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John Williams Biography

(Taken from the "John Williams & The Boston Pops Orchestra - A Celebration" booklet, 2012.)

John Williams at Eighty

"The wonderful thing about music is that it never seems to be exhausted," said John Williams recently in an interview in the New York Times. "Every little idea germinates another one. The few notes we have can be morphed into endless variations, and it's never quite over."

As the celebrated composer, conductor, orchestrator, arranger, pianist and tunesmith heads into his ninth decade, that short statement gives us a clue as to the secret at the heart of his many years of success. He somehow makes composition sound easy. Tormented angst in a lonely garret? Romantic despair at the fickleness of the muse? No, his working methods are more sensible and craftsmanlike. He writes every day, come what may. He formerly worked between eight and ten hours a day; now, having less energy, he works between four and six. And that's why, when you come across a melody like the "Flying Theme" for E.T. or the iconic main tune for Star Wars, or the rousing marches written for Superman or Raiders of the Lost Ark - tunes which feels somehow familiar and "right" even on the first time of hearing - it's easy to think that he's done something that anyone with a basic grasp of music theory could do: he's just "re-arranged the notes of a scale" like a good craftsman. It's simply a case of graft.

But listen again. There's something else, isn't there? Why is it so catchy? Why indeed. No-one else writes a simple tune with such genius, or such a sure common touch, or such a skill at courting popularity while avoiding vulgarity. That's his secret, his USP. He makes it sound easy! Anyone who's ever tried to write a straightforwardly catchy tune, knows it isn't easy. It's infuriatingly difficult. And that's why Williams's unique talent has made him one of the most popular and garlanded composers of all time.

"Garlanded" is something of an understatement, in fact. He currently holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for a linving person - forty-five - and has won five. He is also the joint-second most nominated person in the history of the awards (Walt Disney, with fifty-nine, comes top.). He has three Emmies, six BAFTAs, and twenty-one Grammies. In 2009 he received the National Medal of the Arts in the White House in honour of his achivements, and was cited as "a pre-eminent composer and conductor whose scores have defined and inspired modern movie-going for decades." And as if that weren't enough, his score for the 1977 blockbuster Star Wars (now renamed with somewhat prolix exactitude Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) was selected in 2005 by the American Film Institute as the greatest American movie score of all time. (But since Williams clearly has quite a few more movie scores up his sleeve, "of all time" may come to seem a bit premature.)

He was born into a musical family on 8 February, 1932, in Flushing (Queens), New York. In 1948 he and his parents moved west to Los Angeles, where his musical talent was later honed at the University of California at Los Angeles. After serving a spell in the Air Force, he returned to New York in 1955 to attend the prestigious Julliard School as a pianist. He supplemented his income playing jazz piano in bars.

So far, so usual. It's the story of many an aspiring tiro. It wasn't until Williams returned to Los Angeles and found work as a lowly orchestrator in a flim studio, that his native talents began to shine. Film composition demands two things - speedy facility, and a common touch - and it was soon clear that Williams possessed both in abundance. By 1958 he was writing B movie scores. In 1960, he got his first screen credit - a milestone in any film composer's career. Academy Award nominations for Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969) came a few years later. For a while in the 70s, he became a darling of disaster movies, with angsty, energic scores for The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.

But it was his meeting with Steven Spielberg in 1974 that was to prove his real turning point. Spielberg, with a customary nose for talent, knew Williams could provide a perfect musical match for his own brand of clever, populist entertainment. Spielberg's second film, Jaws (1975) proved him right. Who can forget the brillant two-note theme which represents the terror of the shark? So simple, yet so devastatingly effective.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind followed in 1977, in which Spielberg and Williams collaborated closely on integrating a haunting five-note theme representing extra-terrestrial communication into the plot. There was another extra-terrestrial success with E.T. and its memorably exhilarating flying music in 1982. During the same period, Williams also scored Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). More recent blockbuster successes have included Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler's List (1993), and the first three Harry Potter movies (2001-04).

Williams has also turned his attention to non-film composition too, and has several concertos written for friends under his belt. But composition forms only one side of his ouput. He's also a gifted conductor with a great connection to popular music and film scores other than his own. From 1980 to 1993 he was principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, America's premier light-music ensemble (heard on terrific form on these recordings). Since 1993 he has been Conductor Laureate, and he still regularly gives concerts with the group.

And in his eightieth year, he's showing no intention of slacking off. In a recent interview for the radio station WGBH Boston, he said: "Anyone who approaches eighty would say the same thing: 'However did we get here so quickly?' Life seems so quick, like a wink. But the work part of it, well, I'm as animated by music as ever. I'm enormously fortunate in my life. And the greatest good fortune, apart from my family, is my connection to music, which is something I never tire of. On the contrary, I become more and more engrossed in it, in the experience and practice of it, as I get odler."

And long may he continue. Happy birthday, Mr Williams!

Warwick Thompson