"I don't have that problem," he said. "Maybe I should, from time to time. I rarely go a day without scribbling something down. But I have to tell you, the production gets a little slow."
Many composers today speed up some things by using computer technology that can get notes on paper with a click of a mouse. Not Williams, who uses very last-century pencil and paper.
"I used to do scoring in pen, but the eraser is too useful," he said. "I have colleagues who can write a 90-minute score in three or four weeks with a computer. It would take me three or four months. I have been, happily, fully occupied for all these working years and have not had the time off to retool and learn the technology that has come along. That is kind of a lame excuse, but there it is."
Whatever the process involved, a Williams score is inevitably distinctive, with a rich vein of lyricism and a broad palette of orchestral colors. Like Hollywood film score giants Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Bernard Herrmann, he creates what become cinematic symphonies, filled with themes that work their way quickly into the ear while serving to propel a scene or illuminate a character.
The BSO's Balio, a sci-fi fan, is one of the composer's ardent admirers.
"The guy's a legend," Balio said. "He's in the tradition of the great composers. And he's putting a classical sound in people's ears. He's writing for orchestra, not electronic instruments. And he is so generous to the brass. He writes amazing trumpet parts."
Balio will get one of those solo parts during the BSO concert, playing a selection from "Lincoln."
Composing the score to that acclaimed Spielberg film, which chronicles the nail-biting struggle to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, proved a "daunting" task, Williams said, especially because he did not take the easiest route and incorporate a lot of well-known music of the period.
"The score is made up of all original pieces," he said. "I wanted it to sound genuine. To get it just right, I wanted the music to feel as if it was coming out of the bedrock of the American spirit — the soul, I guess. I hope I got it reasonably right."
A suggestion by Spielberg resulted in that score being performed in a decidedly classy fashion.
"Steven felt we should look to the state of Illinois, which was the 'Land of Lincoln,' of course, and also the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment," Williams said. "So we decided to record the score with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The individual and full ensemble playing on the soundtrack is so elegant; there is such a level of artistry. I'm extremely grateful for their contribution to the music."
From his vantage point — he easily qualifies as the dean of American film composers — Williams sees good and not so good in the film industry.
He is concerned about the abundance of violence, and he wonders if the increasing reliance on computer technology will mean less and less emphasis on things like screenwriting. ("When was the last time you heard something with the quality of Tony Kushner's writing in 'Lincoln'?") But he is upbeat about prospects for the part of the business that has filled his life.
"I do see more young composers serious about film music," Williams said."We can expect some beautiful things. I'd like to come back in 30 or 40 years and see what they're doing. They will best us all. They need to write better than you and I can, and show us that they can with — well, if it's an art form, I couldn't say."
It certainly is whenever John Williams practices it.
If you go
John Williams conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. For possible ticket availability, call 410-783-8000.