L.A. Studio Legends: Chet Swiatkowski

Legendary pianist and keyboardist talks his distinguished career as a studio musician in Hollywood playing on dozens of film scores by John Williams

by Maurizio Caschetto

Among the many Los Angeles-based studio musicians who performed for John Williams throughout the years, pianist and keyboardist Chet Swiatkowski certainly holds a very special place. He has been one of Maestro Williams’ preferred pianists for many years, together with Ralph Grierson, Mike Lang, Randy Kerber and Gloria Cheng. Recently, LA Phil pianist Joanne Pearce Martin also had the distinguished honour to perform solo work for Williams for the film score of The Fabelmans.

A graduate from the Yale School of Music and the Hartt School of Music, Swiatkowski has performed as classical pianist throughout the United States, Europe and Asia in solo and chamber music concerts. He has performed with the New Music Group of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (for which he has also recorded), the Monday Evening Concerts, the Ojai Festivals, the Composers’ Choice Series at UCLA, the Mozart Festivals and for concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and has recorded for Orion Records, Crystal Records, MCA Records.

In addition to his career in classical music, Chet Swiatkowski has been one of the first-call studio pianists and keyboardists in Hollywood. He can be heard playing piano and keyboards in well over 3000 film scores for major television shows and motion pictures. He has collaborated with such well-known film composers as John Barry, James Horner and John Williams who, in a letter written to Mr. Swiatkowski remarked:“What artistry and warmth-of-spirit you bring to everything you touch!”

Mr. Swiatkowski’s solo piano film credits include performances of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto for The Competition (1980), with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” for Somewhere in Time (1980) and Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2 for Center Stage (2000).

The “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” by Sergej Rachmaninov as heard in the film “Somewhere in Time” (1980), with Chet Swiatkowksi as the soloist.

For John Williams, he performed piano and celesta parts (including solo passages), on many film projects including The Witches of Eastwick, The Accidental Tourist, Always, Jurassic Park, Sabrina, Seven Years in Tibet, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report among many others.

Mr. Swiatkowski kept busy also as a teacher and educator—he is currently on the music teaching faculty at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Brentwood, CA, where he also conducts the resident orchestra.

Chet Swiatkowski conducts the Mount Orchestra from Mount St. Mary’s University in Brentwood, CA.

In this rare exclusive interview, Chet Swiatkowski talks about his background and formation as classical pianist and how he became of the first-call studio pianists in Hollywood, reflecting on his many collaborations with John Williams and offering his own unique reflections on the music of the Maestro as seen from the perspective of the pianist.

Chet Swiatkowski performing at the Seoul Arts Center with Seoul I Musici conducted by Seung Yong Cho

Legacy of John Williams: Chet, thank you so much for accepting my invitation to talk about your work with John Williams. It’s a real honour to have you on the website together with many of your colleague pianists.

Chet Swiatkowski: Thank you, Maurizio. I would be most happy to do the best I can in answering some questions you may have about my work for John.

LJW: To start, I’d like to ask you about your musical background. Did you grow up in a musical family? How did you end up choosing music as a profession?

CS: My grandfather Stanley was an amateur Tuba player and my uncle John was an amateur violinist who played in the Brown University Orchestra. When I was 6 years old my parents took me to a Christmas party where a band was playing live music. They saw me get up and clap my hands and dance right in rhythm with the music. They felt I had some musical ability so the next year when I was 7, they started me on piano lessons. Ever since I started piano lessons, I enjoyed music very much and people took notice of how quickly I progressed. I never thought about any career other than music and opportunities just naturally came about and led me into the professional field. There were many solo and chamber music concerts I gave so I feel each one of them was a very meaningful experience. Meeting so many wonderful people is one of the highlights of having the opportunity of performing for different audiences. Also, visiting different countries and experiencing different cultures showed me that music is truly the international language. But back when I was a child, I would watch television programs with my parents. They would pay attention only to the actors’ dialogue and the action on the screen but I was always aware only of the music I heard in the background. I always wondered where that music came from and who was playing it. Little did I know then, that I would be one of the musicians creating it!

LJW: You are a very accomplished and talented classical pianist. How then your career as a studio musician began?

CS: In 1975 when I moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast, I was very fortunate to be able to perform both classical and contemporary music. At one of my performances unknown to me, Ralph Grierson (who I did not know at the time!) was in the audience. The very next week I received a call to record the piano part for one of the episodes of the original television series Hawaii 5-O. After that session, one recording job after another started coming in. Before I moved to California, I saw the original Star Wars in a theater and was blown away by that musical score. Imagine my excitement when I walked into one of my first motion picture recording sessions and found out that the composer for that session was no one other than John Williams himself! It has been so wonderful to have worked for so many years on so many films for him.

LJW: You started to perform as a studio musician for John Williams in the 1980s. Before then, John used to have Artie Kane, Ralph Grierson and Mike Lang as his main “piano guys”, so to speak. Do you remember how the section was built back then?

CS: Back then I was not in Los Angeles yet so I didn’t know about that section but when I moved here, I worked with both Ralph and Mike but not with Artie. However, when Artie began composing he called me many times to record his piano parts for episodes of the television series Matlock.

LJW: John usually has several keyboard players in a session. Who decides who will play piano or celeste or synth?

CS: John decides who plays what and he called me for acoustic piano and celesta only.

LJW: Do you remember exactly how many films you did with John Williams and how it was the overall feeling to play for him?

CS: I remember working for John on Yes, Giorgio, Indiana Jones (not sure of which episodes), The Witches of Eastwick, Empire of the Sun, The Accidental Tourist, Always, Stanley & Iris, Presumed Innocent, Home Alone, Hook, JFK, Far and Away, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Sabrina, Nixon, Seven Years in Tibet, Stepmom, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, The Terminal and Munich. I was thrilled that I participated in those films.

The “End Credits” cue from The Accidental Tourist (1988), with a solo piano performed by Chet Swiatkowski.

LJW: One of your first big piano solos for John Williams was for The Witches of Eastwick, in the cue “The Tennis Game”. It’s a very buoyant and virtuosic piece. What do you remember of that specific session?

CS: What I remember most about “The Tennis Game” scene from The Witches of Eastwick was thinking how with most composers both commercial and classical, many times it’s possible to use “trick” fingerings to make for an easier execution of the passage. For instance a pianist, without omitting any notes, could have the left hand take a few notes from the right hand part. But not so with John’s piano writing. He knows the instrument so well and is such a great composer that the performer MUST play EXACTLY the way he wrote it. No “trick” fingerings are ever possible with his music!

“The Tennis Game” cue from The Witches of Eastwick (1987). The virtuosic piano solo is performed by Chet Swiatkowski.

LJW: You also have a solo in the film Sabrina, a score where there is a lot of piano solo work and some of it was performed by John himself, if I am correct. It’s a wonderful lyrical melody, very flowing and with lots of arpeggios. Do you have any specific recollection of that solo?

CS: I never knew that John recorded for Sabrina so hearing this from you is news to me. What I remember was at the end of that session, I recorded the end credits and just went home. I have no idea of what happens at the studio after I leave.

LJW: Does he ever give specific instructions to the player when piano is the main solo instrument?

CS: John always seemed very satisfied with my interpretations of his piano solos and he never told me what to do.

LJW: When it’s not solo or concertante, John uses piano to embellish lines, doubling woodwinds for example, or creating atmosphere around the strings. What did you notice about his way of writing for the instrument throughout the years playing for him?

CS: What strikes me about John’s writing is the fact that he is very knowledgeable about the craft of composition as well as orchestration. He is incredibly imaginative, inspiring and creative. John has a perfect sense for just what type of music is exactly needed for any scene in the film.

The Theme from “Sabrina” (1995). The opening unaccompained solo is performed by John Williams himself, while the solo piano with orchestra in the second half is performed by Chet Swiatkowski.

LJW: In addition to being a great composer, John is a very accomplished pianist himself. He studied at Juilliard and he’s also a truly talented jazz pianist. In his formative years, he worked as a session pianist for films and television, working alongside great composers like Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman. Do you think his overall experience as a pianist also influenced his writing as a composer?

CS: Definitely yes! I absolutely think his overall experience as a pianist also influenced his writing as a composer. I don’t remember exactly to which famous film composer John was referring when he made this comment—he was speaking about a recording session he was on as a pianist for one of those great legendary composers you mentioned. At one point he turned to me and remarked to the entire orchestra something along these lines: “I was sitting right there at the piano where Chet is now sitting…” then he proceeded to tell about his experience on that session. At that moment, I felt very honored to be sitting in the same place where John Williams had been sitting years before!

LJW: In 1997, you had a solo piano in the score for Seven Years In Tibet. John wrote a duo for cello and piano for Yo-Yo Ma and you playing together. What recollections do you have of those sessions?

CS: Playing with Yo-Yo was extremely effortless for me because he is such an amazing cellist. When we recorded, we were sitting quite far away from each other but after the take, we both gave each other big smiles. I think that says it all!

The score for “Seven Years In Tibet” (1997) features cello and piano duet performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Chet Swiatkowski.

LJW: John is able to write artfully in virtually any style required, but at the same time you can always recognize his “fingerprints” in his music. Did you ever spot any specific “traits” that give his music its unique and personal quality?

CS: In piano music, most composers write single note melodies for the right hand with a left hand accompaniment. But I noticed that when John writes a melodic line, many times he will write both the melody AND the accompaniment for the right hand alone and also add a left hand accompaniment as well. Very intricate but very beautiful piano writing!

LJW: Among the many pieces you recorded for John over the years, is there something that still resonates with you to this day? Or, to put it simply, that is one of your favourites?

CS: “The Tennis Game” scene from The Witches of Eastwick is like orchestral chamber music. Every instrument has its solo moment and then the whole cue becomes a grand ensemble. This was one of my very first solos working with John and has always been one of my favorite pieces. It will always remain a very exciting and memorable experience having recorded it for him!

LJW: Do you have any more special memories of working with John over the years? What were the moments that you remember dearly and that still stick to your mind?

CS: This memory comes to mind even though it was not in a recording session. John wrote a French Horn Concerto and had an upcoming concert with an orchestra. John asked Dale Clevenger to be the horn soloist—he was the principal French Horn for the Chicago Symphony for many years. Dale and I were invited to John’s home to rehearse the piece with me providing the orchestral accompaniment on the piano. John was so pleased with everything that afternoon, later he wrote a very beautiful and kind note to me thanking me for taking the time to help with that rehearsal. This showed me a little of John’s personal side… very kind and considerate!

Chet Swiatkowski performing at the Seoul Arts Center with Seoul I Musici conducted by Seung Yong Cho

LJW: In addition to your work for John, what are the composers or the films that you feel particularly proud of working for? Your solo on John Barry’s Somewhere In Time is perhaps one of your most famous…

CS: John Barry, James Horner, Elmer Bernstein, Leonard Rosenman, Bill Conti, Lalo Schifrin, Georges Delerue and Danny Elfman are some of the composers I worked with on a fairly regular basis. One film I am particularly proud of was Center Stage. In the final dance competition scene at the end of the film, they danced to the end of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Not ever performing that concerto, I had to learn it in one week before the session. I feel this represents how I have been able to maintain both a career in the classical field as well as in the commercial field. Even though this was not a motion picture, I am very proud that I recorded the main theme for the television series Murder, She Wrote composed by John Addison.

LJW: In recent years, many of your classical performances have been uploaded on a dedicated YouTube Channel. They strike me as very wonderful reading of some of the great pieces of classical literature including “warhorses” like Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, Ravel’s Concerto in G and several Etudes by Chopin, among many others. Do you consider this as a way of preserving your legacy? And do you plan to release more recordings in the future?

CS: At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife and I, like everyone else, were mostly confined to our home. So one day we decided to clean out the garage and we were totally surprised to discover some very old performances on reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes. Since these old tapes eventually would most likely have disintegrated into ashes, we decided to put them up on YouTube to preserve them. So I suppose doing this also became my legacy and there will be more to come!

LJW: That sounds exciting, Chet. It’s the perfect capper to our conversation… Thank you so much for spending time answering to my questions. I’ve always profoundly admired your playing and your musicality and it’s always great to put a name and a face to the people performing such great music.

CS: Thank you, Maurizio. I very much appreciate you inviting me to be a part of your project. All your questions were very insightful and it was a pleasure answering them. It was wonderful meeting you! I wish you all the best with your project and admire all the hard work you have put into it.

Special Thanks to Ralph Grierson