John Williams is 80

(Originally posted on sleepsong, April 21, 2009. Happy 80th birthday, Maestro!)

When John Met Igor

Older fans of traditional film scores and/or 20th century music will know this one.

And almost everyone knows the main musical theme to the 1975 film Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg and his first major success as well as generally being the first acknowledged Hollywood blockbuster.

Saying the shark theme is iconic is like saying Obama got a dog; saying it is iconic is beyond understatement. It is one of the most viral musical memes ever created. It doesn’t need a ringtone to stay in our consciousness.

Last summer I heard small children passing Jaws along – still – at a public wading pool, 33 years after it was written. Spielberg laughed at composer John Williams when the latter first played the little two-note riff on the piano for him. It’s fair to say the theme – which recurs constantly throughout the film although it’s only a tiny part of a very sophisticated score – is just as responsible for the film’s impact on pop culture as the visuals.

Only true music geeks know that the theme (properly, a motif) builds into chugging, razor-toothed chords straight outta Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”). Le Sacre is a ballet score that famously – along with the “primitive” choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky which it accompanied – caused a riot at its 1913 premiere. The direction of concert music was thus notoriously changed, and Jaws is easily the most well-known of many film scores that were directly influenced by it, in this case over 60 years later.

For this post, I took a CD of the Jaws score – as originally recorded and conducted by John Williams in Hollywood with a small studio orchestra in 1975, and a CD of Le Sacre – as conducted by Igor Stravinsky in New York City with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1960, and cross-faded and mashed them up them DJ style. We hears Jaws first, then Le Sacre at 0:33, then Williams swims back into the mix alongside Stravinsky from 1:18 until the end.

Spring Bites

I have not altered the pitch nor speed of either recording, letting them kind of wash up (ahem) over each other. I created this audio file in real time using my CD turntables – no desktop software was involved.

Williams was in essence sampling Stravinsky to create the underpinning to Jaws, the way a hip-hop producer might loop a drum break from an old R&B/funk record to make a new-school beat. Of course, hip-hop wasn’t quite born yet in 1975.

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