John Williams Discusses Memoirs Of A Geisha

John Williams has proved time and again again why he’s Hollywood’s most popular composer. Classic FM talks to the movie master.

There’s a long pause between the time in which you ask to speak to Hollywood’s most coveted living film composer, John Williams, and getting a response. Classic FM's request for an interview has been rippling through a small pool of press officers for nearly a month, when we arrive in Los Angeles to track him down. And still there’s no word from the man himself. 

According to Williams’s schedule, he’s just completed a score for Steven Spielberg’s film about the 1972 Olympics massacre, Munich, and is due to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert of his film themes, before returning to Los Angeles to conduct My Fair Lady at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. So he’ll be in town, but whether or not he’ll make time to discuss his soundtrack for the newly released Memoirs Of A Geisha is anybody’s guess. 

Geisha is premiering in Los Angeles when I arrive, with the publicity machine pumping out billboard and television ads across town. Based on Arthur Golden’s international bestseller and directed by Rob Marshall, it’s a sweeping romantic epic that tells the story of an impoverished nine-year-old named Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) from a fishing village, who is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district. There, she faces the jealous wrath of geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Hatsumomo’s rival, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), takes the exceptionally beautiful girl under her wing, schooling her in all the artistic and social skills that a geisha must master – and sparking yet more rivalry from the tempestuous Hatsumomo along the way. Chiyo – renamed Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) – makes a triumphant debut as a dancer and her virginity is auctioned for a record bid, drawing her into a society of wealth and political intrigue during the onslaught of the Second World War. 

Released in time for this year’s Academy Awards, Williams’s soundtrack is being hailed as yet another triumphant collaboration with Spielberg, who had intended to direct the project but opted for the role of executive producer on the film instead. It features the talents of Yo-Yo Ma (see over) and Itzhak Perlman as soloists, accompanied by full orchestra and traditional Japanese instruments such as the shakuhachi and koto.

Only Williams can explain his choice of instrumentation. But after a 45-year career in which he’s taken to the Academy podium five times for classic scores such as Jaws, E.T. and Star Wars – and clocked up no fewer than 43 nominations – the 73-year-old composer has little, if any, need to publicise his work. Indeed, there’s no indication he’s available to interview, until he telephones my hotel room at nine o’clock on a Monday morning. “It’s John,” comes the voice. “Is now a good time to speak?” 

Our conversation takes place some seven years after Spielberg first acquired the rights to Memoirs Of A Geisha. Having collaborated with Williams on some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters during the past 30 years, from Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to Raiders Of The Lost Ark, it’s no surprise that Williams was Spielberg’s first choice as composer. 

They began by talking along general lines. “The aim was to create an oriental atmosphere by using traditional Japanese instruments that would be supported by a broad, Western harmonic vocabulary – an emotional framework that’s not specifically Japanese but more universal,” Williams explains to Classic FM. “There are measurable qualities in music, such as acoustics, that transcend national boundaries and are relevant to all cultures, so it’s a matter of bringing these to bear upon the film.” 

Williams’s music has long exhibited universal appeal. Born in Long Island, New York in 1932, he studied piano and composition at the University of California in Los Angeles, before training to be a concert pianist at the Julliard, and playing the jazz circuit in New York. He took his first job as a studio pianist at Columbia, recording under the baton of his father Johnny – a jazz drummer and founding member of the Raymond Scott Quintet. 

As his interest in film grew and the studio composers caught wind of his talent for orchestration, Williams soon found himself working with them, conducting and composing for hit television shows such as Gilligan’s Island, Lost in Space and Heidi. “I was not selective,” he confesses. “I would do whatever I was given and had no idea it would lead to being a film composer.” 

Since the 1960s, Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has embraced Williams as one of its own, nominating him for an Oscar in 1968 for Valley Of The Dolls, before awarding him his first statuette in 1972 for Fiddler On The Roof. 

“We’ve had great changes in styles of composition over the years,” reflects Williams. 

“In the 1940s and 50s, emigré theatre composers brought with them the only [film-scoring] technique they knew: operatic incidental music. Then the awards passed through a period where wonderful musicals were made, which are relatively absent these days.” 

Another big change in the Oscars has come about through the growth of the recording industry, says Williams. “In Alfred Newman’s day, scores wouldn’t normally be recorded, whereas these days they’re nearly all released on disc.” 

The elegant, understated quality of Memoirs Of A Geisha will no doubt capture the Academy’s interest this year, but it’s not all down to the music, says Williams. “To win an Oscar takes a film that will have global appeal," he explains. "Without that appeal, it’s impossible to even approach an Oscar." 

Furthermore, you need a film that’s sympathetic to music and a good composer who will be able to serve the picture. 

“It’s important to embrace fresh material – which is hard to do in any field,” says Williams. “Occasionally, we get a brilliant film and we hope it gets the recognition, but there are thousands of film composers and to pick one winner is never an easy task.”