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John Williams and Me (on the Maestro’s 80th birthday)

My original Star Wars album from 1977

My first musical love affair was with John Williams’ score for “Star Wars”. I remember clearly lying down in my mother’s living room as young lad of 8 or 9, chin in hands, listening to the entire soundtrack on the vinyl I received as a gift.

I read and re-read the liner notes as I listened to the music, a single page containing descriptions of all the tracks and all the themes. Even though I was quite young, I treated that piece of paper like gold and it is still intact in the original record sleeve from 1977, here in my studio.

I was taking piano lessons at the time and asked to play the music from “Star Wars”. I received a photocopy of the music, which I practiced very hard. I drew my own cover for the sheet music, taking great care with it. It was a x-wing being pursued by a tie-fighter with the Death Star in the background.

I can still sing you every single note of the Star Wars score. And now, many yeas later and with a master’s in composition behind me, I can tell you which parts of Star Wars come directly from the Rite of Spring. And you know what…?

I don’t care.

My love for this music is a link to my childhood, and there’s nothing that can change that. And on top of that, now that I know what happens during the composition of a film score (deadlines and temp scores) I can easily forgive a few minor “hommages”.

After my Star Wars score I received the vinyl for Superman. Same story and now I know every note.

After that it was the vinyl for E.T. Same thing.

I had brief affairs with Vangelis, Danny Elfman and Henry Mancini, but they never lasted. I always came back to John Williams.

To say that John Williams is the reason I love orchestral music so deeply is perhaps not a stretch. Our adult lives are shaped by our childhood experiences, and John Williams’ music was a big part of my childhood. In an era before VCRs, his music was a connection to my favourite films and I listened and listened until the scores became the central element.

Now, as I make my way as a professional film composer, his music is a constant reminder of the level of excellence I aim to achieve in my own career. From the indelible melodic writing to the glowing orchestrations, to the perfect dramatic placement of the music and the pacing of the score, John Williams music remains my biggest source of inspiration.

To Bike or Note to Bike; the importance of inner motivation.

You can learn a lot about the power of music in film by looking at the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential scenes in a film.

For my first Scene Analysis I will look at a short scene in E.T.

But before I begin, I would like you to read this fabulous quote from Hugo Friedhofer, golden age composer, taken from the book “Music Scoring for TV & Motion Pictures” by M. Skiles.

“The idea of a score, the way I look at it, is to point out or to make the audience aware of the things that can neither be photographed nor said — the interior motivation, in other words.

If the man runs, why is he running? Not the mere manifestation of speed.”

Now, here we go. I encourage you to pop in your E.T. DVD and watch it.

The short scene we’ll be looking begins at about 15:04, after E.T. goes running off through the garbage cans, leaving them to roll down the steps as Elliot looks on in wonder.

SCENE: Eliot is looking up at the steps drenched in red light, the door still swinging from E.T.’s hasty departure. His eyes are filled with a sense of wonder after his encounter with E.T.
MUSIC: The music comes in gently, the high strings playing a soft, dreamy chord. The music carries over the cut to the shot of Eliot getting on his bike.
NOTES: Elliot’s expression shows he is not scared, but curious, with a child’s sense of wonder. He is making the decision to go find E.T. and that takes us over the cut and into the next scene. The music links over the cut as well by starting on that look and leading to him on the bike. The music has a dreamy, floating quality that works perfectly well with Elliot’s intent.

SCENE: Eliot sits on his bike for a second then starts to slowly pedal away from his house.
MUSIC: Muted brass play an adventure-like theme, subdued but still with a sense of forward motion.
NOTES: This is the start of Elliot’s adventure! But all we see is him sitting on his bike, thinking for a moment then almost hesitantly leaving. Not very dynamic, but dramatically adequate. I suspect that Spielberg knew that these visuals would play with music that showed Elliot’s “interior motivation” as Hugo put it.

SCENE: Eliot goes down the hill, disappearing from view for a moment. This symbolic imagery shows his departure into the unknown, it is also his first time away from home in the film.
MUSIC: The music here becomes big, using thick and percussive string chords.This has a very decisive and serious feel to it, almost martial in character.
NOTE: This could be seen as a strange scoring choice from John Williams perhaps, but these are visuals that could easily be perceived as “a leisurely stroll on bike” then it’s easy to see how important the music is, but also we must consider that this particular shot, with Elliot disappearing down the hill, is really about him facing possible danger, then the musical choice here explains itself.

SCENE: Elliot going down a large, sandy hill.
MUSIC: The music returns here to the initial muted brass adventure theme.
NOTE: Not much to say here that has not been said.

15: 23 etc…
SCENE: Close UP of Elliot’s hand starting the spread the Reese’s Pieces.
MUSIC: One of E.T.s main musical themes comes in and carries us for the next little while.
NOTE: The shots of Elliot on his bike served as an introduction to this sequence, and the music also followed this structure, which is an important aspect of film scoring – to highlight form and structure.

Closing comments

When working with a composer, musical decisions like these come from a full understanding on the composer’s part of the director’s intent. If you watch these shots of Elliot on his bike without the music you will see it might not be readily apparent what the intent is.

Sure, upon further scrutiny it might become apparent, but deadlines do not always permit further scrutiny! So make sure that all these wonderfully insightful and creatively stimulating details are clear to the composer before he begins work. You can do that during the spotting session or with a morning phone call.



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