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Shark Attack?! John Williams Liked the Sound of That

What does he "see" when he begins to create the music for the film?

He thinks first of tempo, of speed. As Indiana Jones is being pulled behind the truck, hanging on with his bullwhip, how quickly should the scene be paced, musically? "In film the principal aspect is speed. How fast. How it relates rhythmically and kinetically to the action you're seeing on the screen."


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

And then there is timbre, the tone. "And in my case, timbral aspects are primary. It's as important as speed," he says. "Take, for example, any particular scene where a flute solo may be wonderful, but if that's a trombone, it's unthinkable."

And tone leads to something more difficult to describe: the color, the emotion of a movie moment set to music.

We ask: Like in "Schindler's List," are you thinking: evening darkness, a longing for escape? Or resignation? Horror? Or in "Jaws," speed, water, death?

"We can think about what emotions are on the screen. But we can also imagine it used for harbingers of things to come," Williams says.

As he's talking, Williams is patient, teacherly. Music is, after all, hard to explain without music playing. "So we can play the shark music even if he wasn't present," he says, "and suggest that he's coming, and by getting louder and louder and louder -- even if the camera doesn't move -- you get a sense that he is getting closer to you because music is getting faster or louder or both. So in that way, I don't use the word manipulate, because it's become an ugly word, but it's actually a good word, because you can manage and choreograph these emotions we talk about."

Like a novelist, who might use foreshadowing, something the reader might only feel subconsciously?

"Yes, exactly," Williams says. "It can be portentous. And yet another extension is that music can be undertext in a film. What people feel more than what they say. Might be having a conversation about something banal, the weather, but the subtext might be very tender, romantic, alluring. Or terribly frightening. Actors will do the same things with their eyes. Music has the possibility to draw another subtext to dialogue or what we see."

All this, though, must be done within the most rigid confines of the film on screen. Williams knows that he has a scene -- the first moments of the Normandy cemetery scene in "Saving Private Ryan" or dinosaurs run amok in "Jurassic Park," for example -- and that he has 3 minutes 42 seconds to do his business.

"The difference with medium music, as opposed to a concert, is that I already know how long it is, which I don't know for a concert piece," he says. "We will decide when it's going to be loudest, within 3 minutes 42 seconds, how many peaks of volume, shifts in speed, changes in theme. You can almost graph out the silhouette of at least the function of those three minutes. But when you write for performance, it's completely different decisions to make, I'd say more subtle, but really a completely different function, isn't it?"

His fellow composer Andre Previn once suggested that Williams put aside his toil for "cornball movies" and turn his talents toward concert music, exclusively. It is advice he has not taken.

"When writing for a concert audience, we're imagining we have people's full attention for whatever they can imbibe aurally," he says. "If we write film music with that same idea in mind, we make a big mistake. We have a lot of dialogue, a lot of sound effects. Music is accompaniment, a part of the whole, but I can't write it like I would write if everyone is going to hear it, all of it."

He pauses. "So instead, I have to write it so they feel it."

Williams does not say movie music writing is harder, but he does not want to leave the impression that it is easier -- that it is some lower form.

He checks his watch. And grabbing his bag, making his goodbyes, he is out the door.

Time: 3:03 p.m.


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