Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Innocuous as a Film Score: Williams' Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion

On October 25th, roughly two months before the movie is released in American theaters, John Williams' soundtrack for Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin will hit European shelves--thus ending a three year score drought from the 79 year old composer and sending starved aficionados into a frenzy. Short clips from the score have been steadily appearing on the internet, and one in particular--track 1 "The Adventures of Tintin," set to accompany the film's stylized main credits--quickly caught my attention. (Listen to sneak-peak here). Scored for chamber forces (clarinets and saxes, accordion, upright bass, harpsichord, muted brass, drum-set) and composed in a sprightly quasi-jazz idiom, it is sprinkled with synchronized fragments of themes and a walking bass through-line. Though vastly unlike the boisterous style Williams is best known for, it is an immediately familiar sound to anyone familiar with certain cues from Catch Me If You Can and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, particularly the manic "Knight Bus" cue from the latter (listen here).

Where does this hyperventilating style spring from? The answer lies in a concert work Williams composed in 1968, his Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion. The piece is worth examining not only for its place in Williams' oeuvre, but the way in which it was part of an important development in American music mid 20th century -- the birth and ascendancy of the modern wind ensemble, a creature we have already encountered in Giannini's 3rd Symphony.

The genesis of John Towner Williams (1932-) as today's preeminent film composer was surprisingly eclectic; after a stint arranging for the US Airforce band during the Korean War, Williams went on to study classical piano at Julliard while playing jazz piano in nightclubs. He made the fateful hop to the West Coast in the following year, studying composition at UCLA and playing piano for film studio orchestras. He would progressively graduate to arranging, then composing TV and film scores. Williams, of course, was not (and still is not) primarily known for his concert music, but over the course of his six decade career he has produced an impressive body of "art music," mostly for large orchestra. This includes 11 fine concerti, the most recent of which (oboe) premiered this spring with the Boston Pops, and two symphonic works.[1] 

The second of these symphonic efforts[2] , the Sinfonietta, was written free of a commission, but was picked up by the Eastman Wind Ensemble for performance in 1970, under the baton of Donald Hunsberger. Hunsberger inherited the position of conducting the EWE from its founder, Frederick Fennell, who essentially invented our modern notion of the wind ensemble as distinct from the military band. In the EWE, the obligatory doublings and arrangements common in earlier music for winds were replaced with single performers per part, an emphasis on extended technique, and original commissions from leading art music composers.[3] Hunsberger continued Fennell's legacy, particularly by issuing a series of printed scores with MCA Music and starting a recording series with the same label of new wind works with the EWE. The one single recording of the Sinfonietta's was thanks to Hunsberger's MCA series, placed on an 1972 LP where it was paired with Penderecki's Pittsburgh Overture and Mayazumi's Music with Sculpture. The recording, though re-issued in Japan in the late 90s, is now virtually unobtainable, and the clips I present below are from an admittedly low-quality bootleg.[4]

The Sinfonietta is a short but demanding work. Williams' early concert style can best be described as "dissonant," and here we find almost nothing of the catchy themes or rich harmonies that typify the composer's more public sonic persona. Instead, we get unvarnished atonality, couched not even in the triadic deformations and octatonic scales of his later aggressive concert works. The title "Sinfonietta" would seem to entail a smaller duration and scale than a full blown symphony (it is a descriptor adopted by many 20th century composers, most notably Janacek and Prokofiev), though it also serves as an escape clause from the rigor and importance ascribed to its parent genre. Williams' Sinfonietta is short--but hardly unprecedentedly so--hosting 3 movements instead of the usual four and lasting just short of 17 minutes.

Critics were of mixed opinion on whether Williams lived up, or down, to the diminutive title. One reviewer for High Fidelity Musical America claimed it "is too modestly titled; it is a real symphony in size and scope -- rather Hindemithian, but full of life and juice on its own."[5] A critic for Gramophone magazine was more mixed in praise, calling it "straightforward" and "well laid out," and that "there are some nice ideas, and some banal ones, but only in the first movement are they clinched by the overall form they give rise to."[6] The Gramophone critic shared with a less kind reviewer from The Music Journal a certain anxiety with Williams' status as jazz and film composer rather than classical artist: "Competently scored, appropriately laced with modernisms, it proceeds as innocuously as a film score--a medium, incidentally, at which Mr. Williams is said to excel."[7]

That last review smacks of irony in more ways than need to be tackled here. The Sinfonietta may be many things, but innocuous it certainly is not--and its vast bulk is far too strident to work as effective underscore. The opening movement is motivated largely by the clash of two loud, querulous themes. The first consists of widely spaced, homophonically moving chords for woodwinds, slowly ascending by semitone (in the first appearance, mm. 1-9, that upwards progress is deceptively small, a minor third from G5 to B5). The second theme is introduced at m. 27, something akin to a fugue subject,  although it is not privy to a standard fugue exposition (entries are loosely on A, B, Eb, and C). There is a whiff of something cinematically familiar to this theme, perhaps the "Conversation" from Close Encounters, but by and large it is more Miraculous Mandarin than friendly alien.

First Four Measures of Second Subject, Sinfonietta Mvt. 1 
The two themes contrapuntally collide for the first time at m. 56, and as soon as the brass takes up the second melody, a stretto quickly makes the already dense texture even more hazardous to navigate aurally. There is no doubt that Williams is capable of wringing a big "orchestral" sound from the wind ensemble at moments like this (both themes join at 0:25)

The first movement's middle section is more sparsely orchestrated, with small motivic cells being traded between instruments in a manner similar to early attempts at "Klangfarbenmelodie." However, these independent ideas begin to coalesce into firmer lines in 8ves. Once amassed, the woodwinds once again confront the stern fugue theme, now barely able to resist buckling under the pressure of the low brass. A final pronouncement of the initial homophonic theme brings the movement to an arch-like conclusion, only to disintegrate with an eerie sustained wind chord at its close. (for the truly curious, a 6z-16, which contains two semitone clusters a fifth apart).

The Sinfonietta's slow second movement is a procession of sorts, with quiet and steady pulse from timpani and pitched percussion undergirding its duration. The first 24 measures feature a dissonant conversation between three oboes, with (once again extremely loose) fugal introductions for all three. This yields to a lushly scored chord constructed mostly out of sus2 dyads, a jazz-cum-Ligeti sonority of the sort Williams would later claim was inspired by the ensemble scoring of jazz great Claude Thornhill. This passage is comparatively short-lived, however, and soon the drive of the opening procession returns with a vengeance, cresting with a gigantic climax chord similar to the culmination of the fourth of Webern's 6 Pieces for Orchestra. Here is the tail end of the oboe trio, leading into the rumination on that jazz chord.

And so we arrive at the final "Allegro Molto" movement -- and it is here we discover the original source for the "Knight Bus" style introduced at the beginning. Where a jazz mindset may have provided one or two complex chords in previous movements, here it dominates; a sense of rhapsodic group improvisation pervades, and represents the first of several real contributions Williams would make to Third Stream jazz: a style invented by Gunther Schuller that attempted to blend classical forces and forms with jazz sensibilities.[8]

Following a cacophonous opening, Williams thins the texture down to percussion, solo winds, and a very busy contrabass part. Playing solo or with their 2 other basses, the perfomer runs through a constant stream of 8th notes roving in scalar figurations -- an atonal walking bass, in other words. The material placed above this motor rhythm ranges from quirky to ominous. One can easily discern the seeds for various special effects of the "Knight Bus" cue here, from the off-kilter piano/vibes melody presented in major ninths to the car-horn imitations.[9] A recollection of that noisy opening "restarts" the walking bass, which collapses under the pressure of heavier brass lines, and it is not long before the whole movement slams into a wall of a pyramid chord and goes silent. Since, short of convincing an orchestra to play the whole piece, it is unlikely you can hear this work independently, here is the entire last movement.

Having lain dormant for decades, this final movement of the Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion served as a fount for some of the most memorable movie music of the last decade. While it seems unlikely Williams will ever return to the genre of the symphony again, we should take comfort in knowing that in film music--and indeed in all music--no good idea, however obscure, ever lacks for a creative application in some surprising form.

---Frank Lehman
1.In this way Williams is part of the same tradition of film composers contributing to the concert hall as Korngold, Rózsa, Previn, and Herrmann, although none of his concert works directly utilize music from his film scores (with one exception, his Elegy for Cello and Orchestra.). Williams routinely downplays the importance of these pieces, claiming they are exercises of personal compositional growth and/or gracious "offerings" to performers with whom he has established a personal relationship; nevertheless, several are works of substance and deserve to be evaluated as "serious" contributions to orchestral literature.
2. His first symphony (1966), written at the prodding of his then mentor Bernard Herrmann, was premiered in America and then Europe, both times under the baton of his friend Andre Previn, in 1968 and 72 respectively. Williams, unsatisfied with the proportions of the piece, reworked it in the 1980s, but a performance of the revised symphony never materialized despited being programmed in 1987.
3. A terrific source for information on the development of the American wind ensemble is the volume The Wind Ensemble and its Repertoire, edited by Frank J. Cippola and Donald Hunsberger himself.
4.  Williams was to benefit twice more from his association with the EWE and Hunsberger. First with a commission to celebrate the school's 50th Anniversary that became his Nostalgic Jazz Odyssey (1971-72) and premiered alongside new works by Howard Hanson. The second was an all-Williams Eastman Philharmonia concert in 2001 initiated by Hunsberger.
5. High Fidelity Musical America, Vol. 22/1, 1972.
6. Gramophone, Vol. 50/1, 1972.
7. The Music Journal, Vol. 30, 1972.
8.  An excellent treatment of Williams' links to that style can be found in Greg Akkerman's 2004 dissertation, "An Original Composition in a Postmodern Confulent Style for Orchestra and An Analysis of Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra by John Williams." 
9. Even a respite at measure 67 (1:47) seems to have a correlate in a portion of the "Bus" cue where the bus interior squeezes down to fit through narrow spaces!


  1. excellent entry as always

  2. Not seeing a "contact us" link, I wanted to let you know that (1) I really like your site but (2) none of the embedded sound files work for me (running Linux Mint 14 / Firefox) - "nothing happens" when I hit the "play" button. I posted about the problem in one of the Linux newsgroups, and someone responded as follows...


    "The Flash doesn't play for me either, using Firefox on Mint 13.

    Hover the cursor over one of the Flash players, and a tooltip shows that it apparently uses a Google player interface... which doesn't work.

    Paste an MP3 file address (without the preceding Google junk) into your address bar, and Firefox plays it using a plugin.


    I confirm that what he says is correct (although I haven't seen the "tool tips": If I view page source, I can see and play the mp3 files - but that's a PITA.

    My suggestion (if you can't change the page to work for Linux users, which I grant is a small audience) would be to include a hyperlink to the mp3 along with the player icon - that way, those of us for whom the player doesn't work can still play the mp3 directly.

    Thanks, Rob Lindauer