‘John Williams on The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

John Williams on The Empire Strikes Back – Alan Arnold (from the OST liner notes) – 1980

Alan Arnold: Let’s talk about the orchestra.

John Williams: The music for STAR WARS provided me with my first opportunity to work with the London Symphony Orchestra. THE EMPIRE STRIKE BACK is the fifth soundtrack I have done in the past three years with this great orchestra. Performing film scores is not a new thing to them. They played the film scores of William Walton and Vaughan Williams and that goes back many years. They bring to a recording an ensemble precision and balance that comes from being a group of people who play together fifty-two weeks a year.

AA: Is it physically larger than other orchestras?

JW: Most symphony orchestras comprise 104 players and during the recording of this score the number varied depending on the type of music being played. Sometimes we would have 80 players, other days over 90, and for the most elaborate passages and the finale we had the full complement of 104.

AA: Did you change the composition of the orchestra for this recording?

JW: Many passages required special instrumentation. For example, the music for “Battle in the Snow” has unusual orchestration calling for five piccolos, five oboes, a battery of eight percussion, two grand pianos, two or three harps, in addition to the normal orchestra complement. This was necessary in order to achieve a bizarre mechanical, brutal sound for the sequence showing Imperial Walkers, which are frightening inventions advancing across a snowscape.

AA: How long did it take to record the score for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK?

JW: We did eighteen sessions of three hours each spread over a period of two weeks. That’s quite a bit of time, but we had a lot of music. We did nearly two hours of music for the film and for the LP. In a normal symphony setting you wouldn’t need eighteen sessions to record an LP with an hour-long piece on either side. But in recording for film you have problems of synchronisation that slow down the process, especially in a score for a film so complex as THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

AA: How much music did you have to compose?

JW: I wrote 117 minutes of music for this picture. It opens with the STAR WARS March and it includes the Force theme. With that as a basis I wanted to try to develope material that would wed with the original and sound like part of an organic whole: something different, something new, but an extension of what already existed. So, in the creation of new themes and the handling of the original material, the task, both in concept and instrumentation, was one of extending something that I had written three years before. I had to look back while at the same time begin again and extend.

AA: About film music in general, where did it all begin?

JW: Some scores were written to accompany silent films. Saint-Saens wrote one. It is all really an outgrowth of incidental music for the theater. Later, potpourris of standard words were put together in music libraries in Hollywood or in London –strung-together bits of repertory music– and were sent to the pit orchestras in the big city movie houses. When sound came in, the first film music was done by composers from the theater. Original commissioned music, like the great scores done for Eisenstein, were notable exceptions. But I would say that music in film is a very new thing relatively. We’ve just begun to understand the audio-visual process, the very subtle and complex affair that is seeing/hearing. How much do we see when we hear? How do these relationships change? How can we manipulate them?