All Ears in the New Year

IMG_9801-smAS THE BLACK MAN IN the tweed newsboy cap shopped in the one-room video rental store, my Dad whispered to ask if I recognized him.

A drought during the summer of 1988 forced everyone to crank up their air conditioners, and one hummed in the window as I glanced at the man.


I couldn’t place him until a minute later when he paid the clerk and left the counter with a  “thank you.”

Celebrity glitter sparkled in the short space between us then.

The man’s voice made an unmistakable vocal fingerprint in the air for how it resonated through just two words.

It was James Earl Jones — better known as Darth Vader’s voice — in our small town to play Terrance Mann during the filming of “Field of Dreams” in nearby Dyersville, Iowa.

Crossing paths with Jones and the “wow” power of his voice came to mind this week as I sat in a Grand Rapids, Mich., theater with my husband, brother and sister-in-law to watch “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Vader’s grandson, Kylo Ren, shows up on screen in similar black garb and a black samurai helmet.

But instead of Vader’s quirky communication aura — heavy breathing through an apparatus like that of a ventilated patient coupled with Jones’ commanding speech — we hear something very different in Kylo Ren.

We hear distant, robotic-like dispatches through his mouthpiece until the mask comes off during the movie’s climax, during a tense scene between Kylo Ren and Han Solo on a bridge.

His voice shorts out there. It glitches between the computer generated sound quality and that of a very confused, volatile person.

Such vocal cues, along with the dreamy soundtrack, tell the Star Wars story on a mysterious level — a more difficult level to access that keeps me coming back much more than the visual special effects or the script twists.

Surely the Dolby Surround Sound directs audience attention to the audible texture of these films, the layering of memorable voices, sound effects, and orchestral music.

But ordinary life outside of the theater comes with the same opportunity to understand more deeply the universal themes presented on our natural sound stage through the voices of the characters in our life.

To this end, is the soundtrack around each of us ever just “incidental” music?

Only seven minutes of the 102-minute score by John Williams, Star Wars’ original composer/conductor, refers to musical themes in earlier movies. Instead, the fresh score for the 90-member orchestra gives us moviegoers another chance to appreciate this story as not only couched in musical feeling and mood, but shaped by that.

For instance, Williams interprets the music around Rey — the scavenger girl-tured-“she-ro” — through instrumentation with delicate celeste chimes, flute, and piano.

What would the music in your life sound like? Who hears it, and what does it mean?

Ordinary life invites each of us to listen more closely to all that encircles, enriches, and dramatizes our story — to listen to the score composed daily by the people, places, and things that speak into our moments.

About four years ago, as I pushed my three boys on an empty wire cart from the parking lot corral to the grocery store, an older woman returning to her car stopped as a we passed.

The kids all stood with their feet on the cart’s lower rack and gripped its rim like three little monkeys.

As it rattled across the rough concrete, they laughed and shouted for me to push it faster.

The bemused woman then said something that left as much of a vocal fingerprint as James Earl Jones saying “thank you” at the video store in my hometown.

“Someday,” she said. “Someday, they will be pushing you.”

Happy New Year!

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or 303-746-0942.

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