Lights, camera…music?

October 26, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Ever since the invention of the moving pictures, music has been an integral part of Hollywood and of films. When it first accompanied movies, it was in the form of piano or organ players improvising along with the film being shown. As technology progressed, the function of these musicians diminished and entirely disappeared. Edison’s invention of recorded sound predated motion pictures by some 20 years. Without the aid of any type of amplification, people could only hear sound via single person Nickelodeon-type units.

But that all changed when all movies were released with sound. Music then became much more elaborate. The 1950’s saw the rise of the modern film score, with some more well-known scores being composed by Bernard Herrmann (famed of Hitchcock movies “The Birds” and “Psycho”).

Music continued to be an important part of movies, but never really as integrated until one Johnny Williams came along (many recordings credited him as Johnny). Williams himself worked with, among others, Bernard Herrmann, as well as playing piano on the recordings of many scores by other well known composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, and Henry Mancini. (Small world, huh?)

One of William’s first scores was the 1958 B-movie Daddy-O, with his first Academy Award in 1967.  He quickly gained notice because he could compose both jazz and symphonic music.  He also worked on some other lesser known projects: several B-movie disaster flicks like The Towering Inferno, and wrote the opening credits, closing credits, and much of the incidental music for the 60’s TV show Lost in Space. He shared these responsibilities with several composers including the man responsible for the Star Trek theme, Alexander Courage.

Of course, his biggest break came when he was approached by Steven Spielberg in 1974, and he has gone on to compose for nearly every Spielberg film since.

His biggest claim to fame is none other than the juggernaut that is Star Wars.  His heavy use of the Wagnerian-inspired leitmotif throughout undoubtedly is what makes John Williams one of the most memorable composers in movie music to date.

Williams’ ability to use a reoccurring theme for specific people, places, or ideas are what has ingrained so much of his music into the subconscious, or rather even conscious of movie-goers everywhere. Truly, you cannot go to a movie with a Williams’ score and not come out at least humming one theme.  John’s music isn’t simply background; it actually matches pace and is an equal partner with the film. You cannot separate the image of the twin suns of Tatooine setting from this sweeping, emotional theme…

What was seen almost as a joke of a film at the time, Williams’ score for Star Wars made it a legit film. He always takes amazing melodic material, treats it with such interesting harmonies, and scores it in a way that showcases all families of instruments and individual sections incredibly. I will go on record to say that no other movie composer has ever come even close.

For a long period, Williams composed music and shared Hollywood with many other composers who have also learned to develop thematic material with their scores. But as film making progressed, so did the use of technology. Films began using highly percussive music using synthesizers, drum loops, and ambient sound to create a sense of drama and tension. It was cheaper, and many films did not require the sweeping symphonic scores.

So as the 90’s and 2000’s have progressed, John Williams has continued composing amazing symphonic scores: Jurassic Park, Harry Potter films, the new Star Wars, to name a few. And he now shares the screen with a newer set of film composers, many of whom are not even qualified to turn a page for JW!

Yes, I’m calling you out! James Horner (ok, older Horner stuff is pretty good!), James Newton Howard, among a few of many composers who are the complete antithesis to JW. Ok, I know what you are saying: How can they be like John Williams? He has done so much, surely they are good just not as good as Williams. No, I don’t believe that is the case. In fact, I’d actually believe that modern composers (2000s +) make a habit of not creating music that uses any sort of theme specifically because they are afraid that they will be mistaken for John Williams. While I’d understand that, that’s like Ford saying, “We can’t make a car with 4 doors; Nissan already has one of those. Let’s make a car with 1 door. That’s totally different. No one can confuse us with Nissan now!”

That’s a very ridiculous analogy which acutely makes my point. John does things differently. You can tell a Williams score from Bernard Herrmann, from Howard Shore. (Oh, and Howard used thematic music…just one theme, but I’ll take it!) So you can’t use that argument guys.

The other argument is that producers and directors want the music of their films to be secondary, because it serves the film not vice versa. I actually buy into this. Many directors see their project as the main thing, and the music is secondary or even in some cases, tertiary. Spielberg and Lucas both understood that having a score that incorporated themes actually enhances the story. Jaws will forever be known by a two-note motive. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not!

Although I don’t even want to think it, we are fast approaching a time where John Williams will not be with us. I haven’t seen a composer in the last decade that has shown the musical aptitude, the understanding of instrument usage, the finesse, the power, or the emotion that John Williams has. We need our current generation of movie composers and our new generation to learn from the master. I’m not saying you need to copy him. I’m just saying this: Don’t be afraid of writing a theme..or two, or *gasp* three. And don’t be afraid to write new material, not just something you directly ripped off on a Sibelius symphony!

So what do you think? Any composers in the last decade who you think might have the ability to take up the torch?

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  1. […] me what a movie buff I am, and what a fan of movie music I am. (See the previous article I wrote here!) While I am not a crazy Harry Potter fan, I have seen all the movies and generally do enjoy what […]


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