John Williams: Movie Music Man

Composer and conductor John Williams, a 2004 honoree, arrives for the gala performance celebrating the Kennedy Center Honors at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2004.
AP
Among this year's Kennedy Center honorees is a man who has composed the tunes that have become part of our national psyche: conductor John Williams. His are, perhaps, the most memorable movie themes of all time, including "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

During the Kennedy Center tribute, director Steven Spielberg said, "John Williams reinterprets our films with a musical narrative that makes our hearts pound during action cliffhanger scenes, gets the audience to scream when we were hoping they would do so, and pushes audiences from the brink to breaking out into applause."

The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast on CBS-TV on Dec. 21.

Among other things, The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen wanted to know how he works when he has to score a film.

"As the composer," he explains, "I think the best way to begin scoring a film is to look at it without the music, alone in a room, without having any idea where the script is going to take us. The important thing is that, for me, I will experience surprise when the audience is going to be surprised. Or maybe I'll even be bored a little bit in the middle when it gets a little bit slow, so that when I approach my job of deciding where in the film we're going to have music that will accompany the action, that the speed of the action would be related to the speed of the music or the lack of it. And this music becomes a kind of a kinetic part of the breathing, living film."

Certainly, the theme he composed for "Jaws" helped make an electronic shark come alive.

Recalled director Spielberg, "You know, the great white could never speak until John Williams gave it a voice. The day John called me over to his house, he was very pleased, because he had just completed the theme for 'Jaws,' and I sat next to him, and he just used four fingers, and he began going 'Dada. Dada.' And that was it. And I said, 'That's all?' And he said, 'I really think that's all you need.' "

As for Williams himself, he points out that computer animation was far less refined in 1970, when "Jaws" was being made. "So this shark that Steven Spielberg had to photograph was a rubber ducky, basically." That means that the shark often was not shown in underwater shots, and it was extremely important that the music be "something low and ominous and threatening and repetitive and unstoppable."

The "Jaws" theme changed the way many of us look at going in the water. But it was "Star Wars" that sky-rocketed Williams' career, as it defined a new genre of film music and brought lush, symphonic sounds back into the movie houses, from the lighthearted (as in "Home Alone") to the profound ("Schindler's List").

But with more than 100 films and television programs scored, Williams still makes time for the concert hall, with the Boston Pops.

Chen: "When did you realize that you had a rare talent?"

Williams: "Well, I don't think I ever really felt that, honestly…"

Chen: "Not even with your first Oscar?"

Williams (laughing): "Well…"

Chen (laughing): "Come on!"

Williams: "No. There's a lot of luck in that, too. You know that."

Chen: "Five times?"

Williams: "Five times begins to be kind of a nice little pattern, you know… When you talk about genius and music, we're living in a world where Mozart and Beethoven and others have trod. It's big shoulders we're standing on. You know, you look at the Mozart Requiem, you can be very humble about what music you write."

Chen: "OK. Five Oscars, 17 Grammys, three Golden Globes, two Emmys, and now the Kennedy Center honor."

Williams: "That's wonderful."

Chen: "That's not luck, John."

Williams: "No, maybe it's not luck. (Laughing) It also makes me feel a little old."

Chen: "No. Accomplished."

Williams: "Accomplished. Thank you. Mature."

And with that maturity, a promise of many more memorable tunes to come.