After living with this set for 6 months, my thoughts are finally starting to take coherent form beside “this is very great”.
Williams not only wrote some iconic motifs and setpieces to combine into a magnificent whole like with most of his other scores – here, he played around with and pushed the borders of (maybe reinvented?) how the orchestra can be used to tell a story.
The motifs and their structure are actually quite simple and apparent, what’s more interesting is how and when they’re used in what surrounding soundscapes, but I’ll list all my thoughts.
Music is only used in the movie when the visitors or their influence are directly or indirectly present. Williams uses both motivic and atmospheric writing, and both tonal and atonal music. The way I see it, tonal music and motifs represent knowledge, understanding, even the vaguest forms of them, or the active pursuit of them. Atonal is the unknown, the unsure, the non-understandable. A brilliant choice, since understanding and relating to tonal music comes much more easily especially to those of us who are not exactly experts on the subject, less so with atonal. The score starts with atonality at the aliens’ first appearance, then motifs start appearing as Roy knows he has to understand this and get to the bottom of it. The most famous atonal example could be Barry’s Kidnapping – Jillian doesn’t understand anything that’s going on. The Mothership starts atonal, as it’s a surprise and could still go both ways, but turns calming and tonal at the end, because the visitors did not come in hostility, they’re peaceful and want to communicate. Also fitting into this is how the first understandable in-universe thing about the aliens is a little 5-tone musical motif – eventually the very important key in communication, the basis of understanding.
Out of universe, in the score, another motif is the first bit of knowledge the aliens implant – the simple two-note Vision motif, nice, but not satisfying, incomplete. It develops in two ways: the first is the Obsession motif, which inverts the Vision and uses it in a Dies Irae-like rhythm, signalling that this is not the main intended development, but Roy’s frustration at trying to make sense of The Vision at first, then his drive of getting there once he does (this has an accompaniment or two, sometimes giving the rhythm, other times leading it in or enhancing it). Interestingly, Obsession appears much before the Vision – Roy is already entranced before he even realises what he witnessed. The removed first half of the cue (and scene) “Stars and Trucks” connects Roy and Lacombe in their vision and obsession, like the later cue “Dark Side of the Moon” (also removed from the final film?).
The main development of The Vision is, of course, the Mountain motif, which takes the two notes and makes them into three, and adds a winding down figure to make it complete. It already tries to break out in “Forming the Mountain”, but ironically, it can’t form fully and properly. Even TV Reveals doesn’t present it correctly in the whole, only when seeing it in person is the revelation complete. Another way to look at this is that The Vision is basically a stripped-down, basic, slightly incorrect version of The Mountain. Ever get an earworm you couldn’t identify, it drove you mad, you tried to twist it to make sense of it and see where it’s from, then it finally all made sense when you realised what it is? These 3 are exactly like that. The military also get a little motif related to Obsession, but only right after they understand the alien message – and since what they decide to do with it is to mislead and frighten the population, it’s slightly sinister.
Once the landing site is reached, Roy’s Obsession, the irritating false lead disappears entirely and gives way to what’s more a wink than a motif – his childlike wonder coming back through When You Wish Upon a Star.
The Conversation is an ingenious realisation of an ingenious idea. The visitors gave us multiple clues, and have successfully led us to Devil’s Tower, now comes the communication. They try to find out whether we’re truly worthy of going interplanetary, but are frustrated at first with how we only seem to repeat the 5 tones, the “hello” motif, with seemingly no individual thought or understanding how it’s kind of a language. They take a step back to start teaching from us the basics, and are surprised when we teach them something back. At the first sign of truly independent and intelligent life – a successful attempt at cooperation – , they start freaking out with excitement, repeating variants of their “hello” motif, then give a base rhythm on which to variate and improvise together, creating the first interspecies jamming session, finally deciding humanity is worth keeping around and being friends with. All this understandable just through 4 and a half minutes of instrumental music, as outright dialogue between two instruments (with a third one entering later to give a rhythm as the common grounds).
The finale, reaching its highpoint in the credits, pits all remaining motifs together in a joyous buildup – The Vision has turned into The Mountain, The Obsession has given way to When You Wish Upon a Star, the Military is not a factor anymore, but the Five Tones have entered as the key and proof of successful communication and mutual understanding.
This was possibly the best purchase of my life, and if forced to choose only one set to keep from the expanded Williams releases I own so far (E.T., Jaws, this and soon Jurassic Park), there’s absolutely no question this is the one I’d want to keep around forever. As much as I’m (mostly was, but still am) a fan of complete and chronological soundtrack presentations, this score doesn’t have many obvious sync points to the picture (“Mickey Mousing”) or character-and-place-specific motifs, the narrative devices run deeper than that, so I have no problem with a little rearranging as long as the finale and the general shape is intact. With the LLL set, I can listen through both discs in one sitting, which sadly cannot be said for Jaws or E.T. – for them, both are good on their own (first disc is usually preferable), but overbearing and repetitive when listened consecutively. These discs are both fantastic on their own, and are fantastic together. Everyone involved has every right to be incredibly proud.