Interview with Justin Freer
Since producer Gene Roddenberry launched his “’Wagon Train’ to the stars” on September 8th, 1966, the universe of the show’s visionary creator has expanded through multiple incarnations of spaceships and crews on viewer screens big and small. Through five decades, it’s been a tonally consistent universe, which is no small feat given the utopian concept’s many, enthusiastic voices, especially among the hundreds of hours of music created by numerous composers. Starting with a boldly thematic approach for the “Classic Trek,” the scoring became harmoniously homogenous for the show’s re-launch with “The Next Generation” and its subsequent syndication spin-offs. But in theaters, “Star Trek’s” music gloriously hearkened back to the more conventionally cinematic approach in the captain’s chair as it was handed from Kirk to Picard and back to Kirk again.
Now turning the music of “Star Trek” into a live, symphonic whole with a 50th Anniversary Concert Tour, show conductor and co-producer Justin Freer proves himself worthy of a Starfleet medal of commendation for creating an impressive cohesive vision of “Star Trek’s” music. Where film music concerts themselves have usually been relegated the same-old renditions of classic themes, and scenes that have been heard as many times as fans have watched reruns, Freer’s CineConcerts (founded with Brady Beaubien) have truly energized live shows by treating them as ersatz scoring sessions, often playing complete, live scores to landmark soundtracks as “The Godfather,” “Titanic” and “Gladiator.”
Given music that’s just as iconic for “Star Trek,” Freer has collected the heroically emotional stylings of such composers as Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Cliff Eidelman, Dennis McCarthy into both montage and straight-up scenes that highlight both the thematic tapestry of “Trek” as well as its “true” scoring. The concert neatly keeps chronological order of the show’s appearances with montages (narrated by “Worf” performer Michael Dorn) and clips, whose overarching themes range from exploration to aliens and space battles. Freer’s “Concert Tour” also offers the chance to have full orchestral performances of such Classic Trek highlights as Gerald Fried’s “Amok Time” and Sol Kaplan’s “The Doomsday Machine,” while new Trek highlights the moving emotion of Jay Chattaway’s “The Inner Light” from “The Next Generation” and Mark McKenzie’s music for the “Enterprise” episode “Horizon.”
Beginning his own musical voyage on the trumpet, Justin Freer’s own original work has included composing for Major League Soccer and trailer music for “Avatar.” He’s not only conducted orchestras the world over, but has had them perform his work as well. Now Freer goes beyond paying tribute to his mentor, and exceptionally glorious “Trek” composer Jerry Goldmsith with this impressive concert tour. As with Roddenberry’s galaxy-encompassing hope, Freer has beautifully united “Trek’s” musical voice in a way that conveys this hugely popular franchise’s inspirational magic, but perhaps even more importantly the bold joy of the live concert experience as well.
Tell us about your own musical background, and what drew you to scores?
I started as a young trumpet player and composer when 11 and 12. I started writing immediately after I started studying the trumpet. One of the first albums I got was “By Request – The Best of John Williams and Boston Pops Orchestra,” which had a wonderful collection of stuff he had over the years, from “1941” to “Close Encounters” and “Indiana Jones.” That and Jerry Goldsmith drew me to film music.
What were the early film music concerts that you saw that made an impression on you?
The first one I saw was John Williams conducting The Los Angeles Philharmonic at The Hollywood Bowl. While it might not have had visuals, it certainly made an impression on me.
Did it make you come to have any realizations about what it took to make a film music concert work?
Any realization came from listening to film music in general. It tells an engaging story, and that’s what people are looking for when they are trying to be entertained. This element of escapism and story is easier to present when you have full film and orchestra at the same time. The film has to be great and one that everyone respects. From that, you can find projects that have good possibility for a film music concert, like “Gladiator” and “The Godfather.”
What led to the genesis of Cineconcerts, and what did you hope to accomplish with it?
When we launched with “Gladiator,” the idea was to try and preserve and present as much of this type of material as possible – or at least as much as the audience would allow us to. The goal is a preservation and a presentation effort for the audience to see how powerful the concert experience truly is. It’s also to celebrate the best music written in our generation. Of course that doesn’t have to be film music genre… But some of the greatest music written has been for film!
As a fan, what do you think it was about the concept, and the music of “Star Trek” that made it stand out from other popular sci-fi franchises?
I think that Gene did it right at the very beginning. The genius he was blessed with allowed him to delivered escapism and other-worldliness with an optimistic view of what space exploration could be while maintaining an obvious, and not so obvious at the same time, approach to philosophy, politics, human relations – all of these things that are topical items of our day. Gene made sure they were relevant in their shows. There’s something for everybody within “Star Trek.” Not many franchises can say that.
When was it that the idea of a “Star Trek” concert hit you? Was it easy, or hard to win over Paramount to the idea, especially given that this is one of the studio’s most prized properties?
The idea first came to us in different ways. The 50th anniversary helped ignite a fire, but the music has always been something I’ve admired since I was a young musician and young boy listening to Jerry Goldsmith. The studios have been very collaborative since the beginning of the show. It’s been a smooth and rewarding process with them. The only difficulty in working with two studios is to demand enough of ourselves to make a new IP on stage that’s good enough for them. The real challenge though is the material. The amount is crazy – hundreds of hours of music to sift through and hours of content to watch! It’s a great task but it has great rewards.
With so much music from the series and films having been done over 50 years, what was the challenge of selecting your program?
There were challenges of programming the music because there were so many great composers writing great cues for “Star Trek.” The challenge was two-fold: trying to represent as many composers as possible but also telling the correct story – finding the narrative arc through the music that allowed the audience to feel the emotional ups and downs in the right way. Finding a balance of storytelling in the concert was one of the biggest challenges.
How did you want to play the music of “Star Trek” as a whole in the montages, while also taking a chronological approach as a narrative for the concert?
The approach of the music overall was that we are trying to tell this emotional arc – the montage music vs. the originally intended scene. Music does the same thing from the standpoint of a concert, in that it tells the audience something about the characters’ emotions and feelings. That was the idea of the music coupled with montage pieces that were speaking to one of these themes that Roddenberry spoke to – like race exploration or space exploration set to music only. The role of music here is to heighten the visual material while celebrating itself at the same time.
With so much footage of the various “Trek” incarnations available over 50 years, what was the challenge of doing the montage segments? Do you create a “demo” as such in figuring out how the music would fit the images?
We did a bit of reverse engineering – normally the music is written to picture. In this case the picture is edited to the music in every single case. All of the montages were edited to the music so we could create a marriage between the two in that “reverse” way. This allows us to explore in an interesting way, i.e. we know where the endpoints are going to be, and we already know where we are musically. That lets us tell a visible story through all of these different episodes or scenes in the “Trek” movies while also maintaining what that story is about.
How would you describe the difference in “Trek” music for “Classic Trek” to the show’s rebirth with “Next Generation,” and “Trek’s” part of the cinematic universe?
There are dramatic differences and musical differences. Dramatic differences speak to different type of characters, from the captains to the crewmen. How they interacted with other species was different. There was element of swashbuckling in the original series had a different approach than in “The Next Generation” There were also musical differences. Rick Berman at beginning of “Next Gen” didn’t have much procession. But then that evolved over the years until more percussion was added in the latter series. The music differences speak to the overall arc of changes in music – and compositional devices and how people approach their craft, all of which have evolved over 50 years with “Star Trek.”
How did you want to make the original Star Trek composers part of the performances?
It was important that they had input whenever possible. We wanted to know what music were their favorites? Did they have scenes that they were proud of, or perhaps did the music add something to a certain scene? We went through everyone who’s still with us, and talked about how to involve them on the stage. Having those composers was special. I studied with Jay Chattaway for a time, which made it all the more meaningful. I just wish Jerry were still with us. Having him on stage would have been incredible but I have a lot of personal connections with the composers of “Star Trek.” They, in a lot of cases, helped me learn in early parts of my career and gave me some great navigational devices that showed me how to collaborate and rebuild those “Star Trek” scores for them.
What have been some of the most notable experiences since you’ve taken “Star Trek” on the road? How do you make the experience fresh for yourself over such a long schedule? And do you notice a different response in the various cities you go to, or is it a universal one?
The audiences laugh and cry and yell for their favorite characters in different ways depending on the city. But their reactions are very similar. They enjoy the same battles, and love stories. The way to refresh myself is having the music played back. Every night is a wonderful opportunity to hear it again. It’s very easy for me to be excited with each performance.
How important do you think it is to have visual accompaniment to the “Star Trek” concert, as opposed to having the audience solely appreciate the music for its own sake?
I think the music stands on its own, regardless of the visuals. You can turn the visuals off and the music would be powerful. But with visuals you start to see what the type of things music can do to, and it’s a fantastic thing to celebrate.
How did you want to make what was happening on the stage itself special?
The idea of the stage design was to incorporate elements of the franchise. We had the hull of the Enterprise and Klingon weaponry pointed up towards the ceiling. With this we are adding another element of the franchise to immerse the people even further. That was the hope of the stage design.
Could you talk about working with Jeff Bond, who’s done quite a bit of writing about Star Trek’s musical universe, on the program book?
It’s fun to geek out with someone who is so knowledgeable in this universe. It was a wonderful experience to be able to communicate on a detailed level and shared common experiences. Jeff and I spoke very positively about everything and he really knows his material. It’s always a pleasure to work with someone like that.
What’s your personal favorite piece of Trek music?
One of the most masterful pieces that has been written is the Enterprise Docking sequence by Jerry Goldsmith for “Star Trek – The Motion Picture.” It’s such a monumental masterwork in every way that it’s hard not to fall in love with that piece. I also adore what James Horner did in “Wrath of Kahn.” So much of what Sandy Courage and Sol Kaplan and Gerald Fried did in the original series is great as well in the original series.
More than ever, film music concerts are getting into the groove of playing entire films rather than select themes, as CineConcerts impressively has done with such projects as “The Godfather” and “Braveheart.” Do you think this is a welcome new wave when it comes to these performances, especially as it gives the audience to be at a “scoring session” as such where they get to hear the “real” film music, as opposed to the same popular themes?
The “newness” of this performance genre is quite old and we are simply doing what they did in the beginning of silent era – enhancing film with live musicians on stage. The difference is that we aren’t in the silent era. But the root and core is the same thing. We experience this live element in a shared way with other people, and a very visceral way. At a scale with an 80-85 piece orchestra, it heightens the emotion and senses for the audience.
Buy tickets for “Star Trek’s” 50th Anniversary Concert Tour HERE
Find out more about CineConcerts and its upcoming shows HERE
Visit Justin Freer’s web page HERE
A special thanks to Andrew P. Alderete for transcribing this interview