NEW YORK — After more than six decades of flying bikes, sending panicked swimmers to shore and other spellbinding close encounters, John Williams is putting the finishing touches on what may be his final film score.
“Right now I’m working on ‘Indiana Jones 5,’ which Harrison Ford – who’s a bit younger than me – has announced, I think, will be his last film,” Williams said. “So I thought, if Harrison can do it, then maybe I can too.”
Ford, for the record, hasn’t said that publicly. And Williams, who turned 90 in February, isn’t absolutely sure he’s ready either.
“I don’t want to be seen as categorically eliminating any activity,” Williams says with a laugh, speaking by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I don’t know how to play tennis, but I like to be able to believe that maybe one day I will.”
Right now, though, there are other ways Williams is spending his time. A “Star Wars” movie takes six months to complete, which he notes, “at this point in life, that’s a long commitment to me.” Instead, Williams devoted himself to composing concert music, including a piano concerto he wrote 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. This 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 the Kennedy Center and Tanglewood are celebrating this summer with anniversary concerts — has caused Williams to reflect on his accomplishments, his remaining ambitions and what a life of music has meant to him.
“It gave me the ability to breathe, the ability to live and to understand that there is more to bodily life,” Williams says. “Without being religious, which I am not especially, there is a spiritual life, an artistic life, a domain that is above the banalities of daily realities. Music can elevate thought to the level of poetry. We can reflect on the necessity of music for humanity. I always like to speculate that music is older than language, that we probably beat drums and blew reeds before we could speak. It is therefore an essential part of our humanity.
“It gave 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’s been through most of a century, and his music encompasses all the events and changes of that time,” says Ma, a longtime friend. “He’s one of America’s great voices.”
This is a difficult achievement to quantify. Five Oscar nominations and 52 Oscars, a number beaten only by Walt Disney, is a measure. But even that hardly hints at the cultural power of his music. A billion people might be able to instantly hum Williams’ two-note ostinato from “Jaws” or “The Imperial March” from “Star Wars.”
“I am told that music is played all over the world. What could be more gratifying than that?” Williams said. “But I have to say it feels surreal. I can only see what’s in front of me on the piano right now and do my best with it.
Williams has a warm, humble and courteous manner despite his stature. He started an interview by offering, “Let me see if I can give you anything that might be useful.” All these indelible and perfectly constructed themes, according to him, are less the product of divine inspiration than of daily hard work. Williams does most of his work sitting for hours in front of his Steinway, composing in pencil.
“It’s like carving a stone at your desk,” he says. “My younger colleagues are much faster than me because they have electronic equipment, computers, synthesizers, etc.”
When Williams got started (his first feature film score was 1958’s “Daddy-O”), the cinematic tradition of large orchestral scores was beginning to lose out to pop soundtracks. Now many are turning to synthesized music for film. Increasingly, Williams 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 amazed by this gentleman, now 90, who hears everything, is unfailingly kind, gentle, polite. People just wanted to play for him,” explains Ma. “They were floored by the musicality of this man.”
This latest chapter in Williams’ career is something of a chance to place his mammoth legacy not just in relation to film but among classic legends. Williams, who led the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993, conducted the Berlin, Vienna and New York Philharmonics, among others. In elite orchestras around the world, Williams’ compositions have become canon.
“A purist may say that the music represented in the cinema is not absolute music. Well, that may be true,” Williams says. “But some of the greatest music ever written has been narrative. Certainly at the opera. The cinema offers this opportunity – not often but occasionally. And in a musically rewarding way. Sometimes we are lucky and find one.
Williams’ enduring partnership with Steven Spielberg has, of course, helped the composer’s chances. Spielberg, who first sought out a lunch with Williams in 1972 after being captivated by his score for “The Reivers,” called him “the single most important contributor to my success as a filmmaker.”
“Without John Williams, the bikes don’t really fly,” Spielberg said when the AFI honored Williams in 2016.
They remain irrevocably linked. Their Universal field offices are within walking distance of each other. Along with “Indiana Jones,” Williams recently scored Spielberg’s next semi-autobiographical drama about growing up in Arizona, “The Fabelmans.” The two films make it 30 films together for Spielberg and Williams.
“It’s been 50 years now. Maybe we start the next 50,” Williams laughs. “Whatever our relationship is, whether it’s music, working with him or just being with him, I think we’ll always be together. We’re great, close friends who shared many years together. That’s the kind of relationship where neither of us would ever say no to the other.
In films by Spielberg and others, Williams carved out enough perfectly condensed melodies to rival the Beatles. Spielberg once described his five-note “Close Encounters” “communication motif” as “a doorbell.”
“Little, simple themes that speak clearly and without obscuration are very hard to find and very hard to do,” Williams says. “They are really the result of considerable work. It’s almost like chiseling. Move a note, change a rhythmic emphasis or the direction of an interval and so on. A simple piece can be made dozens of ways. If you find one, it looks like you discovered something that wanted to be discovered.
One thing you won’t hear from Williams is a big statement about his own heritage. He’s much more comfortable talking like a technician tinkering around until a sparkling gem drops.
“My own personality is such that I look at what I’ve done – I’m very happy and proud of that with a lot – but like most of us we always wish we had done better,” he says. “We live with examples like Beethoven and Bach in front of us, monumental achievements that people have made in music, and we can feel very humbled. But I also feel very lucky. I had wonderful opportunities, especially in film where a composer can have an audience of not millions, but billions.
Williams has a number of concerts planned for the rest of the year, including performances in Los Angeles, Singapore and Lisbon. But while Williams may be moving away from filmmaking, he remains enamored with filmmaking and the ability of sound and image, when combined, to take off.
“I would like to be here 100 years from now to see what people are doing with film, sound and spatial, auditory and visual effects. He has a great future, I think,” Williams said. “I can sense great possibilities and a great future in the atmosphere of the whole experience. I would love to come back and see and hear it all.