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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.

How Big?

John Williams can go big, no doubt about it. It’s always his big score moments in correspondingly big scenes that people talk about, but from my vantage point as a film composer, I am just as fascinated by his skill at going big on what may seem like smaller scenes.

From the point of view of craftsmanship, it is those less obvious moments that can be much more educational.

Here’s an example of such a score moment; the funeral scene in Superman, where they bury Clark Kent’s father.

 

Look at these stills taken from the film; how would you have scored it? (Or go to 34:12 in the film and watch it without music.)

Would you have scored it in a sad tone? Dramatic? Dark? What we see is this:

  • They are dressed in black
  • Distraught
  • Sad
  • It’s a funeral!

These are the obvious surface elements of this scene, so it seems to make sense to write sad music. I bet many composers would have done just that.

But Donner and Williams were much better storytellers than that. They understood what this scene was…

This is the film’s inciting event. The death of his father is the event that makes Clark Kent become Superman.

What’s an inciting event? It’s that one thing that happens to your hero that makes him or her take action.

Just before he dies from a heart attack at 33:30 in the film, Pa Kent has a talk with Clark, saying “I do know one thing is that you are for a reason [..] .and it’s not for scoring touchdowns.” It is these words which will give Clark Kent’s life purpose, and his father’s death a few seconds later that will make him take action.

So what does the music do? Does it play the sadness? No! Williams knew this was a turning point in the story and he wrote a beautiful theme that is softly heroic, uplifting and grandiose. It soars over the shot of Clark and his mother leaving the cemetery as the camera cranes up over a wide landscape, hinting at the adventure that is about to begin.

This is music for story-telling.

And another thing, this is a Superman film. It’s bigger than life. Williams knew this and the music is crucial in giving the film the right tone and scope.

So the points to remember are these:

  • Always consider the story
  • The overall tone of the film?
  • Where you are in the structure of the story
  • What is the subtext? What can the music add to the scene that you can’t already see?

Now go watch that scene!

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