Saturday, January 2, 2016

Star Bores part 2 - John Williams as Jack White

Alex Ross at New Yorker with an in-depth analysis  - and appreciation, with misgivings albeit - of the work of John Williams

In his even-handed New Yorker bow-tie on way, Ross describes the composer at 83 as a figure who  "remains a vital presence"

But surely that can only be in the way that, say, Jack White is "a vital presence" - energetic, prolific, unflagging....    which is to say, vitality applied to prop up a dead art form

Ross reels off the stats - "scored all of the “Star Wars” movies, all of the Indiana Jones movies, several Harry Potters, “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Superman,” “Jurassic Park,” and almost a hundred others.... forty-nine Oscar nominations, with a fiftieth almost certain for 2016."

But then when he says that "perhaps his most crucial contribution is the role he has played in preserving the art of orchestral film music, which, in the early seventies, was losing ground to pop-song soundtracks" , the parallel between Williams and White seems even more unavoidably apt - preservation, conservation, conservatism.

Indeed it could be the case that Williams helped to kill off the electronic s.f. score in the same way that Star Wars killed off - or grieviously marginalised - the non-heroic, serious-minded, speculative kinds of s.f. movie

At any rate, even from Ross's own account, Williams is a recycler - an artful and dashingly inventive one, he says:

"It has long been fashionable to dismiss Williams as a mere pasticheur, who assembles scores from classical spare parts. Some have gone as far as to call him a plagiarist. A widely viewed YouTube video pairs the “Star Wars” main title with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music for “Kings Row,” a 1942 picture starring Ronald Reagan. Indeed, both share a fundamental pattern: a triplet figure, a rising fifth, a stepwise three-note descent. Also Korngoldesque are the glinting dissonances that affirm rather than undermine the diatonic harmony, as if putting floodlights on the chords."

But he argues that "Williams takes material from Korngold and uses it to forge something new."

Then doubles back to concede - "This is not to deny that Williams has a history of drawing heavily on established models. The Tatooine desert in “Star Wars” is a dead ringer for the steppes of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The “Mars” movement of Holst’s “Planets” frequently lurks behind menacing situations. Jeremy Orosz, in a recent academic paper, describes these gestures as “paraphrases”: rather than quoting outright, Williams “uses pre-existing material as a creative template to compose new music at a remarkable pace.” There’s another reason that “Star Wars” contains so many near-citations. At first, George Lucas had planned to fill the soundtrack with classical recordings, as Stanley Kubrick had done in “2001.” The temp track included Holst and Korngold. Williams, whom Lucas hired at Spielberg’s suggestion, acknowledged the director’s favorites while demonstrating the power of a freshly composed score. He seems to be saying: I can mimic anything you want, but you need a living voice"

Is this really a "living voice"? And where do you draw the line between paraphrase and parasitism, a subsidiary relationship to the prior text?

"Williams invariably achieves a level of craftsmanship that no other living Hollywood composer can match"

Again can't help thinking here of the consummate craftsmanship of a Jack White, or a Costello....

After discussing the score to the Force Awakens  - "an ingenious interplay of beloved motifs" - Ross's even-handedness seems to flag again, and he winds up sounding a Retromania-ish note:

"Deft as the new score is, it mirrors the déjà vu of the entire “Star Wars” experience. When Williams revived the Korngold manner, he was purveying nostalgia for a style that, in its echoes of turn-of-the-century post-Wagnerian opulence, was nostalgic to begin with. In so doing, he was following the filmmaker, who, on the eve of Reaganism, served up old-fashioned good-versus-evil heroics, with a weird whiff of Leni Riefenstahl at the end. Now, as “Star Wars” fever grips the nation once again, the nostalgias are being compounded. If, back in 1977, you had told me and my fellow-nine-year-olds that thirty-eight years hence we would be standing in line for another “Star Wars,” some of us accompanying children that age or older, we would have been baffled, and perhaps a little scared. We might have said, Won’t the future give us something new?"


I did find myself concurring with Ross's thoughts about the vast superiority of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Star Wars....   and it's interesting how forgotten that Spielberg film is, how little legacy its "one-off fusion of blockbuster spectacle with the disheveled realism of nineteen-seventies filmmaking"  has left ... probably because of its lack of straightforward heroics. As Ross notes:

"The Disneyesque fireworks of the finale can’t hide the fact that the hero of the tale is abandoning his family in the grip of a monomaniacal obsession."


In a 2009 essay for the first issue of  Loops on the lost promise of the science fiction soundtrack, I started out by discussing the Cantina scene  in Star Wars the First (now the fourth) (the speakeasy full of alien criminals from a dozen solar systems are grooving to 1930s swing?!?) and also address the inadequacy of the music that the aliens play in Close Encounters's the final delirious jam between the Earth scientists and the interstellar visitors with the mega sound system. Inadequate in so far as it's not impossibly alien but like something from the early 20th Century - in that sense more advanced than Williams's usual efforts:

"After a minute or so of tentative interplay, during which the aliens hit a bottom note so deep it shatters the glass in an observation tower, the "jam" suddenly takes off and the technical crew struggle to keep up:

Chief Technician: Give her six quavers, then pause.

Expert #1: "She sent us four quavers, a group of five quavers, a group of four semi-quavers..."

Keyboard Operator: What are we saying to each other?

Chief Technician: "It seems they're trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary."

Expert #2: "It's the first day of school, fellas."

Expert #1: "Take everything from the lady. Follow her pattern note for note."

The ensuing piece--titled "Wild Signals" by Williams--is frantic and dense, the intertwining patterns of Mankind's arpeggios and Alienkind's counterpoint only brushing elliptically against anything you'd call a melody. Yet even someone like myself, a layperson when it comes to the evolution of classical music during the 20th Century, can tell that this "basic tonal vocabulary" is no further advanced than, at most, the 1920s. It's amazing enough that the alien civilisation, who are capable of traversing the light-year distances between galaxies and sundry technological marvels beyond human fathoming (like keeping air pilots they kidnapped in the 1940s from aging), just so happen to use the exact same octaves and intervals favored by the Western classical tradition. But why has their development halted somewhere in the vicinity of Stravinsky and Shostakovich (composers that Williams was partial to as a youth--funny that!), instead of vaulting through the twelve-tone scale and serialism on to the abstract sound-sculpting of post-WW2 electronics, with its total control of timbre, duration, attack, and all other parameters of the sonic event?  It could be that the alien ambassadors are just talking down to us, speaking our lingo. But since it's 1977 and America, why don't they sound like… The Eagles?  "

1 comment:

  1. Another detail is the fact that Williams is known to have a series of ghost collaborators who he pays without credit; the late Angela Morley (who did the arrangements for the Phillips-era careers of Dusty Springfield and Scott Walker (he himself super fond of trying to base arrangements off the compositional ideas of others)) was included in that list. So while the work of Williams is more factory-like, it also becomes rather strained when you realize his adaptability comes from the fact that he will invariably have a select team of people working beneath him who are able to assist his reinventions.

    Furthermore the notion that he is still a vital presence seems strange. Even as someone who doesn't possess a lot of patience for the world of film scoring, it would certainly seem that a Hans Zimmer (and to lesser degrees Clint Mansell) have usurped that sort of role from him.