A Case Study: John Williams

I started this project just over two months ago. When I started I didn’t know how it would end and I certainly had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was that I wanted to learn all that I could from my musical endeavors without always having to start from scratch. In school, you are never forced to just make up something to learn (could you imagine that) that would be insane. Instead you are assigned to a class with a specific educational goal, like international sports or film production. And in the parameters of those classes you are given assignments in effort for you to learn as much as you can about one thing. So, that’s what I did.

Last time I presented to you a set of themes that I had written in the style of John Williams. Arguably those themes are some of the best music, if not the best music, I have ever written. I can still say that, though in my mind they are considerably lesser to this piece I am about to show you.

Weirdly enough this piece actually began with the middle section. I had hoped, as I always do, that the music I was writing at the time would have been fulfilling and eye opening, but at the time it was only fulfilling. It was derivative. And I even claimed it was when I posted a variation on it called the New Republic theme suite. It was only after I wrote the theme suite that I realized the potential of what I was doing and so I seized that potential. I wrangled it for a few months all the while balancing my social life and my schooling and what have you until I had finished the Family That Stray Together Stays Together theme suite (a theme suite that took me a whole month to write). Then, I knew exactly what I wanted to do…and two weeks later I am here with the most intense four minutes of music I have ever written.

As I have mentioned before, this music was set to a scene in a novel at the end of a trilogy where everything was at stake. That is kind of how I felt writing this music, because as the due date approached I realized I would have to cut many grand ideas out of my final product in order to publish it on time. How could I possibly end the piece when it was unfinished? I had so many reservations about what direction to take the piece in when I started, but as I got into the writing process I suddenly had no reservations at all. I only had possibilities, and now those possibilities had to be thrown to the wayside because I put a deadline on myself.

Now with all of that being said and done, I am glad to say that I have come to a wonderful agreement with myself about the music: It is complete. All themes are present in this piece of music, even if only briefly, and I am so proud of the amount of Star Wars that I captured here that I just want to brag about it! I won’t though. I have heard that such actions are unbecoming. Rather I will explain to you how it is that I feel this piece should be listened to. First of all, it is to be treated as a singular cue in a much bigger scene. That is why the music sounds like it will continue, and why it does not. Secondly, as a listener it has always been a fun game of mine to try and spot the little thematic variations and developments. So, listen carefully for those. Lastly, I would like to put a disclaimer out there that I have in fact used a very small amount of actual Star Wars music. When you here it, know that I do not own it and I do not intend to profit off of it. I simply couldn’t resist the urge when I saw the opportunity. (Let me know if you can hear it).

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

Returning to the analogy of using classes and musical artists I would like to express the things I have learned over these last couple of months writing all of this music. After all, that is what these Case Studies are be about.

1) Translating a harmonic language is more than half the battle. John is famously known for mostly being a neo-romantic composer and to discover what that meant I had to break my personal and academic sense of tonality in order to do it. I can’t say that I have mastered his tonal language, but I can say that now that I have used it and I have begun to understand it; it will never leave me.

2) Time is fluid, and so my manipulation of it has to be as well. I maintained 4/4 for most of the piece, however when it came time to switch between styles or even break up tonality in order to introduce other motives I had to be able to cycle through time signatures like crazy. Overall the result is pretty satisfying.

3) Sometimes all preconceived notion have to be thrown to the wayside. There is a section in here that is unlike anything I have ever written and it came from a moment when I thought: What would being shot down feel like? What would that sound like? And so, one of the most nonsensical things I have ever written throws all notions of harmony away for an extremely jarring moment that gave me some great responses from my test audiences.

*Stay tuned, later today is the last post of Until Death for the rest of the year. There are some exciting things in store for you!*

 

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A Case Study: John Williams

John Williams:

American film and concert composer, 85, with a decade that spans over six decades into the modern day. He is one of the most influential American composers whose work includes classic films that shaped the film industry today like: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws. These works have earned him countless awards alongside the reputation of being the only living person with 50 Oscar nominations and hundreds of Academy Award nominations. Williams’s body of work also includes over forty modern concert works including over 11 concerti of which are performed around the country. Recently, he was awarded a lifetime achievement by the American Film institution.

 

 

Personally, John Williams has been one of the most influential musical forces in my life thus far, and for many reasons at that. His orchestrations have consistently mesmerized me and the level of characterization that he brings to each and every project that he is involved with is something that I have always found to be transcendent. If the digital albums I have on my phone could be played back as physical records, I would have worn each of the scores that I own out three times over. In other words, I really enjoy his music.

Some of my favorite music of all time comes from his film discography (i.e. the Book Thief, the Empire Strikes Back, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and his most recent collaboration with director Steven Spielberg the BFG). Each of the aforementioned scores employs wildly different techniques that sound so surreal they force me to stop and think about what I just listened too. Whether he is capturing the sleepy adolescents of a girl under Nazi occupation with a dark secret hidden in her basement, or exhilarating an audience with a space opera that balances the pastoral with the frenetic, John’s music never fails to place exclusively human emotions in all of their depth into the capable hands of a live orchestra.

About two months ago I decided to attempt to understand the musicians, which I admire most. And of course I didn’t want to start with someone easier to understand. So, I jumped right in with the plan to write a few themes suites of which would be incorporated into a much larger work that would do its best to inhabit the spirit of John Williams’s music. However, a problem emerged almost immediately: there is no one John Williams sound. Every film is vast and complex and ultimately totally new. How could I possibly hope to sound like John Williams when John Williams actively tries to not sound like John Williams? That is a complicated question with a simple answer. I would just have to choose one of the many universes he has created over his insanely long career and find a way to work within those parameters.

Now, I am an insane Star Wars fan. Interestingly enough it wasn’t until The Force Awakens that I actually cared about it the way that people had been caring about it for the last forty years. I mean it was cool and I was always aware of its existence, but I never really considered myself to be apart of the fandom. It was the collaboration between J.J. Abrams (one of my favorite creative peoples of the modern era) and John Williams that sparked my interest into a relatively hot fire and I have yet to look back. One of the reasons that I find the Star Wars universe to be so interesting is the fact that it is FUN. What a wild place to find yourself in. It is this thought exactly that I decided to orient my study of John Williams in the Star Wars area of his career.

Part 1:

I only wrote two themes suites for this project because I had no idea how I was going to come out on the other end by the time this whole thing was over. These suites are set to the context of the final novel in Chuck Wendigs Aftermath Trilogy, Empire’s End. I did this because I didn’t want to try and overwrite the preexisting material composed by both John Williams and Michael Giacchino on the last eight films. In fact, I was terrified that I if I had tried I would be too close to the material and would not be able to create anything truly original, because I am familiar with all of the incredible thematic and motivic details of the main saga and Rogue One.

The first theme is one that I spent nearly the whole two months trying to write. Why did I spend so long writing a single theme? Because I am a technically challenged individual and John is not. This theme modulates four separate times to what are considered distant key centers. The form looks like this: Introduction in D major, ‘A’ section statement in D major, diminished transition to Eb Major, ‘A’ section statement with variation in Eb flat major, transition to Gb Major through the applied fifth (Db Major), ‘A’ statement with variation in Gb Major, diminished transition to ‘B’ section in G major, ‘B’ statement in G major, transition passage modulating to D major, ‘A’ statement with variation in D major, closing material (plagal cadence).

 

There is a reason for the rigid structure of the music, I promise. This theme represents the team led by Nora Wexely and Wedge Antilles throughout the entirety of the trilogy. For those of you who are not familiar with the story, the team is kind of thrown together and none of them really work well together. However through their trials, hunting down high-ranking imperials for the New Republic leadership, they learn to take care of each other until their final battle on Jakku, which leads to the destruction we see at the beginning of the Force Awakens. Likewise, I found it conceptually satisfying to have the theme restart a few times before it could be fully stated and to then have it dissipate into an unfinished statement of the theme in the home key.

The second theme was surprisingly easy for me to write, because it likes to stay in mostly one place. There aren’t many ‘firm’ key changes in this suite and when there changes in the tonal center they are verbatim transpositions that thread together two individual themes, which sound amazingly powerful when played together. The form looks like this: Introduction in Bb major, ‘A’ and ‘B’ statement in Bb major, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Statement with minor variation in G minor, theme two introduction and development section, them one and two statement, theme one and two variation and development, transition passage with modulation home key, verbatim repeat of first section, closing material in Bb major.

 

This theme is a straightforward march with two themes and variation and development that represents the fledgling New Republic. I think it would be fair to put a disclaimer here acknowledging the fact that this suite shares many similarities with the March of the Resistance by John Williams form the Force Awakens. In fact, I would be fine calling this work derivative considering that the New Republic eventually forms the Resistance seen in the film. I rather like the idea that conceptually my theme evolves into the March of the Resistance; it creates a sort of musical continuity between the Return of the Jedi and the Force Awakens that makes Star Wars so much fun.

Thank you for tuning in! In two weeks I’ll be finishing this year off with an incredible supersized post that is guaranteed blow your sock off! Don’t Miss It.

 

 

 

 

 

Reveries 5

Nearly 8 months later…

That’s right, nearly 8 months later I bring to you the final composition in my Reveries experiment and I’ve learned roughly two things:

1.) The more things change, the more things stay the same.

2.) Being creative is a pain in the ass.

All of that being said, I can’t express how happy I am to have finished a project of this size! Never before have I written this much music for any one thing, much less a collection of music that is so wildly diverse.

When I started this project all of those months ago I had thought that maybe I would have pushed myself as far as I could possibly go by the time it was finished. I had fully expected that I would have run out of musical steam. Good news for me though, I didn’t. (As I write this post I am likewise writing another piece of music, which will make it on to this blog at some point, that is far superior in every aspect to the music I have displayed here prior to now).

[Until then, I reserve that honor for the piece of music that I am about to show you in just a moment.]

So, here it is! A piece in pieces…a piece in relatively independent sections…or is it three separate pieces on one audio track? I don’t know. Honestly I’ll leave that distinction to you.

This is a piece of music that I wish I could hear played live. Maybe one day I will be able to, who knows! Meanwhile, let me explain what I have discovered upon writing this blog. Ready?

Alright, so I unintentionally began this composition with a melody that sounds like a twisted version of Reveries Op. 1.

Ironically, the second musical idea of Reveries Op. 5 harkens back to Op. 2

…and the last musical idea aptly flows into a melody and accompaniment that sounds very much so like the pianos of Reveries Op. 4.

Call me a conspiracist, but there is an unprecedented level of  organization and intent here in Reveries Op. 5. I just wish I got the memo! At no time, when I was composing this, did I think about the other pieces I had written for Reveries. I admit I may have listened to them a few times over the last eight months, but it wasn’t with the intention of creating some grand piece of music that captured what I considered to be the best parts of this project up until now (even though that is what ultimately happened).

Reveries Op. 5 is the definitive accumulation of every creative impulse I have had for the last eight months. This includes those that are not musical in nature, and I couldn’t be more proud of myself.

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One last thing, I would like to thank all of those who have been here with me from the very beginning. Next, I would like to say thank you to all of those whom have come here within the last two months. Slowly, but surely, this blog is turning into the creative space that I envisioned it to be and because of your wonderful responses and interactions with the content posted here I feel that much better about devoting my time to this place.

At first I was weary of the MANY people that were finding their way to this blog in response to the events of these last two months…it was a (and continues to be a) very hard time for me and to say the least I was worried about how these droves of people would respond to and interact with the content that they found here. However, most everyone has come to me with kindness, an open mind, and a large quantity of positive/constructive attitudes that make presenting content all the more worth it.

So, for those of you who are new, or unaware, I am always open to submissions from you too me concerning art. I want this place to facilitate not just my own development as an artist, but at times the development of others. Recently I posted a serial short story by my friend Matthew Thrasher. He is meant to be an example of the sort of opportunity that I want to exist here.

Feel free to contact me through the About page with any writing (music, literature, otherwise) and I will guarantee a swift response.

Disclaimer: A response is guaranteed, a place on the blog is not. 

 

Reveries 4

Hello again! I took a much needed break from the rigorous upkeep of this website for the last month. To be honest, I ran out of ideas and I most definitely ran out of motivation. But I’m back and I have come bearing gifts! Below are the next installments of my Reveries compositions. This time around I have gone the whole nine yards to construct a collection of pieces, rather than one big one (although there is a lengthy piece at the end).

Fueled by my love for the incredible Dimitri Shostakovich, of which I have cultivated over the last six months through the systematic consumption of every symphony, brooding string quartet, and whimsical piano solo, I decided to sit down with my piano and have a conversation about what we wanted out of music. That conversation ended with the subsequent decision to write music that simply SOUNDED good. I purposely forced myself to stray away from any of the hard-wired academic prejudices that I had the tendency to fall back on.

These pieces took me far away from any notion of form, harmony, or time that I had so desperately wanted to control. Likewise, what came out of this experiment is something I feel is wholly different from anything I have written before! I would also like to mention that I took a large amount of time to properly record and perform these pieces (to the best of my ability considering the only microphone I own is on my phone). Which makes these compositions the first pieces of music I have devoted myself to interpreting since mid May.

With all of that being said I hope that you all enjoy!

P.s. The last piece is a piano solo that I wrote for my sister a while back on her birthday. It never saw the light of day because she is (was? still is?) too young to appreciate it in any capacity. Regardless, it is now available for public scrutiny! So I guess there really are only three pieces in this ‘collection’, but hey its still just as schizophrenic as all of the other pieces so why not include it? Am I right?

Reveries 1

I was 16 years old when I first set foot on a scoring stage. At the podium was my brief mentor and wonderful composer Joseph Trapanese and he was recording his score for the blockbuster Oblivion with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. I couldn’t remember how the whole thing went down even if I tried to, however I do remember the way that it made me feel.

I fell in love…I truly and unabashedly fell in love and have ever since that day I have yearned for that very moment in my own musical career.  In fact, the experience was so inspiring that it became my personal definition of success. (That beautiful moment where I step up to the scoring stage with the director at my side and the sound of the orchestra tuning up in my ears). After that moment who knows, I may never take another musical job in my life. All that I know is that that moment will be good enough for me.

[Now, let us not kid ourselves, given my family history it is highly likely that I will continue to write music until I die, and until that moment comes this image is sacred to me. I don’t know how I will get there, or when I will get there, but it will happen. IT WILL.]

With that in mind, I want to preface what I am about to present to you with one more personal insight. I love the sound of the orchestra. There is something about the raw atmosphere created by 50-100 people playing music in tandem that is satisfying on the most fundamental of levels. And though I have not had the chance to ever have my music played live, it has not stopped me from pursuing the art of the orchestra in my spare time. In the past year I have gone to extreme lengths to explore the depths of the orchestra in order to, hopefully, one day pay an adequate tribute to those that inspired me to learn and create. Likewise, this search has forced me to rethink what it is that I consider GOOD MUSIC and BAD MUSIC. Seeing as though my search for interesting symphonies and concertos has led me to the brink and back, it is fair to say that my perception of music has changed drastically over the last few months.

I rediscovered my love for the music that I so desperately wanted to create in the humorous yet dramatic works of Dmitri Shostakovich and the sprawling and whimsical works of Claude Debussy. I found the determination and resolve I needed to continue writing music, despite my many recent setbacks, in the thundering, timeless music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky and discovered the simple-complexity in the harmonies and melodies of Alexander Scriabin. Despite the use of these artists as my guides, my intended presentation will have absolutely nothing to do with technique or theory. Instead I want to focus on the one thing that makes music worth making in the first place. I want to focus on the feeling, I want to focus on the grit, and I want to focus on the purpose (or lack thereof) of music and its intended use in our daily lives.

So, welcome to the first of five pieces that I will be writing over the next few months as a part of a collection I have decided to call, Reveries. This journey will be a formative one and it will absolutely challenge my perspective in the world of music. I am counting on the fact that I will be tried and tested throughout this process and I am confident that I will come out of this a better musician and a better storyteller all around.

P.S.

I will not be posting excerpts or talking about the theory of the piece this time around.

I will tell you though the reason that I chose Reveries as the title of this collection. I want these pieces to be elusive, slippery creatures that the listener has a hard time remembering fully. Just like a dream, I hope that these pieces inform you about the subtle nature of music and its purpose in your life. I do not want you to be able distinguish any of these pieces from another, just as you could not distinguish all of the dreams that you have in one night. And perhaps the most important part about this set of pieces, I hope that you remember how they made you feel.

I hope you enjoy it. If you have any comments or questions about the piece, please feel free to comment. Tell me what is the purpose of music in your life. Tell me what music you like and why. I respond to everyone who comments!