#WilliamsWeek 2020: Day 1

It’s #WilliamsWeek! Like last year, we celebrate the birthday of legendary composer John Williams for the whole week with a quote and a piece of music every day from today until February 8, the day in which the Maestro will turn 88. We want to celebrate him on this special occasion both with his words and his music, something that continues to be a great source inspiration for many musicians, listeners and music lovers all around the world.

Today, the focus is on the unique collaboration with his long-time artistic partner Steven Spielberg.

John Williams and Steven Spielberg (photo courtesy of Sony Classical © 2017)

“Steven and I have been working together since 1973. That must be, like, 45 years. When I met him, he was about 23- or 24-years-old, and studio executives asked if we would have lunch. And I went to the restaurant to meet him and it was a fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills. And the maitre took me over to the table. And here was this skinny kid that looked about 17. And I thought, “My, this is the director that they sent me to see?” And I sat down with him. We began to talk and I realized in a minute that he was brilliant. He knew more about film music, he could recall themes that I had written from films that I had forgotten, and others from older colleagues that I had forgotten.

And it turned out to be an amiable general in his management of photography and editing and set building and everything else. He seemed to have, as a kid, this mastery of his art.

And also, he hasn’t changed. It’s the same, to me, little, very young man who was very sweet and not naive. And I’ve also seen him in meetings with business people and so on when he was a grownup adult and masterful in his dealings with people. Forty-plus years of working together, we’ve never had an argument. And he said something that’s very interesting as a director and a producer. He comes to my office and I play things for him on the piano. In all these years, he’s never said, “I don’t like that. It’s not, you know, try something else.” By the time I get halfway through, I can see from his face muscles where I am with this thing. And he’s enthusiastic about everything, even the things that we reject. Sometimes I’ll do a scene with the orchestra and I frequently write two versions. And I know exactly which one he’s gonna take. But it’s part of the process that I need to go through to get somewhere between his thinking and mine that will meet.”

“Steven a much younger man than I am and he will go on a lot longer than I’ll be able to, but for the time being we’re having a wonderful time. Time goes by so quickly. Steven and I, when we’re working together we’re so much in the now, in this moment. There isn’t a past, there isn’t a future, you’re so completely absorbed and concentrated. If you do that long enough, you suddenly realize, my God, I’m 80 years old, what happened? What happened was a well-spent, focused period of time.”

(Quotes taken from John Williams on Spielberg, “Star Wars,” and the power of music, Tracy Smith, CBS News, 2019; and John Williams and Steven Spielberg mark 40 years of collaboration, Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times, 2012)

The piece of music chosen today is one of the key scenes from one of the most famous and celebrated collaboration between Spielberg and Williams—the whole final 8-minute action sequence from Jurassic Park (1993), titled “T-Rex Rescue and Finale” on the soundtrack album. Both the film and the score don’t need much introduction to any Spielberg/Williams admirer around the world. The film is one of the most successful movies ever made, and certainly one that breached into the hearts of the audiences thanks also to Williams’ majestic and awe-inspiring score. However, the piece discussed here is not one of the often-mentioned themes that accompany the film’s most iconic scenes, such as the first apparition of the brachiosaurus, or the arrival of the helicopter at the island. It’s something that probably goes “unnoticed” by the general audience for the most part while watching the film, but one that is absolutely crucial in delivering the drama, excitement, thrill, and adventure for which this film is still so well-remembered even 27 years after its release.

The whole sequence is a stretch of almost 8 minutes that leads the film toward its climax, where the main characters are trying to escape from a deadly group of Velociraptors who are chasing them into a game of cat-and-mouse. It’s one of Steven Spielberg’s trademark action set-pieces, where the sense of drama, adventure and even humor is perfectly conceived and executed through impeccable craft and genuine filmmaking talent—Dean Cundey’s lean camerawork, Michael Kahn’s perfect editing, Gary Rydstrom’s focused sound desing, Stan Winston’s dazzling mechanical creature effects, Industrial Light & Magic’s groundbreaking CGI, and of course John Williams’ heart-pounding score… Every single element contributes to the sequence’s success, and Spielberg, like a great conductor, guides every section into a seamless whole.

A moment of the final action sequence in ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993, © Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment)

A closer look at the sequence reveals how much the thrills the audience feel are carried in large part by Williams’s music. The composer often talked in interviews about how the main task in action scenes is to find the perfect tempo and how play with it to create a seamless effect of ebb and flow. Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark are frequently (and rightfully) held as some of Williams’s finest moments of this particular approach, but this action sequence in Jurassic Park is another pitch-perfect example of this specific set of skills of the composer—the music enhances every little bit and turn in the scene, from the tiniest visual detail such as a small movement of the raptors’ claws, to the broader and bigger elements appearing onscreen, like the T-Rex suddenly romping from nowhere to save our heroes. The score might sound like hyper-complex, highly-charged cartoon music, and the composer himself acknowledged this aspect, albeit briefly, during an interview in 1997 for the magazine Total Film:

Jurassic Park has a 95-minute score. It pumps away all the time. It’s a rugged, noisy effort – a massive job of symphonic cartooning. You have to match the rhythmic gyrations of the dinosaurs and create these kind of funny ballets.

The term ballet has been frequently used by Williams to describe some of the action sequences in the Indiana Jones and the Star Wars films, and the ballet-like quality in many of his lively action scherzi has always been one of the characteristic traits of his writing style for films. But in the case of Jurassic Park, it reveals another peculiar stylistic and aesthetic connection, perhaps involuntary, but nonetheless interesting. Some of the music in this sequence recalls passages of Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 composition Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), one of the true game-changing pieces of music of the 20th century. Despite lauded and revered nowadays almost exclusively for its pure musical innovations, the piece was written for Sergej Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company, accompanying a choreography by the famed Vaslav Nijinsky. The intensity of Stravinsky’s avant-garde music, coupled with Nijinsky’s edgy primal choreography caused a true riot during the premiere performance in Paris. Le sacre got another huge boost in popularity in 1940, when Walt Disney picked it as one of the musical sequences for his incredibly daring animated film Fantasia, accompanying the riveting animation depicting Earth’s prehistory, from the creation of life-forms to the apparition of dinosaurs and their subsequent extinction. In one of the most spectacular moments of this sequence, the Tyrannosaurs Rex and the Stegosaurus ensue in a ferocious battle accompanied by one of the most aggressive sections of Stravinsky’s composition (“Glorification de l’elue”).

A moment of the “Rite of Spring” segment in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940)

Disney’s Fantasia has been cited several times by Steven Spielberg as one of the seminal movie experiences of his childhood, so it’s not too far-fetched to think that the Rite of Spring sequence might have been in his mind while making Jurassic Park. The film itself is very much made with a very post-modern sense of self-awareness, where the story about recreating life with new technology seems to mirror the revolution in visual effects computer technology for which the film itself represented a milestone at the time of its release. As record producer Mike Matessino observes in the liner notes of the Jurassic Park Soundtrack Collection boxset released by La-La Land Records, “Pre-internet and pre-cell phone audiences went to the picture collectively knowing they were about to witness a technological breakthrough. It resonated because the story being told was about a technological breakthrough (ironically carrying an anti-technological theme, just like the original Star Wars). The moment in which the dinosaurs are revealed celebrates not only their fictional creation within the narrative, but the arrival of the technology to render them for the movie that we, the audience, are watching. Since Grant is introduced with the line, “I hate computers,” we accept that the sauropods he observes are the real thing.”

The final moments of the “T-Rex Rescue” sequence in Jurassic Park (1993 © Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment)

And at some point in the film, the character of entrepeneur John Hammond says that “when they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked, nothing”, as if to further reinforce the movie’s inner post-modern self-awareness. Perhaps some of this bleeds in John Williams’s apparent cross-reference to Stravinsky’s masterpiece, both for the groundbreaking value of the piece itself in music history and its usage in one of Walt Disney’s most innovative and groundbreaking film:

However, Williams is sensitive and clever enough to avoid mere pastiche or being too literal with these references—quite the contrary, the Maestro evokes ideas in our collective memory to summon feelings of awe, terror, excitement, wonder as seeped by our cinematic and musical experiences, producing in the end a true original piece of music.

Listening to this sequence as pure a piece of music is mind-blowing to note the complexity of the writing and the sheer brilliance of the orchestral texture—Williams’s music is as dense and well-crafted as Stravinsky’s. The whole sequence contains an incredible number of permutations on a 4-note motif used to depict the deadly Velociraptors (based on an augmented fourth interval, i.e. tritone or diabolus in musica, frequently used by composers to depict evil given its dissonant nature). And even more impressive is the ability to accompany the scene with clockwork precision never at the detriment of the pure musical flow. This becomes even clearer when we experience Jurassic Park in the live-to-picture concert format, where the audience can witness with their own eyes and ears how much the orchestra contributes to this artform. And we have to thank John Williams and Steven Spielberg as two of the most tenacious defenders of the symphonic sound in film. It’s also in examples such as this that lies the incredible value of their unique collaboration.