Happy eightieth, Mr. Williams!

>> Wednesday, February 08, 2012

So I heard this on the clock radio when it went off this morning: today is John Williams' eightieth birthday. I'm not a major fan or expert in classical music, but if more than half a century writing the soundtrack for American pop cinema means anything (Williams has been scoring films since the mid-1950s), I'm wondering if we can't all agree this guy is the most important composer of the 20th Century (Fox?).

I may have mentioned it here: Williams' soundtrack for Star Wars was the first real album I ever owned. I asked for it for my sixth birthday, very insistent on getting just the music and not the picture-book record, and my parents felt like there was no way to refuse me. I don't want to belabor an old story. I guess I'm just bringing it up again because Williams' score was maybe the first time I was ever conscious at any level of the part music played in telling a story on film. The Star Wars soundtrack was methodically classical in its approach: taking a page from Wagner (an obvious influence on much of the composition itself), Williams more-or-less reintroduced the idea of leitmotif into film after several decades in which composers--even greats like Herrmann and Mancini frequently wrote cues for scenes; Star Wars had a bit of music that went with Luke and another bit that came up every time the Empire was on the screen, and a lovely little flourish that still sometimes moistens my eyes whenever Princess Leia was about, etc.

He's been, of course, Stephen Spielberg's and George Lucas' favorite composer, and that's meant he's written some of the best-known scores for some of the most successful films of all time. One hopes that familiarity hasn't bred contempt, though it's very possible Williams hasn't been taken as seriously as he deserves. Some of his scores are such an integral part of the collective unconscious they've almost, unfairly, become a sort of punchline.

The story is that the first time Williams played that ominous, repetitive duhn-duhn-duhn-duhn-duhnduhn riff on the piano for Spielberg, Spielberg asked him if he was kidding. But it's perfect, isn't it? And I may have miswritten a little about Star Wars, Williams, leitmotifs and first times: play the above clip from Jaws and dig how the "Out To Sea" theme is worked in as a playful tease that will show up at lighter moments throughout the movie. Here it is as a standalone piece:

In Jaws, the particular motif isn't necessarily tied to a character (though, if memory serves, the musical cue does associate with Chief Brody (Roy Scheider); primarily, it's a jaunty little, "Just going fishing with the boys" cue that serves brilliantly well as a counterpoint to the ominous shark theme. What it does, then, is underline the idea that these guys going out to kill this ginormous man-eating, boat-crushing white whale Carcharodon aren't really prepared for what they're getting into, are, in fact, getting in well over their heads.

I mean, think about this for a moment: if you were composing a score for Jaws (let's pretend you've been to a conservatory and are a capable symphonic composer), and you have a scene where this boat is leaving the shore to go and get destroyed by this beast that's been stalking and devouring men, women and children up and down the New England coast, what kind of music would you write for it? I think the temptation might be to write something ominous and imposing, something that says, "these guys are in danger, they might die". Something dire and portentous. And what did Williams actually do? He wrote something jaunty and precious--and that's fucking perfect, that is so much better that it's preposterously unbelievable. Writing an ominous foreshadow-ey number would be easy and obvious, and, yes, it would get the job done, but by writing something that is consciously ironic, Williams hammers home the point of the scene ten million times better. They're doomed because they're not taking it seriously, get ready to shit your pants when they see what you saw during the first five minutes of the film with that chick getting dragged under and dismembered.

I started with Star Wars because that's where I started with Williams, but, you know, Jaws may be the perfect score, right there. And yet I don't want to end with that. I'm trying to keep this post down, try not to get too ridiculous with clips (which, f'r'instance, is why I'm going to bypass Raiders and The Paper Chase, a score I've long harbored a perhaps-inordinate affection for). But here's a (long) clip of Williams and Spielberg running with the idea that music might be a universal language:

That. I get a little shivery watching that. I sometimes think Close Encounters Of The Third Kind doesn't get enough love, either as a Spielberg film (it sometimes seems weirdly eclipsed--as if every conversation about Spielberg now has to begin with Schindler's List, which is undeniably an awesome and serious movie) or as a science fiction film. CE3K is, I think, one of the best first contact movies ever made, and the only first contact movie scenes I can think of that can rival the above clip with the same kind of visceral thrill, the same sense of awe and mystery and fear and curiosity all mixed up at once, are any of the Monolith's appearances in 2001. The CE3K scene doesn't just share 2001's portrayal of a first contact as an epic-yet-oddly-abstract event (aliens might communicate with us through shapes, colors, and sounds), but also have in common the way they both set up the arrival of the whatsits largely through the audience's ears, perhaps even moreso than their eyes (in 2001, of course, the musical cue is Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, which is now perhaps better known as "the 2001 music" than it is as a classical composition in its own right, written in 1896).

But Williams isn't just capable of bombast. We may have already established that with the playful "Out To Sea" music and the playful human-alien jam session from CE3K. One of my relatively-more-recent favorite Williams soundtracks is yet another Spielberg score, Catch Me If You Can; I especially adore the main theme--

Obviously, I think, not Williams' first foray into something jazzy. But it utterly delighted me the first time I saw the movie (and still does). That coy, flirtatious four-note arpeggio on the clarinet slays me.

Happy birthday, Mr. Williams, and thank you, thank you, thank you for a half century of music. In a very real way, you've written the soundtrack to my dreams. Thank you.


Warner Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 7:26:00 AM EST  

I would have to disagree on the most important composer of the 20th century, Bernstein, Copeland and Mahler all come to mind and quickly. But he is one of the great film composers.

I'm not aware of his work outside film, and I'm not that big a film buff, but he is good at his genre.

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