A John Williams Score for Every Year of my Life 1981 – The Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - IMDb

With this, the first in the series of Indiana Jones films, John Williams created yet another outstanding opus – that surrounding the wisecracking, whip-swinging, fedora-wearing hero and sometimes archaeologist, Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford may have played the titular hero (and it’s a wonder that despite his resemblances and affinities to a certain smuggler in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, this new creation is in no way a carbon-copy of Han Solo), but John Williams provided his soul.

We don’t hear the main theme until some time into the score, which opens with “In The Jungle”, a mysterious piece based upon the first part of the Dies Irae – this helps to enshroud the beginning on the film, and the main character, in mystery, and a sense of danger. It is a wonderful entrance, because, it gives us no clue as to the sort of character Jones is. We, the audience, must learn what and who he is as the film unfolds.

Like the Star Wars trilogy, this franchise gave Williams the chance to write countless themes, creating a huge multi-layered work which would need more than this blog entry to explore all of the intricacies and to do justice to the sheer volume of motifs which appear. So I will share some thoughts on the main ones, but this score needs to be listened to intently to truly appreciate what Williams has done. Someone said of Mozart I believe that melodies just flowed out of him. That’s what this score feels like – every turn of action has a new rhythmic or melodic motif. It’s an incredibly rich tapestry.

So to the main theme, the “Raiders March”, as it’s often called. It makes it’s first appearance in the fourth cue in the full score soundtrack, towards the end of “Flight from Peru”. After a wonderful frenetic passage for pizzicato strings, it makes its first appearance at 1:03.

It’s a really wonderful theme, which seems, like many of Williams’ melodies, to be effortless. It is dominated by the brass, in a series of climbing phrases, which perfectly capture the spirit of Harrison Ford’s courageous yet risk-taking archaeologist. There is something childlike about the theme’s simplicity, too, which perhaps reflects the hero’s innate sense of right and wrong. His quests are never undertaken for personal gain or glory, and if he is ever tempted along those lines, he generally always makes the morally upright choice.

Williams says this of composing: “Writing a tune is like sculpting. You get four or five notes, you take one out and move one around, and you do a bit more and eventually, as the sculptor says, “In that rock there is a statue, we have to go find it.” I think this is so true of a theme like the Raiders march, which seems so inevitable, as if it could really go no other way. But of course it could have gone any number of ways – it’s the skill of Williams that makes us think otherwise.

Indeed, it very nearly did. Williams had written two distinct themes for the film – the one which we know as the Raiders March, and another theme. He played both to Stephen Spielberg, as he couldn’t decide which one to develop. Spielberg loved them both, and suggested that Williams used both of them in the main theme, and so it became – the secondary theme which is heard at 1:40 in the excerpt above was the second theme Williams had worked on.

There are countless other themes in the score. Williams is truly Mozartian in his ability to attach vibrant new melodies to almost every new piece of action. Yes, he uses the leitmotif structure – so that we often hear the Raiders March whenever Indiana Jones is on the screen, and Marion, his love interest, has her own theme (more on that in a while), and even the big Macguffin, the Lost Ark itself, receives a tremendous theme. But there are themes for the Nazis, for the amulet, and a prolificity of lesser known melodies which appear once and never again. A lesser composer might take care to save some of these for future projects in case the wellspring of creativity runs dry, but not Williams. He responds to the action of the film and creates whatever seems to fit the bill at the time. An almost careless abandon of creative ideas is what marks these scores out.

So to a couple of the other themes – Marion’s theme first. This theme shares it’s DNA with Princess Leia’s Theme from Star Wars, both melodically in it’s opening phrase (V – III) and also at first harmonically (Tonic, minor fourth). But this theme feels somehow more grown up, more curvaceous. It suits the character of Marion, who is old before her years. But it’s also got an exotic flavour to it, an almost Arabic feel which fits in perfectly to the Egyptian setting of much of the film. It is yet another wonderful example of character writing which Williams excels at. It’s also a slightly ambiguous theme, hinting at a relationship between Marion and Indy, but never quite stating this, which would suggest an ambiguity between the characters on screen.

And then we have the marvellous Theme for the Ark itself. This has got to be one of the cleverest themes ever created for the silver screen. In just a few notes and chords, it creates a sense of time and place and character. Let me explain. In the version of the theme I have placed a link to below, we are treated to a mysterious and unnerving melody. It feels hugely old, a throwback perhaps to some of the Biblical epics of Hollywood’s bygone days. It feels exotic, Hebraic. At the same time it feels utterly otherworldly, and is almost spiritual in the way it creates mood.

It is built around a descending melodic figure, played on the woodwind, which is accompanied by mysterious and ghostly harmonies – Minor tonic (Cminor) to minor augmented fourth (F#minor) and back again. As it develops, the harmonies become no less mysterious and unsettling, which gives the theme a sense of underlying danger. Shortly after the first iteration of the melody, we get a second motif, one that is used at times to represent the Nazis, underscored with some subtle militaristic percussion. This is followed by a climbing melody for strings which is truly chilling, and is akin to the opening from ET The Extra Terrestrial. It’s purpose here is similar – to create a sense of touching something from another world.

Then the main Ark theme returns, this time with swirling strings and picked out by quiet brass. After a short and rather wonderful Arabic sounding interlude, the military theme makes a re-entrance, but with more power this time. And then the Ark melody returns, and we see it’s full potential and power. Played by full brass and strings, with the eerie addition of ladies choir. When John Williams uses choir, you know he means business. The effect here is absolutely terrifyingly wonderful. The piece builds to an apotheosis on thrilling brass, as Indy is shown the way to the hidden Ark.

I could write so much more about this theme – I think it is a true masterpiece, not just in the world of film scoring, but in the whole history of music. It does exactly the right things. And I suppose, that’s what good film music should always be – a piece of music which does exactly the right things, pushes all the right buttons. It’s just that John Williams appears to be able to pull it out of the bag so very frequently. He knows just what needs to be said, and he says it.

How far to update old songs?

I’m working on a new album release, which will contain some songs which are 25 to 30 years old. Some of them were written when I was very young, and before I’d really become the person I am. In some ways, they reflect my black and white view of the world back then. As we grow into adulthood, we discover perhaps that things are often not quite as easy to tell apart – that life operates in a series of greys. Or even better, when life actually shows you colour.

So the question I face at the moment is – should I record these songs as they were written, reflecting as they do ideas and themes which were very important to me back then, but less true of me now? I suppose my thinking is – a lot of us go through similar growing pains as were touched upon in the lyrics of these songs, so to change them to fit more with my present-day worldview might be doing them a disservice, robbing them of any power to speak to others going through what I did then.

But then, what if the skills I have learned, and developed, honed, since then, means that actually, musically or lyrically, the songs don’t quite measure up? In releasing them to the world as they were, am I again doing them a different disservice, in not allowing them to be as good as they could be?

But at the same time, I’m reminded of Picasso. Not that I’m comparing myself to Picasso of course, but Picasso was an artist who could draw and paint from nature with the best of them, yet chose instead to create work which is almost childlike. Certainly not childlike in its themes, but in its execution, there is a naivety, a sense of joy in simple creation of line and shape. What I guess this means is that practising one’s highly developed skills is not always what is needed in the creation of a new piece. Sometimes we need to let the inner child shine through.

So to adultify(?)/adulterate my more naive songs might be to rob them of their power. The comparative simplicity of my worldview back then is what these songs were really all about – so repainting them with the hues of my present worldview would surely not improve them. It might make them more polished, but there is also great beauty in the unhewn piece of rock which forms the raw materials of a gemstone.

And all the time, whilst I write this, I’m laughing at myself and thinking how pretentious all of this sounds. Because in the end, it’s just a few songs. But I hope that when they are born into the world, they will perhaps have the power to speak to someone. That’s what every songwriter dreams of surely?

When is it Finished?

I suffer from George Lucas Syndrome. Now before you all grab your medical encyclopaedias to look that up, actually, it does exist, but not in the way I mean it. Apparently the urban meaning is “A situation in which sci-fi movies often sacrifice good-quality acting and a coherent story in order to milk in the special effects.” But that’s not the way I’m using it.

George Lucas of course is the visionary behind Star Wars. He created this galaxy far far away, which so many of us love to play in. But George Lucas is also known for tinkering. In 1997, he realised that technology had finally caught up with his vision, and he enhanced the original Star Wars films with new special effects. Most fans would agree that actually they did little to enhance the films, and in some cases did quite the opposite. But it’s that sense – of needing to tinker, to enhance, to create the best version of something, which I am alluding to when I say I share the same need.

I’ve just released my second album (or at least it will be released on Spotify and other streaming platforms tomorrow). It’s an album of Christmas songs, telling the story of a baby born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. The songs have been written for some time. They were performed on separate occasions by different choirs. But getting the recordings ready for the world was another story! I’d mix, and remix, and remaster, and think I had it, only to listen again and discover some other little flaw.

I’d even got to the stage of uploading the entire album, lyrics and all, and then I happened to listen to one of the songs again, and I heard one note (ONE NOTE!!!) which was not quite pitched correctly. So I cancelled the release, and rectified that note, and uploaded it all over again.

And what I came to realise is that at some point, I need to stop tinkering, and let them go. Without endless resources and studio space to record everything in meticulous detail, I have to accept that maybe the recordings will never quite measure up to what I can hear in my head. Maybe most musical artists feel this. And rather like a painting, at some point you have to let your babies go.

So I have. I will probably not want to listen to the songs when they are finally live on Spotify, because I’ll probably hear more flaws that I can no longer rectify. But then, maybe that’s a good lesson for life – we get to a stage when we have to stop trying to be perfect and let go.

Writer’s Block

I’m sure all creatives, people who try to make a living from their creations, suffer this at some point. And it’s not, by the way, confined to writers. I’ve been fighting with a new song all day, and it still isn’t playing ball. My ideas sound hackneyed, flat. And that’s just to me. I wouldn’t dare play them to anyone else. Their sympathy would kill me.

But I suffer from artist’s block as well. When the thought of picking up a paint-brush is just too much. When I sit staring at a blank canvas, and nothing comes to me.

All very depressing. And there is no doubt that the best remedy to any sort of creative blockage is just to keep going. To write, regardless, as one of my author friends writes. Paint regardless. Compose regardless. It doesn’t matter if the end result is not up to one’s usual standard. It can always go into the bottom drawer to be brought out again at some point in the future. What’s important is to keep working through the blockage.

But there is one thing which for me works best. Deadlines. And Commissions. If I know that I have to get a painting finished for a certain date, I will get it done. Even better though is if I’m working on the score to a TV programme. Somehow, working to the constraints of a moving image brings the ideas flowing out in a way which they never do when I’m working just for my own pleasure. I always knew that this is the sort of music I wanted to write. Little did I know that it would fit me so naturally. I have yet to experience sitting watching a film or documentary which is awaiting music, and to have no ideas come.

So writer’s block can be worked through, but for me it is less of an issue if I am working to someone else’s deadline. My own deadlines? They can be moved just a little too easily – so they are not really deadlines at all.

Having said that, for many years I have operated a to-do list. the joy I feel in ticking off one of the items for that day is immeasurable. In fact, if I get to the end of a day and I haven’t ticked everything off, I think of things which I didn’t write down, yet did do. I then add these to my to-do list, so that I can experience the joy of ticking them off. I know its sad, but that’s what makes me tick I guess. If you were to ask my wife, she would say I’m far too driven, far too task orientated. And she’s not wrong. But that’s the way I cope with times of great busyness, and times when the ideas just seem to dry up.

Keep working through. Writer’s block will not last forever. Says he hopefully.

What you may have guessed is that this very blog entry is me working through writer’s block. Just write anything. Anything that occurs to you. Make up a piece of music about anything at all. Base it on something else. It doesn’t matter – just keep going! Take small steps, a note at a time, a brush-stroke at a time.

Another thing I’m learning is not to be stunted by my perfectionism. Not every first draft is going to be wondrous. So stop expecting it to be. That strive for perfection can be its own worst enemy. Accept what you are able to do. It may not be the best, but it’s there.

Sometimes though, it’s good to take a break. Go for a walk. Come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes or ears.

If there were a fool-proof remedy for writer’s block, someone would surely have made a mint selling it. But I am discovering that there are things which I can do to get the creative juices flowing once more.

A3 Calendars

Well, it’s that time of year again – I start thinking about Christmas and the New Year. It may seem ridiculously early, but for those of us who are in the business of designing cards and calendars, our work began some time ago.

So I have my beautiful A3 sized wall-hanging Calendars for sale on my Etsy page (click on the link below to go straight there). The company who printed them did a wonderful job for me last year, and they’ve done it again. Printed on high quality paper stock, with a glossy laminated front cover, and what’s more, there is absolutely oodles of space to write events and special dates on. Below are some of the paintings I’ve included this year – most of these have been painted during 2021.

Also available are a selection of mugs and coasters on the shop part of my website – follow the link below.

A John Williams Score for Every Year of my Life 1980 – The Empire Strikes Back

It’s a while since I wrote one of these posts on the work of my favourite composer, John Williams. I’ve had Covid, but that’s not why. The truth is, since I left teaching to become wholly freelance with my own music and art, I haven’t had a great deal of time to write. And that’s good news. I’ve composed two Television scores, painted at least 10 detailed and often quite largescale pictures, often fulfilling bespoke commissions. I’ve just finished one this week. So I’m pleased in one sense not to have had the time to continue this series.

But as I sit down at my computer on this Sunday evening in September, I’m feeling nostalgic. I’ve been rewatching the original series of Doctor Who, and at the moment I’m working through the Jon Pertwee era. I’m actually too young(!) to remember Jon Pertwee as the doctor, but I do, because I was brought up in Australia, and they were a few years behind the UK, so when UK youngsters of my age were hiding behind the sofa from aliens met during Tom Baker’s exploits, I was being terrified to death of the enormous spiders which clung to people’s backs. My wife refuses to watch any of them with me, because she can’t stand the music. It was either slightly anachronistically cheerful orchestral music, or weird electronic tweets and drones.

When John Williams wrote the groundbreaking score to Star Wars in 1977, I’m sure his grandiose orchestral score raised a few eyebrows. Whatever scifi had graced the silver screen up till then often had an accompanying electronic score, as that was felt to be right and apt for adventures in space. But what we got in Star Wars was a return to the orchestral scores of old, and surely ranks with the best work of Max Steiner and others.

Nobody believed, when the original Star Wars was released in 1977, that this little film would take the world by storm and spawn a whole universe of sequels, prequels, novels, and offshoots. But when it was so successful, it was only natural that a sequel would be made, and so the curtains opened, three years later, on Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back. And the score which Williams gave us for this first sequel feels as if Star Wars has grown up. Sure, it has all the heroism and bombast of the first score, but it’s got a darkness and edge to it which the first score lacked. In keeping with the darker tone of the plot, Williams’ developing musical language for the films is darker, more dangerous. Harmonically this score is more daring and avant-garde than the first. But quite apart from that, it gave us a theme which has surely become the most instantly recognisable film theme of all time. The Imperial March, which to all intents and purposes is Darth Vader’s Theme.

This theme is used a lot in the film, and it often accompanies the dreaded Lord Vader, sweeping around the bridge of his Star Destroyer in his menacing black cape. He’s a bit of a marvel, a stroke of genius on the part of Lucas and his designers. The horrific black helmet, the asthmatic wheezing. Truly the stuff of nightmares. And his theme is astonishing in it’s ability to convey so much about what he is and what he stands for.

It’s really Darth Vader’s film. We see him threaten his minions, we see him do away with a number of his Admirals remotely through the power of the force. We see his single minded pursuit of the Skywalker boy who was responsible for the destruction of the Death Star. And we learn the horrifying truth that he is, in actual fact, the fallen father of said Skywalker boy. His presence is felt in almost every single frame.

And so what was just a Saturday morning adventure, full of swashbuckling heroes and the rescue of princesses (how very politically incorrect), becomes a familial saga of betrayal and temptation. And this darkening of tone, and indeed enlarging of the world in which the film is set, is reflected in the music. The wonderful themes from the first film are back, in the main, but they are added to with a seemingly endless collection of new themes. And the most apparent one is the Imperial March, which is really Darth Vader’s theme.

What an amazing piece! I could listen to this piece over and over and never get bored. It is an almost perfect marriage of harmony, rhythm and melody to not just the visuals but also the character of Vader and what he represents. It is a theme that takes you in it’s iron grip and does not allow escape until it’s thunderous climax. It is somehow brutal, inexorable, darkness personified. Yet it is surprisingly simple.

The main idea is built around what would appear to be a major tune if played without the harmonic context, built as it is around an E flat major triad. But add the chords in, and it becomes a very different beast. It is actually in the key of G minor, and when it drops to the E flat, the chord changes to E flat minor. The juxtaposition of these two chords is what informs the mood of the piece. Simple, yet devastatingly effective.

Williams is notoriously self-critical, and almost never listens to his past musical glories. But of the Imperial March, he says this: “There are some individual things that I’ve done – The Imperial March seems to me a perfectly shaped piece that works very well.” Very well indeed.

The theme represents the militaristic might of the Empire, and as such, it perhaps represents the loss of Anakin Skywalker’s individuality as he is subsumed by the Emperor’s will – he becomes one with the Empire itself.

But it’s by no means the only new theme in the film score. In fact, the score is jampacked with new melodies and also new treatments and variations on themes from the original film. Other new themes include a beautiful love theme for Han Solo and the Princess, which whilst reminiscent of Leia’s theme from the first film (sharing the same opening interval), is a much more grown up affair. Harmonically it is a fascinating piece, using chord sequences which would never normally be seen together, but which in the context of the melody sound entirely natural. The initial sequence is as follows: D flat – A – D D flat.

There is some marvellous music written for Cloud City, complete with ethereal female choir. There is some absolutely wonderful action music for the flight through an asteroid field which I honestly don’t think Williams has ever bettered.

The Imperial March makes a statement here, accompanied by rushing strings and percussion, then we have a wonderful little scherzo on sliding strings, before one of William’s fantastic soaring themes comes in. This is Williams at his best, using the full force of the brass section with screaming runs on the woodwind. I could listen to this all day. But then, I am biased.

But the other new theme for this film is a little different to the others, the theme for the Jedi master Yoda. Again, it’s deceptive in its simplicity. There is something almost innocent in it’s melodic shape and harmonies. But its also stately, and somehow ancient. It’s heard in it’s fullest form in the film when Luke tries and fails to lift his X-wing fighter out of the swamp with the power of the force. Yoda then proves that it is not a matter of size. He seemingly effortlessly lifts the X-wing out of the swamp, as his theme swells majestically. It starts at about 2 minutes 20 into the following recording. The crescendo of brass towards the end, which is brought down again to a quiet rendition of the theme as the ship is brought in to land, is spine-tingling. It’s a sign of Williams’ skill that he is able to make such varied use of one single theme, so that it conveys gentleness and power all in the space of a few seconds. It is spine-tingling stuff, and one of my very favourite moments in John Williams’ vast musical repertoire.

A truly monumental score, this is one of my all time favourite scores by JW. This and ET are on a whole new level in the way they transform what we see on screen into something so so much more. The ability Williams has in this score to tell us more about characters, to weave ever deeper the story of the Skywalker clan, there is something magical about it. Something of the force itself.

The Art of Putting Weight On

Apparently most of the UK population have put on an average of half a stone on over lockdown. That’s certainly true of me, and I’m working doubly hard to try to lose it again. But like the old meme says – “I keep losing weight, but it keeps finding me again”.

But if I’m honest, actually a lot of my weight gain has been since Easter this year. The reason is perfectly simple. I’ve been painting. Painting pictures I mean, not walls.

Now you may well ask, what is the link between creating artwork and weight gain? And it’s not what you might think. It’s not to do with the fact that I spend long periods sitting down. It’s to do with the fact that when I’m painting, rather than creating music, I eat more.

Let me explain. When I’m taken by the muse and am composing a new musical work, I can forget to eat. I am so focused on the act of creating, that I don’t even notice my body telling me that I am hungry.

Not so when I am painting. When I paint, I can not paint for longer than 2 hours at a time. I find it physically and mentally draining. So every two hours I need to take a break, and I usually somehow find myself wandering into the kitchen. I’ve taken to buying absolutely no treats or sweets, because if they’re there, my self-control fades away. Of course, what I ought to do is step outside and go for a walk. But as you probably know, there is a difference between what we ought to do and what we actually end up doing.

So a piece of bread mysteriously disappears down my gullet. And suddenly, I’ve taken in calories I didn’t really need.

I wonder why? I wonder why I find creating artwork so much more tiring than music? Maybe it’s because of the techniques and tools I use. I think there is a link between my art and my music. Both are quite detailed and layered. Both delight in light and shade. But to create a piece of music, it takes an awful lot less time, from sitting at the piano, to creating all those layers and textures on my DAW (digital audio workstation, for those who have never heard of a DAW). I choose the instruments, and I play each line, slowly layering them up to create texture both thick and thin. I tinker with the dynamics levels of individual lines. But the truth is, I can start and finish a 5 minute piece of music in an afternoon.

Not so with my art. To create one of my detailed naturalistic paintings, even for a relatively small painting, can take days and even weeks. So the progress I make is much slower. My techniques slow me down, because I am a sucker for detail.

Maybe I need to try creating digital art, using an art tablet. Maybe that would speed up my work-rate. But I think I’d miss all the physicality of taking brush to canvas. Of making mistakes which can’t be rectified with the press of a button. Part of the process of creating art is making those mistakes, and either painting over them, or using them to take the piece in a different direction.

So I guess I’m just going to have to get used to the fact that artwork is going to take longer to produce, and that I’m going to eat more. Unless I can find something else to do in my breaks away from the canvas.

My life as a Freelancer

I took a risk at Easter. I left teaching, in order to give my time to painting and to music composition. So far, it’s been the best decision I could have made, because I’ve had more work than I know what to do with. In fact, I’ve been so busy doing paid work for other people that I haven’t actually had any time to do things for myself. But that is the reality of freelancing – you have to follow the jobs.

So I’ve completed the music for another TV series, this one about an ex-soldier who suffers terrible PTSD, and whilst in a fit of unknowing rage, murders someone. It’s about how we treat those who have mental illness as much as about his need for redemption. It stretched my musical language, as the director wanted things to be quite atonal and confusing for much of it. I will post a link to it when i know the details of showing times.

At the same time, I was working on a large commission for a client in the States, who wanted a view of Carmel Beach from Pebble Beach Golf Links. That was a challenge, as there were no clear photos that I could find of the exact view he wanted, so I created the view from a number of different photos. The issue with that, as any artist will tell you, is that different photos might have been taken in different weather conditions, at different times of the day. So creating a picture which feels realistic, with the light falling from the same direction, is a huge challenge.

Then, I was busy preparing paintings for taking part in the Warwickshire Open Studios. I never have as much work on show as I’d like, especially because my painting style is pretty detailed, so each painting takes a fair amount of time to complete. But There were a good ten new paintings available to buy, as well as some older work, and in addition I’d had coasters and mugs printed with some of my artwork. And I have never sold as many originals as I did this year. It’s been a wonderful experience, confirming that I made the right decision at Easter.

I’m sure things won’t always be as smooth. there will be times when the work dries up, and people don’t buy my artwork. That is what most freelancers go through I’d expect. But that’s not coming yet – I have three painting commissions to complete before Christmas, and there is always the work on The Moons of Jupiter to return to in my music, as well as the small matter of a TV film to compose for, based on the life of St Bernadette of Lourdes. So at least in the short term, I have more than enough to keep me busy. And so I am more than content.

Surface ripples: Tank Water cover reveal

I can’t wait to read it, and the cover does all the right things – it whets the appetite, gives me questions which need answers.

Michael Burge Media

THE COVER OF my debut novel Tank Water is ready to share with the world!

Created by Kim Lock, lead designer of MidnightSun Publishing since 2013, this cover stood out from the group of samples I was sent, and didn’t need much tweaking at all.

Life-giving water captured in tanks comes from rainfall, so the approaching storm in Kim’s design is apt, but it’s also prescient. Facing it is a young person, who could be any one of several characters.

The railway causeway says everything about the rural decrepitude of the novel’s country setting. The person on it is walking into the storm, whereas flocks of birds are escaping in the other direction.

Yet there is hope in the light at the horizon… and the neon-strong pink should flag to those who know me that this work is like just about everything I write: bursting with messages of equality.

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The Urge to be Better

There was a painting I did last year which I thought was pretty good. I thought it worked, and I like the amount of detail I’d been able to use. The source photo hadn’t been that great, but I thought the end product was worth the effort.

I look at that painting now, and all I want to do is repaint it. My technique has improved, even in the 11 months or so since I finished it. Here’s a more recent painting:

And another one…

What’s the difference? There is so much more detail. And with the detail comes perhaps a greater sense of distance, as the detail diminishes in the background.

But what has made this difference? There are three things – the first of which has been working in the background within my artistic efforts for years. The first is youtube. There, I said it. I found a series of videos on youtube uploaded by an English artist called Michael James Smith. His paintings are phenomenal – photographic in their realism. And his videos are full of helpful hints about how to achieve the same detail. I’m not there yet, but he gives me something to aim for. I then discovered instagram, and followed the artists producing work which I aspire to. It’s all a useful motivational tool to help me improve my work.

The second thing which has helped is improving my tools. The aforementioned Michael James Smith has his own range of paintbrushes which he uses to paint with, and he sells them online. I’ve bought about 10 so far, and they are just the most beautiful brushes I have ever used. To have fine brushes which don’t immediately start losing their bristles the minute you pick them up is life-changing! They make painting a real pleasure again.

And the third thing? Time. Since giving up teaching 8 weeks or so ago, I’ve had so much more time to develop paintings. I’m not constantly rushing to get them finished – I can work at them until I am totally pleased with them. Or closer to being totally pleased with them. I doubt I will ever be absolutely happy with them – it’s just the way I am.

Now some people might say that I’m wasting my time – why spend so long doing fine photographic detail when I could just hang a photo up? Well, I don’t just paint from photos. I edit the source photos to accentuate details or colours, or contrast, so that they themselves begin to look like paintings. That’s my way of approaching photorealism – the photo itself becomes part of the process of creating the work of art – here’s an example.

So if I were giving advice to someone wanting to improve in their creativity?

Firstly, be inspired. Be inspired by other artists and practitioners. Don’t be afraid to learn from them.

Secondly, get the tools which will help you achieve your vision. Whatever sort of style we work in, we will find it much easier to create work to be proud of if the tools enable us rather than hinder us.

And lastly, give time. It won’t happen immediately. I’ve been painting for over 40 years, and I’m still learning. My grandpa used to say, “if something’s worth doing, do it well”. It’s something I try to live by. I don’t let anything go until I am happy I’ve made my best attempt at it. It may be that I look at this year’s work in a year’s time and think it’s not much good – but it’s good for me for now. And that is what I aim for. But it takes time – as the old saying goes, it’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Creating something worth the creating will often take a lot of time and effort. But it’s worth it!

Thebe – from The Moons of Jupiter

Some time ago I started writing pieces of music which reflected my love of the cosmic, of science fiction. I chose as my theme the Moons of Jupiter. I don’t intend to write music for every single one of them, as there are about 79 at last count. However, I added a new moon fairly recently – Thebe. Thebe is again one of the larger moons, and I wrote a piece which is full of mystery and changing moods. Have a listen:

Life Changes

Well, since I last blogged, there have been some changes. Well, one in particular. I took the step in Easter of this year of leaving teaching. So I am now (and have been for the past one and a half months) a full-time creative freelancer.

So what is it like? Well, I’ve been fortunate. Since I walked out of the school where I’d taught for the past 12 years, I’ve been busy. I was commissioned to paint a large canvas of the Golf Links at Pebble Beach in California, and was also sent the first cut of my next TV series to score – all in the space of a couple of days – both arriving out of the blue in the same week I left teaching. It’s as if the man upstairs knows that I’d need a bit of reassurance that I’ve down the right thing.

So that’s what I’ve been busy doing these last 6 weeks or so – these and writing some four songs for the school – my last gift to them – to use in a production about the Coventry Blitz in 1940. So now, I’ve completed the songs, completed and sent the large canvas, and have almost completed the TV score. I have another TV score in the pipeline, and I’m also extremely busy creating some new artwork for the Warwickshire Open Studios, starting (if all goes to plan and the pandemic doesn’t throw us another curve-ball) on the 19th June.

So I wouldn’t really have time now to be a teacher.

Having said that, what I am discovering is how much harder it is to maintain momentum and motivation when there is only me pushing. I think that’s why I love doing commissions – both art and music – they are difficult to get right, because the customer is always right and they always have a fairly fixed view in their imagination of what they want, but it’s not always easy for the artist or composer to find that. But there are time limits placed on such ventures, and so they have their own momentum.

But I’ve only been doing this for a month and a half, so I ought not to be too hard on myself. I will develop a routine. It will come. In the meantime, I leave you with some of the artwork I’ve been working on recently.

Wild Horses – acrylics on canvas
Diorama – the Shambles, York
Diorama – Bibury

A John Williams Score for Every Year of my Life 10: 1979 – Dracula

Dracula, scored in 1979, is perhaps one of john Williams’ lesser known works. It is however a mighty work, built mainly around the lush and dangerous theme Williams provided for the central character. This theme features firstly in the Main Title and Storm Sequence :

John Williams has said that he tries not to know too much about the books on which the films are often based. In the case of Dracula, he came to the film, if you like, a further step removed – he’d never even seen a Dracula film! Not one. So he had no preconceptions about what a Dracula theme should do. And so what we get in the main theme is a heady mixture of sensuality and threat. It is a sinuous melody. Some of its intervals, and especially the fall at the end of the first two phrases of the melody, play a similar trick to the theme from Superman, in that one can almost hear the word “Dracula” being sung in the orchestra.

There are indeed other links to the Superman score from the previous year. At 1:14 we hear the low strings intoning a ponderous ostinato with trills. Williams used the same trick in Superman, here at 5:30:

There are other themes which wind their way in and out of the score, such as the jaunty brass motif heard at 2:20:

Or the rather threatening brass and piano combination here at 6:38

There is also a lovely little travelling piece which sounds for all the world like a hunt. This may be because of the instrumentation at the beginning – a horn plays a questing little up-down melody before the piece begins in earnest, full of racing strings and woodwind. There is a marvellous melody on the horns, which shows Williams’ mastery of the French horn’s capabilities.

There is one standout variation of the main theme in the score, where john Williams takes it to it’s rapturous extreme, in “The Love Scene”. After a wonderful intro on the horns, the strings come to the fore. They seem to swell like the waves of the ocean, coming to a climax at 1:10. And it really does feel like a climax – its surely the musical version of an orgasm. The piece becomes tender as it draws to a close, but there is always an underlying sense of menace, which pervades the entire score.

There is not much beauty in this score. That’s not to say that the main theme is not majestic, and marvellous. But it’s not a beautiful piece of music. It’s far too dangerous for that.

There are moments of lightness, such as the lovely little motif played on the woodwind in “Give Me Your Loyalty”, at 0:42.

But these moments are rare in a score which is overshadowed by the menace and allure of Dracula himself. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. John Williams is a genius. He creates themes which seem inevitable, fitting perfectly to the characters and images portrayed on the silver screen. This version of Dracula portrays the vampire as a seductive handsome stranger who exerts a supernatural power over the women he pursues. The theme he furnishes Dracula with is likewise intoxicating, seductive, sensual, but at the same time, always with a sense of danger, of menace lurking just below the surface.

If you’ve never heard the score, try and get a copy, or find it on youtube – it’s well worth the listening to.

A John Williams Score for every Year of my Life 9: A bit of a mix, 1978

So I’ve reached the year I turned eight. In that year, John Williams was called upon to score a number of feature films, with wide-ranging subject matter – from superheroes to a man-eating shark. I simply cannot choose one score to epitomise his output that year, so I shall choose a theme (motif) or two from each.

So first, the biggest film of the year to be scored by Williams. Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, was a stylistic take on the age-old superman mythos. Some of the early scenes from Krypton are unique in their visionary portrayal of a civilisation far beyond ours, facing their own demise. The use of reflective costumes makes everything glow with a clean white light. I remember being very struck by this as a lad.

But if elements of the film are rather avant-garde, the score is rip-roaringly traditional in it’s mighty themes, it’s detailed layered orchestration that was a hallmark of William’s writing at the time. The brass of course gets a good workout, especially in the main theme. And what a main theme it is! Its heroic leaps, its reaching for the sky, and its lyrical shape which seems at times to form the words “Superman”. It’s one of the best superhero themes ever created.

But I want to look at a couple of the other themes in the score which need to be heard. The first is the music written for Krypton. Like the theme to Close Encounters, this is deceptively simple. It is a theme made up of one simple angular and heraldic melody, which is heard first in the trumpets over a brooding string bass, and then in further iterations is echoed by the trombones as well as woodwind. In the meantime, the string build up in volume and pitch to bring the theme to a crashing and potent climax, at 1:20. It’s simple by John Williams’ standards, but incredibly powerful. I guess it goes to show that sometimes less is more. And indeed, the least that John Williams has to offer is still hugely impressive.

And then, I have to mention the wonderful pastoral theme, prominent at Jonathan Kent’s funeral, and played in fullest form in the scene below. I’ve looked at this theme in my post on the Cowboys, in which one theme shares some stylistic and melodic DNA to this theme, and so I have copied my text from that post below.

For me, this is what good film music is about. It accentuates and emphasises the emotional charge of a scene. Witness the point at 2:53 where Clark embraces Martha, but John Williams doesn’t bring in the big music just yet – that would be too obvious, too hackneyed. He lets us feel the emotion of the action first, just for a few seconds, before the music ramps up to make sure that we get the full emotional importance of the scene. Truly one of the most wonderful uses of film music that I can think of.

Which brings me to my next score of 1978 – the Fury. The film is less well known I guess, and the music too is not well-known. The main theme is a plodding and nightmarish take on a lullaby, but the two themes I want to share with you in this post are the themes written for the two young protagonists of the film, Gillian, and Robin. First, we have Gillian’s Theme

It’s made up of a number of dancing motifs, all very light-footed, and all painting a picture of a heroine who is innocent, mystical, and beautiful. The theme really comes into its own at 1:40, when Williams gives us another of his soaring, seemingly effortless melodies in the strings. I fell in love with this theme the first time I heard it.

And for me the other stand out theme on the score is The Search for Robin, which, like the pastoral theme from Superman, is a perfect use of melody and dynamics, taking us on an emotional rollercoaster. It starts at 11:37 in the link below. It starts with an elegiac horn melody, which is echoed in the low strings. It continues in this vein for a time, before the main melody comes in on the oboe. It is a sinuous, beautiful tune over a softly moving string and celeste bed. It is delicate, poignant, and I find it very moving. This plays twice, then the strings take over in a full-throated rendition, and the horns provide a rapturous counterpart. It builds, and builds, the timpani provide some lift and… and then dies away to a sweet cadence at the end. It feels bittersweet somehow, as if prefiguring the fact that Robin will not be found, at least, not the Robin his father remembers.

And so to the last score for today’s post. Jaws 2. The film is (possibly rightly) criticised as being a re-tread of the original, but less good. One would assume the music might suffer the same fate. But somehow, John Williams produces a soundtrack which builds on the first score, and in some ways improves on it. The sea-shanty like themes he writes for the Open Sea sections are hugely enjoyable, and as stand alone pieces I prefer them to their counterparts in the first Jaws film.

There is something so seasidey about this music – I can almost smell the salt. It’s not just the melodies – it’s the orchestration. Listen to the section at 0:52 – can’t you feel the sea breeze in your face? The trilling strings over the french horn melody is intoxicating. This is the reason I feel in love with John William’s music. He has such an incredible command of the textures of the orchestra.

Let me give you another example. In “The Water Kite Sequence”, we have a really clever musical trick being deployed. Williams uses different pitches to create a musical image of two different planes – the above water, and the below water. Low strings and woodwind tell us that something lurks beneath. At the same time, higher sounds provide a sense of what is going on above the surface.

And lastly, I want to draw attention to the beautiful End Titles. As in the original Jaws score, John Williams here uses the sea shanty melody heard in The Catamaran race and elsewhere, but slows it down. After the introduction, the melody comes in on cellos, with a simple harp backing and occasional flourishes from the woodwind. The higher strings repeat it, this time with piano. After a grand finale on the brass, the sea shanty returns in full sparkling form, perhaps to remind us that, despite the dangers that might lurk beneath, the sea is still a wondrous and exciting place. At least until Jaws 3, and we won’t go there. John Williams didn’t!

What makes a good melody?

I’ve been teaching some year 5 classes about melody recently, helping them to realise that good melodies don’t just happen by accident. It’s not that composers slavishly follow rules to compose memorable tunes, because most of the time, a good melody does present itself as if my magic. But there are certain truths I suspect which composers unconsciously tap into when they write a melody which is going to be remembered.

The first truth is about space. Not space as in the cosmos. But space within the melody, both in its timings and in the gaps between consecutive notes. Let me show you by quoting a well known melody – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star:

Look at the first three notes. The tune is played CCG. That leap between the C and the G of the third note is called an interval of a fifth – a perfect fifth if you want to be precise. It is found in countless pieces of music, and it gives a suggestion of scale, of importance. It’s there too in the theme to Star Wars:

So it’s important to leave spaces between the notes – not to just run up and down the scale. These gaps are important. They speak of something. If we look at the theme to Star Wars, they speak of strength, of adventure, of reaching for the skies. Look at where the melody goes next after those first two notes in Star Wars. The melody comes down three steps, as if it’s finding ground again, but it’s only so that it can build up the energy to launch into space, with that high C.

But you’ll notice too that not all the notes look the same – some are coloured in black, others have white innards. this tells a musician how long the sounds are. If Star Wars had notes all the same length, it would be a very tedious tune. In fact it wouldn’t even make much sense as a tune. The rhythmic timings – the spaces between one note sounding and the next, are what make a tune really captivating. You need both spaces of pitch (up and down space between consecutive notes) and spaces of duration (the length of time between different notes sounding.)

Let’s have another look at how a good melody makes use of pitch – the intervals or spaces between the notes. Somewhere over the Rainbow is a beautiful example of a finely crafted melody which, like Star Wars, tells its story through the tune as much as through the lyrics.

That’s a tune with spaces! That first gap between first and second notes is what we call an octave – a whole eight notes stretch. The melody is made up of a number of small phrases which constantly find their way upward. The effect of this is to give a yearning sense to the music – portraying perfectly Dorothy’s desire to escape from her humdrum existence and find what she dreams for. But even though every individual phrase is always questing upward, the actual shape of the whole tune is inexorably downward. Look at each bar. The direction within each is upward. But after that first huge leap in the first two notes, everything is basically travelling downward pitch-wise, bringing it back to the note it starts on. The effect of this is to ground the tune, just as Dorothy, as she sings the song, is still bound to her life in Kansas. The adventure she dreams of is just that – a dream.

There is another truth in the world’s best melodies. It’s simply this – once you’ve got an idea, repeat it. If something is worth saying, it’s worth saying twice, or three times. Look at Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – I’ve colour coded the phrases so you can see the repetition.

So there are two areas of repetition – the first line in its entirety is repeated as the final line, and the middle line (yellow) is itself a two part carbon copy. Do you want to know why this tune is so easy for children to learn? It’s because of the repetition. Our brains like order. They like to feel comfortable. And if they hear a tune which is then repeated, they think, “Oh I know this – I’ve heard it before” And it becomes what we call a hook, or an earworm – it gets in the brain without even trying.

What about the other two tunes I’ve looked at? Star Wars has a repeating phrase (yellow box), but the entire first line is itself repeated as the second line (red box).

Is this because John Williams was feeling lazy? Not at all – he’s a master melody-creator who knows that to create the sense of rightness and order which the human brain craves we need repetition.

And let’s have a look at the third example. The repetition in “Somewhere over the Rainbow” is less obvious, but it’s there – in the shape of the phrases. There are two building blocks, if you like. The first, picked out in yellow, is the yearning upward leap. The red phrases are the same shape every time – the starting note of the phrase drops three notes and then finds it’s way back up stepwise.

Don’t get me wrong – there are many wonderful melodies out there which don’t always reflect these truths, these needs for space and for repetition. But I’d hazard a guess and say that actually, they probably do, but they might hide it a little better. The next time you’re listening to a good tune, see if you can hear what I’ve been talking about – see if you can hear those leaps and spaces, those longer sounds interspersed with shorter ones. Those examples of repetition. Because good melodies don’t just happen.

New Moon (of Jupiter)

This week I completed the fourth in my series of pieces inspired by the idea of the Moons of Jupiter. The introduction to this opus can be found here

https://myartandsound.wordpress.com/2020/11/25/a-new-little-musical-venture-the-moons-of-jupiter

So here is the next instalment – Europa. This one is the biggest of the pieces, not just in length but also in breadth of sound. I’d just like to share with you the process i went through to arrive at the finished piece.

So first, the melody. For me, that’s where it all starts. Yes, I may start with a chord sequence, but that is simply my entrance into creating the melody. So with this piece, I was playing around with the juxtaposition of D major and F major chords, but it just opened the door for the melody which grew out of that idea.

The melody needed to be expansive, creating a sense of wonder and of distance. So the intervals are large. Within the first three notes I have travelled over an octave. Once the basic melodic elements are in place the piece goes through a process of variation; mainly here of instrumentation, but there are also variations on the endings of phrases within the main melody itself. And believe me, creating the melody to be just so is what takes the time – changing one single note can transform a piece entirely. As John Williams has said, he spends longer creating the simplest of melodic ideas such as the five note sequence from Close Encounters than much of the action music – it has to end up feeling right, inevitable. Not predictable, mind you – that’s not a great musical trait!

So the piece undergoes this process of changing instrumentation, so the first iteration on piano, accompanied by a bed of string harmonics and harp, is followed by woodwind accompanied by surging tremolo strings. In the third iteration, the brass come to the fore. There is a brief second subject, but this soon gives way to a repetition of the first.

It all builds in a series of waves, until the melody becomes a sparkling brass ostinato, played in canon by the trumpets and the trombones, with a crashing descending bass line. This paves the way for the penultimate triumphant statement of the main melodic idea, realising its full potential with cascading piano arpeggios. After a brief restatement of the second subject, the melody enters it’s final repeat, this time pushed up three semitones. It seems to end too early, and returns to the briefest quotation of the hushed piano beginning.

The point is that this piece perhaps sounds more complex than it is. It is built mainly around a single melodic idea, but because said idea is treated in a variety of ways, the effect is of an ever-changing landscape, building up to a climax as if one were climbing a mountain on this moon of Jupiter, to stand at the last on the summit, gazing in wonder at the huge gas giant which fills the skies above.

A John Williams Score for every year of my life 8b. 1977 – Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope

Do I dare? What on earth can I say about this magnum opus which single handedly transformed film scoring, just as the film it accompanies reinvented the blockbuster. So much has already been written about the score John Williams wrote for George Lucas’ little space opera – I certainly couldn’t say anything new or improve on the work of people more versed than I. What I can do is share my own guttural reaction to the score. As a raving Star wars fan, whatever I say about the music will be coloured by my love of the film. And in fact, it was this score which started me on my love affair with the music of John Williams.

What an opening! The Fox fanfare has scarcely faded away when that blast of brass and percussion blazes in, and the words “Star Wars” appear on the screen. Every time I hear that chord, and see those words, I feel like a seven year old all over again. Of course, when I was a seven year old, sitting in a cinema to watch Star Wars for the first time, I didn’t know what I was in for. But that first introductory brass fanfare gives you a clue. This is no less than one of the defining moments of cinema history, and the music leaves you in little doubt about it.

And then that iconic theme. I use this theme in my teaching to illustrate how strong intervals create a sense of adventure, of reaching beyond. This theme is full of them – the opening two notes have the perfect 5th. then the melody steps down three steps, but only because it’s saving it’s energy for the leap from the C to the B flat. And that is all about reaching for the stars. It’s about blasting off from the confines of one’s little planetary existence. It’s about realising your dreams. And all played by the immense power of the London Symphony Orchestra brass. It really is a musical archetype, which has rightfully entered our modern psyche. It’s a true hero archetype. There is a funny story about this theme. Mark Hamill apparently expressed some disappointment that John Williams had written themes for Princess Leia, for Ben Kenobi. The imperials had a theme; heck, even the jawas had a theme. And he (or his character, Luke Skywalker) didn’t. Then John Williams pointed out that the main theme was Luke’s theme. Imagine not just having your own theme, but it being the main theme of the score!

The main theme, after it’s gorgeous second idea for strings (0:26), reiterates the first melody, this time lead by the horns. And then the music, with the magical tones of piano, flute and celeste, sweeps us away to a galaxy far far away. The camera pans down in a sea of stars, and we see below us a desert planet. But we are not allowed to enjoy the moment, for the music has taken a dark turn.

Many people have remarked on the next musical section’s (1:30) similarity to a part of Mars from Holst’s Planets Suite. It’s not a direct quote, but the mood, and the instrumentation, is undeniably similar. And of course Williams has taken his cue from that piece. As a composer, I do it all the time – in fact, many directors will give their films “temp tracks” for their composers to create bespoke music “In the style of”. I would not be at all surprised if Holst was not mentioned at this point in the first musical discussions between Lucas and Williams. Quite apart from that, Holst is a great composer to be emulating.

From here on, so as not to write an entire volume, I will be picking out snippets of the score to share with you. The next bit that struck me even at an early age is the beautiful string passage Williams wrote for the escaping droids as they board the escape pod. A rather magnificent theme for two nonhuman characters to depart their sinking ship on!

The passage is at 4:20 in the above track. But of course everything hinges on these two droids. If they do not find their way down to the planet, then they do not get bought by a moisture farmer, and they never meet a young man called Luke Skywalker. And so the message which Artoo-Detoo carries inside his rusty innards will never find it’s way to an aging Jedi Knight in hiding called Ben Kenobi. So Luke will never hear of the princess, he will never meet Han Solo and his furry companion, and the film would have been markedly shorter. The point is, that this section might seem overcharged for the droid’s escape, but it really is one of the defining moments of the whole saga. And as such, it needs music which sounds portentous. And quite apart from anything else, the melody, formed by a series of interlocking falling lines which rise a step or two every time, is simply beautiful. It comes to a climax with a wonderful crash of the percussion, which was a hallmark of Williams’ work back then, and then we hear two chords in the brass, F and B, and back to the F, then repeated. This motif appears from time to time in the score, often accompanying Imperial action. The two chords form a perhaps overused science fiction trope, using the interplay between a chord and the chord an augmented fourth above it. James Horner uses it a lot in his two scores for the Star Trek franchise. But somehow, when Williams uses it here, it feels fresh. Maybe it’s because he forms a three note pattern with the chords – F B F, or I IV(aug) I. So it carries a sense of purpose and finality which it wouldn’t if it had ended on the augmented chord rather than finding home again

One of the most famous passages and indeed secondary themes in the Star Wars music universe is the music which accompanies Luke Skywalker as he watches the twin setting suns. It is known as the binary sunset music. Have a listen to it below at 2:20.

It is rightly famous, because it is such a clever piece of music. It somehow feels ancient and ageless at the same time, mystical, melancholy yet hopeful – and encapsulates everything about the lost Jedi – I cannot think of a movie theme that does it’s job as well as this one. It becomes Ben Kenobi’s theme. It starts in a minor key, with a step of a fourth. This interval is often used to represent something mystical and ancient. The melody, almost a solo line for french horn, then takes us on a short journey upward, but it soon drops down to it’s starting point. But it soon has another go, and this time reaches a note of hope, in the shape of the C chord (in the key of G minor, this is an unusual chord to land on, and it suffuses the theme with a sense of light, and hope – the Jedi have found their new hope, in the person of Luke Skywalker.) The theme then momentarily swells with full strings – for me this has always been one of those deeply resonant moments, when I erupt in goosebumps. The theme in it’s second half is even more magnificent than it’s first half. Rather like the main theme to Star wars, it reaches up and up, and finally reaches it’s highest point, before resolving peacefully. But it is even more powerful a reaching up in this theme, and I suspect this is because it works it’s way there. It takes longer to get there. You feel that the climax has been well earned. It tells a story of something mystical and ancient, lost, but now regained.

There is an alternative version of this music, completely different – have a listen to the scene with the original. I love the original theme, but I agree with Lucas that Ben’s theme is so much better in this context.

Another section I’d like to share with you is the moment Ben Kenobi shows himself, after frightening off the Tusken Raiders. He kneels by Luke’s side as he lies unconscious in the sand, and then becomes aware of a diminutive droid watching from the safety of an overhanging rock. It’s the passage which starts at 2:14 in the track below. Again, it’s Ben’s theme, but it takes a while to arrive. There is a small two chord motif which is played 5 times on woodwind, brass, and celeste. On the fifth time, the harp plays a gorgeous upward glissando, which feels like a window opening, or a book opening, a secret being revealed. And indeed it is, for it reveals Ben Kenobi to Artoo Detoo and to us, the audience. Williams uses this trick in the soundtrack to ET too, when the camera pans down to show the spaceship in the forest at the beginning. It’s an effective trick of the trade. Then we have a rather heavier version of Ben’s theme, but it peters out before it is able to reach it’s climax. You see, it needs to allude to Ben, but it can’t be too clear, because at this moment we don’t actually know it is Ben.

I’m going to leave this there now. As I said before, I could write a whole book about the thematic richness of the musical Star Wars universe, but I wouldn’t do it as well or as fully as many who have written about it before. I leave you first with a link to a fantastic resource if you’d like to investigate further. It’s a catalogue of the musical themes across all nine Star Wars films by Frank Lehman. It shows the transcription to the innumerable themes created by John Williams across more than 40 years of writing, with many of them linked to sound recordings available on youtube etc.

Another rich source of information can be found at

https://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2015/11/18/star-wars-music-motifs

And finally, I leave you with another of the wonderful themes Williams wrote for this first Star Wars film – the poignantly beautiful theme for Princess Leia, here presented in its concert performance version. It is yet another reason why I fell in love with the music of Star Wars, which then led me into my love affair with the whole ouvre of this amazing composer John Williams. Listen to it from beginning to end, and then tell me that this isn’t worthy of being remembered on into the future, along with the standard repertoire of classical music. It’s like a wave, building up, then crashing on the shore, leaving just an echo of itself imprinted on the sand. Listen to that gorgeous violin cadenza which brings the piece to an end. It always makes my heart soar, just as the notes of the violin disappear into the heights. Simply stunning. But of course, I’m slightly biased!

The Dark Crystal – a Triumph of Design

This is not a film review. This is purely my response as an artist to the artistry at work in the design of the film, which in my view is absolutely second-to-none.

Much of the film’s design is down to the excellent and unique work of Brian Froud. His imaginative and organic designs are an astoundingly good match for the weird and wonderful tale Jim Henson was trying to tell. One only has to see the designs for the Castle of the Dark Crystal to see how his unique vision shaped the film. He is to the world of the Dark Crystal what H. R. Giger was to the world of Alien, but more so, because Froud’s vision informed the entire design ethic and shape of the film.

Brian Froud concept drawings for Jim Henson's THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982). |  The dark crystal, Brian froud, Art

Looking at the cultural expressions of the Mystics and their dark counterparts, the Skeksis, one is struck by the opposite ends of the design spectrum. The Skeksis, in body and in clothing, are all vicious claw like structures and dark reds. They are redolent of a fading tatty majesty.

Related image | The dark crystal, Dark crystal movie, Dark fantasy

The Mystics are earthy, soft, and their art is smooth, rounded, with nothing of the sharpness of the Skeksis. It has a sense of being natural, at one with nature and the universe, with it’s suggestion of stars and moons.

Mystic - Dark Crystal Photo (43592490) - Fanpop

The design is just overwhelmingly wonderful – one can sense the joy with which Froud embraced this job. Ever since I saw the film when I was 13, I have loved it – it appealed even back then to my artistic soul. The music too, with it’s wonderfully sweeping and mysterious themes by Trevor Jones, served to imprint this film on my psyche.

But for me there is one very simple aspect of the overall design of the film which encapsulates the whole aura of this wonderful world – and it’s the design used in the film’s name text, seen in the above youtube clip. When I was 14 I bought myself the album of the original score, and I have the album cover on my wall in front of my workspace, because I love it so much. It looks like this:

The flow of the text is beautiful – the rounded quality of the letters themselves perhaps echoes the aesthetic of the mystics, whereas the hooks and points perhaps echo the Skeksis, in all their skeletal talon-like glory . The richness of the colour, with that wonderful rose crystal interior bound by the gold edge – is a reference of course to the crystal itself, bound perhaps by the cruelty and abuse of the Skeksis. The way the letters fit into the spaces created by each other makes this a really very clever piece of design.

For many, the world of the Dark Crystal has been reopened recently with the release of “Age of Resistance”, which is well worth a watch. It expands on the mythology which first burst on our screens in 1982. But nothing can quite capture that sense of uniqueness and wonder which the film brought to us back then. The film begins with the narrator’s voice intoning, “Another world, another time. In the Age of Wonder.” And that’s what the film delivers, in it’s wonderful cohesive design, it’s beautifully manufactured costumes and sets, even down to it’s publicity artwork. It is a triumph of design.

A John Williams Score for Every Year of my Life 8a – Close Encounters

A Look Back at 'Close Encounters:' A Young Spielberg's Curiosity  Characterized - mxdwn Movies

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.

The Gifts of the Pandemic

I was asked this morning what I consider to be the gifts to myself of the pandemic and resultant lockdowns this year. A strange question, to be sure. But not a ridiculous one. Many of us have found something important this year – maybe something we’d forgotten, or lost, has been rediscovered – like a love of walking through the woods in the evening. I’ve returned to charcoal drawing, and I’ve loved it.

Maybe for some of us, we’ve taken up a new hobby, learned a new skill. I’ve been trying my hand at wood engraving. Not a great success if I’m honest – but like all things worth doing, sometimes we have to work at it. Although I am wondering if I really have time to take up another creative venture – the composing and art already take a lot of my time when I’m not teaching.

So it’s not a ridiculous question. But it’s also not just about what we’ve done, or not done. It’s also about, for me, a chance to re-evaluate where I am going. To push the boundaries a little with my creativity, and to see where it takes me. I have a song to sing, and it’s not much use if I’m the only one hearing it.

The older I get, the more I realise my limitations. I will never be able to put up shelves straight. DIY is just not my thing. But I’m aware too of the limitations in my energy levels. I am a workaholic. I am utterly driven, so much so, that I become hugely depressed if I have got to the end of the day and I have achieved nothing, if I have ticked nothing off my todo list. But lately I’ve noticed that I just can’t keep pace with my self.

So I sense that the time is coming to begin to think about making some changes. Making more room in my life to do the things which give me life, and strip away the things which drain me. I don’t mind being tired, even exhausted, at the end of the day, if I’ve been creating. Because that’s a good exhaustion. That’s life affirming and ultimately energising. But all the other things which drain my time and energy? Including, dare I say it, teaching?

As I say, maybe it’s time to start looking at my options. I’m not as young as I once was, and it becomes increasingly difficult to lug crates of musical instruments around the school to make sure the kids are getting a good quality musical education. I love the kids – and they do give me huge return on my investment, but all the other stuff in education – lesson plans, inspections, assessments – they just drain. They give nothing back. If I could teach without those things, maybe it’s something I could still see myself doing in five years time. But at the moment, I can’t see it lasting.

That might seem negative. It might not seem like a gift at all. But sometimes gifts come in the shape of myrrh, as was the case in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. Myrrh was the spice used by the rich to embalm the dead. Maybe the gift of the pandemic to me, in the end, will be to force me to ask myself what needs to die, in order for me to live?