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Classifying Williams work into periods


blondheim
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I often consider where to divide Williams work. The man basically never stops working. I do think that around 1989 his style got more lush. The Last Crusade seems different than what came before, a pretty clear precursor to Hook. Born on the Fourth of July also seems incredibly extravagant to me in lieu of what came before but I am curious what others think.

 

Previously, it's clear Star Wars and Close Encounters were a new sound, but I am not familiar enough with every period of his work to make tons of these decisions. His concert works surely would help inform this. Since some of you are very knowledgeable about such things, please get into the nitty gritty of it.

 

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So far what I can surmise is right around Fitzwilly he started developing a more perky classical sound. Before this I am not familiar enough to say.

That then continued with Heidi all the way through Jaws in seems like. Fitzwilly and Tourists on the Menu seem linked.

Then again, the Spielberg collaboration defines his career practically, so is Jaws sort of the last of the old style and the start of the new? I don't think Sugarland is a keystone score, although I am not familiar enough.

 

Then Star Wars, Close Encounters, Superman, Empire, Raiders and E.T. all seem to have the same sound and thematic development with darker textures and setpieces.

Return of the Jedi seems to begin a brighter phase with some of the sound I later associate with Last Crusade and Hook, most especially in the Ewok sequences.

Temple of Doom is after Jedi but seems to have a lot of style connection to the earlier 80's scores, like Empire. Its setpieces seem more Empire than Jedi to me, although there are a few that feel straight out of Jabba's Palace.

 

Then The Last Crusade and Fourth of July. Different, to me at least.

 

His style changed after 2005, although Crystal Skull feels like prequel-style Indy music, even though it is a sequel.

Tintin is clearly in a new style.

 

These are my thoughts so far. Help both wanted and appreciated.

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In my opinion his changes in style occurred too gradually to break his career into periods.  There's no delineation points anywhere, everything happened in increments.

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I'm with @Jay overall. Pretty hard to set firm dividing lines. I do think that Jurassic Park and was an inflection point for his action music, and there was a noticeable stylistic shift starting with KOTCS. But otherwise it seems more gradual. Even Star Wars wasn't totally divorced from its predecessors; there are glimpses of it in Jaws especially.

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Yes. It's not always easy to notice, because over-familiarity with some personal classics can make one blind to some links. But with a little distance you can e.g. notice a clear progression from Last Crusade through Hook and Jurassic Park to The Phantom Menace.

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I tend to think a lot of the differences in style with a score are more which orchestra he'll know will be playing it (and maybe which solo specialists he'll have access to), than the time period of his age or career, I think

 

I don't doubt the Star Wars sequel scores would have been a little different if he wrote them for the LSO to play, instead of LA musicians.

 

Since he's recorded all but 6 of his scores in LA since 1983, I think his mind is always thinking about those performers and the usual recording stage they use, which can affect what you want to write

 

Kind of like how Howard Shore wrote in more aleatoric passages for LOTR and AUJ that he knew he would get from the LPO, and then none for the DOS and BOFA scores that were Pope conducting the NZSO

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2 hours ago, Jay said:

In my opinion his changes in style occurred too gradually to break his career into periods.  There's no delineation points anywhere, everything happened in increments.

 

I agree that's why it is difficult. That was the gist of my comment about his work ethic. There is no doubt that his style has changed over time. It doesn't have to be firm delineation. I am curious about links as well as just larger blocks.

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Did Williams do any pop-y scores after Star Wars? I'm having trouble thinking of any. If not, I suppose it could be considered a turning point in that sense, too.

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I have my own way of separating Williams' "periods", but it wouldn't necessarily correlate with anyone else's. We all have our own ways of hearing and delineating this stuff.

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17 minutes ago, Thor said:

I have my own way of separating Williams' "periods", but it wouldn't necessarily correlate with anyone else's. We all have our own ways of hearing and delineating this stuff.

 

I would be curious to know what it is, if you are willing to share.

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Music scholars and historians of the future will definitely set Williams' career and output highlighting different periods, like it's done for every composer. Of course it might look arbitrary in many ways, but the important thing is to have a method when it comes to these things.

 

In my opinion, it's already possibile to organize Williams' career into different periods, as there are some definite landmarks that set a pathway. Yes, it depends on a wide variety of external and also non-musical factors (and also it's not consciously done by the composer himself), so it's definitely something that can be done in hindsight.

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I do think it could be separated into eras, but often with blurred/overlapping borders instead of a clear before/after this score. 

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5 minutes ago, Holko said:

I do think it could be separated into eras, but often with blurred/overlapping borders instead of a clear before/after this score. 

 

That's my thought as well. That's typically how it works with classical composers.

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25 minutes ago, Bryant Burnette said:

The Witches of Eastwick to Schindler's List

Sabrina to Munich

And here's where problems arise. JP for example absolutely does have elements of the latter era.

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1 hour ago, Ludwig said:

I posted this in the thread @mrbellamy linked to above, but when I was writing a chapter for a collection of Williams essays a few years ago, I had a need to define his output into style periods. Although making such distinctions with hard dates and films is admittedly artificial and ultimately arbitrary, I think it still helps us to understand broad stylistic changes, which I think we all agree are there.

 

Anyway, my breakdown looks like this:

Williams-Four-Style-Periods-01.png

To justify this, I looked to major biographical events, changes in filmmaking techniques, and - the thing that was my focus in writing the chapter - the type of structure he used in writing the main theme of each film (which well supports these divisions).

 

I go into plenty of detail in the actual chapter, which you can access here in case you're interested:

https://www.academia.edu/37265666/The_Use_of_Variation_in_John_Williamss_Film_Music_Themes

 

 

Regarding life/career events, that is a good way to break it up because alongside those musical and cinematic changes, the major things that roughly coincide with the beginning and end of Era 2 are the death of his first wife in March 1974 and the end of his Boston Pops tenure in December 1993. If you put slightly more weight on biography and define it by that first phase of his Spielberg partnership, you could probably make Era 2 the releases of Sugarland Express to Schindler's List and it lines up even more exactly with a March 1974-December 1993 timeline, but of course Jaws and Jurassic Park make a lot of sense as hinge points all things considered.

 

And obviously with his first film marking the beginning of Era 1, and finishing Era 3 with 2005 where that is truly his final year of peak Hollywood productivity, that goes well leaving Era 4 for the 2010s and the slower output in his eighties, basically announced by those three year breaks on either side of Crystal Skull. 

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Personal events have a huge part to play in this. Perhaps more than any other consideration. Music is part of one's soul, it cannot help but be affected.

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I do think there is something about these years as key transition points in his life and career:

 

1974-77 where he experienced his greatest personal tragedy and professional successes

 

1993 which seems to represent some culmination of his status and legacy as composer, conductor, icon which evolved through a happy 1980s, a decade that began with his second marriage. 

 

2005-2011 where he slipped into a semi-retirement from film before returning at a more leisurely, self-directed pace

 

And just interesting that you can feel shifts in his music around these periods. Not to be so psychological about it but I'd almost describe them as new forms of confidence. Like heading into the late 70s-80s there's greater definition and clarity of style and voice compared to how eclectic he was in his early career, feels like a time where he was gathering pieces of his musical identity and putting the puzzle together. And going into the 90s-00s it's like he feels his greatest freedom, returning to a kind of eclecticism but within a more established voice, you start getting some of the most exciting examples of his facility with harmony and orchestration. And then his music has settled into something not quite complacent but more relaxed lately, like he just has less to prove.

 

Not familiar enough with his 1960s-70s to pick a year(s) but I wonder if there is a period where he shifted away from balancing film scoring with studio performance and/or television and really focused on his career composing for feature films in earnest that marked a larger change in his music. Somewhere around 1970?

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Even in those periods you can have sub-periods, ex:

 

The gothic era 78-80 (Dracula, The Fury, The Empire Strikes Back)
The minimalism era 01-05 (AI, Munich, Minority Report)

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I agree with those who have said that it's difficult to divide his style into periods, that it's been a gradual evolution. But - I've always noticed a clear shift between SpaceCamp and The Witches of Eastwick, as though SpaceCamp marked the end of an era, and Witches a new beginning.

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