Into the New World: John Williams Travels Beyond Classical Guitar’s European Roots (A 1998 Interview)


[The following article was first published in Acoustic Guitar, January 1999; re-published in Acoustic Guitar‘s September/October 2020 30th Anniversary issue.]

In the pantheon of classical guitar greats, Australia-born John Williams stands as a most imposing figure. For decades he has been the archetype for recitalists of the post-Segovia era. His singular technical abilities and thoroughgoing approach to the music he plays have set very high standards for those seeking to follow him. His copious discography contains enduring renditions of the monuments of the core repertoire and forays into the musical territory where few other classical guitarists have trod. History views Andres Segovia as the guitar virtuoso spanning the 19th- and 20th-century traditions. In all likelihood, Williams will be considered the pathfinder leading the classical guitar from the 20th into the 21st century.

I spoke with Williams during his recent trip to the States from some advance promotion of his latest Sony album The Guitarist [1998]. The stunning new disc underscores Williams’ passion for finding great new material in out-of-the-way sources. On it, Williams combines music from many places and times, putting songs of medieval Italy alongside newer entries shaped by contemporary culture in Australia, Turkey, Greece, and England. Williams’ absolute mastery of the instrument, big-picture approach to music interpretation, and familiarity with the far-flung periods and places from which this music sprang make these disparate selections coalesce very naturally.

In conversation Williams revealed himself to be gregarious, unpretentious, and deep-thinking. Not surprisingly, 40 years in the field have only fanned the flames of his passion for his profession, guitars, and music as a whole.

In 1958, at 17, Williams made his debut in London’s Wigmore Hall and subsequently launched an extraordi­nary recording career. By now, he is not sure himself exactly how many albums he has released, but he estimates the number to be between 80 and 90. Most have been on the CBS label (now Sony Classical).

Williams’ recorded output includes a staggering portion of the solo, chamber, concerto, and duo guitar reper­toire from the Renaissance through the 20th century. He has also moved in circles well outside the classical realm. Notable among these departures are a five-year stint recording and touring with the rock/classical band Sky in the late ’70s and a pair of records and several appearances with English saxo­phonist John Dankworth and jazz vocalist Cleo Laine. Williams’ fretwork has also graced numerous movie sound tracks. From Stanley Myers’ score for the 1978 Vietnam war drama The Deer Hunter, Williams retained a musical souvenir: the melancholic Cavatina, still a mainstay in his reper­toire. Other side trips away from solo recitals have included three albums with fellow classical guitarist Julian Bream and group efforts like John Williams and Friends (exploring world folk music) and the contemporary music ensemble Attacca.

On his new record, Williams made a conscious move away from the sounds of Classical- and Romantic-era guitar repertoire and chose pieces leaning toward Eastern Mediterranean and medieval sounds. The disc fea­tures Three Epitafios, by Greek songwriter Mikis Theodorakis; Carlo Domeniconi’s Eastern-influenced suite Koyunbaba; Gymnopedie No. 3 and Gnossiennes Nos. 1 and 2, by French anti-Romantic Erik Satie; three anony­mous medieval melodies; and a multi­movement piece by Australian Phillip Houghton.

Perhaps the album’s most unexpected treat is Aeolian Suite, a work penned by Williams himself for guitar and orches­tra. Writing the multimovement work was something of a new venture for Williams. I was surprised to hear of his reservations about approaching his record company with the piece, simply because he had written it. “Sony is very serious these days; they are not into indulging people,” Williams said. “I was encouraged by friends who had lis­tened to parts of it without knowing I had written it. I sent off a demo of the whole new record, including Aeolian Suite with synthesizers, to the people at Sony, and the piece seemed to go down very well with them.”

The suite features a main theme—occurring in the first and last move­ments—that was written by a friend who Williams says prefers to remain anonymous. “When he first played his tune ‘Aeolian Chant’ for me, I thought it sounded haunting and medieval,” Williams said. “I originally had the idea of having strings for this piece. I got carried away with it and the sound of the key of D major. I decided to use three bass players, all with their low E strings tuned to D.”

Williams scored it for a small orchestra (eight first violins, six sec­ond violins, four violas, three cellos, three basses, two clarinets, and two flutes). He composed and orchestrated simultaneously. “When I started, I won­dered if I should sketch it out and then have someone else orchestrate it,” he said. “I know how to orchestrate but not like those who do it all the time. But I figured I had the time and I was really interested in it. Everything came out—for ill or for good—just as I want­ed it to.”

During our conversation, Williams touched several times upon his strong belief that rhythm is the basis of mu­sic and that a steady rhythmic pulse frees rather than restrains a perform­er’s expression. He took a surprisingly “unclassical” approach to his suite in the studio by opting to prerecord his guitar part to a click track and then overdub the orchestra.

“The orchestra could have played it without the click if they had done what rock groups do,” he said. “Those groups spend months playing their most complex material on tour, and they know it inside and out. You can’t hope that any group—especially an orchestra—will get locked in on a piece like this in one day.” To Williams, the click track was invaluable, especially in the last movement, which rips by in 7/8 time.

He assured me that the work is not something only John Williams can pull off, and he is hopeful that others will try it. “It is totally playable,” he said, noting that even the last move­ment, with its rapid-fire lines and arpeggios, is manageable. “It has a few of my little licks in it, but it is a hoot! It actually sounds more difficult than it is. The other movements are not difficult at all. My favorite is the slow one.”

Williams described the many differ­ent factors contributing to his selec­tion of material for the new album. He chose to revisit some works that he had initially encountered years earlier. “I first played the Mikis Theodorakis pieces in the late 1960s,” he said. “More than anyone else, he is respon­sible for the direction of Greek popular music. I recorded his songs on an album of Greek music. Mainly I was accompanying [Greek vocal star] Maria Farandouri. The Epitafios were on that album arranged as solos by Stanley Myers. I modified them for this recording.

Stele by Phillip Houghton is some­thing I have played on and off for the past nine years. He was originally a rock and folk guitarist but is becoming very focused as a composer. I love his music. I would like it if the classical guitar world thought and felt more of the affinity and enthusiasm he feels for what is going on in the wider world of music.”

Two of the CDs three anonymous pieces were culled from Estampie, an anthology of predominantly single­-line melodies of 13th and 14th century Italian songs and dances, and the other has English origins. While Williams renders Lamento di Tristan with a warm, even romantic feel, his arrange­ment preserves the stark, medieval quality of the plaintive melody by stat­ing it alone before adding treble counter lines, bass notes, and finally chords.

Ductia features a spare melody accompanied throughout with chordal harmonics. For the rollicking Saltarello, Williams’ sixth string is tuned to D and his fifth to G for a droning bass accom­paniment. “I was playing a lot of medi­eval music with some friends in England when I first came across these pieces,” Williams said.

For his orchestration of Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 3, Williams took his lead from the composer’s sketch. Satie’s score had no guitar; it was Williams’ idea to play the melody on one guitar and then the harp accompaniment on a second guitar track. “Satie had started the orchestration but did not finish,” said Williams. “My friend [composer] Patrick Gowers did his postgraduate thesis on Satie, and he gave me a fac­simile of the first page of Satie’s score. When he laid out the score, he wanted voice, strings, harp, two clarinets, and an oboe. I am not pretending for a sec­ond that I know what he was going to do with those instruments. But the basis of his accompaniment pattern is clearly laid out. I followed his spacing of the triads in the string pizzicatos. The piece has a certain charm because of the simple texture.”


Below, Williams plays Satie’s Gnossiennes No. 2 followed by Gnossiennes No 1:

Williams keeps a very open mind when choosing music for a new album or tour. “I don’t go in search of new music or new masterpieces,” he said. “I don’t have that view of guitar music. My attitude is that interesting music is written as a result of musical activity, communication, and life in general. This applies to all music.

“For the past 20 to 30 years, the influence of jazz, blues, and popular music, and the influence of flamenco, traditional ethnic, and world music has made things different than they were before. So I don’t feel it is a necessity to be looking to extend the guitar’s repertoire by having so-called ‘impor­tant’ new pieces written for it. I think it is great when they are written, but for me, it is not an obsession.

“I don’t want to be misunderstood on this point. Some great pieces have been commissioned from composers like Benjamin Britten, Peter Sculthorpe, Leo Brouwer, and others, but I don’t think that is the only thing happening in guitar music. Because of the univer­sality of its sound, the classical guitar links with plucked-string and percus­sion instruments from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Far East. There are great opportunities to be a part of many different kinds of music. I find that as interesting as anything else that has happened.”

From time to time, Williams would take out his guitar to make a musical point for me. His natural, effortless technique and beautiful tone prompt­ed questions about his formative years as a guitarist. He attributes his facility to the excellent tutelage he received at an early age from his father. Few realize that he had only a handful of classes with Segovia. Many people believe that the Maestro was pivotal in Williams’ development. He strenuously denies that notion: “As many may know by now, I am critical of the legacy of Segovia’s teaching. He was fantastic to me and a great inspi­ration to a whole generation, but he was also a very difficult human being, and he behaved—in personal terms­—abominably toward me and my father. I have to say, with the benefit of hind­sight, that I don’t think he was a good teacher.

“He taught as many of his genera­tion did—by example. That is all right up to a point, but he never elucidated what the important things in music were. He didn’t tell us what to aim for in the structure. For example, in a Bach suite, he never spoke about how the movements should contrast to con­struct a nicely balanced whole. He was always talking about little bits of ruba­to or fingering, his interpretive manner­isms. He would just say play this fast­er or slower and perhaps give an exam­ple of his beautiful sound on the sec­ond string.

“I think I learned the most about gui­tar from my father. He was a great teacher. He taught me from when I was four or five to 12 or 13. He wanted me to make that beautiful Segovia sound and spent a lot of time on hand position and being relaxed. He also wanted no unnecessary hand movement. He taught about control of tone color and that technique is not about speed, but is for control of dynamics.

“I continue to learn about music from other musicians: violinists, pian­ists, and other contemporaries. That is where I learned music, not from Segovia. My father was very strict with me, perhaps too strict, but I am really happy with the results.”

I told Williams that in comparing his recent recordings to his earlier ones, I felt his playing had become more expressive as the years passed. “A number of people have said that to me,” he replied. “There is a change, but it is not deliberate. I think that my playing has widened out in general, but rhythmically I have become much more emphatic. So my playing has not become more expressive in the sense that it is less rhythmic. I have always felt rhythmic pulse whether the piece is fast or slow. The idea of the rhythm being subservient to a rubato doesn’t appeal to me. I feel rubato, expressive, improvisational playing happens above the beat.

“The Segovia gestures—extra vibra­to and dwelling on a note or chord at a cadence—is not musical freedom. There has been a tendency among gui­tar players to think that doing these things for their own sake quite apart from the context of a piece of music as a whole is in some way expressive. I view them as simply mannerisms—­maybe lovely ones—but just manner­isms. Freedom happens above the pulse.” Williams added that after he started playing guitars by Australian luthier Greg Smallman, he felt the instrument gave him more expressive resources.

Williams sees a fin de siecle lyricism coming into vogue in the waning years of a century that—for better and for worse—has seen much musical inno­vation. He reflected on his involvement in the late-1960s avant-garde move­ment and how it ultimately proved to be a blind alley. “The avant-garde exist­ed because of the enthusiasm of per­forming musicians, me included, who wanted to do new things just for the sake of doing them,” he said. “It is fun to rehearse for a week with a chamber group and then perform a new piece. An enormous amount of money from the BBC, new music committees, and public grants was poured into produc­ing avant-garde concerts. [Audiences] simply didn’t go to them. A few great pieces survived from that era, and we have forgotten the rubbish. Today there is a return to lyricism, but it is not a looking back, it’s returning to a time­less, universal thing that was always there—sort of social and communal culture.”

Williams shared his opinions on the continuing evolution of Western music and the guitar’s place in it. “The idea that the best music is European music is having the ground cut away beneath it,” he said. “The influence of blues, jazz, American popular songs, and musicals on the vocabulary of classi­cal music in this century has been enormous. When you look at the mix of blues and rock with traditional and folk elements, you see the develop­ment of a sort of worldwide urban cul­ture. Add to that the influence of world music, and you’ve got an enormous sea of interest in music in general today.

“About 150 years ago the guitar was not part of what was going on in [classi­cal] music. You had a Giuliani concerto and some solos, but guitar was only part of the amateur music scene. Today, in the worldwide musical culture, across the board, guitar is right up there in the middle of it—I’m talking about the classical guitar. It is used in films, in traditional African music, folk and Celtic music, and much more. Madagascar has a whole history of clas­sical guitar playing in their traditional music.

“Earlier in this century, you could have said that most music was either popular or classical European music. But classical composers today have been influenced by the harmonies of popular and jazz music, just as jazz itself was influenced by the harmonies in the music of Ravel and Debussy. The 20th century has seen a total change colored by this mix. In some ways, it is hard to know where we are … but I think that is good.” ■


JOHN WILLIAMS IN THE ’90s (A Selected Discography)

The Guitarist (Sony 1998)

The Black Decameron: Music of Leo Brouwer (Sony 1997)

Guitar Concertos of Harvey and Gray (Sony 1996)

John Williams Plays the Movies (Sony 1995)

From the Jungles of Paraguay: John Williams Plays Barrios (Sony 1995)

The Seville Concert (Sony 1994)

Fragments of a Dream (with Paco Pena and Inti-Illimani; Sony 1994)

Spirit of the Guitar: Music of the Americas (Sony 1993)

From Australia: Music of Westlake and Sculthorpe (Sony 1993)



John Williams owns two guitars built by Australian luthier Greg Smallman: a 1992 and a 1995. His Smallmans feature an extremely thin cedar top reinforced with a unique lattice bracing of carbon fiber strands. An early prototype had a top made of balsa wood.

“The reason for the lattice bracing, very lightweight top, and heavy construction elsewhere is to produce a less percussive sound, even when you play loud,” Williams explained. “The top is less stiff and springy than a traditional Spanish guitar’s, which has a spruce top and fan struts. With a traditional guitar, the stronger you pluck, the more you hear the funda­mental percussive attack. Smallman’s tops work more like a drum skin: The entire top is working from the word go. Instead of the stiffer places over the bridge sounding first and then the fan strutting working next, the whole top is working. On a fan-strutted gui­tar, not much energy gets out to the edges of the top. Smallman’s idea is to get as much energy as possible out there.

“The Smallman gives a greater vari­ety in tone colors,” Williams contin­ued. “There is not simply a difference between playing ponticello and dolce, but all of the shades in between are there. There is an instant feel under your fingers. It inspires you to do more. If you play very, very quietly—­pianissimo—you get more response too. If you play like that on the fan-strutted guitar, there is barely enough force from the string to get the top to work. You end up hearing only the string vibrating and not the top.”

The sides of the Smallman body are very thick, permitting little if any absorption of sound energy. They are made from five-ply laminated rosewood. The fingerboard is ebony. Williams uses D’Addario Pro Arte light­ly polished composite strings and employs a mixture of medium- and high-tension trebles and basses. [Editor’s note: 20 years after this article was first published, Williams was still a Smallman advocate.]MS 

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