1977 was a big year for John Williams. He wrote the scores to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as a certain space opera set a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. It would be remiss of me not to include both of these immense scores, different as they are. A potted review of the score to Star Wars – that will need a lot of time and thought put into it – I need to build up to that! So I’m going to leave you with a few thoughts on the score to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, CEOT3K for short.
I’ve linked to the official expanded score playlist above on youtube – these scores always benefit I think from the full listening experience. But I will dip in and out, and I certainly won’t be able to write a detailed critique of the whole score – that would be more like a whole book!
So here goes. When I first heard this score, it was on the B side of a cassette tape (remember those?) which had highlights from the Star Wars score on the A side. I thought it was awful. I was only about 14 at the time, and I wondered how the same composer could be responsible for both scores? Star Wars, full of bravado and soaring themes, and then this weird concoction, sounding as if it belonged in a horror film.
Things have changed somewhat, and it is now one of my favourite scores. It’s a rich tapestry of musical textures and effects, combining really quite avant-garde harmonic and textural qualities with some stonking melodies and passages, for which Williams is rightly famous.
The score opens as it means to go on, with a simple yet effective musical effect. “Let There be Light” starts as a mere whisper in the string harmonics, building by the addition of other timbres and vocals into a huge fortissimo brass stab. On the original soundtrack album, this segued straight into the passage from “TV Reveals” starting at 056, then the first section of the following track, “Roy and Gillian on the Road”. It is a classic case of Williams rearranging music for the best listening experience, and it works well, but makes no sense in the story-arc of the film.
But the melodic material of the second section of this original presentation, lifted from the aforementioned tracks, is an interesting musical study. It’s built around the melody of the “Dies Irae” – the day of wrath from the Latin Requiem mass. It’s the same melody that Berlioz uses in his riotous last movement to his Symphonie Fantastique, Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat.
And countless other composers throughout history. And it usually signifies something portentious. Something which has the potential to destroy lives. At the same time, as in the Berlioz piece, it can represent something otherwordly, out of our normal experience. Here is a youtube video which shows some of the instances in modern film music of its use.
There is something about this particular note series which draws us to think about the sinister, the unknown, the things which we as humans perhaps have little control over. That is surely it’s purpose in CEOT3K – it is used as Gillian and Roy are drawn inextricably toward the meeting with a power beyond their experience, and their world. It’s extremely effective, and Williams doesn’t hide it in copious orchestration – it is played in all it’s bare majesty by the brass section, especially in the “Roy and Gillian on the Road” track.
There are other pieces of note, where melody comes to the fore. The beginning to the “TV Reveals” for example, starts with an augmented 4th interval – often used to represent mystery and the supernatural. There is a theme which builds on this rising figure, heard throughout the score, but given it’s biggest iteration in “The Mothership” at about 3:39, where it is accompanied by the Dies Irae theme – if we were in any doubt that that theme was about the call to the UFO base.
Of course there is the famous 5 note call as well – Ray Me Doh Doh So. John Williams has said that he spends more time creating these simpler themes than the much more complex ones he provides at other times – the struggle being to create something new which sounds inevitable. It’s effective, and is referenced throughout the score, but usually in the form of source music – the characters hear it being played in the context of the film. It’s integral to the storyline.
I think the thing that strikes me about the whole score of CEOT3K is that it evolves. At it’s start, when everything is very alien to the characters, and really pretty scary, the music is atonal, creating the effect of a horror film, with it’s weird timbres and textures and the Ligeti-like vocals of the choir. But as the main characters hear the call to Devil’s Mountain more and more powerfully, and as they are drawn ever closer towards it, the music becomes more formed, more friendly in a way. Not less powerful. But more comforting, even in it’s majesty. The music John Williams writes for the final appearance of the Mothership is utterly, barnstormingly powerful. He uses brass flourishes to describe aurally the flashes of light we see on the screen. He uses the deep resonances of the orchestra to represent the hugeness of the mothership, and by association, the hugeness of the universe beyond.
If you’ve never heard the score, I’d urge you to have a listen. You won’t enjoy all of it for sure, but work your way through the horror aspects earlier on (which are wonderful in their own right) to reach the apotheosis at the end – it, more than any other score I know of, traces a musical journey from fear and strangeness to discovery and acceptance.