‘Where is John Williams Coming From?’ (1980)

By Richard Dyer; Globe Staff
Boston Globe Magazine, June 29th, 1980

The third paragraph of every story about John Williams, the nineteenth conductor of the Boston Pops, is always the same. I ought to know – I’ve written enough of them.
What happens is this. people ask Williams about his plans for the Pops then they ask him something about the music he wrote for Star Wars. This is what the articles are mostly about, but buried somewhere in the middle is usually the information that he studied at Julliard and at various universities i California, that he has been a jazz pianist, that he arranged albums for pop stars, and that he wrote music for television and for more than fifty movies before Star Wars. And that’s that.
So by way of getting ready to celebrate the last of John William’s local debuts – as conductor of the Esplanade Concerts, on the Fourth of July – it seemed appropriate to go to see him and ask him to talk more fully about his past. As I put it, I wanted to hear about Rosina Lhevinne, his celebrated piano teacher, and about all those movie stars.
Williams laughed, admitted that Peter O’Toole was one of his friends and said he didn’t know many movie stars. “By the time a composer goes to work on a picture, the film is already shot and the actors have gone off to something else; most of my friends in Hollywood are in music. like me.” But as Williams talked on, the names of tuesday Weld and frank Sinatra and Mahalia Jackson and dozens more came up. And as he spoke about them, what happened was that the picture of Williams himself, already clear in outline, developed further detail and shading.
Although he is uneasy talking about himself (more than once he said it would be impossible to extract anything readable from our conversation), Williams again answered every question as fully and as responsibly as he could; the interruption of a phone call or an impertinent digression from his interview cannot deflect him from completing what he means to say. Williams describes his father, now 75, as someone “who has been a working musician all his life,” and as the conversation extended well beyond the scheduled lunch hour, it became more and more certain that this is for Williams the highest form of compliment, and that “working musician” is the only possible description of Williams himself. Even the living room of his hotel suite (the house he has found on Beacon Hill isn’t ready yet) has been turned from a place of sedentary comforts into a place of work habits – there are a stereo system, a spinet, and manuscript paper; to find a place to sit down, you have to move a pile of scores.
Williams says he doesn’t remember learning to read music: “It seems I could always do that.” He began piano lessons at the age of 6 or 7. He wasn’t one of those prodigies who crawl over to the instrument and begin playing a Mozart sonata, but taking up music was the only natural thing for the son of a percussionist in the CBS Radio Orchestra to do. Within a couple of years he organized a little band with some his grade school chums, adn they tried to play pop tunes from sheet music. “It wasn’t working very well and I discovered the reason why – the boy who played the clarinet was in a different key from the piano. So I reckoned how to write him up a tone. That was the beginning of my writing and orchestration – I used to sit in the basement in our house in Flushing, Long Island, and pore over orchestration books. I applied Rimsky- Korsakov to the pop tunes of 1940 and 1941, adn by the time our band was in high school, we were already quite sophisticated.”
His father used to take him to the radio studios, where the young Williams “fell in love” with the sound of the orchestra; he learned to play the trombone, the clarinet, the bassoon, and the trumpet. The father of one of his girl friends played the cello, so there were even a few lessons on that. By the time he was 15, Williams decided it was time to get serious, and he really went to work mastering the piano.
His first college work was at UCLA and at Los Angeles City College – music students in california migrated from school to school in those days according to where the action was. Williams studied orchestration with Robert van Epps, who had worked on some of the famous MGM musicals, and by the time he was 20 he felt he was “pretty good.” This was put to the test when the draft and the Korean War intervened, and Williams went into the air force. There he played in bands and conducted for the first time, and “when anyone wanted an arrangement of a tune, I got lumbered with that.”
Nevertheless his big ambitions during these years remained witht he piano; “I guess I wanted to play Rachmaninoff with the New York Philharmonic.” The route to that was study with Madame Lhevinne, who was then the most celebrated piano pedagogue active in America. “When she accepted me I was 22 or 23, which was very old by the standard of her students. One day when i was toiling away in a practice room, I heard these crashing octaves and fabulous thirds coming from next door, and when I went over to look, there was this little kid from Texas named John Browning. Rosina never gave me the impression that I could handle a concert career like that, but I had a nice relationship with her anyway; she taught from a humanistic rather than technical standpoint. and she encouraged me to write music. I showed her some of my arrangements, and she was amazed I could handle the orchestra like that – not everyone who could play ‘La Campanella’ could do that; she like the fact I knew somthing about music.
“The best piano playing I ever did in my life was at my audition for her. I remember I played a Bach Prelude and Fugure, and she stopped me and asked waht was going on. I said it was ‘like a canon.’ ‘Vy do you say it is like a canon,’ she said in her Russian accent, ‘ven it is a canon?'”
After his studies with Lhevinne, Williams went back to California because his family was there – as well as a young singer whom he was to marry, Barbara Ruick. (Ruick, who died a few years ago is remembered by movie buffs and record collectors. She was Carried int he film of Carousel – the one who sings “When I Marry Mr. Snow” – and she is an attraction in several of the “reconstructions of Broadway shows written in the era before original cast recordings. Williams’ second wife, Smamantha Winslow, whom he married just this month, is a photographer.)
His first jobs were in the film studios, where he was the pianist for big musical films like South Pcific. And these jobs brought him into contact with the last survivors of the “golden era” of Hollywood film composing – Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Dmitri Tiomkin. “I always said that if Tiomkin hadn’t gone to the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study with Gliere he would have been the premier instead of Khrushchev – he was that same kind of table- pounding Russian. His music had great drmamtic sweep, even if he did underscore American westerns with Ukrainian folk tunes.”
Soon Williams, with all the temerity fo youth, was assisting some of them with their orchestrations. On Tiomkin’s Funs of Navarone short score, everything was int he bass clef. “How do i orchestrate that?” Williams wondered to a sympathetic friend. “Throw some of it out,” was the suggestion.
Of these famous Hollywood musical figures, the one Williams grew closest to was the irascible Bernard Herrmann. “Actually, he adored my wife, even when he couldn’t bear me, and we would sometimes have dinner two or three times a week.” Williams recalled. Herrmann was the kind of man who would walk into a projection booth and ask the director to stop wasting his time with rubbish and then leave. And he knew how to put someone on the spot. Once when Williams was complaining that he never had time to work on his symphony, Herrmann said, “If youw ant to write a symphony, who’s stopping you?” Years later, Herrmann, “dressed in his beret and looking mean,” sneaked into London’s Roayl Festival Hall to hear Andre Previn conduct even though he hadn’t been speaking to Previn for years; the next day he called Williams and said, “Pretty good tune there in the first movement why did you cover it up with all that rubbish?”
Herrmann’s reputation stands higher today than any other Hollywood composer’s, in part because the films he did with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock have become classics. And in part because he realized the value of his own work. “In every film score,” Williams says, “there may be a nice little tune or a good turn of phrase. So much creative juice goes flowing into a film score that here and there there are sixteen good measures in the middle of some necessary window dressing or fol-de-rol. Benny had the sense to put those good bits into order and work them into pieces that could stand on their own. He recorded them then – and on those records he has left something of himself. I have tgried to do that with some of my own music – The Reivers and Jane Eyre – and I’ve been encouraging my colleagues to do the same thing.”
The first picture that Williams composed on his own was Because They’re Young, the 1958 screen debut (and farewell of American Bandstand disc jockey Dick Clark. “There was a budget of about $3.50 for the music, and I took it on. I remember that what I wrote was jazzy – there was a fight sequency with bongo drums and things like that. The important thing about that picture is not that it was my first but that it was Tuesday Weld’s. She’s a terrific person and a wonderful performer whose career hasn’t gone where it should have because of bad management.”
It was several years, however, before Williams becamse a full-time film composer. First came a contract with Columbia Records, and, concurrently, television. For Columbia, Williams made two jazz band albums of his own (“They didn’t sell”) and arranged albums for such singers as Andy williams, Vic Damone, Jackie & Roy, and Doris Day (“Very strange; she had begun as a big band singer, but she was afraid of singing and of musicians – she wanted to bve in a booth where they couldn’t see her; a very inhibited lady”). And, of all things, Williams arranged seven albums for Mahalia Jackson. “I had to work with Mildred Falls, Mahalia’s three-hundred-pound pianist, who could drown out my whole sixty-piece orchestra. I took everything down from the the way Mildred played, because Mahalia believed the way she did it was the way the Lord meant it to be. It was a circus of a time: A tewelve-song LP would take a week to write and record and edit. Compare that to a rock album, where it takes three or four months to get thirty-five minutes worth of music. The business has changed so much in the last twenty years that it seems like a different world.”
Part of the reason that Williams was having a “circus of a time” during the Columbia Records years is that during the same period, from 1958 to 1964, he was under contract to Revue Television productions, where he was responsible for thrity-nine programs a year. “The shows I was assigned to were the hardest shows, the hour shows, which meant I had to write about twenty to twenty-five minutes of music a week, score it, and record it. It was a tremendous learning opportunity for me. What I wrote may not have been good – it probably wasn’t; the main idea was to get it done, and i got it done. A lot of good people came out of that world.
“I think I have the distinction of scoring the very first piece of film Robert Redford did. It was a Chrysler program, a story about Harvard, and I remember commenting to people in the projection booth about what a telling figure this unknown young man became when you put him on the screen. An Revue is where I met Robert Altman, a plain-spoken Kansan who had come to work for Kraft Theater. Even then his shows always had something a bit special in them. ‘What kind of music do you like?’ I asked him. And he said, ‘I don’t care what you write as long as you haven’t written it before.’ I came up with two pianos and a battery of percussiona nd he loved it – that may have led to the percussion score I wrote for Images ten years later.”
In the sixties Williams was credited with over twenty film scores, according to the index for the decade published by the American Film Institute. When asked about each of them sequentially, Williams proved his modesty: Sometimes he would say he had forgotten it completely or admit he never saw the picture after writing the music. And what he does remember is mostly the music. Gidget Goes to Rome. “Lots of accordians,” Williams says. Bachelor Flat. “Lots of brass chords on cuts to brassieres – that sort of thing.” John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. “I remember what they wouldn’t let me do. It was a picture about an Arab sheik who wanted to create a football team. i remember I arranged the Twentieth Century-Fox fanfare for a whiny Arab band, and they said absolutely not.”
None But the Brave. “Frank Sinatra directed that. He couldn’t have been nicer and more appreciative, and he didn’t come in with any preconceived ideas about the music. Maybe you wouldn’t want him for an enemy, but he is a marvelous friend. He’s a very compelling character; he can give you the impression he is completely alone in the world. he would be the guest of all time at the Pops, if he would do it.” How to Steal a Million. “That meant a lot to me because it was my first really major picture. It was directed by William Wyler. He is a great director, but very hard of hearing; he said he liked my music, but I was never sure he had heard it!” Not With My Wife, You Don’t. “That was nice because I wrote two songs with Johnny Mercer. Tony Bennett still occasionally sings one of them, ‘Inamorata.'”Fitzwilly. “THat was originally called The Garden of Cucumbers. I wrote a good piece in it, a tuba solo written for a raid of Macy’s by some elegant tghieves, and every time a purse is snatched there is a woodwind run.”
In this period Williams was more or less typecast in comedy pictures; later he worked principally on musicals. he won an Oscar for his contribution to the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, and he did an immense amount of work on Goodby, Mr. Chips. “That was the first time I worked with children. When we went back a year later to do some post-synch work, all our sopranos were baritones.”
A still alter cycle in the late sixties, and early seventies made Williams the disaster composer – he wrote the scores for Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and the two Jaw pictures. Gene Shalit is now a firend of Williams – despite his on-the-air review of The Poseidon Adventure which he described as a story about “a ship that turns over and goes tot he bottom of the don’t-go-sea.”
In the middle of all this was the occasional excpetional picture, something departing from the norm – a film like Altman’s Images, for example. Williams’ score for that is now in the film-music textbooks. Or Hitchcock’s Family Plot. “I wasn’t excited about that particular picture, but i wanted wo work with Hitchcock, and it turned out to be his last film. He didn’t want any thick, heavy scoring. ‘Just remember this,’ he said to me, ‘murder can be fun.'”
Now, of course, we are in the midst of the cycle of Williams as the composer for epics and spaceships and flying heroes – Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, The Empire Strikes Back; even Dracula turns into a bat and flies. Williams’ originality matched that of the pictures themselves – he realized that the science fiction films, though set in the future, actually reflectg a nostalgia for Saturday-afternoon-a t-the-movies, and his old-fashioned, romantic music recaptured that popcorn-saturated atmosphere and met a need of its own.
WIlliams downgrades all of the compliments on how he has restored the prestige of the symphonic movie score. “I don’t expect what I have been doing for the last two or three years will last – nothing does; already in some studios they are calling for more pop music, for more youth-oriented pop noise.”
Williams says he has no regrets about having worked on so many picutres that have no pretensions to art. “You can’t tell from the script whether a picture is going to be any good – or even what kind of picture it is going to be. I don’t even read scripts now. The ideal thing to do is see the first cut and react to it. But that is getting harder and harder to do, because the post-production periods are shrinking all the time.
“In the forties, they tell me, a film could go six to eight months post production, but the cost of money these days makes that prohivitive; even on the biggest films you get only six to eight weeks, and there is a sense in which you can only decide on how much you can get away with. You are always working within conventions – a western has to have a harmonized folk tune, and it’s no good writing an atonal score for a comedy like Penelope. In fact, I’ve written only one atonal score- for a Ray Bradbury piece on telelvision years ago.
“And then, when you are done, you become only a part of a total experience – you can be covered up by a bit of conversation, or the squeak of a wagon wheel, or the squoosh of a spaceship. But even when you can’t actually hear the music, you can tell that it has contributed something indefinable to the total experience if the composer has done a good job – you miss it if it isn’t there. What a composer can never forget is that what he is doing is musique practique, music made-to-measure. I’ve been happy with my work only a very few times – you do the best you can, and that’s all you can do.
“If a film is good, it’s a kind of miracle, really, so many factors are involved. And if a score is any good, it’s a kind of miracle too – there’s no time to write it, and there are so many restrictions in the medium. But it is important to realize that we are still only at the beginning of the audiovisual period, and the possibilities are unlimited. There is some very good film music – yes, the scores of Prokofiev and Shotakovich and Walton and Copland are classics, and examples for musicians who work in the movies – and one day even better music is going to be written by someone. There is so much energy going into films, so much attraction – on all campuses everyone wants to make films, and in every music department there are one or two or sixty kids who want to write music for the movies. And some of them are going to go places where we haven’t been yet.”
When asked how in the world he has ever had time to learn everything that his career has demonstrated that he knows – the complex techniques of writing for film and telelvision, the complex techniques of orchestrating and conducting and playing the piano, the mastery of the whole tradition of western concert music upon which commercial music draws, Williams smiles and says, “I don’t know. I guess it’s just a lifetime of doing it. I just learned as i went along, and the pont comes when your whole life comes to bear on everything you do. Working in music is what my life has always been about. And it still is.”