by Mikko Ojala
There are some film scores that have been ingrained into our collective consciousness and have become such pop culture icons that they can be referenced with just a few notes and are instantly recognizable. John Williams has been more fortunate than most film composers to be associated with so many iconic films that their combination of images and music have become intrinsically linked, Jaws, Superman, Star Wars, Jurassic Park to name just a few. And of course worthy of such mention is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, whose famous 5-note call is familiar even to those who haven’t seen the film. And while this central signal in the tale about humans and aliens communicating through music is enough to earn it this wide recognition, it is the rest of the score that is just as remarkable. And it is now fully revealed in all its glory and detail on the lavish new release by La-La Land Records.
John Williams himself cites the score to Close Encounters to be his personal favourite among all his works, the most satisfying, inspiring and challenging project he has done in his long career. It’s not hard to see why the maestro should come to this conclusion and the score is justifiably considered a timeless classic, especially in the way the music permeates the whole film’s storytelling and forms a through-line which culminates in the spectacular finale where the score functions as the communication line between the benign aliens and terrestrials. The musical arc progresses stylistically from initial apprehension, mystery and fear into gradual sense of discovery and adventure and finally culminates in awe, wonder and spectacular orchestral celebration of humanity’s noblest aspirations.
The score contains some of Williams’ most challenging, daring and extensive forays into the world of avant garde musical techniques of the 20th century, both orchestrally and in terms of using the human voices. This is balanced by the more harmonic ideas the composer introduces for the sinister government cover-up, the perils of the main characters’ journey and finally the main theme that Williams slowly unfolds during the film by gradually introducing it note-by-note so it is finally heard in its complete form in the third act with a definite sense of closure.
While there have been several previous incarnations of the soundtrack album for Close Encounters (the latest expansion is from 1998 by Arista Records), La-La Land Records has now released a 2-disc set that is as comprehensive as it is meticulously compiled, mixed and produced. This release, however, deviates a bit from their previous Williams expansions and arranges the score into a new listening experience with the producer Mike Matessino taking his inspiration from Williams’ original but abandoned intent of producing a 75-minute double-LP programme back in 1977. Disc 1 contains this new listening experience, which flows quite beautifully and combines a few shorter cues here and there into lengthier pieces for listenability’s sake, but it still effectively highlights the musical development of the composer’s different themes and ideas that run through the music.
The score constantly shifts from the welcoming familiar “human” harmonic sense into the more “alien” modern techniques as the mystery unfolds. The dichotomy is well illustrated by the Main Title/The Vision which opens disc 1, where the slowly building dissonant opening orchestral and choral blast is balanced by the harmonically soothing mountain/vision theme, full of gentle wonder and expectancy. Chasing UFOs combines Williams’ trademark busy racing strings action writing with the unsettling keening of high women’s voices and low male voices, which add a distinct feel of alienness to the whole scene. This use of the most human of instruments, voice, as the signature of the alien and unknown and thus the frightening is very noteworthy in the score. The set piece that best illustrates this alienness achieved through the human voices and avant garde orchestral writing is the Kidnapping of Barry, one of the early highlights of the score. It is as unsettling as it is fascinating, a soundscape both highly challenging to the ears but perfectly captures a frightful alien encounter where very little is actually shown in the film, but where the score does all the dramatic heavy lifting in trying to scare the living daylights out of the audience.
The middle portion of the score is dedicated to the more grounded harmonic “human” music, both the dark sinister militaristic underscore for the government cover-up and the gradual development of the awed vision theme as Roy and Gillian both try to reach the elusive goal, one driven by his inner visions and the other by her need to find his kidnapped son Barry. Here the Dies Irae-like journey music depicting the perils (and obsession) of the two protagonists alternates with the heavy fugue-like march theme for the military until the two reach the mountain, get captured and escape to reach the alien encounter site.
The whole last third of the score is presented in chronological order on disc 1, which further strengthens the experience and highlights the careful musical progression where Williams masterfully maintains an atmosphere that walks a tight line between the marvel of the close encounter and the potential dangers involved, and the sheer feeling of uncertainty in the face of such a discovery, while at the same time mindful of providing an emotional apex to Roy Neary’s journey. Here the composer starts to combine both the accessible harmonic ideas and the “alien” musical signatures and voices in a spectacle that is both thrilling and frightening at the same time. The spectacular sparkling thunder of Barnstorming and the following soaring The Mothership that underscore the marvellous visuals follow this alternating approach, as the main theme is slowly woven into the clashing yet beautiful colours, but the composer still holds back the full rendition of his main idea for the actual finale.
Next follows one of the most iconic moments in the film and the score, The Dialogue, where humans and aliens initiate a conversation through music and the 5-note motto comes to its own as the key to unlocking the communication between the two species. This is a both sweetly funny and fascinating 4-minute musical sequence where the halting phrases of higher pitched horn-like voices answer the lower horns in an ever-quickening musical conversation that prepares the way for the following pièce de résistance of the score.
The Returnees and The Appearance of the Visitors turn slowly from avant garde to impressionistic and dream-like, again deftly illustrating the dichotomy of discovery and apprehension that slowly melts into the strains of When You Wish Upon a Star for chorus and orchestra, that signal us that everything is going to be alright and that this is a moment of peaceful awe for the humankind. Contact brings marvellously together both the vision/mountain theme and the 5-note motif in a magical gentle meditation of two worlds joined in peace, and the sequence finds its soaring culmination point in the End Title where tolling bells and brass celebrate the discovery and coming together of two races. Williams at Spielberg’s behest, again in an inspired stroke, weaves When You Wish Upon A Star into the fabric of the piece and the final closure comes in gentle women’s voice intoning the 5-note theme, which has to be one of the most pitch perfect endings in film music history.
And for those more archivally inclined, disc 2 contains, much in the same style as LLL’s previous release of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the additional music from the film score that wasn’t presented on disc 1 (for the purposes of disc space I assume), tracks from the original 1977 soundtrack album assembly that were deemed noteworthy enough for inclusion here, several alternate takes, and some unexpected and fun pieces of source music that Williams penned for the film. These include The Eleventh Commandment, which is an obvious tip of the hat to a certain Elmer Bernstein biblical epic and Ernest Gold’s Exodus, TV Western, that sounds like it could have come out of an old swashbuckler, and Lava Flow, that recalls Carl Stalling’s classic animation antics in its style.
On the second disc you will find the 5-note motif renditions that were heard on-screen in the film and were essential to the film’s narrative. They have been here combined into a track called The Five Tones. One of the most sought after unreleased cues, the impressionistic and gentle piece called Inside, is now presented here for the first time. John Williams specifically recorded this cue for the 1980 Special Edition of the film and it underscored additional material inside the alien ship. This cue is stylistically in very much the same vein as the rest of the luminous finale, and a lovely and long-awaited addition to the score. And for those who love their film score presentations in full film order cue-by-cue, the producers of the set have kindly included each of the cues that were combined on disc 1 as their own individual tracks on disc 2 so people, if they so choose, can make their own fully in-sequence playlists of the score. Best of both worlds!
Also worth mentioning is the new mix of the score on this release. I am happy to report that this is by far the best sounding version of the music we have heard as it is crisp, clear and resounding, and often reveals new depth of sound and instrumental detail that was missing from the previous releases, which provides an added dimension to the already beautiful and powerful score. From the iconic orchestral burst of the Main Title (Let There Be Light) to the celestial celebration of the End Title, the score has never sounded better.
Like the previous La-La Land Records John Williams releases, this is another essential complete score presentation of one maestro’s most important scores. The whole score presentation is very well-thought out, in the way that it satisfies both the need for a well-rounded listening experience that showcases the music on its own, and the need for an archival release of the complete film score and then some. I can’t recommend this highly enough whether you are a long-time fan of this score or a new fan seeking a quintessential release of this music to explore. I would say that La-La Land Records and the producer Mike Matessino have really made every Williams fan’s wish upon a star come true.