Thursday, September 23, 2010

John Williams: Music of America

For many years now, I have believed that John Williams is the composer of our time. His film scores, since the 1970s, have defined how movies sound, and his non-film work, while not as easily accessible, displays an uncanny way to bend the orchestra to his whim. As melodic as his film work is, as many doors as he offers to those who wish to enter, his other work is sometimes dissonant, difficult, surprisingly challenging. I read somewhere that Williams said he composes film scores for the public and his other work for himself. I can’t think of another composer whose two musical lives are so different.

Much of his non-film work is gathered in a new CD set called "Music of America." This landmark series, from Sony Masterworks, highlights several other composers: Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Charles Ives. The Williams set provides an interesting cross-section of his work. It’s not exactly a greatest hits package…but almost.

There’s film music here, of course, gathered on the 3rd disc, themes from Star Wars, Jaws, ET, Schindler’s List, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Close Encounters. All of this material is avialable on other, previously released discs.

The other two discs are where the magic really is. His “Air and Simple Gifts,” previously unavailable, was written for Barack Obama’s inauguration. “American Journey” is a six-movement celebration of America that was originally the score for a Steven Spielberg-directed film shown on the National Mall on December 31, 1999. “Suite from Memoirs of a Geisha,” a stunning expansion of his score for that film, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, was available in a Ma box set last year. There’s also “The Five Sacred Trees,” a lengthy, lovely, dark meditation that deserves focused listening to discover its quiet, hidden treasures. And there’s much, much more.

If you’re looking for Williams’ signature film music alone, this is not be the set for you. But for sweeping look at Williams’ broader scope of work—particularly work that features themes inspired by the great cultural expanse of America, this is wonderful stuff.

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