An Interview with Patrick Williams by John Mansell
A major arranger who has been active in the film industry for over three decades, Patrick Williams occasionally leads projects of his own. He started out studying classical trumpet and played in the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra. At the same time, in high school, Williams led his own swing-oriented jazz band. He studied at Duke University (where he led the Duke Ambassadors) and Columbia University. Williams was active in the studios from an early age, piling up many credits while in New York during 1961-1967. Although he played trumpet and vibes early on, Williams has been strictly a composer/arranger since moving to Los Angeles in 1968. He has written the scores for over 60 feature films and a countless number of television assignments, founded and run the short-lived jazz label Soundwings in the late ’70s, and arranged for many performers, including Barbara Streisand and Billy Joel. Williams has taught at many universities while continuing to lead record dates of his own, including sessions for Pausa, Verve, Capitol, Columbia, ABC, Allegiance, Warner Bros., Soundwings, and EMI. Having been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards in his career, Williams received the award in 1974 for his big-band album Threshold, and again in 1986 for his trombone and orchestral work “Suite Memories.” In 2011, Williams was nominated for two Grammy Awards for his big-band jazz recording Aurora.
I think my first re-collection of your music, was for THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, the theme was so full of energy. Do you think it is important that a TV series has a strong and vibrant theme, so that the audience can identify with? I remember Jerry Goldsmith saying a theme was so important, it got people out of the kitchen or the garden into the living room and in front of the TV?
THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO was very important to my career as a television composer. As I recall, the show ran seven years and was extremely popular worldwide. In all of the themes that I wrote for television shows, most important to me was to try to set up the mood and style of the show itself, as well as try to find something a little distinctive. Also, back then, the themes were one minute long, so you had a chance to do something. It seems nowadays, the themes are so short, I wouldn’t know what I would do.
One of my favourite scores by yourself is BUTCH AND SUNDANCE THE EARLY YEARS. The movie was really good and your score carried the film along giving it great pace and atmosphere. How did you become involved on the project, and what size orchestra did you utilise for the project?
I utilized a symphony orchestra for the score and, at the request of Richard Lester who was the director, I tried to find some evocative and ethnic sounding instrumentation. He was very strong on the idea that the American West was an amalgam of many European cultures, especially Irish. So I tried to give the score somewhat of an Irish twist while keeping it “American” at the same time. I also featured the baritone horn which was beautifully played by Dick Nash.
You have worked on both feature films, TV series and TV movies. What would you say are the main differences between working on a project for the big screen and then composing for TV?
The main difference that I found over the years was nothing more or less than money and time. Feature films had a larger music budget and more time, as a rule, than television. But the basic scoring process was essentially the same.
You worked on episodes of MONK. Did you collaborate with Randy Newman on the title song, or was this something separate from the scores for the series? Also, when working on a series that has a theme by another composer, do you try and weave the theme into your score or do you avoid this practise?
I had a brief experience with MONK and although I’ve known Randy for a long time, I did not work with him on the show. I don’t consider my contribution to be very significant at all.
Time is always something that a composer for film and TV is always up against. How long did you get to score an episode of THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO for example, and did you re-use any of your material from one episode on another?
We scored an episode, as I recall, every two weeks and there were some seventeen one hour episodes a year. Each episode was scored with a 35-piece orchestra and the average length of the score was 25-35 minutes.
You started out studying to become an historian, when did you decide to focus upon music as a career?
I actually majored in history to appease some of the anxieties of my parents who were terrified I was going to become a musician. They felt very strongly that music would make a good hobby, but I would starve to death as a professional. Looking back on it, the odds were that they were probably right, but I was lucky enough to beat the odds.
JESUS, was an Italian/German/American co-production, how did you become involved with this project; I was told that initially Ennio Morricone was in line to do the score?
I scored JESUS because Roger Young, the director, asked me to. He directed a number of bible oriented mini-series produced by an Italian production company and JESUS was the last of them. I did a number of projects with Roger over about a 25-year period and we got along great together.
When a soundtrack is being prepared for release, do you have any input into what music will actually be released onto CD, or do you have to abide by what the record labels decide to put out?
I have no idea when I take a picture if there’s even going to be a soundtrack, much less what they will do with it.
As well as your musical career in film and television, you have also acted as arranger, and musical director for recording artistes such as Barbara Streisand, Amy Grant, Frank Sinatra and Billy Joel to name but a handful. How does this type of work compare with scoring films etc? Is it just as hectic and how was it working with Sinatra who was an accomplished singer/musical director himself?
I have worked for many many years as an arranger and have worked with dozens of popular singers. The experience with Sinatra was unique for a number of reasons. First of all, he was 78 years old and we all knew it would be his last recording, so I felt a lot of responsibility to help make it something he would be proud of. In addition, I consider him to be the finest popular singer of the 20th century and it was an honour to be able to work with him. We got along very well – he enjoyed the process very much and the two duets albums sold in excess of 5 million copies, so it was extremely successful.
What would you say was the real purpose of music within film?
I’ve always felt that the purpose of an underscore was to embellish, enhance and unify the theatrical experience with the audience. Each picture, of course, has different requirements in terms of the way that it is approached. But if the foregoing qualities are in the score, it will usually be successful. I am also a great believer in the use of a few themes which can be repeated and augmented in various ways for dramatic purposes. One of the things that concerns me about some of the contemporary film scores that I hear is the lack of cohesion. It’s as if they were almost tracked by a music editor rather than scored by a composer.
When you begin to score a project, how many times do you like to view it before getting any ideas about what type of music, how much music and where music should be placed – or do you prefer to be involved at the script stage as opposed to seeing the rough cut?
I rarely have been involved at the script stage. Essentially, I don’t see the script as having too much to do with what I’m dealing with in the finished product. What I prefer is to look at the picture by myself for the first time straight through, without thinking about the music at all. I hope to get some feeling for the overall theatrical experience before I start thinking about what kind of music would be appropriate. I’ve found that there’s a definite germination that needs to happen before specific musical ideas can be bantered about. I have found that the most interesting scores are when the music can go to the more dramatic undercurrents than simply what you see on the screen. In other words, what’s going on emotionally with the characters is really what’s most important. The fact that the character is frightened and running does not mean that the music has to be fast and loud.
Have there been any assignments that maybe you have thought midway through, “I wish I had not agreed to doing this”?
Naturally, some projects have been more gratifying than others, but I always try to treat each of them with respect and to do my best. I figured that I had to sit there and write it, so I might as well make the best of it. The most disagreeable experiences had to do with when people couldn’t get along and consequently, a course of action, in terms of music, was hard to find.
You also have given concerts, have these been purely of your film and TV material, or have you also included non score items on the programme?
I have done a few concerts where I played some of my television themes and so on, but not too many. I’ve written a lot of original orchestral material as well as a number of big band albums and I prefer to perform those things.
What composers, if any, would you say have influenced you in your way of composing?
To name a few: Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Victor Young, Alex North, David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.
What is your opinion of the state of film and TV music today and are there any young up and coming composers that you think will in the future be big names?
I think Tom Newman is excellent. Michael Giacchino has a great deal of promise. I also like the score to ATONEMENT by Dario Marianelli.
You worked on around 60 episodes of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW – what was he like to work with?
I actually did not work with Bob Newhart. I worked with Jay Tarses who was one of the writer/producers. I met Bob a few times and he is a wonderful guy.
When you are working out your musical themes for a project how do you work, i.e. piano, synthesiser, or do you write straight to manuscript?
I have worked with a piano ever since I started and continue to do so. I also still write with a pencil and I like the way the blood flows through my fingers to the paper. I don’t seem to be able to get the blood flowing on a synthesizer.
What do you think of the increased use of electronics etc. within film scoring. Do you think film scores have benefited from their inclusion or do you think that maybe recently scores are all beginning to sound much the same?
I think that the process of scoring by samples and computer oriented technology is here to stay. Having said that, it should be nothing more or less than another tool to complement the composer’s palate. The real issues are talent, taste, and education.
Have you a favourite score, either of your own or by another composer?
I have so many of them that it would take too long to name them.
When you are working on a film or TV project, do you like to start at the main title or theme and work though to the end titles, or do you tackle themes and cues in no particular order?
I always try to work on the longest cues first. In other words, to try to thin down the themes and overall theatrical approach to the score. A successful score to me must have elements that relate to each other and an overall dramatic line from beginning to end.
What would you say has been the most rewarding assignment of your career, and why?
I don’t think it’s possible to give you an answer to that. There have been many rewarding projects and they have been worthwhile for different reasons. All I remember is being extremely busy in the 70’s and 80’s and even the 90’s and as I look back on it, I find it hard to believe that I really did all of that. Sometimes it seems like another lifetime.
You have worked on numerous assignments, all of which have been varied in their content. Is there any particular genre of film that you would say you are more happy working on, or maybe there is a particular genre that you have not worked on that you would like to?
I used to do a lot of romantic comedies. I enjoyed doing them because they were usually lyrical and had an emotional content to the story. I also felt it was challenging to work in the fuzzy area between tragedy and comedy. Things that can be terribly sad can also be terribly funny and the right music can tip the scales. It takes a lot of experience and a depth of theatrical understanding but when I got it right, it was very rewarding.
Do you orchestrate all of your own music, or do you at times use an orchestrator?
I have done it always all kinds of ways. I’ve orchestrated my own. I’ve used an orchestrator. But when I sketch, the sketches are pretty complete because I think in a way as an orchestrator and I want things a certain way. I have also found that casting solo instruments (here in Los Angeles, anyway) can be a very interesting addition to the theatrical qualities of a score. For example, it isn’t just the sound of the flute, it’s the way a certain person plays the flute, which almost makes it like a character in the film. So at times, I cast a soloist like a director would cast actors.
Have you ever had a score rejected for any reason?
Yes, I’ve had a couple thrown out and I’d rather not talk about it.
You have worked with orchestras and recorded scores in studios in both the United States and the United Kingdom, are there many differences between the two countries when it comes to recording facilities and availability of musicians etc?
I have always loved the English strings. Every time I went to London to do a score and started to conduct the first cue, I heard these beautiful in tune sonorities from the string section and my heart started to pound. I still don’t know to this day how they do it over there, but there is a sound to those English string sections that just kills me.
What are you working on at the moment?
I just finished working on part of an album with Natalie Cole which I enjoyed very much.
What was your first scoring assignment, and how did you become involved with the project?
A movie called HOW SWEET IT IS which was a comedy starring Debbie Reynolds and James Garner in 1968. I got it, in part, because I was recommended by Henry Mancini.
When you began to become involved in music, did you always think that you would write music for film or was it something that just happened as your career progressed?
When I left New York, I had a burning ambition to become a film composer and I will always be grateful for a few people who helped me get started in Los Angeles, including Lionel Newman at 20th Century Fox, Dick Barris at Columbia Pictures, Stanley Wilson at Universal, Allan Burns and Jay Tarses at MTM, and Ray Stark.
The ‘Temp Track’; what are your feelings about film makers utilisation of temp tracks on films etc. is it an aid or a distraction?
The temp track is a reality. Whether I like it or not doesn’t matter in the slightest. The fact is that technology allows movies to be tracked before they’re scored, which to me limits the theatrical options of a talented composer. I don’t mind a few temp ideas. As a matter of fact, sometimes they can be very useful, but to temp every cue in a movie before a composer has had a chance to score it is nothing less than a “control fixation.” I would also point out that I don’t think SONG OF BERNADETTE by Alfred Newman, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND by John Williams, PATTON by Jerry Goldsmith, LAURA by David Raksin had temp scores. They were all products of an effective collaboration between composer and director and extremely gifted musicians.
Do you think you are well represented on recordings?
I wish I’d had more soundtrack releases of some of the scores I did, but when hit songs became all the rage and were stuck into movies like postage stamps, the idea of releasing a film score on its own merits became somewhat outdated. But I have made a lot of records in my career and I certainly can’t complain.