John Williams

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.

John Williams and Steven Spielberg

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.

Choral Composition

Music composition is an absolutely vast field of study. There is an impossibly huge amount of knowledge on the subject and an astronomical amount of works written for another infinite number of ensembles. As someone who wants to learn about composing, knowing how huge the study of composition is can be quite daunting. So, I decided I will focus in on studying choral composition for In-depth 2016-17. 

Coastal Sound Youth Choir, Indiekör 2016

Another reason for me choosing to study choral composition, is that there are more opportunities and people I know in the choral world that can help me in the project. I am a member of the Coastal Sound Youth Choir and volunteer weekly with the Coastal Sound Boychoir, and my mom is a manager of the choir, along with having many connections of her own in the choral society which I can tap into. Studying choral composition makes most sense for me in terms of finding a mentor and since I am constantly surrounded with choral music. It is the most accessible to me, and it is something that I have been wanting to do for a while. As well, choral composition is an incredibly interesting and challenging topic and that it’s something that I’ve always thought I could do, but never have. It is something I think I will greatly enjoy learning about and will benefit me in the future for recreational purposes, and if I ever decide to go into music post-secondary.

As far as mentors go, I would like to meet with them at least once a month, no matter who they are. My mentor would help me learn more about musical theory, teach me on how to use certain chord changes or voicings, as well as critique my work as I go along. I plan for my mentor to be someone who is a part of the choral community in Vancouver who can offer me insights as to what works and doesn’t work in choral pieces.

<http://www.vancouverchamberchoir.com/images/CHOIR_LOGO.jpg>

To give my project a goal, I am working towards submitting my completed choral piece to the Vancouver Chamber Choir’s Young Composer’s Competition. The submission date for the competition is March 15, 2017, so I have a solid due date as to when I have to have my project completed by. It is a competition for young composers, both locally and abroad, and has a theme on “Canada” as it is the country’s 150th anniversary this year. A pdf of this year’s competition can be found here.

By the end of this project, I hope to have a better knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for choral composition and be able to apply this knowledge to other compositional endeavours I may pursue, whether it be for instruments or voice. By the end of this project, I also hope to have gained a better work ethic and developed my own method of concentrating and working that will not only help me compose for this project, but carry on into school and other work. Finally, by the end of this project, I would like to have a better appreciation for music. Seeing all the effort and time that it takes to create music will give me an appreciation for what composers do and how much they put into it.

“To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.”
– Robert Schumann

In conclusion, I am very excited to be doing this project and I believe that with a good attitude and work ethic, my goals will be easily achieved in this project and it will be enjoyable to do. I am excited to see how this goes!

PS. if you are interested, <here> is a personal blog I will be using to post my experiences, feelings, joys, distresses on composition and music in general. This blog is casual and will be updated more frequently.

Spirit of Fire

Spirit of Fire

Spirit of fire descend upon me in a thousand flaming tongues. Set my soul ablaze with your burning reds, oranges, and golds. Fill my entire being with music and let me ascend to the transcendent. Spirit of fire tap my toes. Make my fingers play the music that has been inspired divine. Make every parting breath leave with the gift of a note. My whole existence thrives off of it; the drug that has been passed down through humanity as a gift from one generation to the next. It is the only record of my life I can leave behind.

The stained brown pews feel like solid stone and the hushed whispers of an anxious congregation make the nerves in me jittery and agitated. The knowledge of an incoming performance destroys any chance I had of keeping calm. My hands are clasped together, resting helplessly on my lap like two duelling elk whose antlers have become intertwined like a monstrous bramble. I wish to knot my fingers together, to unify them into one horrific mess that cannot be undone. The hall is dark, as only weak lights dangle from the ceiling. At the head of the church, on the tallest wall, hangs a 20-foot-long statue of the crucifixion. Jesus’ eyes gazed towards his Father, hands and feet nailed to the wood of the cross, keeping His mortal self chained to the brutal, harsh world that is ours. The pain is evident, even in the face of the Messiah. Below the cross sits the tabernacle, and to the left are half a dozen chairs, to the right stands the pulpit. The altar is empty.

Spirit of mercy deliver my poor, worthless self. Save me from the shaking arms, the wobbling legs, the frigid fingers. If you care for me, show me a sign in the form of a lightning bolt, an earthquake, or a swift and graceless heart attack. Get me out. Don’t make me perform. 

Directly below the altar sits a hollow wooden bass, a small set of scattered drums, and a long, shining black piano. A trio of suit-wearing men come out from the back of the church and sit at their respective instruments. The congregation is hushed as though a fog of silence set over the pews. Nothing happens for a few seconds. Time stands still and the frozen silence makes everyone sit on edge. But not me. I shrink farther and farther back into my seat, sinking into the murky depths of insignificance from which few people ever return. Let me slip away.

With the force of an atomic bomb, the trio begins to play. Golden sounds fly through the thick silence like a cannonball.The previously dark hall becomes engulfed in this new bright light streaming from the strings of the bass, the glinting cymbals, and the old white keys of the piano. From dead, inanimate objects comes this pure life-force put in motion through the gentle acts of pressing metal strings and tapping sticks. Sentences and phrases begin to grow out of the noise like a flowering lilac bush, and soon, whole paragraphs and storylines materialize out of the bright sound. It’s beautiful.

Spirit of love, tuck my heart away. Do not let it see the glorious light that is. Shelter its ears from the melody that surrounds us. Let it not feel the rhythms of life coursing through its being. Spirit of love, I beg of you, tuck my heart away.

A buzzing congregation does its very best to contain the excitement that boils underneath the surface, letting out only the occasional whistle or high-pitched scream. A fervent melody reaches its peak and ends in a bombastic manner, leaving the world stunned. What seems like thousands of cheers reverberate off the stain-glass walls of the church, the sounds spilling out into the winter’s night of a thousand eyes.

I sit there in awe and wonder like a dullard, with no way of comprehending the violently wonderful attack on my soul. How the sound penetrates my every defense, jumps through every loophole, dodges every obstacle. No matter how hard I try, I cannot hide the raw feeling and emotions that tug my entire being and drag me to music. No struggle is strong enough, no resistance is tough enough, and no force of will stands a chance against the horrible, beautiful music. I hate how I love it.

Spirit of strength, put blood in my legs. Give my body reason to get up and walk. Help me to walk to the stage, where my name has been called to play. Empower my resolve and assist my heart, as they are weak and cannot do this alone. Spirit of strength, help me to perform.

Hot stage lights and a cold piano bench wait for me. One by one, my feet drag themselves up towards the stage, weighed down by the ball and chain of my own doubts, my own failures, my own invisible struggles. Some days the weight is too much and I let my spirit fall to the floor like an old rag doll. After an eternity in an instant, I find myself at the bench of the grand piano, staring across at the bassist and the drummer. I have to call a song, but what? I have to play, but what? Hit a note!

Spirit of passion, let my heart soar. Help my soul to find its voice and to create beautiful, perfect sounds like the others did. Set my heart ablaze. Give me purpose, give me life. Give me reason to wake up every morning and rest my head at night. Help me remember and help me know. Spirit of passion, tell me who I am. Tell me that I can. Tell me it’s possible. Allow me to love what I do and do what I love. Exist through me. Make my notes golden, and do not lead them astray.

Did I play a wrong note? Spirit help! Where is the time, the beat is lost and I can’t feel it. How dare I sit up here with these others of another league? Who am I, who do I think I am? Spirit of passion give me reason to finish this miserable song. My playing is erratic, it resembles the ripped edge of a cliff face. Gold is not the colour of my music; it’s an off-putting yellow that immediately deters anyone who hears it. I have to stop, but I can’t. Terrible, awful playing! The rest of the ensemble hasn’t looked at me yet, out of disappointment I’m sure. Spirit of passion, set me on fire. Let me burn into a thousand smoldering embers and fly me off in a cloud of ash.

And now the silence. A lying crowd erupts in thunderous applause as the monstrosity is done, but I know it is all for naught. Eyes fixed to a non-existent pattern on the floor, I navigate my way back to the pew I sat in before. The people around me tell me how great it was, but I know the truth. People are nice, and those who can’t take criticism don’t give it. I have failed once again, disappointed once again, and made a fool of myself for the umpteenth time. The brown pew I sit in graciously begins to consume me whole, letting me disappear from the world completely, as though I never existed. My mark on the world is a claw mark, more of a work of graffiti than a work of art. The crowd instantaneously forgets my mistake and the original trio returns to the light, drawing all of their rightfully deserved attention to themselves.

Spirit of fire, descend upon me in a thousand flaming tongues. Set me ablaze in your reds, oranges, and golds. Empty my entire being of music and let me fall back down to earth. For I am no longer worth the trouble of dreams, nor am I worthy to be creative in an art that sits tantalizingly out of my grasp. Eventually dreamers wake up and gamblers lose it all. Tell me I am no different and make sure I can no longer perform. Spirit of fire, set me ablaze and let me run this vicious cycle once more. 

Amen.