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Knowing What’s Coming

Dan Blaufuss | March 2020

    Uni­versity of California-San Diego psychology professor Nicholas Chris­tenfeld’s research suggests that knowing in advance what is going to happen actually increases enjoyment of a story. I have found this to be true, as I never go to see a movie without reading the plot summary online first. This works in my favor, as I am not the sort of person to attend a crowded opening night screening, so movies are often spoiled for me by friends who have already seen it and are eager to discuss long before I have seen them.
    It was February 1 before I saw Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Sky­walker. Although friends gave the movie mixed reviews (one said that it gave him a new appreciation for Jar Jar Binks), I settled into my seat expecting only to be entertained for a couple hours.
    While I wouldn’t call it perfectly done, I found the movie quite enjoyable and left the theater humming the Star Wars theme. This reminded me of something said by the late Nick Contorno, who taught at Marquette University, about concert programming: “The program should bring the audience up and down and entertain them. I want people to walk out singing the music, not white knuckled or complaining about what an ordeal it was. Sousa didn’t teach people – he entertained them. That’s why they kept coming.”
    There is much to consider from both Contorno’s thoughts on programming and Chris­tenfeld’s research on knowing in advance what will happen. For me, part of the enjoyment of listening to beloved band works is the anticipation of the favorite moments. I recently revisited John Barnes Chance’s Variations on a Korean Folk Song. I have always loved the trumpet solo at the end of the Larghetto section; there is magic both in knowing it is coming and hearing it.
    It could be argued that Star Wars is to a good documentary film what an arranged Star Wars medley is to a Holst Suite – or maybe Star Wars and Holst’s Suites are an apt comparison. The original trio of Star Wars films had a lasting impact on American culture, even if the latter six were less well received. I’m not sure that making such comparisons matters. I’ve been exposed to a culturally significant work, which is what we try to do for our students, and I left the show entertained and humming the music, which is what we want for our audiences. In the end, my only real concern about Star Wars is the online quizzes that always rate me as more of a Sith Lord than a Jedi Knight.