Max Rebo: Baroque composer?

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Max Rebo in 'Return of the Jedi' Lucasfilm

According to Star Wars lore, the music in Jabba the Hutt's Tatooine palace is played by Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo Band. Snootles is the long-lipped vocalist; Rebo is the blue creature who sits behind a circular keyboard, accompanied by eyeless flutist Droopy McCool.

The Max Rebo Band are best-known for their big musical number in Return of the Jedi: a mid-tempo rocker called "Lapti Nek" in the film's original release, notoriously updated to a CGI production number called "Jedi Rocks" in the much-reviled 1997 "Special Edition" that Lucasfilm continues to insist is the definitive version.

They seem to have another number in the film, though — one they were allowed to keep for the Special Edition. I say "seem to," because the band aren't actually seen onscreen during the scene where this other number is featured; the fact that they're playing the music is purely presumptive, since it's clearly intended to be diagetic. (That is, music that emanates from a source that's either literally onscreen or implied to be offscreen — rather than score music that's understood to be audible only to the audience, not the characters.)

The music, composed by John Williams (like "Lapti Nek," but unlike "Jedi Rocks"), is heard near the beginning of Jedi, when we first meet Jabba. It's an eerie and ironic way to introduce the grotesque alien gangster. "It's kind of ridiculous," says Minnesota Public Radio digital producer Dan Nass. "It makes Jabba seem jolly."

The composition suggests a parallel between Jabba's court and the courts of the historic monarchs who commissioned much of the classical music repertoire — but is it classical music?

Well, according to the soundtrack listing, it's "Baroque." In reality, the style of the piece is closer to the Classical era, as Brad Althoff — the managing producer of American Public Media's national classical programs — notes. "It's Mozart, but with no melody — so, therefore, Haydn."

Senior administrative assistant Jodi Gustafson says she hears the Baroque echoes. "It's like Bach underwater," she says. "Music for the harpsichoral reef."

Brad points out that the piece's watery feeling is due to the fact that "the tones are unstable, so it has a shimmering quality."

As Wookiepedia notes, the piece is performed "complete with alberti bass motion. It was presented in 3/4 time, much like a waltz, and is in A-B-A-C-A (ornamented) form." Alberti bass is a way of playing accompaniment, with broken-chord arpeggios, that was popular in the Classical era; it can be heard, for example, at the beginning of Mozart's Piano Sonata K. 545.

What instruments are we hearing in "Jabba's Baroque Recital"? According to Wikipedia, Rebo "plays a Red Ball Jett keyboard, which is similar to a circular reed organ with clavinet characteristics," while McCool blows on "a chidinkalu horn, an instrument that resembles a clarinet."

Stepping back to the real world, the piece is scored for harpsichord and flute. According to Peter Nickalls, the recording "employs a harpsichord and synthesizers producing flute and chamber organ-like sounds, reminiscent of Walter Carlos's 1968 album Switched-On Bach." Brad also hears a plucked instrument in there; Flicks in Five host Lynne Warfel is sure it's a harp.

Whatever you think of Williams's skill as a "Baroque" composer, what's most important is that he strikes exactly the right tone for the scene — both in terms of composition and instrumentation. Our associate music director Jennifer Allen notes that "it's both earthy and spacey," with its juxtaposition of the acoustic instruments and the..."whatever you want to call that. It's charming."

Lynne agrees that Williams found the right sound for the scene. "It's Jabba," says Lynne, "trying to pretend that he has good taste."