With 43 Oscar nominations (and at least one more this year for Memoirs of a Geisha) composer John Williams shows no signs of slowing down. It’s hard not to admire his work. And if you don’t, you should have your head examined.
Why Stop at 43 Nominations?
By Jon Burlingame Published: January 15, 2006 NY Times
A year rarely goes by in which the composer John Williams doesn’t write the score for at least one of Hollywood’s big popcorn films, or one of its most thoughtful dramas. Last year he scored two of each: the summer blockbusters Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds, and the end-of-year prestige pictures Memoirs of a Geisha and Munich. Insiders say at least one (Geisha) and possibly two ( Munich) are likely to be nominated on Jan. 31 in the original-score category of this year’s Academy Awards.
Mr. Williams, now 73, has been writing movie music for more than 40 years. He has five Oscars and 18 Grammy Awards for classic scores like Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial and Schindler’s List. He has achieved more name-recognition than any American film composer since Henry Mancini, because of his association with popular film franchises from Indiana Jones to Harry Potter, but also because of his frequently televised appearances as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra in the 1980’s and early 90’s.
His sophisticated work elicits widespread admiration. “He has an implicit understanding of drama,” says the composer Thomas Newman (Finding Nemo), “more specifically, what it is that impels drama and absorbs us in it.”
The film-music scholar Royal S. Brown adds: “He’s capable of writing anything, from neo-Romantic to avant-garde. He also writes a better melody than anybody else writing film scores right now. There is an emotional depth to the thematic content; he doesn’t just write good themes, he also comes up with amazingly complex harmonic structures to go with them.”
The traditional symphony orchestra is Mr. Williams’s primary palette, although he will often augment it with unusual instruments, choral elements and even electronics. Geisha, for example, is colored with traditional Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute; the stringed koto and shamisen; and the taiko drums. The Munich score features the Eastern timbres of the ancient oud and of the metallic-sounding cimbalom. Choir figures prominently in Revenge of the Sith, and synthesizers help pound out the rhythms of War of the Worlds.
“We found that we had a very similar sensibility about the music,” says the director of Geisha, Rob Marshall, “in that there should be many places in the film where it was purely Japanese instrumentation – but that that wouldn’t be enough to hold an entire film, because the emotion comes with the orchestra.”
The concept, Mr. Williams explains, was to combine the unique sonorities of Japanese music with the more familiar harmonic and melodic approach of Western music. “The essential thing was to try and broaden out the emotional canvas,” he says, “beyond the confines of the traditional music of the geishas.”
The atmospheric music of Geisha is unlike anything else Mr. Williams wrote. “I’ve been a great admirer of contemporary Japanese music,” he says, citing the work of the composer Toru Takemitsu as a special favorite. In fact, Mr. Williams’s 1969 concerto for Western flute incorporated shakuhachi-style effects.
Geisha also features prominent solo passages for two famous string players: the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the violinist Itzhak Perlman. Mr. Ma, for whom Mr. Williams composed a concerto in 1994, is the musical voice of Sayuri (played in the film by Ziyi Zhang). Her elusive love interest, the kind and mysterious Chairman (Ken Watanabe), is represented by a valse triste for harps and Mr. Perlman’s violin.
“I never fail to wonder how he changes colors,” says Mr. Perlman, who also played the solos in Schindler’s List. “He can give you this incredible Asian flavor in Geisha, an Eastern European flavor in Schindler’s List, amazing heroic music in Superman. He makes film music into an art.”
Kathleen Kennedy, a Munich producer, says Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Williams agreed that the film required music that was “never trying to push the movie emotionally.” Mr. Williams adds, “The orchestra doesn’t directly support the emotional aspects of what you see, or any of the action.”
Unlike the Holocaust story Schindler’s List, Munich demanded a sound that emanated more from the Middle East than Eastern Europe. “What I’ve attempted to do is to create music that might be Israeli, or Palestinian,” Mr. Williams says. He composed what he calls “a prayer for peace,” a lyrical theme associated with the film’s Mossad assassin Avner (Eric Bana), and a theme for solo voice and orchestra that is used for the multiple flashbacks to the 1972 murders of the Israeli athletes in Munich.
With an astonishing 43 Oscar nominations already to his credit, Mr. Williams is approaching – and this year, could tie – the record of 45 held by his former boss, the composer Alfred Newman, for whom he played piano back in the 1950’s at 20th Century Fox.
Of Newman, who died in 1970, he recalls: “He was a kind of icon to me. I think it’s fair to say that of all the conductors we had in Hollywood in those years, he was by far the best. I don’t think any of them could come anywhere near him in terms of wedding a performance to a film sequence. So any comparison between what I’ve done and what he has done gratifies me enormously.”
Ms. Kennedy says: “The extraordinary thing about John is that every time you go on the scoring stage with him, there is such a tremendous respect from the musicians. They literally give him a standing ovation at the end of every scoring session. You don’t see that very often.”
Mr. Marshall adds: “He’s not just a master composer in a room by himself but a master of how to work with a director, how to bring a world to life, bring an emotion to life. He’s a storyteller.”