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August 17, 2012 9:28 pm
“As a youngster, I never dreamed there could be a career actually earning a living writing music,” John Williams is telling me, and if it weren’t for his look of complete sincerity, I might think he was joking. “I always wrote music for my friends, but my focus was on playing piano. I didn’t think I’d be quite good enough to be a soloist, but I believed that if I worked hard enough, I could work as a player, a teacher.” He hesitates. “Maybe even an accompanist.”
Williams, 80, is the most Oscar-nominated individual alive: his 47 nods second only to Walt Disney’s 59. At this February’s ceremony, he was nominated for both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, two scores so musically divergent it is hard to believe they were written by the same hand – until one remembers that this is also the hand that brought us soundtracks as diverse and iconic as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Superman and Star Wars.
But not only did Williams, who has scored 121 films, never imagine he would make a living as a film composer, he genuinely can’t remember the last time he went to the cinema. “I was never that into the movies,” he confesses. “Never. Even as a youngster. I became interested in movie music only because of the studio orchestras in Hollywood. I’d been studying orchestration books since I was about 14, because my parents had them in the house and they always fascinated me. As a young pianist in Hollywood, I began orchestrating for others, and I just felt really comfortable doing that.”
Born in New York in 1932, Williams was 16 when his father, Johnny, a percussionist, moved the family to California in order to take up a position in the Twentieth Century Fox orchestra, one of the ensembles of the Hollywood studio system during its so-called “golden age”. “Words like destiny spring to mind,” Williams muses now. “The question, are we masters of our own fates or are we simply the result of chance and happenstance? I don’t think any philosophers have finally settled on the answer, but my father’s moving us to California was certainly a profoundly beneficial thing for me.”
As a teenager, Williams and his friends would listen to movie soundtracks and get kicks out of being able to identify the ensemble. “We knew it was, say, Warner Bros Orchestra, because unlike now, where you have one or two honoured freelance groups recording everything, it wasn’t the same people playing on every film … In the isolation of a few miles across Los Angeles you had inspirational individuality coming out of these studio systems. It’s very different now. It’s a vanished world.”
Williams, a humble man who employs no staff, not even an assistant, and whose only tools of the trade are a pencil and manuscript paper, certainly seems a relic of a different world. His is a demeanour of utter civility. One of his closest colleagues tells me that this might be “because he is a truly bi-coastal person; he’s not just about Hollywood”.
Indeed, every year for the past three decades, Williams has fled the excesses of LA and retreated back east, to the hills of Tanglewood, in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, this summer home of the Boston Symphony, whose Pops orchestra Williams began conducting in 1980, is the place where a young Leonard Bernstein was spotted and where another of Williams’ mentors, Aaron Copland, taught for 25 years. As conductor laureate and artist-in-residence, Williams still describes the institution as his “permanent family”.
It is here that he has created some of his greatest film scores, including Schindler’s List and various Star Wars and Harry Potter instalments; not to mention dozens of classical concert works. And here I find him, surrounded by pine trees and old friends, scribbling new concert repertoire in his spare time and looking forward to his birthday gala celebration (he turned 80 in February) this weekend, which will be marked by performances by friends such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and soprano Jessye Norman.
Dressed in his trademark dark polo-necked sweater, despite the 90F heat, Williams admits that he finds the contrast between Hollywood and Tanglewood “very rejuvenating. I don’t want to be unkind to the film industry, but the contrast couldn’t be greater, in terms of what the musical goals are. It certainly isn’t to say there aren’t higher motivations in Hollywood, but the film industry is profit driven … that simply isn’t part of the life here.”
It seems tactless to point out that Williams’ own blockbuster scores have probably contributed to that financial bottom line. Steven Spielberg, Williams’ close friend and collaborator over the past four decades, has said Williams “has made me a better director than I could ever have been without him”. He also declares that Jaws would be nothing without that famous two-tone musical motif. “Well, the music would be pretty much “nothing” without the film too,” Williams counters, with a wry smile. “I always have to remind Steven of that ...”
The association with Spielberg is another of the relationships, like that with the Boston Symphony, that Williams views as one of life’s wondrous twists of happenstance. He recalls the moment they met, at a lunch, when the 23-year-old director, who was seeking a composer for The Sugarland Express, stunned Williams by “knowing more of my music than I did”.
Right from day one, he says, he and Spielberg have worked together with a rare level of trust. One of their early projects, Close Encounters, required the composer to step in much earlier than usual, and Williams’ memory of it reveals a creative process that is still flourishing. “We had to establish that five-note motif before filming, so that Steven could shoot the arrival of the ETs,” he explains. “I remember to this day – I still have my notebooks – writing out countless combinations of five notes. We had several meetings, we circled this one and we kept coming back to it. We never really had a moment where we said: ‘Eureka! A melodic signal that’s travelled across the cosmic void!’ But from the outset, Steven has been a director who is comfortable with music in his films, and with that process with me. We’ve never had problems. It combines a loyalty, a friendship, trust, security; a set of shared aesthetic notions.”
The latest stop on what Williams describes as “their continuing joyous ride” is Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s celebrated account of President Lincoln’s cabinet, Team of Rivals. A voracious reader of history, Williams feels fortunate to be part of the Lincoln project. “Every so often there are films, like Schindler’s List, or Amistad, which I also wrote here in Tanglewood, which have an educational role. Amistad is now used in high schools in our country to teach several things … A hundred years from now, people may not be interested in the music of the films, but they will be interested in the films, which are a wonderful way of showing who we were, in this brief moment that we are.”
At the Tanglewood birthday gala this weekend, the programme will include not only Williams’ best-loved film music, but some of his concert repertoire, including his Air and Simple Gifts, originally composed for President Barack Obama’s inauguration. While some purist critics might resist the description of Williams as a “classical” composer, Williams – whose work runs the gamut from lush symphonic neo-romanticism to kinetic, playful jazz – is untroubled by such snobbery. “My work in the concert field, my goodness, is a tiny speck set against the great literature that we’ve been given, which is constantly enriched by much finer minds than mine,” he says. “However, I have found pleasure in writing works not meant for film.”
. . .
He still goes to the piano every day, pencil in hand. “Well, I take the occasional Sunday off. Mind you, there are good days and bad days. A lot of it is rubbish! But it’s the process. It’s picking up the pencil, writing it, having it played, moving on.” While almost every other composer on the planet now employs some kind of electronic technology, for Williams, the old-fashioned tools are key. “It’s an influence that would be hard to quantify, but I think methodology is intimately connected to result,” he considers. “The pencil and paper are still very good tools, as is the piano. It’s something you do with your hands, so there’s an aspect of craftsmanship involved, even penmanship. And largely because I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had the time to go back and re-tool, and learn new methods I might have greatly benefited from.”
It is an extraordinary thought that there might have been more from John Williams had he only learnt to use a synthesiser. With the 80th birthday gala approaching, is there anything of which he is most proud? He looks momentarily troubled. “There must surely be bars, here and there, but it’s my personality never to be completely sure that what I’ve done is the best. There’s enough dissatisfaction gnawing at me all the time that I want to try to keep pushing forward.”
And what would Johnny Williams Senior think, I wonder, if he could see his son today? “He’d be very surprised by the amount of writing I’ve been able to do!” he chuckles. “I’m surprised! My personal library is a huge clutter, I’ll put it that way.” His voice drops to a wistful near-whisper. “After 60 years of doing this, it’s like breathing for me, or daily meals. My wife is often chiding me – why don’t you give yourself a break for a month or two, you might write better if you got away from it! But my vacation from the Hollywood work has been to sit down here at Tanglewood and write an overture for someone, a concerto for a friend.” He contemplates this. “I think the best way it has ever been put was by Rachmaninov, who said ‘music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.’ As long as we’re fortunate enough to tinker around with music, I believe it is deserving of our interest until we draw our last breath.”
Clemency Burton-Hill is a broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and music reporter for BBC2’s ‘The Culture Show’.
Tanglewood at 75 celebrates John Williams at 80 on August 18 2012, www.bso.org/tanglewood
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