Los Angeles, February 8th, 2020. I write this article today, as it is coincidental with the birthday of Composer, John Williams.
Years ago, when I was a young composer, I had the opportunity to hear a concert of Samuel Barber’s music, at a University near Southern Los Angeles. It featured a famous Soprano and her accompanist, a young John Williams. John was unknown in the public sphere at that time.
After the concert, when the audience left the hall, I snuck up on the stage and went through the curtains to the backstage, There was no one around, anywhere. I thought this most surprising, and so I continued out the back door in to the hallways of the university. All lights were out. There was an eerie quietness that night, as I walked down past the empty rooms. As I turned the corner, I could see, far in the distance, one room, where light was coming from.
I followed that light until I reached the end. As I entered the room, it was empty. I saw many small bulbs around a mirror. I realized it was a dressing room, probably for the singer. I decided that, while I was there, I would check my tie, hair and such. I turned around and began to walk out of the room. As I walked through the doorframe, John Williams walked in, and we almost knocked each other over. I shocked John completely, where he gasped: “Can I help you?”
I told John that I had just heard the concert, and that I thought, by chance, I may meet him. He breathed in a sigh of relief, knowing that I wasn’t going to rob him. I told him I was a young composer and wanted to write for films, for which I knew I had a natural talent. I asked if he taught privately, but, unfortunately, he did not. John said: “Go to USC and talk to George Trembly; he can help you.”
We spoke a bit more about music, and, finally, as I walked out of the dressing room, John asked me: “Did you enjoy the concert?” I answered: “I really marveled how Barber moved his voice leading through those complicated Lydian harmonies in correlation to the soprano melody.”
“Incredible!” said John, “you actually noticed that? You have really good ears!”
Well, it’s been many years since that meeting, and I’m still composing. I am grateful for the chance to speak with John. I have sincere admiration for this consummate musical talent, not only as him being an accomplished film composer of world renown, but as an intellectual with refined, impeccable taste. John is a true gentlemen, even when you literally bump into him.
My cultural and musical observations:
There are many approaches to musical composition for film, based upon principles in alchemy, which are synonymous with creativity. I have defined these for myself as ranging from the inspirational, using innate emotional intelligence, for example: Jerry Goldsmith; or lyrical thematic interpolation, as does Henry Mancini and Michel Legrand. Others use detached emotional intellectualism, such as Leonard Rosenman and John Corigliano.
I will endeavor to analyze John Williams’ musical compositional approach, which I Term:
“Pre-conceptualized motif-generated modeling.”
This approach is one, where the composer does not start from an intuitive vacuum – like Jerry Goldsmith, but begins by asking: Has this kind of music ever occurred before? In the case of film, there are endless scores, which have proven their worth, regarding their effectiveness to move the audience into the desired emotional context. It is an approach which says: Why re-invent the wheel?
There are obvious examples of successful works to prove this conjecture. I need not try to see if brass fanfares will work in a Roman scene, as there are plenty of film cues to demonstrate its use. I need only to create a fanfare of my choosing, using that model. I will create a marvelous motif and variations within that formalized frame, and paint a unique picture of feelings with my own signature.
Advantages of this compositional approach:
1. Instant gratification from the Director, as it gives him what he subconsciously thought he wanted from the beginning, based upon his memory of other films.
2. The composition has the “power of the public conciousness;” the listeners’ acceptance of the orchestration, as it feels familiar to them, as they sense the preconceived; ‘Cinematic’ sound. ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Superman’ utilized E. Korngold and Elgar textures. ‘ET’ utilized Holst and Ravel concepts; ‘Towering Inferno’ utilized F. Waxman colors.
3. Perhaps most advantages: Time is limited to 8 weeks of production. Scoring stages are expensive, as well as no place to needlessly experiment with a hundred professionals in the room. People usually get what they expect from this approach, and are seldom surprised.
Disadvantages of this approach:
1. Does not create many out of the box, untried musical ideas, because it is, by nature, risk adverse in conception.
Example: Goldsmith’s ‘Planet of the Apes’ score could not have been composed, utilizing this method, because there were no previous models.
2. Originality is not easily defined: one composer’s work can have the ‘sound’ of another composer, as it shares similar facets of orchestration. Therefore, one must work exceptionally hard at creating effective motifs and variations to carry the heavy load of originality.
3. Orchestrations, using this approach are similar to other models. Melodic themes must at times be wide in scope, with generally large intervals to exemplify originality. This creates emotional pull on heartstrings, but cannot usually be sung, as they are not melodically lyrical. Therefore, one could win the Academy Award for best score, yet not best song for a motion picture.
Williams’ priority is to solve the mystery of the initial motif. He will tire endlessly, until he has exhausted almost every option. The thought process is one of: If I get those first eight measures of motif to be lyrical and singable, the rest of the aspects, regarding composition and orchestration are inconsequential. Proof of this is, that many can sing the first eight measures of Schindler’s List, Indiana Jones, Superman, Close encounters. Star Wars, The Book and others, but find it usually impossible to sing the bridge of these themes. Williams knows that, if he can win the audience in those first eight bars, they’ll remember his melodies. True ‘Sound’ advice.
However, it is precisely these variations and bridge, which, I believe, are the playground for John’s voyages of harmonic discovery; where he is able to free himself from the initial lyrical motif, and stretch out his technical expertise in musical theory. Here, he modulates, retrogrades, and ventures into new orchestrations of higher contrapuntal complexity. He fears not, where this may lead, as he knows that he will end up, returning to that initial motif with a heightened finale, and the audience will sing along.
This is why he is able to work so quickly. Like a Master poker player holding a royal flush, Williams knows the emotional outcome in advance. John holds the winning cards, and all he has to do is to fill in the musical details, and then collect the Oscar chips.
John Williams’ genius, therefore, is being able to utilize a previous model of success, like a Ferrari. He need not re-invent the automobile. His goal is to, somehow, make this car into something of a boutique item; a certain color, a certain interior, a faster and more efficient race car: (an unseen shark with an uncompromising agenda – “Jaws”; a young, but wise, Japanese girl, who escapes from home – “Memories of a Geisha”; a quirky, yet likable, extra-terrestrial – “ET”.)
His first objective is to research the past, like a sonic Sherlock Holmes, to find examples of other drivers’ success. He then takes his melodic quiver of master motifs, aims at his target of musical motors, and rapidly fires them all at once, igniting the motor to create a ‘roar in his engine of orchestral dynamics.’
He then puts you in the passenger’s seat, driving you like a chauffeur, through an imaginary landscape, as he, himself, has created in advance. He points with his baton to the emotional highlights along the way, and why they are interesting to view. All along the ride, you somehow feel that you have traveled this road before, and feeling more confident of John, as the driver.
Every so often, you get bored. Just then, John hits the the accelerator and races the orchestral Ferrari, like Superman at hi-speeds, just as one thinks: “Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to feel. Can you read my mind?” A small smile of confidence appears on John’s face, as his Aquarian mind knows that, all along, you were both just characters in his movie score. He was your “Musical Yoda,” whose notational elixir brought you the gift of an eternal kiss of emotion, given to you, through his masterful catharsis of musical themes.
Here’s to you, John: Thanks for the ride.
May your force always be with us.
Happy 88th Birthday,
Darryl John Kennedy is an American composer and multi-instrumentalist, who performs in concert and on recordings throughout the world. He’s a traveler to over 50 countries and student of numerous languages. Kennedy travels as an independent cultural ambassador, and has been an invited keynote speaker, as an expert on cultural relations to organizations, including the United Nations / Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, World Affairs Council of America, National Council of International Visitors, University of California, Los Angeles, Public Relations Society of America, and has worked independently in cooperation with the US State Department’s Educational and Cultural Affairs, Citizens Exchange, and US Embassies. As an Independent, he has no affiliation with any political party. He speaks as a well-traveled American. Website at: www.darryljohnkennedy.com / email darryl at: firstname.lastname@example.org