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Shark Attack?! John Williams Liked the Sound of That

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page N04


Insert the movie "Jaws" into the DVD player and, when the shark appears, press mute. Not the same, is it?

Continue the experiment. Turn off the TV. Go to the stereo, pop in a disc from the CD compilation of John Williams's 40 years of film music. Skip to his theme for "Jaws." Close your eyes.

John Williams has scored nearly 80 films and earned five Oscars, 17 Grammys, three Golden Globes and two Emmys. (Above: AP Right: Gerard Burkhart For The Washington Post)

_____Kennedy Center Honors_____
Photo Gallery: Honorees
Warren Beatty
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
Elton John
Joan Sutherland

First, there's quiet. Then, the low, reverberating bass, from the liquid darkness: Daa-unn. Daa-unn.

The part of the brain that urges flight or fight immediately awakes. The tempo quickens. Tun-tun-tun-tun-tun. A pulse pounding, then a runaway heartbeat. Volume, speed increase: TUN-TUN-TUN-TUN. Locomotive. Mindless. Then the killer riff, the blood in the water, the rising hunting horns motif. Getting closer. Unstoppable.

This time there is no great white shark, just the London Symphony Orchestra playing with your mind. The "Jaws" theme is musically a very simple piece, which Williams created, with strings and drum and brass, to play in 2 minutes 49 seconds. Yet it is the sound of crystal-pure fear.

So blame the composer for single-handedly keeping a generation of beachgoers out of the surf.

It is a talent that has been heavily employed -- nearly 80 films, 18 with his longtime collaborator, filmmaker Steven Spielberg -- to create music that is now almost inseparable from the images on the screen.

You know his work, even if you don't think you know: the eerie extraterrestrial telegraphy of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the heroic brassy anthems following "Indiana Jones," the martial bounce and Buck Rogers zip of spaceships rocketing around a galaxy far, far away in the five "Star Wars" films, with the sixth installment now nearing completion on Williams's piano bench.

He is the most celebrated movie music composer of his time: winner of five Academy Awards, 17 Grammys, three Golden Globes, two Emmys and a trunk of gold and platinum records -- and tonight Williams will be honored at the Kennedy Center.

Before he jetted east, we arrived at his corner of the Universal Studios lot, down a stone path to a Spanish-style bungalow where Williams works in his simple studio at his baby grand. We're early. He's dressed in a black turtleneck and gray slacks, and is at the onset a distracted man, a bit of a fussbudget, nattering about time constraints, hurrying, stuffing sheets of music into a briefcase. We have one hour. No more. But no less. Time is the tiny dictator. The interview will begin at 2 p.m. and end, precisely (we check our watch), at 3.

It is a rigid regimen. Necessary.

The due date for the "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" score looms. This is how Williams, now 72, has lived his entire professional life. The speed of a ticking metronome can be adjusted, larghetto or allegretto. Clock time cannot. A standard contract for his movie compositions gives him three months to create a score. A Lucas or Spielberg epic might require 120 minutes of music. A little calculating and presto: Williams must compose 40 minutes of original score a month, or 10 minutes a week, or two minutes every day (assuming he rests on the weekend, which he often does not).

When the appointed hour tolls Williams sits himself down, turns an ear, listens. He is now solicitous, soft-spoken, self-deprecating, focused on the task at hand.

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