ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Classical guitarist John Williams reached millions of ears when he played the main theme to the Oscar-winning 1978 film "The Deer Hunter."
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS PERFORMANCE OF STANLEY MYERS' "CAVATINA")
SIEGEL: By then, Williams was already a star on a major label. He toured the world many times over. He released his latest album this year. NPR's Tom Cole catches us up on John Williams and his music today.
TOM COLE, BYLINE: John Williams got his first guitar when he was 4 in his native Australia. He's now 76, and he still plays and practices every day.
JOHN WILLIAMS: But I love doing it, so it's not a problem.
COLE: And he still loves the sound of the nylon-stringed guitar.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "MADRUGADA")
WILLIAMS: The sound itself is the magic of the guitar - probably more magical than any other instrument, although that's a biased view.
COLE: There are several generations of younger players following in his footsteps who'd agree. Jason Vieaux is one of them. His first classical guitar recording was a Williams cassette.
JASON VIEAUX: He's the man, you know (laughter)? I mean, he's Michael Jordan to really a lot, a lot, a lot of players. I mean, if he lived to 100, he could probably play and be playing just great.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "ON THE WING")
COLE: John Williams built a reputation for never buzzing a string and never flubbing a note. That led some critics to call his playing clinical. But to be fair, Williams worked hard to get there. He started daily lessons with his father at the age of 6. Len Williams was a working jazz guitarist who was determined to see his son become a classical player.
WILLIAMS: I was an only child who was not very sociable at school. I don't mean I didn't like my friends at school, but because I was playing guitar and not taking part in all the sports and doing what most kids do, I was a bit of a loner.
COLE: Williams wound up under the strict tutelage of the pioneer of 20th-century classical guitar - Andres Segovia. Those lessons began when Williams was 12. He made his professional debut two years later.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS COMPOSITION)
COLE: In addition to the intense focus on music, Williams got a strong sense of social engagement from his parents. Once his career took off, he convinced his label to let him put some of those beliefs on disc, like this one of music by composer Mikis Theodorakis, who was jailed and banished by the Greek junta in the late 1960s...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "3 SONGS: TO GELASTO PAIDI 'THE LAUGHING BOY'")
MARIA FARANTOURI: (Singing in foreign language).
COLE: ...Or this one with the exiled Chilean group Inti-Illimani.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS, PACO PENA AND INTI-ILLIMANI'S "DANZA DI CALA LUNA")
COLE: But Williams had perhaps his greatest impact on the guitar world when in 1977 he recorded an entire album of the music of Paraguayan composer Agustin Barrios Mangore.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "CHORO DE SAUDADE")
BERTA ROJAS: I will never forget the sensation of listening to these amazing guitarists playing the music of the foremost Paraguayan composer.
COLE: Berta Rojas is a Paraguayan classical guitarist who's recorded a dozen albums of music from the Americas. She points out that before John Williams, few people outside Latin America knew about Agustin Barrios.
ROJAS: The fact that John played this music and the way he did it with the support of a major label was the beginning of this explosion of Barrios' appreciation around the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "LA CATEDRAL")
COLE: Today, thanks in large part to John Williams, the music of Barrios, once disdained as folk music by the classical establishment, is part of every classical guitarist's repertoire. And that's another of Williams' contributions - demolishing the boundaries between popular and classical, European music and that of the rest of the world.
WILLIAMS: I think, especially on the guitar, we can be alive and respond and love music from different cultures, and we can actually play it on the guitar because of the plucked string, which belongs as a universal sound really.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS AND JOHN ETHERIDGE'S "TOWNSHIP KWELA")
COLE: Throughout his life, John Williams has kept his ears open to the world around him socially, politically and musically. And what he's heard has made its way into his own compositions.
WILLIAMS: I've never thought of myself as a composer, I'll have to say, at all.
COLE: Nevertheless, he began composing in earnest in the mid-1980s while visiting his cousin's farm in Australia.
WILLIAMS: And I was woken up the morning by a bird singing, which turned out to be a honeyeater, Australian honeyeater.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUSTRALIAN HONEYEATER CHIRPING)
WILLIAMS: And it was this little tune. It actually went, you know, (whistling) like that, and I thought that's unusual. And the following day, a script arrived asking me to do the music for a film, and I immediately phoned them up and I said, I'm sorry, you've got the wrong chap, you know. You mean the American John Williams does all the film music, and they said, no, no, no, no, we mean you because we want it mainly sort of guitar music, and we would like you to write something. So I thought, well, why don't I have a crack at it, and I'll use that little tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMMA'S WAR")
COLE: It became the main theme for the Australian film "Emma's War" and the title tune for the first album released on his own label.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "FROM A BIRD")
COLE: Williams had enjoyed more than four decades of success, but by the mid-2000s, the music business was struggling with slumping sales. His label started poaching his back catalogue for short pieces for compilation discs rather than releasing the new music he'd always championed.
WILLIAMS: I mean, I had one request for music to listen to with your pet (laughter). No, really - hand on heart. You know, you get dinner classics, after-breakfast classics. So I just thought, look, I'm sick of all this. So I thought the only answer is I have to make my own.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "ODD NUMBERS")
COLE: So today, Williams lives in the south of England with his wife and dog, but music remains an essential part of his daily life.
WILLIAMS: I think our experience of life itself is broadened if we - through our music, we can connect outside our own constricted or restricted upbringing or tradition. We can actually learn a lot and adapt a lot and join in.
COLE: John Williams has certainly helped a lot of the rest of us join in too. Tom Cole, NPR News.
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