My Letter to John Williams

It’s an interesting thing, what I get inspired to do every now and then. I have been reading the Harry Potter books lately, and after each one, watching the movies. I am way into film scores, but I’m noticing that they are evolving in to something much less than what they once were, and it’s very sad to me. John Williams’ music always has a definite intent and a life to affect. Where will that all be when he, and people like him, are gone? This is my letter to him, thanking him for how he has inspired me.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dear Mr. Williams,

I am writing to you in a desperate cry for help! I hope with all my heart that this reaches you, as I am not sure where to turn if it does not. I have been a fervent fan and disciple of your work ever since I was a teenager, and even in writing this, I’m finding myself becoming so emotionally overwhelmed. I’m no sure that I can convey what fully what is going on inside me, but I will try. I must first give you a short background on myself.

I am an aspiring young musician about to celebrate his 33rd birthday next week. I do have a B.M. in classical piano performance, but attended various universities, including the ever-prestigious USC, studying a mix of jazz and classical performance, as well as composition and arranging over quite a few years. I was also privately trained in all of these areas since I was the age of six, which was already two or three years after having showed that I could pick out tunes by ear on the piano or organ without having had any experience nor having even looked at a keyboard before. My family couldn’t afford lessons until later. The only reason I share this is not to gloat, but to emphasize that I may have a unique perspective. This unique perspective has caused me a lot of problems throughout my “studies”, and I found myself over the years in university butting heads with my professors. However, when I was much younger, a teenager, I found myself to be so much more prolific, free, following my heart. This is where you come in, Mr. Williams.

About six or seven years into my private piano lessons, learning technique and the classics, picking up some jazz here and there (actually I was starting to gig around town as a jazz pianist at 13), and having a complete disregard for music theory (I understood it, but it didn’t matter to me), I saw Jurassic Park. It was not the first time that I had noticed the music in a film before, but it was the first time that I noticed that I was noticing the music more and more. Needless to say, I loved it, and it was the first score that I purchased on CD. Of course, I took notice of your name right away, and it kept popping up in films that I had already seen or owned on video. Soon, my exclamations went from “WOW, he wrote the music for Star Wars?!” to “Ok, that music from Amazing Stories must be him!” I was very much affected, and I immediately became obsessed with film scores, but particularly your work because of the way it has always affected me. I was buying CD after CD of everything I could get my hands on, not just to listen, but to study. I was transcribing as best I could into a little archaic MIDI sequencing program to check how well I was doing. As I went, I became more interested in how you strip away the extraneous to arrive at something that is just perfect for your themes. Textures were also big with me. I studied excerpts from older movies, new movies, olympic fanfares. I learned a great deal. I don’t even know where the sequences are anymore, it was such a long time ago, and that software is obsolete now. The point is that I wanted to study how to be a film composer, and there was no way that I knew of to do that, except to do what I was doing. I was also looking at some of the composers that may have inspired you as well: Wagner, Holst, Bartok, etc…

Heading into college to “study” the classics, jazz, and composition, I learned the names of the things that I already understood. And looking back on it, none of it seems to matter. I spent most of my time saying things like, “Yes, I understand the form of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, but why does it sound so optimistic?” As you can easily guess, I never received any answers. Composition yielded a bunch of junk of which I’m ashamed to call my own because it was only written to satisfy them. I am looking for a higher purpose in all of this.

In the last 15 years, I have spent my time traveling the United States and Canada as a jazz pianist, keeping up with my technique at home (I received my B.M. and don’t ever want to go back to school because it is expensive and a waste on someone like me), and in the summers I teach teenagers at a jazz camp to unleash their inner creativity and follow their hearts like I once did, just as you have taught me through your music.

So, essentially you have taught me more about music than anyone I can think of. I was thinking the other day about some of the more recent films that I have seen. I have become increasingly worried about the life and evolution of the film score. I’m finding that scores are becoming more and more texture-based, with less and less life. Dramatically sweeping scores are giving way to what could be deemed as “film muzak”, defined as a harmonorhytmically driven, underlying pulse. I saw the recent Academy Award nominations for best score, and I was appalled.

And then, this morning, I was listening to the theme you wrote for Fawkes, the phoenix from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. And either the second bar or the third and fourth (depending upon how you count it), I keep finding myself getting choked up. The melody goes 1-8-5 and the harmony goes vi – iii. I keep wondering to myself, how is it that the essence of loyalty, mystery, empathy, flying, tenderness, and about a hundred other adjectives that describe that character, how are they all conveyed so well in something so simple? I understand the concept of having dramatic instinct, but why do I always find myself saying, “Well of course! That is exactly how that is musically conveyed!” when I hear your work? This, and the way film scores are evolving, is killing me! I, myself, have always wanted to involve myself in the process, but haven’t found an outlet to do so, and as I get older, I seem to want it more and more, just so that some form of the dramatic, sweeping scores will still remain, when the kings have left this world. There is so much more that I want to learn, but there are fewer and fewer from whom to do so.

And that, Mr. Williams, is why I felt compelled to write to you. I wanted to express my vast appreciation for your work, and what you’ve done for me thus far without even knowing you have. For that, you have my utmost gratitude. But I do believe, and very deeply I might add, that you can help me find the answers that I am looking for. Music is my life, and no amount of techno-babble is going to satisfy my lust to understand it on a much deeper level than just notes and relationships between notes flowing through time. I don’t care about any of that. I want to know how to create music that makes people FEEL things. You have showed me how that is, above all, the most important force in art.

Sincerely yours,

Jason Wanner