The Orchestra Awakens: Inside the 'Star Wars' Recording Sessions

December 15, 2015, 11:15 AM · Recording for Star Wars: the Force Awakens was an epic venture like no other for Los Angeles studio violinist Bruce Dukov, despite 30 years of recording countless film scores for A-list movies.

A Juilliard graduate and Dorothy DeLay protegé, Dukov was part of the 85-piece free-lance orchestra that recorded the latest Star Wars score at Los Angeles' Sony Scoring Stage from June through November in eleven double sessions, with composer John Williams conducting.

Left: J.J. Abrams with Bruce Dukov; Right: John Williams with Bruce Dukov.

"It was just an honor to be a part of a franchise like Star Wars," Dukov told me over the phone last week. "And don't forget, I've played on huge franchises for other things, I've done the Indiana Jones movies, too, and all the Back to the Futures. But this is something really different. The buzz around the world about this is extraordinary."

This was also the first time that a Star Wars film was recorded in the United States -- all the previous films were scored in England at Abbey Road, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

"It was in London because (director) George Lucas never wanted to pay any kind of back-end royalty to anybody working on the film, and music is one of those things which has a contract which requires him to pay," Dukov said.

The current Star Wars film was directed by J.J. Abrams, and that is one of the reasons the film came to be scored in Los Angeles. "J.J.'s way of working require him to be here in L.A. with his whole team, and that worked in our favor," Dukov said. "Besides that, John (Williams) doesn't want to travel like that any more. So that's how it came to be here."

A lot of things have changed about scoring films, over the 40-plus years that the Star Wars movies have come to life. The biggest change? Technology. For musicians, it generally means not as many days of recording.

In years past, "if a director decided to make a change, everything had to be done by hand," Dukov said. "Without digital editing, they had to do it all on the film. It was much more time-consuming, so that's why we had so many more days of scoring. But things are done so efficiently now that the average film has maybe four days (of scoring)."


"They can make cuts and change things so easily," Dukov said. "It can drive a composer crazy! Everything on a film is scored to the millisecond, and the composer has written his score to make sure it goes with the cut that he's been given. Then if they change the cut, all of a sudden it needs new music. This is why Leonard Bernstein swore he would never do music for film, because he had to change the music to suit the film -- he wanted them to change the film to suit his music! He did do 'On the Waterfront,' and it was a great score. But certain composers are so committed to their musical vision, that they can't alter anything."

"The whole art of being a film composer is being able to make those cuts or compose in a modular sense, where you have certain melodies that can be cut up or expanded, made to last longer or shorter, you have the flexibility to do that," Dukov said. "John Williams is a total master at it, he's just unbelievable."

In the new Star Wars score, much of the old music remains, and as was always the case, "each character has his own motif," Dukov said. "He's written some new motifs for the new characters, and he's also made new music for certain situations."

Star Wars music
Bruce Dukov's music, signed by composer John Williams and director J.J. Williams.

Not only that, but Williams conducts the orchestra himself during the sessions. (Except when Gustavo Dudamel pops in to do a scene!)

"You don't have a lot of composers who do their own conducting," Dukov said. "A lot of times they have a separate conductor who is hired, and the composer is in the booth. (The composer) might not feel comfortable with his skill set as a conductor, or he wants to be listening. When you're conducting, you're not really able to listen at the same time because you're so caught up in what you're trying to convey to the orchestra that you're not hearing the actual performance.

"But John Williams is one of the few film composers who also conducts -- and what energy, for an 83-year-old man!" Dukov said.

So did the musicians get to see the Star Wars: the Force Awakens before everybody, while they were recording it?

"In this case, we did not see the film," Dukov said. "John Williams was watching it on his video monitor, on the podium, but they definitely did not want anybody to sneak a shot at anything in the film. They wanted complete control."

"When it's a very high-profile film, there's the danger of piracy or people leaking things before it's time -- because everybody has a video camera on their phone!" Dukov said. Typically, musicians did used to get a little peek of the film they were scoring. But Dukov remembers the first time that changed: "It was when we did Jurassic Park, with Spielberg, and they blacked the screen out so we couldn't see the effect of the dinosaurs. They wanted everybody to be completely shocked when they saw the film."

The sessions for Star Wars: the Force Awakens took place in Sony Scoring Stage (once MGM) in Los Angeles, which carries a great sense of history. "They've maintained the integrity of the room, it's almost identical to what it was back in the 1930's," Dukov said. "We're still playing off the same music stands! I always make it a point to show people the music stands -- they still have notches on the wood where people used to put their cigarettes while they were playing. And they have heavy bronze pedestals, with a big wooden back, so you can put the music on it. The lamps on top have about a two-foot, iron black hood, with the lights underneath it. This is all original, from the 1930's."

The sessions went well, in this city where musicians are accustomed to making film scores.

"The quality of the player right now is at the highest I've ever seen, especially in the strings," Dukov said. "In Los Angeles, we have this amazing ability -- speed. We can do things in half the time of most places. We adapt incredibly well to whatever it is the composer's asking for, and it's just an immediate thing. We just know how to do it. It's just an acquired skill, but we definitely do it well here."

And a film score by John Williams is juicy stuff for a string player to play.

"In terms of film music, there are trends. Back in the '40s and '50s, there were very sweeping, wonderful melodies with big solos in the stringed instruments, and they wanted a lot of vibrato. Then in the early '80s the synthesizer took over, and there were hardly any films with this big stuff in it. I mean, you can spot an '80s film in a second! In '85 the trend started coming back to big orchestras and sweeping stuff, but a little more sterile. The younger composers, like (the late) James Horner, who is one of my favorite composers -- he didn't favor the big, emotional sweeping of the strings, and all the vibrato. He wrote a great line, but he always told us, don't over-vibrate, cut back on that, no portamenti whatsoever. It got kind of sterile -- it sounds beautiful, but it's missing something. But that was the trend, and so everybody started following that. It's not bad. But it's really nice when we get to play with composers like John Williams, who wants us to play out and just do what we do. We're all thoroughbreds and we need to run, you know? And that's great, when you get let loose like that."

* * *

Here is Dukov's tribute to Williams and Abrams: the Rebel Theme, in the style of Wieniawski! And Dukov actually did make a bow into a lightsaber, that's not just a special effect!

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December 22, 2015 at 08:16 AM · Video is cute. Thanks to the modern technology, because editing music, fixing the recording as well as editing that video has been a lot easier than it was a few years ago. I remember waiting for the final production for days and even have to repeat everything from the start.

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