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.