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On the new Film and Multimedia Interest Group list-serv, Frank Lehman and Mark Richards shared some of their terrific blog posts regarding the pitch language in the Star Wars saga, in advance of the release date of Episode VII a month from today. Inspired by their contributions, I posted to the FMIG list-serv a little something regarding rhythm. Mark asked if I would post it on SMT-Discuss. Here it is. (Hopefully the links transferred.)
Much has been said about the resemblances between John Williams’s Episode IV score and specific works by prior composers (Holst, Stravinsky, Elgar, Korngold, etc.). I’m sure it is not news to FMIGers that the four pcs G, Ab, C, and Db that comprise the chord used for the penultimate hammerblows at the conclusion of Holst’s “Mars" from The Planets also comprise the same chord whose relentless pounding anticipates the explosion of the (first) Death Star.
The rhythm is similar but different: both have both tripleted and straight rhythms, and both leave dramatic gaps in between the blows, but Williams has smaller gaps in between many more blows. One can safely say that Williams does not use Holst’s rhythm. But I think one could also say that Williams uses a non-Holst rhythm.
Now, before you think I’m being clever for the sake of being clever (to violate Glenn Gould’s prescription for fugal writing), I’m actually channeling a bit of A.J. Griemas, who, in his semiotic square (a nod to David Neumeyer, one of film music theory's patriarchs), made a distinction between a opposition (e.g. male/female) and a contradiction (e.g. male/not male). We think of film composers as either quoting preexisting music or not quoting preexisting music or something in between (varying the temp track score, alluding to a certain style, etc.). But what about a composer employing some kind of opposite of some preexisting music? Sounds fanciful, but music theory is rather adept at setting up systems that can reify to some appreciable degree the concept of an opposite.
Throughout “Mars,” Holst uses a recurrent rhythm in 5/4: starting on the downbeat, it is 1/12 - 1/12 - 1/12 - 1/4 - 1/4 - 1/8 - 1/8 - 1/4 (1/12 = triplet eighth). Here it is, plenty loud. In general, triple and duple beat subdivisions, relative to the undivided beats around them, typically appear anacrustically (like the beginning of the Star Wars main theme) or right before strong beats. Thus, by itself, without knowing the rest of Holst’s movement or his notation, it’s quite natural to feel Holst's triplet as a pickup: 1/12 - 1/12 - 1/12 | 1/4 - 1/4 - 1/8 - 1/8 - 1/4. Another aspect that makes it easy is that the division of 5 is the more common 3+2: the triplet immediately precedes the 3, and the duplet immediately precedes the 2: 1/12 - 1/12 - 1/12 | 1/4 - 1/4 - 1/8 - 1/8 - 1/4.
However, this is not how Holst’s rhythm fits the meter: rather, the triplet is on the downbeat, as made clear throughout by thematic and harmonic onsets, and the duplet is on the other strong beat, as made clear by melodic onsets. Another way to say this is that, if we allow some spans of time to be accented (which I know irritates some), for every five onsets in accented spans (beats 1 and 4) there are only three onsets in unaccented spans (beats 2, 3, and 5). Thus, there is an inherent tension between how the rhythm “ought” to fit in the measure, and where Holst puts it. Rather fitting to have such tension for the musical depiction of war.
The first example below transcribes Williams’s rhythm right up to, but not including, the point in time when the Death Star explodes. However, I’ve omitted barlines, system breaks, and a few other notational biases toward a particular meter. I find it interesting that, while beginnings are one of the most efficient and robust providers of metrical orientation, the sound effects obscure any sense of beginning. On your first pass, you may not even hear all five initial quarter notes, but, trust me, they’re there.
And yet, I imagine you begin to hear the music metrically as I’ve notated in the second example. One part of this hearing is probably because of the early triplet, and its reappearance halfway through the 12-measure unit. As Channan Willner and Ryan McClelland have shown with regards to Baroque music and the music of Brahms, hemiolas can orient us to a meter just as much as they can dissonate against it.
But another part of this hearing is probably for a reason that gets to my main point. Putting it quantitatively, in this metric interpretation, Williams has just about twice* as many onsets within unaccented spans as within accented spans on the quarter-note level, which is pretty close to an inversion of the ratio in the "Mars" rhythm.** Putting it qualitatively, this metric interpretation of Williams’s music flips around Holst’s rhythmic/metric relationship: the duplets and triplets are ultimately anacrustic, but there is little to no downbeat or third-beat content. That is, until the end, when the Death Star finally explodes on perhaps one of the most anticipated downbeats and hyperdownbeats in film music history.
That’s my contribution to (what Frank called in recent private correspondence) the Star Wars "hype-train." Who’s up next?
Professor, Music Theory
Director, Music Theory and Composition Division
Editor, SMT-V: Videocast Journal of the Society for Music Theory
University of Kansas
* For the numerically interested, in Williams’s rhythm, there are 15 onsets within beats 1 and 3 and 31 onsets within beats 2 and 4. You might counter that the "Mars" rhythm ratio is 5:3 between strong-beat onsets and weak-beat onsets, which is somewhat smaller than the inverse of 15:31. I would counter by saying that, if we acknowledge that "Mars" is in 5/4 (with 1.5x as much time spent in weak spans as in strong beats) and this music is in 4/4 (with equal time spent in weak and strong spans), then the ratio of the density of onsets is 5:2, which is somewhat larger than the inverse of 15:31 and (if you allow, but I won’t be hurt if you don’t) counterbalances the inversional discrepancy.
** I suppose one could say that the notational values of my transcription are somewhat arbitrary, but, regardless of what you call it, the time span that I’ve notated as a quarter note for Williams’s rhythm is quite close to the time span of the notated quarter note for the average performance of "Mars."