Crew Profiles: John Williams..

Although a lot of the biographies from the official STAR WARS site are rather glossy and superficial, this article about John Williams is exceptional. It helps us see inside the mind of this creative genius who's contribution to the mood and pace of these movies is immense as well as providing an understanding of the sensitive nuances that influence his work, and why he will be remembered over the coming centuries as a leading "classical" composer of our time.


Composer and Conductor


Introduced to George Lucas by Steven Spielberg, John Williams agreed to write the music for Star Wars without having any huge expectations for the project. "Along with others involved with the film, I was surprised at what a great success it was. I think we all expected a successful film. In my mind I was thinking of it as a kind of Saturday afternoon movie for kids really, a kind of popcorn, Buck Rogers show . . . never imagining that it would be this world-wide international success." Williams didn't see Star Wars until it was nearly finished because he prefers to avoid reading scripts before scoring a film, so as not to create any preconceived ideas about the film. "I remember seeing the film and reacting to its atmospheres and energies and rhythms. That for me is always the best way to pick up a film -- from the visual image itself and without any preconceptions that might have been put there by the script." Williams remembers his collaboration with George Lucas as a positive experience marked by communication and agreement about the music. "When he first heard the music he liked it very well. It was encouraging -- I felt positive reinforcement always with George. A lot of people will say, 'Don't go in that direction', it's always 'Don't do this, don't do that.' With George, my experience with him was 'That's right, keep going.' With that kind of collaboration, we get better results I think."

Williams approached each film as a separate assignment, and was pleased and somewhat surprised with the unity of theme and sound of the three film scores. "I think if the score has an architectural unity, it's the result of a happy accident. I approached each film as a separate entity. The first one completely out of the blue, but the second one of course connected to the first one; we referred back to characters and extended them and referred back to themes and extended and developed those."

Much of the score is derived from Williams' impression of characters in the films: "Darth Vader's theme seemed to me to need to have, like all of the themes if possible, strong melodic identification, so that that when you heard if or part of the theme you would associate it with the character." In Star Wars, Williams intended Leia's theme to have strong romantic elements, while Luke's theme has a different tonality. "Flourishing and upward reaching, idealistic and heroic . . . a very uplifted kind of heraldic quality. Larger than he is. His idealism is more the subject than the character itself I would say." This concentration on the features of the characters in the films produced musical themes to enhance and accompany each character's appearance in a scene.

In writing the main theme, Williams aimed for music that would match the visual impact of the first scene of the film, but would also be simple, strong, and direct. "I tried to construct something that again would have this idealistic, uplifting but military flare to it. . . . And try to get it so it's set in the most brilliant register of the trumpets, horns and trombones so that we'd have a blazingly brilliant fanfare at the opening of the piece." Finally, Williams wanted a theme that was ceremonial in tone, almost a march.

The music for the cantina scene, which is many fans' favorite, came about at a stopping-point in Williams' work on the score. When he saw shots of the alien band, he realized that the music could sound like anything, but he needed to decide the specific sound. When he asked George Lucas whether he had any ideas for the band's sound, Lucas had an idea. He asked Williams to imagine what would happen if a member of the alien band lifted up a rock on some remote planet and came across sheet music from Benny Goodman's swing band from 1930's Earth. Williams liked the idea, and had fun composing a slightly off-tune variation on the swing sound, as played by aliens. He had musicians record the tune using Trinidad steel drums, reed instruments, and kazoos.

This seamless connection between Lucas' cinematic vision and Williams' musical one produced a film score that is the most popular ever, selling four million copies, more than any non-pop album in recording history. Williams credits the group effort for much of the success of the score: "I have to credit the film for a lot of this. If I had written the music without the film probably nobody ever would have heard of the music; it was the combination of things and the elusive, weird, unpredictable aspect of timing that none of us can quite get our hands around."

John Williams was born in New York and moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1948. There he attended UCLA and studied compositions privately with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. After service in the Air Force, Mr. Williams returned to New York to attend the Juilliard School where he studied piano with Madame Rosina Lhevinne. While in New York he also worked as a jazz pianist in both clubs and on recordings. Again Mr. Williams moved to Los Angeles where he began his career in the film studios working with such composers as Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, and Franz Waxman. He went on to write music for many television programs in the 1960s, winning two Emmys for his work. In January 1980, John Williams was named nineteenth conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra since its founding in 1885. Mr. Williams assumed the title of Boston Pops Laureate Conductor following his retirement in December 1993.

Mr. Williams has led the Boston Pops on United States tours in 1985, 1989, and 1992, and on three tours of Japan in 1987, 1990, and 1993. Mr. Williams has also appeared as guest conductor with a number of major orchestras including the London Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Denver Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the Dallas Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in many performances at the Hollywood Bowl. He holds honorary doctorate degrees from fourteen American Universities. Many of Mr. Williams' film scores have been recorded. His highly acclaimed albums with the Boston Pops Orchestra include Pops in Space, Pops on the March, Aisle Seat, Pops Out of This World, and Boston Pops on Stage, a collaboration with soprano Jessye Norman entitled With a Song in My Heart, a collection of favorite Americana entitled, America, the Dream Goes On, Bernstein by Boston Pops, Swing, Swing, Swing, Pops in Love, and By Request . . . Featuring the Music of John Williams, Holst's The Planets, Digital Jukebox, Pops Britannia, featuring music of the British Isles, Salute to Hollywood, Pops a La Russe, an album of favorite Russian music, and an all-Gershwin album entitled Pops by George. The first recording by John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra on the Sony Classical label, Music of the Night, an album of contemporary and classic show tunes, was released in 1990. Also for Sony Classical, they have recorded a collection of favorite marches, entitled I Love A Parade, an album of John Williams' music for the films of Steven Spielberg entitled the Spielburg/Williams Collaboration, the Green Album, which includes "This Landis Your Land," "Simple Gifts," and "Theme for Earth Day," a Christmas album entitled Joy to the World, an album of music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern, entitled Night and Day, a tribute to Frank Sinatra, entitled Unforgettable, and their latest release, Music for Stage and Screen, an album featuring music by John Williams and Aaron Copland, It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't got that Swing, with vocalist Nancy Wilson, and most recently Williams: The Classic Spielberg Scores.

John Williams has composed the music and served as music director for more than seventy-five films including The Lost World, Rosewood, Sleepers, Sabrina, Nixon, Schindler's List, Jurassic Park, Home Alone 2, Far and Away, JFK, Hook, Home Alone, Presumed Innocent, Always, Born on the Fourth of July, Stanley and Iris, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Accidental Tourist, Empire of the Sun, The Witches of Eastwick, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Return of the Jedi, E.T. (The Extra-Terrestrial), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, Jaws and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. He has received thirty-four Academy Award nominations and has been awarded five Oscars, four British Academy Awards and sixteen Grammies as well as several gold and platinum records. Mr. Williams' most recent Oscar was for Best Original Score for Schindler's List. Most recently he received Academy Award nominations for his scores for Sydney Pollack's remake of Sabrina, Oliver Stone's Nixon and Barry Levinson's Sleepers.

In addition to his film music, Mr. Williams has written many concert pieces including two symphonies, a bassoon concerto premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1995, a cello concerto premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1994, concertos for flute and violin recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, and concertos for clarinet and tuba. His most recent work, a trumpet concerto, was premiered by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra in 1996. In addition, Mr. Williams has composed the well-known NBC News Theme "The Mission", "Liberty Fanfare," composed for the rededication of the Statue of Liberty, "We're Lookin' Good!" composed for the Special Olympics in celebration of the 1987 International Summer Games, and the themes for the 1984, 1988, and 1996 Summer Olympic Games.



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