90-year-old John Williams is away from film, but not music

NEW YORK (AP) — After more than six decades of making bicycles, sending terrified swimmers ashore and other mesmerizing close encounters, John Williams is putting out final notes on what could be his final film score. .

“At the moment I’m working on ‘Indiana Jones 5,’ which Harrison Ford — who is much younger than me — I think will be his last film,” Williams says. “So, I thought: If Harrison can do it, maybe I can too.”

Ford hasn’t publicly said so, for the record. And Williams, who turns 90 in February, isn’t quite sure she’s up for it.

“I don’t want to be seen as an obvious end to any activity,” laughs Williams, speaking on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I can’t play tennis, but I like to be 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” film demands six months of work, which, he notes, “is a long commitment for me at this point in life.” Instead, Williams is dedicating himself to composing concerts, including a piano concerto he is writing for Emanuel X.

This spring, Williams and cellist Yo-Yo Ma released the album “A Gathering of Friends”, recorded with the New York Philharmonic, Pablo Sainz-Villegas and Jessica Zhou. It is a bright collection of cello concertos and new arrangements from the scores of “Schindler’s List,” “Lincoln” and “Munich,” including the excellent “Pray for Peace.”

Turning 90 — an event that the Kennedy Center and Tanglewood are celebrating this summer with birthday celebrations — has made Williams reflect on her achievements, her remaining ambitions, and what the music of a lifetime means to her.

“It has given me the ability to breathe, to live, and to understand that there is more to physical life,” Williams says. “Without being religious, which I am not specifically, there is a spiritual life, an artistic life, a realm that is above the mundane of everyday realities. Music can elevate one’s thinking to the level of poetry. We One can reflect on how essential music has been to humanity. I always like to speculate that music is older than language, that we may have been beating drums and blowing on reeds before we spoke. So It is an essential part of our humanity.

“It has given me my life.”

And, in turn, Williams has provided the soundtrack to the lives of countless others through more than 100 film scores, among them “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws,” “The Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “ET,” “Indiana Jones,” “Superman,” “Schindler’s List” and “Harry Potter.”

“He’s lived through the better part of a century, and his music incorporates all the events and changes of that time,” says Ma, a longtime friend. “He is one of the great American voices.”

This is an amount of achievement that is hard to measure. Five Oscars and 52 Academy Award nominations, the best number only by Walt Disney, is a measure. But even this hardly points to the cultural power of his music. A billion people might be able to quickly hum Williams’ two-note ostinato from “Star Wars” from “Jaws” or “The Imperial March.”

“I have been told that music is played all over the world. What can be a greater virtue than that?” Williams says. “But I must say it sounds untrue. I can only see what is on the piano in front of me at the moment, and do my best with that.”

Despite his stature, Williams has a warm, courteous, polite manner. He began an interview: “Let me see if I can give you anything that might be useful.” All those indelible, perfectly constructed subjects, he believes, are less a product of divine inspiration than from daily exertion. Williams does most of his work in pencil by sitting for hours at his Steinway.

“It’s like cutting a stone on your table,” he says. “My younger colleagues are much faster than me because they have electronic equipment and computers and synthesizers, etc.”

When Williams debuted (his first feature film score was 1958’s “Daddy-O”), the cinematic tradition of grand, orchestral scores was beginning to be lost to pop soundtracks. Now, many are turning to synthesized music for the film. Increasingly, Williams has the aura of a respected old mentor who bridges the distant eras of film and music.

“Recording with the New York Philharmonic, the whole orchestra for one person now in the 90s was marveled at by this gentleman who listens to everything, is always kind, gentle, courteous. People just wanted to play for him,” says Ma. They were impressed by this man’s musicality.”

This last chapter in Williams’ career is in some ways a chance to keep his vast legacy not only in relation to cinema, but among classical legends. Williams, who led the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993, has conducted the Berlin, Vienna and New York Philharmonics. Among the world’s elite orchestras, Williams’ works have passed into canon.

“A purist might say that the music presented in a film is not complete music. Well, that may be true,” Williams says. “But some of the greatest music ever written has been narrative. Certainly in Opera. Film provides that opportunity – not often but sometimes it does. And musically in a rewarding way. Sometimes we get lucky and we find one.”

Williams’ enduring partnership with Steven Spielberg has certainly helped the musician with odds. Spielberg, who first sought out lunch with Williams in 1972 after being captivated by his score for The Rivers, has called him “the 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 irreversibly linked. Their offices are only a few steps from each other on the Universal lot. Along with “Indiana Jones,” Williams recently scored “The Fablemans,” Spielberg’s upcoming semi-autobiographical drama about growing up in Arizona. The two films together make up 30 films for Spielberg and Williams.

“It’s been 50 years now. Maybe we’re starting on the next 50,” laughs Williams. “Whatever our relationship, whether it’s music or working with him or just being with him, I guess That we’ll be together forever. We’re very good, close friends who have shared many years together. It’s the kind of relationship where neither of us would ever say no to the other.”

In Spielberg’s films and other films, Williams has carved out melodies condensed enough to rival the Beatles. Spielberg once described his five-note “communication motif” from “Close Encounters” as “a doorbell”.

“Simple short topics that speak clearly and without impediments are very hard to find and very hard to do,” Williams says. “They’re actually the result of a lot of work. It’s almost like a chisel. Move a note, change the direction of a rhythmic emphasis or interval and so on. A simple tune can be done dozens of ways. If you get that So it looks like you’ve discovered something you wanted to uncover.”

One thing you might not have heard from Williams is a grand announcement about her own legacy. He’s more comfortable talking like a technician who tinkers until a gleaming gem falls.

“My own personality is such that I see what I’ve done — I’m very happy and very proud — but like most of us, we always wish we had done better,” he says. “We live before us with examples like Beethoven and Bach, people who have made significant achievements in music, and can feel very humble. But I also feel very fortunate. I have wonderful opportunities, especially in film. Where a musician may not have millions, 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 is stepping away from film, he remains infatuated with cinema, and the ability of sound and image, when combined, to achieve liftoff.

“I would love to see in about 100 years what people are doing with film and sound and spatial, aural and visual effects. It has a tremendous future, I think,” Williams says. I can feel great potential and great future. I’d love to see and hear all of this when I come back.”

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