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."
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.
The film industry realized it had a potential gold mine. The result were movies, such as "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and "Easy Rider" (1969), that typified the era of what Spielberg calls the "needle track soundtrack."
"That's when collages of old hit songs [began to make] movies sound like Top 40 radio stations," Spielberg said last year in an interview with Richard Dyer, the music critic of the Boston Globe. "I had to stop buying movie soundtrack albums because there weren't any I wanted to hear anymore."
The second of the Spielberg-Williams collaborations, "Jaws" (1975), took a giant step in restoring the classic art of film scoring.
Williams remembers the day he first played Spielberg the now- famous shark motif. His left hand tapped out that creepy, chugging ostinato in the bass line.
"Steven laughed," Williams says. "He asked, 'Is this "Loony Tunes" or what?' "
Spielberg stopped laughing when he realized Williams was not joking.
"Something stirs, an ominous growling, a rising semitone way down in the string basses," Williams said he told Spielberg. "Then the rhythm starts slowly, slowly gathering momentum, then we add some lower brass -- maybe a tuba."
Spielberg, who was (and is) a gifted amateur clarinetist, as well as a music lover, knew Williams was on to something.
"It may have been a mindless idea," Williams says now. "But it had the effect of grinding away, coming at you, just as a shark would do -- instinctual, relentless, unstoppable. I also heard it as a good dramatic device, lurking when the shark was unseen. I wanted the audience to feel its presence, its proximity, and since the suspense of the film was entirely dependent upon just that, I figured I was on the right track."
Williams won his first Oscar for "Jaws," and it was through Spielberg that Williams met Lucas, the creator of "Star Wars." Lucas told Spielberg that he wanted a composer who could give him an old-fashioned, romantic score like those that composers such as Korngold had written for the adventure films of the 1930s. In the resulting collaboration, Williams went on to win his second Oscar for what became the biggest-selling soundtrack in history.
It's no exaggeration to call Williams the spiritual and musical father of some of the younger film composers -- such as Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal -- who have followed him. Or to say that Williams' initial collaborations with Spielberg and Lucas liberated film scoring from the era of wall- paper music and oldies-but-goodies compilations to its original status as a collaborator with the visual aspects of a film.
Just don't tell that to Williams.
"It's not fair to say the 'Star Wars' films brought back sym-phonic scores," he says. "Films had been using orchestras even before sound. Anyone interested in films knows that music seems to be an indispensable ingredient for filmmakers. Why, I'm not exactly sure. But mood, motivation, rhythm, tempo, atmosphere -- just the practical aspect of sounds between dialogue -- need filling up. Orchestras were enormously handy for this because they can produce fabulous sounds with a great range of emotional expressiveness. But if orchestras went out of fashion from the late '50s to the middle '70s, it was just that: they were out of fashion. Someone would have brought them back. They're just too useful and successful to ignore."
Still, Williams admits that he cannot remember any time when young composers have been as interested in writing for films as they are now.
"When I was at Juilliard, no one wanted to write for movies," he says. "In conservatories now, all the students are interested in it."
In the past, composers for the films were regarded as the poor relations of those who wrote for the concert hall. Even composers such as Rosza and Korngold, who had enjoyed enormous reputations before they emigrated to the United States, found that they were not taken seriously after their sojourn in Hollywood.
Primacy of the visual
"This was mostly an American phenomenon," Williams says, adding that in Europe composers as renowned as William Walton, Sergei Prokofiev, Malcolm Arnold and Dmitri Shostakovich worked frequently and with considerable distinction for films.
Those great composers were not ashamed to work in a medium in which they had to acknowledge the primacy of what the audience sees over what it hears.
"There are more watcher-listeners than listener-watchers," Williams says. "We haven't the public's ears to the same degree that we have them in the concert hall, and we shouldn't expect it. It's contrary to the medium."
But a different attitude toward film music prevailed in the United States, he adds, because our country had always had an inferiority complex with regard to cultural achievements, particularly music.
"For music to be any good, it had to be serious, " Williams says. "For it to be really good, it had to be hard to understand.
"The consequence is that concert music in the second half of the 20th century found itself increasingly without an audience," he adds. "With all its drawbacks, I never forget that writing for the movies makes it possible for me to reach people and move them. That's one thing about which a film composer -- if the film he scores is a success -- does not need to worry."
Pub Date: 08/29/99