#WilliamsWeek – Day 4

It’s day 4 of the #WilliamsWeek, a five-days celebration of composer John Williams on the occasion of his 87th birthday coming tomorrow, February 8. We continue to tribute the work of the Maestro through inspiring quotes taken from interviews and a piece of music from his extensive body of work for films and the concert hall.

John Williams
John Williams conducting

“I’ve always felt really lucky to be associated with [Star Wars]. 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 had, 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.”

(Quote from “John Williams on The Force Awakens and the Legacy of Star Wars, Tim Greiving, projector&orchestra, 2015)

The piece selected for today’s tribute is the “Suite for Cello and Orchestra from Memoirs of a Geisha, another brilliant concert adaptation from the original score written for the 2005 film directed by Rob Marshall based on Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel. The assignment was one of the rare occasions where the composer asked to score the film instead of being requested by the filmmakers. Williams read the novel and became enamored with the subject. When he discovered a film adaptation was in development, he approached director Rob Marshall and offered his services as composer. Of course the gig was confirmed and Williams wrote a very dense, thoughtful score, full of authentic Japanese atmosphere and modalities, but explored within the context of western harmonic vocabulary and the symphony orchestra. The composer went back to study traditional oriental music (which was already a subject of inspiration for his own Flute Concerto in 1969) and picked real Japanese instruments such as shakuhachi (a bamboo flute), koto (a stringed instrument similar to a western zither), shamisen (a three-stringed instrument), biwa (the Japanese equivalent of the lute) and a group of taiko drums. However, he knew these traditional instruments would have been complemented by something more familiar to western ears and chose the cello of Yo-Yo Ma as the voice of the main character (young girl Chiyo, who later becomes the geisha Sayuri). Together with solo cello, Williams picked Itzhak Perlman to perform solo violin in the sequences involving the character of the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who becomes Sayuri’s love interest. Williams talked about the score being “delicate, even fragile” and compared it to something akin to the form of the concerto grosso.

The work was a great labour of love on the composer’s part and the source material inspired him to bring it even beyond its filmic nature. Right after completing work on the film score, Williams prepared a three-movement chamber suite for solo cello and piano based on themes from the score, which he recorded together with Yo-Yo Ma as an exclusive for the iTunes Store. After that, he went even beyond and, perhaps inspired by the concerto grosso nature of the piece, he reworked furtherly the material as a 30-minutes symphonic suite for solo cello and orchestra. Williams removed most of the traditional Japanese instruments that would be difficult to find for regular concert performance (keeping only some ethnic percussions) and rewrote the pieces for standard symphony orchestra featuring a large solo cello part. The Suite presents all the main thematic material written for the film, augmented and developed in concerto-like fashion including the evocative “Sayuri’s Theme” and “The Chairman’s Waltz” (a lyrical valse triste for solo violin, featuring an intense dialogue between violin and cello). It’s fascinating to listen how Williams retained all the beautiful orientalisms and the Japanese textures of the original score mainly through the standard symphony orchestra (the movement “Brush on Silk” is particularly impressive, with the solo cello imitating the sound and playing style of the koto). The result is a powerful yet delicate and haunting concert piece that really transcends its filmic nature. Not unlike the film-inspired works of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Vaughan Williams, the Suite from Memoirs of a Geisha will become part of standard symphonic repertoire for the years to come. The recording featured here was made for Sony Classical in 2007, with Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Williams.