John Williams: Catch Me if You Can (2002)

April 19, 2008

People ask me who my favorite film composer is. These days I say Dario Marianelli and Alexandre Desplat, but if I had to take this question seriously, I’d have to say that John Williams is right there at the top. Too many people try to accuse him of just spitting out Star Wars music over and over which is simply not true. Williams continues to reinvent himself. He shows up year after year with an Oscar nomination and I know that he won’t win. Why? I guess people think he’s had enough recognition, which is probably true. I remember reading in Guinness book of records some 10 or 15 years ago that John had become the first billion dollar composer, and I’m sure he is way beyond that by now. He is rich for good reasons: he is a great composer.

Take the music here in this opening to Steven Spielberg’s CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) — how do we describe the music? Film music? Well, technically yes, but the musical language reminds me a bit of Ornette Coleman, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Duke Ellington, and maybe even a bit of Stravinsky (Ebony Concerto). It is his courage and interest in builiding upon our rich musical heritage that draws me to his music.

I find contemporary so-called classical music getting more and more out of of the reach of people who like music. (I don’t need to go into that here.) I see film music getting stylistically richer and richer, and new concert music getting more remote. Yes, there is room for everyone, but in terms of what to spend my own energies on for the rest of my life as a composer, modern classical music seems like a dreary choice.

As a teacher of composition, I can no longer look down on non-classical music as unimportant populist pap. The experience I’ve had composing my new musical, and the last couple of films I’ve done has been tremendously satisfying. In this music, I have used all the tools I learned to be a concert composer, but have no interest in out-Boulezing Boulez, or out-Cartering Carter, which is what I thought I had to do when I was in college. Out-Bourlanding Bourland should be just fine.

John Williams or Elliott Carter? Williams: hands down.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad Wood April 20, 2008 at 4:10 am

I saw this movie recently and would not have guessed it was a Williams score. I also realized I’d short-sold DeCaprio. Oh well. Time to reassess.

As far as lack of desire to outing (in an unconventional sense), for a really awkward one, how about having no interest in out-Ferneyhoughing Ferneyhough? 😉

Come to think of it I have no idea what his music sounds like these days either, but reading his quotes on probably gives an indication =)

speakingmusic April 21, 2008 at 6:53 am

The first time I saw this film I thought “John has reinvented himself.” It is some amazing music, very different from his “other stuff” (which I also happen to enjoy very much).

I personally think he will go down as one of the great 20th century composers. While he has a number of detractors who say his stuff all sounds the same, they don’t really listen to his music. This film is very different from Star Wars, from Schindler’s list. He is a very talent man…

Here’s to trying to follow in his footsteps.

csahar66 April 22, 2008 at 10:51 am

Roger –

Thanks for that clip. Never realized that was John Williams! It reminded me somewhat of the beautiful lyrical jazz Bernard Hermann wrote for Taxi Driver (one of my favorite scores). I see your comparision w/ mid -career Stravinsky. With asmaller orchestral resourcese he draws a wonderful array of timbres and colors that works so structurally well with the images, most obvious is the orchestration delineates the ternary structure (which is in keeping with the “ternary” structure of the animation – silhouttes are squarer and sharper and against blue field at beginning, in middle rounder silhouettes against gold and the return of the former visual themes at the end.)

Also, Williams seems to be having fun with the visual’s slippery lines which turn and twist and disappear — to some extent Williams does the same with musical line without sacrificing thematic recognition and structural unity.

This is really a wonderful piece of music to study both for film and animation music writing. Do you know where (or even if) one can get the orchestral score for this?

Brad Wood April 22, 2008 at 9:09 pm

Really great sax playing there too—I wonder if that was Harvey Pittel on alto for the date?

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