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Professor Buhler examines the musical world of “Star Wars”

Professor+Buhler+examines+the+musical+world+of+Star+Wars

By Saiham Sharif
sharifsa@grinnell.edu

Last Friday, on Oct. 27, James Buhler, a professor of music theory and the director of the Center for American Music at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about the role of music and composition in the “Star Wars” film franchise. His speech first highlighted the importance of music in film theory, and showed the association between thematic music and the qualities of significant characters.

Beginning his speech with the connection between the worldbuilding in “Star Wars” and the series’ commercialization, Buhler showed how “Star Wars” has changed the film industry by gaining massive profit through merchandising. The preamble cultivated an aura of excitement around the larger than life series. For Buhler, the connection to this series is also close to home.

“The ‘Star Wars’ filmset has been very important to me personally. My family had been regular filmgoers when I was young, but none of my experiences going to films prepared me for ‘Star Wars.’”

Buhler recalled the amazement of his first viewing of the science fiction classic.

“I was transfixed, mesmerized, and I still remember the awe and terror in the opening shot, as the enormous imperial destroyer appeared on the screen,” he said. “I remember watching the film half a dozen times when it was in town.”

His presentation analyzed the consistency of the opening sequence, across the series. In his view, the easily recognizable scrolling epic white text on the black background provides a sense of repetition — order in the world and intimacy.

Connecting the music with the text, Buhler cemented the ideas of John Williams, the composer of the “Star Wars” soundtrack, and quotes him in saying that the music invokes, “some memory of Buck Rogers or King Arthur or something earlier in the cultural salts of our brains, memories of lives lived in the past, I don’t know. But it has that kind of resonance — it resonates within us in some past hero’s life that we’ve all lived.”

Buhler mapped the characteristics of each character’s theme with their respective personality. He finds Luke’s theme to be heroic, evoking that aspect of his character, while Leia’s theme to emphasize her portrayal as a romantic object, by marking her as striking yet tender. Buhler made similar connections for all the major themes and characters of the franchise, demonstrating how pervasive the impact of the compositions is throughout the films.

“The music already knows who the characters are and what they’re going to be and how they’re going to have an impact in the world,” Buhler said.

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