John Williams and The Philosophical Power of Music
By Edwardo Pérez
Star Wars movies used to be released three years apart (1977, 1980, 1983 and then 1999, 2002, and 2005). This time was valuable – for the audience (who, like me, could fantasize about the next adventure while playing with the various toy ships and action figures) and for the filmmakers (who could focus on crafting cohesive narratives that had a trajectory – even if you didn’t like the prequels, they at least had a narrative thread you could follow).
Disney’s Star Wars films broke this trend, releasing a film during the holiday seasons of 2015, 2016, and 2017 – and then broke their own pattern of Christmas box office domination by releasing Solo in May of 2018, leaving this year’s holiday season without a Star Wars movie.
Maybe this is a good thing, given the disappointment of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi and the behind-the-scenes issues that plagued Solo. If J.J. Abrams is paying attention, he should use this extra time to get it right – Episode IX could be the franchise’s Return of the King (winner of 11 Oscars) or it could be Godfather III.
Still, while I’m happy to wait (and, after investing forty years of my life in the franchise, I’m willing to give Episode IX a chance), I miss the opportunity to hear a John Williams score. But, is it the music I miss or is it the stories the music helps tell? If it were the latter, there are plenty of stories out there to consume that are just as compelling (if not more so) than Star Wars. And yet, after binging Netflix recently as a way to relieve the stress of final exam week (season 1 of The Bodyguard was great and I’d forgotten how much I’d liked Terminator Salvation) I’m still left feeling like something is missing. So, maybe it’s the music? Is John Williams’ music really that powerful?
I could map my life’s journey with Williams’ music (which led me to join sixth grade band and eventually earn two degrees in music). Indeed, my earliest memories begin with Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters, and Superman – which made me afraid of swimming in the ocean, want to be a Jedi, absolutely sure I’d be abducted by aliens in my sleep, and completely confident that when I (almost) jumped off my uncle’s roof (wearing a red cape) I would fly like the son of Krypton.
Later, my fears and dreams were nursed (or reinforced) through E.T., The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi – though Indiana Jones added to my dreams by making me want to be an archeologist (and yes, I took some coursework in my undergrad years as electives, which lowered my GPA – not as easy as Harrison Ford makes it look).
After that, JFK, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Nixon, and Saving Private Ryan accompanied my graduate school and relationship woes. The Star Wars prequels highlighted the waning years of bachelorhood while the Star Wars sequels are happily shared with my wife and kids (which started the cycle over, as both my son and daughter have toy lightsabers and my eBay-worthy collection of vintage toys).
And these are just the main hits, as Williams’ music for smaller films such as Presumed Innocent, Apollo 13, The Patriot, and Minority Report as well as his compositions for the Olympics and NBC’s various newscasts hum in the background with everything else, creating a constant soundtrack playing on endless loop in the back of my mind. And, since Williams announced that Episode IX would be is final Star Wars score (and Indiana Jones V, due in 2021, will likely be his last score, given that he’ll be 89 at the time) I began to wonder what the rest of my life will sound like.
Indeed, at some point John Williams will be celebrated in the past tense and for many of us that means that the world will sound differently. For example, whatever you might feel about the Star Wars prequels as films, the soundtracks are remarkable and just as iconic as the original trilogy – so is The Force Awakens (given the extent of my trauma, it’s difficult for me to talk about The Last Jedi, but for Williams’ sake, I’ll say that I admire his ability to score the unscorable – though, to my ear, it’s the weakest Star Wars soundtrack, despite its Oscar nomination).
So, imagine if Williams had died before any of those films had been made (or, if he’d passed after Episode I or before Episode VII – or simply passed on Rian Johnson on principal, which is what Mark Hamill should’ve done). Not easy, is it? Duel of the Fates and Kylo Ren’s theme are impossible to unhear (just like watching Luke drink blue milk from the Ach-To cows in The Last Jedi is difficult to unsee). And, those themes fit their respective films perfectly.
This is what happens with most of Williams’ music. Like Mozart, his melodies are instantly recognizable and catchy – and just as ubiquitous and enduring. Like Mahler and Wagner, Williams infuses his themes with driving intensity, transcendent beauty, and dramatic, brooding pathos. More importantly, they’re tied to the narrative material to the point that they become like a character in the story, equally important to the narrative’s progression – and this brings us to the philosophical debate on absolute music versus program music, which goes back centuries and which might help me understand my nostalgia.
Does music composed to accompany a story (like film music, ballet music, or opera music) or with a narrative in mind (like Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faune or just about any symphony from the Romantic period) depend on the story for meaning? Or, can such music have meaning on its own? Does the program matter?
For Williams, we could ask if Yoda’s Theme would be Yoda’s Theme without Yoda. Or, does Jaws’ theme need a shark to be frightening? Do we need to see E.T. fly across the moon in order to be moved by the film’s soaring theme? Does the Close Encounter’s five-note motif only work if we see Richard Dreyfus playing with mashed potatoes?
Certainly, it’s difficult to separate Williams’ themes from the stories. Perhaps it’s because they’re meant to be heard in the context of the story. For example, The Imperial March means so much more in the context of The Empire Strikes Back’s narrative than if it were simply a march from the orchestral repertoire (or if it had been used in a different film). By his own admission, the themes Williams writes are meant to capture the spirit of the characters and films they adorn; they aren’t necessarily meant to be separated. As Williams explains, “When you take the music out of a film and play it on its own, it’s really a plus, it’s an extra present really to say, because the first thing we have to do is fit the film, service the film, then if […] the music still has its own legs, that’s a wonderful benefit, a wonderful blessing, and an extra gift.”
Is this what I’m missing this December? Am I really missing the story behind the music? Similarly, do I perceive The Last Jedi’s score as weak because the story is weak to me? Is the music actually good on its own merit? Or, when I hear Schindler’s List’s theme and remember every devastating scene or watch the YouTube video featuring English Hornist Davida Scheffers and cry along with her as she performs with violinist Simone Lamsma is it because of the story? Would the music still affect me if I’d never seen Schindler’s List? Is it John Williams? Is it the performers?
This raises another issue when it comes to the aspects of composition, performance, and emotion. Many of us would probably say that music is emotional, but how is it emotional? Is the emotion built-in by the composer? Is it conveyed through performance? Is it felt only by listeners whose listening experience creates the emotional response? Does music arouse us to feel something or are our feelings derived through association – not just with narratives or the context surrounding our initial experience, such as where we were or who we were with when we saw Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, but also the conventions (meanings) we’re raised with (such as major key equals happy and minor key equals sad or how certain instruments are used as shorthand communication with an audience, like the English horn and violin in Schindler’s List – I’m a trombonist, but that theme just wouldn’t be the same on trombone, just like Wagner’s Die Valkyrie or Tannhauser wouldn’t be the same on anything other than a trombone).
Of course, it’s an impossible debate to resolve for those of us who experienced the music with the story. The association is forever cemented in our brains (like the French horn solo played while Luke gazes at the twin suns). Again, it’s something we can’t disassociate with and maybe that’s what I’m missing most this holiday season, the opportunity to associate with the narratives and music that’s defined most of my life (or at least been there during significant moments) and it’s a testament not just to the power of music, but to the power of John Williams’ music that his themes have impacted me (and probably most of us) so profoundly.
Perhaps more than any other film composer, Williams’ music has legs, it can stand on its own beyond the cineplex (though, to be fair, Nino Rota’s Godfather theme, Stanley Myers Cavatina from The Deer Hunter, and Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings trilogy scores also have legs). You can listen to it at home (from the original 33 vinyl records to MP3 downloads) and be transported to the story its telling. And when you experience that (like any high in life) you want to experience it again.
More broadly, this illustrates how music is perhaps one of the most philosophically (and psychologically) perplexing art forms. Beyond programmatic and emotional concerns, we could explore where music even exists – is it on paper, is it in a performance, is it in our memory, is it in the experience? (And is the experience different for composer, performer, and audience?)
Epistemologically, how can we even know music exists if we don’t know where it exists? And, how do we define it? Is it just organized sound? Speech fits the same definition and music isn’t always sound – nor is it always sound produced by so-called musical instruments (as John Cage proved with his famous piece 4’33”).
In any case, there’s something about Williams’ themes that endures beyond these considerations, giving life to music itself, uniting humanity through his distinctive sound (because, he’s that prolific and his music is that ubiquitous).
As for my present holiday dilemma, whether it’s my blue-ray player or Netflix account, at least I have the ability to relive the narrative musical experiences that’ve shaped me, allowing me to pretend I’m ten years-old again, searching for Yoda on Dagobah – at least until the kids are out of school. Then, I can help shape what’ll be their memories someday, as my future becomes their past.
Edwardo Pérez is an Associate Professor of English at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas. He also manages his philosophical website lightsabertoss.com.
Music Express Magazine. “John Williams Interview for Music Express Magazine.” Youtube.com, April 20, 2012.