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Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws and more: celebrating the genius of John Williams | Musique Non Stop

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws and more: celebrating the genius of John Williams

So many of the feelings that movies give you are actually rooted in the film’s score. Sure, the actors and script and direction play a part, but music is the trigger. A swell of brass opens up our hearts, creaking strings tense our bodies, and trills of flutes and bombastic drums spikes our adrenaline into a frenzy. Composer John Williams is a master architect of these feelings and physiological responses. Over the past six decades, the 83-year-old has composed some of the most celebrated and popular film scores in the history of cinema.

Jaws

E.T the Extra-Terrestrial

Indiana Jones

Jurassic Park

The list goes on and on, but above all, there’s Star Wars.

Since Williams has returned for the newest installment, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, opening Dec. 18, CBC Music has asked contemporary Canadian composers for their thoughts on Williams, his music and why his Star Wars compositions are so iconic. We also have famed composers like Michael Giacchino (Up, Star Trek) and Hans Zimmer (Inception, Man of Steel) weighing in on Williams’ wildly impressive scores and his influence on their own careers.  

Nicole Lizée  (composer/turntablist)

Forget disco, new wave or punk — The Imperial March was the hit song of the summer of 1977 in my town.

We kids absorbed the themes from Star Wars as if by osmosis; singing, humming, declaring our allegiances (Rebel or Imperial) in all manner of play. Dodgeball, checkers, frozen tag — all of these now had a soundtrack that reflected our new galactic reality. The Imperial March is a strange theme for a kid with its wide intervals, and unexpected melodic twists, and seemingly on the cusp of atonality. Hearing a group of kids trying to sing this melody in a moment of excitement is a amusing thing. Particularly when using the 'lip buzz/blowing raspberry' technique to emulate trumpets and horns. This theme was our signifier for menace; it was inevitably whistled if someone threatening walked into the room.

Williams’ themes — with their leaping intervals, fanfares, marches, relentless use of brass — immediately incite hyperactivity. It is THE sound of flying, of sharks gone awry, alien communication, fighting evil, or even the sound of just riding your bike really fast.

The thing about John Williams’ music is that it works. There’s no doubt his orchestration is potent, but it’s all about the themes. They are catchy, distinctive, and memorable. Even enveloped in a sea of brass and percussion they stand out. And they can be on the eccentric or off-kilter side, there can be a surprising melodic twist in there. Not since Bernard Herrmann’s shower theme from Psycho had something quasi-atonal/semitone-based reached such popularity as the theme from Jaws.

And then there’s his best work of all: the Cantina theme. Followed closely by the 5-note sequence used to call the aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Classic.

Jocelyn Morlock (composer)

Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. were among my favourite movies as a child, so John Williams was pretty much my hero, even though I didn't think about him as a composer at the time. I loved the music for these films (and played it really badly on the piano, oy...), and thinking back on it now, Williams' scores were the first orchestral music that I ever paid attention to. My family wasn't particularly musical, we didn't go to the symphony or anything like that, but this music really grabbed me.

So, Star Wars in particular — as a kid that music had incredible emotional appeal, and it still does for me as an adult. I heard VSO doing a bit of it recently and thought ‘Wow! This is absolutely amazing performed live!’ which is something I hadn't known before. Of course it sounds good in the film, but when you hear it live you realize (or rather, I realize, as a composer) that Williams writes phenomenally well! His orchestration is amazing. I think we should be studying him in school.

Darren Fung (Far, Lost Years)

There's no doubt that John Williams is the current patriarch of the film composer fraternity. I think what I respect the most out of John's music is how old school he is. He still uses pencil and paper and piano, he is a master of the orchestra. You have basically reached the pinnacle of accomplishment when your music becomes the cliché. I don't mean that to be disrespectful, but when everyone is trying to emulate you, you know you've made it. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

Star Wars music has defined the space opera genre. It is bold, it's lyrical, it's catchy, it's epic. Everything a film score should be. But most importantly it evokes the emotions we are supposed to hear when we see it married to picture. The dark urgency of the Imperial motif, the triumph of the main overture. This coupled with the fact that we instantly can recognize the music -- this is the sign of a great film score, one that will go down in the books as one of the best.

Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, Lost)

Giacchino spoke with CBC Music in 2013 in advance of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness. As a kid, it was the Star Wars soundtrack that first inspired him: “Once I got a hold of that double album, that was kind of the end for me.” When Abrams was tapped to helm the new Star Wars, Giacchino wasn’t thinking about whether he’d join his boss/collaborator on the film — he was all about John Williams:

Honestly, the first thing I thought when I heard the news was: ‘How cool! I get to hear another John Williams Star Wars score.’ That was literally my first response. It is Star Wars and I’m a huge Star Wars fan, so the thing that excites me most is being able to hear more of what he would do with it. I hope he does do it, because I want to hear that. It seems like he wants to, it seems like he’s interested in it, so we’re just keeping our fingers crossed and hope that he does it. I think that’s where it is right now. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want to do it if I was needed, but at this point I feel he should do it, not me. I want to hear his Star Wars music, not my Star Wars music.

Bryan Tyler (Iron Man 3, Truth)

Tyler spoke with CBC Music earlier this year, about what makes a great film score. Williams came to mind right away:

Emotion and story. A great score invisibly gets the audience to feel what is unspoken while at the same time clarifying and streamlining storyline. One of my all-time favourites is Raiders of the Lost Ark by John Williams. It stokes the fires of adventure, has an incredible narrative quality, heightens the romance, and does this all while creating so many memorable melodies with brilliant orchestration.

Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Man of Steel)

Zimmer spoke with CBC Music in 2013 about his score for Man of Steel. He talked about how he approached the music, given that Williams' original Superman theme is so iconic:

John is the master. He's the governor, he's the boss, he's the best. There isn't anybody better. So that instantly created an enormous amount of trepidation for me. But it wasn't so much about being compared by other people — you know, the typical neologic, para-composer. It was how am I going to compare myself, for myself. Luckily [I] had people like Chris Nolan and Zach Snyder who said, 'don’t be silly, roll up your sleeves and get on with it.'

Of course, I grew up with the Superman score. I loved that score, that movie. I kept saying, 'I'm not worthy, I can't do this.' But at the end of the day, I sat down with Zach and he started telling me the story, and it was so different from the film Donner had made. I started hearing fragments of the songs in my head; it all started to fall into place. The biggest trouble I had was to get over myself.

For a year, I didn't listen to any John Williams. I only saw Lincoln really recently, because I am a fan. I love his music. But it felt like the proper thing to do was shut myself off from it and do my thing.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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by Andrea Warner via Electronic RSS