22 August 2008

The Cantina Band: The Swingtips - Roswell (2007)

I've not seen much in writing by Star Wars fans or critics suggesting that the Galaxy Far, Far Away was a precursor to our own. Most of us think of it as a kind of parallel universe, one that could be or might have been, but which has no connection to our own (except, of course, that it is entirely the product of the imagination of beings of ours).

The liner notes for the 1997 Special Edition release of the Episode IV soundtrack, though, suggest a rather amusing relationship, in which beings of the Star Wars universe discover an artifact from our own. Describing the concept of the Cantina band, the liner notes mention "several creatures in a future century finding some 1930's Benny Goodman swing band music ... and how they might attempt to interpret it".

The story of how the Modal Nodes found 20th century American sheet music may be best left to comic book or novel writers. I'm here now to tell you about a 6-piece band out of the US southwest that found the Modal Nodes. The Swingtips were founded in the mid-90's by saxophonist Kregg Barentine, whose jazz credentials include playing with two of America's greatest legacy big bands, The Glenn Miller Orchestra and The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. For the Swingtip's third album, 2007's Roswell, the group recorded a rockabilly tinged version of The Cantina Band, complete with honky-tonk piano. Imagine The Brain Setzer Orchestra while you're downloading it here.

The Swingtips are still actively touring and may be coming to a venue near you soon. Check their website for a complete schedule, links to purchase cds and downloads, a video clip, and more audio samples.


09 August 2008

Review: The Clone Wars Soundtrack (2008), Kevin Kiner

Kevin Kiner's composing credits at the Internet Movie Database include 67 scores, most of them for American television. I've seen a few episodes of some of these programs, though I can't say that I ever remember hearing of Kevin Kiner until his name was announced as the composer for the new Star Wars animated feature, The Clone Wars. And in fact I suppose that's true for most Star Wars fans, and the general public, as well. The composer doesn't maintain a web presence, but perhaps he's too busy. In a recent interview he noted recording 400 minutes of music for the new animated Clone Wars television series.

Kevin Kiner, if you will, is a skilled craftsman, a technician who can on demand compose, conduct, perform, and produce the music required in the high pressure world of weekly television serials. He may show flashes of brilliance now and then, but very few of those moments seem to have been captured in the soundtrack to the Clone Wars feature.

Not having seen the film, I can't say how well the score compliments the story, though judging from the music itself I'd say the film is not likely to have many moments of quiet reflection. What's most immediately noticeable is how well Kiner's work blends in with John Williams' oeuvre. Surely this was intentional, to make viewers feel at home in a well-known universe, while preserving and then building on Williams' and Lucas' musical traditions. Within the first half a minute, you know right away that something old is being presented wrapped as something new, the familiar opening theme on brass, but with a staccato punch, the rhythm accentuated by powerful percussion.

Besides Luke's Theme there are only a couple of moments where it appears Kiner quotes directly from Williams. But these moments are so short they could be dismissed as coincidence, making this Kiner's work entirely, a score built on classical orchestral themes but including as well voices until now not a part of the Star Wars universe, including synthesizer, electric guitar, erhu (2-stringed Chinese violin), duduk (Armenian flute), oud (Arab lute), and taiko (Japanese drum). Kiner uses them sparingly, giving each their moment but not letting any run loose to dominate the score.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about this as a Star Wars soundtrack are the number of cues, 32, more than any of the individual scores for the previous six films. Eight are less than one minute in length, six less than two minutes, nine less than three. That leaves only nine cues longer than three minutes. Compare that with Williams' most recent Star Wars score, Revenge of the Sith, with 15 cues, only two under three minutes. Typically cues for television programs are shorter than for film, and as the decision to begin The Clone Wars animated series with a full-length feature came rather late in the development process, it seems likely that Kiner was writing for television, rather than the cinema. What we get on this CD are aural vignettes, not fully developed themes. And so far, none of them seem to be stand out compositions, no Luke's Theme, no Imperial March, no Duel of Fates, Across the Stars, or Battle of the Heroes.

But not everyone gets to be John Williams. On the other hand, it took Williams a number of years before he hit his stride. (Who remembers his score for “I Passed for White”?) Perhaps Kiner's about to hit his and we can look forward to more memorable cues from the new Clone Wars animated television series.

Streaming clips from The Clone Wars can be heard here.


06 August 2008

Star Wars upside down: Roger Williams & Born Free

Roger Williams is no relation to John Williams. His birth name was Louis Weertz; his stage name was given to him by his record producer.

Both Williams graduated from the Julliard School of Music and went on to be major figures in 20th century music, John America's most recognizable film composer, and Roger one of America's best known and best selling pianists. He racked up 22 hit singles between 1955 and 1969, plus Top Ten albums in 1957, '58, '62, and '66. Like his namesake, one his big hits came from cinema, a cover of John Barry's theme to Born Free, a feature film of the same year based on the life of an American game warden in Kenya.

The song was massively popular in 1966, going on to take the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Three decades later Roger Williams was continuing to feature Born Free in live performances. One such was captured in 1999 at St Louis' Sheldon Concert Hall, a recording broadcast later that year on American television under the title, "Roger Williams: Pop Goes the Ivories." The concert audio was released on CD in 2000.

Of interest to those of you visiting this blog is Williams' claim that the Star Wars theme is nothing but Born Free turned upside down. Listen for yourself here.

You'll never hear Born Free the same again.


02 August 2008

Music From Star Wars (1977) - John Rose, organist

This is perhaps one of the first recordings covering Star Wars music, a 1977 organ transcription of John Williams' score for what is now known as A New Hope. Recorded in the Cathedral of St Joseph, Hartford, Connecticut in late 1977, just months following the release of the film, it features organist John Rose, just 20 years old and serving in his first position as organist for Trinity College. He has since gone on to record 16 albums, but is apparently remembered in organ circles - sometimes favorably, sometimes not - for this Star Wars recording.

Much like synthesizers today can mimic any number of band instruments and arrangements, organs with a large number of pipes can mimic the sounds of an orchestra. In the nineteenth century orchestral scores rewritten for the organ were an inexpensive alternative at a time when there was no recorded music.

You'll have to use a bit of imagination to conjure up an orchestra from this recording. The sound is rather distant and flat and Rose's playing is herky jerky, sounding rather like an under-rehearsed novice. According to the liner notes, Rose was learning and recording parts as they arrived by courier from the transcriptionist.

There's not a single track here worth recommending for a compilation of Star Wars covers, though Leia's Theme might do in a pinch. The Cantina song could be used, with a little volume tweaking, on any carnival merry-go-round, sounding more like polka than swing. The rest is historical curiosity. Buy this because you are a collector of Star Wars or pop culture kitsch. You'll be sorely disappointed if you buy it for any other reason.

Click here to download a compilation of clips from eight of the album's ten tracks.

Other links: