Oh John Williams, How You Make Me Feel Like a Moron

John Williams by Pop Culture Geek
Photo by Pop Culture Geek.

I was working on this video game a while back, and for one of the scenes, they wanted some big orchestral action cue with lots of moving strings and choir. Hypothetically, it was no problem. It’s insane that instrument samples have gotten good enough that you can just use those for a variety of projects now as opposed to hiring a live orchestra for everything. However, if you listen to the MIDI version of something you’ve written vs. the live version, you can totally tell the difference. Live orchestra is very fucking awesome. It’s not like it used to be where MIDI samples would sound like shitty Casio or anything, but still, orchestra rocks compared to MIDI mockups.

So my bosses on the video game I was working on were extremely organized. Really clear notes, instructions on length for each cue, instrumentation suggestions, and then they would give me music examples for the vibe they wanted. For one particular cue, they sent me several mp3s from The Phantom Menace including “Duel of the Fates” and “Anakin Defeats Sebulba.”

Let’s sum up: I’m jealous.

If you have not heard these, you should listen to them now. These — along with every other fucking thing John Williams has ever written EVER — are fantastic.  And on top of this, they were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. So to me it’s a bit funny when someone temps with the awesomeness that is John Williams, because no one can ever live up to that. I mean, I definitely tried, and I really like what I came up with, and so did my bosses, but it’s insane trying to emulate him.

Even other “big name” composers can’t. I was watching Jurassic Park 3 with my cousin two Christmases ago. My cousin is also a composer. I looked at him during the movie and asked “did John Williams do this? It sounds weird.” And he replied, “I don’t know, it doesn’t sound … shiny.” Which I thought was an interesting comment. I found out later the composer was Don Davis (of “The Matrix” fame) who is also quite good, and even though he was using the Jurassic Park themes from the earlier movies, it still did not affect us as John Williams’ music usually did.

So this is what got me on the John Williams gush-fest again lately: I was in the car a couple weeks ago and turned on the radio, and like the nerd that I am, I had the classical station on last when I turned the car off. So classical music popped on. And what was playing was none other than the climatic bike flying scene from E.T. by John Williams. And I just sat there for a few minutes in the driveway listening to this, probably with my mouth hanging open. Not like I haven’t heard this before, but I haven’t heard it in at least 10 years. And the emotions he brings out, and those chord changes … DEAR GOD, it makes me feel like a moron because I think no matter how much training I might ever get, I will never be the awesomeness that is John Williams.

Which is even more compounded by the fact that he thrived long before the age of Logic and Pro Tools and Abelton Live and whatever other software composers use to create a piece of music these days. He actually had to DO MATH to get his music to hit correctly on certain points in the picture, a process that I briefly studied in college, but no longer remember because these days you don’t have to do it.

While John Williams was scoring E.T. it got to the point for him where at the climatic bike flying scene, he was struggling to move his hit points around and tempos and everything else you had to do in that day and age to line up with picture, and was not able to line his music up with that scene the way he wanted to. Spielberg apparently said to him something like “Write the music as you envisioned it, I will cut the movie to your music.” Which is awesome on so many levels. To have the director follow you instead of you following him, and changing around his movie because he knew the impact John Williams’ music would have is insane to me.

Let’s sum up: I’m jealous. And also extremely moved and impressed. Because that scene is a classic movie scene any way you think about it.

I don’t know what is going to happen when John Williams dies. For composers it would like The Beatles breaking up. He has such great movie music themes (bet you can hum the theme to Star Wars right now!) and all different kinds of stuff. (I recently watched Catch Me If You Can again.  Sooo good.) He’s not only a composer whose talent I can’t even begin to quantify, but he conducts too. Which I always find impressive because I cannot conduct for the life of me. John Williams is just awesome, and if I record music someday that is half as awesome as the music he does, I would be very happy.

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  1. Yup. I was a youngish pup when my mom and I sat down in the theater to see what looked like it might be a cool sci-fi flick (a mere two months later the lines were around the block)….I will simply *never* forget the slap in the face as the theme from Star Wars exploded upon my senses. Lucas gets credit for a great visual opening as well…but without that music….just sayin’….

    Then, later that fall, every damn high school band in creation (mine included) was marching to Star Wars in their fall field shows. You’re right. That musical moment was very I Wanna Hold Your Hand-ish…

  2. I think JW makes a LOT of composers feel like a moron. I wonder if there’s anyone that makes JW feel that way.

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