By now we’re already well into the 2018 Olympic Winter Games at PyeongChang, and with the time difference between the United States and South Korea, NBC is showing many of the events hours after they happen in real time. But an even greater time delay exists for print columnists, so I’m writing this before I know how many medals my countries have swept.
I say “my countries” because I belong to a multinational household where we chant “USA!” with the same fervor that we chant the name of our neighbor country to the north. Actually, the joining of two countries, divided by a horizontal border, is very “in” in the 2018 games, as North and South Korea are going even one step further than my marriage is, competing in the games under a single, united flag.
(I must admit, though, that for this comparison to be most true, the north-south directions should be swapped — North Korea and America are the obvious equivalents here, with South Korea and Canada being our more stable neighbors. Such is the state of the world in 2018.)
But I’m not writing this column to discuss geopolitics — or indeed, even the games themselves, because let’s all just face it, sports are super boring most of the time, even if they do become a little bit more exciting whenever they involve figure skating or gymnastics.
The purpose of this column, and the single most important thing on my mind right now, as the Winter Olympics fill our television screens and our hearts, is to celebrate the greatest Olympic victory of all time: the album, “American Journey,” by composer John Williams, released on Jan. 15, 2002, in conjunction with the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The CD cover features a snowy mountain under a clear blue sky, with a bald eagle soaring below the center of the image. If America itself had a horcrux, this phenomenal album would definitely be the object it chose to encapsulate its soul.
I originally purchased the album on CD from the Barnes and Noble in Weberstown Mall in Stockton, Calif., shortly after it was released, and I listened to it over and over again as a teenager, while doing homework, while getting dressed for church, while driving to school in the morning, or just while doing my thing. It, in and of itself, was my thing.
Let me tell you about how great this album is.
The first track on the album is a piece of choral music John Williams wrote as the official theme of the Salt Lake games. It was performed by none other than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and it was excerpted (rightly) in church news reports at every break between General Conference sessions for, as I recall, years after the games, because it is undeniably cool for the composer of “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park” to conduct your religion’s most visible public face in triumphant music.
And “triumphant” doesn’t even cover how great this piece is. “Call of the Champions,” as it is titled, utilizes the Tabernacle Choir’s specific choral sound perfectly, giving rich, moving harmonies to the large choir’s extended vowel projections. The piece reminds me of the composer’s best choral work in “Star Wars,” “Duel of the Fates.”
After “Call of the Champions” comes the six-part title piece of the album, which Williams wrote as a score to the President Bill Clinton-commissioned American tribute film directed by Steven Spielberg at the turn of the millennium.
But the track on the album that most surprised and delighted me as a nerdy, soundtrack-obsessed teen is No. 10, “The Mission Theme,” which is a three-and-a-half minute version of the theme song to NBC Nightly News. I had had no idea that John Williams composed that tune, but when I heard it, it suddenly made so much sense I was ashamed I hadn’t recognized the signature Williams sounds in the tune that played every evening at 6 all throughout my childhood.
The full version of the piece is even more “John Williamsy” than the 30-second clip that begins and ends each news broadcast, going in and out of orchestral detours that sound like they were ripped straight out of “E.T.”
The album also includes another John Williams Olympic piece, “Summon the Heroes,” which he wrote for the 1996 games, and which continues to be played occasionally in Olympics broadcasts.
Basically, the delights of this album cannot be overstated, and there could be no better person to express the determined jubilee of the Olympic spirit than John Williams. No matter how many medals my countries win this year, I know which flat, circular object from the games I’ll cherish most.