Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Movie Music Musings: Favorite Composers - John Williams

Favorite Composer?

When I mention my hobby of collecting and enjoying movie scores, one of the first questions I hear is, “What are your favorite scores?” The answer to that is never easy, mostly because it seems to change on a weekly basis. I go through phases with music, enjoying one style over another. Some film scores I like for nostalgic reasons, others I enjoy because they inspire my writing, others take me back into the world of the movie.

So depending on when you ask me I may be in one of these periods where I explore the work of one composer and try to get a well-rounded idea of what their work is like. While I may shift my attention to one composer, it doesn’t mean stop listening to a previous favorite or don’t listen to anything else. But I’ll find myself revisiting a certain composer’s material over and over again.

Originally this was going to be one post about my favorite composers, but the further I got into this, the longer each entry became. I decided to just go ahead and make this a series.

So I’ll give some insight into the composers who I keep coming back to, why I enjoy their work and give you some samples of what I think is their most accessible stuff. As I’ve mentioned before, my musical vocabulary is limited. This is not going to be in depth analysis of styles, but a more general and yes, fan based, approach.

First up, is one of the most famous film composers out there …

John Williams

My love of film music started with my love of Star Wars and so that means John Williams was the first composer whose work I really explored. For a long time I really only had six soundtracks by him, the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogy. And when you want to talk about the classic John Williams sound, these are the scores that always get mentioned. 

What is amazing about Williams and is really obvious in these scores, is his ability to create so many varied and memorable themes. These themes also perfectly fit the characters and situations they are matched to. This creates a real fusion between the visuals and the music. The result is that when you hear a track from Empire Strikes Back or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom you will most likely remember exactly what moment it is from.

While I love his material from the late ‘70s and into the ‘90s, the man has not lost any of skills. His work on the first three Harry Potter films is truly magical and his music for Memoirs of a Geisha is great stuff.

But Williams had a major style shift at the end of the ‘90s. It revolved mostly around his action music style (and doesn’t affect his dramatic work much). In his earlier work, Williams could create action music that would work as it’s own set piece telling a story in a clear musical way. Some of the best moments in this are the Asteroid Field from The Empire Strikes Back and the Desert Chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

His later action music drops the use of themes and ceases to create a story with the music. Instead it goes for a more rhythmic approach, supporting the action with a wall of sound. You can hear this in the Star Wars prequels. The music is still very much Williams but it is less appealing to me than his earlier more theme centric material.

When it comes to film music, I love the adventure scores. The combination of action, drama and usually a little romance is what I end up listening to the most. But Williams is very adept at scoring dramas too. Some of his most dramatic scores are for Spielberg’s films: Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun, War Horse and Saving Private Ryan. But for me, one of my favorites of his dramatic writing is the excellent score for Memoirs of a Geisha. He infuses a wonderful Asian sound with his typical style, great stuff.

Honestly I feel like I’m leaving out some of his best work. I haven’t mentioned Hook, Jaws, Close Encounters of a Third Kind, Superman, ET or JFK. But I’ve got to stop somewhere. The thing is, if you listen to some of Williams work and enjoy it, chances are you’ll find plenty more to dig into and enjoy.

What’s the best place to start with John Williams? It would probably be Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not only do you get the memorable main theme (The Raiders March), but you also get one of Williams’ best romantic themes with Marian’s Theme. His music for the power and majesty of the Ark is revealed in the awesome cue; Map Room: Dawn. There is also one of the best examples of Williams’ earlier style of action scoring in the track: Desert Chase.

Check out the end credits for the film below. It starts with Marian’s theme, goes into the Ark theme, then unleashes with the Raiders March, Marian’s Theme again and a wonderful reprise of the Raiders March. Adventure scores don’t come much better than this.

Next month we head to the far East with one of my favorite Japanese animation composers: Yoko Kanno.


  1. It's hard to do much better than that list of credits -- and the problem with the Star Wars prequels isn't really the music.

    I have a nomination for the worst score of all time: The Mesa of Lost Women (1953). That it was possible to make this awful movie worse through music is amazing, but the filmmakers succeeded.

  2. Yeah when you ask most people to name a film composer they either say John Williams or Hans Zimmer. And the reasons are pretty clear when you see which movies these gents have scored.

    I agree with you about the prequels. For all their problems, the music is really not one of them. In fact, I actually think "The Phantom Menace" is William's most accomplished Star Wars score. There are a lot of layers in it, and they play off each other in an amazing way. But I still don't listen to it as much as I do the original trilogy of music - and that is mostly because the action tracks just aren't as appealing. Well at least for me, I've run into plenty of folks who love Williams newer action style.

    I've seen "Mesa of Lost Woman" and it is a painfest! If I remember right, my wife actually left the room because the music was driving her crazy. I stuck it out - and man, was it not worth it. :) Rifftrax tackled that one recently, and I read a lot of folks saying the music nearly killed them, even with the top notch riffers on hand.