Sunday, February 19, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of Film Music - John Williams - Culmination of the Silver Age

(The Planets. Whatever else it’s become, it’s a fantastic piece of music.)

Gustav Holst is the name you most often hear John Williams being accused of ripping off. Most of today’s music lovers remain dimly aware that a world of symphonic music exists beyond the two movements of it (Mars and Jupiter) they played in high school concert band. But since The Planets is a work heard by millions of people who barely know another note of classical music, it’s considered something approaching de rigeur to say that John Williams got his entire bag of tricks from that one piece. However, if you spend enough time among music snobs, you’ll hear accusations of Williams lifting from Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner, Erich Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Antonin Dvorak, Gyorgy Ligeti, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Dimitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Jean Sibelius, Duke Ellington, John Philip Sousa, Elmer Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, .....eventually, you begin to think that the Williams ripoff list is nothing more than an honor roll of orchestral music.

Is John Williams a ripoff artist? Well, yes, yes he is. But that isn’t the right question. I look at the above list, and I can point to passages where most of these composers of ripped off other composers just as blatantly - and occasionally just as often. Plagiarism may not make for great scholarship, but it’s an under-regarded part of the creative process. Writers borrow heavily from other sources, and at their best they completely transform old material into something so different from the original as to be unrecognizable to any eye or ear that wasn’t searching for plagiarism in the first place. Many people say that this is a particularly fertile era for the transformation of old material, and give the process fancy academic names like ‘recontextualization’ or ‘intertextuality’ as though these are the latest revolutions to hit human thought. But what we now call recontextualization has been occurring since the first caveman performer described hunting a woolly mammoth. Reframing the context is one of the artist’s primary concerns, and if that process is ever mastered, it often takes a lifetime’s work to do.

So no, if John Williams is a ripoff artist, then so are Wagner, Mahler, and (especially) Stravinsky. John Williams’s music may sound like other people’s, but the way he uses other people’s music is totally original. Yet there’s another question, a perfectly legitimate one to ask, which doesn’t put John Williams in a very flattering light. Independently of the movies, can you listen to his music for pleasure, consolation, enlightenment?

Pleasure? Yes. I think so at least. But what kind of pleasure? Is it the high-minded pleasure one can derive from a Bach fugue or a Leonard Cohen song? The pleasure of John Williams is the kind of pleasure one derives from drunkenly belting out Journey or The Eagles in a crowded bar. It’s overwrought, emotionally sappy, and simplistic for simplicity’s sake. If you’re looking for deeper meaning in John Williams, you’re just as dumb as you seem. And yet....

Rock fans can pretend to ironically listen to Journey thousands of times without ever admitting to each other that there's never been any irony there. In the exact same way I can listen to John Williams at least hundreds with that pretense to irony. But in an honest moment I have to reluctantly admit that in fact, there is something completely unironic about my response to this most unironic of composers.

Yes, by the standards of what we think of as concert music, the technique is threadbare, the music is not that inventive, and the emotions conveyed seem to have no ambiguity to them. Yet there is still something unmistakable in that small universe it conveys. It is a reminder of a world that you once thought uncomplicated by the insurmountable, a world before the banal was recognized as banal. It is music of penny-plain and cheap wisdom. But we all need to hear platitudes occasionally to be reminded of the truth that lies beneath them. It is music that reminds you of when you first discovered the rules of life that today seem so commonplace that you hardly think of them. But sometimes you need to hear those rules, if only to remember.

John Williams’s music is an important presence in the lives of every person who reads this post. There is not a single person among us untouched by Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, ET, Jaws, Close Encounters, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, etc. And no matter what we think of his music when taken out of the context of the movies, within the movies his music accomplishes exactly what it’s meant to, and does so brilliantly.

On the one hand, Williams is perhaps the most obvious throwback to 19th century romanticism among contemporary composers. In 2012, his orchestration still comes right out of Rimsky-Korsakov’s textbook, and he uses Wagner’s concept of the Leitmotif (think of the themes associated with all the different characters in Star Wars) more frequently and with greater skill than any composer since Wagner himself. On the other hand, there is a second Williams, far less commented upon, that reserves itself for smaller movies that strips itself of the Lucasian pomp and is replaced by moments of startling intimacy.

(Starts at 1:30)

To take just one example: remember the first futurist scene in A.I. (the one right after most people complained the movie should have ended)? The world has flashed forward 2000 years to a new ice age and watch as robots navigate a vessel through the ruins of New York so they might find David, Teddy, and their ship. To me, the power of this scene is overwhelming. I find this one of the most beautiful, disorienting, haunting scenes in all of Spielberg. As an audience member, we have no idea of where or what we are anymore, we can only sense that something terrible has happened and that we’re in for a shock.

Williams accompanies the scene with a wordless chorus that could have been lifted from Holst’s Neptune (the last movement of the Planets), singing harmonies that come almost straight from Holst’s Saturn. But it’s difficult to believe that more extraordinarily appropriate music could have been chosen for that scene. For a thousand years, the chorus has been the ideal vessel for music to address questions of eternity - questions that are both disturbing, illuminating, and strangely comforting. Whatever one’s opinion of A.I. (I like it), this scene contains as great a piece of film music as has ever been written, and a perfect example of ‘Silver Age’ film scoring in which composers use very unconventional methods to make better movies for a generation of unconventional moviemakers.

Williams was only one of a number of film composers to put us on a nostalgia trend - Marvin Hamlisch (think of The Sting’s Ragtime score) or Randy Newman (think of the Ragtime score for … Ragtime) but Williams is easily the greatest and most influential of them. He is the culmination of film music’s Silver Age in the same way that Bernard Hermann is the culmination of the Golden Age.

A very different kind of nostalgia existed in pop soundtracks. If classical soundtracks were a kind of nostalgia for a Golden Age of an American culture that was still dominated by Europe, then Pop soundtracks evoked a kind of nostalgia for the familiar music of the present day. The classicism of previous generations used to be both comforting and challenging, but its increasing distance from contemporary life came to seem both stuffy and disturbing. A 100-piece orchestra seemed the ultimate in largess, particularly for a generation coming to terms with independent financing, in which many of the best quality films were made quite cheaply. The most influential of these pop soundtracks was Mean Streets. Spielberg had John Williams, Martin Scorsese had the entire world of American music.

Click here for the scene that changed film music forever.

Obviously, Mean Streets was not the first soundtrack to use existing pop music. The Graduate and Easy Rider are only the most famous to predate Mean Streets. But Mean Streets’ use of pop music is more influential. Easy Rider and The Graduate were major releases. Mean Streets was done on Hollywood’s fringes. After Scorsese did it, it was acceptable for small independent films to not write their own music - and therefore instead of paying for lots of musicians, they only had to pay for the rights to the music. In the battle to make films independently from Hollywood, the Mean Streets soundtrack was one of the most decisive victories.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Evan,

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

    You very skillfully expose the fallacy behind the snobbish dismissal of Williams' work as purely derivative, for which I applaud you.

    However: you then proceed to make the very error you're denouncing, by snobbishly denigrating Williams' work as simplistic. (The actual words you used were "overwrought," "emotionally sappy," "threadbare," "uninventive," "unironic," etc.)

    I couldn't disagree more with such nonsense. The work of John Williams is deep, powerful, moving, and brilliant; he's one of the greatest musical geniuses of our time. It's only because his oeuvre is connected with pop culture that people like you seem to think your words of praise need to be "qualified".

    If Williams created the same orchestral masterpieces in a symphonic arena (rather than composing them for mainstream films), music snobs wouldn't feel as much need to put his work down in the "backhanded compliment" way you're doing here.

    There's nothing "banal" about passion, excitement, joy, hope, and all the many other emotions John Williams conjures out of thin air, in ways few others can do. Your notion of "banality" comes from the lofty realm of arrogant critics, not artists. Any orchestral composer worth his/her salt who listens to an entire John Williams score from beginning to end will note depth and subtleties beyond count.

    So you get an A+ for accurately exposing the error that forms the main focus of your post, but a C- for slipping into the very same snobbish attitude in a different form.

    Best wishes,
    Magnus Lemming