There are not many more frightening sounds than the two-tone tune that plays just before a death by vicious shark, nor more victorious themes than the theme we hear as an grave-robbing “archaeologist” rides off into the sunset, nor are there many more recognizable songs than that fanfare that plays in a galaxy far far away. Since the late ’60’s, one man has been revolutionizing the sounds of cinema and adding a fundamental, vibrant colour to the stories we see on screen.
Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly… We do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe. – Steven Spielberg
John Towner Williams is perhaps the world’s most prolific film composer, and has scored the music to dozens upon dozens of landmark films of our lives. From creating the heart-wrenching string melody of E.T., to the trumpets of Jurassic Park, he has been in the background of many of the world’s greatest films. And one thing all of the directors of these films have said is that these films would not have been as successful if it weren’t for the musical storytelling of John Williams.
Born in 1932 to jazz percussionist Johnny Williams and mother Esther in Floral Park, New York. He was very close to his father and his grandparents, and was surrounded by music in his youth. In 1948, his family moved to LA where he attended North Hollywood High School in his sophomore year. In 1950, he graduated and attended UCLA where he studied privately with well-known Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a highly skilled guitarist, having written over 100 works for guitar, and was a composer for MGM. A perfect mentor for young John Williams. Afterwards, he attended Los Angeles City College for only one semester, for the sole reason that they had a jazz band.
In 1952, John Williams was drafted into the Air Force, where one of his duties was to conduct and arrange music for the band there. After his time with the Air Force, he returned to New York, and went to Juilliard to study piano, as his dream was to be a concert pianist.
During this time, he was also a performer in many of the city’s prestigious and famous jazz-clubs, as well as working a bit as a studio musician. Apparently, when wandering the halls of Juilliard, he overheard many of the other musicians and said to himself, “If that’s the competition, I’d better be a composer!”
Returning to LA in the 60’s, he began his work in film and television scores. During this time, he worked with musical greats, most notably Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, The Twilight Zone, Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and Henry Mancini (“Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther), as well as many other great musicians. Here, he developed the habit of writing something every day, whether it be good or bad. He began working as a studio musician and played piano in the films Some Like it Hot (starring Marylin Monroe) and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Soon after, he was first approached by long-time-collaborator, Steven Spielberg, to score Spielberg’s first feature film, The Sugarland Express. This was the beginning of dozens of projects the two would work on together. Williams was once again invited by Spielberg to score his next film, Jaws. The film was a huge hit, and rocketed both Spielberg and Williams careers. Soon after, up-and-coming filmmaker George Lucas was looking for somebody to score his new “Space Opera” film. Steven Spielberg, who was friends with Lucas, recommended John Williams to him. And as soon as Star Wars was released, John Williams secured himself a spot in the history books for writing the most iconic film soundtrack of all time.
Over the 64 years as a professional musician, John Williams has scored the soundtrack to over 50 Oscar nominated films and dozens more, was the principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra for 13 years (1980-1993), and has written 46 symphonic/orchestral works (one of which was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma). His most notable films being Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), and Munich (2005). Along with this, he is also the man who composed the iconic Olympics fanfare we hear every two years that accompany the televised coverage of the olympics.
Like many of us, I have been surrounded by John Williams’ music my whole life, without really knowing it. From hearing it watching Superman with my grandparents, to screaming the Star Wars theme song while duelling with invisible lightsabers in the backyard, to whistling Jurassic Park walking down the halls. The most iconic films and the music have planted its roots in me, and I’m sure many others too.
Another connection I have to him is how we are both sons of Jazz musicians and that we are both pursuing jazz piano in our adolescence. However, the day, age, and location in which we grow/grew up in are drastically different, thus the music scenes and opportunities are different. As well, his musical influences and my musical influences would be different as well.
As a youngster, I never dreamed there could be a career actually earning a living writing music.
He is also the world’s most prominent and eminent film composer, which is a field I may want to go into in the future. His ideas and the way he wrote scores for films totally changed the way film scores are made now, and his works will stand the test of time for their significance. Not to mention, his scores are very enjoyable to listen to and one can almost see the scenes of the film in your mind when you listen to them.
Through this project, I hope to learn more about the world of composing and composing for film. These are both fields of study I am interested in, and understanding how an extremely successful composer gained his reputation and was able to solely compose for a living will be very interesting and insightful to what I might want to pursue as a career or just as a hobby. Evidence of this can be seen here at my first in-depth blog post for this year.
[on the musical scoring of films] In the future, I think serious composers will become ever more interested… More connections between the audio and visual world would also open possibilities that young composers find increasingly intriguing.
This whole project will assist in my In-depth studies, and will be an all-around interesting project. I am very excited to be doing it and I know that I will enjoy it just as much, if not more than last year’s.