Thursday, March 31, 2011

Do you like John Williams?

John Williams may be the only living composer who is a 'household' name in America.
Jaws, Superman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc. etc. etc.
More people could hum you a John Williams theme on demand than a theme of Beethoven or Mozart.
Therefore, John Williams = amazing?

Let me preface the following comments by saying:
I don't hate John Williams. I've got a soft spot for "Across the Stars" from Star Wars Episode II, and a sense of nostalgia for the way most of the Star Wars soundtrack used to make me feel. The theme from Schindler's List had a big effect on me when I was first discovering 'classical' music. I appreciate that the first (and only, so far) song my son can play on the piano is the "Shark Song" (Jaws.) (Then again, a low, alternating half step isn't exactly copyright, is it?) I appreciate the fact that movies need music and that soundtracks expose people (like myself) to the world of 'contemporary' composition.

Now let me say:
I don't want to be John Williams. I don't make music for a living, nor do I really want to. I'm okay teaching music for a living, and making music because it is the music I want to make. If the day comes that the music I want to make happens to be earning me a living, great! But if I wanted to make a living off of composing music, that would mean trying to be a movie composer. And I don't want to be 'part of that world.'

One of my students who is going into movie composition asked me the other day if I like John Williams. I told him what I've told you, and went on to say that I feel like movie composers end up too often making mood music on demand.

Cue Action!
Cue Trip to Exotic Place!
Cue Love Scene!
Cue Mysterious!
Cue Light-Hearted!
Cue Oscar Winning Moment!
Cue Tragic!
Cue Its Okay but Still Serious!
Cue Triumphant Ending/Contemplative Ending!

As a composer I feel the need to make music of my own design. That design never includes consideration of 'Mood' as its primary, or even secondary objective. I strive for original designs and original material to fill those designs. That isn't to say I can't see a time when I would do the music for a movie, or a play, or some other dramatic structure tied to a story. But I want to do it on my own terms, and not because its part of my contract to Universal Pictures to produce a score and NOW! and no, that is too complex of music for what we are going for here, don't you get it, where's my espresso?

It is a bit of a generalization, but still fair in my opinion, to say that film composers are craftsmen, molding fairly standard musical materials into recognizable and familiar shapes and forms. Sure, they often have original ideas! Sure, they are often very good at what they do! Sure, they make music that many people can relate to and like. Groundbreaking? Rarely. Decent and of good report and praiseworthy, sure!

But they are not advancing the state of music as an art. For the most part, movie music plays infinite variations on given themes, inevitably sounding somewhat like the last
Cue Scary Heartbeats!
Cue Chase Scene!

I want to be a composer who is searching for the depths of what music can really do. When I think about the materials of music, I feel like a scientist delving into the smallest knowable particles of matter, contemplating the vastness of the web of the universe, then considering how I might put it all together in my own way. I make music to make something that nobody has ever made before, to express things nobody has ever expressed, to form sound as nobody has ever formed it.
Cue Epic!
Cue Mysterious Wonder!
That just doesn't work for me.

I'm not saying that I intend to be a radical experimenter as a composer, but I do intend to be part of the musical Avant Garde - pushing the limits of my art, without forgetting that I still want to make music that speaks deeply to the soul. In fact, the way music communicates heart & mind to heart & mind is a key concept to my compositional pursuits.
Sure, I like Williams or Horner or Zimmer or Elfman - in the context of the movies. But I don't want to be them, and I don't seek out their music outside of the movies. If I want great themes I know a ton of other composers I could listen to whose music is supremely lyrical and has much more substance than
Cue Closing Credits!


Qait said...

It makes perfect sense to me that you don't want to be a movie-music composer. I think you explained yourself quite well!
And you made me laugh. ;)

Ryan Spackman said...

I totally understand what you're saying here and why, but can I just say that sometimes its very frustrating for the average Joe to discuss music with the musically inclined.

(Revealing my absolute ignorance of musical terms and knowledge) I think: wow! That really moved me! Or that's incredible how the music changes there, it's like magic. How do composers do so and so and know how amazing and powerful it will all turn out to be with such small tweeks, etc.

Then the music savvy will say "well it's not that impressive, he only used horns and repeated the same notes over and over... and besides the performer made such and such mistake which really ruined it for me.

Then I'm all ashamed that I'm so easily impressed and moved by such obviously substandard and poorly performed music that uses cheap, sloppy and easy tricks to fake being great...

But really I grade music first on how it made me feel, next on content and lastly on performance and complexity, because even a simple song poorly performed--if combined with the right circumstances--could move my untrained heart into awarding an A grade.

As for John Williams, theirs nothing like trumpets blaring in a heroic march to get my blood flowing and excitement level up. For me, his Imperial March is every bit as great as Beethoven's 5th in that it accomplishes the same thing for me in terms of power, energy, mood, imagination, etc.

Ryan Spackman said...

Also many classical writers were "soundtrack" composers for historical events, fantasy, opera, etc. They were just lacking the modern cinematics and rules of story and filming structure, cue/cut, etc.