Welcome to…JURASSIC PARK

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)

DATE: 1993

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 as much as I would love to just write you a full play-by-play of the film’s score, my growing stack of reading assignments tells me that is probably not the best use of our time. So we’re going to cover the three main themes of Jurassic Park and then I highly suggest you go watch Jurassic Park because the themes pop up all over the place and also that movie REALLY HOLDS UP.

Opening titles music that still makes my heart soar. I know in my heart that choir is real but the awesome reverb turned up to 11 makes them sound like a synth and that makes me like it even more? Who am I? What is happening? 

THEME I: Theme from Jurassic Park

Theme from Jurassic Park”

Original titling snark aside, this is some PEAK John Williams melody.

This opening 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 with some very cheery major sonorities and it’s time for some magic…

The texture is all warm medium/low range of strings and chorus, building in woodwinds, then eventually brass and percussion, slowly moving us into the more *ahem* abrasive instruments (sorry guys, you’re loud and/or piercing, and you know it). 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”.

This makes me cry every time…they DO move in herds

THEME II:  Journey to the Island

Theme 2! Theme 2! Get pumped it’s the fanfare theme!

A nerdy subset of people may recognize this opening music 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! It returns after the first iteration of the second theme if you want to continue listening

Then it’s 1:30 in the above vid and we are officially 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.

THEME III: Raptor’s Delight “Raptor” Theme 

Lest anyone still be thinking that John Williams is a hack who just reuses material, he took the time to go out and hear what sound designers were doing to create dinosaur sounds and used that to guide his own compositions. The third theme that appears doesn’t have a specific name, and it’s only four notes but it’s very John Williamsy.

It’s the raptors! Yay!

Blah blah blah this is from Jurassic World blah blah blah

“The Raptor Attack” makes frequent use of this lilfour note theme which I have written out for you here in the key of B minor but it appears all over the place harmonically in this. Solfeggers among us, it’s “ti do le re”.

It begins with a half step (think Jaws) and transitions us down and ends on an unresolved 2! THE HORROR! It’s given to the brass, over these swirling bassoony, low strings chromatic bubblings and waves, later adding some creeptastic basses groaning at the bottom of their vocal ranges and strings sliding upwards in Psychoesque shivering glissandos. The choice to use brass on this simple theme also brings Close Encounters of the Third Kind to mind, although this is the somewhat demented version of that melody.

PUTTING IT TOGETHER!

Yay now that you know the three themes, we can move onto “Welcome to Jurassic Park” which incorporates ALL THREE!

Theme I returns prominently in “Welcome to Jurassic Park” in a very different orchestration. 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 return of the adventurous Theme II around 4:30. 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…


At 6:41 Theme I gently leads our cool-down, returning on piano and woodwinds to calm us all down a little bit. Perhaps it’s meant to bring us back to our senses a little because the next thing that happens is the return of our RAPTOR THEME at 7:14. Almost like John Williams is suggesting that in case you got all wrapped up in your academic and adventurous delights, please remember that dinosaurs will chomp off your arms and spit poison in your face. It returns three times which is both good storytelling technique and also echoes our initial “island call” french horn solo because John Williams is a GD GENIUS. Like…maybe don’t answer that island call because this island is full of danger. But this soundtrack is full of delights! Go forth and watch Jurassic Park!

A version of this post originally appeared on Awesöme Orchestra’s blog at 

www.awesomeorchestra.org

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