Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND – John Williams



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Since his youth, Steven Spielberg had aspired to create a feature length science fiction film. His 1970 short story Experiences was his initial conception, which explored teenagers witnessing a wondrous “meteor shower light show” in the night sky. He pitched his idea and secured backing from Columbia Studios to proceed with “Watch the Skies”. Rewrites caused delays, and it was decided that he proceed with another project first, “Jaws”. The enormous financial success of “Jaws” resulted in Columbia Studios granting him significant creative control, which allowed for the development of the science fiction film he had always dreamed of. The script was written by Spielberg, but had input and additional refinements by several screenwriters. The title was changed to its final form as a derivation of ufologist J. Allen Hynek’s classification methodology for “close encounters”. Spielberg assembled a fine cast anchored by “Jaws” star Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, Francois Truffault as Claude Lacombe, Melinda Dillon as Jillian Guiler, Teri Garr as Veronica Neary, and Cary Guffey as Barry Guiler.

The film unfolds with two parallel and ultimately interrelated stories. The first story involves a group of research and investigatory scientists seeking to unravel the mysterious discovery of items found in remote locations that are conspicuously out of place. French scientist Claude Lacombe, incorporates the ‘kodály’ method of music education as a basis of communication for the project. Although the rest of the team is left incredulous, colleague American cartographer David Laughlin has an epiphany, which allows him to eventually decipher the meaning of the alien communication. The second storyline unfolds in the small Indiana town of Muncie. It has a more personal narrative as we witness Roy Neary, an electric company lineman, and single mother Jillian Guiler, experiencing paranormal activity in the form of flashes of bright lights in the sky. They perceive these lights as alien, and become obsessed in finding answers, despite the disbelief of authorities, who begin to question their sanity. Eventually their obsession precipitates a quest which takes them to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where they witness a remarkable and transforming discovery. The film resonated with the public and was a stunning commercial success, earning more than 15 times its production cost of $20 million. The film was also a critical success, securing eight Academy Award nominations, winning two for Best Cinematography, and a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing.

Their stunning success with Jaws firmly established the now legendary collaboration between Steven Spielberg and John Williams. When Spielberg informed him early in the process that music would be used by humanity to make first contact with the aliens, he grasped the magnitude of the challenge awaiting him. He understood that his music needed to speak to a multiplicity of intersecting emotions; awe, obsession, mystery, fear, as well as the wonderment and exhilaration of first contact. He also chose to contrast tonality and atonality so as to juxtapose polarities within the film; human vs. alien, and what is known vs. the unknown. The construct of the score would by underpinned by six themes and motifs; The Investigation Theme emotes in quasi-fugal form, whose energy propels the investigation team’s travels. It also supports their efforts to unlock the mystery of items discovered in remote locations that is conspicuously out of place. The Vision Theme is derived from a tritone, and emotes as an ethereal ascending two-note statement. It is mysterious, unfathomable, yet also, illusive to those confounded by subliminal alien message. This tritone embraces what has become known as “The Devil’s Interval,” yet Williams imbues his rendering with a kernel of hope, which when joined with the Obsession Theme creates a stirring transformative spiritual synergy.

The Obsession Theme is intrinsically linked to Roy, and speaks of his obsession with Devil’s Tower, a siren call implanted by the aliens in his psyche. It alludes to the famous Catholic liturgical melody “Dies Irae,” emoting as two descending four-note phrases, often entwined with the Vision Theme. The Fulfillment Theme speaks to Roy and the other searchers at last realizing what they have sought, the culmination of their quest. Of all the themes, it offers the score’s most lyrical expression, one that achieves a wondrous and powerfully emotive statement, as we are awestruck by the enormity and splendor of the Mothership. The Military Theme is snare drum propelled, and although martial in it’s bearing, is not a classic construct brimming with heroism and bold confidence, but instead heavy, ominous and filled with dark purpose. Also of interest is the interpolation of Leigh Harline’s and Ned Washington’s iconic song melody “When You Wish Upon a Star” from the film Pinocchio, which is used to speak to humanity’s aspirations. Lastly, we have the score’s defining theme, which was integral to the film’s storyline. I speak of the now iconic five-tone Communication Motif used to communicate musically, mathematically with the aliens. Williams wrote nearly 300 variations before Spielberg selected the film’s version. Williams’ conception reveals genius. He relates;

“What is interesting is that it ends on the fifth degree: it starts on the second, goes up to the third, down to the first, then drops an octave, and ascends to the fifth. Ending on the fifth in music is like ending a sentence with the word ‘and’… it’s not resolved. So the signal seemed to compel some kind of response.”

After early efforts with Moog synthesizers, Williams made a creative decision to use the tuba as the musical voice of the Mothership, and the oboe as the voice of the light keyboard. He felt that the Moog synthesizer was too automated as to sound, inhuman. As such he reasoned that the difficulty of playing these two acoustic instruments served to make the aliens more relatable. Additionally, the low register resonating power of the tuba fully embodied the stunning enormity of the Mothership. Noteworthy is how the five-note motif serves as a bridge between the very low register alien rumblings which confound and sow fear, with the high register and choral sounds of humanity seeking enlightenment and understanding. What is also remarkable about this score is that Spielberg and Williams reversed convention. Williams wrote the score in its entirety first, and then Spielberg shot and edited his film to match the time signature of the cue. They did this believing the music would achieve greater lyricism and emotive power. In the end, I believe they succeeded in achieving their vision.

“Main Title and The Vision” offers a stunning opening, in which Williams sets the tone of the film and captures its essence. The Columbia Studio logo and film title display without music. Silence envelops us as the white opening credits roll against a black backdrop. Slowly, and almost imperceptibly from out the blackened formless void we bear witness to violins mysterioso ascending with kindred strings, which is soon joined by orchestra and chorus in a chromatic crescendo that crests powerfully as the screen explodes with the light of desert dunes beset by fierce wind sounds. As a jeep arrives, the music dissolves into an eerie formless mysterioso of wordless chorus and tonal woodwinds. The conception of this cue is genius. In “Navy Planes” Williams juxtaposes tonal and atonal sensibilities. As the investigation team of Professor Lacombe arrives in the Sonora desert of Mexico, they are beset by a fierce howling sand storm winds. The horn propelled Investigation Theme carries their progress, joined by an eerie, shifting string mysterioso. An interlude of atonality supports dialogue as a second team joins. At 1:46 they are alerted of a startling discovery and the horns of the team’s theme support their running to a visual astounding discovery – the “Lost Squadron”. Portentous horns and the Investigation Theme supports their astounding discovery, achieving a crescendo as we see a squadron of WWII planes, intact and in pristine condition. Williams sows unease and incredulity with a formless twinkling mysterioso as we discern that this is the squadron that disappeared in 1942 off the coast of Florida. The revelation of a sun burned witness by a blinding night Sun further unsettles the team.

“Trucking” is an astounding cue of aural terror. It reveals Roy being called into work after a massive power failure. He stops at a railroad crossing to study a map. From above him radiant lights bath his truck and sun burn him after he tries to look up. Frightening clusters of deep low register orchestral rumblings countered by high register metallic twinkling sow aural terror. The Obsession Theme joins and ascends in a mounting panic, mirroring the fear we see in Roy. The contents of his truck are swirling and his rising terror is supported by the rising terror of his theme, which crescendos, and then dissipates into nothingness atop a quivering high register string tremolo. “Into The Tunnel And Chasing UFOs” reveals Roy witnessing the departure of the alien spacecraft. Once power is restored to his truck, he decides to pursue. Eerie high register strings and the alien rumbling cluster effect join in an unsettling synergy, and support his frantic pursuit. Strings animato speak to Roy’s obsession, buttressed by repeated statements of his theme. At 1:44 we change scenes to little Barry running on a road. The low register Alien rumbling slowly pulses, informing us of their presence. A grotesque string tremolo sows fear, which intensifies, joined by a beehive like shrill as they alien crafts pass by, pursued by the police. Roy joins the police in pursuit propelled by a string lead accelerando, which crescendo’s on horns as a police car flies off a cliff and crashes. We close with a milieu of uncertainty as the men observe the alien craft fly away

“Crescendo Summit” offers the aftermath of the pursuit as the men observe the alien spacecrafts ascend and disappear into the clouds as the powers return to the city below. Unsettling atonal sounds speak to us of the men’s attempt to process what has happened, finally dissipating, replaced warmly atop French horns and flutes as the city lights are restored below. In “False Alarm” Roy is joined by Barry and his mother at the cliff side and is captivated by his mud sculpture of Devil’s Tower. As Roy struggles to unlock the mystery of their shared vision, shimmering atonal textures bring forth the Vision Theme carried by ethereal chorus as a mysterioso, unfathomable, yet also familiar as he and Barry are kindred to the subliminal alien message. At 0:31 we segue into “The Helicopter” carried by the ominous Alien rumbling clusters as Roy see lights approaching from the distance. A growling tuba underpins dark orchestral rumbling in its lowest register, which is joined in wondrous interplay with the Vision and Obsession Themes, as we see anticipation build in everyone’s face. We crescendo on a martial rendering of the Obsession Theme as we see everyone shattered by the revelation that the lights are not aliens, but army helicopters. We close on a diminuendo of disappointment.

“Barry’s Kidnapping” is an astounding score highlight that is brilliant in its conception and execution, a testament to Williams’ genius. Williams channels the micropolyphonism of Gyorgi Ligeti with this stunning example of atonal aural terror. This passage is themeless, devoid of any tangible melodic construct, underpinned by wailing wordless choir and the terrorizing alien clusters as we see a frantic mother beset by a frightening riot of all that is electrical and mechanical in her house. What makes this scene of alien abduction so effective is Williams’ music, which sows unremitting fear and terror.

“Forming The Mountain” offers one of the score’s most emotional cues. It reveals an obsessed Roy struggling to fashion in clay, the alien image in his mind. A refulgent rendering of the Vision Theme inspires us, and brings a quiver and a tear. Yet he cannot make sense of the image and a tortured rendering of the Obsession Theme carries his torment as he cries out in the night. We close without resolution on the Vision Theme. In “TV Reveals” we open with the shimmering ethereal wordless chorus of the Vision Theme as Roy finally discerns the image in his mind from a television image of Devil’s Mountain. We segue at 0:58 into “Across Country” as an obsessed Roy drives to Wyoming carried by an aggressive and intensifying string ostinato driven rendering of the Obsession Theme.

“Roy and Jillian On the Road” offers a wonderful kinetic cue. Roy has discovered Jillian in town, as she too was drawn here by the vision. They team up and resolve to drive to the mountain. The ostinato driven rendering of the Obsession Theme carries their progress relentlessly as they crash through barrier after barrier. In “The Mountain” we have a score highlight, which features sterling thematic interplay. Roy and Lillian round a curve, stop, and pause, mesmerized by the sight of Devil’s Tower. Williams supports the moment with the Vision Theme, which is soon joined by a refulgent Obsessive Theme. They are determined to press on and the Obsession Theme carries their progress past the many corpses of dead animals until they are captured at 2:24 by the army. We close darkly on the Military Theme as they are taken to the base. In “The Cover-up And Base Camp” the military has been able to discern the numeric alien message as longitude and latitude coordinates. They have set up a camp at the base of the mountain and dark rendering of the Military Theme supports Roy and Lillian’s incarceration. At 2:07 we change scenes atop a bold and determined rendering of the Military Theme, which supports the twelve detainees being placed on a helicopter for removal. As Roy and Lillian resolve to escape a statement of the Obsession Theme, underpins their determination.

In “The Escape” Roy and Lillian remove their gas masks and do not die, thus revealing the hoax. A subdued Obsession Theme supports their preparation and initiates at 0:57 an accelerando by strings animato emoting the Vision Theme as they leave the helicopter and make their run for freedom. In “Climbing The Mountain” they have evaded the army pursuers and an eerie dissonance carries their efforts to reach the monument. A sense of urgency rises atop the Obsession Theme as army helicopters begin gassing the slopes with tranquilizer gas. Williams launches an aggressive modernist assault with pounding staccato piano strikes as Larry, Roy and Lillian make a desperate effort to evade. We close with a diminuendo as Larry succumbs to the gas and passes out. “Outstretched Hands” reveals Roy stuck in a crevice and desperately reaching up to Lillian’s outstretched hand. A helicopter is moving in to gas them and Williams drives the tension with harsh horns, and menacing low register rumbling bass. We crescendo when he reaches her grasp, and they lunge through a gap that takes them to safety supported by the Obsession Theme. When they emerge on the other side, they behold the reception area “The Dark Side Of The Moon” as we are bathed with a sparkling rendering of the Vision Theme, which dissipates on a twinkling diminuendo.

In “The Light Show” alien scout ships approach supported by the alien low register rumbling clusters, male wordless chorus enters and is soon joined by ethereal wordless female chorus. All join and we begin a stirring ascent as one by one the three scout ships arrive and take up hovering positions. As efforts are made to initiate contact using the five tones Communication Motif, an eerie dissonance enters, which unsettles. “Barnstorming” reveals a splendid avant-garde cue that features some of Williams finest writing for the film. We behold the approach of the massive Mothership, obscured by clouds. Deep low register rumbling supports its approach. As several of the scout ships arrive Williams juxtaposes dissonance and consonance, the unknown and the known, and what is alien, with what is human. The music fully embraces the film’s imagery, and speaks to the trepidation and anticipation of first contact. In “The Mothership” the tuba-empowered alien-rumbling cluster speaks to the sheer enormity of the ship, which leaves us awestruck. Several orchestral ascents reach up from a swelling sea of dissonance as the massive ship rotates on its axis. From out this cacophony arises at 1:44 ethereal female voices, which usher in a rising frenetic energy carried by strings agitato and a swelling crescendo. Yet it never crests, and instead, subsides as a diminuendo from which is born at 3:40, the Fulfillment Theme. As Roy and Lilian look on all for which they aspired has been realized, and we are graced as the theme unfolds in all its beauty.

In “The Dialogue” we bear witness to one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history where first contact is made and a tonal, sound based communication commences. Humanity speaks from the upper register, and the aliens from the lower register. Over time the tonal communication becomes ever faster, complex, and sophisticated using a myriad of wondrous combinations. It is an astounding cinematic moment with music integral to the film’s narrative, and at the forefront. “The Returnees” reveals more atonality as droning supports the opening of the ship’s gangway. An ascent by strings and wordless female chorus create a mysterioso, which begins to intensify atop the alien-rumbling motif. But this subsides as strings tranquillo and tender female chorus support the exit of the WWII airmen, who have not aged, are warmly greeted, and mystified by their circumstances. Soon more and more people begin to exit the spacecraft, with the music increasing in both warmth and consonance. At 2:45 woodwinds gentile tenderly announce the return of Barry, carrying him as he runs into Lillian’s welcoming embrace.

In “The Appearance of the Visitors” we are offered a score highlight. The ship closes, and then reopens. Atonality and a screeching, chattering dissonance returns in an eerie descent, which unnerves us, and sows unease. Harsh strikes and ever shifting discordant textures replete with harp glissandi evoke the unknown and the strange as a single adult alien emerges. The Communication Motif sounds, and slowly consonance born by strings begins to coalesce, supported by female wordless chorus as many smaller, child-like aliens also descend. As the alien children take Roy by the hand, Williams interpolates at 4:03 the opening phrase of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” as we ascend to close with a wondrous flourish! “Contact” also offers a splendid highlight, which crowns the score. It reveals Roy ascending the gangway supported by the Communication Motif and strings gentile. As the ship prepares to depart, all in attendance are filled with a sense of wonderment, and Williams celebrates the moment with interplay of the five tones, and a gorgeous full rendering of his Fulfillment Theme, which closes with choral magnificence so satisfying. As the “End Titles” roll the five tones resound gloriously atop horn declarations, which usher in a final sumptuous statement of the Fulfillment Theme. A stirring ascent by woodwinds provides a bridge to a warm, and tender statement of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” which softly fades away on chorus.

I would like to thank MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys of La La Land Records for this exceptional 40th Anniversary remastering of John Williams masterpiece, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. The sound quality is pristine and of the highest quality, offering a peerless listening experience. While the Maestro’s legacy has been secured by his monumental work Star Wars, which stands as his most popular film score, this score in many ways offers a greater testament to his genius and compositional gift. The score is brilliant in its conception and execution, and in my judgment stands as one of the finest examples of modernist, atonal film scores ever written. Williams expertly juxtaposed humanity and the alien, the known, and the unknown, and aspiration and fear. Also noteworthy and instructive is how he also juxtaposed the tonal and atonal, and consonance with dissonance. In scene after scene Spielberg’s narrative and character arcs were enhanced and elevated by Williams’ score. The five-tone motif, which facilitates first contact, is now iconic, and has passed unto legend, a testament for the ages of the essential and emotive power of music in the cinematic experience. I believe this to be one of the finest scores in the Maestro’s canon, a late era masterpiece of the Silver Age, and an essential score for lovers of film score art. I highly recommend this extraordinary two CD issue for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to a fifteen minute suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDDThITaAhw

Buy the Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title and The Vision (1:29)
  • Navy Planes (2:15)
  • Lost Squadron (2:34)
  • Trucking (2:09)
  • Into the Tunnel and Chasing UFOs (3:56)
  • Crescendo Summit (1:25)
  • False Alarm and The Helicopter (4:20)
  • Barry’s Kidnapping (6:22)
  • Forming the Mountain (1:58)
  • TV Reveals/Across Country (2:53)
  • The Mountain (3:36)
  • The Cover-up and Base Camp (3:56)
  • The Escape (2:20)
  • Climbing the Mountain (2:36)
  • Outstretched Hands (2:50)
  • The Light Show (3:47)
  • Barnstorming (4:31)
  • The Mothership (4:35)
  • The Dialogue (4:28)
  • The Returnees (3:58)
  • The Appearance of the Visitors (4:56)
  • Contact (3:22)
  • End Titles (4:27)
  • Main Title (1:18) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Roy’s First Encounter (2:44) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Encounter at Crescendo Summit (1:25) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Chasing UFOs (1:22) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Watching the Skies (1:20) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Vision Takes Shape (0:42) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Another Vision (0:42) – Alternate/Bonus
  • False Alarm (1:45) – Alternate/Bonus
  • The Abduction of Barry (4:36) – Alternate/Bonus
  • The Cover-up (2:31) – Alternate/Bonus
  • TV Reveals (1:52) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Roy and Jillian on the Road (1:20) – Alternate/Bonus
  • I Can’t Believe It’s Real (3:25) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Across the Fields (1:20) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Stars and Trucks (0:49) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Who Are You People? (1:38) – Alternate/Bonus
  • The Escape (Alternate) (2:41) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Climbing Devils Tower (2:11) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Dark Side of the Moon (1:34) – Alternate/Bonus
  • The Approach (4:32) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Night Siege (6:27) – Alternate/Bonus
  • The Conversation (2:23) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Inside (2:34) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Contact (Alternate) (2:51) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Eleventh Commandment (2:00) – Alternate/Bonus
  • TV Western (1:06) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Lava Flow (1:47) – Alternate/Bonus
  • The Five Tones (2:25) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Advance Scout Greeting (2:58) – Alternate/Bonus
  • The Dialogue (Early Version) (3:12) – Alternate/Bonus
  • Resolution and End Title (6:55) – Alternate/Bonus

Running Time: 153 minutes 08 seconds

La-La Land Records LLLCD-1433 (1977/2017)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer. Recorded and mixed by John Neal. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Score produced by John Williams. Album produced by Mike Matessino, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys.

  1. May 28, 2018 at 10:50 am

    I agree, a magnificent release, and brilliant in how it offers to alternate assemblies on each disc.

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