Ravel, An Inspiration to Joel McNeely

Not everyone is familiar with the installment of the Star Wars franchise titled Shadows of the Empire, but that’s mostly because it was a media event that never made it to the big screen. Nonetheless, the video game it spawned deserves some recognition among video games for its use of a fully orchestrated, studio recorded, original soundtrack composed by film and TV composer Joel McNeely.

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire
Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, cover art

The other day, I listened to a Naxos recording of Ravel’s entire Daphnis et Chloé ballet for the first time (Ravel also arranged two smaller orchestral suites of the work) and realized that McNeely derived parts of his own score from this piece. The one passage that caught my attention opens Part II of the ballet—a scene that depicts a camp of pirates cavorting at night in a savage, sabbath-like dance.

Ravel, Daphnis et Chloe

Joel McNeely, Shadows of the Empire

The familiarity was enough to make me immediately drop whatever it was that I was doing and fire off a Google search for “joel mcneely daphnis”, which turned up a forum thread in which one user points out that McNeely derived his music for Shadows of the Empire from two works: Ravel’s ballet and another, The Quest, by British composer William Walton.

I’m going to explore the Walton suggestion a little bit more, but I’m more curious to know whether there exists any verbal or written acknowledgment from McNeely (EDIT: some does exist in an interview). I mean, presumably, this kind of creative “borrowing” happens all the time, but artists don’t always call attention to their sources of inspiration unless prompted. In fact, the aforementioned forum user speaks to the matter as if McNeely stole the material from Ravel. I’d have to give this Walton ballet a listen to verify that claim.

EDIT (March 2017): updated to refer to SOTE as a “media event.” Thanks Espen!

5 thoughts on “Ravel, An Inspiration to Joel McNeely”

  1. sidetracked a little by the topic of creative ‘borrowing’ …

    when is it ‘borrowing’ and when is it ‘plagiarizing’? I never fully understood. I mean I understand straight plagiarism if something has been copied word for word, note for note to its entirety or a big chunk of it. But when it comes to something more loose and abstract such as ideas/creativity, who is it to judge? Clearly, if McNeely admitted himself, then he may have been inspired by another. However, there are so many incidences where ideas are born via different brains without knowing the existence of the other, will the one whose idea became famous/registered/trademarked/published, etc first be the ORIGINAL??? what about the extreme lookalikes without any blood ties, who plagiarized there? The creator?

  2. Ugh, the distinction between borrowing and plagiarizing is so ambiguous sometimes, and in fact, you could say that there really isn’t a difference (i.e. the former being a mere euphemism of the latter). But naturally it depends on the degree and extent of the reproduction. There aren’t any good rules to follow when it comes to music, so I don’t have an answer for you.

    We know definitely that McNeely was inspired by and used at least one musical idea written by Ravel. It’s not note for note, but I think the fact that I knew exactly where it came from the instant I heard it says something about its relative similarity to the source material. For the purists, this is all that matters. Personally, I’m more interested to know how this instance of borrowing sits with McNeely’s conscience and sense of pride as an artist. For example, I think a written acknowledgment (in the score or on the album somewhere) goes a long way towards establishing respect and artistic license, but so far, I haven’t seen anything like this. You could say we have every reason to believe that he tried to pawn this passage off as original material, but, to be honest, I don’t feel like calling out a professional film composer on this kind of issue. For now, I’m securing a position of uncertainty for myself, which is totally boring but easy, noncommittal, and maybe even optimistic.

    As for the same idea being born of independent minds, each “copy” of the idea is original in its own right, but the first one to become published or widely distributed will be the de facto original, for all practical purposes. I don’t necessarily think this is right, especially if the execution of the idea is the same across the board, but truthfully, the masses have little interest in origin stories. 99% of the people who played Shadows of the Empire could probably care less that some of the music came from existing classical works.

    And as for extreme lookalikes without blood ties, I think that’s just plain ol’ luck of the draw. =)

  3. a little nitpicking; Shadows of the Empire was a “media event”, that included a book, audio book, comic, toys, soundtrack and the game :)

  4. a little late to the show, but after i listened to the score again after i don’t know how many years, i came across your review. i have to say, very interesting to read and i immediately listened to the Walton piece you have mentioned.
    https://youtu.be/Ax-U0ONv4hY?t=9m24s
    this should definately sound familiar ;)
    anyway, i still love the music Joel McNeely wrote and just listening to it again makes me wonder why he wasn’t approached to write music for a Star Wars movie.

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