Composer Joseph Shirley discusses inspirations and themes during an exclsuive interview with Skywalking Through Neverland at WonderCon 2023. Having composed the score for The Book of Boba Fett, he’s back writing music for the third season of The Mandalorian. And just like all of the composers who have worked on Star Wars since John Williams, Shirley admits Williams’ music played a prominent role in his future as a composer. Shirley also lauded Bill Conti, who composed the music for Rocky (1976) and all of its sequels.
Joseph Shirley has always been a Star Wars fan, and feels honored to contribute to the galaxy far, far away. He didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the music that was stirring the feelings inside him as s child. Having studied musical composition, Shirley ranks Williams as high as any other composer.
Working with Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni
One aspect Shirley loves about working with Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau is that they allow the composer space for the creative juices to flow. It’s so important for the storytellers and the composers to be on the same page in order to get the proper emotive responses, as music is a powerful storytelling device. This season of The Mandalorian has been visually beautiful to watch. It’s obvious how much larger the scope is this season. That has also been the case for the music. Shirley revealed that he conducts a 70-piece orchestra for each episode and borrows themes and motifs from previous seasons which were conducted by Ludwig Göransson, and expands on them while maintaining their structure. A great example is the theme for Bo-Katan Kryze, who had a smaller role in season two, but is a much larger part of the story this season. Her theme required a second floor of sorts to support her story.
When asked which instrument Bo-Katan’s theme needed, Shirley thought the French horn best suited her character because of its mournful, sad sound, which mirrors her mental state as heard when Din arrives at her castle in the epsidoe, ‘The Apostate’. In addition, the French horn has such a distinct sound, making it very easily recognizable among the other brass instruments. While the trumpet and trombone sound harsher, for lack of a better term, the French horn has a more regal tone.
The French horn can be heard during the Force Theme/Binary Sunset scene in Star Wars A New Hope. We can almost hear Luke’s sadness in the French horn as he feels stranded on a remote desert planet.
Shirley explains he creates new themes using new instruments, samples of his own voice, and new synths. Those elements, in addition to the “superpower of the orchestra, “create a mixture of the old and the new. As much as we all love classic orchestral Star Wars scores, having different types of music heard in the saga is crucial to keep the franchise fresh and moving forward.
Linking Bo-Katan and Din Djarin Musically
Star Wars is known for its references to Eastern religions. However, The Mandalorian references Western religion with its baptisms (Living Waters) and communion-like ceremonies. When asked if the music represents this, Shirley confirmed and explained that Bo and Din’s journey are linked through the covert and because of that, Bo and Din’s motifs are united. We’ve seen this in Luke & Leia’s and Han & Leia’s themes in Return of the Jedi.
Return of the Pirate
One of the more striking themes musically is the asteroid battle music between Din and Gorian Shard’s pirates. The music in this scene sounds very similar to the sound and rhythm of a hunting horn. Even though that wasn’t the effect he was looking for, Shirley said the goal was to capture the scene’s action. In fact, it’s Din’s theme broken up into different pieces. In addition, Gorian Shard has his own theme that might return at some point later in the series. Shard’s theme came from Favreau, who referenced a Sea Shanty to which Shirley, a big fan of singing, recorded vocals and woodwind instruments.
Rise of the Easter Eggs
‘Chapter 19: The Convert’ episode contained some distinct music in the carnival scene on Coruscant, which included a part of Rise of the Resistance music heard in The Force Awakens. It was also inspired by the music heard when entering Disneyland–cheerful music that “introduces you to the environment where you are.” Shirley said we should keep our ears out for more Easter eggs in future episodes. Joseph Shirley also spoke about how much fun creating the different source music for Max Rebo in The Book of Boba Fett. Source music is in-story music (aka Cantina band music heard in A New Hope).
Future projects for Joseph Shirley
Outside of The Mandalorian, Shirley has plenty to keep him busy. He is currently producing music for a kid’s animated movie and has a couple more projects on the horizon for later this year.