Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Steven Spielberg and John Williams

The two are inextricably linked, from Jaws to E.T.and The Adventures of Tin Tin. Spielberg is arguably the finest storyteller in film. My son says there is no one better at portraying the ravages of war, and I'm inclined to agree. With War Horse, Spielberg once again returns to the subject of a world at war. This time, it's The Great War, and the battle scenes are so vivid it's hard to imagine either side emerging victorious.

Say what you want about the film's merits. What occupied my thoughts during much of the film was that John Williams -- one of the greatest film composers of all time -- was at Spielberg's side, once again.

I have always wondered about the working relationship between these two men. Having met and worked with Williams, I know that he is an uncommanly nice man in an uncompromising business. When you hear a chorus in a Spielberg film, you can be sure it was the director's idea. But it has become impossible to think of the first great Spielberg film, Jaws, without also recalling those low tones in the string bass -- one short, the next even shorter, a half-step higher -- that tell us the shark is beneath us, always lurking. One could argue that these two notes are as famous as the four which open Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. No one could have known then what we know now, that no matter how challenging it was to build a viable, realistic-looking shark (and you thought the eponymous character's late appearance in the film was a dramatic tactic!), Williams had it in his hip pocket all along. And that is a testament to his genius.

But the music doesn't quite get it right with War Horse. This is the first Spielberg/Williams collaboration where the music is pervasive. That's not necessarily a bad thing: think of those great anthems from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman, or the bittersweet melodies in Schindler's List, and you welcome it.

Thomas Newman, one of the busiest film composers today, takes a different approach. In any of his film scores (Road to Perdition, American Beauty, and The Shawshank Redemption, to name a few), you are never aware of the music. I've seen Shawshank dozens of times, and am still, to this day, never conscious of the music. Newman is proud of this, having gone on the record to say he prefers "to deepen the action through subtext, as opposed to commenting on the drama." Perhaps this is one reason why Newman is ever malleable to the demands of the director, and is proud of that. You'll never hear his music on a symphony pops concert. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Williams's ability to take an idea and make it his own has always been a trademark. The parabolic trumpets in Star Wars are right out of those in Ravel's Daphnis. Others may recognize Gustav Holst's The Planets in some of the battle scenes. But the end result is never derivative; it always ends up sounding like John Williams.

Which is why, during the opening of War Horse, I was surprised when Ralph Vaughan-Williams immediately came to mind. (Williams has always had a love for English composers.) There are also tips of the hat to Aaron Copland. But what really perplexed me was the direct quote from Star Trek, played by french horns just as Alexander Courage scored it for the 1960s hit television series. James Horner (Titanic) is unabashedly unafraid to steal from his favorite composers: think of how he lifts a phrase directly from Copland's Our Town in Field of Dreams, or from Mahler's Seventh Symphony and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf in the animated film, Land Before Time. But I've never known Williams to do this, until War Horse.

Writing music for film can be tricky. The brilliant composer, John Corigliano, who wrote luminous scores for "The Red Violin" and "Altered States," recently had an experience where his music was not to the director's liking, and was not used. (Corigliano was still paid.) In most cases, music written for a particular movie does not belong to the composer, who later may be surprised to hear his music in other media, without accreditation.

John Williams teamed up with Itzhak Perlman and the Pittsburgh Symphony for a recording ("Cinema Serenade") of movie tunes for solo violin and orchestra. The session began with Perlman in the middle of the orchestra, with a microphone above him, but early takes were not to his liking. Finally, the producer moved him back to the front of the orchestra, and things progressed nicely from that point on. Of course, Williams's music for Schindler's List was included, and Perlman's rendition was as glorious as it was in the film. Returning to the green room (which had been converted into a studio) during each session break, Perlman had much to say, but Williams always deferred to the producer. He was also very kind to other composers represented on the disc. (Of Andre Previn's contribution, he shook his head in admiration, saying "boy, they just don't write music like that anymore.")

You would be hard-pressed to find equal doses of genius and modesty in another human being. When I saw him last summer at Tanglewood, Williams, now just shy of eighty, was his usual jovial self, trading niceties with staff and musicians.

The Adventures of Tin Tin is a movie I would have seen by now had it come out years ago, when my children were younger. But I will see it, if only to hear the Williams score. I am still, and always will be, a devoted fan. I can hardly wait to see (and hear) what he and Spielberg have wrought with Lincoln. (And Jurassic Park IV is on the way . . .)

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