‘He Knows the Score’ (1996)

TITLE: He knows the score
AUTHOR: Edward Seckerson
SOURCE: The London Independent
DATE: 25 May 1996

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, an incredible adventure took place …” And like all incredible adventures, this one began with music: a flurry of fanfares, a swashbuckling theme, trumpets vaulting up the octave to certain immortality. Cue the Imperial Starship, enter Luke Skywalker. And welcome John Williams–movie composer–to the big-time. In the circumstances, his meteoric arrival was only fitting. But hardly unexpected. Cast your mind back even further to the days when most of us still assumed he also played the guitar, and you’ll recall that Williams had already nailed his distinctive colours to the mast in search of a great white shark. Jaws was both his unofficial audition for Star Wars and the beginning of a still unbroken reign as Steven Spielberg’s composer-in-residence.

Williams remembers the day that he first played Spielberg the now infamous “shark” motif. His left hand tapped out that creepy, chugging ostinato in the bass line. Was this “loony tunes” or what? The laugh caught in Spielberg’s throat. “Do you really think it could work?” he asked nervously, suddenly aware that the man he’d hired to score his picture was not joking. Yes, said Williams, when it’s more than just an idea, when it’s fleshed out in the orchestration. And he continued with his presentation. “Something stirs, an ominous growling, a rising semitone way down in the depths of the string basses … then the rhythm starts, slowly, slowly gathering momentum … then maybe we add a tuba … You see, it was such a mindless thing, this idea, 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 dependant upon just that, I figured I was on the right track …”

John Williams was born in New York City and moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1948. He attended UCLA and studied composition privately with the Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (he of the “other” famous guitar concerto – no wonder we were confused). Later Williams returned to New York to study piano with Madame Rosina Lhevinne (the wife of the great Russian virtuoso and teacher, Josef Lhevinne) at the Juilliard School. Though quite what Mme Rosina made of him playing for his supper in New York’s jazz clubs is anyone’s guess. Still, it made him a buck or two, and it freed up his assets, so to speak. Eventually, like so many young musicians of his generation, Williams went West again. Not with any clear objectives, not with movies on his mind: “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans – isn’t that what the wise man said?” Los Angeles was a happening town. And there was money in them there hills, if. . .

Talent and good fortune prevailed. Williams was a more than useful pianist. He had a natural feel for the popular repertoire – he could bend and swing to its whims. The jazz gigs were paying off. His compositional skills were being exercised too. In the late Fifties and Sixties, he made quite a name for himself scoring for TV. And he made contacts. In Hollywood it’s not just who you know, it’s who you work with. With Alfred Newman (doyen of musical supervisors, the man who gave us the 20th Century Fox Fanfare), he was orchestral pianist on the soundtrack of South Pacific; with Adolph Deutsch he set down the finest arrangement ever made of Gershwin’s “‘S Wonderful” for the Stanley Donen movie Funny Face. He did some orchestration for the legendary Dmitri Tiomkin on The Guns of Navarone; he assisted Franz (Sunset Boulevard) Waxman; he got to know Bernard Herrmann – the man who put the shrieks into Psycho, the obsessive drive into all Hitchock’s prime-cuts – little knowing then that he’d one day be in Herrmann’s shoes, scoring Hitch’s last film, Family Plot. He was not the first to have been assigned that job and remembers asking the old boy why it hadn’t worked out with the previous composer. “Well,” said Hitchcock, “he kept writing this oppressive, lugubrious music.” “But surely that’s appropriate in a movie about murder?” replied Williams. “No, Mr Williams, you must understand – murder can be fun.” And from that he learnt a thing or two about irony. Nobody survives Hollywood without it.

Which is maybe why he’s still there. Over 75 movies, 30 Academy Award nominations, five Oscars, 16 Grammies, and several gold and platinum discs later (including four million sales on the Star Wars soundtrack – more than any other non-pop album in history), John Williams can still put his hand on his heart and say (with disarming modesty): “In Hollywood you don’t have to be good, you just have to be strong.”

He has a point, though. Ask him to take you through the process of scoring a movie, and you can feel composers the world over turn pale in sympathy. We’re talking three or four minutes of music a day, every day, seven days a week, until the score is complete. That’s, on average, between 50 and 100 minutes of orchestral music for a major action picture. And whatever the time-scale for composition, it’s never enough. The old Hollywood whine “Do you want it good or do you want it Monday?” has no foundation in reality: Hollywood wants it good and it wants it Monday. The biggest frustration for Williams, who has fashioned many concert works of his own (his recent Bassoon Concerto is being recorded by the LSO next month), lies in never being able to revise his film work. “The art of any writing is the art of re-writing, developing, shaping, honing. We rarely, if ever, have that luxury.”

So you wonder why he does it – now that he doesn’t have to. And the reply comes back: “You do what you can do. Richard Strauss could write score pages for Elektra in ink during the morning, catch up on letters and go shopping for Meissen in the afternoon, and conduct an opera in the evening. Me, I probably have all the time I need, but not always the inspiration or the energy. . . I sometimes think that I’ve got to the point where only the pressure of time keeps me focused. Sometimes it makes for better results. It’s like an impressionistic painter working in pastels where speed is of the essence.” Williams always works out of the studio, physically, spiritually, close to the action. Each scene is viewed as many times as it takes during the process of underscoring it. Contrary to popular misconception, Williams lays down all his own orchestrations – meaning an eight- or 10- line sketch precisely detailing all the principal instrumentation and harmony. Transference to a 32-line orchestral score, primarily a stenographic operation (and a laborious one), is undertaken by associates. For Williams, the orchestration – who plays what, the balance of timbres and colours, the richness, or otherwise, of the harmonies – is integral to his conception of the music itself: “I couldn’t delegate that part of my work away.” Some do.

So what comes first? After the contract, that is. Do ideas start cooking with the script? “Actually, I prefer not to read a script – for reasons that anyone who’s ever read a novel and then seen the screen version of it will understand. There’s invariably a slight, nagging sense of disappointment.

It doesn’t quite look like you had it in your mind’s eye when you read it. Well, the same is true, I think, when you read a script and then see the director’s realisation.

First of all, you know what’s coming next. And the surprise element is crucial to a composer. It has to do with rhythm. So I like to sit alone in a dark projection room and watch the film from start to finish. No distractions, just me and my response to its rhythmic impulses. Is it slow here, is it accelerating there, am I surprised in the way that I should be? And the answers to all these questions have a lot to do with what the composer’s function is ultimately about.”

Which is maybe why Williams’s scores sound so organic, so well-integrated. Movie music is made to measure, not sold by the yard. That’s an important distinction. To the creative director, the music track is a great deal more than so much aural grouting. At best – and Williams’s work on Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a shining example – it’s at the very heart of the movie, inseparable from it. Admittedly, Close Encounters was one of those rare occasions where certain aspects of the film – most notably the awesome 35-minute closing sequence – were fashioned around the music. Williams explains: “Because communication through music is at the very core of the movie – the Kodaly hand-signals that we see, the five-note tone-sequence that we hear – Steven and I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to evolve a score, to plant those five notes – the thematic seeds, if you like – in the minds of the audience and watch, or rather hear, them grow to this great orchestral apotheosis in the final reel. And when you finally arrive at it, there’s this strong sense of recognition – it may be subliminal to most of the audience, but it’s there, and we hoped, in some unconscious spiritual way, it would prove fulfilling.”

Fulfilling? This was better than fulfilling, this was celluloid opera. And it wouldn’t be the last time that Spielberg effectively liberated his composer in the final reel. Consider the closing minutes of ET. The little guy was going to get the send-off he deserved. Spielberg’s sensitivity to shape – there’s a musical awareness in the way he cuts his films – was again a huge factor. While recording the final sequence – a process of synching (called “free timing”) which Williams, the conductor, likens to accompanying a ballet in the theatre – he experienced problems fine- tuning his phrasing to the split-second demands of the film up on the screen. Spielberg was quick to pick up on the problem. “Let’s take the film off the screen, John, and play it as you wrote it – as expressive and expansive as you like” – and can’t you just hear it now: Williams in his finest this-thing-is-bigger-than-all-of-us mode – “I’ll recut the sequence to the music.”

I doubt that’s happened since William Walton scored Henry V. Walton’s name is one of the first to pop up when you start asking Williams about the gods in his pantheon (Haydn still occupies pride of place, Beethoven is his “Shakespeare of music”, and before you even think of suggesting it, he’ll tell you that he’d be nowhere without Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich). It’s interesting how the Americans revere Walton. “It’s to do with his Jazz Age personality. We can identify with that. It’s like Tippett – I hear so many Ellingtonian touches in his music.” And yet, both are as English as Williams’s aching trumpet-led themes (Born on the Fourth of July, JFK) are American.

He recently penned another – Summon the Heroes – the official centennial Olympic theme. And yes, it’s as if Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man has finally outgrown the century. It’s designed for the great outdoors, extra trumpets and trombones flanking an outsize orchestra. We’ll be hearing a lot of it this summer. Several times a day from the Atlanta stadium. It’s loud, it’s catchy, it’s very Williams. But then, when you’ve done the business for Indiana Jones and Superman, what’s another Olympiad?