A composer who knows the score

CATCHING UP WITH... JOHN WILLIAMS

John Williams may not have the name-recognition of classical giants like Beethoven, but to a generation of moviegoers, his music is every bit as resonant

August 29, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC

STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. -- You could say that John Williams is as big as Beethoven.

Even if you're a highbrow who confuses the 67-year-old American film composer with the classical guitarist of the same name, it's a cinch that the composer's music is as familiar as the first movements of the "Moonlight" Sonata or the Fifth Symphony.

He's the guy responsible for the menacing da-DUM, da-DUM bass ostinato that automatically rings in your head every time you think about sharks ("Jaws"); the five-note calling card synonymous with the possibility of extra-terrestrial life ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind"); or that rush of heroism you experience when you hear a certain fanfare in which trumpets vault up an octave ("Star Wars").

You could compare Williams to Beethoven; John Williams won't.

"Nothing is more paralyzing than to compare yourself to the composers of the past," says Williams. "I always tell my students that Beethoven couldn't have been Beethoven if he thought he had to write a Ninth Symphony or a 'Missa Solemnis' every time he stepped up to the plate. Besides, film music serves the movie, not the ego of a composer."

On this Sunday morning a few weeks ago, Williams is sitting in an unpretentious room in the deserted offices of the Boston Symphony's summer home, known as the Tanglewood Music Festival, located in the Berkshire Hills about 100 miles west of Boston. For 13 years he was the conductor of the Boston Pops (1980-1993); he's been coming to Tanglewood every summer since, to write his own music (this summer he finished the score for Alan Parker's coming film of "Angela's Ashes"), to conduct a few concerts, but mostly to share what he's learned with the young composers associated with the Tanglewood Music Institute.

Williams has been the composer of choice for some of the most gifted filmmakers of the last 30 years -- Alfred Hitchcock, Oliver Stone, George Lucas (for whom he wrote the original "Star Wars" trilogy score and its recent "prequel," "The Phantom Menace") and, especially, Steven Spielberg, who won't work without him and for whom Williams has scored every movie. Of his more than 80 film scores, 37 have been nominated for Academy Awards -- more than any other person, living or dead -- and he's won five Oscars, 17 Grammys and three Golden Globes, as well as several gold and platinum records. He's the most famous film composer alive.

"This is an ideal place to work," Williams says about Tanglewood. "It's beautiful, it's quiet and it's out of the public eye. But what's best is the concerts I get a chance to hear, the wonderful idealism of the professionals in the orchestra and of the visiting artists and, especially, the chance to work with youngsters. Summer here means rejuvenation."

But before Williams can answer questions about himself and about writing music for films, a persistent telephone ring breaks the quiet of the deserted offices.

"I'm sorry, but she's not here -- no one is," he politely tells the caller. "May I leave her a message?" After a pause he responds, "This is John Williams."

"Yes it really is," he says. "Oh, thank you, it was good to talk to you, too."

There's nothing Hollywood about John Williams. With his silver beard, spectacles, sandy-haired tonsure about a bald pate, baggy black turtleneck and jeans, he could be a college professor.

"The way I see it," he says, as he resumes the conversation in his modest, courteous manner, "is that composing a movie soundtrack is a lot like journalism: both are primarily driven by deadlines and commercialism. A tiny percentage of film music has already fallen into the classical canon, but no one can predict what will and what won't."

Film-music watershed

However, it's not premature to call Williams' work a watershed in the history of film music. Beginning in the middle 1970s, his soundtracks for the hugely successful films of Spielberg and Lucas did nothing less than resurrect the symphonic film score after more than a decade of decline.

When Williams, who had just graduated from Juilliard, came to Hollywood in the mid '50s to work as a pianist in the film studios, he arrived at the end of a golden age. The rise of fascism in the 1930s was simultaneous with the first "talkies," and it brought to Hollywood such European-born-and-trained composers as Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin and Miklos Rosza.

These emigrants created the language of film music in the vocabulary of the Wagner-Strauss-Puccini idiom in which they had been nurtured. And they were succeeded by similarly classically trained Americans, such as Bernard Herrmann and David Raksin, who brought film scoring to new levels of sophistication.

But this rich tradition of symphonic music was blighted in the 1960s, beginning with Henry Mancini's music for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961), which contained a song, "Moon River," that went on to become a No. 1 hit.

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