Composer John Barry

“I can see the earlier James Bond movies, and they hold up much stronger than the later Bond movies. The latter ones became more formula, and they’re not half as interesting.”

The world will always remember John Barry for his association with James Bond. Yet –as enjoyable as the Bond scores have been– much of Barry’s best work rests in the threshold of serious drama. Trademark styles involving lush strings and massive orchestrations have awarded Barry with respect and admiration by fans and other professionals. Always maintaining an elevated level of diverse, musical knowledge, Barry’s career has spanned four decades and evolved from a jazz-based pop rock talent to his current, classically oriented, mega-blockbuster status.

It is partially because of this jazzy background that Barry has been so successful with the Bond scores. Barry and Monty Norman went to court at the end of the century over the ownership of the James Bond theme, and Norman won the right to receive royalties for that theme in a nasty, mud-slinging legal battle. Nevertheless, Barry wrote many of the popular title songs that followed, and his themes for these films can be heard on hundreds of compilations, as well as corporate videos and supermarket jingles. Many people forget that Barry was known as a very talented song-writer early in his career. After the Bond series had quit for a short while in the early 1990’s, though, Barry did not feel like a part of Bond any longer. He instead set his sights primarily on drama.

In the 1980’s, Barry had experimented with combining synthesizers with his traditional orchestras and band. After the incredible success of his fully orchestral Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves scores, his style has remained static. Lush strings, performing the main themes, are accompanied by brass (and almost never the other way around). After positive exposure for Chaplin and Indecent Proposal, Barry used this style for a trio of impressive scores: The Scarlet Letter, Cry, The Beloved Country, and Swept from the Sea. He continued to score action films sparingly, with an adequate, and sometimes hauntingly good score for The Specialist, and an average score for Mercury Rising. The 1990s has seen a dramatic decline in Barry’s productive output. He rarely scores television projects anymore, and only departed from regular film to score an IMAX picture, Across the Sea of Time, for his son. In eight of the last ten years, Barry has scored only one film or less per year.

Although his production has been sporatic in the last years, sometimes taking entire 18-month periods off from scoring feature films, the scores that he has created in the 1990s have been generally very enjoyable. There are many fans who cherish each and every one of Barry’s new releases and hope that his career extends for yet another decade. Unfortunately, for those who want to see Barry return to the James Bond series, it appears that such a reunion will not occur. David Arnold, a promising young composer, however, has taken the reigns of the new Bond scoring responsibilities, and his score for Tomorrow Never Dies pays an enormous tribute to John Barry’s 1960’s Bond style.


Composer Thomas Newman


“In the end, it’s in everyone’s best interest for it to be done right. While there may be a schedule looming, there’s also everyone’s arrogant sense of excellence. Sometimes, though, you just have to swallow hard and do the work. Those are the moments when you face huge kinds of primal fears. But the good thing about movie music is that oftentimes you defeat those fears and it teaches you something basic about your nature.”
— Thomas Newman in 1998
Legendary Golden Age composer Alfred Newman was the winner of nine Academy Awards and the longtime music director at 20th Century Fox Studios. His death in 1970 came as his son Thomas was just 14, and yet, the legacy of Alfred Newman’s career has been carried on in Thomas Newman’s prolific, if not paradoxical film scoring career. Despite the magnificent musical talent applied to films and television in the past and present, Thomas unintentionally stumbled into the scoring business by accident. He is well known for writing spectacular scores for large orchestral ensembles, and yet he personally prefers writing for small ensembles and producing quirky, off-beat rhythms. He continues to be one of the most sought-after composers in Hollywood, despite his lack of ego and an insecurity he often feels about his own scores (though his frustration at his continued lack of an Oscar persists). Newman works today in the same old Pacific Palisades studio that his father used for years.

That studio, once adorned with a piano and a stopwatch, is now a hi-tech center of computerized recording equipment, complete with some of Newman’s favorite unusual instruments. Moving effortlessly from dramas to sharp satires to period pieces, he has earned a reputation as one of the most versatile composers working in Hollywood today. With regular collaborators Bill Bernstein, Thomas Pasatieri, and others, Newman often utilizes a set of unusual and rare instruments alongside a standard symphony orchestra to create an enigmatic and highly unique sound that is both lush and pastoral, but infused with the rhythms and textures of world music. Unceasing experimentation, often using an ensemble of players that Newman has employed in previous scores, helps define his approach. He thus manages to elicit an enormous amount of the emotional content of a film without being obvious about it. The directors with whom he has worked agree that Newman has an original voice and is a genuine collaborator. In 2003, his apprehensive effort to enter the realm of his cousin Randy Newman and score an animated picture, Finding Nemo, was a remarkable success.


Composer John Williams

The last decades have proven to be an unpredictable period in John Williams’ career. Although maintaining his high standard of European classical music, Williams’ long tenure on the throne as “the very best composer in Hollywood” has come under question. His reigning days of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones scores in the 1980’s have partly faded, and Williams has moved on to a variety of heavy, dramatic film assignments. And yet, even though composers such as James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith have been commercially threatening Williams’ dominance atop the world of film music, he continues to produce exceptional scores.

John Williams is the master of the long-term Hollywood relationship. He has remained loyal to directors such as Steven Spielberg (scoring all but a few of his feature films) and Oliver Stone. He is also the master of the sequel, scoring more sequels for seperate major motion picture series than any other composer in the history of Hollywood, including sequels to Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter. Because of this trend, Williams has also become the master of weaving original themes from previous films into new efforts, and interpolating the combination into a thematically impressive suite of new and old music. The most difficult task he has faced has been the continuation of the Star Wars saga into six films, for which Williams must contend with over a dozen themes to weave into each new entry.

Some people recall the “Johnny Williams” days of swinging jazz scores of the 1960’s (How to Steal a Million, John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, A Guide for the Married Man), or the Academy Award winning master of disaster epics in the 1970’s (The Towering Inferno, Jaws, The Fury). Even though most people remember him for his classics of the late 1970’s and 1980’s (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.), some of Williams’ best work has been for smaller, more serious, or failing movies. During all the hooplah surrounding Home Alone in 1990, Williams produced one of the most haunting and effective scores of his career, Presumed Innocent. Never before had Williams captured the feeling of frustration and dread so well. The following year, Williams fans were delighted when theatrical trailers for Steven Spielberg’s Hook included original music by John Williams. This fanfare, which is included on the CD release, became part of a Williams classic. Hook has more enjoyable themes in one neat, long package than almost any other Williams score. In 1992, in a time when James Horner was stirring up the film music community with ethnic Irish music, Williams created a similar epic score for Far and Away.

 Williams conducts a concert in 1994

Arguably the best single year for any composer in Hollywood’s long history, Williams produced Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in 1993, and both became top commercial sellers. After the acclaim he received from these scores (including another Academy Award), he went on a drought. He took a year off from scoring, and then returned with three less popular scores for Sabrina, Nixon, and Sleepers. In 1997, though, with re-releases of his Star Wars trilogy (special edition) in theatres, he provided impressive, dramatically eclectic scores for The Lost World, Seven Years in Tibet, and Amistad. Saving Private Ryan in 1998 proved that Williams’ hand at heavy drama wavers none. In between blockbuster scores for the Star Wars prequels and the start of the Harry Potter series, the maestro combined song and score for the beautiful A.I. Artificial Intelligence in 2001 and paid tribute to Bernard Herrmann in Minority Report the following year.

Williams’ personality is admired by many, but intensely disliked by others. In concert, both at the Boston Pops and on tour, his sense of humor captivates the audience almost immediately. On the other hand, other professionals claim that Williams’ ego has become too inflated –perhaps due to his enormous worldwide success. In a 1997 interview regarding the Academy Awards (and his nomination for Amistad), he claimed that he wasn’t so much concerned with the many Oscars he’s won as much as all those he’s lost over the years to other composers. But regardless of his reputation and/or personality, the scores of John Williams, from the perspective of orchestral music-lovers and his fellow peers, have changed the course of film music history.


Composer Ramin Djawadi

On getting started as the Game of Thrones composer

Ramin_Djawadi_PHOTO2I had not read the books. I knew of them. The creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss reached out to me and sent me the first two episodes of season one to watch and see what I thought. Then we got together and talked creatively about the complexity of the story and characters. It was important for them to make sure the different characters and plots were musically supported. Music can help so much to guide the plotline. After our conversation, I eagerly started writing for the first episode.

We also talked about the main title theme. The main title designer invited me over and showed me an early cut, a rough outline of the map that appears in the opening picture. That inspired me.

A lot of the music was based on conversations with Benioff and Weiss. They had a great vision for what they wanted in the show. They said, “We’ve got to find our own sound and our own tone.” It’s such a fantasy world and they never wanted to go too traditional. There’s room for modern electronic sounds without overdoing it. I tried to find the sweet spots for the modern sounds.

Beginning a project is always the hardest part. Once you have your palette set up then you can deal with how to expand and develop it. Working on this project has been really amazing. As the characters and plot develop, I’m pushed in new directions.


On Game of Thrones’ musical themes evolving throughout the show

One good example is the Lannister (family) theme, which was played at the “Red Wedding” (in season three). The first time you hear that theme is the first episode in season two when Tyrion Lannister whistles it. It’s fun to hint at themes early on in the show as a means of foreshadowing later episodes.


On recording the music

A lot of the recording is done by solo musicians. The bigger scenes are recorded with a full orchestra and a choir in Prague. I use the Internet to communicate with the musicians during recording sessions. I’m going to try to go on set next season.


On the Berklee experience

I was a dual major in film scoring and guitar performance. At the time, I was very interested in just playing guitar, being in a band, and getting signed. The music I was writing lent itself to film. Film music is a big passion of mine. Berklee showed me I could do both.

Attending Berklee was a fantastic experience. I showed up from Germany with just a guitar, no equipment or amps. Berklee’s top-quality technology allowed me to better my craft. Berklee does a great job of taking you all the way from theory to real-world application.


On what students should know

While at Berklee you should soak up as much information and technology as you can. It kind of shapes you into having the right attitude when you get into the real world. Get an internship. Know how to work your way up in the business. You’ve got to be able to hang in music.


On getting inspired to be a composer

The Magnificent Seven might have been the movie that inspired me to get into film. The movie was on TV when I was a kid and my dad taped it. Something went wrong so I only saw the last 40 minutes of the movie and it was in black and white. Still, I watched it over and over again. Years later I saw the whole movie and it triggered something in me. It’s so incredibly catchy; you can sing the music on its own. That’s what film music is supposed to do. It’s supposed to tie you into the film. It creates a voice that supports the uniqueness of each TV show or film. If you listen to the music without the picture and close your eyes, you can be transported into that movie or TV show.