The role of music according to John Williams

SOUNDS FAMILIAR - Baby A. Gil - The Philippine Star

American composer John Williams has this to say about music in the movies. “When we watch films, I don’t think we separate one thing from another. When we listen to the dialogue, we hear sound effects and we hear an orchestra or whatever music it is. But I don’t think we take it apart as we listen to it. We can discuss the elements technically or clinically after the fact, but when we experience the film, it’s the totality that moves us or doesn’t move us. I think music’s role is to become part of the living body of the film. We need the music to be there.”

And music by Williams has been there for some of the greatest films of the past 50 years. In the course of a brilliant 60-year career, the genius of a musician created music for, (brace yourselves for this list): Jaws, all six Star Wars films, ET The Extra Terrestrial, all of the Indiana Jones films, Superman, the first two Harry Potter films, the first two Home Alone films, Jurassic Park, Catch Me If You Can, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, Lincoln and many others. We hear the music from these films and we remember and relive the images that have enthralled generations. 

 Now 82, Williams has recently added another one for The Book Thief to his record-setting 49 nominations at the Academy Awards. Directed by Brian Percival, the movie tells the story of how a young girl’s love for reading books has a profound effect on those around her amidst the horrors and suffering in World War II Germany.

Engrossing and poignant, it celebrates the strength and resilience of the human spirit and shows how a challenging life can also be rich in warmth, friendship and love. It is so heartening to know that there is now a movie about love for reading and it has music by the legendary Williams.

Williams, whose works in movies about children are among his best, admits he does not work the same number of hours a day that he used to but he became very excited about his latest. “What I loved about The Book Thief was the idea that this little girl, Liesel, admitted she could not read and then became captivated by words and reading and ideas. I loved the idea that through reading we can find peace and solace. Liesel is also a strong girl. She defends herself in the schoolyard. We discover that the life she leads is supported and made possible by words and by the power of literature.”

He found the film big and inspiring, and singles out two themes that he composed. “One particular theme concerns the almost physical attraction that books hold for Liesel. She goes into the library and the books are very beautiful and irresistible to her.  Another theme is how the messages of the Voice of Death are expressed musically. They maybe mournful but they are also filled with hope.”

Death is the narrator of the story. He calmly observes the destruction of Germany and unfolding events with wisdom and compassion. If what Williams did to those two notes for Jaws and those five notes for Close Encounters of the Third Kind are anything to go by, then his theme expressing the messages of Death should be most interesting. It is in cases like these when film music becomes as much a part of the cultural fabric of our time as the films themselves.

“If we’re successful as composers, we are finding a sound, a theme or if I can put the word in quotes, ‘noise’ that belongs to a film, that doesn’t exist anywhere else. There can be an aspect of uniqueness in the sound. So when we hear the ‘thump thump’ of Jaws we associate it with that particular film. That is part of what I try to do. But maybe there’s another way of looking at all this. It may be a happy accident that one element of the totality of a film can be taken out and appreciated on its own. 

“You can’t think of Doctor Zhivago without thinking of the theme. You can dismember a film a bit and examine the music by itself. It is true there have been many associations over the years that still linger. We may not remember the exact scenes in Doctor Zhivago but we remember the theme that belongs to Lara and nobody else.”

In the same way, I cannot think of Superman flying up in the sky without the music by Williams. Or of Harry Potter entering the halls of Hogwarts, of Elliot and his bike soaring through the air or of Darth Vader stomping around without his Imperial March.  Of course, I sometimes wonder if aliens can communicate through five-note melodies. I shudder at the thought of man’s inhumanity to the tune of Schindler’s List. I still get a thrill when I hear the opening bars of Star Wars. And the Home Alone soundtrack is one of my favorite Christmas albums. 

I will soon be able to find out what images The Book Thief will add to my memories. The movie opens next week. Of course, all of them will be made doubly moving by the music of Williams.

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