What makes Raiders of the Lost Ark’s film score so great?
Firing up the DVD player to watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is proving to be harder than we thought, but Scott Terrell knows we’re on the right track.
“There’s the music,” the Lexington Philharmonic music director says, with a gleam in his eye, as the music fills the room while screen remains blue.
At this point, Terrell could probably tell you what is happening on screen with any portion of John Williams’ score, which he will conduct live with a screening of the movie for the first night of Picnic with the Pops. Friday will mark the second consecutive year that the Philharmonic has opened the event by accompanying a movie with a live performance of the score. Last year, the feature was “The Wizard of Oz.”
“This one is probably as powerful a film score as has been written,” Terrell says, before we hit play on the DVD player. “It’s astounding the detail in the film score, and a lot of people think of it as background. It is not. It is yet another character that moves things along, and I think there’s nobody who does it better than John Williams, and this might be one of his very best.”
In the opening sequence, a slow exploration of a cave fraught with danger, Terrell says, “Your eye is drawn, and the music absolutely supports what your eye is telling you, and you don’t even know it.”
It is a very intense six minutes to make sure that you’re hitting the spots to make sure the music is moving with the scene as much as possible.
For a prime illustration of that, let’s skip ahead to a chase scene. Our hero, archeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford in his leading-man prime, has recovered the Ark of the Covenant, only to have it stolen by rival Dr. René Belloq (Paul Freeman) and his Nazi accomplices. After a couple narrow escapes, Indy sets off on horseback to chase down a Nazi convoy taking the Ark away.
That scene finds Terrell and the orchestra shifting gears as often as the big ol’ truck barreling down the road.
As Indy flies off in pursuit, the swelling theme fills the air. But as soon as the screen turns to the grimacing Nazis, the music drops into a minor key, with a martial cadence. The themes take on different orchestral colors and intensity as the advantage changes, with Indiana taking on an entire unit of soldiers on his own.
When he’s able to commandeer the truck, the trumpets soar with his signature tune. But as soldiers come one after another, attempting to regain control, the brass drops into a minor key, and the violins swirl like an approaching storm. When characters are in direct conflict, both themes are playing, creating an intense dissonance that helps keep the viewer on edge.
“You can hear both stories being played out,” Terrell says, and as the action plays out, the music imperceptibly accelerates. “It is a very intense six minutes to make sure that you’re hitting the spots to make sure the music is moving with the scene as much as possible.”
It’s as complicated as any opera or symphony score that I have ever done.
The scene illustrates one of the major challenges that Terrell and the orchestra face: making sure they stay in synch with the movie, because in such an intense and tightly scored scene, it wouldn’t do to have Indy’s heroic theme playing under a bunch of Nazis. Synchronization is achieved through a highly notated score, and a special version of the movie that plays on a monitor in front of Terrell, during the performance, with on-screen notations that coordinate with the score.
“Wizard,” in contrast, was not as precisely timed. Terrell had to follow a clock, with certain points at certain times to stay in synch with the movie.
“Film scoring has become much more precise” since the 1930s, Terrell says.
It also illustrates the basic structure of the score, common to many movie scores, which is leitmotifs or musical themes that accompany specific characters. Indy has his heroic, major key theme that you probably started humming when you saw the name of the movie.
Going through earlier scenes, Terrell indicates where themes first appear for the Ark, an unsettling pairing of unrelated keys to indicate danger, and Marion’s theme, “the sweeping, romantic theme,” which appears when she’s first mentioned, giving an aural indication of her importance to the story.
A lot of the score becomes variations on the themes, taken up by various instruments in different ways to color the themes.
Preparing to conduct “Raiders,” which Terrell first did in March with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, involved more than a week of watching the movie and many more hours poring over the score and practicing.
“This inhabited many, many weeks of my life, to learn something like this,” he says. “It’s as complicated as any opera or symphony score that I have ever done.”
If you go
Picnic with the Pops
What: Outdoor concerts with the with the Lexington Philharmonic and guest artists
Aug. 18: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” movie show with the Philharmonic playing the score live
Aug. 19: “The Music of Michael Jackson,” featuring vocalist Omar Cardona
When: Gates open at 6 p.m. each night;performance at dusk.
Where: Keene Meadow at Keeneland
Tickets: $20 (general admission blanket/low-back chair seating each night), $200-$300 (table seating for eight on Aug, 18), $250-$400 (table seating for eight on Aug. 19)