After more than six decades of making bikes soar, sending terrified swimmers to shore, and other riveting close encounters, John Williams is writing the final notes on what could be his final soundtrack. “Right now I’m working on Indiana Jones 5, which I think Harrison Ford, who is a little younger than me, has announced will be his last film,” says Williams. “So, I thought: If Harrison can do it, then maybe I can too.”
Ford, for the record, has not said that publicly. And Williams, who turned 90 in February, isn’t absolutely sure he’s ready to do it, either. “I don’t want to be seen as categorically eliminating any activity,” Williams says with a smile, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I can’t play tennis, but I like being able to believe that maybe one day I will.”
Right now, though, there are other ways Williams wants to spend her time. A Star Wars movie takes six months of work, which, she points out, “at this point in life is a long commitment to me.” Instead, Williams devotes herself to composing concert music, including a piano concerto she is writing for Emanuel Ax.
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. It’s a radiant collection of cello concertos and new arrangements of 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 birthday concerts, has caused Williams to reflect on his accomplishments, his remaining ambitions and what a lifetime of music has meant to him.
“It has given me the ability to breathe, the ability to live and understand that there is more to bodily life,” says Williams. “Without being religious, which I am not especially, there is a spiritual life, an artistic life, a kingdom that is above the mundanities of everyday realities. Music can raise one’s thinking to the level of poetry. We can reflect on how necessary music has been for humanity. I always like to speculate that music is older than language, that we were probably beating drums and blowing reeds before we could speak. So it is an essential part of our humanity.
“He has given me my life.”
And, in turn, Williams has provided the soundtrack to the lives of countless people through more than 100 movie soundtracks, including Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, Indiana Jones, Superman, Schindler’s List and Harry Potter
“He has lived for the better part of a century, and his music encompasses all the events and changes of those times,” says Ma, a longtime friend. She “she is one of the great American voices”.
It is a number of achievements that is difficult to quantify. Five Oscars and 52 Academy Award nominations, a number second only to Walt Disney, is a measure. But even that hardly hints at the cultural power of his music. A billion people could instantly hum Williams’ two-note ostinato from Jaws or The Imperial March from Star Wars.
“I have been told that music is played all over the world. What could be more rewarding than that? Williams says. “But I have to say it looks unreal. I can only see what’s in front of me on the piano right now, and do the best I can with it.”
Williams has a warm, humble and courteous demeanor despite his stature. She started an interview by offering, “Let me see if I can give you something that might be helpful.” He believes that all those perfectly constructed and indelible themes are the product less of divine inspiration than of daily hard work. Williams does most of his work sitting for hours at his Steinway, composing in pencil.
“It’s like cutting a stone on your desk,” he says. “My younger colleagues are much faster than me because they have electronic equipment, computers, synthesizers, etc.”
When Williams started (his first score for a feature film was 1958’s Daddy-O), the cinematic tradition of great orchestral scores was beginning to lose ground to pop soundtracks. Now, many are gravitating towards synthesized music for movies. Increasingly, Williams has the aura of a revered old master bridging distant eras of film and music.
“Recording with the New York Philharmonic, the entire orchestra was impressed by this 90-year-old gentleman who listens to everything, is unfailingly kind, gentle and polite. People just wanted to play for him,” says Ma. “They were blown away by this man’s musicianship.”
This late chapter in Williams’ career is, in a way, an opportunity to place his gargantuan legacy not only in relation to film, but among classic legends as well. Williams, who led the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993, has conducted the Berlin, Vienna and New York Philharmonics, among others. In the world’s elite orchestras, Williams’ compositions have passed into the canon.
“A purist can say that the music represented in the cinema is not absolute music. Well, that may be true,” says Williams. “But some of the best music ever written has been narrative. Certainly at the opera. The cinema offers that opportunity, not often, but occasionally it does. And in a musically rewarding way. Every once in a while we get lucky and find one.”
Williams’s longstanding association with Steven Spielberg, of course, helped the composer’s odds. Spielberg, who first sought out lunch with Williams in 1972 after becoming enthralled by his score for The Reivers, has called him “the single most significant contributor to my success as a filmmaker.”
“Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly,” Spielberg said when the AFI honored Williams in 2016.
They remain irrevocably bound. Their offices on the Universal lot are just steps away from each other. Along with Indiana Jones, Williams recently scored Spielberg’s upcoming semi-autobiographical drama about growing up in Arizona, The Fabelmans. The two films add up to 30 films together for Spielberg and Williams.
“50 years have already passed. Maybe we’re starting with the next 50,” Williams says with a smile. “Whatever our connections are, whether it’s music, working with him or just being with him, I think we’ll always be together. We are great close friends who have shared many years together. It’s the kind of relationship where neither of us would say no to the other.”
In Spielberg’s movies and others, Williams has created enough perfectly condensed melodies to rival the Beatles. Spielberg once described his five-note “Communication Motive” from “Close Encounters” as “a doorbell.”
“Simple little subjects that speak clearly and without confusion are very difficult to find and to do,” says Williams. “They really are the result of a lot of work. It’s almost like chiseling. Move a note, change a rhythmic emphasis or the direction of an interval, etc. A simple melody can be made in 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 legacy. He is much more comfortable speaking like a technician who plays until he drops a sparkly jewel.
“My own personality is such that I look at what I’ve done, I’m quite pleased and proud of a lot of it, but like most of us, we always wish we had done better,” he says. “We live with examples like Beethoven and Bach before us, monumental achievements that people have made in music, and we can feel very honored. But I also feel very lucky. I’ve had wonderful opportunities, particularly in film where a composer can have an audience of not millions of people, but billions of people.”
Williams has several concerts planned for the rest of the year, including performances in Los Angeles, Singapore and Lisbon. But while Williams may be moving away from film, he remains enthralled with film and the ability of sound and image, when combined, to take off.
“I would love to be around 100 years from now to see what people are doing with film, sound and spatial, auditory and visual effects. I think he has a tremendous future,” says Williams. “I can feel a great possibility and a great future in the atmosphere of the whole experience. I would love to go back and see and hear it all.”