Out of Tune #3: Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes

Tatooine’s Hottest Band!

It’s a scorching 130 degrees in the endless desert. You look up and shield your eyes from the twin suns rising higher into the Tatooine sky. Not a cloud in sight. You lick your lips and realize how thirsty you are. Luckily, you’re in the bustling city of Mos Eisley and not stranded in the dune sea to be left to the mercy of the elements (and the Tuskens). The hustle and bustle of the market stalls, the bizarre looking aliens, and the strange languages filling the air overwhelm you, and you duck into the closest building. Looking around, you notice it’s a cantina. After walking up to the bar and sitting down, you order a jawa juice and look around, slowly sipping your drink. You see a band of Biths setting up to play and decide you’ll stay to listen. The music that fills the air immediately makes the whole place bounce. The infectious melodies and rhythms make you move, and before you know it, you’re up and dancing. This is the music of Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes.

Who are the Modal Nodes?

The Modal Nodes are an 8 piece ensemble. Members Doikk Na’ts, Ickabel G’ont, Lirin Car’n, Nalan Cheel, Sun’il Ei’de, Tech Mo’r, Tedn Dahai, and of course Figrin D’an, are the driving creative forces behind this unique sound. Featuring the Dorenian Beshniquel, kloo horn, gasan string drum, double jocimer, bandfill, ommni box, fanfar, and a drum kit, the unique timbres of the Modal Nodes gives them a sound that makes them stand out against the intergalactic music industry. With hits that you’ve heard like “Mad About Me” and “Tears of Aquanna,” The Modal Nodes definitely have what it takes to make it in the biz. Unfortunately, however, they’ve entered an exclusive contract with Jabba the Hutt and won’t be playing anywhere off-world anytime soon…

“We don’t do weddings…”
The Modal Nodes performing at Lady Valarian’s wedding

The story behind the story

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m writing about the fictional cantina band from the Star Wars series. For the cantina scene in A New Hope, director George Lucas wanted unique and futuristic yet familiar sounding music. Lucas approached composer John Williams and asked him:

“Can you imagine several creatures in a future century finding some 1930s Benny Goodman swing band music in a time capsule or under a rock someplace—and how they might attempt to interpret it?”

George Lucas giving John Williams inspiration for the Cantina Band

What Williams came up with was the now-iconic “Cantina Band,” a piece that would later be renamed to “Mad About Me.” Williams used a jazz-inspired ensemble to achieve the unique timbre– a trumpet, 2 saxophones, a clarinet, a Fender Rhodes electric piano, a steel drum, an ARP bass synthesizer, a drum kit, and various other percussion instruments. In order to make the music even more alien, Williams filtered out some of the bottom end of the sound, and added a reverb effect. And it worked. The Modal Nodes are definitely alien, yet they sound so familiar. This juxtaposition between novelty and familiarity is undoubtedly what makes their tunes so catchy.

John Williams (left) and George Lucas (right)

Why do they matter?

In my opinion, Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes are the gold standard for sci-fi music. When you listen to their music passively, it sounds like standard jazz. But then you listen a little closer and start to notice the weird stuff going on. Unfortunately, Williams only composed 3 songs for The Modal Nodes, all of which can be listened to here

Figrin D’an and The Modal Nodes really bring the cantina scene to life. I am a huge fan of Star Wars, and it is the tiny details that make the world feel real. George Lucas could have easily left the band out of the cantina scene, and the story would be unchanged. Luke and Ben would still have met Han and Chewie, and they still would have secured passage to Alderaan. But, he didn’t leave them out. Lucas knows about how important it is to build a believable world, and that those seemingly unimportant details draw the viewer in, engage their imagination, and leave them wanting more.

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