Saturday, July 20, 2013

John Williams: The Asteroid Field

John Williams is likely the most known and loved composer of movie scores in the last forty years. He's probably the most popular composer outside the world of movies, too. When folks think about Williams' work, though, they likely think of his great themes, from the galloping Raiders march and unfolding grandeur of Jurassic Park to the languishing violin solo of Schindler's List. Rightly regarded for their concision and expression, these themes tend to overshadow other aspects of the scores, namely the sustained mood and motion, and the instrumentation. We can find these virtues in full swing in one of Williams' best pieces, The Asteroid Field, from The Empire Strikes Back.

N.B. Since we don't have a digital score here to which we can jointly refer, I'll be less discussing syntax than style, color, and effect. In lieu of bar numbers I'll refer to time codes in the above video.

The open strokes in the cellos set both pace and scene, with the star destroyers in hot pursuit of the Millennium Falcon. These strokes then proceed at first just underneath plucked strings, then underneath triplets in the flutes, then with splashes of brass. This slow, soft opening, the drift into the asteroid field, is then smashed by a forte unison whose exclamatory effect is amplified by the cymbals which seem to splatter the energy throughout space, an effect which is picked up and maintained by the reverberation of the percussion's angular theme. Next the brass enters, all halting and herky-jerky like the rickety Falcon hurtling through space.

Now we're flying every which way. (:20) First the brass throbs along, hurrying and fleeing past the cymbal's starbursts and around the percussion's twisty theme, given torsion and tension in the strings. (:40) Then way up in the orchestra debris starts to whistle by. At (:55) the brass seems as if it's about to break away but it settles into an equally hasty, nervous version of its figure. (1:05) Next the strings get carried away in a torrent of rising frenzy but at (1:12) the brass reasserts itself with a slowly crescendoing figure whose last note bursts with a clash of cymbals. Asteroid field indeed.

(1:20) Here the brass is back but the tension remains as the percussion frenzies away until the winds puff along a stubborn version of the percussion's first theme. At last the strings snatch up the theme and spin it into a sprawling brass forte theme (1:36) which soars gloriously through the stars.

(2:00) We are all rhythmic variation here, building and prolonging the tension until the next swooning release of the main theme, which comes not at the false climax of (2:25) but at (3:16) with more fanfare than ever. Here, the concert ending vanishes into miniature scampering and a final crash whereas the film version flows into Williams' gliding, celestial theme, warm and atop on the winds, which plateaus the tension of the movement.

In conclusion, The Asteroid Field is one of Williams' most exciting and effective pieces, with rhythm and instrumentation so effectively complementary that the effect is downright visceral. A triumph of suspense, and vitality, the work is suited to its visual counterpart that the cinematic combination strikes the primeval spot between terror and wonder from where we look, ever childlike, upon a grand, wide horizon.

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