Film music maestro John Williams, 90, steps away from cinema but not from music

After more than sixty years of taking off bikes, sending panicked swimmers to shore, and other mesmerizing close encounters, John Williams is taking final notes on what could be his final film soundtrack.

“I’m currently working on Indiana Jones 5, which I think Harrison Ford, who is a little younger than me, will be his last film,” says Williams. “So I thought, if Harrison could do it, then maybe I can too.”

Ford, by the way, did not speak publicly about this. And Williams, who turned 90 in February, isn’t entirely sure he’s ready for it either.

“I don’t want to be perceived as someone who absolutely excludes any activity,” Williams says with a chuckle over the phone from his Los Angeles home. “I can’t play tennis, but I like to believe that one day I can.”

However, right now, Williams wants to spend time in other ways. A Star Wars movie requires six months of work, which he notes “is a long commitment for me at this stage in my life.” Instead, Williams devotes himself to composing concert music, including the piano concerto he writes for Emanuel Aix.

This spring, Williams and cellist Yo-Yo Ma released an album “Meeting of Friends” recorded with the New York Philharmonic, Pablo Sainz-Villegas and Jessica Zhou. This is a magnificent collection of cello concertos and new arrangements from the scores of Schindler’s List, Lincoln and Munich, including the sublime Prayer for Peace.

90th anniversary is an event that Kennedy Center as well as Tanglewood celebrating this summer’s birthday concerts — forced Williams to reflect on his accomplishments, his remaining ambitions, and what his musical life meant to him.

“It gave me the ability to breathe, the ability to live and understand that there is more to bodily life,” says Williams. “Not being religious, in which I am not particularly, there is a spiritual life, an artistic life, a realm that is above the ordinary of everyday realities. Music can elevate thinking to the level of poetry. We can think about how necessary music was for humanity. I always like to talk about how music is older than language, that we probably beat drums and blew on reeds before we could speak. So it’s an integral part of our humanity.

“It gave me life.”

And, in turn, Williams has become the soundtrack to the lives of countless others, having played music to over 100 films, including “Star Wars,”“Jurassic Park,” Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, “Indiana Jones,”“Superman”, Schindler’s List and Harry Potter.”

This is the number of achievements that are difficult to measure. Five Academy Awards and 52 Academy Award nominations — a number surpassed only by Walt Disney — is one dimension. But even that hardly hints at the cultural power of his music. A billion people could instantly hum Williams’ two-note ostinato from Jaws or “Imperial March” from Star Wars.

“I was told that this music is played all over the world. What could be more useful than this?” says Williams. “But I have to say that it seems unrealistic. I can only see what’s in front of me at the piano right now, and I’m trying my best.”

He believes that all these indelible, perfectly constructed themes are the result not so much of divine inspiration as of daily hard work. Williams spends most of his work sitting at his Steinway for hours, composing in pencil.

“It’s like cutting a stone at a table,” he says. “My younger colleagues are much faster than me because they have electronic equipment, computers, synthesizers and so on.”

When Williams started (his first feature film soundtrack was 1958’s Daddy-O), the cinematic tradition of large orchestral soundtracks began to lose out to pop soundtracks. Now many people are gravitating towards synthesized music for films. Williams increasingly has the aura of a revered old master, connecting distant eras of cinema and music.

“Recording with the New York Philharmonic, the entire orchestra was amazed to the last man by this gentleman, now 90, who hears everything, always kind, gentle, polite. People just wanted to play for him,” says Ma. “They were amazed at the man’s musicality.”

This latest chapter in Williams’ career is, in a way, a chance to link his gigantic legacy not only to cinema, but to classic legends as well. Williams, who led the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993, conducted the Berlin, Vienna and New York Philharmonic, among others. In the world’s elite orchestras, Williams’ compositions have become canon.

Williams’ long partnership with Steven Spielberg certainly helped the composer. Spielberg, who first dined with Williams in 1972 after being fascinated by his score for The Kidnappers, called him “the most significant contribution to my success as a director.”

“Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly,” Spielberg said when AFI honored Williams in 2016.

They remain inextricably linked. Their offices in the universal parking lot are just a few steps away from each other. Along with Indiana Jones, Williams recently scored Spielberg’s upcoming Arizona-growing semi-autobiographical drama The Fabelmans. The two films make up 30 Spielberg and Williams films together.

“It’s been 50 years. Maybe we start with the next 50,” Williams laughs.

In the films of Spielberg and others, Williams cut enough perfectly compressed tunes to rival the Beatles. Spielberg once called his five-note “Communicative Motif” from “Close Encounters” a “doorbell”.

“Simple little themes that speak clearly and without confusion are very hard to find and very difficult to implement,” says Williams. “They really are the result of a lot of work. It’s almost like chiselling. Move one note, change the rhythmic accent or the direction of the interval, and so on. A simple melody can be played in dozens of ways. If you find one, it looks like you’ve found something that would like to be revealed.”

— Jake Coyle, Associated Press.

Film and TVMusic

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