are a number of themes associated with her, and her music is still developing. Some of what Williams has foreshadowed in his postludes points to the strong presences of classical “heroic” tropes (triadic fanfares and horn calls). But other parts of her music undermine these moments. She is also accompanied by a pentatonic skipping melody and forlorn chimes, generally played in woodwinds. While the liveliness and lightness of these themes emphasizes her energy and spunk, they also point to a mystical quality that isn’t part of Rey’s personality; on the contrary, Rey is remarkably grounded and practical (particularly in The Force Awakens). The woman who repeatedly orders Finn to stop holding her hand, who faces Kylo Ren with no training, and who commands the attention of no less than Han Solo and Luke Skywalker  could never be described as ethereal, despite the music’s attempt to convince us otherwise. Still, as Rey practices with the lightsaber on Ach-to (unfortunately not on the commercial release of the soundtrack), we may be hearing a hint of how Williams sees her music developing into something more heroic.

Which brings us back to Rose. Simple, courageous, and selfless Rose, who has no Han Solo or Luke Skywalker to mentor her. For the first time in the Star Wars universe, a female character has a theme that suits her perfectly: it is insistently Lydian-inflected major, and often sounds amidst generalized “peril” music, which tends toward minor, chromatic, dissonant, and often rife with horns, trombones and low strings. Rather than the Tristan- or Berlioz-esque framework of short phrases, yearning sixths, and sighing descents, her theme continues to rise upward in a fanfare-like gesture. Instead of spinning out, the melody lands prominently on sharp scale degree 4, which Williams accompanies with a “truck driver” gesture as the harmony moves from I to II (and then on a further whole tone a measure later), giving it an extra lift just before it’s close. Where previous women have only yearned, Rose—her theme implies—actually manages to move forward, tonally speaking. In these contexts, Rose’s theme shines through like a ray of sunlight in an increasingly dark and turbulent world. Like the rest of the women in Star Wars, Rose (and her theme) embodies the best qualities of the rebellion: persistence, kindness, and of course, hope.

<1>On male heroism in the classical Hollywood style and in Star Wars, see Neil Lerner, “Nostalgia, Masculinist Discourse, and Authoritarianism in John Williams’ Scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in Philip Hayward, ed., Off the Planet: Music, Sound, and Science Fiction Cinema (Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey, 2004), 96–108. On the limited roles for women in the classical Hollywood style, see Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music (New York and London: Routledge, 2001) 70, 176.
<2>This is a common strategy in action/adventure films. Se Pauline MacRory, “Excusing the Violence of Hollywood Women: Music in Nikita and Point of no Return,” Screen 40.1 (1999): 51–65.
<3>Boston Pops, “Film Night at the Pops!” 12 May 2016, broadcast over the radio on WGBH, available online at
<4>This is another common problem of classical Hollywood film, and traces back to opera. See Peter Franklin, Seeing Through Music: Gender and Modernism in the Classic Hollywood Film Scores (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 45.


Naomi Graber is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Georgia. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation on Kurt Weill’s early American works. In addition to her research on the pre-Oklahoma! Broadway musical, she is interested in musical theatre and film of the post-9/11 era, particularly in issues of gender. Her work appears in Studies in Musical Theatre and at Trax on the Trail, and is forthcoming in the Journal of the Society for American Music and the Musical Quarterly.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Quick Take — Voice, Laughter, and Letting Go in The Last Jedi

By Brooke McCorkle

When it comes to sound and Star Wars, most people immediately think of the triumphant opening fanfare, the plaintive horn leitmotif for the Force, or of Darth Vader’s Imperial March. John Williams’s music defines the Star Wars sound world, but Ben Burrt’s work on sound effects is just as inextricable from the universe-turned-mega-franchise. From Artoo’s (R2-D2) chirps to the electric whir of the lightsaber, sound effects are as important as music in the creation of this galaxy far far away.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, the most recent and perhaps most hotly debated entry into the franchise, is no exception. If there is something indelibly nostalgic about the underscore for The Last Jedi (TLJ), there is also something strikingly different about its sound design. TLJ’s sound supervisor Matthew Wood, who worked under supervising sound editor Burtt on both Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Wall-E, along with sound designer Ren Klyce and many others created an aural world for TLJ that suited director Rian Johnson’s vision of bridging the old and new. Decisions such as the seconds of silence during the destruction of the First Order Fleet were startling enough to cause theater chains to post a disclaimer pointing out nothing was wrong with the sound at that moment. These moments stand out as points of aesthetic departure from the previous films, but not in a negative way. Just as the narrative torch is passed from the original characters to this next generation, so too does sound design in The Last Jedi work as Janus-faced connective tissue, looking back to the earlier films while recognizing the necessity for change (see Jim’s post for more on this). The treatment of voice in particular illuminates this quality in the sound design of TLJ. Even though films generally privilege voice in the soundtrack, in the case of TLJ voice takes on qualities beyond logos that are as semiotically significant as the music.

One of the key ways Wood and Klyce managed this phenomenon was through the voice filter for the masked Kylo Ren. Just as Kylo’s mask bespeaks his Vader fandom as does his associated leitmotif, so too does the filter on his voice when masked. Kylo’s filtered voice is similar yet different from Vader’s; the distorted grain of Kylo’s masked voice immediately marks him as part of the technological monstrosity that is the empire.<1> Early in the film Snoke goads Kylo Ren, commanding him to “take that ridiculous thing off.” In a fit of rage, Kylo destroys his mask and with it his access to the imitation of Vader’s voice. While this voice is not an acousmatic one per se, the technologically mediated voice, whether Vader or Kylo’s, does possess some of the qualities typically associated with the acousmêtre. When masked both Vader and Kylo are ambulatory acousmêtre, their hidden mouths working a kind of fear-inspiring legerdemain.<2> But while Vader is not fully de-acousmatized until the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, Kylo travels between the two realms in The Force Awakens only to utterly destroy entrance into the acousmatic in The Last Jedi. This break from Vader’s path also hints at something more interesting. Kylo Ren may be a monster, but he is a human one. As such, he contains more emotional depth than any displayed by Vader in the prequels and original trilogy. The tortured Kylo is more akin to Anakin than to Vader. He, like his grandfather, is a lost boy torn between good and evil. Again, the situation of voice within the soundtrack is crucial to this sense of Kylo as a layered character.

The psychic conversations between Kylo Ren and Rey exemplify this phenomenon. Appearing three times in the film, they are most noteworthy for the offsetting of the voices, as Frank has noted. Instead of a dense underscore accompanying the conversation between the two, the soundtrack is austere in these scenes. The rich underscore preceding these scenes underlines the soundtrack’s sparseness by means of silent stingers leading up to the conversations.  Here only the reverberating voices of the two inheritors of the Force exist, one belonging to the male heir of the Skywalker dynasty and the other a “girl,” a “nobody.” In these moments, both voices are treated equally and given the same acoustic weight. It is through this that Rey and Kylo, though diametrically opposed, come to better understand the other and connect on a deeper level. The situating of the voices in these moments hint at the political undertones some critics have identified in the narrative, undertones that revel in a multitude of narrative voices, including those of women and people of color, that have heretofore been mostly absent in the Star Wars universe. This decision to “let the past die,” to de-center cis- white male narratives, is part of what makes The Last Jedi so meaningful and so controversial.

Yet even in its turn to the future, it cannot completely relinquish its past, in terms of story, music, or in voice. The voices of Luke and Leia are darkened with age and experience in The Last Jedi, bittersweet reminders that no one, not even heroes, can escape time. Despite this, there are moments that return to their vocal pasts. When Luke excitedly cries “Artoo” when the beloved domed robot awakens, Mark Hamill allows the young boy from Tatooine to emerge from the embittered Jedi’s shadow. The same holds true for Leia; throughout the film Carrie Fisher’s voice is that of a wise (and sardonic) matriarch, but something tugs at both the audience and at Luke’s heart when Artoo projects her recorded plea to Obi Wan Kenobi from A New Hope. Those voices belong to a different time, a different world but they still echo in the present. The past is never completely dead; it lives in characters, and in us viewers, in different ways. Likewise, the manipulation of voices in The Last Jedi does not completely break with precedent, but it does press at established boundaries. We, as auditor-spectators, may choose to push against this shift, but it might be better to take our cue from Master Yoda. His wild laughter, his joyful dance in the light of the burning Jedi artifacts, is a lesson for us all. We might learn from the past and heed it, but we must not enshrine it. It is time for new voices and new stories to be welcomed with laughter’s gleeful abandon and grace.

<1>For more on the connection between sound design, technology, and the empire in Star Wars, see James Buhler, “Star Wars, Music, and Myth,” in Music and Cinema, eds. James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, David Neumeyer (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 33-57.
<2>Captain Phasma, another ambulatory acousmatic character is also partially deacousmatized in TLJ. Her bright blue eye gleams as Finn defeats her; the eye here expresses a fear that a fully revealed face could not. That is, by limiting our view of Phasma to her eye, we feel what she is seeing, despite the absence of a point of view shot.
Brooke McCorkle is an opera and film music scholar. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at SUNY-Geneseo. Her published and forthcoming works address topics as varied as Star Trek Concerts, Wagner reception in Japan, and ecological critiques in monster cinema. Please see here for more information.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Quick Take — Democratizing Star Wars

By James Buhler

A general interpretive maxim for Star Wars is that, with the exception of the Ewok Victory Celebration, John Williams can do no wrong. (This hagiographic attitude toward Williams is well exemplified in this otherwise quite insightful video essay on Rey’s Theme.) It is true that music has always been a central component of the Star Wars films, and many of the films in the series have much better scores than the films they accompany. Though sometimes criticized for following the contours of A New Hope (1977) too closely, The Force Awakens (2015) concluded by opening out to its galaxy rather than collapsing back into the closed world of its monomyth, as did A New Hope. It is for me the best crafted of the Star Wars films, with a remarkably consistent tone from beginning to end; and it rivals The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as compelling cinema. Williams’s score for The Force Awakens matched the achievement of the new conception while striking out in surprising new directions, with several new themes and judicious use and reworking of older material. Though in many ways unassuming as it carefully worked its way around the sound design and rarely forcing its presence, the score managed both to sound like it came from the world of Star Wars while also opening to the new situation. The score for The Force Awakens was an exceptional contribution to a remarkable film.

If The Force Awakens offered a tidy updating of the Star Wars world with a new musical angle, The Last Jedi (2017) is almost the opposite in both respects: the film takes the opening offered by the end of The Force Awakens and pushes the series in a quite new direction, but the music hews to a more familiar path. On Twitter, I quipped that John Williams seems to have set himself the task in the score to use ALL the leitmotifs from the original trilogy and The Force Awakens. Frank Lehman responded “For a film that seems to be all about discarding the past and letting go of nostalgia, boy is it infatuated with the Force Theme.” Although Williams gives the March of the Resistance a provocative development throughout the film that seems to map its increasingly dire situation, and although he offers striking variants of Rey’s theme and especially Leia’s theme, many of the leitmotifs have been imported with little change. What are we to make of the score’s investment in its past even as the film seems at times to take Kylo Ren’s position that it is best to kill it?

Though controversial, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is a remarkably ambitious film, one that takes risks uncommon to tent-pole franchise films and that don’t always pay off. In this respect the film’s recklessness with the Star Wars legacy mirrors the recklessness of the characters that it presents and critiques. One of the film’s themes—or at least preoccupations—is failure. One beloved character from the earlier films even returns to pronounce that failure is the best teacher. In any event, little in this film goes according to plan, and the usual impulsive improvisatory verve of harebrained schemes that characters in the Star Wars universe have so often used in previous films to get out of trouble here leads to unmitigated disaster. If The Last Jedi fixates on the figure of “the spark” that will reignite hope, the film also places its bet on the notion that this hope needs to be kindled outside the aristocratic line of its reigning monomyth.

Rey remains the chosen one and the representative of the monomyth, but her understanding of the role that has been assigned to her differs markedly from that of Luke or Kylo Ren. She need not confront the darkside in order to master it or fall to it; she need not perform the heroic deed that saves the galaxy in a giant explosion or evaluate order by how well the galaxy conforms to her will. Her confrontation with the darkside has nothing of the psychic trauma and Oedipal conflict of Luke’s failure in the cave. Instead she understands the darkside as occult, hidden, as offering something she needs to see; and what she discovers is a hall of mirrors, an indefinite series of reflections of the self. If she remains perplexed by this image to the extent that she must relate it to Kylo in their Force-enabled psychic link (I found the mirror scene to be one of the most compelling of the film), it carries no marks of psychic repression and so does not unbalance her. Kylo takes his best shot but is characteristically ineffective.

Rey may or may not be a “nobody”—that is, without noble parentage—but the film ends with her evidently believing this and importantly being untraumatized by Kylo Ren’s delivery of the news in a remarkable stratagem of psychological manipulation after their defeat of Snoke and his guard. If Rey’s plans to turn Kylo misfire like every other plan in the film, we can say the same of Kylo’s plans to manipulate Rey into submission (and Snoke’s attempt to manipulate Kylo and Rey by fostering the psychic link between them). Here, Kylo’s misjudging of Rey’s psychic makeup reflects Luke’s misjudging of Rey’s interest in the darkside. Neither can fathom an understanding of the Force outside a melodramatic Manichean divide of good and evil. Rey’s understanding of the Force starts from the concept of balance and extends to all, breaking with the aristocratic lineage that would horde its secret and concentrate its power. Snoke may be right when he states that Rey possesses the spirit of a Jedi, but she does not fight to defend or restore the political order but to bring balance to the Force and so to place its power potentially in reach of all.

The music underscores this point in a most oblique manner. The leitmotifs in The Last Jedi often recur with the sound of leave-taking, a way of saying goodbye, perhaps, to dear friends. An encounter between Luke and Leia becomes an opportunity to reprise their lyrical theme one more time; Leia’s memory of Han brings back a tender rendition of “Han Solo and the Princess,” ,” a theme used so effectively in The Force Awakens to mark a love that has endured a troubled history hinted at but not shown in the film; and a brief piano version of Princess Leia’s theme in the end credits sounds like a touching personal tribute from the composer to the memory of Carrie Fisher. At the same time, the ubiquity of the Force theme represents not so much nostalgia for the old Republic or leave-taking as it is the musical sign that the Force is now indeed fully awake. If on the one hand this ubiquity undermines the special status of those characters such as Rey who are strong with the Force, then on the other hand it also democratizes access to it. What was a stark divide between aristocrat and commoner has been eroded into a continuum, and we find that most characters can summon it to some extent in an hour of need. The Force theme may have grown out of musical balance with the rest of the score, but its constant musical presence serves to remind us that, though the Resistance is much diminished, the Force spreads its power wide.
James Buhler is on the faculty at the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses on music and media. He writes frequently on music and film and is the author of Hearing the Movies, now in its second edition.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Quick Take — Motives, Modulations, and “The March of the Resistance” in The Last Jedi

By Frank Lehman

If there is a thematic through-line in the score for Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi, it is "The March of the Resistance." Introduced in The Force Awakens as a stern counterpart to the zippy "Rebel Fanfare," the march is written in the severe style that Williams has recruited throughout his career to signify bold, decisive action. The theme’s employment in Force Awakens was sparing, appearing prominently in only three cues. For the second installment in the Sequel Trilogy, it occupies a more significant role. The March shows up in numerous guises, both foregrounded and understated, rousing and defeated. It also connects with a handful of new heroic motifs, especially the grandiose theme which accompanies Admiral Holdo's self-sacrifice near the film's climax.

One respect in which the Resistance March permeates the score for The Last Jedi involves a tonal transformation rather than a melodic gesture. Many of Williams’s themes for the series involve characteristic harmonic progressions: the subtonic half-cadence in the “Main Theme,” the i↔bvi oscillation in the “Imperial March,” the dorian IV (and later phrygian bII) chord of the “Force Theme.” On occasion, these ideas detach from their melodic scaffoldings to act as either free-floating “leit-harmonies” or, alternatively, as factors in steering Williams’s highly modulatory underscore. A good example of the former is the motivicization of the Rebel Fanfare transformation (i.e. CM→AM) throughout The Force Awakens. The latter is exemplified during the approach of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi; there, key changes between i↔bvi related regions drive the tonal surface and reinforce Vader’s harmonic signature—and thus control over the scene—without stating his theme outright.

On a measure-to-measure level, the “March of the Resistance” (MotR) is not especially marked harmonically, remaining squarely in a minor-diatonic space during each of its sub-phrases. But across phrases, it’s tonally mobile, reliably transposing itself up a perfect fifth, sometimes through several sequential iterations. This transpositional strategy is tied with the neo-baroque idiom in which Williams stylizes the theme, particularly in its concert arrangement, whose midsection showcases a loose three-voice fugato, which I’ve transcribed and annotated below.

[March of the Resistance, Fugato Section]

 Within this fuguelet, Williams employs only “real” answers, as opposed to course-correcting “tonal” answers. This means the necessary melodic adjustments to return each subsequent statement of the subject back to the home key are never made. The result is a decidedly non-Bachian modulating fugal exposition, starting in F but continuously ticking clockwise around the circle of fifths, landing eventually in D-minor. This harmonic trajectory gives the section a strong feeling of intensification, a kind of inversion of the usual relaxing affect of “plagal drift” (Cohn 2012: 190) because, in a fugal context, each key-change is felt to be a tonic→dominant progression rather than a subdominant→tonic resolution. A melodic reduction below illustrates how everything during this “fugato” is impelled by a simple chaining of ascending diatonic pentachords, where scale degree 5 of the previous key serves as scale-degree 1 of the next key.

[March Modulatory Model]

Despite its striking construction, this fugal presentation of the “March” has yet to appear in any actual Star Wars underscore. Prior to The Last Jedi, neither had the “March’s” distinctive modulatory plan. More typical is the way it is presented during a briefing scene in Force Awakens, where successive phrases are connected through a hodgepodge of largely chromatic key-changes [F♯m→C♯m→Em→Bbm→Cm] rather than a systematic sequential or transpositional plan.

The fact that tonal design in Williams’s Star Wars scores is generally directed by seconds and thirds makes the arrival of music based on the perfect-fifths of the “March” analytically salient. This is indeed what happens across a number of cues in The Last Jedi, both in spots where the leitmotif is directly employed, and a few contexts where the fugue’s modulatory routine is divorced from the March’s specific melodic content, making it a genuine leit-harmony (or perhaps, leit-transformation). Appropriately enough, the apotheosis of this fifth-chaining transformation is the poignant chorale heard as Rey uses her force powers to their fullest extent yet. Melodically, the moment refers to no other leitmotif; harmonically, it is the natural result of a tonal transformation we’ve heard over and over.

The First Order’s surprise attack on the Resistance nicely illustrates a melodic motif can evolve into a harmonic one. The excerpt shown below in reduction is melodically related to the MoTR’s melodic basic idea (and anticipates a powerful new “Desperation” motif), and its underlying tonal scheme alludes to the fugato. The initial fifth motion [Bm→F#m] doesn’t go far, but a chromatic adjustment then commences a climb from Fm to Cm to Gm and (with a partially elided Dm) eventually lands on Am, when all hell really breaks loose.

[The Supremacy Surprise Attack, Excerpt (0:28:01)]

 The most sustained application of this ascending-fifths strategy occurs during the film’s opening set-piece cue, entitled “Escape” on the soundtrack album. Over the course of a minute, the track spins from F-minor all the way to C#-minor, via a modulatory chain that covers, without interruption, a full nine stations along the circle of fifths. The reduction below charts the music’s progress, with bar-lines demarcating separate modules and wavy lines indicating areas of tonal ambiguity. The beginning stages refer explicitly to the “March.” But once D-minor is reached, its familiar melodic contours are replaced by thematically nondescript material. By the time F#m appears, a stirring new motif, derived from the MoTR’s B-theme, announces its presence. Then everything dissolves back into amorphous, atonal tension music and the trip down modulatory lane is done.

[“The Escape” Tonal Design as on Album, 2:55-4:20]

 Except this is not how it actually happens, not in the actual film at least. The “Escape” as presented on the soundtrack is shockingly different than the score in the film, with entire sections inserted, reshuffled, or cut. The actual film version of the musical set-piece is missing the entire Fm→...Gm leg of the journey, while the Gm→...Am and Em-→...C#m segments are separated by minutes worth of different material. Thus, while some substantial portions of the fifth-chain are certainly still operative, the links are severed in several places and tied together with completely different types of harmonic material. The reduction below illustrates a larger slice of the “Escape” —as actually appears in the final mix of the soundtrack, replete with splices, interpolations, and many, many micro-edits.

[“The Escape” Tonal Design as in Film, 5:12-9:15]

It is difficult to say which is the “correct” version of the cue, or if a definitive version exists at all. The album “Escape” might have been assembled so as to provide a more coherent listening experience, and the full extent of the chain-of-fifths could have been Williams’s original intent or simply a happy accident. As is the case with all the Star Wars scores, the degree of musical integration across cues (let alone whole scores) is a thorny issue and a site of active research, particularly in the work of musicologist Chloe Huvet. Structural integrity is compromised at every turn by the strongly disunifying forces of temp-tracking, cutting, tracking, and the all the other vagaries of editorial subordination to which film music is subject.

Nevertheless, the “March of the Resistance”—and its distinctive modulatory maneuver—remains a striking and novel aspect of the Last Jedi’s musical make-up, both in and outside of the film. It just so happens to also serve as an object lesson in what harmony can (and sometimes cannot) do to structure narrative.


Frank Lehman is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Tufts University. His work on chromaticism in film music will appear in a forthcoming monograph with Oxford University Press. Website HERE

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Global Perspectives—Significance of the Parts in Music of Tōru Takemitsu

By Tomoko Deguchi

This essay contemplates one of the underlying Japanese cultural tendencies, an emphasis on the significance of individual parts (as opposed to the whole), and its manifestation in the music of Tōru Takemitsu. Takemitsu’s surface musical language is based on the idioms of European modernism. However, his music is perceived by many as “Japanese-sounding,” although he clearly avoided sounds of traditional Japanese music or Japanese instruments in the majority of his works. Takemitsu’s early musical style was influenced by the music of Messiaen and Debussy, and those influences remained noticeable even though his compositional style changed over time. Despite the apparent Western compositional influence observed in Takemitsu’s music, I believe that one of the reasons that his music is thought to sound Japanese is because it privileges the same quality perceived in other Japanese arts and Japanese language: the significance of the parts.

When the object of analysis or interpretation is an entire composition, analysts who are trained in Western music tend to perceive music as a unified “whole.” However, I question, does music need to have an organizational strategy that ties its compositional elements together to create this unified whole? Is the notion of a unity a Western construct that may or may not be applicable to music by non-Western composers? Is finding codes of organized sounds the best way to approach the understanding of musics by non-Western composers? Perhaps traditional methods of analysis to determine large and small sections and to identify large-scale coherence between those sections might not be suitable for analyzing Takemitsu’s music. Additionally the notion of  unity or “wholeness” might not be applicable to music by a composer who became increasingly aware of his Japanese heritage as he searched for his voice, admitting that it is impossible to escape from the influence of a culture in which he was born and raised.<1>

In analyzing Takemitsu’s music, especially his music after the 1980s,<2> the significance of the “parts” takes on more relevance than does large-scale coherence in the interpretation of his music. The importance of individual “parts” is important in many aspects of Japanese culture, including traditional Japanese gardens, Japanese language and literature, and Japanese architecture. It is well known that Japanese gardens gave great inspiration to Takemitsu, who saw connections between them and the coloristic shades of sounds, which exist alongside other natural fluctuations.<3> Many of his works from the mid-1980s are modeled on Japanese gardens, especially those designed by the 14th century Japanese monk Musō Soseki.<4> I find it especially crucial to investigate how the metaphor of following the garden path is manifested in Takemitsu’s music.<5>

The strolling gardens (or kaiyūshiki gardens) were never meant to be viewed as a whole – the bird eye view of the garden has no effect or significance on the meaning of the Japanese garden. Rather, appreciation and contemplation lie in the garden's details. Kanto Shigemori writes about the kaiyūshiki garden:<6> 
When the kaiyūshiki garden is viewed in two dimensions, it does not form a geometric or symmetric garden as in the Western gardens. The kaiyūshiki garden pursued diverse perspectives in all directions. The main characteristics of the two-dimensional plan of the kaiyūshiki garden is that the spectators are guided through their walk to appreciate, then led to contemplate while appreciating, and in that contemplation, they perceive poetry and purpose or effect of the objects at each turn. … The visitors are led to appreciate, to contemplate, and merge the experienced beauty and the illusionary beauty by placing themselves in a philosophical imagery. As the path guides them, not to just stroll through the garden, but to guide them mentally, the two-dimensional plan cannot be just simple repetition or materialistic change of color. … As the spectators walk through the garden, the landscape expands or shrinks as they find beauty in the darkness, or sweetness in the brightness, and the moss or grass dyes their footsteps green, or white sand blurs into the ground.<7>

Paul Rudolph, who was considered at the time to be the champion of modern American architecture, critiqued this aesthetic. “The details of the various parts of kaiyūshiki garden in Katsura Imperial Villa (in Kyoto) are remarkable, but as a whole, it is lacking an appealing unification. I think there are too many details.”<8> The kaiyūshiki garden is a microcosm of the earth in which mountains and gorges are expressed by rocks and sand. Every part and every section of the garden interconnects organically; each are small variations of different themes and their boundaries are ambiguous.<9> Many parts of the garden are intricate and suggestive and they invite imagination – a stone garden lantern suggests an old unvisited Buddhist temple nearby; the sound of water heard through thick vegetation evokes a hidden ravine; and the strollers who arrive at the bottom of a gentle slope are reminded of never-ending mountain paths.<10>

Namio Egami remarks on the Japanese cultural tendency to incorporate ideas or matters without thinking through all of the ramifications or without strictly planning.<11> For instance, the concept of city planning as a completed product was foreign to the Japanese.<12> In a smaller scale, Japanese architectural spaces began with a small space and gradually expanded outwards as needs arose. The whole was viewed simply a result of compilation of parts. Similarly, Japanese sentences are structured so that they force the reader to know the details before knowing the subject’s action.<13> Other examples from literature are renga, or continuous poetry, and zuihitsu (for a lack of strict definition this term is often translated as “personal essays”).

Shūichi Katō also agrees that Japanese have a tendency to emphasize the “parts” rather than the overall organization or unity of the “whole,” and that the “whole” is simply seen as the accumulation of the related and organically evolving “parts.” This tendency is instantiated in diverse Japanese arts, culture, and behavior patterns.<14> Katō  argues that the fundamental basis of this tendency derives from the Japanese conception of time. He categorizes four basic concepts of time. They are 1) time that has both a beginning and an end; 2) time that has a beginning but not an end; 3) time that has an end but not a beginning; and 4) time that has no beginning or no end.<15>  When time is conceptualized as open ended it is impossible to quantify and structure it. Since there is no “entirety,” time cannot be divided into sections. Thus time is conceived as a compilation of each moment of the “now.” The “now” is not a fixed quantity, but a flexible entity that possess elasticity. Since time is not seen as objective, the partitioning of past, present, and future remains obscure.

With this in mind, I invite readers to listen to Far Calls, Coming, far! (1980), one of the representative works Takemitsu composed in the 1980s.

This piece is written for solo violin and orchestra, and is one of Takemitsu’s works that adopt their titles from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.<17> Many writers have pointed out that the soloist parts in Takemitsu’s works for solo instrument and orchestra do not function as they would in traditional concertos. Rather, the soloist and the orchestra have equal partnership. In this work, the “parts” evolve organically and devise a musical path through time that branches out. The initial three or four note gestures evolve into different related timbres, either within the orchestral texture or within the soloist’s sound events or within the combination of the two forces.
<1>Toru Takemitsu, Confronting Silence: Selected Writings, trans. and ed. Yoshiko Kakudo and Glenn Glasow (Berkeley, California: Fallen Leaf Press, 1995), 142. Takemitsu wrote about his conflicting feelings towards Japanese traditional music, initially detesting any sound that reminded him of the old Japan. He considered himself to be a composer who wrote in the modern, Western style.  However, he wrote, “I am not a composer who represents Japan, nor even a composer who is intentionally conscious of having Japanese nationality and incorporate Japanese elements into their music. But born and raised in Japan, even as I try to free myself from that influence, at the same time I became more aware that is impossible.” Takemitsu discusses his early experience as a composer in his book, Toi Yobigoeno Kanatani (Beyond the far calls) (Tokyo: Shinchousha, 1992).
<2>In 1970s Takemitsu underwent significant stylistic changes. One critic asked that “Has Tōru Takemitsu forfeited his avant-garde standing amongst his peers?” The timing of Takemitsu’s stylistic changes in his music coincides with when Takemitsu identified many of his compositions as inspired by the Japanese garden.
<3>Arc for piano and orchestra is the earliest work in which Takemitsu explicitly explained the relationship between the Japanese garden and Arc.
<4>Musō Soseki (1275-1351) is a celebrated Zen Buddhist who is renowned for his gardens. Saihōji in Kyoto, also know as Kokedera (moss temple), is one of the most famous among his gardens. Takemitsu composed an orchestral piece inspired by Musō Soseki. Musō was a contemporary of Yoshida Kenkō who famously wrote the Essays in Idleness.
<5>Takemitsu writes “My music is like a garden, and I am the gardener. Listening to my music can be compared with walking through a garden and experiencing the changes in light, pattern and texture.
<6>Japanese strolling gardens normally feature a path where the visitors are led around a pond or small lake. By following the path, they are presented with a series of scenes, which are specifically intended to be viewed at key points around the path.
<7>Kanto Shigemori, Nihon Teien no Shii: Seisei to Kanshō no Bigaku (Thoughts in Japanese garden: The aesthetics in creation and appreciation) (Tokyo: Nichibōshuppansha, 1970), 67. My translation.
<8>Noboru Kawazoe, Nihonbunka to Kenchiku (Japanese culture and architecture) (Tokyo: Shoukokusha, 1965), 145. Kawazoe does not provide the source of this quotation. My translation.
<9>Kanto Shigemori, Nihon Teien no Shii: Seisei to Kanshō no Bigaku (Thoughts in Japanese garden: The aesthetics in creation and appreciation) (Tokyo: Nichibōshuppansha, 1970), 68. My translation.
<10>Ibid, 70. My translation. Noboru Kawazoe describes the paths in kaiyūshiki garden are planned to evoke surprising psychological effects. Kaiyūshiki garden is a closed space surrounded by walls, but its winding paths do not give a sense of closed space in the least. There are movements felt in the space and space felt in the movements. The objects in the garden give signs to the strollers; for instance, the stepping stones suggest the strollers to walk slowly and look at the surroundings, or watch their steps, or walk straight forward, precisely giving instructions which the visitors follow unconsciously. … As the strollers move away from the Shoin (residential quarters), the scenery becomes more rustic, giving impression that they are deep in the mountains. As they walk, the scenery then changes as if at a mountain village, followed by an impression that they arrived at a plain, then back to the Shoin. The space gives you the impression that more you move away from the Shoin, it gives you the feeling of “far away.” Also Kawazoe quotes several of Michio Takeyama’s writing (there is no information of the source) such as, “If you walk this path straight forward, you will bump into that pillar (of the gate). The gate ahead seems to invite you, but at the same time it seems to reject you,” and “This is not just an gate with an open passage. It invites and rejects the visitors at the same time.” See Noboru Kawazoe, Nihonbunka to Kenchiku (Japanese culture and architecture) (Tokyo: Shoukokusha, 1965), 14 and 150-151. My translation.
<11>Tadao Umesao and Michitarō Tada, eds, Nihonbunka no Kouzou (The structure of Japanese culture) (Tokyo: Koudansha, 1972), 61. My translation.
<12>The kaiyūshiki gardens are designed with an end product and affects in mind; however, the designs were never intended as unchangeable. For instance the gardens that were built by Musō Soseki, the celebrated Zen monk, originally had strong conceptions when they were built, but as time passed, they changed their appearances and designs adapting to that time. His gardens at any age were always regarded as first rate. They are metabolic gardens that human and nature recreate through the ages. The same things can be said about cities, as they adapt metabolically through time.
<13>Shūichi Katō, Nihonbunka ni okeru Jikan to Kuukan (Time and space in Japanese culture) (Tokyo: Iwanamishoten, 2007), 45. My translation.
<14>Ibid, 10.
<15>Ibid, 7.
<16>To summarize, Katō argues that the idea of reincarnation exemplifies time as half circular and half linear; the religion of Miroku Buddhism exemplifies time that has an end but no beginning; Buddhist’s “end of the world” belief (mappou shisou) exemplifies time that has a beginning but no end. Masao Maruyma argues that in Kojiki, Japan’s oldest book of legends that exemplifies time that has no beginning or end, lies Japan’s historic consciousness. See Chapter 2 on Maruyama’s theory of historic consciousness. See Shūichi Katō, Nihonbunka ni okeru Jikan to Kuukan (Time and space in Japanese culture) (Tokyo: Iwanamishoten, 2007), 15-31 on his discussions of the four archetype of time.
<17>The others are Riverrun (1984, for piano and orchestra), a Way a Lone (1981, string quartet), and a Way a Lone II (1981, string orchestra)


Tomoko Deguchi’s research interests include music of Toru Takemitsu and other Japanese composers, musical narrative, film music, musical form in the 20th-century music, and intersections between music theory and culture and aesthetics. She is also active as a pianist specializing in contemporary music. She is an associate professor at Winthrop University.