Like many fans, 1977 was a seminal year in my film score education. Beyond the blockbuster status of STAR WARS came an even more affecting score from the pen of John Williams—CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. I remember well the spine of the LP peaking out from our living room bookcase where my mother had hidden it as an Easter gift.
Where STAR WARS took you to a different universe, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS brought the universe to us. The trailer, even with its odd academic flair and highlighting of technical consultants, still conveyed the anticipation for the film:
Close encounters of the first kind: Sighting of an unidentified flying object. Close encounters of the second kind: Physical evidence of a UFO. Close encounters of the third kind: Actual contact…
The man of the hour was not director Steven Spielberg or special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull, though each deserve just praise. It was John Williams. From the opening eerie crescendo to the final soaring moments, this score is a treasure. Without Williams’ superb musical contribution, communication with beings from another world would not only have been far less awe-inspiring, it would have been impossible.
Williams started writing the score to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS at Spielberg’s request while he was composing STAR WARS, almost two years before the film was finalized, basing his impression on the unfinished script and conversations with Spielberg. Williams tried over 250 different five-note motifs before arriving at the one used as the “communication” motif for the spaceship.
It seems so simple and yet so effective—five notes (D-E-C-C-G) used by the scientists and aliens to communicate with one another. In probably the most famous musical sequence of the film, a computer talks to the mother ship using a solo oboe and tuba as a form of intergalactic language.
The beginning of the film is full of dissonance and atonality as we succumb to the fear of the unknown. The screeching eee’s of the chorus call Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) to chase the UFOs and create chaos throughout the house before little Barry (Cary Duffy) is kidnapped.
When the action moves to the mountain and we actually meet the aliens and the ships, the music becomes more tonal as we come to accept the impossible. Now the chorus sings with more rounded tones that suggest the awe and wonder not only of the characters onscreen but ourselves as well.
And last but not least, Williams subtly interpolates Leigh Harline’s Oscar-winning song “When You Wish Upon a Star” from PINOCCHIO. Listen closely and you’ll hear familiar intervals and chord progressions from the song. When Roy enters the ship at the end of the film, it is Harline and Williams that usher him into the unknown.
I still find it amazing that Williams could compose two totally different scores for two opposite films in the same genre during the same period, but such is the seemingly bottomless well of inspiration for this legendary composer. The original LP was a nearly perfect album arranged into a totally satisfying listening experience of the score. But I wouldn’t part with my expanded collector’s edition for the world. In practically any other year the score would have won the Oscar, but was no beating the STAR WARS juggernaut. The soundtrack album also went on to win a well-deserved Grammy Award.
Who has not gazed at the stars and wondered if there was life “out there.” If there is, I hope the film music of John Williams is used as our calling card. Because in his assured hands, we are most definitely not alone.