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The Chaotic Mind of John Williams

One of the most required musical expressions in action film music is chaos. Though less and less used nowadays, chaotic textures provide incomparable richness to the scenes and cannot be taken for granted.

“Out of chaos comes order”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Having this principle in mind we are going to have an opposite approach to it. It means that only with order we can created chaos, in music.

John Williams chaotic textures sound so good because he does not follow the common belief that randomness can create good sounding complex textures.

What creates chaos in the overall texture is the inconsistency of each element, but each element by itself is in perfect order.

Those inconsistencies can be created in several ways and endless combinations if we keep in mind the characteristics studied in chapter II of the book The John Williams' Compositional Techniques. Today we will briefly analyze only the rhythmic nature of some textures and we are going to do it by diminishing or eliminating the sense of musical pulse.


Searching / Were Dying

In the first example taken from one of the unused cues from ET the Extraterrestrial, John creates the chaotic effect by eliminating consistent rhythms of each element.


Element 1: Horns

This is the only element which gives us the sensation of pulse. It is a motive that has already appeared several times before in the E.T. score and serves as a link between this scary texture and the rest of the soundtrack.

Element 2: Brass Harmony

Since this element is made basically of long held notes it doesn’t contribute anything rhythmically. Its dissonant effect in the harmony and bending make it crucial to the chaos.

The low bending in the bones have no harmonic, melodic or rhythmic association with the texture.


Element 3:

This aleatoric effect creates air to the texture and since it is randomly played by each musician, it can’t be perceived as several single solo lines but instead, as a cloud of an undefined sound. To be effective, this technique requires a large number of players, this is why it is used more often on strings.


Element 4:

This is another motive taken from the previous music. Even though there are six consecutive notes that play consistently for more than two bars, the rhythm is this

which is totally contrasting with the rhythm played by the horns and it is not enough to give to the listener a sense of pattern or pulse.

Element 5:

By this time there’s no need to mention how inconsistent a “highest pitch fast repetition ad libitum” effect can be, right?

Later comes the bones playing the following rhythm

Again, these fast repetitions don’t last long enough to be perceived as a pulse.

This kind of figure (usually in trombones or trumpets) has been very common in the John’s action film music.

Strings are now introduced and provide no contribution to the rhythmic pulse.

Btw, do you know which harmony is this?

Refer to this link if you want to know more.



Longbottom Flies

In this second example, in the original example (first part), after the entire orchestra plays one of the themes from Happy Potter, John suddenly shifts the progress of the music to a chaotic texture by wavering the sense of pulse.

Even though the sense of pulse has not been totally eliminated here, the strong and week beats are not clear in certain places.

In this case there are only one element which contributes to a consistent pattern while woods play some undefined fast runs.

The variation (second part) was an attempt make this texture a little more chaotic by:

1 - Introducing new elements which are ambiguous to the basic rhythm.

2 - More articulations to the horns which will provide a less consistent element.

3 - Adding inner and low movements that will blur one or more elements.

There are some other interesting additions throughout the score. To know them all compare them both!

Note that not only new elements were strategically added but the woodwind and string runs have been changed in order to shift the accentuation.

Here are the woodwinds lines comparison.

Also, it is relevant to mention that the music of John Williams, particularly in this part of the cue, has a rare tendency in film music to have humanized variation of rhythms. This is an unique characteristic seldom used today which provides more natural flow to the music.

Now as a good exercise for sensing the pulse, try tapping or conducting the tempos of the above examples. After doing it can you better understand what creates the complexity of a chaotic texture when it is regarded to rhythms?

OBS: the book The John Williams' Compositional Techniques has not been released yet. 2017 is a good time for great development of this project and if you want to keep updated about it subscribe to my Blog and my YouTube Chanel.

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