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Star Wars composer Kevin Kiner on following in John Williams' galactic footsteps

Contributed by
May 29, 2018

This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our heads long after the credits roll.

Kevin Kiner has written more Star Wars music than anyone in the history of the franchise. After five-plus seasons of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the Clone Wars movie, and four seasons of Star Wars Rebels, it's a record he might hold for a long time.

SYFY WIRE had the chance to speak with him as part of our Conversations with Composers series about his work in the Star Wars universe, a sound sandbox established by John Williams, popularly one of the greatest composers of all time.

How did you step into Star Wars in the first place?

It was an audition process. I'm really not sure how George [Lucas] got my reel, but I think there were about four or five of us that auditioned for Clone Wars back in the day, 13 years ago, or whenever it was. They gave us a scene to score, I think it was the first act of one of the first episodes, and they chose my score.

Do you remember any of the choices you made that stood out and got you the job?

Back in those days, George really wanted to push things. They flew us up to look at the show and we looked at it with Dave Filoni, not with George, and I mentioned, "This might be a good place for 'The Force Theme,'" and Dave said, “George doesn't really want to use too many John Williams Star Wars themes on this show at first. He wants it to kind of have its own voice.”

I was scoring CSI: Miami at that time. I believe George was a fan of that music. I'm not positive, but people have told me that. So I knew he wanted that kind of element that was very much electronica. That was the tough thing, to put a modern touch on it — a current film score touch — without losing the soul of Star Wars. And it ended up being more world percussion. George had the idea that every planet would have its own ethnicity, every episode would be like, say, Bulgarian and another would be South America, and the next would be Africa or something like that. I believe I hit on some of the right percussive elements without losing the orchestra. It was two elements I needed to meld together.

As you worked, I imagine you worked with Clone Wars series supervising director Dave Filoni more than Lucas. What was the influence there like? You did hundreds of episodes of Star Wars.

If you're measuring by the pound, I win. I've written more Star Wars music than anyone alive, and I may hold that record for a pretty long time, depending.

What was great was Dave Filoni's father was an opera fan and a classical music fan, and Dave is quite conversant when it comes to classical music. One of the things John Williams brought to Star Wars was a sense of classicism. To get the gig I think I had to include a lot of percussions, but as the gig progressed, it reverted back to the more traditional John Williams sound. That was a progression Filoni had always felt. And maybe it wasn't so much quoting John, but using influences such as Korngold, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, who were influences of John Williams'. So maybe we went back a generation rather than quoting John all the time.

Where did "Ahsoka's Theme" come from? How did it evolve, and what were you trying to evoke with that? It's become an iconic piece of music for Clone Wars fans.

I'm really proud of that. It's the best thing I've written for Star Wars in general. There are a couple of others that come close, but after I got the gig and I spotted the show with George Lucas, there's one early episode [in which] there's a scene where Ahsoka is sitting all alone on a cot or something in a dark room, and I used a shakuhachi, which is a Japanese flute, for that melody. I just had that in mind for some reason. In my mind, there's a sense of femininity about a flute. And it just came out. It was inspired by her and just by who she was, but it was really the first thing I wrote after I got the gig.

How did your work evolve from the beginning of The Clone Wars to the end of Rebels? How did your relationship with Filoni change over those years?

I don't think the relationship between myself and Dave has changed at all. We're sort of joined at the hip in this weird way. When we're talking about music we almost finish each other's sentences, which is really cool. It's amazing to have a relationship like that with someone, especially someone with the lineage Dave has, being trained by George — it's fantastic.

There was a conscious effort at the beginning of Rebels to go back and reboot the music. Where George had wanted us to use any of John's themes sparingly, we weren't banned from using them, but he didn't want them all over the place in Clone Wars. We'd go quite a few episodes without using any John Williams themes. When Rebels started, the whole idea was to go right back to Episode IV. I really went back and watched A New Hope again and went back to the soundtrack, which I already knew really well, but we approached it just like A New Hope. Part of what we realized is that Episode IV doesn't have wall-to-wall music. We all seem to think it does, and movies these days tend to have that, but there's a lot of space in Episode IV. We did that, which is really hard to do with an animated project because the tendency is to score the heck out of animation, or, for that matter, find a Marvel film without music everywhere. I don't think it ever stops in a Marvel movie.

The two approaches were to go back to John's music, even the thing where they're fighting in the [Millennium] Falcon, we quoted the heck out of that at the beginning of Rebels. It really was a reboot, and we got away from using the world's music. You can't do that for the entire series, though, and after a while, it grew into its own thing.

I think if "Ahsoka's Theme" is the best thing I've written for Star Wars, "Ezra's Theme" is second. It was interesting when I wrote it, too, because I thought it was something John wrote. I had to call a bunch of composer friends and play it and asked if I was plagiarizing something there.

What was it about "Ezra's Theme" that made it so Star Wars-y for you?

I could have sworn it was a John Williams cue. And then I was thinking, I know his Star Wars music pretty well and I was pretty sure it wasn't a Star Wars cue, so I started thinking maybe it was from E.T. or Superman or Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park. That's why I had to call a bunch of composer friends of mine. It just felt like something John would write. Which, ugh, I guess I'm complimenting myself. But, whatever.

Another piece of music I want to ask you about in Rebels that is very striking, but also very different, is "Thrawn's Theme." You've got that ethereal organ feeling to it. Could you tell me the genesis of that and how you decided to use an organ?

Well, I would love to take credit for that, but Dave Filoni had the idea of using the organ for that. And it was brilliant. And that's why I'm so fortunate to work with a guy like Dave. That was his idea.

And, again, I can't take credit for the tune because my eldest son, Sean Kiner, wrote that piece of music. During the last four or five years, we've been co-writing, and my other son has been co-writing with me as well. So the three of us are all writing, and I never thought that would happen. I didn't think I had a business like a bakery or something that I could pass down to my children, but in this case, it's working. They're both really good composers. And for the fans, "Thrawn's Theme" is one of their favorites. And I got all the credit, but it belongs to my oldest son and Dave Filoni.

Episodic TV is different from a movie. How would you approach a movie differently than you would an episode of TV?

I beg to differ. Episodic Star Wars is not one bit different from doing a feature film, except you don't have the budget. And sometimes you have a little less time, but otherwise, I don't know. Features have horrible schedules, too. I think Hans Zimmer had to do Pirates of the Caribbean in less than a month. Maybe three weeks or some crazy thing like that because he was hired on late. I wouldn't approach it any differently. I get a big orchestra for Rebels, though I don't get it for every single episode. I'm writing orchestra music. It's not really any different.

Is there a difference in how you're playing themes out? For Rebels or Clone Wars, do you get to look at the arc of something over a whole season? I imagine you have to thread music differently throughout a television season than you would a movie, something that only plays for two hours.

Where you are correct is that a feature film does become a large body of work within itself. Rather than having 22 minutes to deal with and moving on to the next 22 minutes, you have a large body of, say, 120 minutes. There is a creation of that world that is self-contained, so, thematically, those themes are all contained in that film.

Now, Star Wars is a little different because whoever is composing is still using many of John Williams' themes, so that's a little bit different. Even [in] Marvel movies, [composers] are still using Alan Silvestri's [Avengers] theme. For most features, they become a self-contained entity and have a life of their own in that sense.

As far as strategizing with Rebels, I had no idea what was coming down the pipe. Every once in a while, Dave would tell me about a specific thing that was going to happen later on and that he wanted a specific kind of theme so we could tie it to a later episode, but mostly you're taking them one at a time and building themes as you go.

Do you find it difficult to quote Star Wars music you know people will know immediately? Like you remixed the "Imperial March" for the Empire Day parade. Does it make those decisions easier? Or do you have to second-guess that it's too recognizable?

In that particular instance, there wasn't a lot of second-guessing. That was just fun. There was this kind of Hitler Youth take on what the march would be like in an alternate universe. The most difficult was rearranging the Star Wars theme for Clone Wars.

That was something George really wanted, and I was dead set against it, but I couldn't get myself fired. He really wanted it. But I told him, “You know, John Williams did this correctly the first time. There's no need to go back and mess with this one.”

That was a difficult assignment.

It's very case-by-case. Using "The Force Theme" is always fun. I think it's the best theme he wrote for Star Wars, and I think it's one of the best themes he's ever written. That's really easy when I see, “Oh, I've got this or that coming up, I know it's going to be 30 seconds or a minute of magic when I start on that one.” It's one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.

Is there anything you've learned about Williams and his music that has made you a better composer, or something you've been surprised by?

There's a songbook that I bought in the 1970s. It's Star Wars. It's black. They don't publish it anymore, and it's all coming apart, [underlined] with red ink the way some people might underline their books or the Bible or something and I have all kinds of… I don't know.

If I said anything, it would just be giving my take on his writing, and I don't want to do that because maybe he's thinking of it differently. I wouldn't presume to say he's using this trick or using that trick or using a D minor over C for a reason or something like that, but there are tons of musical licks. If you're a guitar player, some of the licks you learn are Chuck Berry or Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, you learn these little turnarounds — licks. John certainly has his licks that he goes to, and there's hundreds of them I've learned, and they're all really cool. I felt like I was becoming a better composer every single day I worked on those shows.

And I'm definitely inspired by Indiana Jones. I think that both Dave Filoni and I both really love that era of the blockbuster, E.T. and Indiana Jones and Star Wars and Superman. A bit of that has been lost recently, and that's one of the things I love about working with Dave. He can hearken back to that. It's a timeless kind of filmmaking that will age well, whereas certain things you see these days aren't going to age nearly that well.