John Williams, 90, steps away from film but not music

NEW YORK (AP) — After more than six decades of soaring bicycles, sending panicked swimmers to shore and other mesmerizing close encounters, John Williams is making final notes about what may be his last film score.

“Right now I’m working on ‘Indiana Jones 5’, which I think Harrison Ford – who’s a lot younger than me – has announced will be his last film,” Williams said. “So I thought, if Harrison can do it, then maybe I can.”

Ford, for the record, hasn’t said that publicly. And Williams, who turned 90 in February, isn’t sure he’s ready either.

“I don’t want to be seen as someone who categorically eliminates any activity,” Williams says with a chuckle, speaking on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I can’t play tennis, but I like to believe that maybe one day I will.”

At the moment, however, there are other ways Williams wants to spend his time. A “Star Wars” movie requires six months of work, which he notes, “at this point in life is a long commitment to me.” Instead, Williams devotes himself to composing concert music, including a piano concerto he writes for Emanuel Axe.

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

turning 90 – an event that the Kennedy Center and Tanglewood celebrating this summer with birthday concerts – has prompted Williams to reflect on his achievements, his remaining ambitions and what a lifetime of music has meant to him.

“It has given me the ability to breathe, the ability to live and understand that there is more to physical life,” Williams says. “Without being religious, which I am not special, there is a spiritual life, an artistic life, a realm beyond the mundaneness of everyday reality. Music can elevate thought to the level of poetry. We can reflect on how necessary music has been for humanity. I always like to speculate that music predates language, that we probably beat drums and blew reeds before we could speak. So it is an essential part of our humanity.

“It has given me my life.”

And in turn, Williams has provided the soundtrack to the lives of countless others through more than 100 film scores, including “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “ET”, “Indiana Jones”, “Superman”, ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Harry Potter’.

“He has lived through the better part of a century and his music encompasses all the events and changes of that time,” says Ma, an old friend. “He’s one of the great American voices.”

It is an amount of achievement that is difficult to quantify. Five Oscars and 52 Academy Award nominations, a number surpassed only by Walt Disney, is one measurement. But even that hardly hints at the cultural strength of his music. A billion people can hum Williams’ two-note ostinato from “Jaws” or “The Imperial March” in an instant from ‘Star Wars’.

“I was told that the music is played all over the world. What could be more beautiful than that?” says Willems. “But I have to say it seems unreal. Right now I can only see what’s in front of me at the piano and do my best with it.”

Despite his stature, Williams has a warm, humble and courteous demeanor. He began an interview with the offer: “Show me if I can give you anything that might be helpful.” All those indelible, perfectly constructed themes, he says, are less the product of divine inspiration than daily hard work. Williams does most of his work for hours sitting on his Steinway, composing in pencil.

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

When Williams took off (his first feature film score was ‘Daddy-O’ in 1958), the movie tradition of grand orchestral scores began to lose out to pop soundtracks. Now many are drawn to synthesized music for film. Williams increasingly has the aura of a revered old master who bridges distant eras of film and music.

“Recording with the New York Philharmonic, the whole orchestra was in awe of a person by this gentleman, now 90, who hears everything, is unfailingly kind, gentle and polite. People just wanted to play for him,” says Ma. “They were floored by this man’s musicianship.”

This late chapter in Williams’ career is, in a sense, an opportunity to place his gigantic legacy not only in connection with cinema, but also among the classic legends. Williams, who led the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993, conducted the Berlin, Vienna and New York Philharmonics, among others. In the elite orchestras of the world, Williams’ compositions have passed into the canon.

“A purist might say that music rendered in film is not absolute music. Well, that may be true,” Williams says. “But some of the best music ever written has been narrative. Especially with opera. Film offers that opportunity – not often, but occasionally. And musically in a rewarding way. Every now and then we get lucky and find one.”

Williams’ lasting collaboration with Steven Spielberg has of course helped the composer. Spielberg, who first sought lunch with Williams in 1972 after being fascinated by his music for “The Reivers,” calls him “the most important contribution to my success as a filmmaker.”

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

They remain irrevocably linked. Their offices on the Universal lot are just steps away from each other. Along with “Indiana Jones,” Williams recently scored Spielberg’s upcoming semi-autobiographical drama about growing up in Arizona, “The Fabelmans.” The two films together make it 30 films for Spielberg and Williams.

“It is now 50 years ago. Maybe we’ll start on the next 50,” Williams says with a laugh. “Whatever our connections will be, whether it’s music or working with him or just being with him, I think we’ll always be together. We are wonderful, good friends who have shared many years together. It’s the kind of relationship where neither of us would ever say no to the other.”

In Spielberg’s films and in other films, Williams has carved out enough perfectly condensed melodies to rival the Beatles. Spielberg once described his five-note “Communication Motif” from “Close Encounters” as “a doorbell.”

“Simple little themes that speak clearly and without blurring are very hard to find and very hard to do,” Williams says. “They really are the result of a lot of work. It’s almost like chiseling. Move one note, change a rhythmic emphasis or the direction of an interval, and so on. A simple tune can be done in dozens of ways. When you find one, it’s like you’ve discovered something that wanted to be discovered.”

One thing you won’t hear from Williams is a grand statement about his own legacy. He talks much more pleasantly than a technician who tinkers until a shiny gem falls out.

“My own personality is such that I look at what I’ve done — I’m very happy and proud of a lot of it — but like most of us, we always wish we had done better,” he says. “We live with examples like Beethoven and Bach before us, monumental achievements that people have made in music, and can feel very humbled. But I also feel very happy. I’ve had great opportunities, especially in film where a composer can have an audience of not millions of people, but billions of people.”

For the rest of the year, Williams has a number of concerts planned, including performances in Los Angeles, Singapore and Lisbon. But while Williams may be moving away from film, he remains enchanted by cinema and the ability of sound and image, when combined, to achieve a launch.

“I would love to be there in 100 years to see what people are doing with film and sound and spatial, auditory and visual effects. It has a great future, I think,” Williams says. “I feel a great opportunity and a great future in the atmosphere of the whole experience. I’d love to come back to see and hear it all.”

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