Tagged as: John Williams Week

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Anyone who knows me would’ve known that this piece would close out our week of John Williams music. The quintessential theme to the quintessential film, The Raiders March is a glorious and aurally stupendous composition that perfectly captures the dynamism and vitality of the 1930s adventure serials that Spielberg was emulating.

The theme is every bit as iconic as Indiana’s fedora and whip, and bustling with their aura of allure and grandeur. It paints the portrait of a rugged hero much in the same way that the Superman theme does, only without the camp – spirited, determined, and with a fierceness that in no way diminishes its warmth. To say that this theme (and soundtrack) is perfectly matched to its subject is a truly colossal understatement, as I’ve still yet to come across a composition and film as beautifully paired together as this.

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I am, perhaps, a sentimental fool for thinking that Hook is one of Spielberg’s criminally underrated films. Telling the story of a grown-up Peter Pan returning to Neverland to rescue his children, it is a hearty and wonderfully whimsical romp filled with a fantastic cast, sets, and of course, music. It sees Williams at his most familial and spirited – a child-like sense of adventure and joy. This piece represents the final confrontation between Pan, the Lost Boys and the pirates, switching between the various themes for the pirates as well as Pan’s motif.

Everything about the film and its soundtrack harks to a time where so-called family films were not as formulaic as the majority of them are today. Williams did not compose a soundtrack with this kind of vigour until Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and even that didn’t compare to his output for Hook. Listening to this soundtrack and re-watching the film is an experience that can only be looked at with fondness: an opportunity to reawaken the joys of childhood, and a reverence for a time (and even actors) lost.

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Jurassic Park is one of the earliest films I can recall watching in my youth. As child, every aspect of this film was magical and enchanting, as trite as that sounds – to see what looked to be real dinosaurs in the way they were portrayed in the film was exhilaratingly terrifying, further cementing my (and most children’s) deep fascination with these almost incomprehensible creatures that once roamed our earth.

John Williams managed to squeeze two very memorable motifs into the film, both of which are contained within this piece. The first is a gentle and beautifully majestic introduction to the concept of the titular park. It gives its inhabitants a sense of wonderment, grounding their almost alien-like presence in the modern world with a naturalness and comforting warmth. In this regard, the dinosaurs are rendered beyond the speculative realm of imagination and given status as real and present – they belong to this world.

The second motif swells from the previous movement at the 4:29 mark to give strength and pride to the park and its creatures. It empowers and uplifts, granting a sweeping legitimacy to the seemingly impossible idea of a wildlife park inhabited by extinct creatures. It’s a motif that, appropriately enough, isn’t recalled often in the film (given how the story plays out), but it’s quite possibly the most iconic composition the film offers.

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I have yet to come across a piece of music that is as equally uplifting, heroic and iconic as it is utterly and joyously camp. Everything about Williams’ Superman theme is a glorious delight, one that revels in the bombastic Americana of a sole man devoted to one-upping the evils of the world. It embraces the fantastical pride that a figure like Superman is intended to instil: equal parts charm and playfulness. It is a truly unique thing for a piece of music to be equally suited to an ideal of heroism and inspiration as it is for comedic purposes.

While the prelude in this particular piece is less recognisable than the pitched version used in subsequent recordings (and featured later in the march), the timpani and bass strings that introduces the march at the 1:12 mark create a perfect aura of anticipation: the aural equivalent of a stage curtain, ready to be raised to the rafters. The theme itself explodes from this build-up triumphantly, with the brass section heralding the arrival of the Man of Steel. As a theme, it is buoyant, spirited and majestic, intentionally composed and played to a somewhat ludicrous standard of heroism – one cannot help but grin as it takes hold.

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Given this film’s subject matter, Williams’ usual vigour and pomp was obviously inappropriate. As a result, the soundtrack for Schindler’s List is defined by a serene sense of muted beauty. The various themes are carried by lone instruments, a violin in most circumstances, in a way that highlights the horrors of the German concentration camps in a far more personal manner, rather than merely the ruthless statistics they produced.

There is a simplicity and elegance to this piece that still manages to deftly convey the inner turmoil and despair that Schindler portrays in the film. Its compositional simplicity belies the emotional depth of the experience, a descriptor that could, perhaps, be applied to virtually all of Williams’ output – the ability to hone in and truly access the emotions of the listener (be they excitement, joy, trepidation, and so on) is the mark of a master composer. While this may seem like the least ‘Williams-esque’ of his scores, the fact it manages to strike those emotional chords in such an effective way certainly stamps it with his everlasting seal.

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There is a failing with many scores written for action sequences in that they merely perform a perfunctory mirroring of the action onscreen. Granted, it is perhaps the intent of such scores to be this simplistic, but listening to them outside the context of the film they’re meant to accompany proves to be a deeply monotonous affair. Not so with The Battle of Yavin, the piece that accompanies the climactic encounter between the rebels and the empire in the final act of 1977’s Star Wars.

Every single movement in this piece strives to describe and beautifully extend not only the emotional tones of the action, but the story contained within the sequence as well. The dread and brutality of the empire’s counter-attack of the rebel’s approach is brought to life with shrieking brass, pounding timpani, and restlessness in the strings, which is then wonderfully juxtaposed with the uplift of the hero theme. Even this theme is modified and changed subtly at various instances to elevate feelings of hope, danger, cautiousness or joy. The two distinct threads of the composition (good vs. evil; the rebels vs. the empire) collide and collude with each other throughout before building to a fist-clenching crescendo that gives way to an unyielding feeling of sheer relief.

Even outside of the context of the film, it shines as an awe-inspiring piece of music, rich in compositional depth and beauty. It is an absolute masterclass in scoring not just for image, but for story as well.

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John Williams is renowned for composing very warm and familial themes for various films (see most of the Harry Potter soundtrack, for instance), and that’s a trend continued here – to an extent. Though childish and carefree in its overtones, this piece carries a distinctly eerie vibe. Not enough to be uncomfortable, but enough to make you reflect quizzically upon it when hearing it.

The normally expansive string and brass sections are subtle, gentle and inquisitive, leaving it to almost spar with the electronic motifs repeated throughout the piece. These motifs inject a sense of otherworldliness into the mix, a stab at portraying a future ruled by technology that is currently unfeasible. In fact, they almost seem to recall the classic Looney Tunes shorts that made references to robots or futuristic hardware: a plink-plonk scattering of unresolved notes, played to introduce discourse and highlight the non-natural aspect of the action or character. For those who have not seen the film, it fits quite perfectly into the scenes showing David, a human analogue in the form of an android, attempting to integrate itself into its new household by mirroring the expected behaviour of a child.

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In my years as a wee lad, I was fairly well acclimated with the work of composer John Williams: given the steady diet of films from Messrs Spielberg and Lucas, it was somewhat inevitable. I then grew up a little bit and scoffed at the perceived ‘sameyness’ of Williams’ output. “All his stuff sounds the same!”, I’d shout at people, most of whom would go on to dislike me, for some weird reason. I then grew up a lot and realised that achieving the aural and compositional flair of Williams’ work was an utterly incredible feat. This rather divine enlightenment hit once I cottoned onto the fact that, despite that earlier, ill-conceived notion of ‘sameyness’, I could distinctly recount and name a whole bunch of the various themes he’s composed over his extensive career.

As such, this week we celebrate the iconic output of Mr. John Williams! Like our other theme weeks, this is all about giving you, dear reader, a delectable taste of what the artist is all about – so it ain’t no ‘best of’ week. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the work of one of the most talented composers working today.