Celebrating “May the Fourth” with Alexander Iles

Celebrating “May the Fourth” with Alexander Iles

In celebration of “May the Fourth,” we spoke with LA studio trombonist Alexander Iles, who landed what many would regard a dream gig: playing on the sessions for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

What is your first memory of the Star Wars soundtrack?

My first memory of Star Wars was the preview trailer that played in theaters a few months before its release. As I recall, it seemed kind of lame, like a Buck Rogers rip-off.  As is so often the case, the music used in the trailer was not from the soundtrack, and was more representative of the state music scoring in 1977; pretty sparse, orchestrally-speaking:

Later that year, one of my summer school classmates came to school raving one about this movie called “Star Wars” he had just seen – twice.  He invited a bunch of us to go see it with him. That movie instantly became the equivalent of the Beatles for many of us younger baby boomers. Most of my buddies saw the movie 5, 7, 10 times before it left the theaters. Bringing someone who had not seen it yet became a favorite activity; in fact the whole summer of ’77 was all about Star Wars.

Of course all of us high school band and orchestra geeks all fell in love with the music. That was a huge part of what made the movie unique and worth repeated viewings. It was a full-on swashbuckling score, more like an older movie from the 40’s, but accompanying a science fiction fantasy.

Another classmate, who was already knowledgeable in classical music repertoire, bought the soundtrack on vinyl and gave me a copy for my birthday. He was the first person to suggest that key moments in the soundtrack were influenced by specific classical composers. Through these conversations he introduced me to the music of Mahler, Brahms, Prokofiev, Holst, Vaughn Williams, Copeland, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. We’d compare sections of Star Wars to Holst’s “The Planets,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Brahms Symphonies, Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” etc. What a wonderful introduction to music appreciation!

I owe that classmate, Alan Reinecke, a great deal of gratitude for having introduced me to the fascinating world of classical music in general (and of film music specifically) for which I’ve developed a lifelong love and connection.

When did you play a piece from the Star Wars soundtrack for the first time?

That’s hard to say. I remember figuring out a few pieces by ear while listening to the soundtrack. We may have played some of the themes in high school, but do recall playing some of the music in college on a few “orchestra pops” type concerts.

The first time I played the music professionally was in the Star Wars Orchestral Suite with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra back in the early 90’s. I also subbed a few times with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl on Star Wars Night with John Williams conducting. We played music from all the movies. It was a thrill hearing them all together. He has such a gift for film composition. He doesn’t just come up with a good melody for a character’s “theme,” he creates a thumbnail portrait of that character in sound. How can you not hear Darth Vader’s theme when you see him, whether it’s on-screen, or in a poster, comic book or advertisement?

Williams even wrote an amazing theme for the Force itself which is a theme for something that has no material existence at all. Yet every time that music is used, even subtly, it works its magic on the audience just as the Force does on the characters in the film.

You got the live the dream! What was it like performing on the Force Awakens sessions?

I have been so fortunate to have been able to check off many things on my musical “bucket list.” Playing on a Star Wars film soundtrack with John Williams was so unlikely that it wasn’t even ON my bucket list.

It never even occurred to me to dream about it, because all the Star Wars soundtracks were masterfully performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. That orchestra always plays John’s music with incredible passion and virtuosity AND produces such an amazing sound in their primary recording space, the legendary Abbey Road Studio One.

A few years ago rumors began circulating that John Williams was considering recording in Los Angeles. The exhausting traveling back and forth between LA and London was becoming less attractive to him and he has also always loved recording with his Los Angeles orchestra as well.

When the news came out that he would be recording the next Star Wars sound track in LA I was so thrilled (even before I received “the call” myself). This was going to be a huge event for our whole music community. As it turned out, I did receive the call. I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to get to play on The Force Awakens with one the biggest musical influences of my generation (or any generation).

Speaking on behalf of the member of the 100+ piece orchestra, we each felt so honored to be there to record this score. I must say John was able to draw an amazing sound from the amazing orchestra assembled specifically for this movie. I think each of us saw this as a dream-come-true moment. There was a unique energy present every session that was palpable.

The sessions were spread out over several months. We would usually record for two full days, then come back a few weeks later. The process was very deliberate and very musically intense. Unlike most film composers today, John conducts the vast majority of his own music. He is such a clear, diplomatic, efficient, energetic and musical conductor. We would rehearse a few short musical segments (or “cues”), each about 2-4 minutes long. This gave him an opportunity to make small adjustments to his composition and the group’s balance and intonation. It also gave the engineer a chance to hear the piece and adjust the recording levels.

By the time the red “recording” light came on, every aspect had typically been sorted out. We would usually record 3-5 takes of each cue. Afterwards music editors went through those takes, made notes, and assembled the best performance. For the most part, the average person would hear very little difference between the takes. Sometimes Williams might change the dynamics – or a certain part of the piece – to provide director J.J. Abrams with options. The difference might be more or less energy, a slightly different texture, or a change in the emphasis placed on what was happening on-screen.

Everyone involved signed non-disclosure agreements with Disney and Lucasfilm so we were not at liberty to say much or post anything about the sessions in social media or in the press. Furthermore, they didn’t even play the film in the studio as we performed (as is usually done for most of the movies we record). The whole experience really had a certain “Manhattan Project” feel to it.

One of the things that consistently impresses me about John is that he is constantly experimenting with new sounds, instrumental combinations, and textures. He is always asking players questions about how he has written things and is willing to change what he has written to allow a player to sound his/her best. His music is always challenging and inspiring to play but never beyond the best textbook orchestration.

The brass parts on this movie were a complete dream come true. The first time we played Kylo Ren’s theme, I was just overcome with excitement.  It hit me again the first time I heard the theme when he emerged from his command shuttle.

Playing for Gustavo Dudamel must have been a huge highlight. Was there anything he did as a conductor that really helped that you could share?

It was a huge unannounced surprise. John and Gustavo are friends. It was fun when he “sat in” and recorded the end credits with us. He was very much as in awe of the whole spectacle as we were. You could see his childlike enthusiasm as he ripped into the music while John was stood off to the side, smiling like a proud parent.

I would also like to mention that John had an amazing “back up” conductor, Bill Ross, in the wings each day. Bill would sometimes cover the conducting while John sat listening from the editor’s table in front of the orchestra. Standing at the podium for long periods can become pretty tiring for anyone.  At 83, John is amazingly energetic and spry, but even he needed a little break once in a while to focus on just listening to the orchestra play and to concentrate on certain subtleties of his score. Bill, himself a world class composer/arranger and conductor himself, was all smiles each time got a time to “pinch hit” for the maestro.

School ensembles all over the world perform Star Wars arrangements at concerts every year. What tips do you have for directors and students (especially in the low brass) who want to sound as great as you guys did on the record?

John really does show the influences of all the great music he has studied and played himself. I would suggest that students check out some of that music I mentioned earlier for the overall sense of how/why John might have drawn on any particular influence to compose his music.

Film music is three-dimensional music. There is the music and the performance just like concert music, but it also has the third dimension: the film and the story the film is telling. The music and the performance serve the story. This is a great thing to open yourself up to when you listen to many kinds of music. What kind of story is the music telling you? Great film composers know what musical sounds, themes, instrumental combinations, and gestures will bring the audience closer to the story the director/film maker is trying to tell.

So when the low brass play Darth Vader’s theme, they all have to make a sound that says, “Darth Vader in da house!” When you play beautifully balanced chords accompanying the Force theme, or sing out the triumphant sounds of The Throne Room, groups to over play much of the brass music from Star Wars. It is easy to do because it’s so fun to lay into it. But I have found that greater strength is found in a full, robust and centered sound that is never too forced. Loud music can be exciting for about 6 seconds, but music that changes dynamics never gets dull. Coming from soft to loud and back again makes you sound “louder” than you are really playing and produces an emotional response that is much more exciting.

Strive for your section to carry the power together, without any one player sticking out. Make sure you maintain your connection to the other low brass and the rest of the brass. Some of the melodic or moving eighth note and sixteenth note lines need to be crisp, clear and most of all, IN TIME. Don’t drag when you get to play something with some movement. Go for more light and fluid orchestral approach than an overbearing and heavy-handed one.

Each player should make their best sound and be listening (and working) to keep their sounds balanced at ALL times.

I’d like to thank Alex for sharing this incredible experience with us. Since talking with him we discovered this footage from the sessions, captured by 60 Minutes (look for the Finale-prepared parts). Happy May the Fourth, everyone!

Alex IlesAlex Iles is principal trombonist of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra and has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He has also toured as lead and solo jazz trombonist with Maynard Ferguson and the Woody Herman Orchestra and performs in many of the top LA-based big bands and jazz groups including Bob Florence’s Limited Edition, The Seth McFarlane Orchestra and Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band.

Alex frequently performs in the pit orchestras of numerous LA productions of Broadway shows and on hundreds of television and motion picture soundtracks. He has recorded with artists such as Barbra Streisand, Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Paul McCartney, and Prince. Alex has been a faculty trombone and jazz instructor at the California Institute of the Arts, Azusa Pacific College and California State University, Northridge, and has appeared twice as a featured soloist at the International Trombone Workshop. Want to learn more? Check out this interview.

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