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.

 

 

 

 

 

Amásáni

Roughly one month ago I was approached to do a student thesis film. I had previously worked with this director and I’ll be the first to admit that I was not particularly excited to accept their offer. In the past, we had butted heads on the most fundamental of creative levels. And in the end, to be honest, it led to a frustrating experience that had me very hesitant to work with student filmmakers again.

[Now: to be fair this feeling was not the result of that experience itself, which would be absurd, but the amalgamation of many similar experiences over my time as a musician.]

Needless to say I took the job, because work is work. If I’ve learned anything over the last three years, it’s that when an opportunity presents itself just say yes. Just. Say. Yes. With that being said, I’m glad I did. Let me tell you why:

  1. If you read my last blog, about Found and Lost, then you know that I found a few friends in the sound department. This film saw my networking pay off, as I was able to work with one of those very same sound technicians again.
  2. In the short three days that I had to compose for this film I was able to hold my first recording session with a student flutist. (Whom I am so grateful for, especially when considering the fact that they were unpaid and willing to dedicate their skills in the middle of a school week).
  3. Then there was a very new experience for me; compromise. For this film it took the form of having to write and cut music (or even just parts of the music) throughout the entirety of the scoring process. An experience that I would have had trouble with, say a year ago, but was able to embrace with a positive attitude this time around. In fact, I found myself more and more willing to limit the amount of music in the film.

This film is called Amásáni; it is about a young girl whom is suspended from school and has to spend the day with her grandmother, learning from her the disciplined traditions of her ancestors. Immediately I knew that I wanted to focus on the traditional aspect of this film, which plays out a lot more like a documentary then a short film. The director and I talked frequently about how we wanted to keep the music reserved for only the most important parts of the story, when the young girl is playing with her grandmother’s things and when the grandmother consoles her granddaughter in the Hogan. Likewise, my ensemble consisted of solo flute, piano, and a string quartet (which only made it into the end credits).

Somehow I managed to scale down my melodic writing from the exuberant academic to the simple kindergartener. It was a difficult change after having written pieces like I have in my Reveries. Yet, it was a very welcome change, because I was forced to use only the notes that really mattered. These notes formed the C major pentatonic scale and I am pretty confident that nearly all of the flute material is some combination of those five notes. In a similar fashion, I refused to let even the piano reach any form of chromaticism and firmly planted it in the key of C major. Other than the occasional log drum or string quartet this is really all there is to say about the score itself. There is something else though that I would like to talk about!

The music for this film was inherently Native American and to be more specific it was based on the traditional music of the Navajo people. When I turned to the Internet for help in understanding this music I was extremely frustrated to find that there was nothing really TO find. At first it was a musical issue for me, after all how am I suppose to imitate the musical styles of the Navajo people authentically if I couldn’t find any music? Then it turned into a more general frustration towards the Internet itself. All ‘Native American’ music was somehow fused into this indiscernible and frankly unidentifiable identity that was labeled as ‘native,’ ‘Indian,’ or ‘spiritual.’ It bothered me.

After hours of following link after link of suggested videos nominated ‘Navajo music’ I did find a piece or two of music that was authentic enough for me. However, these videos were so hard to find and not nearly as high of a quality as I thought that they deserved to be. That doesn’t sit right with me for some reason.

Maybe it’s best that this portion of North American culture is so seemingly off limits to the digital era. Maybe it means that these people have kept these things for themselves. Or maybe it doesn’t mean much; all I am saying is that it would me nice to see this sort of thing ironed out in the future. I, for one, am sure that these cultures have so much more to give and are equally so important to our country as a whole. I hope that you enjoy the music, have a nice day!

The Locker Room Mascot Massacre

THE LOCKER ROOM MASCOT MASSACRE 

Back in August I had the opportunity to work alongside a longtime collaborator and fellow student, Joseph Dutra. Whereas, our paths typically met to bring together a PSA for a school project, or brainstorm a theme song for an offbeat comedy. I was surprised when Joseph came to me offering the task of diving headlong into the murky world of grey-tone and cigarettes, otherwise known as film Noir. From the moment that he contacted me asking for my help in writing the score for a school project entitled, “The Locker Room Mascot Massacre,” I knew the exactly how I was going to approach his work on the film. What I did not know at the time was how impactful the music I wrote for the film would be to my life as a musician and screenwriter (*see White Room post*).

Perhaps the most important aspect of beginning a film score is finding the material that will not only inform the structure of the music being written, but also determine its function within the context of the film. Likewise, I make it a habit to consult any possible historical source on the style of the film begin discussed with the hope that this information can enrich the writing process. I do not believe that I could have been handed a better genre to study. As I peeled back the layers of this dramatic and morbidly delightful film trend I came to find two of my favorite things: American history and American composers.

Which led me to the most daunting aspect of writing a Noir film score. Some of the best film composers to exist have poured their lives worth of time and energy into this musical style. I am not, yet, one of those. I am just a student who is mimicking what he has heard to one day become like those that he holds in high esteem.

Now, I did not have to follow in the tradition of the incredible works of Jerry Goldsmith

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Chinatown LP (Goldsmith)

and Bernard Herrmann. Or even have to have seen movies like Psycho or study the soundscapes of Cape Fear, Chinatown, and the more modern L.A. Noir. However, it has always seemed criminal too me to essentially dismiss the works of past artists when they had already established the kinds of worlds that I found entertaining. So, I studied until the language became my own creating some of the best music I have ever written.

For me to say that writing the score for, “The Locker Room Mascot Massacre,” taught me a few things would be an understatement. It was the first full-length score I had ever written, it was the first project where I was paid for my efforts as if I were a professional, and it was the first project I had ever had where all of my commonplace electronic tools had fully abandoned me leaving me to be creative in how I captured the sound of the film. In fact, it took me the better half of a month to write and perform the music as I continuously reworked and even rewrote cues up to hours before the work was due. Forcing me to rethink how I saw music and how I put those ideas to paper and further more onto the keyboard and then into the orchestra. (Except for this time I did not have an orchestra to work with  -_- ).

Interlude:

[Now I have a confession to make. Around the time that I was writing the music for this film I had this really bad case of amnesia when it came to melodies that I already knew. Meaning that over the course of August I was constantly writing music that had already been written by others. I know that this sounds ridiculous, but in terms of musicality it was a hard time for me. College was not adhering to my vision of my future and I had not written original music for a couple of months. So, when I began to write again I was startled to realize that I could write these incredible themes…only to find out that they were actually themes from Star Wars, or Agents of Shield, or Tomorrowland, et cetera, et cetera. (Yeah I know, sounds like a good time). Confession: One of the themes in TLMM was very nearly an exact replica of a theme from Cape Fear by Bernard Herrmann. And I only realized this fact…after the fact. (So, if anyone realizes that, I know what I did. However I cannot say that I regret it because it is beautiful and dangerous and now people my age will know who Bernard Herrmann is and I think that is great).]

Okay, anyway!

When Joseph asked me to write the music he asked for a single theme that would signal evil and distrust. He did not want any of the romance or the romanticizing, though he did want it to be reminiscent and almost mocking. From our discussions, it became apparent that he wanted to accent the things about a Noir film, which make the genre so identifiable, to a comical proportion. And so I had the only solution in hand, just write the music as if I were writing for a typical Noir film, since exaggeration is inherent in the style of film from conception to exhibition. Bringing me to exhibit A:

Ostinatos –

Ostinatos are what drive the plot forward in TLMM as the culprits and the victims are introduced and their situation is laid bare. And because of this, there are three ostinatos that act as siblings, changing as the atmosphere of the film does.

For example The first ostinato, which can be heard in the cues Mascot is Life in all of its endless energy, has all the SUV: Law and Order swagger in stride. Bringing a sense of curiosity and resolve as the plot thickens and the police receive the testimony of the only witness to the crime.

Ostinato 1.png

Then, when the King’s success finally gets on the nerves of fellow mascots, the ostinato changes. Becoming a frenetic, yet rhythmically static pattern that keeps the tension high while ever-changing harmonies rest atop it.

Ostinato 2.png

And when the mascots’ decide to get their revenge on the King, the music is set into a more introspective set of cues of which I named, “Long Live the King.”

Although the ostinato seems to have died at this point in the score, it is resurrected on the last of the three cues replacing the rhythmically static and frenetic second evolution of the ostinato with similar harmonies above, but a bouncing C7 instead of a driving Fm7 arpeggiation.

Ostinato 3.png

Themes –

Remember those themes that I spoke of earlier? Well, other than my Cape Fear rip-off we have only one to look at. These themes are labeled simply as the Murder theme and the Plotting theme, respectively. Their functions are literally just that, one is used for the murder and one is used for the plotting. Leading me to divulge to you what is possibly the most important I have learned thus far: Less is more. The Murder theme is harmonized only by octaves.

Murder:

Murder.png

 

The Plotting theme is harmonized with the ‘devils interval’…a tritone instead.

Plotting:

Plotting.png

Both of which can be heard here:

 

(Other than these highlights, there are only a few motives that are used throughout the film, of which are as straightforward as they come and readily apparent).

This experience has shaped the way that I view music and how I go about writing it. I am beyond appreciative of my experience with the, “Locker Room Mascot Massacre.” You know that you have stumbled upon a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when you come away loving what you do a little more, while also having learned a little something along the way. If you would like to hear the full score feel free to visit my SoundCloud under the Music tab or search my name on the SoundCloud website!