If John Williams asks to score your movie, do you turn him down?
Probably not. In the case of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Rob Marshall wasn’t about to say no to the multi-Oscar- and multi-Grammy-winning composer of 10 of the top 25 grossing movies of all time.
Williams loved the Arthur Golden novel, and when Steven Spielberg first planned to direct the film version, the composer — who has worked with the helmer since 1974 — began mulling musical possibilities. When Spielberg passed on directing the adaptation, he introduced Williams to Marshall, and earlier this year the composer offered his services for “Geisha.”
Williams has had a busier than average year, with four scores potentially in contention this award season: “Star Wars: Episode III –Revenge of the Sith”; the highly anticipated “Geisha”; and two Spielberg films, blockbuster “War of the Worlds” and the still-under-wraps “Munich.”
Although he is 73 and has been writing music for films since 1958, the overwhelming consensus among film music observers and even those in the classical world is that Williams is at the top of his game. And, most add, alone at the top.
“He makes film music into an art,” says violinist Itzhak Perlman, who played the solos in Williams’ Oscar-winning score for “Schindler’s List” and joined cellist Yo-Yo Ma on the score of “Geisha.”
“My experience on ‘Schindler’s List’ was so exceptional that any time he calls me and says, ‘I hear something specific,’ I basically trust him and I’m never disappointed.”
Asked to assess Williams’ place in 20th-century American music, Boston Globe classical music critic Richard Dyer replies, “He’s certainly going to rank with Bernard Herrmann and Erich Wolfgang Korngold as a sort of triumvirate of really great film composers. He changed the whole public awareness of the role that music plays in films.
“The fact is,” he adds, “that everybody in the Western world carries around some of John’s melodies in his head.” Music historian Roger Hickman whose book “Reel Music” surveys film music over the past century, is impressed by Williams’ versatility of styles, from the avant-garde soundscapes of “Images” (1972) to the jazz-inflected “Catch Me if You Can” (2002).
Says Hickman, “How many composers can you really say have kept coming up with things that are fresh and different for an extended period of time, not just one era? He’s in a class by himself.”
Each of this year’s four Williams efforts showcases a different side of the composer. “Revenge of the Sith,” the sixth and final “Star Wars” film, “was fun to do,” says the composer, “because I was able to work backwards to put the musical pieces together,” tying old themes from earlier in the series to new material that built to a satisfying conclusion.
“War of the Worlds,” he says, “was for me a very serious piece,” a dark orchestral score that combined the necessary frightening atmosphere with propulsively rhythmic drive for the action scenes.
The challenge of “Geisha,” which occupied Williams for much of the summer, was “to incorporate the grammar of Japanese music with what we recognize as Western harmonic and melodic idioms — to bring those two things together to create a third element that would seem at home in the film.”
Throughout, the score is flavored with traditional Japanese instruments: the 13-stringed koto, or Japanese zither; the shakuhachi, an end-blown bamboo flute; the shamisen, a three-stringed plucked lute; taiko drums; plus other wind and percussion instruments appropriate to the setting.
He recorded half of the 90-minute score at UCLA’s Royce Hall, including the elements with Perlman (whose violin solos adorn Williams’ waltz for the Chairman, played by Ken Watanabe) and Ma (whose cello characterizes the geisha Sayuri, played by Ziyi Zhang). He recorded the other half at Sony, “a more clinical studio environment,” he notes, providing greater control over individual sections of the orchestra.
Tackling Spielberg’s “Munich” forced Williams to do a musical 180, he says. “It couldn’t be more different from ‘Geisha’ in ambiance and texture.”
For it, he created “a kind of prayer for peace, a lyrical composition associated with Avner (Eric Bana) and the home he leaves behind in Israel,” and another theme for solo voice and orchestra “that accompanies one of several flashbacks to the tarmac at Munich, and also one of several scenes that recall the abduction of the Olympic athletes from their rooms at the Olympic Village” in 1972. Lisbeth Scott, the vocalist on “The Passion of the Christ,” is the soloist.
Searching for an authentic Palestinian sound, Williams employed the oud, a Middle Eastern lute, and added the cimbalom, a Hungarian zither, as well as clarinet and strings for “an almost fantastically Oriental quality,” he says.
Williams currently has 43 Oscar nominations, and has won five statuettes. If he is, as expected, nominated for “Geisha” and one of his other scores he will tie composer Alfred Newman’s all-time record of 45 noms.
Should that occur, he says, modestly, “It’s purely a result of great good fortune.”