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Q&A: John Williams on accompanying Steven Spielberg

As much as the opening bah-bah-bah-BAAAH of Beethoven’s Fifth, John Williams’ indelible themes for such films as “Jaws,” “Star Wars” and “Superman,” not to mention the fanfare for the Olympic Games, are among the most instantly recognizable in symphonic music.

Among hundreds of works ranging from concertos to the theme of NBC’s “Today” show, the 81-year-old elder statesman of Hollywood soundtracks has scored 26 of the 27 feature films directed by Steven Spielberg (“The Color Purple” is the exception). Williams’ soundtracks include “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and, most recently, “Lincoln.” They also account for three of the composer’s five Academy Awards, for “E.T. the Extraterrestrial,” “Jaws” and “Schindler’s List.”

On Saturday, Sept. 28, Williams and Spielberg will continue their four-decades-long collaboration in a benefit concert for the Phoenix Symphony. Williams will conduct selections from his long career, and after intermission, Spielberg — a hometown hero who attended Arcadia High School — will join him onstage to lead a master class on film scoring, using clips from his blockbusters to dissect how music is used to add emotional depth to the moviegoing experience.

Williams, who as a teenager moved with his family from New York to Los Angeles, credits many mentors for giving him his start in music. These include his father, jazz drummer Johnny Williams, along with Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and film scorer Henry Mancini. (As a young jazz pianist, Williams performed the opening riff to the Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme.”)

Among the many interesting facts we were unable to ask him about in a recent phone interview, Williams also is the father of Joseph Williams, front man for the ’80s rock band Toto. Instead, our conversation focused on the composer’s prolific partnership with Spielberg.

Question: Steven Spielberg was only 23 when he bought you lunch to pitch you on “The Sugarland Express.” Did you sense how important a director he would become, or did it take a few movies?

Answer: It actually took a few moments. When I met him for this appointment, I felt as though he were 17 or 18 years old. He knew some of my music from soundtrack recordings that he’d been collecting, and in five or 10 minutes of our conversation, I understood that he was very well-acquainted with the whole field of Hollywood soundtracks, and also that he was enormously knowledgeable about film and story. And it was also clear that he would develop executive abilities as a producer. It was easy to spot an unusual youngster with a lot of creativity, a lot of ambition and energy for it, and unusual preparation that obviously had been going on since he was a teenager. Very impressive.

Q: You’ve said Steven never once told you he didn’t like something you’d composed. But when you first played him the theme to “Jaws,” he thought you were pulling his leg.

A: That’s understandable, I guess, to hear a few notes pounded on the piano. We did have a laugh about it, but when the orchestra began to play it, he understood it was something that hopefully was going to engage the audience in the way that we wanted to. He’s always been a positive collaborator. He’s never anything but appreciative of me. And I think it’s in large part due to the fact that he loves music of all kinds. When we record, he has almost physical pleasure from what the orchestra is playing, all the time. People who come to the concert in Phoenix, when Steven is onstage, they will notice — it’s quite palpable — his joy in what the orchestra does.

The fact that’s he’s always positive doesn’t mean he doesn’t offer guidance and preference. Often I will do a scene with the orchestra one or two ways and sometimes even more. We’re fortunate in that we haven’t had the kind of budget restrictions that would make that kind of experimentation unpractical.

Q: So many of your movie themes are instantly hummable. When you find yourself absentmindedly humming a tune, is it one of yours?

A: Probably, I don’t absentmindedly hum tunes. What I do, pretty much 24 hours a day, is work on the melodic motifs that I’m trying to forge. Most of the time I’m writing. If not a film, I’m writing something. Sometimes I can be walking, and “eureka” doesn’t suggest itself, but some choices may be clearer with the addition of a little extra oxygen. So it’s a full-time preoccupation.

If I find myself humming tunes that aren’t my own, it’s probably something that I’ve heard in childhood, some Gershwin melody my mother hummed or something like this. But apart from that, for me, it’s a working life focused on the challenge at hand.

Q: Speaking of big tunes, how do you approach an assignment such as a theme for the Olympic Games? What’s your process to get to that iconic sound that people will respond to?

A: Very often I work backwards. I’ll try to write the end of the film or the end of the piece so I can see where it’s going, and then de-compose it, take it apart so that elements of that ending can be exposed in the beginning and then gradually developed and form into what we would think of as the theme from X or Y. It would be the opposite, I suppose, of classical construction, where you start with a theme and then develop it. I’ve done that also. But because of the nature of film themes, which need to be relatively short and “speak” fairly quickly in the midst of a lot of aural competition — sound effects, dialogue and so on — I think it’s a special kind of challenge to try to get that right.

Q: You’ve done six “Star Wars” movies and four “Indiana Joneses.” What’s the challenge of scoring so many sequels?

A: The approach to doing sequels is a smoother path than starting from scratch, as you can imagine. It’s a way to revisit an old friend, re-dress it, add to it, hopefully improve it. In the case of “Star Wars,” six episodes, I keep adding elements to the whole corpus each time. And people say, “Well, is it difficult after a 20-year hiatus?” It really isn’t. It’s like getting back on the bicycle.

Q: You write subtler music for subtler films, such as “Schindler’s List,” “Munich” and “Lincoln,” where the audience is usually not paying attention to the music. Is there one of your scores you especially love that fans might have overlooked?

A: Not at all. A film like “Lincoln” is musically a very delicate opportunity to accompany great words and great acting in just the right way, and support it without disturbing any of its rhythms or timings, its own musicality. That is a particular challenge and in a way just as difficult as all the ruffles and flourishes of (synesthetic) material. I don’t feel that any of these things are neglected or diminished in any way by taking an accompanying role. It’s a privilege.

Q: When you started working in film and television, was it because you had a passion for scoring work in particular, or just because that’s where there was work for a composer?

A: The latter. I was never particularly a fan of movies, as a matter of fact, when I was a youngster. I went to movies and enjoyed them, but I never imagined that I would score them. The first work that I did in Hollywood was as a pianist and orchestrator for older colleagues, and then eventually the opportunity to write scores, mostly for television, was a good way to earn a living.

Q: Some of your earliest work was on the series “Lost in Space,” foreshadowing many, many science-fiction scores to come. Does that genre inspire you in a unique way?

A: I don’t think so. All those years ago, I was doing a lot of television. “Lost in Space” came along with its fanciful setting, and I did what I hope was appropriate at the time for it, but I never expected to follow that up with anything like “Star Wars.” For me, it’s been the good fortune of having opportunities come along. I hadn’t planned or choreographed any of this in my mind. I don’t think anyone could possibly have done that.

Q: Your 48 Oscar nominations are second only to Walt Disney’s 59. Do you plan to catch him?

A: I don’t think I have that kind of time. And we should leave his record intact. It’s symbolic of a unique pioneer, which I could never claim to be.


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