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How to Murder John Williams


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http://brightlightsfilm.com/46/music.php#.Udb0X6zCZ8E

This is an essay by Andrew Grossman for the Bright Lights Film Journal on the problems with film music.

Here's some quotes to get your blood boiling:

Apart from the manipulatively moody ambient drones espoused by a John Carpenter or Michael Mann, the occasional gamelan-infested excursion into world music, or the modishly minimalist, Michael Nymanesque elicitation of pulse and rhythm, the mode of the good score is still perversely beholden to the late 19th/early 20th century model of the large symphonic orchestra, and its content a sludgy, suprapopulist amalgam of Debussy, Strauss, and Shostakovich, spiked with a pinch of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, strained through the worst tendencies of late-period Korngold, and then refracted, thinned, and simplified through the infantile prism of John Williams (hasn't anyone noticed that his E. T. theme is stolen outright from Mahler's Ninth?). Surely exiled Korngold, the child genius who triumphantly sold his soul in Hollywood (yes, let's admit it, finally!), is most responsible for our current dilemma.

To cinematic purists we can apply Nietszche's characterization of Wagnerites: "Wotan is their god but Wotan is the god of bad weather." Then suffer, wail, and weep as you replace "Wotan" with that corrupted child prodigy "John Williams."

Films with John Williamsesque music every five minutes are like nickel novels dotted with ten exclamation points per page yet we, who would embarrass at a surfeit of novelistic exclamations, accept their musical counterpart unblinkingly. Underlying the relationships between image and music are simplistic adjectival-adverbial agreements (or consonances): a violent scene must be scored violently and cacophonously, a lyrical scene lyrically, a horrific scene horrifically.

Surprised this hasn't been posted before. ;)

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Thanks for posting this, Prometheus. As Marcus points out, the author's argument is an old one that certainly invokes Adorno. It's actually even older than the 60s and 70s - it goes way back almost to

Sigh... This reads like something out of the 60s or 70s, polemically. The power of incongruity -which seems to be the essay's main point of emphasis- does not automatically dismiss the power and inde

It's not the content that undoes his point, ultimately. It is his verbosity which I find nauseating. Is it not essentially the linguistic equivalent to what he's criticizing? Karol

Sigh...

This reads like something out of the 60s or 70s, polemically. The power of incongruity -which seems to be the essay's main point of emphasis- does not automatically dismiss the power and indeed intelligence of other approaches to scoring a scene. I like incongruity if it somehow ends up being truly poetic; if it "reveals" something about a scene, and in so doing, amplifies it. Otherwise, it remains as shallow as any other approach executed badly.

The author admits in his footnotes to have little knowledge of music. Which leads me to believe that he isn't equipped to properly distinguish between high and low quality of writing. And subsequently, a lot of musical layers would be lost on him.

Oh well. I've read such essays and arguments before. They are Adorno's legacy, and as boring and uninstructive as I find them, I'm sure they make their authors feel educated, smart and validated. Good for them!

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This is a confused article. I'm not exactly clear what Grossman's point is but I think it is that we are in an age of mediocrity with film music - it's better to not be so heavy handed (manipulative) in film music but rather surprising, even contradictory (that section at the end where he talks about scoring films in a way that is a counterpoint to the visuals rather than overly direct). Am I wrong that this is what his overall point is?

If that is the point, then this article was silly. It was full of self-congratulatory references from the author and gross generalizations: ‘When scoring a film, otherwise discerning composers indulge their basest, dirtiest, most bombastic pleasures, abandon all subtlety, and believe the "inherent" populism of film begs — nay, demands — not only unapologetic transparency but a total intelligibility that, cyclically and self-fulfillingly, then becomes a cultural sign of the cinema's grossly negligent populism.’

Sounds like Grossman is a writer who hates movies, Korngold, Horner, Williams, etc., and any time a classical composer dips into film scoring (Walton, Prokofiev). His general argument is that film music lacks originality. In general, he’s right, but the same could be said about movies, literature, and basically all artistic efforts. Though most of it is derivative…Andrew Grossman takes this to an extreme. I don't think the problem is being manipulative with music but rather being dull and uninspired in general.

I don’t think everything Grossman says is wrong – he’s right about this: “Today, film composition is little more than a corporatist codification of the series of blundering effects the silent pianist once tossed off..” But film music generally serves functional purposes – ultimately to help tell the film maker's story. This can be done by its power to create a generally understood emotional response in the audience. This is mostly done by using an established vocabulary of musical devises that a general audience would agree as to its meaning. For example, you might not hear circus music during a love scene because most people would agree that circus music is out of place in that emotional context.

To me, what makes John Williams so brilliant is how he manages to clarify/redefine the expectation of what a popular audience would expect that emotion to sound like. He does this in a way that seems obvious in retrospect – but that is ultimately his brilliance since the result seems inevitable yet is also unexpected…plus the fact that he managed to merge popular/jazz music with strict classical music so successfully in a way that appeals to so many people. I don’t even think the great Jerry Goldsmith, nor Bernard Herrmann managed that (and I love pretty much everything they did).

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I also think he's missing a larger picture when he only evaluates film music on its most basic level--its emotional impact. There are plenty of other things to judge (i.e. thematic development) that can reveal many insights about the characters that the film loses without the score.

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I'm gonna go listen to John Williams.

How dare you! He has just been proven to be the lowest scum of the earth by this fine vitriolic and indeed verbose essay of Andrew Grossman!

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This entire article has the air of a writer who is trying to sound important.

Prometheus, I know you've read the same Schenker texts and David Lewin articles I have read, and this article reads like someone who is trying REALLY HARD to sound like that style of writing (i.e. the silly emphasis on verbosity, just to satisfy the writer's own ego), but who doesn't really have any idea what he's talking about. Maybe if he had a clue about music or the process of composing it, I might give him some credit. But he doesn't, so neither do it....

This article is nothing but a self-serving IMDB comment that should be skipped over (like most of them).

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The guy has a right to express his opinion, and I have my right to not particularly care what he thinks.

I must admit, though...I enjoy the mixed metaphor in the first quote you posted, Prometheus. Apparently, amalgams can be spiked, strained, and refracted by prisms. Who knew?

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My favourite composer death.

Anton Fils

Composer, Cellist. One of the most gifted members of the Mannheim School. German author Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart called him "the greatest composer of symphonies who ever lived", but he is better remembered today for the bizarre legend of his death. Johann Anton Fils was born in Eichstätt, Germany. His father was a cellist who probably gave him his first music lessons. In 1754 he was hired as a cellist for the Mannheim Orchestra and later studied composition with its director, Johann Stamitz. He kept the ensemble's repertory steadily supplied with new music and by 1759 had done well enough to marry and buy a house. According to numerous sources, Fils either had unique culinary tastes or a sophomoric sense of humor. He liked to eat live spiders, telling horrified onlookers they tasted just like fresh strawberries. One of his little snacks turned out to be poisonous and he died at 26.

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=87076477

Even if Williams is an infantile hack, at least he can go out big!

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Goldsmith, Williams et al. of their generation are certainly not "always" correct in music placement and in the case of JW, I think he is guilty of overscoring pictures- in this respect he is more concerned about the musical continuity than the film - although it has to fit the film. My argument could be wrong however as film is collaborative and perhaps the director wanted a music heavy score (ie Spielberg).

The inverse argument is also true; Goldsmith was a brilliant film composer but in terms of producing suites for orchestras to play around the world (making the music accessible). Indeed, he was a gifted composer - in many respects more innovative than JW. I don't think he ever aspired for the music to have much of an "afterlife" outside the film. What I mean is he was scoring scene by scene and his music sounds more tailored to the scene than an idea that could be developed for a concert work as JW could see an idea as. There certainly don't seem to be many orchestras performing Goldsmith music.

Regarding the Grossman quotes above. I don't think he realizes or appreciates the subliminal power of music in a film. I cannot imagine Jaws or Harry potter or star wars without those themes and motifs. Just imagine Harry potter and the prisoner of azkaban without all those ancient recorders, harpsichord etc. It is substantially responsible for the atmosphere of the film. Mr Grossman also doesn't seem to realize that to 99% of the population film is just "entertainment" people don't take it that seriously.

My $0.02 anyway!

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Goldsmith, Williams et al. of their generation are certainly not "always" correct in music placement and in the case of JW, I think he is guilty of overscoring pictures- in this respect he is more concerned about the musical continuity than the film - although it has to fit the film. My argument could be wrong however as film is collaborative and perhaps the director wanted a music heavy score (ie Spielberg).

I don't think you're wrong. Williams does have a tendency to lay it on a bit thick, some might say more often than not.

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It disappoints me when John Williams is criticized for ripping off Mahler. Mahler's pieces are amazing but they are spastic and very loosely tied together. Mahler's music was made to get ripped off. For that reason, I love it. JW is taking some of Mahler's motifs and writing entire scores from them, but with his own touch (the beauty of which cannot be undestated). That is the way of all good music -- imitation. You all should know that by now.

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It disappoints me when John Williams is criticized for ripping off Mahler. Mahler's pieces are amazing but they are spastic and very loosely tied together. Mahler's music was made to get ripped off. For that reason, I love it. JW is taking some of Mahler's motifs and writing entire scores from them, but with his own touch (the beauty of which cannot be undestated). That is the way of all good music -- imitation. You all should know that by now.

Stravinsky once said that "Good composers imitate, great composers steal," but since I generally agree with your above statement, a better statement is "Good composers steal, great composers imitate."

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here I am thinking how can I kill John Williams, and then I read the thread which has nothing to do with murder, just alleged theft.

btw I'm thinking he must conduct Star Wars and as he does so more and more of his skin is being ripped off just by the motions he uses while conducting. Like John stealing others music, I draw inspiration from the master himself, Dr. Phibes.

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