[Ed. note: here's a post that appeared last week on my blog "Editorial License", which is linked in the footer of this website. It ran as part of the "31-Day Blog Challenge", a series of writing prompts designed to jumpstart a blog -- which the HammertonMusic blog could sorely use, but only a few prompts have to do with music, and fewer still with music composition and arranging! But you take what you can get.]
31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 5: “My Guilty Pleasure”
If you’ve been paying proper attention to the "Editorial License" blog, in the five-plus years it’s existed, you know that I’m an utter, squealing geek when it comes to two subjects.
One is the universe according to George Lucas.
When “Star Wars” hit theaters in May 1977 … it became an almost-instant genuine cultural phenomenon, and it’s cast its shadow over nearly four decades of American life, since. (Although a few stories have since surfaced detailing the disdain that some of the movie’s own production crew members had for the project while they were making it. Admittedly “Episode IV” must have looked like every other bewildering or pathetic attempt at science-fiction movie magic that had come before it, and more than a few that came after.)
But honestly, it could still be filed under “guilty pleasure” because honestly … weird creatures and zap guns and really not-that-great acting? I mean come on. And then “The Simpsons” invented their Comic-Book Guy character, thereby creating a capsule review of every mid-thirties American male who waxes authoritative about the galaxy far, far away from the comfort of a parent’s basement very, very nearby.
The other geek-out subject is that of the good old American marching band. (On this Blogge, I suppose you could think of it as “the universe according to George Parks”.) Sadly, no matter how much dignity and seriousness we try to infuse into the activity, for every “Drumline”, it seems like there are several “American Pie: Band Camp” examples out there.
From inside the bubble of the marching band universe – the place where its participants and adherents rehearse music, learn marching drill, and practice throwing and catching flags and rifles and other implements of destruction – the activity can be a remarkable and beautiful experience both from an entertainment standpoint and from a “life skills you will learn while marching that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life and make you lifelong friends”, etc. etc. angle.
From outside that bubble, it can look like just a bunch of odd ducks wearing feathers on their heads.
Everybody is right.
One day in 1999, my two guilty pleasures intersected. It was a moment of guilty-pleasure geekdom that I fear will never come again. Although perhaps that’s for the best.
As has been chronicled here and elsewhere, when the marching music activity is done right, it can be great, and when it’s done poorly, it’s cringeworthy and look-away territory.
Until that day, and since then, when marching ensembles have attempted to reproduce the John Williams “Star Wars” musical scores, it’s been anywhere from “almost; good try” to “oh put that away, it’s not even close and it’s embarrassing”.
I come at the “Star Wars” scores from the perspective of someone who considers himself, rightly or not, something of a “Star Wars” score savant. When I hear any orchestral cue from the original trilogy of films, I can hear the dialogue from that scene in my head at the same time. I can hum along with most of those cues, accurately. You could say I’ve marinated in the stuff for nearly forty years. That “Episode IV” double-LP album has long since had its grooves worn away.
And having invested that kind of ridiculous time in listening to those recordings, I’ve gotten used to what the London Symphony Orchestra sounded like, making those recordings. As glad as I was, when “The Force Awakens” opened, to hear the first new “Star Wars” film score in ten-plus years … still I was a little puzzled at the opening blast of brass because it didn’t sound quite right. I wondered if it was (ironically) some new recording technology that was making the brass sound a little different, not quite the same … and then I read somewhere that the score was recorded in Los Angeles (a nod to not forcing the octogenarian Williams to cross the ocean to London, repeatedly). Ah ha. So, different. Not bad; just not … quite.
So, at the fourth annual Collegiate Marching Band Festival, held at J. Birney Crum Stadium in Allentown, PA, came a moment of “will it or won’t it?”
I sat up in the stands amongst the Boston University band folks with whom I had traveled (and the legions of other college band members, and local high school band kids, and lots of other spectators), watching the mighty Penn State Blue Band take the field. I had never heard Penn State live. Their reputation preceded them. The Festival, which to that point had taken place on the last weekend of September, had been moved to the first weekend in October to accommodate Penn State’s schedule. Yes, you do that for certain groups which reside in the pantheon of American marching bands.
Their PA announcement declared that they would open their exhibition show with The Theme From Star Wars!! …
And my heart sank.
Because any other time I’d heard an outdoor band go there, whether they’d played well or not, it had not been … quite.
(And sometimes – many more times – it had been not at all.)
Penn State took a deep breath … and so did I. I didn’t trust a big-10-style, high-stepping, spats-wearing band to make “Star Wars” sound like anything other than a marching band trying to approximate that sound that I was so familiar with, and knew could not be reproduced – certainly not by a marching band.
I prepared to be disappointed.
Penn State did not give me that opportunity.
In the time before, and in the time since, I have not ever heard a marching band nail, completely nail the opening introductory few measures of John Williams’ “intro to a galaxy far, far away”. But that afternoon, Penn State nailed it. I sat up very much straighter on those not-quite comfortable benches in the J. Birney Crum home stands. I listened very much more closely to the chords, the rhythms … the voicings in the arrangement … trying to see if I could spot watered-down rhythms, not-quite-correct chords. I couldn’t. To my ears … with no orchestral string section present … outdoors, with no acoustical shells to direct the sound properly to my precise location in the audience … Penn State delivered a sound so authentic, so true to the original, that I wished I could hit rewind and listen to it again, right then.
The phrase “I couldn’t believe my ears” is thrown around with such abandon now.
But I couldn’t.
But I was forced to, because those were live humans down there – no lip sync, or the band equivalent (whatever technology *that* might require!). No faking it in any way. What you hear is what you get.
I got an earful.
Penn State put an arrangement very much like that one back into its repertoire ten years later, and they almost, almost reproduced that Allentown sound. But I think it’ll never happen again. And that’s okay. The wind was blowing just right – the winds were blowing just right – and at least one particular geek in the stands got his perfect storm, his Great Convergence of Guilty Pleasures.