Research Spotlight: The Force is Strong with This One

Christian Jessup headshot

On Dec. 8th, 2016, Christian Jessup hosted a world musical premiere—Star Wars: A New Score. Event posters, plastered across the Gardner-Webb University campus, beckoned his fellow students to attend. But would they turn out? Would they appreciate his wildly ambitious effort? Or, worse-case scenario, would they deem his musical score as nothing short of cinematic sacrilege?

He had, after all, taken one of the most iconic film scores of the past fifty years, composed by one of the most important film composers—John Williams—and replaced it with his own. As he readily concedes, the entire project was a rather gutsy move from a college junior.

“It was definitely the first time I had done something on that scale,” Jessup says. “Looking back I’m not sure what even made me begin to think I could do it—other than the fact that it was my dream.”

Some kids go to college to discover their passion. Jessup, a rising senior, came to Gardner Webb to master his: film scoring. He chose GWU because of its noteworthy degree in music composition.

A stellar student from the beginning, Jessup earned membership in Gardner-Webb’s North Carolina Zeta chapter of Alpha Chi, which gave him the academic space and support to hone his musical literacy. “Alpha Chi presented me with a platform where I could follow through with my musical research,” he says.

It wasn’t until Star Wars: A New Score, though, that Jessup realized just how far that research could take him.

 

Telling stories through music. 

Jessup grew up in a musical family, playing piano at age five and later playing the bass and the drums. At GWU, he sought to understand music at a more theoretical level.

“Music has its own grammar and sentence structure,” he says. “It’s just as much a language as English, Spanish, or German.”

Like a scholar of Latin, he set to work mastering the logic and grammar of musical storytelling. And that meant studying Richard Wagner and Igor Stravinsky. Learning from these composers, Jessup gleaned the concepts of musical narrative, character development, and leitmotifs.

“If you’re treating the music as part of the storytelling,” he says, “it needs to reflect what’s in the movie.” In all good stories the characters undergo change. In the original 1977 score, John Williams imbued his characters— Luke Skywalker, Princess Lea, and Darth Vader— with memorable themes, but Jessup recognized an opportunity to contribute to the film’s narrative complexity through leitmotifs that evolve and develop.

For his original score, Jessup turned off the sound, and began to layer his own musical themes on top of the action.

“With leitmotifs there are many musical possibilities,” he says. “You can put them in different instruments, you can slow it down, play just part of the phrase, or you can combine it with another leitmotif.” Working playfully, but with scholar’s discipline, he created his own two hour score.

 

Why Star Wars?

For all his research and creativity, Jessup proved he had a knack for showmanship as well. Why did he choose Star Wars and not a smaller scale movie with a more modest emotional range?

Star Wars is the pinnacle, for me, of film music,” says Jessup. “It’s ingrained into everyone’s head.” After discussions with his mentor, Dr. Bruce Moser, Jessup recognized that the wide range of emotions and themes in Star Wars—war, love, father/son relationship, and comic relief—gave him a rich emotional tableau with which to work.

Moreover, the project was a way of honoring his hero, John Williams. “It’s the best score of all time, and I couldn’t think of a better tribute than to start with this challenging film.”

The night of his premiere, some 200 GWU students squeezed into Stewart Hall. Some brought couches. Others brought lightsabers. “I was honored so many people came out,” he says. “Of course, some probably just came out to watch Star Wars,” he laughs. “It was such a cool experience.”

What’s next? Thanks to his hard work and a fortuitous GWU connection, Jessup landed a summer internship at one of the most influential film scoring companies in Hollywood, Remote Control Productions, owned by legendary composer Hans Zimmer.

“To work and study there is an amazing opportunity,” says Jessup. Everything he learns, he plans to channel into his next creative project: The Portrait of Christ, a musical narrative based on the Bible and historical narratives. So stay tuned: You will be hearing a lot more from Christian Jessup.