The Chronicle Review

Conversations With John Williams

January 12, 2007

John Williams, Hollywood's premier composer, speaks in soft, sonorous phrases, like the music in the second half of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a score he speaks about with special affection.

"There are certain things I like about all of my scores and others I wish could be better, but when I add it all up, I think about that very fondly."

Given Williams's amiability and his ability to bridge musical cultures, his attraction to Close Encounters — which depicts a benevolent bringing together of alien worlds — is not surprising.

In two wide-ranging interviews, Williams spent a great deal of time praising others — Berlioz, Wagner, Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, and contemporary composers like Yehudi Wyner, whose new piano concerto (winner of a 2006 Pulitzer) is "fabulous, an absolute knockout." But this modest icon finds little time to listen because he's "working on compositional problems all the time." Besides, "if the music is better than mine, and it usually is, it's no help, and if it's worse, it's no help." So what about his own achievements, his five Academy Awards, 45 nominations, and extensive concert works?

"What little I may have done will probably rest in the area of film music. I write concert music mostly for my own instruction and edification, and even some small degree of pleasure."

When Williams talks about the future of classical and film music, his gentle voice takes on a sudden urgency. His predecessors Erich Korngold and Herrmann argued that film music helped keep classical alive, and he is convinced this phenomenon is now truer than ever.

"Purists will not like that," he admits, and he himself is emotionally torn. "As musicians, we don't like to think we need visual aids to project music. It should be able to engage us aurally and intellectually without a visual distraction. I'm painfully aware of that problem, but as you and I have discussed before, we are visual addicts, stimulated by computer or movie screens. People have their eyes glued to something all the time. For that generation, it's hard to listen to Beethoven and be completely engaged in a way that we would prefer them to be. But I think to ignore that fact is to ignore a reality that is with us; the audiovisual coupling as expressed in film music is something that is really with us to stay because of the way we live."

This reality check comes at a tricky time in our culture. The classical intelligentsia once openly ridiculed film composing, using it as an instant metaphor for anything shallow or sentimental and scoffing at concert composers who wrote for the movies on the side. Stravinsky panned Rachmaninoff's symphonic works as "grandiose film music." Otto Klemperer, upon hearing that Korngold was writing for Hollywood, sneered that Korngold "had always composed for Warner Brothers, he just didn't realize it." Current critics tend to be more accepting of the field, but they practice a curious doublethink, one that is often unconscious. "Sounds like movie music" is still a common way to dismiss a new concert work, even among reviewers ostensibly friendly to the genre. I've caught myself using this damning cliché, even though I've loved movie soundtracks ever since being blown away by Max Steiner's The Searchers at age 10.

The stakes are high, for film music is uniquely situated to disseminate symphonic culture at the moment many commentators worry about that culture's impending collapse. In Williams's view, our multinational age presents an opportunity for classical music to reposition itself and for young composers to find an audience.

"For better or worse, the audience for film music, even in an unconscious way, is multinational and enormous. If there is such a thing as global music, it's probably coming from film, where it's less attached to one particular vernacular. As a unified art form, a successful film, if it has a score that people will embrace, really can, in the atmosphere we live in today, reach across those boundaries. Film music can therefore be very important even to the history and development of the art form of music itself.

"I think young people will come along, recognize the irrevocability of the linkage between the visual and aural, and approach as musicians the opportunity to write for film very seriously."

Classical performers are on board, even if composers are not. One artist on the front line of the new classical is Williams's frequent collaborator Yo-Yo Ma, whose "voice" permeates the delicate textures of Memoirs of a Geisha (a welcome "deviation from all the racket of space and action films") and whose Silk Road experiment "brings world music to the fore in a way that, I'm happy to say, is happening more and more." Williams wrote his ethereal cello concerto for Ma, as well as the soaring Heartwood and a new 25-minute suite for cello and orchestra, derived from the Geisha score, that premiered at Tanglewood on August 12, 2006. Another soloist Williams favors is Itzhak Perlman, who contributed to Geisha and whose haunting violin solo in Schindler's List helped turn that piece into a concert favorite.

Common sense should tell us that the divide between film music and classical is artificial, as silly as the schism between symphony and opera. Kids who are brought up with symphonic film music often move on to classical. Last April I took 40 college students in my American-studies class to the most recent Williams concert with the New York Philharmonic; many told me afterward that this was their first exposure to a symphony orchestra, and that they loved it. My 11-year-old son can sit happily through a Mahler symphony, but only because I began by brainwashing him with Close Encounters, E.T., and Indiana Jones.

W illiams is the ideal person to bridge the divide. When Bernard Herrmann died in 1975, many declared that

with him had perished symphonic movie music, a victim of pop and synthesizer sounds through the 60s and early 70s. Then Star Wars blazed into theaters, powered by the London Symphony Orchestra, and the talk stopped. Everyone in the industry was stunned by the score's success, and big orchestras have prospered in Hollywood films ever since.

"We used the London Symphony playing in a grand, Romantic, sweeping style, which seemed to all of us working on the film to be the right approach," Williams recalls. "It was such a surprising success that it may have reminded people who had temporarily forgotten how much a concert symphonic orchestra can contribute to a film. People really didn't think anymore of using the Boston or London symphony for film. So it might have been a gentle reminder that the orchestra is a fabulous tool, and always has been, and still is very much with us. There is nothing yet invented that delivers the emotional impact that it can."

One director who recognizes that impact is Steven Spielberg, who is "very positive about music," and with whom Williams has worked for more than 30 years, surely the longest director-composer collaboration in history. Another is Alfred Hitchcock, whose Family Plot Williams scored 30 years ago, and who taught Williams valuable lessons about how to lay music into a film. These seemingly dissimilar artists share a "great trust in music," says Williams. "They are both very happy to have the orchestra playing a lot, both interested in intimate details like tempo and spotting," which is when director and composer meet after a film has been edited to decide what types of music should go where. "Much of their filmmaking style has to do with their use of music — music that has an idiosyncratic stamp. Steven is a different personality, sunnier, more optimistic, less skeptical — a very different view of life. But where music is concerned and its function, they are very similar."

Munich and Geisha, Williams's most recent projects, may seem like departures from his customary Hollywood sound, but in fact he has always been fascinated by Eastern harmonies and instruments. The inspiration for Geisha goes back to the flute concerto he wrote in 1968, an attempt "to imitate some of the gestures of the shakuhachi," a traditional Japanese bamboo flute. The seductive and dangerous Middle Eastern atmosphere of Munich was evoked with the sounds of an oud — a Middle Eastern lute — and a variety of Persian and Armenian instruments. Williams mined a more familiar tradition in Schindler's List, which sounds like the vernacular music of Eastern Europe, even though it is "completely composed, with no references that I am aware of."

When he was musical director for the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof, Williams went to Israel for inspiration, saturating himself in old Israeli musicals, but the Jewish influence was already deeply ingrained. Indeed, speaking with Williams, who once worked with Franz Waxman, is a reminder that Hollywood music is basically a Jewish émigré invention. "Anyone growing up in music as I have done has so many teachers who are Jewish; it's so much a part of what we know and what we do. Those modalities and peculiarities are very familiar to us."

Williams's numerous concertos include a horn concerto for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Dale Clevenger, a trumpet concerto for the Cleveland Orchestra's Michael Sachs, and an angular bassoon concerto for the New York Philharmonic's Judith LeClair.

A gregarious person in a field requiring monklike isolation, Williams values the "association with the soloists, the wonderful inspiration from players." Those contacts have also inspired some of his most striking film music, making him a crossover figure in the most exact sense. The elegiac violin solo in Schindler's List came to him when he sat down at the piano with Itzhak Perlman; the mesmerizing ideas in Geisha were developed through an interaction with the koto players Masayo Ishigure and Hiromi Hashibe — "two lovely ladies who actually didn't read Western music" — who spontaneously picked up themes Williams played on the piano.

The communal experience is also what draws this former Boston Pops maestro to conducting, even though leading an orchestra is a huge drain on composing time. (Pierre Boulez, another iconic composer with multiple careers, once compared conducting to smoking cigarettes — a bad habit that's hard to shake.) Originally, Williams picked up the baton in "self-defense" against studio music directors who didn't know the score as well as he. "I wanted to bring what I had written to the fore in the most representative way I thought it could be given. And that was my sole motivation to conduct." Now he does it for the "wonderful sense of rejuvenation from going from a cloistered room where you work weeks on end without even speaking to people to the more objectified public moment when the music is brought forward before an audience and it's a public event, a physical representation of what's been abstractly on paper. I found it a wonderful antidote to the monastic lifestyle of a composer."

Now that he is in his 70s, one might expect Williams — who has written more than 300 scores — to slow down. But he is so prolific it's hard to keep up with his work. When I asked him why the latest Harry Potter movie didn't have John Williams music (much to the disappointment of me and my children), he explained: "It was a schedule problem; ... of course I would have done it if I could, but it overlapped pretty exactly with Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds. The Lucas-Spielberg relationship took precedence on my schedule, and I had commitments to both those films earlier on. I must say I miss doing it."

So why not squeeze in one more? After all, Williams knocked off Munich and Geisha for 2005 as well.

What makes Williams's energy even more remarkable is that unlike many in the field — Dimitri Tiomkin, for example, whose Guns of Navarone Williams helped orchestrate more than 40 years ago, and the countless Hollywood composers who use synthesizers — he orchestrates his own scores, every note and instrument, down to the last string harmonic or harp glissando, working with pencil and paper. (He scrawled some 350 five-note motifs for Close Encounters until he and Spielberg settled on the right one for the famed interplanetary communication tune.) For Williams, the physical sound of an instrument and the atmosphere it creates are as important as melody: Orchestration is content. When I asked him whether he was less respectful of those who hired arrangers, he made a distinction between admiration and respect.

"The question of whether one has less respect is a difficult one. ... I do think the composer without the ability to orchestrate is without some essential tools. Just from a timbral point of view, the orchestral setting in terms of the scene in the film can be more important than the melodic or rhetorical material. One can admire a providentially given gift, but what you respect is someone who has all of it: the natural talent it all sits on, but also all the tools and technical expertise to bring it forward."

One artist who "has all of it" is Haydn, Williams's favorite composer. When he was a young man, Williams's idols included Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók, along with jazz composers like Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Now Williams finds himself returning to the fundamentals. Haydn is "one of the all-time great musical talents," he says. "Without Haydn, we probably wouldn't have Mozart or Beethoven."

One might guess that a Hollywood titan would have a flashier composer as his hero, but given Williams's gregariousness, commitment to reaching a large audience, and his astonishing creativity as he gets older, his Haydn idolatry shouldn't be surprising.

Jack Sullivan is a professor of English and director of the American-studies program at Rider University. His books include New World Symphonies (Yale University Press, 1999) and Hitchcock's Music (Yale University Press, 2006). Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 53, Issue 19, Page B12