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Thursday, September 13, 2018

John Williams' Music by Emilio Audissino

I always scour for books on film scores, and I have read a few before. My most favorite book on film scores was Doug Adams’ The Music of the Lord of the Rings films. It is a hefty, glossy, hardbound tome in which the author examines Howard Shore’s Wagnerian leitmotiv method of scoring for multiple tribes, cultures, characters and creatures in the Middle Earth. The book is a focused monographic study of the score of just one film, and I thought it the most definitive book on film scores. But that changed when I stumbled upon Emilio Audissino’s John Williams’ Music: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Returns of the Classical Hollywood Music style; an immense, scholarly study on the vast film music repertoire and the long career of the legendary film composer John Williams.

Audissino is a film scholar and a film musicologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Pisa and his PhD theses was on John Williams’ music. The book is the culmination of various papers, articles, and the final PhD theses he had written on Williams’ music. However, the book is totally stripped off of all the cumbersome academic terminologies that could have rendered it inaccessible to the general readers.

It is evident that Audissino intends the book to be accessible to all. Even those who wouldn’t have thought in their entire lives about film music might still be drawn to this book because of the names of some of the most iconic Hollywood franchise films—Jaws, Star Wars and Indiana Jones—on the book’s title, and hence Audissino doesn’t drop us directly in a jungle of musical jargons.

The book begins with a simple, detailed explanation of the methodology and terminologies Audissino has used to illustrate the significance of music in films. Diegetic, non-diegetic, extra diegetic, micky-mousing, soundtrack, wall-paper music, contrapuntal, leitmotif, applied music, absolute music and such terms are introduced with simple, concise and comprehensible definitions. He holds our hands until we can walk on our own, explains the basics, and sets up the context before he divulges deep into the theories and functions of John Williams’ film music.

Audissino presents an all-encompassing authoritative study of John Williams’ music and his career as a musician, arranger, composer and a conductor. He makes a compelling case for the neoclassical revolution that he believes John Williams single-handedly initiated with his symphonic scores early in his career.

The book starts with a comprehensive history of the relation between films and music. There have been many books with elaborate accounts of music in the era of silent cinema written by film scholars like Rick Altman, but Audissino offers a succinct account of the evolution of sound and music in films here. In the following chapter, he defines the phrase ‘classical Hollywood music style’ and talks about its pioneers (Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner), explains how Hollywood film production worked and how its business-model influenced the kind of music used in films, and consequently the near extinction of the ‘classic Hollywood music style’ just before John Williams stormed into the scene and revived it with Star Wars.

In each subsequent chapter, Audissino picks John William’s score in Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Last Ark and does a rigorous, microscopic, scene by scene, cue by cue analysis of the score. He illustrates with ample evidence how in a John Williams’ score, the ‘applied music’ blends in with the visuals of the said film, despite the composer writing the music strictly adhering to the formal techniques of the classical, ‘absolute music’. There is nothing in the score that you cannot produce live on stage with a classical orchestra. It is pure polyphonic writing.

I did struggle with the musical terms like sforzando, fortissimo and pianissimo but then because the book tells us precisely where the music is played in the film, when I read these passages and simultaneously watched the scenes, it became easy to appreciate the insight. The book doesn’t pretend to be a leisure reading anyway, and I guess it’s intended readers, even if originally just a fan of the film, once they start reading the book, wouldn’t mind making that extra effort to do what is required to access and ascertain its contents. The stunningly thorough examination of many components of the film and its musical score made me appreciate music in films much better than I could have done on my own.

Then Audissino delves extensively into the appointment of John Williams as the conductor of one of the most popular American orchestras the Boston Pops Orchestra, which historically have always had a European as its conductor. John Williams was the first American to become Boston Pops’ conductor. Audissino presents the context against which Williams changed the way film music was represented in Classical music concerts, not as frivolous pop encore one dances and claps to, but as a serious piece of art music that ought to be heard with rapt silence that audience usual reserve for classical music.

Further, Audissino records Williams’ innovative ideas that spawned a new trend of multimedia concerts based on films and film scores. On 16th March 2002, on the occasion of the premiere of the twentieth anniversary edition of the film E.T – The Extra-Terrestrial, composer John Williams, with Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles, conducted the complete score to the projection of the entire film. That was the first ever time, a live orchestra’s performance of the score accompanied a non-silent film throughout. Since 2002, Films with Live Orchestra concerts have grown in number to become a regular event in major concert halls of the western world. There are at least five hundred such concerts performed all over the world in 2018.

Audissino offers a strong rebuttal to those who hold Williams’ popularity against his genius by comparing his works with Ennio Morricone and such composers and attempt to denounce his achievements. Despite Audissino’s evident enthusiasm for John Williams’ music, he finally doesn’t deny the fact that the ever-evolving Hollywood production system doesn’t allow John Williams’ classical Hollywood style spread far and wide; it remained just his distinct style and the other composers continued to deviate and found newer ways of scoring films; a glaring case in point, Hans Zimmer’s monophonic music and its stratospheric success. Zimmer’s music is an irrefutable antithesis to everything John Williams’ music stands for.

Audissino’s study is focused on a few specific works from the repertoire of one composer, and yet it discusses, even if briefly, many of the popular works of Williams’ contemporaries in order to substantiate Williams’ uniqueness.

Audissino’s book is a stellar example of how a piece of academic writing on an obscure subject can be tweaked to transcend beyond its esoteric scholarly boundaries and made accessible without diluting the heft of its subject matter.



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