For this post I want to zoom in on one part of this score which struck me as soon as I heard it some years ago – the main theme. It encapsulates so much of the time, with upbeat funky additions to the mix, and that wonderful soaring John Williams horn melody.
Honourable mention of course must go to Williams’ other big score of the year, The Towering Inferno – which is also a wonderful score, full of contemporary beats and big statements, but because I couldn’t possibly do both scores justice, I want to look at just this one piece, and examine what John Williams is doing in his compositional process here.
After a haunting introduction with string harmonics reminiscent of some of the music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we are treated to a massive cataclysmic rising horn figure over a crashing bass note on trombones and double basses. This resolves into a kinetic bass piano line which repeats throughout the first statement of the theme. The drums also kick in. The effect is of a juggernaut – a force of nature which we are helpless against. It is a trick Williams used again in the opening to the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, when the AT-ATs are spotted in the distance. And then the melody comes in.
It is similar in part of it’s shape to the music Williams composed for Lisolette and Harlee in The Towering Inferno – but that is almost like an elevator music version of this powerful theme. It’s basically two lines of a similar falling figure played by French Horns in their lower register, but it is counter-acted by the strings which play short rising scales, and the harmonies which accompany it – G minor to A minor (moving upward). The effect is to pull apart the music as if at the seams, almost as if the music itself is portraying the Earthquake, developing cracks in it’s very surface.
The melody line repeats, but ratchetted up to B flat minor and C minor.
There is a short interlude, in which the music seems to almost lose its way – the woodwind play a rising scale and the harmonies seem to work against each other – the only thing holding them together are the tumultuous bass notes. However, the brass soon reassert themselves, playing a rising chord sequence which leads back into the melody. This time a bass guitar is more prominent. The French Horn, which must be Williams’ favourite timbre of the orchestra, now plays in a higher register, as the whole piece has now modulated up to E minor. Punctuated by stabs from the lower brass, the melody ratchets up again, into G minor, before reaching it’s climax with one of the most gorgeous themic developments I’ve ever heard. The Melody of the theme is there, but suddenly it becomes warmer, the harmonies are friendlier, and as if to signal this the strings come to the fore to provide a softer cushion of sound for the melody to soar above. And it does – until it reaches it’s high point (at 2:17 in the youtube link).
It seems to come back down to earth after this, and the tone is slower, more elegiac, deeper in tone. It’s like what they say – when you’ve reached the top, the only way is down.
I remember hearing this score for the first time in my 20s when it was first released on CD. This main theme grabbed me instantly. It’s everything a disaster theme should be – it’s got plenty of forboding, but in the mix it has the ability to lift the listener, reminding us perhaps that life finds a way (to quote another film from the JW ouvre). Humankind have the amazing ability to come back after nature has done its worst. That in the end is what films like this are supposed to remind us – that nothing is absolutely lost. Who would go and see a film with no hope in it? I wouldn’t. (Apart from Alien 3 – which I think takes hopelessness to a new level, but I love it anyway).
As a composer this is what i love so much about John Williams’ work – it is an experience which works on many different levels. Yes it grabs one emotionally. That high point of the Earthquake theme is just marvellous – so seemingly accidental, yet so perfectly in place. But if you start to take apart the themes, separate them into their constituent layers, examine what the process is behind their creation, the ideas are phenomenal.