Review: “The Sounds of Star Wars” and “The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films”

The sentence “sound is half the picture” is usually attributed to George Lucas. It seems fitting, then, that one of the most beautiful books about the oft-forgotten topic of sound design has now been released about Lucas’s Star Wars saga. What makes “The Sounds of Star Wars” by J. W. Rinzler so beautiful is, first of all, the fact that it is more than a book. Attached to its spine is a sound module containing 256 sonic examples from the original library of the film series, every one of which can be selected and played individually. Coming from the built-in speakers they can sound a bit tinny at times. However, a headphone jack allows the listener to hear the wide selection of sounds – everything from R2D2 beeping to the star destroyers thundering past – in high fidelity as well.

But even without this gadget, “The Sounds of Star Wars” would be an outstanding book for everyone interested in film production. Every one of the six feature films and the TV series “The Clone Wars” is treated to an introduction spanning several pages and featuering many production photographs that mostly explain the modus operandi of sound designer Ben Burtt, who, together with Walter Murch, is one of those people who made the stitch perfect tailoring of sounds to moving images an art form in itself. The introductions are followed by descriptions of the secrets behind every sound in the module, bears for Chewbacca’s voice acting and a scuba mask for Darth Vader’s breathing. A more thorough spotlight is given to the saga’s most iconic scenes.

The book is clearly and fortunately directed at interested laymen. Processes of recording and mixing are not skipped over for fear of being too difficult to understand, but the descriptions also don’t drift off into technical gibberish.

This last sentence cannot be confirmed for the second large format book about the acoustics of big film sagas from the last few months, but that’s not necessarily a drawback. Doug Adams’s “The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films” excels through its detailed insight into the notes and thought process of composer Howard Shore. Those who want to comprehend them should be able to read music and ideally have a piano next to their reading armchair. A rudimentary knowledge of musical theory is an advantage as well, despite the fact that Adams has packed his most theoretical analyses into special sections.

Once you accept the fact that you are dealing with a musicology book, “The Music” is a real treasure trove for fans of Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Adams first discusses every one of the over 90 musical motifs of Shore’s monumental composition on its own, before devoting three Chapters to what he calls an “annotated score”, basically a running commentary for each musical cue in the extended trilogy. It’s worth watching the films again with the book in your lap to discover them all over again.

Previously unreleased photographs, a chronicle of the recording process, the full lyrics of all vocal pieces (with translations into English) and a CD full of musical rarities – containing unused alternative versions as well as MIDI demoes of several cues – round off the package.

There is only one weakness to the book. I really missed a key explaining how the score’s cues correspond to the tracks on the three soundtrack albums, which differ significantly from each other. Adams probably suspected that a true fan would of course own the “Complete Recordings” box sets anyway.

J. W. Rinzler: The Sounds of Star Wars. Foreword by Ben Burtt. Chronicle Books, 304 S. $60,00.

Doug Adams: The Music of The Lord of the Rings Films. A Comprehensive Account of Howard Shore’s Scores. Carpentier, 401 S. $59,95.

A German version of this review appeared in the magazine epd film 5/11