THE MOVIES’ MUSIC MAN (2002)
John Williams writes the music that makes ‘Star Wars’ memorable or ‘Minority Report’ transparent. It’s all in the role of the film composer.
July 7, 2002 By TIMOTHY MANGAN - The Orange County Register
The interviewer will have no leisurely lunch with John Williams.
John Williams does not do leisurely lunches. He doesn’t even do leisurely breakfasts. At 70, the prodigious and prolific film composer is still much too busy for such things and plans to keep it that way.
Therefore, he arranges to answer questions via phone, at 8:45 a.m., before going off to the studio for a day’s work.
“It’s a very difficult schedule, as you probably know,” says Williams, understating the case in impeccable mid- Atlantic tones. He’s got two films in theaters now – George Lucas’ “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” and Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” – with two more on the way before year’s end – the next episode in the “Harry Potter” series and another Spielberg opus, “Catch Me If You Can.” No courtroom dramas here, these are action-adventure pictures all, a genre typically painted with a generous musical brush by Hollywood.
“Many of these films I have been doing lately have over two hours of music in them,” Williams says. “Which is, if not in quality, quantitatively I guess equal to a lot of operas. And we have to do this in about three months.
“So I find that I have to average about a minute and a half to two minutes of music a day, which is very, very difficult.”
That may not sound like much to the uninitiated, Williams says, until one considers how he writes: for full orchestra, in full score.
“If you took an average minute of music for orchestra and reckoned how many notes were there, it would be quite staggering to people.”
He doesn’t use orchestrators like many Hollywood composers, either, and doesn’t hand off themes to a team of arrangers. An industry unto himself, he’s responsible for every note, every noise, in his scores.
“The orchestration is conceived at the moment of composition; it’s one of the most salient aspects of what we do, because the timbral and textural qualities of each scene really determine whether the music is going to live effectively with the dialogue and sound effects or not.
“I mean, to put it very grossly, it’s a major difference between what works and what does not work if the dialogue is accompanied by an oboe solo or a trumpet solo – it’s a huge difference.
“On the page it will look like one line but from a timbral point of view and ultimately then a dramatic point of view, the selection of instrumentation is of the essence.”
And having someone else make that selection will not do.
A supporting role
Williams has been nominated for 41 Academy Awards, more than any living person, and he’s won five, which is more than most. Born in Floral Park, Long Island, and a pianist since age 8, he moved to Los Angeles in his teens, where he studied with pianist-arranger Bobby Van Eps. He served in the Air Force, conducting and arranging for bands, and spent a year at Juilliard, working with legendary pianist Rosina Lhévinne. Back on the West Coast, he enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, and studied composition privately with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
From there it was a short hop to television and film, where he took on a variety of jobs, as arranger, conductor, orchestrator, pianist, working with stalwarts of the old guard such as Bernard Herrmann (a big influence, Williams says), Dmitri Tiomkin and Alfred Newman.
It is fair to say that “Jaws” put him on the map as a film composer (that semi-tone du-da-du-da-du-da became stamped on the nation’s consciousness), but Williams had several impressive film credits to his name by that time, including a robust Western score for “The Cowboys” and a trio of disaster blockbusters, “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Towering Inferno” and “Earthquake.”
It was his score for “Star Wars” that put him in the history books, though. In a single stroke it not only defined the musical style for a genre of film that would flourish for decades, but it resuscitated the dormant symphonic film accompaniment itself, which had fallen into disfavor in the ’60s and ’70s. As startling as “Star Wars” looked and felt in 1977, it sounded just as fresh. The main theme, as well as several subsidiary motifs, have become as much a part of the collective musical memory as many a pop tune.
Typically low key, Williams confesses not to having seen “Star Wars” in “many, many years,” and he doesn’t find it especially easy to assess his contribution to it. “I don’t sit at home at night listening to music I wrote 20 years ago, or even two years ago,” he says.
He views the success of his music to that film as largely not of his own doing.
“There’s an element of chance in that, an element of luck, the moment of reception in the marketplace, if I can put it that way, so many factors that are almost sociological and beyond the competence of someone like me to analyze for you … . I’ve been very fortunate to be associated with some films that have found their way into that place and that the music can go successfully along with it and support it.”
Williams says that, simply put, with his “Star Wars” film score he was just doing what he always does: “I was writing what that kind of genre piece would require.”
His latest effort, the score to Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” required something completely different. Spielberg, in his liner note to the recording, thinks of it as Williams’ first score in “black and white.”
“There are some films where music can play a major role, a major melodic voice,” Williams says. “And there are types of films where not only doesn’t it, but it shouldn’t. And that’s as simple as that.” “Minority Report” is of the second type, he says.
Before writing the score for “Minority Report” – which Spielberg calls a combination of film noir and whodunit – Williams sat down with the director to screen and “spot” it, deciding where the music should go, and what type it should be.
“That particular film is almost a genre film in a way,” Williams says, “and it’s the sort of film that seemed to me, and also to Steven Spielberg, that would be best served by music that would reflect in some way that particular genre, to be dramatic and compelling and rhythmically energetic.
“But there wouldn’t be a place for a long lyrical line in a film like that. It would be out of place, I felt.”
The result – rhythmic, insinuating, darkly impulsive but almost entirely devoid of melody – may work so well in supporting the film that viewers won’t notice or remember it; they certainly won’t be leaving theaters humming it.
“Most of what I write is meant to be exactly accompaniment to something else,” Williams says. “If you take that something else away it’s like playing the Mendelssohn concerto without the solo line.”
And so, when Williams hears that someone hasn’t noticed his music in “Minority Report,” how does he feel?
“To expect otherwise is to be unrealistic,” he says. “I will go to a film and if I become engrossed in it I won’t hear every note of the accompaniment, either. … We’re talking about a reality that I’ve lived with all of my life. And it’s a reality that doesn’t require any kind of an emotional response from me any longer.”
His classical chops
It’s a situation that goes some way in explaining Williams’ other career as a composer for the concert stage. The author of concertos, symphonies and many occasional pieces – a recent Sony disc features music written for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, including an ambitious Cello Concerto – thinks of his concert work, in part, as a way to allay the limitations, and anonymity, of writing for film.
“Most of the concert music I’ve written has been, from my personal point of view, experimental, and an area where I’ve sought — I will even use the word — entertainment or distraction from the film music world; where I’ve been able to make some experiments and apply perhaps a denser kind of structuring and texturing because I might have an audience that would pay attention.”
Now, his first opera could be on the way. As part of the grand designs of Plácido Domingo at Los Angeles Opera, the supertenor announced that an opera by Williams was in the works. But the composer says it’s a long way off.
“It’s been something that Plácido Domingo has asked me to do, which gratifies me very much. And I’ve said to him – and he understands – that it’s something that takes a couple of years to do and I’m not sure that I’m going to have time. But the first thing we both need to do is to find a project that is exciting enough for all of us to commit the kind of time and energy that a task like that would take.” But Williams says that, though there was one promising prospect that didn’t pan out, a suitable subject has not been found.
“So we’re still at pretty much square one. I’d love to do it if it’s possible.”
Does the idea of writing an opera intimidate him? “Absolutely, yeah, it’s daunting. But that’s part of why you do it. There’s a mountain there and you climb it. Or try to.”
In the meantime, whether the opera project materializes or not, Williams will have plenty to do. Before running off to work for the day, he rattles off the contents of his date book for the next few weeks: Finish “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”; appear at Tanglewood with Yo-Yo Ma in a tribute to Seiji Ozawa; conduct there a concert of his own film music; sit down with Spielberg to screen “Catch Me If You Can”; write score to said film; record score in the fall.
Williams works in his own studio, a small building in Spielberg’s Amblin complex, itself on the Universal Studios lot. The studio consists of a composing room with a piano and a kind of drafting board beside it on which he composes; a kitchen; and a third room in which he views the film. Williams does not compose, as some film composers do, while he watches the film. Instead, he’ll view a scene, then go back to the piano to compose in peace, the visuals only in mind. Another difference: He doesn’t compose a piano score first, then orchestrate, but writes for full orchestra from the first draft.
Williams likes to screen a film for himself before having a director in to view it with him. With Spielberg and Lucas, two of his most fruitful collaborators, he’ll then spot a particular film, taking a day to decide where the music will go and of what mood and style. Spielberg will visit every week or two during the compositional process, to hear what’s up. “I sometimes go to the piano and play him a theme, or play him a theme or two or three if I have something.” Sometimes Spielberg will guide him toward a choice. “But he’s never dictatorial about it.”
On the other hand, after the spotting session, Williams won’t see Lucas much. Typically, the next time will be on the recording stage. “Occasionally he’ll ask for a change when we’re recording, and it’s something I can usually accommodate in a day or two. But that’s a rare occurrence. It’s been a very pleasant and cooperative kind of collaboration also.”
Williams is already signed up for “Indiana Jones 4″ and “Star Wars Episode III” with Spielberg and Lucas, as well as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” projects taking him into 2005.
He does it all willingly.
“My working life has been the central part of my life and I have no reason to want to change that. Any senior musician that you will ever speak to will always tell you the same thing, that the more years we work in music, the more fascinated we become in it and with it. And we don’t ever tire of it.”
So he’ll keep on plugging, creating about a minute and a half to two minutes of music a day.