JOHN WILLIAMS’ QUIET SIDE
By M. R. Montgomery Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, March 18th, 1981
John Williams lives on a quiet street in the modest (one- Mercedes-to-a-garage) part of this village, in a quiet neo-Georgian house with a blooming red camellia bush that reaches to the second floor windows.
It is a retreat from the hustle of Sunset Boulevard, and appropriate digs for a man who says he led the life of a monk until he became the Boston Pops conductor.
“Twenty-five years,” he begins, sitting on a green sofa in a room so modest that two walls covered with Grammies, Oscars and gold records seem to blend easily with bookcases filled with musicology and literature. It is a blend of pop and circumstance.
“Twenty-five years I really led the life of a monk. I had an office and I went there and composed. It suited me. I’m a private guy.” He sits quietly and looks at the walls and bookcases that sum up a thousand years of music and a single lifetime of his music and says, altogether without affectation, “It is hard to say what life is about.”
He is as prolific as Mozart, a comparison, like anything hinting at a compliment, that brings a shy smile and a demurrer. He wrote at least 200 television movie scores, including everything from the “Kraft Suspense Theater” through “Wagon Train,” and 70 feature film soundtracks before Star Wars” and the Boston Pops made him a public figure.
“You don’t have to be good,” he reflected, “just strong.”
Like the rest of us old enough to remember it, he misses early television, especially the excitement of composing for live theater, including dozens of “Playhouse 90” scores. “Television (he is a precise speaker, TV’ is not in his vocabulary) is so disappointing.” He searches for a word: “Tawdry?” He waits for assent that such is the right word. “It is tawdry. A national disgrace, really.
“I do have great hope for the film industry, so many young people, so enthusiastic, so bright and so inventive. George Lucas showed up in London with the script for the third stage of the Empire films, and everyone was so genuinely excited. I can tell you that Yoda returns, but George is quite secretive.”
Lucas, as Williams knows, is about as withdrawn as Howard Hughes. “But George is not neurotic about it,” Williams adds quickly.
Lucas is planning a new movie capitol of his own, complete with cabins in the woods where authors and composers can live quietly, far from the madding crowd in Hollywood.
The current Lucas effort, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is due for summer release, a pastiche of ’30s movie technique and a plot revolving wildly around the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant and a subsequent heroic struggle between Nazi and American archaeologists for its possession. Williams has scored a triumphal march motif for Harrison Ford, who plays the American hero, Indiana Jones. “You know the kind of thing,” Williams says, “a heroic theme that swells when things are going well for our hero, the kind of music that makes the audience want to cheer.” And how does the movie come out? “Yes, quite a strong playing of that march at the end,” Williams hints.
He has written a love theme for “Raiders,” “a bit like As Time Goes By,’ ” he explains. Later, sitting at one of his two grand pianos, he gently refuses to play a few bars of the new tune. He has his secrets, does Williams.
Coming out of his musical monastic cell has changed his life, or at least made him wonder what it means. “Imagine,” he reflects, “what it is like to jump on a train that Arthur Fiedler has moving at 60 miles an hour. Quite exciting. I tell people in Europe that we play six nights a week and they can’t imagine it.” He cannot quite imagine that it is John Williams, the mild- mannered musicologist, who has just come out of the recording studio booth in the guise of Superman of stage, screen and radio.
He is, of course, a sometimes practitioner of serious music (his Violin Concerto premiered in Carnegie Hall last month with the St. Louis Symphony). Several players in the Pops mentioned that they thought he should devote himself, for a while, to serious classical music. When this was conveyed to him, he retreated quickly. “Well, one wonders if the world needs more classical music by me,” he begins. “I do write some, but . . .” His voice trails off, and then he uses a Welsh analogy, “It is very hard work to mine that seam.”
What does excite him, what brings back the enthusiasm in his speech is a vision of music and film combined, a sort of new symphonic device. “I saw the most amazing thing in London. It was Abel Gance’s great silent film, Napoleon.’ Do you know about that? It opened in Paris the same week as The Jazz Singer,’ and no one paid any attention to it. Only the first installment was ever made, five and a half hours of incredible film. It is playing in London with a soundtrack of classical music, Beethoven, Brahms, everyone, such an alluring film.
“I know that it is supposed to be unecessary to combine music with vision, almost tasteless. But this is the way a movie should look and sound!”
He would not like to get into the argument about whether serious music would be improved by a visual component. He has, after all, spent half his life improving film with music. But he is internally excited.
“I was going on about this business of film and music and Tom Morris (BSO general manager) said, Well, get your friend Lucas to do a silent movie and you do the music.’ ” Williams closes his eyes and imagines a movie made to support music, after a quarter century of writing music to support a film. “I don’t know. Maybe Lucas will make such a film.” He sits quietly and thinks about all that energy, all that inventiveness, at the service of music.
He is, after a lifetime residence in Beverly Hills, not a citizen of California. It is not only the 6 to 8 months a year he has spent in London recently, but that he has always been insulated from the garish side of this plastic-in-the-rough city. “Really,” he says while steering his single and modest Mercedes sedan down Sunset Boulevard, “I have always just gotten up and gone to work. I am very insulated from all this.” In a curious turn of phrase for someone who owns a house in Beverly Hills, he adds “I don’t think I’d really like to live here.”
When Tom Morris convinced him to take over the Pops, there was speculation that part of the motive was to put the BSO aboard the film soundtrack gravy train. “Of course it is possible,” Williams says. “We can record right in Symphony Hall, all we need is a synchronized video machine for me to look at. That is not the problem. You really must have the orchestra for five to seven days, and the BSO doesn’t have free weeks like that. Recording is much easier, you can do it during the same week you perform. But I would love to use that wonderful orchestra for a movie. We will try.”
On this brief visit home between London soundtrack recordings and returning to Boston for Pops season, Williams conducted a concert at the local monument to concrete and concertos, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was warmly received, but local heroes are not all Rocky Balboas.
The capacity of orchestra level ticketholders to sit on their hands while the balconies are giving a standing ovation is particularly strong here, perhaps the result of arriving in a herd of Rolls Royce automobiles.
Even the appearance of Henry Fonda, coming on stage with the aid of a cane to narrate Williams’ own score from The Reivers’ could not unseat the exceptionally beautiful people in the first ten rows.
Williams is, indeed, out of place in tinsel town. Were it not for the glistening leaves of the camellia outside the windows behind the two Steinway grand pianos, he could be in London, Boston, or even in George Lucas’ planned retreat in Marin County.
Films, music, and the life of the mind are all quite portable. When he returns to Boston, he will be carrying his new march, a tribute to Arthur Fiedler. It does not yet have a title. The composer is worrying about finding exactly the right words for the title. “Something with Maestro, perhaps, something with Fiedler. Oh, I’ll get it.”
He drops his visitors off at the Beverly Hilton, the only place in town where taxi cabs ever congregate, and drives sedately off to his quiet cell at 20th Century Fox to meditate on music, film, and, most unusual in this environment, the meaning of life.
JOHN WILLIAMS’ QUIET SIDE