Accessibility links

Writer of America's Soundtrack Turns 80

(From left) Jessye Norman, John Williams, Steven Spielberg, Yo-Yo Ma, Keith Lockhart and James Taylor celebrate the composer's 80th birthday onstage at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in western Massachusetts. (Hilary Scott)
LENOX, Massachusetts — For over 50 years, John Williams' music has taken us to galaxies far, far away with the "Star Wars" theme, or on rollicking adventures around the world with the Indiana Jones movies.

His scores make us feel giddy with joy and occasionally scare us to death as with the music from "Jaws," which foreshadowed the impending appearance of the giant man-eating shark.

Starting out

Williams might be the most recognized contemporary composer in the world but writing music wasn’t his focus when he was young.

"My primary focus was always on piano performance," he says. "I had no idea that I’d ever compose music."

Williams grew up in a musical household with a father who was a professional jazz percussionist. Williams himself was such a serious pianist that he studied with a famed teacher at the Juilliard School after a stint in the Air Force Band.

"I did hear players like John Browning and Van Cliburn around the place," he remembers, "and I thought to myself, 'If that’s the competition, I think I better be a composer.'”

Changing course

Williams moved to Los Angeles, where he played piano on movie and television soundtracks.

He picked up jobs arranging music and then composing it. For seven years, Williams worked at Universal Studios, writing TV scores.

"We had twelve shows a week at Universal that had to be recorded, which meant there were 12 three-hour sessions with orchestra of some kind on the stage every week, three sessions a day, usually," he says. "So, I filled one or two of those as a composer and conducted my own work, also."

America's soundtrack

Williams wrote his first film score in 1960 and hasn’t looked back. Whether he’s writing for Steven Spielberg, George Lucas or Oliver Stone, Williams' process remains the same: he writes music the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper, and doesn’t begin composing until he’s seen a rough cut of the film.
John Williams wrote the ominous music from "Jaws," which foreshadowed the impending appearance of the killer shark. (Universal Pictures)
John Williams wrote the ominous music from "Jaws," which foreshadowed the impending appearance of the killer shark. (Universal Pictures)

"I, over the years, have always felt more comfortable if I could go into a projection room and look at a film and not really know what to expect," he says. "And If I have the luxury of going into the dark projection room and being surprised when the audience is surprised and being bored when they’re bored, I think that gives me a sense of what my job is, where I can press the accelerate button if I need to, or support an emotion or don’t."

Lukas Kendall, founder and editor of Film Score Monthly, says there's an inevitability to Williams' themes. "They sound like they fell out of his sleeves, they sound like they’ve always existed."

According to Williams, it takes two-to-three months, on average, to compose a film score, going back and forth from his studio to his screening room to make sure everything matches up properly.

Making his mark

In mid-August, the Boston Pops celebrated John Williams’ 80th birthday with a gala concert at Tanglewood.

In a video tribute, President Barack Obama said, "It's hard to imagine "ET" taking flight, Indiana Jones taking on the bad guys, or Darth Vader taking over the galaxy without your booming scores. Few artists have left such an enduring and extraordinary imprint on our culture as you have, and on behalf of all Americans, I want to thank you for sharing your incredible talent with us for all these years."

At age 80, Williams shows no signs of retiring. He's laureate director of the Boston Pops, is composing new classical works and recently worked on the Steven Spielberg film, "Lincoln," which comes out in November.

"I’m happy to be busy," he says. "I’m happy to have a wonderful family and I think, especially for practicing musicians, age is not so much of a concern, because a lifetime is just simply not long enough for the study of music anyway; you’re never anywhere near finished."