John Williams on The Force Awakens and the legacy of Star Wars

John Williams is so much more than Star Wars, that uber-popular outer space adventure serial he’s been scoring since 1977. But for better or worse, Star Wars is the first line in Williams’ biography and the primary reason he’s one of the only film composers in history to become a household name. In pop culture history there is Before Star Wars and there’s After Star Wars, and Williams’ big, brassy, neo-romantic music capitalized on (and arguably helped propel) the unprecedented cinematic blastoff on that sunny Wednesday in May not so long, long ago. The sheer cultural infiltration of these films meant Williams’ earworm themes were worming their way into millions upon millions of ears, and the potent combination of his unsurpassed talent as a composer and the phenomenal reach of the films turned the series’ main themes into post-Vietnam American folk tunes.

Scratch a little deeper than every marching band’s halftime repertoire and Bill Murray’s old song on SNL, though, and you’ll find some of the most densely packed, conceptually intelligent, and eternally melodic works ever conceived for the screen. Williams defined and perfected the leitmotif approach to film scoring with the original Star Wars trilogy, brilliantly hanging indelible tunes on dozens of characters, character relationships, and locations. He also wrote some of the most lovingly crafted action music ever attempted—whole mini concert works, scherzos, and frenetic dances for one-off set pieces.

Over the course of (now) seven films in a span of 38 years, Williams has written a gargantuan space opera that would give Richard Wagner a run for his money. His opera zooms from the intimate to the galactic, across the stars from a ragtag band of rebels and warriors stirring with latent magic backwards into their peacetime ancestry, and now hurtling headlong into their uncertain future. There is nothing like what Williams has created for Star Wars, and no way to quantify how enormous its influence has been on aspiring composers and musicians, young audiences, and the continuing vibrancy of neoclassical film scoring and even the sheer existence of symphony orchestras.

It was an indescribable privilege (or as John Williams would apparently say, a “blast”) to be given an audience with the world’s greatest living composer to discuss his experience on Star Wars: The Force Awakens for an LA Times article that came out last month. Economy of space meant only a fraction of our conversation made it to print, so for those who—like me—hang on Williams’ every note and word… here’s the entire thing.

Williams says he learned The Force Awakens was happening from his old friend, producer Kathleen Kennedy, the new proprietor of all things Star Wars, who asked him if he’d be willing to have dinner with director JJ Abrams.

“JJ was wonderful with me. We had a lot of fun. He was talking about what a fan of Jaws he’d been, and [how he] made a little poster or something when he was eight-years-old because he loved the music of Jaws, and how did I feel about coming on board to do the seventh installment of Star Wars? And I thought, well, it would be a lot of fun, and I saw no reason not to do it. I’ve always enjoyed doing them, and I was very anxious to see what he would do with it.”

Williams says he especially liked the fact that screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was on board again, and felt no reluctance coming back for a seventh round. (“I can’t say I was [hesitant] at all. I thought it would be fun.”) He did note that he’s recorded every previous Star Wars score with the London Symphony Orchestra, and the one caveat he gave Abrams was that he didn’t want to go to London this time around. He was “delighted” to accept the gig once he learned he could record in Los Angeles.

“First of all, the orchestra’s wonderful here. My relationship with the London Symphony goes way, way back, and it’s a fabulous orchestra.”

…but the schedule for this film had him begin recording last June, and then holding a number of sessions sporadically through November. It would have been “awkward” to stay in London.

“Working with the orchestra is still always kind of a blast, so to speak. Most of my working days are alone in a composing room at a piano, and the music is either in my head or on a piece of paper written with a pencil. And bringing it to life with an orchestra—in this case a large, grand orchestra—is a joy. It’s fun, it’s pleasurable.

JJ has a genuine pleasure out of listening to the orchestra play, and will sit there hour after hour, and the more we play, the happier he is. And I feel the same way.

Working with JJ was certainly invigorating. What I saw of the film, I felt that he had made it consistently and organically related to what had gone before, consistent to George Lucas’ incredibly original vision. (Yoda, Darth Vader… all this originality is almost a Dickensian level of invention.) At the same time, with JJ I felt a renewed energy, and a vitality, and a freshness that did not estrange any of the characters or any of the material from the texture and fabric of Lucas’ creation, but revivified it. And one can feel that in JJ’s energy. He’s a young man. He’s a very bright man. He travels at lightspeed in his thinking and in his actions. And he’s achieved a tremendous amount of success, but even more importantly accomplishment, for a man that young. He’s a marvelous individual. We need a lot more of these people in all of our industries. Working with him was fresh, it was fun. And he was also very helpful to me. His suggestions were always good. His dramatic sense, his sense of tempo, texture, and so on. So while it was true to the larger corpus of what it is, it felt fresh and energized by this man.

There are several references to the older scores, which we felt were obligatory. References to the Force and earlier characters, Luke Skywalker and so on. But we also felt that we should have new material that was an extension of the collection or glossary, if you like, of themes from the other six pictures. And so there’s, I think, about 102 minutes of music in the film, and we’ve measured that there’s seven minutes of references to the earlier films. So the great preponderance of material is new—90 percent or more. And my task and my challenge was to make it feel friendly and related, interrelated, to the other scores, so that it feels comfortably Star-Wars-ian, if you can use that word. And at the same time be new and original to this particular piece.”

What makes music “Star-Wars-ian?”

“It would include, without being technical about it, a similarity in harmonic modalities, a similarity in stylistic intervallic choices for melodies, similarities in orchestral textural presentations and the like.

It was very liberating and very exciting to do. It was really, really a lot of joy. And it always has been. I don’t think a composer’s ever had… and I’m just lucky, I’m not bragging on myself… to be able to do a series of films where the preponderance of music in the film is new, but there’s some relationship to the older one, so that there’s an accumulation of melodic and other kinds of materials, that are added on, added on. It must be about 15 hours of music or more, having been created by, in this case, one composer, and one overall project. That’s, as far as I know, a unique opportunity. And one that I’ve always enjoyed. It would be like writing an opera, and then writing six more based on the same kind of material and the same story… over the course of 40 years. But I think what one finds about that is, there are certain inescapable things. It’s like bike-riding, you know—you get back onto the Star Wars cycle and it takes 30 seconds to get back into it. I’ve never felt separated or estranged from it in any way. We have a toolbox, and we have a thumbprint, and we try to improve these things and expand it, certainly. But this has been a unique challenge, and a uniquely rewarding experience.”

How does 83-year-old John Williams approach a Star Wars film as opposed to 45-year-old John Williams?

“The difference, probably, is in the length of hours that I work in a day. At age 45 probably I worked ten, twelve hours a day. Now I work six hours a day, something like that, and then walk for another one. But apart from that, I still use the piano, I still use paper and pencil. They’re good, reliable old tools. I don’t use computers, because when I studied they didn’t exist. And fortunately I’ve been so busy in the intervening years that I haven’t time or need to change the technology of what I do. My actual work has remained the same.

The difference in ages that I’ve had throughout these things is probably very minimal. With all of us, as long we continue to be in good health, and if you feel good, you can work. I think it’s great if people can work if they’re 80, and 60 or 70, or even 90 if they can. The famous director on Broadway, George Abbott, was directing Broadway shows when he was 98, I think I’m correct in saying. So I think all of us… we shouldn’t be counting numbers. And to continue to work, to continue to love what you do, is certainly a contributing element to one’s longevity and health. I don’t think there’s any question about that. And we are so lucky—meaning myself and colleagues in music—to be working in a field that you never grow tired of. Music’s not a job that you think, ‘I want to get out and retire from my job.’ It’s the opposite of that. I mean, the famous line of Rachmaninoff’s—which I’ve quoted a thousand times, but it’s true—he’s saying that ‘music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime it not enough for music.’ And that’s true. So certainly my work days have shrunken, but it’s still enough time to do the work. And I welcome doing it. Frankly, the alternative to working is not working, and that, I think for any of us, is not a healthy thing. ‘Working’ is maybe not the best word. Why don’t we call it ‘contributing’?

What I found inspiring, first of all, was the young cast interacting with the original, with Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. The young people are fabulous. They’re all good comedians, they’re all good athletes, and the witty and fresh dialogue they deliver in a very young and enthusiastic way. And I fell in love immediately with Daisy Ridley. I think anybody would, man or woman. She is just a superstar born, certainly. And then, secondly, I was intrigued and immediately happy about the dialogue, which I found to be bright and quick and witty, and a little humorous, and didn’t take itself seriously—and had a wonderful atmosphere about it, all the way through. It was very easy to be instantly enthusiastic about this.”

On Rey’s Theme:

“It’s an interesting challenge with her, because her theme doesn’t suggest a love theme in any way. It suggests an adventurer, a female adventurer, but with great strength. She’s a fighter, she’s infused with the Force, and it needed to be something that was strong but thoughtful. She’s a very young girl, but she’s a woman of diverse parts, and so there’s a maturity, I think, about the approach, melodically, to her that I hope will fit her. It seemed particularly challenging, both in the scavenger section in the beginning and in the trip to the island to find Luke in the end, where her theme is pretty fully realized with the orchestra. And it seemed to the right degree of strength and beauty for an adventuress.”

Rey’s theme shares a chordal relationship with the Force theme, and Williams counterpoints the two during the end credits.

“The idea of bringing them together at the end came together at the end. I don’t think I ever played them actually simultaneously until then.”

Williams’ introduction to Rey is scored with flute, celeste, and piano—a surprisingly fragile and interior sound juxtaposed against the enormous, galactic backdrop of a beached star destroyer.

“I thought that something very delicate at that moment… particularly coming after the first reel and the attack on Jaaku, and we’ve just seen her face disguised and so on… and there’s a short flute cadenza when she drinks the water from her emptying canteen, which is a fabulous shot. And I thought that the sand slide should not be big and broad, but make it big when she arrives at her machine and drives off with that. And that we would hear something very delicate, and with some speed in it, though. That I thought would enhance that shot more than something broad and big. And I played it for JJ on my piano here at the house, and he thought also it was a good idea, and we said, ‘We’ll do it.’ And we did it, and I hope it’s right.”

On Kylo Ren’s theme:

“He’s a fabulous character, and I think so brilliantly played by Adam Driver… who was an actor I didn’t know. He was actually a student at Juilliard, and I heard about him from the president of Juilliard [Joseph Polisi], who’s a friend of mine. And he was asking me kind of nervously, ‘Is Adam good in the picture?’ And I said, ‘Joseph, he’s fabulous. You’re gonna be so proud of your alumnus, because he’s doing a great job here.’ There are really two parts to his theme. There’s a more ruminative part that is usually done softly. I don’t think it portrays any particular weakness, but possibly hesitancy. But then there’s the motif that’s often loud—strong might be a better word—that seems to be the embodiment of evil, almost in the same way that Darth Vader’s motif originally made. I thought that it should be a relative of Darth Vader, but something entirely different also, in terms of melody. And in most cases it’s presented in a very ominous, dangerous, dark way. And it not only seems to fit what’s happened to his character, but also the way he looks on the screen, the way he behaves, and as an accompaniment to his voice—whether loud or soft, or distant or close, whatever the perspective may be.

In this score, there are no drum machines or electronic tricks. It’s just the orchestra. Which makes it a kind of anomaly in today’s world. I mean, I think much of music which is done in contemporary films is fabulous. I’ve heard in prior years very adventurous and beautiful things that have been done that are non-orchestral. I wouldn’t be able to do those things. But orchestras and films are brother and sister, it seems to me. And when we can offer a score that an orchestra can play, and there’s room on the canvas for it, as there is in Star Wars, it’s a bonus, and it’s a privilege, and it’s a treat.”

JW conducting

Williams is a serious, classically trained composer, and in addition to classing up cinema for a half century he’s also written numerous concert works. It’s always frustrated me to see the “lowbrow” Comic-Con atmosphere of waving lightsabers and costumes at his summer Hollywood Bowl concerts, and even the great tribute to Williams by the (serious) Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2014 concluded with Darth Vader and a regiment of Storm Troopers taking the stage. So I wanted to know: has Star Wars ever burden?

“I’ve always felt really lucky to be associated with this piece. When we did the first film, way back in 1977, I really thought that it was good and that it would play out for the summer for young people. But I didn’t have any idea that it would go beyond the first film. I just left Star Wars and went over to Close Encounters and didn’t think I’d ever see or hear it again. And I think if anybody can imagine my gratification at the success that this thing has head, in terms of worldwide affection with which its held… and it seemed to increase over the years as we did it. When all of this was happening, the music was finding its way more and more into orchestral concerts, not of what you’d call the ‘high art’ concerts, but more of the area of what we call ‘pop concerts’ here. (It’s never been a title I like very much.)

I can only say that I’m enormously grateful that people have embraced this music, and it’s brought them to orchestral music in the way that it has for many younger people. And in my own mind, I mean, I don’t have a prejudice about, or I should say make a particular distinction between something that’s ‘high art’ and ‘low art.’ I mean, as Leonard Bernstein was always fond of saying: ‘there’s good and bad.’ It could be the Beatles or it could be Béla Bartók. Music is there for everybody. It’s a river we can all put our cups into and drink it and be sustained by it. So I have to say that I’ve never had any intellectual problem with that. I suppose if I was Beethoven, you may be able to be restricted in your sense of what’s appropriate in art. But even Brahms greatly appreciated Johann Strauss, who one you could say was at the level of high art and the other one a level of popular art. I am not in such an ivory tower, in any respect, that I need to worry about that in my own work. Whether I’m writing for concert or film, it’s very simple. I just try to do the best I’m able to do. And other people will judge it for whether it’s high, low, wide, or narrow, or whatever it may be. People want to hear it and want to play it… it just gratifies me. And as I listen, I think to myself: ‘I wish I could do better, and I’ll try to do better the next time.’ That’s my personality, and that’s the degree to which I’m magnetized to music itself.

Only time is going to tell us the real currency and the real value of anything that we do. And most of us live our lives, and things come and they go. If anything has a permanence of any kind, we have to feel that it’s a contribution that must be giving people something they need at some level. And that’s what we all need to do… is not work but contribute.”

Thanks to Michael Gorfaine, the Los Angeles Times, and, of course, John Williams.