Music from the fourth dimension

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As May the Fourth is widely celebrated as an unofficial Star Wars holiday, we thought we would re-run a post from 2015. We originally celebrated “The Record of Star Wars just a couple of days before our family went out to see Episode VII. Here is a compendium of Star Wars records and some of the classical recordings which inspired the original scores:

story of star wars

The trilogy takes up a fair amount of space in our record collection at home. The reason for this is something that might alarm millennials: when we Gen Xers were growing up with Star Wars, we couldn’t watch it on any passing whim. Even if you were fortunate enough to have VHS or Betamax player, there was likely only one in the house, forcing you to share video time with people — ugh, parents — who didn’t understand how important Star Wars was. Worse still, you had to convince them to spend twenty dollars a piece for the tapes. Or rent it. Lord knows our parents spent more money renting Star Wars at the grocery store to open their own franchise.

So the way you recreated Star Wars was through the records. Each of the original three films had an excellent soundtrack LP, with composer John Williams conducting the London Philharmonic. In addition to providing hours of background music while playing with those Kenner toys in the basement, these albums offered stills from the films to look at and, in one case, a poster.

20th Century also produced story albums for each of the Star Wars films, and licensed the images and score to Disney’s Buena Vista Records. This last move led to the storybook records with an amateur cast, and the first wave of anxiety over the Disneyfication of the trilogy around the same time J.J. Abrams was a sixteen-year-old scoring Nightbeast.

We love the actors on these 7-inch records, especially the guy who plays Han Solo.

If you think this is fun, wait ’til you hear Buena Vista’s versions of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The best part is actor Michael Dorn (of CHiPs and Star Trek fame) playing Darth Vader for the first time.

adventures of luke skywalkerThe story LPs had the actual dialogue from the film, and they were awesome. The first was narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne, and was recently broadcast here in town by KFAI’s Listening Lounge. Our favorite is the storybook treatment of The Empire Strikes Back, released as The Adventures of Luke Skywalker and narrated by the improbably named Malachi Throne.

The first two soundtrack albums were frustratingly mis-sequenced, making it impossible (without moving the needle several times) to act out the films. Ideally, these interruptions could be timed to coincide with costume and scenery changes. Those of you who grew up with these records probably understand.

star warsThe success of Star Wars and The Story of Star Wars naturally inspired imitations and knock-offs. Meco’s famous disco version of the main title theme and the Cantina band, from his album Star Wars and Other Galatic Funk, briefly became the #1 song in America. Before we come down on Meco for cashing in on the Star Wars fad, which folks certainly did, he reportedly saw the film four times in the first week. He might have just been one of the awesome-est Star Wars nerds of all time.

meco star wars

london orchestraOrchestral knock-offs became ubiquitous. While recording the Star Wars theme may have lent a little class to the Boston Pops after Saturday Night Fiedler, other albums were janky at best. The deceptively-named and inferior London Philharmonic Orchestra released an album with this warning on the jacket to avoid lawsuits or, we suppose, a brick through the window of the basement where they recorded.

Star Wars record ephemera extended well beyond the story book albums and the scores. There was, for instance, a 12″ single with an extended version of “Lapti Nek,” the fucking awesome Max Rebo Band jam which was cut when the “special edition” of Return of the Jedi appeared. Lucas and crew pushed for the song to become a dancefloor hit, re-recorded it with Michelle Gruska (today a voice-over artist and vocal coach) taking Sy Snoodle’s lead. The sad state of “Lapti Nek” is a subject of controversy with Star Wars fans, as the song as it appeared in Return of the Jedi in 1983 has never been issued on a record.

But something else sparked more controversy when folks started to listen to the Star Wars scores at home. Classical fans noticed striking similarities to other albums in their collections. It started with the main theme, which bears several striking similarities to Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s title them for King’s Row, a modestly successful film produced by Warner Brothers in 1943. Previously it was best remembered by film buffs for being the movie to make Ronald Reagan a star (it’s where he first said, “Where’s the rest of me?” — a line which became the title of his autobiography written while running for Governor of California). Korngold’s music was popular enough that the studio was prepared with a form letter for requests for it’s score, which studios rarely offered on albums or sheet music at the time.

It wasn’t until after Star Wars sparked interest in the score that it was finally recorded and released as an LP, although it is considered one of the finest works in Korngold’s extensive catalog. He also wrote several string quartets, concertos for strings, and symphonic works. In his main title theme for King’s Row you’ll likely recognize the inspiration for the main title theme to Star Wars, but also Williams’ themes to Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

kings row soundtrack

Was Williams a thief? Meh, hardly more of a thief than George Lucas himself. And honestly, if it weren’t for Lucas’ appropriation of mythology, we wouldn’t have read books like The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell as teenagers and seemed smart to our peers in college. Without Williams we may have not discovered Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s magnificent score to this otherwise forgettable film. Without Star Wars we might be wandering in some desolate desert.

But questions about the Star Wars scores persist. It doesn’t help that the theme from ET is eerily close to a passage from Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony or that the best part of Jaws clearly comes from Dvorak’s From the New World symphony.

Perhaps the most damning example of Williams’ creative license is also the most memorable melody to come out of the Star Wars trilogy. The debut of “The Imperial March” in The Empire Strikes Back is nothing less than movie magic, but it’s also a familiar theme.

empire strikes back

Frederick Chopin’s B-flat funeral march was hardly as obscure as the score for a Ronald Reagan film. In fact, it was one of the pianist’s finest moments. The Marche funèbre from his Sonata no. 2 was completed in 1839, and a century later became a standard at state funerals. Fifty years ago it was performed by a military band during the funeral procession for Winston Churchill, and just two years earlier for John F. Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery (hear the latter here).

rubenstein chopin

Orchestrations of Chopin’s funeral march date to the earliest part of the twentieth century, but it was Edward Elgar’s arrangement in 1933 which became the most popular and likely inspired Williams’ “Imperial March.”

You can hear an original 78rpm recording of Sir Adrian Boult’s conducting Elgar’s arrangement performed by the BBC Orchestra in 1937 at Abbey Road here.

Pianist Arthur Rubinstein is often considered the finest interpreter of Chopin’s music, and first recorded the Sonata no. 2 in 1946. It is included in RCA’s Red Seal Chopin Collection (pictured at left), and features a moving performance of the funeral march.

Another recurring theme from The Empire Strikes Back becomes integral to the story when Han Solo is put into carbonite by Darth Vader. After Princess Leia expresses her love for the scoundrel (to which he famously replies “I know”) we hear the theme introduced when the two first kissed aboard the Millennium Falcon.

This lovely romantic melody was first introduced in Tchaikovsky’s sole violin concerto, which was completed in 1881 and remains regarded as one of the most demanding works written in the form. We chose a recording which features David Oistrakh, a virtuoso to whom concerti by Shostakovich and Kachaturian were dedicated. He’ll introduce the familiar theme just past halfway through the recording sample below, which comes from a 1962 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

Tchaikovsky re-introduces the melody near the conclusion, much in the same way Williams does with his love theme in Empire when Han is frozen. Tchaikovsky initially intended to dedicate his concerto to Iosof Kotek, a violinist who historians believe was also briefly his lover. Kotek did not want to debut the piece, and their forbidden relationship wasn’t allowed to blossom, as was the one between “a princess and a guy like me,” as Solo phrased it.

tchaikovsky concerto

If Williams relied on his record collection for inspiration while composing the Star Wars score, he certainly had a favorite in Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring, which we featured here on the Hymies blog a couple years back. It’s magically surreal opening mirrors Williams’ musical landscape for Tatooine, and an exciting early passage provided the soundtrack of stormtroopers on the march in the middle of the film.

We took our samples from Stravinsky’s ballet from this exciting 1968 version by the Chicago Symphony with Seiji Ozawa conducting. Our earlier post about it uses an earlier recording with the composer conducting.

rite of spring

The suspenseful music heard as the Millennium Falcon comes out of hyperspace and approaches the Death Star comes from a likely source: Gustav Holst’s seven part suite, The Planets. Early passages of “Neptune, the Mystic” are reflected in other scenes set aboard the gigantic space station as well.

The eighth and furthest planet had only been discovered a little over thirty years before Holst’s birth, and was still shrouded in mystery when he composed this movement for his suite on the celestial bodies in 1915. It was not until Voyager 2 passed the planet in 1989 that we were able to get a good look at it.

holst the planets

While fans have had fun finding reflections of Williams’ Star Wars scores in other classical works, they are hardly more ‘stolen’ themes than re-invented, the same way the story itself borrows from films like The Hidden Fortress. It is hard to imagine any scene from the trilogy without the music.

return of the jediWilliams also provided inventive otherworld music for the Cantina band, Jabba’s palace, and the Ewok celebration. Like “Lapti Nek,” this last song was replaced in the 1992 “Special Edition” of Return of the Jedi, to the frustration of fans. The replacement song was also written by Williams, but proved to be highly unpopular, as were most changes made in the “Special Editions.” What better place to end our survey of Star Wars records than with the end of Return of the Jedi?

ewoksThe word “Ewok” is never spoken in Return of the Jedi, nor are any of the little warriors given a name except in the end credits. Their celebration song at the end of the film — which fans know as “Yub Nub” –is in a language invented by legendary engineer Ben Burtt, who is responsible for the sounds of Star Wars.

This storybook record about the Ewoks is from the same Buena Vista series which licensed the music and images, but not the actor’s voices.

Yesterday’s post featured Prince’s “Batdance,” which is probably not considered by most fans to be one of his best singles. Also in the unlikely favorite category is our favorite of his (depending on how you count them) forty plus albums.

It started as a li’l crush but its become full-on love. Art Official Age is our favorite Prince album. Art Official Age was Prince’s last album to be released on record, but it was also his last substantive work. The two part Hit n Run series has its moments — and its general ‘return to form’ was welcomed by longtime fans — but neither feels like an album to take seriously in the same sense as those from Prince’s most celebrated career arc running from Controversy to The Gold Experience.

 

As much as Prince’s work often embraced the Wagnerian concept of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk‘ (or a complete and total work of art to encompass many disciplines), Art Official Age is the only true ‘concept album’ in his catalog. Like the great concept albums of the past, its story is convoluted, confusing and ultimately kind of dumb. But it provides a setting for some really remarkable songs. The plot of Art Official Age makes no more sense than the plot of Tommy, but its futuristic setting clearly inspired some of Prince’s most remarkable late-period performing and production.

It’s remarkable that for an artist whose music is so often morbid, the future Prince imagines after 40 years in suspended animation in Art Official Age is not ominously dystopian. In fact, the often-sunny Honeydogs provided a more bleak future in their (also Minnesota-bred) concept album 10,000 Years. One of the standout moments in Art Official Age is also the tune which is most distinctively in Prince’s classic style — In “This Could Be Us” he doesn’t lament any unimagined future but rather the past and present.

We’re likely to hear unfinished Prince projects in the future — It’s a certainty, given the contentious nature of his estate, that the inevitable cash-cow of unreleased tracks will be taken to market. We are still hearing new recordings by John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix, but whether we’re really gaining anything from the experience stands to be established. For instance, last year’s release of the complete recordings from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme include recordings which he himself decided did not achieve the goal of expressing what he wanted to say. If the artist decided it wasn’t worthy of release, shouldn’t we respect that choice? Or do we live in a world of such all-encompassing transparency that even what one throws away is open game?

Prince,ironically approached the subject of ownership in Art Official Age, but it seems unlikely that in the dialogue from the album’s last track (which, also ironically, uses the title “Affirmation”) he was speaking of creative control. How an artist could keep such tight control over his work in life and yet have no plans for its future is beyond us — truly one of the many mysteries Prince left for the ages.

 

 

One more “Star Trek” record and then back to the 21st century next week.

star-trek-billy-strange

Roaratorio Records remains one of our favorite labels based in Minnesota. One of their recent releases was a 7-inch with two songs by The Cleveland Wrecking Crew, a Quicksilver-ish Bay Area band from the 60s who never released any recordings.

And the label’s most recent release is the next in a series of un-issued recordings by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. It is the third such collection they have released, and the first which is a double LP. Owing to the ongoing interest in Sun Ra’s music, the other two are already out of print.

Sun Ra Intergalactic Thing

The tracks on The Intergalactic Thing are taken from rehearsal recordings at the House of Ra, the Philadelphia residence of Sun Ra and many members of his Arkestra. This collection contains much more information about the recordings than the previous two Roaratorio releases, including recording dates and personnel. All tracks are from the early winter of 1969, presumably the same era as Atlantis and My Brother the Wind.

We have several copies in stock, but anticipate that this release will also quickly fall out of print. We have been really enjoying it, although we suppose the astro-infinity music of Sun Ra isn’t for everyone. We really liked this track, “In Over and Under,” which reminded us of other clavinet classics in his catalog, like “Love in Outer Space.”

For your mid-week relaxation: try these relaxation exercises from Lorraine Plum’s Flights of Fancy. For the best results, follow the instructions below and then play the tracks from the record.

Please be advised that those with past experiences of alien abduction may wish to skip the track titled “Unknown Planet” as it may trigger uncomfortable flashbacks.

DSC08400

BEGIN EACH FANTASY with a relaxation experience. Read these instructions slowly in a soothing, restful tone of voice, pausing a few seconds between each step.

1. Find a comfortable position either sitting upright or lying down.
If you’re sitting, sit with your back straight but not rigid and keep your head, neck and chest straight. Keep your feet flat on the floor and your hands palms down on your thighs.

If you’re lying down, lie on your back with your arms extended on the floor about six inches from your body and your palms facing the ceiling. Keep your legs flat and turned slightly apart.

Move around a little until you are comfortable, then be still.

2. Close your eyes. Keep them closed until I tell you when to open them.

(Read steps 3-8 and/or 9-12)

3. Stretch your right leg out in front of you and tighten all the muscles in your leg — really tight — tighter — relax — let go of the tension. Notice what relaxing feels lie.

4. Repeat with your left leg.

5. Make a fist with your right hand and tighten all the muscles in that arm — really tight — tighter — tighter — now relax. Let the tension melt away.

6. Repeat with your left arm.

7. Life your shoulder upward toward your ears. Tighten all of the muscles in your shoulders and neck — really tight — tighter — tighter yet — now relax. Notice what letting go of tension feels like.

8. Tense all the muscles in your face by squinting your eyes, wrinkling your nose and tensing your tongue — really tight — tighter — tighter yet — now, relax. Feel all the tension and strain flow from your face.

9. Place your right and on your stomach. Take slow full breaths through your nose and feel the rise and fall of your stomach as you breathe. When you inhale, you bring air into your body and your stomach rises. When you exhale, you breathe air out of your body and your stomach falls.

10. Inhale and exhale slowly — try breathing without any pauses or jerks between your inhalations and exhalations.

11. Place your left hand on your chest. If you’re breathing in a deep, relaxed way, you will feel very little movement in your chest. Most of the movement is in your stomach. Breathe very naturally and smoothly.

12. Imagine that with every breath you take, you’re becoming more relaxed.

the moneys comingWe’ve been waiting a long while to hear from Wizards Are Real, the enigmatic instrumental quartet so dear to our hearts. Their last record, the 10″ EP I’m Your Free Lieutenant, was released nearly three and a half years ago. No surprise then that their latest, which snuck quietly into record shops last month, presents all sorts of advances in the band’s unique alchemy.

Because the band is on a brief family leave, there’s no release show for The Money’s Coming, their third release. Wizards Are Real has never followed industry conventions as far as promotion and marketing are considered, anyways — this is one of the things we’ve always loved about them.

The Money’s Coming features the Wizards’ established combination of richly reverbed pedal steel and low-register saxophones, played by husband and wife Brian O’Neil and Melanie Bergstrom. Bassist Ted Held and drummer Jim Baumgart provide bedding for each tune which which transitions between jazz, post-punk and post-rock with fluidity. None of this is news — they have explored this terrain for years. What separates the new record is the confidence with which they collaborate.

More than on the previous records the instrumentals imply a representational program, although we’ve never forgotten that the Wizards once told us the reason their songs have no words is that they would be too creepy if they did. The cryptic titles certainly offer something to consider. The Money’s Coming could be the soundtrack to some surreal landscape or another, maybe deep sea diving or space exploration or cleaning the back of the fridge here in the record shop. A few of these nine new tracks have a slower, more narrative sense, like “In my Ironman,” which O’Neil opens slowly and evocatively, and “It’s A Wrench,” which treads forward as if on ethereal feet only to surprise is by disappearing.

The Money’s Coming plays at 45rpm, adding a sense of urgency to the songs, none of which pass the three minute mark on the first side. “Bring on the Night, Sting” opens the record with the intensity established by I’m Your Free Lieutenant, and it is followed by excellent, energetic bass and drums on the next two songs. You can, incidentally, hear the entire album on the Wizards’ Bandcamp page here. We chose these two tracks to present the wider range of this release, which takes more chances than the previous records (is that a slide whistle on “Genesee” or is it our imagination?). Money has all our favorite Wizards motifs, from the hard-edged rock to the sinister sinewiness of the title track from their 10″ EP — this new record was well worth the wait.

The last time we posted Wizards Are Real here on the Hymie’s blog was when we singled out “Good Goods” from their first album as one of our favorite closing time songs. This is still true, and its one reason why we have twice chosen them to close down our block party (the other is that we love these folks). The awesome UndercurrentMpls filmed them in 2013 if you want to take a look. Their last show before taking a little break was here this past Record Store Day — we only mention this because it seems like this might cause people to not notice the release of The Money’s Coming, at least until the Wizards begin haunting clubs around town again. Too bad — this is a record which merits some attention.

Still shopping for the record collector in your life? It’s tough to buy records for a collector — not only are you unsure if they already have the record you’ve picked, but you don’t know if they’d like it either way. Nothing wrong with a gift certificate, and we have sold a lot of them to the friends and family of folks we see here every week — nothing wrong with an interesting new release either. Or a record from outer space.

christmas in the stars

We think the best solution is to get your friend something super weird. Here’s a good example — it even has a couple Christmas songs on it.

sun ra

This wonderfully bizarre double disc collects forty-nine songs that were originally issued on Sun Ra’s Saturn Records label over more than thirty years — they are incredibly rare records, most would cost you hundreds if you could even find a copy for sale. They are also surprisingly varied, a weird window into Sun Ra’s genius and creativity.

Saturn Records was remarkable — Sun Ra was producing and releasing his own records years before other independent artists. He was also an early innovator on electronic instruments and a free jazz pioneer. Still, many of his records are an acquired taste — avant garde jazz is not for everyone, even if it’s awesome.

Half of The Singles is goofy doo wop and rhythm & blues, and half is spacy jazz jams. Many are by singers or groups that Sun Ra and some incarnation of his Arkestra are backing. They are also in solid supersonic jazz form on fan favorites like “Love in Outer Space.” The songs are surprising, fun and sometimes misguided pop. Nothing reaches the wild extremes of classic Arkestra recordings, let alone their solid swinging-ness, but it is fun to listen to a collection of insanely rare records by a jazz genius.

And there’s two silly Christmas songs, originally issued as a 45 by the Qualities on the Saturn label in 1956. Sun Ra plays the harmonium and leads an unidentified backing band.

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