Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
THE FILM MUSIC OF JOHN WILLIAMS (b.1932)
Ian Lace interviews the composer
© Ian Lace 1998
Photo: Bachrach; by arrangement with Sony Music
Commenting about his 1996 Oscar-nominated score for Nixon, John Williams said, "People may say that the best film music is that which is not noticed because it is so seamlessly a part of what you see and hear. Certainly, that's largely the way the audience responds as they look and listen, perhaps, to dialogue (superimposed over the music). But there are some areas in the screenplay where the music is more in the open, as it were - when there is a better chance of the audience being consciously aware of the music - as they would be in a concert - but I think those occasions are rare. I think the music provides an emotional pull for the audience that isn't there until you introduce music into a scene."
Although quoted somewhat out of context, John Williams is surely being unduly modest for his screen music is noticed and admired. The Star Wars soundtrack album, for instance, has sold over four million copies - more than any other non-pop album in recording history. Furthermore, his music also stands supremely well independently of the screenplay as the numerous recordings of his work testify. Unlike so many scores that are impoverished of invention after the statement of a solitary main theme, John Williams's music has real integrity - it is superbly crafted with a richness of invention of themes, melody, harmony, dynamics, texture and orchestration. There is always something to interest the ear.
The record shows that he has composed the music and served as music director for more than seventy-five films since 1959. He has received thirty-three Academy Award nominations and has been awarded five Oscars, four British Academy Awards (BAFTAs), and sixteen Grammies as well as several gold and platinum records. His Academy Award scores are: Fiddler on the Roof (Best scoring: adaptation and original song score), Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. and Schindler's List.
There are so many memorable Williams melodies that, once heard, seem to persist in one's head for days. The composer's range and versatility, writing for so many diverse screenplays, is truly remarkable: the childish mischief of The Reivers; the boyish, hero-worship of Empire of the Sun, the terror of Jaws and Jurassic Park; the tragedy of JFK; the mythology and heroics of the sci-fi spectaculars Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (AAN- Academy Award Nomination); the horror of Born on the Fourth of July (AAN); the quirky humour of The Accidental Tourist (AAN); the Boys-Own-Paper thrills of Raiders of the Lost Ark (AAN); the poignancy and compassion of Schindler's List; the sparkling sophistication of Sabrina (AAN); and the dark, disillusionment of Nixon (AAN) - all are unerringly and sensitively caught.
Musicians have often remarked on the skill and imagination with which he has written for their instruments and about his taste and style as an artist but it is also worth mentioning his masterly writing for voices whether they are proclaiming the mystical impenetrability of space or singing in the authentic Jewish idiom in Schindler's List. His Exsultate Justi from Empire of the Sun is a significant composition in its own right.
John Williams is tall and imposing and looks rather "professorish", with his high domed head and shortish beard, yet he looks remarkably youthful. He is quietly spoken and courteous, and answers questions lucidly, thoughtfully and at length.
Talking about his early experiences, John Williams said: "My family moved to California in the late 1940s, when I was a teenager, from New York where my father had played in the CBS Radio Orchestra. At that time I was studying piano. My father worked in the studio orchestras in Hollywood and through his connections I began to meet people and study with teachers who were familiar with the film world and its music. In 1949, as a youngster, I went to Columbia Pictures and played with the orchestra, of which my father was then a member, for one or two days just as a fun outing. Then I used to be invited to join the orchestra if the pianist was absent. I was very fortunate to be so close to film music as a child.
"After military service I attended UCLA (and studied composition privately with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco) and, later, went to the Juilliard School to study under the great piano teacher - Rosina Lhevinne. I returned to California in 1956 and began to work in the studios as a pianist but I never thought about composing for films; my interest was piano. For two or three years, I sat in Hollywood studio orchestras as a pianist. At length, I began to get invitations from my colleagues to orchestrate this or that scene, then to conduct a scene while somebody was having lunch. Eventually, I was asked to write a film score of my own. This long apprenticeship and evolution led me to great good fortune in my life."
"I remember working with Alfred Newman. I returned to California for the soundtrack of South Pacific which Newman was conducting at Fox. I was asked to play in the orchestra because their pianist was retiring. Alfred Newman was the first of the Newman brothers that I met - I would play for Lionel Newman in later years, as well as for Miklós Rósza and Bernard Herrmann for whom I played piano. Bernard and I became great friends. We both worked in television in the late 50s and early 60s and in Hollywood at Universal studios, and I also used to spend a lot of time with him every time I came to London - you'll recall he lived here in the 1960s. I was quite fond of him and loved his music - as we all do."
When asked to identify the film and concert composers who had influenced his work, Williams answered: "There are so many. In the film world, I would have to mention again Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann but also Korngold - the great Viennese composer who went to Hollywood in the early years - he was a great hero of mine and Franz Waxman - and many, many others. In the concert field, there were, again, so many. I have to mention William Walton, a great favourite of mine - I admire his film and concert music. Walton was held in very high esteem in Hollywood. I like Elgar too, and all the Russian composers. The twentieth century Russians: Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev - all were great idols of mine as a youngster."
Later in the interview, I asked John Williams to comment on three scores: Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Accidental Tourist.
Setting aside the well-known heroic Main Title theme of Richard Donner's Superman, music which invests the character with a certain dignity and credibility, and the Love Theme (despite the voice of Margot Kidder), I asked Williams about two other impressive cues: Leaving Home and The Fortress of Solitude. Leaving Home contains the idyllically beautiful music for the scenes of the funeral of the foster father (Glenn Ford) set in a wide expense of prairie, while Superman is still a youth. When I suggested that the music carried a nostalgia for the American heartland together with a feeling of the vulnerability - the essential loneliness - of Superman and asked if he had had these thoughts in mind, he concurred - "...but not so much with the loneliness, that's a very interesting aspect... I think I was thinking more of his lineage and his youth and the expanse of the country, which was beautifully photographed, to contrast with the extra-planetary aspects of his life."
Of the ethereal-like, almost Holstian music of the Fortress of Solitude with its lovely, slowly- evolving, serene string melody, Williams confirmed that all the effects were created in the orchestra entirely, using a variety of treble instruments: triangle harps celeste etc.- there was no electronic input. "I remember the sequence very well and the atmospheric elements. The London Symphony Orchestra responded marvellously to produce a splendid sound", observed Williams "That's a very imaginative piece - Superman. It's a kiddies film, in a sense, but there's a lot of mythology in it and this mythological/mystical reach into the soul, into our inner life, was the role of the music. A film like Superman is a splendid opportunity for music."
John Williams began working on musical ideas for Close Encounters of the Third Kind two years before the film was finalised, basing his impressions on the unfinished script and dinner conversations with Steven Spielberg. Spielberg himself has said, "In many instances John wrote his music first, while I put the scenes to it much later." Speaking to me, John Williams added, "The wonderful imagination of Spielberg really inspired the music - the way he shot that film. I remember seeing the film for the first time. I had never seen spaceships conceived in that way - the colours, styles and lights. To accompany such arresting images, the music itself, the orchestration, needed to be brilliantly coloured. It was a fantastic challenge; a very, very difficult work.
"I was attracted, artistically, by the wonderful theme of that film - a question that haunts us all: are we alone in the universe or not? The Spielbergian child-like answer is in his wonderful creatures who are pacific, friendly and brilliant. They come to assuage our fears and to welcome us into their community, a community that functions at a higher level because we have finally evolved to a degree where we, too, have earned our membership. I believe that's a hope that we all hold dear and Spielberg has given us an opportunity to share these feelings.
"In this spirit, the idea to incorporate When You Wish Upon A Star was Spielberg's. I think for him, it had something to do with the innocence of childhood and Walt Disney's music, especially Pinocchio, that we all loved as children. He wanted to attach that childhood innocence to a feeling of nostalgia that would effect an audience. So, in a situation that is alien - completely remote from our experience - seeing these creatures and their machines but hearing something very familiar, When You Wish Upon A Star, you feel safe and at home."
"Spielberg had the idea that we should have a five-note motif (the famous alien message motif that recurs throughout the film) but I actually suggested that we have a slightly longer one. Then we both noticed that if we exceeded five notes and used six or seven you suddenly began to have a tune. But a musical signal, like a doorbell, would only be three, four or five notes long; so we settled on five. I wrote about 350 five-note combinations and played through them all to narrow the choice. Then I had several meetings at the piano with Steven to decide which one would have the most haunting effect. After days of trial and error, we both settled on the one that was eventually used. There was no real scientific reason other than it's very simple; the intervals are very clear and it ends on the fifth degree of the scale rather than the first so its like ending a sentence with the word "but" so that you can continue and make a loop of that sentence and go on and on ad infinitum. The interval of the perfect fifth also rattles our memories of antiquity and the fifth figures very strongly in the musical motifs of Close Encounters...."
Turning to a quite different film, The Accidental Tourist, I asked John Williams about the way he portrays a film's characters in music. "I loved writing the music for that film," he commented enthusiastically. "I wanted to write a romantic theme because it was a love story in a way. Then when I began to think about it, I realised that it was not so much a love story but more of one about healing and grief, and working through that grief to find a happy loving experience at the other end. The loss that the William Hurt character suffered was something that I tried to depict in my music as he comes together in his new life with this young woman (Geena Davis)."
There is a scene early in the film that demonstrates Williams's skill in producing an effect with sensitivity and economy. William Hurt is asked to identify the body of his son who has been accidentally shot in a hold-up. The music tells you everything as Hurt goes behind the curtains in the mortuary. Within the space of a few remote and dislocated-sounding chords you feel Hurt's pain and you sense, as he recognises the body of his son, the departing spirit of the boy.
"I saw the film before I commenced work and I was very moved by the performance of William Hurt and also the gifted young Geena Davis," added Williams. "William Hurt, as a man who had been wounded, had a kind of quietude, a sort of ruminative mood, to which I could respond very positively. And Geena Davis had a natural bubble and a fabulous energy about her. So I was certainly effected by these characters and the way the actors played them when approaching the composition of the music."
When I asked if he had read the original Anne Tyler novel to obtain an extra dimension of inspiration he said, "No, but only because I don't like to read material before I begin working on a film. You tend to have a such pre-conception from anything you read, that when you look at a film, it often doesn't match your mental image of what should be there so I prefer to see a film with a completely "clean slate" as it were."
John Williams's score for Nixon must be one of his darkest to date. The enterprising Polydor/Hollywood Records soundtrack CD includes a CD-Rom element which includes a filmed interview with both Williams and Oliver Stone about the music. This article's introductory quote comes from it.
Of the Nixon music, John Williams says that it is thematic but in a more motific way. One side of the orchestra might be playing in an American, grass-roots, solidity sort of way when the other suddenly presents a dissonant element. It is heroic one moment - "the next... maybe tortured is perhaps too strong a word" but its that sort of feeling.
Speaking of the film's special demands, Williams adds, "Oliver Stone's films are documentary in nature - at least the ones with which I have been associated with (JFK and Born on the Fourth of July). They are not so straightforwardly narrative.... There are flash-forwards and flash-backs in the middle of a scene and there may be some reference to meetings in China that took place years before or have haven't even happened yet - right in the middle of a dialogue scene in the White House.... so we need to have music before, during and after these collages to sew everything together.
"Here in the film studio we regularly mix very advanced technological sound production sources with traditional acoustic instruments in a wonderful way. At the beginning of the film, as General Haig is approaching to have his meeting with Nixon in his private quarters, in an absolutely empty White House, the music creates a very sinister atmosphere but electronically we also produce some "explosions" which are very low - you almost don't hear them but you feel them; they're almost like a kind of napalm - like something in Cambodia that may not even have happened yet. It's something of a preview of the future and I think the effect can be powerfully suggestive."
Oliver Stone says: "John Williams has really entered into the dark side of Nixon's character but at the same time given him a grandeur which is important because, although Nixon could be mean and petty, he also had a grander theme to his life which John addresses in a classical score that is reminiscent, for me, of the feelings evoked by the music of Mahler - a composer that Nixon himself admired."
In addition to his film music, John Williams has also written a number of concert works including two symphonies and concerti for flute, bassoon, violin and cello. Sony Classical recently released his The Five Sacred Trees (Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra) - about the majesty, magic and mythology of trees - conducted by Williams (SK 62729); and the Company plans to record the composer's Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma, again with Williams as conductor. John Williams said that it is "a sweeping, romantic melodic work with a blues section and a brilliant pyrotechnical finale."
Asked, of all the many films that he had scored, which was his favourite he replied: It's a difficult question," he said, "but if I'm pressed for an answer, then I would select Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the all the reasons we've discussed."
Talking about composers that he admires who are working in the medium today, he cited the continuing excellence of the work of Jerry Goldsmith and confirmed that he thought highly of the work of composers such as James Horner and James Newton Howard. "There's a young member of the Newman family - Thomas Newman - who I think is one of the most gifted of the young people who are coming along. His score for The Shawshank Redemption stands in my mind as one of the most impressive from the younger generation."
Both Spielberg and Oliver Stone have spoken about the ease and spontaneity of their working relationship with John Williams and how his skill and adaptability has provided them with the freedom to fully extend their creativity. In turn, John Williams has produced probably the most distinguished corpus of film scores in the history of the cinema.
© Ian Lace 1998
Recommended recordings of film music by John WILLIAMS updated Sept 1998The Accidental Tourist
Warner 925 846 2
Born on the Fourth of July/The Reivers
Williams/Boston Pops Orchestra
Sony SK 64147
Close Encounters of the Third Kind/Star Wars
RCA RCD 13650
E.T. (The Extra Terrestrial)
MCA MCLD 19021
Empire of the Sun
Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark/Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Sony SK 45997
Sony SK 45997
WEA 7559-61293 -2
MCA MCD 10859
Williams/Original Soundtrack (with CD-ROM)
PLDO 162 043-2
Varese Sarabande VSD5260
The Reivers (with narration by Burgess Meredith)/Born on 4th July
Star Wars: New Hope/The Empire Strikes Back/ Return of the Jedi
A&M 540 456 2
Seven Years in Tibet
Sony SK 60271
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