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Full disclosure. I love Jurassic Park. I don’t even have a concept of how many times I’ve watched this movie. This movie is perfect and a big part of WHY it’s perfect is John Williams’ amazing soundtrack. Ready to know more?
PIECE: “Jurassic Park” (Highlights)
COMPOSER: John Williams (Arranged by Calvin Custer)
ERA/GENRE: 20th Century / film score
GOOD FOR: Crying with joy and awe like a mature adult who loves dinosaurs; ethically ambiguous genetic lab background music; embracing John Williams as legitimate classical music…whatever that means.
Let’s talk a little about John Williams himself. He was born in 1932. You guys, John Williams is 87 years old? I guess...it makes sense but he seems like some sort of eternal presence that has just always existed and always will as long as there are movies. I’m sure Hollywood will use all their illuminati powers to keep him alive forever… As my favorite Chaos theoretician would say…
His father was a jazz percussionist and John Williams eventually ended up playing bassoon, cello, clarinet, trombone, trumpet and piano. By eventually I mean by the end of elementary school. After he formed a lil band with his friends and realized that clarinets and pianos can’t read off the same music and he needed to learn how to transpose, he began teaching himself orchestration by studying classical music scores.* After college he ended up joining the US Air Force as a composer, arranger, pianist and “brass”. He’s a brAss man AND a Piano Man. A twofer of jokes!
Right, so then John Williams goes to Juilliard for piano (take that John-Williams-Isn’t-Classical-Musicers!) and afterwards, he plays jazz piano in nightclubs for a while. In 1956 he got a studio pianist contract in L.A. Fun fact! One of his first projects was the film adaptation of Roger & Hammerstein’s South Pacific. People started noticing he was a freaky genius talent and asking him to do arrangements, then TV soundtracks followed…up to 39 soundtracks a season…so Williams develops this Bach-like talent for churning out gold as fast as possible by recycling a lot of his former content into brand new soundtracks. He gets his first film score deal in 1960 and then his career takes off. His film scores took a minute to gain traction and were initially lighter films than his later dramatic flair. He describes his early scores as “lots of brass chords on cuts to brassieres.” Later this same man wrote the soundtrack to Schindler’s List which is distinctly not brassy brassiere cuts.
Pretty quickly though, he settles into the magic that we all now recognize as unmistakably “John Williamsy”. John Williams’ film scores turn into a strange ouroboros where I can’t tell where they end or begin. Is this Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones? Wait there’s some Star Wars over there, and is that a little Harry Potter on that page turn? Hallmarks include big brassy fanfares, trumpets for days, mysterious flute/pitched percussion combos, emotional string melodies, inclusion of piano and harp, and threatening bass motifs.
Incidentally, he has a whole conducting career too, plus a million Oscar nominations, various other awards (the good ones) and other accolades you can read about here if you want but truly, we all know John Williams is super famous already, because almost anyone can sing the theme to Jaws and Star Wars. Listen...I can’t talk too much about John Williams or we’ll be here all day. He is...the most successful living classical composer? I mean certainly the most prominent household name of our living composers. And I’m not going to waste time preaching to snoots who don’t think this is “real music” or legitimate or anything like that. This music makes people feel things, it’s got an orchestra, it’s got a choir, it’s using all the same musical cues/leitmotifs as romantic music and opera so really I don’t know what your problem is. Have some fun. It’s ok to admit dinosaurs made you cry! It’s ok to admit writing a post about dinosaur music made you cry! I’m crying right now! It’s OK!
So today we’re looking at Calvin Custer’s arrangement of the soundtrack from Jurassic Park. This arrangement features 2 out of 3 of the BIG themes (it leaves out the Jaws-esque Raptor theme and subs in material from “My Friend the Brachiosaurus”. Maybe Calvin Custer prefers veggiesaurs?). All subsequent timings are in reference to the following video.
The arrangement begins, appropriately, with music from “Opening Titles”. It makes my whole soul jump for joy when I hear that first WHUMPH in the bass clarinet, tuba, cello, string bass and bass drum, followed by two dramatic crescendos from everyone else and then suddenly the French horn alone.
This solo is very appropriately given to the French horn who generally symbolizes nobility and heroes, especially sort of lonely ones. It also has some hunting connotations that I suppose are appropriate (although I don’t support hunting dinosaurs. It never ends well.). It features a very prominent flat two (that third note that sounds funky) which generally indicates big doom in classical music. The horn sounds the call twice, as if the island is calling to you…
And the third time the orchestra replies and it’s time for some magic…
We hear the first iteration of the theme “Welcome to Jurassic Park” (1:09 in the vid). This scene first appears in the film when Dr. Grant, Dr. Sattler and Dr. Malcolm (I would love to site them in a paper sometime as Grant, Malcolm & Sattler, 1993) see their first dinosaur. Williams said he wanted the theme to invoke "the awesome beauty and sublimity of the dinosaurs in nature." and later referred to it as “overwhelming happiness and excitement.”. You guys, 2019 needs more of this. We demand MORE QUALITY JURASSIC PARK FILMS. DO WHAT YOU DID FOR STAR WARS AND MAKE THE WORLD HAPPY AGAIN!! Star Wars traditionalists/Jurassic World fans… don’t come @ me. I really don’t care.
There’s quite a bit of reverence musically built into this theme, so let’s go over a few ways Williams does this. He chooses to use a lot of dotted rhythms in a slow tempo which invokes a very noble, processional feel (think “Here comes the bride” for similar slow dotted rhythms and if you are like me, and think this is someone’s perfect wedding march, this quartet is PREPARED). Harmonically, the theme is hanging out on I, IV and V chords, the most “home” feeling and comforting chords to most western ears. This music has a few hymn-like qualities other than that processional feel, including a sort of “organ thump” which is sometimes how church musicians refer to the bass note that “thumps” right before the next hymn verse to indicate where to come in. While the “thump” exists in the piano version, it’s a lot more noticeable in this big timpani “thump”.
Truly so good. At 3:27 in the Custer arrangement, the music transitions to material from “Journey to the Island” which a nerdy subset of people may recognize as the loading screen music for Lego’s Jurassic Park video game. A peppy bass line keeps the energy up and the strings create a warm, overlapping texture. Think of waterfalls, think of nature’s power, think of people being unethical with science but hatching dinosaur eggs!
Then it’s 4:50 and we are at our second major theme. A big brassy fanfare because it wouldn’t be John Williams without one! Williams called this adventurous theme, “high-spirited and brassy, thrilling and upbeat musically.” “High-spirited and brassy” is my new life philosophy I think. This honestly sounds SO much like the musical world John Williams invokes in Indiana Jones to me. The reason I point that out is not to say, “Omg John Williams is reusing material” (because all composers are…) but to say, hey look what are the connections we can draw between these two musical universes? They’re adventure forward, they’re strangers in strange lands, they’re all academic heroes (THE BEST AND COOLEST KINDS) so they’re hella noble but willing to get their hands dirty to fight for what’s right. We get the adventure in the brass fanfare and a little of the magic of a new place in the string + harp and woodwinds dominant textures between.
Our next section of material (around 6:21) comes from “My Friend the Brachiosaurus” which happens during the scene where Dr. Grant and the kids sleep in the tree and encounter a friendly dinosaur with some minor nasal problems. This music definitely represents the softer side of dinosaurs, and this scene represents the discovery of the softer side of Dr. Grant, which Williams represents in a rich, legato, strings and woodwind texture. If you’re not playing, this is a great time to hug a friend or get sneezed on by an enormous life-form in a humorous way, whatever floats your boat. Let John Williams’ warm string texture shower you brachiosaurus style…
From this gentle mood we move very naturally into the piano version of our theme at 8:44. Williams simplified the harmony which, as we discussed earlier, is already a fairly simple I/IV/V so there’s almost never any harmonic tension that isn’t immediately resolved. Choosing to put this simplified version onto the piano feels very nostalgic, almost like we’re remembering when our mother used to play the Jurassic Park theme on the piano when we were children…which is some serious parenting goals btw. The percussion enters and gives us a magical bell-like quality to our nostalgia. Another indication that Williams is invoking nostalgia here is the similarity between this texture/instrumentation and the texture he uses in the sweeter parts of Home Alone .
From there we just ride this theme out to a triumphant swelling conclusion as our “Adventure theme” returns. Choose for yourself whether this represents a joyful escape from dinosaur island, the triumph of dinosaurs, or the eventual evolution where dinosaur eats man, woman inherits the earth.
Or this miracle…
I’ll see you at the session at the Academy of Sciences on March 21st!
55 Music Concourse Dr.
San Francisco, CA 94118
It feels so far away…so until then, soothe yourself with this video of ten hours of the jurassic park theme.
*Honestly this is such an irritating part of classical music and I wish that modern science would find a way to make orchestral scores easier to read. If this means nothing to you, it’s almost certainly a piece of information you can happily enjoy music without knowing, but if you really want to know here’s a wikipedia hole to fall down.