Williams: ‘Star Wars’ Score a Challenge

Movie News | May 11th, 2005

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NEW YORK – Break out the lightsabers the gallant theme is back. This time, however, the brassy fanfare leads us down the abyss.

Like many aspects of the epic “Star Wars” saga, the music John Williams made for the films has become an icon one of many he has created for more than 100 movies, including “Jaws,” “E.T.” “Superman” and “Schindler’s List.” Williams’ latest sonic-action-packed soundtrack, released this month by Sony Classical, includes a DVD with a 70-minute video and music from all six “Star Wars” movies. It debuted this week on Billboard’s top 200 album chart as No. 6.

When Williams started working with producer George Lucas on “Star Wars,” America was celebrating its bicentennial. The composer was 44, balding with dark hair around the sides and graying beard. The five-time Oscar winner is now 73, with white hair and beard but the force is still with him.

He’s currently working on Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” which is being released in June. During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., where he was conducting the National Symphony Orchestra, Williams spoke by telephone with The Associated Press.

AP: “Revenge of the Sith” tells how Anakin Skywalker turns evil and becomes Darth Vader. How do you illustrate this musically?

JW: I’ve had a little musical fun with Anakin’s theme, which appeared in one of the earlier films. … I’ve had to work (the music) to accompany the scenes of where he’s turning (from) the honorable ways of the Jedi and is becoming lost in this imperial dark side of things. So it’s been a nice musical exercise. As with most of the “Star Wars” material, it’s more like an operatic musical function than perhaps most film scores.

AP: Was it difficult?

JW: The thematic material is always hard for me. … Once we have the themes established, even if they are very simple, sometimes we want them to be made up of five, six, seven signal notes that carry the right message. Then things are worked out harmonically and contrapuntally and textural aspects and all that comes. … The most difficult thing is to try to get thematic material that resonates in the right way and themes that can find their way into the listeners’ (imagination). (The way humans) were set up audio-visually … is that we will be made deaf by brilliant visual stimulation. … We may not notice the details of what we hear. And so, a lot of thought behind film composition, the creation of themes … has to do with the management of the amount of attention we’re going to get and the kind of, if not competition (then) hopefully cooperation with a lot of heavy sound effects and other materials that compete for the audience’s attention.

AP: Do you read the script before composing?

JW: I prefer not to. I’d rather just see the film with a clean slate. It’s very important in my job to be able to sit in the room and see the film as a pristine viewer in the sense that I’m not exactly certain what’s going to happen next. I’m free to be surprised or free to be bored or whatever.

AP: You’ve written music for more than 100 movies. How do you find the time?

JW: All that’s been done over a period of a lot of years. So I do it by just focusing on what’s in front of me this particular day, week or month.

AP: Do you have to compose everyday?

JW: It’s usually a six-day week. … I’ll begin around 9 in the morning and finish some time in the afternoon. … I can produce, maximum, probably a couple of minutes of music a day, depending on how dense it is and how much detail there is.

AP: How long did you spend on this “Star Wars” episode?

JW: We recorded 2 hours and 10 minutes of music and I think I began writing this in … late September of ’04, and we recorded this in the early part of February of ’05. … Ten or 12 weeks.

AP: That’s fast.

JW: It is fast. It’s a very difficult schedule.

AP: You were trained at the Juilliard School and you’ve written a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma and two symphonies. Do you think your identification with Hollywood has meant that you are not perceived as a composer of serious music?

JW: That’s probably true. … Most of my work is film and that’s what people probably know, and so I can be grateful for that.

AP: Any regrets?

JW: No, not at all.