First, our composer of the month is...John Williams! Two reasons why: First, he released a beautiful new score this month (to be discussed later). Second, and more importantly, I think everyone who wants to know about film music needs to know about him. If there was a god of movie music, it'd be him. So, who is John William anyway? Well, I've spent this week learning about him and his life, and I realized that I didn't actually know the answer to that question as well as I thought!
John Williams was born in Long Island, New York on February 8, 1932. He learned how to play piano at a very young age, and by the time he moved to L.A. at age 16, he was the leader of his own jazz band and arranging music. His ambition was to be a concert pianist, and at age 19, he debuted his first original piece of music.
After going to UCLA and Los Angeles City College, he studied orchestration and music composition under film music writers of the time. He conducted for the first time when he was drafted into the Air Force, where he arranged music and conducted for the Air Force Band for three years. After his military service, he studied piano playing at Julliard and worked in jazz clubs to pay the bills. After some years there, he moved back to L.A. where he found work in Hollywood as a film studio orchestrator, working on television show music and on movie music.
His first film score was for "Daddy-O" in 1958, popularized by Mystery Science Theater 3000 for being, well, a terrible film (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bk1h_pCbdM if you're interested in watching some MST3K). The score itself isn't necessarily brilliant, but it reveals William's strong background in jazz. He continued scoring throughout the 1960s, mostly on comedies, but then, in 1971, he won his first Oscar for his orchestration of the musical Fiddler on the Roof! Isn't that awesome? I didn't know he worked on that movie, let alone won an Oscar for it!
The 1970s were a pretty awesome time for Williams. He began his friendship with Steven Spielberg in the early years of the decade and won an Oscar in 1975 for his collaboration with Spielberg on "Jaws"-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvCI-gNK_y4. After that, he worked with a guy named George Lucas on a movie called "Star Wars" and won an Oscar for that too in 1977. The "Star Wars" score is widely regarded as the score that changed movie music forever, bringing back the epic cinema sound that had characterized film scores in the 1930s and 1940s. It is still the best selling score of all time-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjMNNpIksaI. The big, brassy sound you hear in the opening credits to Star Wars came to be known as Williams' characteristic sound.
His career continued gloriously. He wrote for the rest of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, "Superman," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "E.T." (Oscar winning). He also wrote for the first three Harry Potter films, "Schindler's List"(Oscar winning), "Jurassic Park," and many many more. He continues to score films to this day, at 80 years old! That's amazing and basically confirms my belief that the music business keeps people young forever and ever.
All in all, Williams has written well over a hundred scores, been nominated for an Academy Award over fifty times, and has won five times (which if you ask me, is insulting considering his INCREDIBLE work). There has never been any one like him in the film score business, and I very much doubt there ever will be, considering the sheer length of time he's been scoring and the amount of scores he's written. I love so much of his work that I really couldn't pick a favorite. And his music only seems to be improving with age. His most recent scores are some of his best ever in my opinion.
Well, that's John Williams in a nutshell! Challenge this week-Go find his music and listen to it! There's tons of if on Spotify and Youtube and Pandora and all those good free music listening sites. Comment below with what score of his you listened to and what you think about him!
Now, onto a couple reviews of scores that were released this week.
- "Skyfall" by Thomas Newman. Hm. I have mixed feelings on this one. First, let me say that I listened to the score before I saw the movie, and I didn't really like it too much. Then, I saw the movie, and well, it's still not my favorite Bond score. "Casino Royale" still wins that battle. But the "Skyfall" score definitely works so much better in context, and I like it A LOT more after seeing it in action. It accompanies the movie quite well and puts the right feelings in the right places. There's lots of driving beats to keep the tension high with stringed instruments and percussion as the baseline and horns entering to escalate and blast out hints of the Bond theme. Particularly in the action scenes, Newman favors low strings-basses and cellos. Newman also uses appropriate instruments to fit the settings of the various scenes, sometimes exotic, sometimes not. (I won't give the settings to avoid spoilers, but if you listen to the score, you should be able to guess!). My favorite tracks are "Severine," "Tennyson," "Brave New World," Komodo Dragon," and "Breadcrumbs." Purchasing suggestion? Listen on Spotify and buy your favorite tracks like I did.
- Fun Fact About my listening habits: Often, I'm doing something else like doing homework or making dinner while I'm listening to scores. The tracks that force me to stop what I'm doing and listen again are usually the ones that end up my favorites :)
- "Lincoln" by John Williams. I've already made it known that I adore Williams, so it really shouldn't be a surprise that I love this score. Now, I haven't seen the movie yet, but the story of Lincoln's life is very familiar to me after learning about him so much in school. I have a pretty good idea of about the kind of moods the score should evoke. For the most part, the score should put the audience in the Civil War era with its instruments and inspire in them admiration, sadness, respect, reverence, and awe for this great man. I felt all of that from the first 30 seconds of the score. In fact, um, I teared up during the first 30 seconds. It's just really beautiful! Those of you familiar with Williams' work will find it reminiscent of his "War Horse" score. I don't have a favorite track. I love the whole thing, so I'll just highlight a few tracks. "The American Process" has a really lovely woodwind section-oboes, clarinets, flutes, and bassoons. Then, Williams brings it all down to a simple piano line. He does that quite a bit in this, working with a number of instruments then bringing the melody to a single instrument. In "The Southern Delegation and the Dream," the instrument is a trumpet for a large part of the it, then a french horn. In "Freedom's Call," the instrument is a violin. For me, this single instrument evokes the image of Lincoln standing up amidst a crowd and giving speeches. Another track worth noting is "Call to Muster and Battle Cry of Freedom," which begins with a drum beat and a piccolo, and continues with a full choir singing Battle Cry of Freedom, an anthem for the Union during the Civil War. There's a couple fun fiddling tracks as well-"Getting Out the Vote" and "The Race to the House." Purchasing suggestions? Buy the whole score and listen to it all the time. It's worth your money.