‘John Williams on Images’ (1975)

John Williams on Images - Irwin Bazelon (published on the book Knowing the Score) – 1975

Excerpt from original interview by Irwin Bazelon
Transcript by Ricard L. Befan

Irwin Bazelon:
The credits on the screen say music by John Williams and sound by Stomu Yamashta. I don’t know whether he improvised these sounds or whether he composed them, but you get the feeling that there were two composers involved in this score. Who wrote what?

John Williams:
Well, there’s a long and interesting history to this music. It was a Robert Altman film -script by him. Altman had been talking to me about this script for years. It was one of those rare things where he said, “Write a piece of music first, and I’ll film the score.” That didn’t happen. I didn’t have time to write the music, and he went off on another picture, and the whole thing matured a couple of years later. But I’d been thinking about it and thinking about the schizophrenic quality of this film and this character. Here was a girl who one moment was in touch with reality and the next moment went out of touch altogether. And it seemed to me that the music should be done in two parts and it should have a duality for those reasons.
So two or three years went by, and I went to see another of Altman’s films in London last February. And when I looked at the film I instantly remembered the sculptures of Baschet. He had his sculptures here at UCLA about six years ago, and he had his associates and his family with him, and they performed on the sculptures. He played things like Viennese waltzes and “Flight of the Bumblebee” -it wasn’t very interesting musically, but the noises these instruments made.

Irwin Bazelon:
Were they metallic?

John Williams:
Well, most of his sculptures (Baschet is a serious sculptor, not a musician) are made to look at, they’re made to see. And the noises they make are kind of adjunct to them. They’re stainless-steel surfaces sculpted like floral petals. Some of them are sixteen feet high; they’re prominent visual works, and he has attachments of sawed-off glass rods that vibrate, and the vibrations go through a wire and activate these planes of steel, making the most unearthly sounds, wonderful noises. Dissolve.
Two or three years later at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I walked in o-ne day and there was the whole ground floor covered with Baschet, and if o-ne put a dime in the little machine, he could pick up a headset and hear these noises created by Baschet. I forgot all about this, but when I saw in Altman’s film exactly this thing, I thought now is my chance to put the music and his sculpture into a musical thing like a score.
So I called André Previn and asked him about Baschet -he said, “Oh yes. Yamashta (the Japanese percussionist) plays them.” And I knew Yamashta because he’d done a film for Ken Russell, “The Devils”, and he’s a very great percussionist -American trained. So I rang up Yamashta, who lives in Paris, and he said, “Come over; we’ll talk.” So I went to Paris and asked him if he’d like to perform the percussion in this score. And he said yes, he would. And he showed me his percussions, his Japanese bells, etc., and there’s kind of this zanylike quality in this film anyway, and the whole thing began to take shape. For the other side of it, I knew I wanted to do a kind of pastoral, bucolic -something or other with lutes and strings.

Irwin Bazelon:
There’s also a piano background in the opening. Are you playing that?

John Williams:
That’s right. Yes, I played all the keyboard, and Yamashta played all the percussion. He agreed to play, and we went to Baschet’s studio; Yamashta was tremendously skilled even o-n conventional instruments, but he gave the most wonderful demonstration on these Baschet things, and I thought, “Aha, that’s terrific.”
So I picked out two large instruments and o-ne or two smaller ones to rent from Baschet, and that was the end of it. We shook hands, and Stomu showed up the session, so to speak, as a playing musician, and he brought his gear with him.
When I was in Paris, I made little notes for myself about the instruments: what they would do; what we would call them; a little, simple method of graph notation to time out these percussion effects with either the conventional music of the film action it was to correspond with.
Where the credit business comes in -I was so pleased to have Stomu; he’s such a well known percussionist. I wanted to give him credit, to say, “Percussion played by Stomu Yamashta,” and he said, “I’m trying to get away from the percussion; I want to expand my activities; I’d rather it be ‘Sounds produced by…’ ” So I think, perhaps, it was a kind of contractual agreement with him. He wanted that screen credit, and I wanted to give it to him -in the same way as if you wrote a violin concerto for somebody in a film, you would say, “Violin by so-and-so.” I felt in this case, in a sense, that I was writing a percussion concerto with strings. So as Stomu’s request, the idea of “sounds” was put on the film, and when you’re doing things people don’t usually think all that much about, who’s going to take notice? It just seemed natural; that’s what he wanted; we agreed. Stomu functioned as a percussionist; if it would be a concerto for percussion, this is how it would be described and perhaps should have been.

Irwin Bazelon:
But there were other percussion instruments. I heard chimes, wind chimes, bells, also blowing air through the flute.

John Williams:
That’s right. It wasn’t all on the Baschets. We had the Inca flute and Kabuki percussion instruments. Then there were the Baschets -principally the four larger pieces of sculpture and a few smaller pieces- plus all the conventional gear, which included timpani, hand drums, blocks, bells, marimbas -all these things, as well as a few tricks of his own- little shaking things, little sticklike Kabuki noises.

Irwin Bazelon:
But he did not improvise anything to the visuals?

John Williams:
There are a few sections that are improvised within the context of a prepared timing -almost if one would do an aleatory bit of music. I might hit a chord with the orchestra and the score might indicate dashes for ten seconds on such and such an instrument -crescendo into double forte- that sort of thing.

Irwin Bazelon:
I never thought it was improvised. I always thought it was very well organized.

John Williams:
Now, the way it was accomplished is of interest. I wanted to use all textures and strings and nothing else -the o-nly thing added would be Stomu’s voice. He does it in his concerts of some of Henze’s pieces. So it was the Japanese style of the percussion, the resonance of the instruments, and his chest -he might even say “ouch” in Japanese.
What I have o-n the score is just an aural noise, so his voice is a contribution. So there is, in fact, an immense creative contribution, because his performance is outstanding, I think, and deserving of every credit he has. I don’t want to detract from Stomu’s participation, but I felt very strongly that we have the discipline of the written symbol, timed to the film in its dramatic application, and that, I think, is what gives it its unique sense, rather than haphazardness, of taut discipline.
So I reckoned percussion, keyboards -which I wanted to play all myself- and string orchestra. We began by recording -I wrote the score in the normal way- the string orchestra here, the keyboards here, and the percussion here. And the keyboards -I might play a particular section piano or piano twice, banging here, improvising something here, or playing something written here. The keyboard might be o-n three lines, which would require -since I was going to play it all- three overdubs o-n the piano; the percussion is almost always four or five lines.
You would hear Japanese woodblocks, you would hear Baschet-sculpture percussion, you might hear timpani, etc., in one sequence. My idea was to make the most personal, idiosyncratic thing, have one man play everything, rather than have four percussionists, which I could have done -let Stomu play everything.
So the first thing I did was recording the string orchestra for a whole day -all the traditional music, all of this material, and to time it exactly when the legitimate orchestra stopped and Stomu and I started with either our written notes or whatever we were going to do. And then we would select one, i.e., the woodblocks and the piano first. It was done o-n sixteen-track tapes, so we put the string orchestra left, center, and right; that left me thirteen tracks of tape to play around with. And we proceeded in that way. Stomu would take line one and play that, then line two, putting on the earphones to hear what he just recording on line one. Then on line three he heard lines one and two back. And I drew on the score -where, if you play pa pa, I play ta tee; I’m taking my notes from your cue. In this case he would just follow the arrows, which are indicated on the percussion production notes. And he followed himself with his own timings and made a wonderful effect.

Irwin Bazelon:
Also, the instruments have tremendous presence, as though they’re amplified and reverbed and echoed all over the place.

John Williams:
Yes, some of these Baschet instruments -I wish you could see them- instantly make wonderful noises. A lot of these noises Stomu pointed out of me; if you out your ear on the right place of the plane, the buildup would be most beautiful or the sonority would be the most attractive.

© 1975 by Irwin Bazelon