Kevin Kiner has essentially been Ahsoka Tano’s personal composer since the Jedi made her debut in 2008’s The Clone Wars film. He also scored both the movie’s spinoff series and Star Wars Rebels. Now, like Lady Tano herself, he’s made the move to the live-action side of the franchise as the lead composer for Ahsoka on Disney+. It’s not easy for any musician to fill John Williams’ shoes, but it’s not a job Kiner is doing alone. His son and daughter, Sean and Deana Kiner, are also composing with Kevin on the show.
What’s it like still working with Dave Filoni after these years? How has their past shaped the many hours of music the Kiners have made for the series? And how does Ahsoka‘s score live up to Star Wars‘ musical past? I spoke with all three composers about all that and more, starting with how working together influences the music they create.
Kevin Kiner: I’ve I told people the reason I feel I’m a better composer than I was 10 years ago—because I’ve been doing this for 40 years—is [Sean and Deana] now compose with me and they bring a fresh perspective to things. That is just absolutely key to why you’ll find so many interesting ideas on the Ahsoka soundtrack. I don’t believe I personally am solely capable of having that many interesting ideas in one project. I mean, basically we did five hours of music. That’s three feature films. To be able to have that much variety and that many good ideas, I think would be impossible.
Deana Kiner: We’re really proud of the diversity of soundscapes we created for this show. We think it goes from so many different kinds of spectrums and covers so much, and we’re really proud of the way that it connects emotionally to each scene.
Nerdist: Kevin, you’ve composed for many Star Wars cartoons and video games, but Ahsoka is your first foray into the live-action side of the franchise. Are there meaningful differences between scoring for animation versus live-action?
Kevin Kiner: That’s kind of a yes and no thing. Compositionally, it’s virtually identical when you sit down with an idea. An idea is an idea. And a Star Wars idea is a Star Wars idea. But the process of doing Ahsoka was much more like doing a feature film, in that we had a lot more time to really polish things. There was also more input from Dave Filoni, and we had time to go back and change things a lot more.
Also, a big part of it is we had a full orchestra at the Newman Scoring Stage at Fox (in Los Angeles) for every episode, for all the music. We had time to really get that right with the greatest musicians in the world. We do some orchestra on the other shows, but it’s not for every episode and it’s not for every cue. And usually it’s in Budapest or Prague, so this time there’s communication, as well as a skill level difference.
Sean Kiner: The biggest thing having a live orchestra every single episode is we started to build an understanding and relationship with the musicians’ abilities. They would come up to us after episode one’s recording session and they would talk about things that had excited them in the score. That made us really happy and want to write things for them. It very much felt like we were writing for specific people we knew and that was really nice.
You worked with Dave Filoni on both The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, as well as other things. How do your previous collaborations with him shape your experiences on Ahsoka?
Kevin Kiner: I’ve been working with Dave for maybe 16, 17 years, so it was incremental. We’ve developed a relationship over the years and have a kind of shorthand. We have had it for a very long time, where we will be listening to a piece of temporary music that the editors put in as we’re watching the scene. That music can be from Indiana Jones, Prometheus, or from whatever the picture editor found that has the right pace and flavor. And I’ll say, “Hey, I like those French horns right there.” Or Dave will say that, and literally if he says it, I will have been thinking, “Oh, I like that lick right there.” That’s really cool.
We have a really great connection. I have that connection with very few people I work with. It’s deep. I like to think of myself as a good film and television composer, and that I relate well with directors, but it is a step further with Dave by virtue of 17 years of working together. Seventeen years and we clicked right away. That’s the difference.
Deana Kiner: To what Kevin was saying, Dave Filoni is substantially musically literate. That’s pretty unusual for a lot of directors or showrunners we’ve worked with. That makes it really easy to talk about inspiration and influences going into a scene, and creatively what emotion, and what composer, even, he was thinking of for certain scenes. Like in episode six, when we see Ezra, we noticed it felt very Americana, very pastoral. And Dave was like, “Yes!” He honed in on that and ran with that idea, which was foundationally from Dave Filoni’s concept of knowing the kind of classical music that helped guide us.
Before I get into specific tracks, I want to know, of all the songs you’ve written for the show do you have a personal favorite?
Sean Kiner: Oh boy. Whoa.
Kevin Kiner: You’re stumping us.
Deana Kiner: I was just talking about it. My favorite piece was that moment we see Ezra for the first time in episode six. As soon as I walked into the studio and heard Kevin working on it, I was like, “Oh my God, this is great. Keep going with this.” I was so excited by what was happening, just hearing the rough sketches of it. I thought it was so inspired.
Kevin Kiner: My favorite piece is the end credits, because it has a fresh take on “Ahsoka’s Theme.” That was the first thing I wrote for George [Lucas] and Dave Filoni in 2006 or 2007. I remember where I was. I remember what the scene was, with a little girl Ahsoka sitting alone. It came very quickly to me. To have that now be stretched out, to have this variation that [Deana and Sean] came up with, which was this kind of Ronan motif—it starts off with the cellos, and then the variation of my melody, the full blown use of my melody, and then “Hera’s Theme” in there—for all those things it kind of encapsulates the end credits is my favorite.
Sean Kiner: Also, something like the song where the purrgil begin their trek started out as just something fun for the visuals. That was playing off the visuals and the end credits. Then it was like, “Oh no, this is a great traveling theme,” so we ended up using it for seeing their jump in hyperspace.
Deana Kiner: You can hear it when Sabine is unlocking the map in episode one. It started in the end credits, and we were so excited about its potential and felt like it really touched on the magic of the forest, the magic of what this show was grappling with, that we got so excited. We had to figure out a way to implement it in the show. It felt right when Sabine unlocks the map and sees how to get to Ezra.
Sean Kiner: I don’t know if I could pick a favorite, but just keeping it to the first four episodes the “New Republic Song” was really nice to explore. There’s a kind of positivity, but we hide a little bit of darkness. We know that the New Republic is kind of doomed and you already see the seeds of its own destruction a little bit in Ahsoka.
Also “Should Have Been a Good Jedi” is really nice, when Ahsoka and Sabine first reunite after their long estrangement. That’s got a lot of things. Sabine’s going back into the ship and seeing the old drawings she did on her bunk. It’s got a little bit of the “Thrawn Theme” hidden. There’s a lot of good things in there.
I want to talk specifically about including the end credits theme song, which I absolutely love. What kind of directive, if any, did you get before writing it and how did that guidance shape the direction you went in?
Kevin Kiner: That was interesting because there were a lot of end credits (songs) at first. The concept was going to be a different end credits track for every episode, just like there’s a different main title for every episode.
Sean Kiner: The current end credits has pieces of all five of those, as well as new connective tissue and things. But the end credits started half the length of what they ended up being. We got to continue to add more and more to it as it gotten longer. It’s almost four minutes now. It’s a conglomeration of all the ideas that we experimented with in the first five songs.
Deana Kiner: Technically speaking, it’s certainly what we spent the most time on creating show.
Kevin Kiner: It’s so cool because we got to pick the best of those different iterations and put them in the end credits. We spent a lot of time on it and it evolved really nicely.
Thrawn got the kind of epic reintroduction viewers would expect for the Grand Admiral. How did you approach scoring that moment?
Deana Kiner: Initially we had “Thrawn’s Theme.” It’s based in the organ. It’s got these arpeggiations and counterpoints going and building. So initially we said, “Oh, it’s on. We have to use ‘Thrawn’s Theme.’”
Kevin Kiner: It has to be on organ. It’s got to be, “Organ, organ, organ, ‘Thrawn’s theme.’”
Deana Kiner: We were so single-minded about that, trying to reiterate that and develop it for the new setting for the new state that he’s in, that we kind of lost track of what the scene was doing. When we brought it to Dave, he said, “We need to kind of reassess. You made a great piece of music…”
Sean Kiner: Which will end up on the second volume. (laughs)
Deana Kiner: …But Dave was like, “This isn’t right for this moment. I love his theme and I think it’s great, but we need to play this moment. It is different. We need to be playing the reactions, the feeling of him arriving.” So we realized we needed to add tons of weight. We drew it out, we extended it and stretched the melody out and distorted the organ. We added new elements that made it more atmospheric and made the presence of him arriving more oppressive.
Kevin Kiner: Super heavy. Super heavy and oppressive. I think because we are soundtrack geeks, obviously, we were making it about the music. We’re like, “The fans are going to lose their shit when they hear this music.” No, the fans are going to lose their shit when they see Thrawn! That’s what it’s about. It’s not about us. It’s not about the music. The music will be great, and it’ll add, and it’ll be a cool element, but it’s not a music video. We had to play the scene better.
There’s a great example of how we had time to evolve things, and that’s how this is much more like a feature film where you have time to do that. To go back to the drawing board, to take the nuggets that are good about something and then expound upon it. That doesn’t get to happen in the frenetic schedule of an episodic animated series.
I’m obsessed with the song Sabine listens to while she’s driving her speeder in episode one. What was the key to creating rock music that still sounds like it belongs in the galaxy far, far away?
Deana Kiner: One key was definitely working with Sarah Tudzin from Illuminati Hotties, who I’m lucky to call a good friend and have played with on tour. We watched the scene with Dave and it’s got a legendary piece of (temp) music, and we’re just like, “What are we supposed to do? This is a perfect motorcycle song. What are we supposed to do?”
We came back to it terrified of having to accomplish that crazy task. The conclusion we came to was we needed to match Sabine’s energy and see where she’s at, who she is as a person. She’s rebellious, she’s a punk, she’s an artist. So the first person that came to mind was Sarah Tudzin.
Kevin Kiner: You just said it, punk and rock and rebellious attitude. Heavy guitars, heavy drums, and yet, a foreign language. It’s based on Filipino words. My wife is Filipino.
Deana Kiner: It’s loosely Tagalog influence. It was a really great collaboration because of all the different voices that started injecting themselves into the piece. I think what makes it so Star Wars is that rebellious nature.
Sean Kiner: Not to mention we got to collaborate with Ludwig Göransson ]composer for The Mandalorian and the Book of Boba Fett] on it. That was very exciting. He’s such a good guy.
Kevin Kiner: Without getting into specifics, because it’s a little too technical, he added in something very cool from Sabine’s music. We didn’t even do that. He was like, “Hey, guys, it’s a cool theme, we should put that in.” I’m like, ”Oh, yeah, duh.” (laughs)
Like most people watching the show, I’m not a musician, let alone a composer. So what have I not asked you about that you would really like viewers to know about the score?
Sean Kiner: Star Wars is so dramatic, but you can’t be constantly bashing people over the head with melodies, so we put a lot of thought into being thematic throughout the show. We will hide little nods to different things throughout the soundtrack.
Kevin Kiner: Lately I’ve been listening to the score a lot for the Volume 1 release, almost two and a half hours of music. What is really cool is when you listen to the soundtrack you can picture the scene it was written for and it brings back the memory. “This is when they did that. This is when the assassin droid shows up. That moment is when Ahsoka first drops into that temple.” All those thing bring you back. I’m super proud of that because that’s what I experienced when I listened to the soundtrack of A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back. It’s like, ”Here comes Darth Vader, or the twin suns.”
Deana Kiner: You can hear the story and the music.
Kevin Kiner: Yeah, the music tells the story. It was a big job. And not all soundtracks do that because sometimes specifically they don’t want to do that. John Williams writes extremely expressive and dense music, and not all soundtracks do that. But this is the DNA of Star Wars and we’re sticking with that.