‘Composers Learn Film Music from the Master’ (1998)

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, page E5, August 20th, 1998
LENOX — John Williams has been coming to Tanglewood for 19 years and since his retirement as Boston Pops conductor has held the title of artist in residence there. Over the years he has regularly offered to meet with the composing fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center, who have always been eager to talk to him, but until this summer he has not been made to feel entirely welcome — it was as if his activities in Hollywood and the world of commercial music made him somehow suspect.
He himself has been critical of ivory-tower musicians whose work depends entirely on subsidy, and without sacrificing idealism and commitment to quality, he brings a pragmatic, real-world perspective to everything he does. “Not everyone can expect to compose the `Missa Solemnis,’ ” he says.
This summer, however, Williams has led a seminar in film music at the center; this invitation came as part of Seiji Ozawa’s renovation and restoration of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer institute for advanced musical training. Future summers will bring seminars for composers in such other collaborative disciplines as dance and opera.
Williams brought along his editor from Hollywood, Ken Wannberg (a collaborator for 35 years), some technical equipment, and sequences from three movies, “Empire of the Sun,” “Jaws,” and “Fatal Attraction.” The five young composers studied these scenes with Williams, and each was assigned to write music for one of them.
Tuesday night brought the close of the seminar, a public event during which the new scores were rehearsed and performed by the center’s orchestra in synchronism with the film clips. The evening was highly instructive for the audience, as the experience must have been for the composers, who learned something about technique and technology and had the valuable experience of hearing their music in performance almost as soon as they had composed it.
Williams hosted the evening, paying tribute to the students and their earlier work this summer with Henri Dutilleux and Maurico Kagel, as well as to two historic Tanglewood figures who worked in the movies, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. He spoke of the disciplines of his own art, where music is subjugated not only to image, but to dialogue and sound effects.
Williams described each scene before we saw the film clips without music, dialogue, or sound effects, and a neglected aspect of his mastery of his craft was immediately apparent. In addition to his musical abilities and mastery of the professional disciplines, Williams is a superb reader of film. He understands images, what they mean, how they communicate, what they need to enhance, reinforce, refine, and contradict their message. Earlier in the day the great German collaborative pianist Hartmut Hoell was demonstrating that behind his own art lies an extraordinary, intuitive, and educated understanding of poetry; Williams speaks the same language when he displays a comparable understanding of visual imagery.
In his description of the sequence from “Empire of the Sun,” Williams noted how a boy’s maroon jacket set him apart from the crowd of prisoners, how the real airplanes and the toy airplanes represented the absence of gravity and the dream of flight; the key image for him was of a toy airplane flying over a barbed-wire fence. This is a complex, Spielbergian sequence — in just a few minutes there is a lot of action within the frame, a lot of camera movement, more than 30 cuts. In speaking of the music, Williams pointed out how details of performance — timbre, dynamics, balance — and gestures of construction can illuminate the images, can affect the audience’s perception and responses.
The first score, by Gregory Mettl, caught something about the time, place, and situation; it also felt authentic because the composer seemed to be writing his own music rather than something called film music. Kenneth Lampl’s score for the same sequence was more romantic in feeling, and more generically “Hollywood” — his music was attractive, but it could have worked as well in just about any movie as well as it did for this specific sequence.
This genre feeling also affected Matthew Guerrieri’s music for a sighting of the shark in “Jaws.” This was fast, loud, exciting, and technically adroit, but one wondered if the “Ride of the Valkyries” wouldn’t have done the job just as well.
The most complex sequence was the famous bathroom scene at the end of “Fatal Attraction.” Upstairs, Glenn Close stalks Michael Douglas’s wife; downstairs Douglas makes a pot of tea while the fan whirs, the fireplace crackles, and the dog laps up the water dripping through the ceiling from the overflow upstairs. One thought of Arnold Schoenberg’s famous response to a movie mogul who was trying to sell him on “The Good Earth.” As the mogul described the climactic sequence — childbirth in the rice paddies during a thunderstorm — Schoenberg said, “At a moment like that, who needs music?”
Richard Whalley’s musical response was highly professional but also a bit obvious. It comes out of Ligeti crossed with Bernard Herrmann; upstairs is represented by high strings, downstairs by low strings. Marita Bolles’s choices were the most original and arresting, perhaps too much so because her score called attention to itself. She worked with contrasts between sound and silence, with unconventional timbres (the popping of bubble wrap, percussionists scraping knives together), and with imaginative interaction with the sound effects (the whistling of the tea kettle was anticipated and mirrored by the strings). Bolles is only 28 and hasn’t brought everything together yet, but she seems to have the metier; she has an ear and a sense of dramatic timing.
Mettl, Lampl, and Guerrieri conducted their own scores, which must have been a terrifying and instructive experience for them; Stefan Asbury led Whalley’s and Bolles’s with assured and confident professionalism. Williams made no evaluative comments but contributed several helpful suggestions out of his own experience — moving a crescendo by a couple of bars made a big difference; “the trumpets are self-conscious — I think they are too heavy for what I see on the screen”; “you should be careful about the rimshots and slapsticks because they are so loud — when the sound people bring them down to level, you will lose a lot of detail in the other instrumental writing.”
The end of the evening came without fanfare, but everyone left with new ears. There had been only one reference to John Williams’s own music — before “Jaws,” a cellist had intoned Williams’s famous two-note theme. Williams said, “I’m glad he didn’t put that in!” If they are smart, the students will bring the seminar to another conclusion by making a trip to the video store, to discover what Maurice Jarre accomplished in “Fatal Attraction” and to hear the contribution made to “Empire of the Sun” and “Jaws” by Williams. “Music is subjugated in film,” he said, “and that makes musicians unhappy. Most film music does its job and disappears. But out of these disciplines and limitations has also come some wonderful art.”