John Williams, 90, backs away from movies, but not music

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NEW YORK – After more than six decades of making bicycles fly, sending panicked swimmers to the beach and other fascinating encounters, John Williams is putting the final notes on what could be his final soundtrack.

“I’m currently working on ‘Indiana Jones 5,’ which Harrison Ford – who is a little younger than I am – I think has announced will be his last film,” says Williams. “So I thought, if Harrison can do it, maybe I can too.”

Ford, for the record, has not said this publicly. And Williams, who turned 90 in February, isn’t sure he’s ready for it either.

“I don’t want to be seen as categorically eliminating any activity,” Williams says with a laugh, speaking by phone from his 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 can.”

Right now, though, there are other ways Williams wants to spend his time. A “Star Wars” movie takes six months of work, which he notes, “at this point in life is a long commitment for me.” Instead, Williams is devoting himself to composing concert music, including a piano concerto he is writing for Emanuel Axe.

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

Turning 90 — an event the Kennedy Center and Tanglewood are celebrating this summer with anniversary shows — has Williams reflecting 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 understand that there is more to bodily life,” says Williams. “Without being religious, which I am not especially, 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 can reflect on how much music has been necessary for humanity. I always like to speculate that music is older than language, that we were probably beating drums and blowing on reeds before we could speak. Therefore, it is 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 movie soundtracks, among them “Star Wars”, “Jurassic Park”, “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” , “ET”, “Indiana Jones”, “Superman”, “Schindler’s List” and “Harry Potter”.

“He lived for the better part of a century, and his music encompasses all the events and changes of those times,” says Ma, a longtime friend. “He is one of the great American voices.”

It’s an amount of accomplishment that’s hard to quantify. Five Oscar nominations and 52 Oscar nominations, a number surpassed only by Walt Disney, is a measure. But even that hardly suggests the cultural power of his music. A billion people might be able to instantly hum Williams’ two-note ostinato from “Jaws” or “The Imperial March” from “Star Wars.”

“I was told that the song is played all over the world. What could be more satisfying than that?” says Williams. “But I must say it seems unreal. I can only see what is in front of me on the piano right now, and do my best with it.”

Williams has a warm, humble and courteous manner despite his stature. He began an interview by offering, “Let me see if I can give you something that might be helpful.” All these indelible and perfectly constructed themes, he believes, are the product less of divine inspiration than of daily hard work. Williams does most of his work sitting for hours at his Steinway, composing in pencil.

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

When Williams started (his first full-length soundtrack was 1958’s “Daddy-O”), the cinematic tradition of great orchestral scores was starting to lose out to pop soundtracks. Now, many are gravitating towards synthesized music for the movies. 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 entire orchestra for one person was impressed by this 90-year-old gentleman who listens to everything, is unfailingly kind, gentle, polite. People just wanted to play for him,” says Ma. “They were impressed by this man’s musicality.”

This final chapter in Williams’ career is, in a way, a chance to place his gigantic legacy not just in connection with cinema, but among classic legends. Williams, who led the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993, directed the Berlin, Vienna, and New York Philharmonic, among others. In the world’s elite orchestras, Williams’ compositions have become canon.

“A purist might say that the music represented in the film is not absolute music. Well, that might be true,” says Williams. “But some of the best songs ever written were narrative. Certainly at the opera. Cinema offers this opportunity – not often, but occasionally. And in a musically rewarding way. Occasionally we get lucky and find one.”

Williams’ enduring partnership with Steven Spielberg, of course, helped the songwriter’s chances. Spielberg, who first sought out lunch with Williams in 1972 after being captivated by his score for “The Reivers,” called him “the most significant contributor to my success as a filmmaker.”

“Without John Williams, motorcycles don’t really fly,” Spielberg said when the AFI paid tribute to Williams in 2016.

They remain irrevocably linked. Their offices on the Universal lot are just steps away from each other. Along with “Indiana Jones,” Williams recently scored Spielberg’s upcoming semi-autobiographical drama about growing up in Arizona, “The Fabelmans.” The two films make 30 films together for Spielberg and Williams.

“50 years have passed. Maybe we’re starting in the next 50,” Williams says with a laugh. “Whatever our connections, whether it’s music or working with him or just being with him, I think we’ll always be together. We are great 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 films by Spielberg and others, Williams has carved out enough perfectly condensed melodies to rival the Beatles. Spielberg once described his five-note “Communication Reason” from “Close Encounters” as “a bell”.

“Simple little themes that speak clearly and without obfuscation are very hard to find and very hard to do,” says Williams. “They really are the result of a lot of work. It’s almost like sculpting. Move a note, change a rhythmic emphasis or the direction of an interval, and so on. A simple melody can be made in dozens of ways. If you find one like that, it looks like you discovered something you wanted to discover.”

One thing you won’t hear from Williams is a big pronouncement about his own legacy. He’s much more comfortable speaking like a technician who fuss until a shiny gem drops.

“My own personality is such that I look back at what I’ve done – I’m quite pleased and proud of a lot of it – but like most of us, we always wish we’d done better,” he says. “We live with examples like Beethoven and Bach before us, monumental achievements that people have made in music and can feel very humbled. But I also feel very happy. I had wonderful opportunities, especially in film, where a composer can have an audience not of millions of people, but of billions of people.”

Williams has a number of shows planned for the rest of the year, including performances in Los Angeles, Singapore and Lisbon. But while Williams may be moving away from cinema, he remains enamored with cinema and the ability of sound and image, when combined, to take off.

“I would love to be around 100 years from now to see what people are doing with film, sound and spatial, auditory and visual effects. It has a tremendous future, I think,” says Williams. “I can feel a great possibility and a great future in the atmosphere of the whole experience. I would love to go back and see and hear it all.”

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