JAKE COYLE Associated Press
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 said with a chuckle, 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.
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This spring, Williams and cellist Yo-Yo Ma released the album “A Reunion 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 that the Kennedy Center and Tanglewood are celebrating this summer with anniversary concerts – got 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 said. “Without being religious, which I am not especially, there is a spiritual life, an artistic life, a domain that is above the banalities of everyday 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 talk. 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”, “Encounters of the Third Kind”, “ET”, Indiana Jones“Superman,” “Schindler’s List” and ” Harry Potter.”
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 of “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?” said Williams. “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.
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 said. “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 one-person orchestra was amazed by this gentleman at now 90 who hears everything, is always kind, gentle, polite. People just wanted to play for him,” Ma said. “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.
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 said with a laugh.
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.”
“Small, simple themes that speak clearly and without obscuration are very hard to find and very hard to do,” Williams said. “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.