Chris Kollgaard was 22 when the first “Star Wars” film was released. Being an adult didn’t stop him from immersing himself in the galaxy far, far away, and he proceeded to purchase memorabilia and toys spawned by the epic space story.
Last year, he was able to take part in the “Star Wars” world on a different level. Kollgaard was one of about a dozen members of the Pacific Symphony who helped make up the 100 or so musicians who recorded the soundtrack for the new film, “The Force Awakens,” with the franchise’s original composer, John Williams.
“I’ve worked on hundreds and hundreds of soundtracks, but this is one of those historic movies that’s just a real trip,” said the bass player, who has been playing with Williams for 25 years and helped to record the soundtracks for the movies “Schindler’s List” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.”
“It’s always a thrill to work with John because he’s so good and very professional. There’s no wasted time. It’s always very organized and well-written. But ‘Star Wars’ added this element of iconic music. Most musicians play its theme dozens of times in different concerts, but to play it for the actual movie was really cool. Even the most jaded musician in the room was excited about it.”
Williams has a long-standing relationship with the Pacific Symphony, said Eileen Jeanette, vice president of artistic and orchestra operations for the Orange County-based orchestra.
She said Williams has conducted the Pacific Symphony twice and is friends with music director Carl St.Clair and principal pops conductor Richard Kaufman. Shawn Murphy also serves as the sound engineer for both the Pacific Symphony and John Williams.
“He’s a legend, but he’s also a really great musician and lovely man,” Jeanette said. “The orchestra always tries to do their absolute very best, and they have so much respect for him.”
“The Force Awakens” was the first time Williams recorded a “Star Wars” score in Los Angeles. The previous six films had been recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in England.
The soundtrack of the seventh film in the franchise was recorded between April and November, nearly bumping up against the film’s release on Dec. 18.
Kollgaard said such lengthy recording times aren’t typical in the film industry but noted that this aided in keeping everyone — including the musicians — in the dark about the film’s plot.
Jessica Pearlman Fields, oboe player for the Pacific Symphony for seven years, said the film wasn’t playing in the background as the musicians performed, which was a deviation from the usual process.
Often, she said, a film is projected on a screen behind the orchestra, but the only person who could see the film during these sessions with the musicians was Williams.
This left the players to imagine the scenes accompanying the music.
“The music is so expressive and colorful that it just paints these pictures of fights and people,” said Pearlman Fields, who has been performing with Williams since 2011 and has yet to see “The Force Awakens.” “I kind of had this image of the movie in my mind even without seeing it. It was an unusual experience.”
The musicians also knew little about the actors who would be visiting the recording sessions. They included Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, who earned fame for their portrayals as the new leading characters in the latest film, Rey and Finn.
“To us, they were regular people,” said Kollgaard, who has seen “The Force Awakens” four times. “But now, they’re these huge stars.”
As for the music itself, the players said they enjoyed it.
With original tunes and anthems, as well as new songs — like “Rey’s Theme,” a subdued melody that hints at the mysterious origins and scrappy resourcefulness of the film’s main protagonist, and “Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle,” which is menacing and dark like the new villain played by Adam Driver — the score was just an overall enjoyment, Kollgaard said.
He said his favorite piece is “March of the Resistance,” which plays during scenes featuring the Resistance, a small and secretive private military force founded by Leia Organa to counter the actions of the evil First Order.
“We played that one a lot and we really perfected it,” Kollgaard said. “It’s such a virtuosic piece.”
Jim Self, a tuba player who has been with the Pacific Symphony since 1986 and with John Williams since 1977, said “The Force Awakens” was the first “Star Wars” film he had ever seen because he protested the other films. He objected to the fact that Williams didn’t record the soundtrack with his regular group of musicians in Los Angeles, where the composer and conductor lives.
Still, Self, who also played on soundtracks for “Home Alone” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” said he enjoyed “The Force Awakens.”
“It’s a spectacular film with action and amazing music,” he said. “Those movies are like video games in a way. It’s awesome to have been a part of that.”