John Williams: New Ways Of Looking At Things

classical guitarist john williams
Interview by Chris Kilvington | From the May 1996 issue of Classical Guitar

It’s always a pleasure to visit John Williams. He’s a very natural person and the fact that he’s indisputably one of the finest guitarists who’s ever lived is, on these occasions, neither here nor there. Yes, that’s why I’m talking with him, making an interview for the magazine, but invariably we’re just chatting over coffee and then eventually lunch. Life goes on around us, it’s easygoing. There’s always something fresh, every time, and my visit to John coincided with a period in which he was preparing to work very seriously in a guitar duo. For anyone already doing this it’s a real fillip; if John Williams goes for something, the guitar world sits up and takes notice. It can only raise the profile. So I began by asking about his new duo with Tim Kain.


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John Williams: I’ve known Tim for years. First of all, he was a student of a very old family friend of mine, the guitar teacher Sadie Bishop who started the guitar department at Canberra. Then he came across here and did some post-graduate work at the Royal Northern College of Music with Gordon Crosskey. And we’ve always stayed in contact during my visits to Australia. The initial musical connection, as far as us doing things together was concerned, came when I put together the group Attacca. We did a very nice year together, the seven of us, a tour here and a shorter tour in Australia. The make-up of that group had the two guitars, Tim and myself—and we worked very well together within the group. For mainly geographical reasons, Attaca didn’t continue. In spite of the challenge and the excitement of putting something together across the continents, in terms of building up a following and a repertoire and the work that all that would have entailed, we did enough to realise that in practical terms it was just not going to be possible, half of us based in Australia and the other half in London.

Of course, it’s much easier with two guitars. Both of us realised that there was a kind of inhibition in a way in the background, because of the records that I’ve done with Julian, and neither of us wanted to be seen in any way to be competing, or even making it seem as if in a way I was being disloyal. These things don’t operate, of course, but still, because there’s a long personal friendship between Julian and myself I didn’t want to be seen as maybe offering a “Julian and John” mark 2. And Tim was equally aware of that. In one way that worry was redundant because our main aim, our main musical urge, was to concentrate not only on new material but—and I think this came out of the Attacca collaboration—to have a kind of Australian slant to the duo, more than just Tim and me being Australian. We wanted to concentrate on Australian music, though not exclusively. And this of course is something very different from anything Julian and I either did do or would have done. We’re both really keen that people understand that, not only the public, but our friends, our guitar colleagues. The things I did with Julian were very special, and in a way I wouldn’t want to touch that repertoire. In fact, on the CD we’ve done we’ve played three of the same pieces, the Spanish pieces.

That’s not very particular repertoire is it, not special to you and Julian?

Exactly. Everyone plays those anyway. Apart from those three pieces the rest is all new.

It would be nice to know more about the Australian repertoire you’re going to be playing with Tim. The Phillip Houghton piece, for example, of which I’ve got a recording and borrowed a score…

Is this the one which Peter Constant been doing in Melbourne?

No, it’s the Strano sisters from Australia.

Is this the three pieces, The Mantis and the Moon, Lament and Alchemy?

Yes—are you playing that?

Yes, we’ve recorded those fantastic pieces, but not in any way a first performance. However, he’s revised them recently, for the recording. Anyway, those pieces, and a work which was actually written for us by Nigel Westlake called Songs from the Forest, a piece of around ten minutes in various sections. A fantastic piece, very difficult and one which took a lot of rehearsing, especially in my part where I found some of the rhythmic ensemble stuff very tricky.

I’m pleased to hear that!

I’m very literal when it comes to reading rhythmic complexity, and sometimes that can actually go against the general flow of the music, because he does a hell of a lot of it with Guitar Trek. We sorted it out in the end, and it’s very effective. So we’ve got here two fine works, about 20 minutes altogether, and to have that on an important international label is important for us.

Which label?

Sony. And the rest of the programme—we’ve got those three well-known Spanish pieces, the dance from La Vida Breve, the Granados Dance no. 6 and Intermezzo, and a little Soler sonata which I did for two guitars just a few days before we recorded it, a very easy one to do but which made a nice link, being Spanish but slightly Baroque. Then we’ve got Gerry Garcia’s three lovely duet arrangements of O’Carolan pieces, including O’Carolan’s Concerto, Fanny Power and two Planxties.

Ah! O’Carolan’s Concerto… we’re playing in Dublin soon and John Feeley is arranging this for us, plus another one, and he knew that Gerald had done these two.

Really? You’ve seen the original tunes?

Well, yes, I’ve arranged O’Carolan’s Concerto for one guitar myself.

Right—and so has Gerald. The third one is two planxties put together. Fanny Power we started off very slowly because the acoustic in this hall was absolutely beautiful. It was designed by the same architect as designed the V&A, really gorgeous. I did the Barrios record up there, and also the Richard Harvey concerto. Of course, one of the traps you have to be careful with in a fairly resonant acoustic is playing too slowly, because you’re playing to the sound you hear, and we started off Fanny Power so slowly. We looked at each other in the first three bars thinking, shall we start again a bit faster? But it sounded right so we carried on the end, and we thought it sounded lovely, albeit much slower than we intended.

We played to the acoustic, did one take of it, no edits at all. Actually, that’s just 99 percent true, we started a faster take and abandoned it half way through. It was nothing like as good as the one we’ve got.

If it sounds beautiful in the hall it’s going to sound beautiful on the CD. And if people see you playing it half as fast again another time and complain that it isn’t like on the record that’s their problem.

It is, exactly. Other things—we did Leo Brouwer’s Micropiezas. I’m not wild about number 5. I think the four make a nice coherent set, great strong little miniatures. The fifth is a nice idea, maybe in a concert, but I think it would be annoyingly out of place on a record.

We did Jongo by Bellinati, and Capitola by Ben Verdery, which is a lovely solo piece but Ben did a duet arrangement for us. And also Prayer by Fred Hand, a gorgeous piece. And one piece which is very light and nostalgic in style, very charming, one of a set of pieces by Peter Madlem, a West Coast player/composer/arranger, country and banjo player, who was a great friend of Joe Pass and wrote Joe and me a whole set of ten or twelve pieces—but of course Joe died, and this is just one pf those which happens to suit two classical guitars. It’s called Monte Carlo.

We finish off the disc with that little Takemitsu film tune, Bad Boy, and another piece used for a film. The Gadfly, by Shostakovich. It’s crazy! Maybe the two most well-known composers on the programme, and both just lovely little film tunes! After an hour or more of music it’s quite nice to end up with these slow and lovely things. We’re really pleased with the programme; it’s got a kind of international feel, banded in groups—for example, all the “Americas” music are together.

When’s the release?

Around May time.

When you’re making a CD like that, which involves a considerable amount of commitment. does that mean that you and Tim might be making this duo for rather longer than just a project for the present year?

I hope so. You know yourself just what it takes to put a duo together. Certainly, we’re doing a tour here and then the same in Australia and I would certainly hope—if we can arrange it, concerts having been done and the CD out—that we can keep it going in the future. It can be difficult to arrange; I’ve already tried to sell, if you like, Tim and myself to Japan and the States for tours there. But promoters can be very conservative, as you’ll know, and they just have difficulty in making that jump to another act, to another medium…

Do you find that there’s a resistance to anything other than just purely “John Williams” by himself, that really they just want the soloist because you are who you are?

There’s a marked preference for that, sure; they’ll take things like the Attacca tour on the strength of, if you like, what they expect from me. They take it on trust; if I say I’ll only come if it’s with such and such, well that’s the way it is.

How do you feel about that attitude of mind?

I suppose I don’t mind so much, maybe that’s the price you pay. You are known and it does help you to do concerts and play the music you want and therefore, yes, that’s the price you pay and it can be used. But it’s also an embarrassment, because if you’re involved with someone else and you want to push that it can be a problem. You’re always having to explain it through your own image. You’re trying to say “Look, it’s not just me.”

“I don’t enjoy applause”

You don’t want to be justifying other people’s existence, your colleagues are first-rate musicians in their own right.

Exactly. Maybe better musicians than me! A prime example of that was the Attacca tour, where some of the concerts were not well attended partly because people had cottoned on to the fact that it wasn’t a solo gig, and also they’d heard enough about what it was for it to sound strange and new and couldn’t quite home in on what it was. But—one of the places where there was a “captive” audience, captive because it was a festival audience in Brighton, was a packed concert because it was festival time and we changed the order of things because we knew from other concerts how the programme worked. I had a very small group of solos in the middle of the concert, and the main piece was Nigel Westlake playing his clarinet piece with the digital delay—you remember? It was like the “hit” thing, and people seemed to enjoy the whole concert fantastically, they totally forgot that their initial idea had been that it was a John Williams concert. So, OK, it’s good to be able to hang everything on the same peg. And they got much more, much better! Yes, it’s nice when it works that way. It worked well in Australia, Attacca, simply because there’s so much “local” input into it, selling out in Melbourne and Sydney for example. But to have continued we’d have needed to have had more and more of that kind of successful promotion.

I presume that if you were only playing solo—and I think you would choose not to—I suspect you’d be bored because you’ve doing it since you were a little child. You like making music with other people, don’t you?

I love making music with other people! Of course, I also love playing solo. You know, I once had a very unfortunate response from a radio interview I did in New Zealand on the afternoon of the concert, when I was explaining that there’s nothing intrinsically wonderful about playing a solo concert. I said that if I’m playing solo—which I love doing, because I love the guitar—I can play at home with a cup of tea. Listening to this radio interview, one couple had not understood and returned their tickets in the evening with a little note saying “Since you don’t like giving concerts, we’re not coming to yours!”

I’m not on an ego trip, and I don’t enjoy applause, although I accept it gracefully; it’s a funny sort of thing to have this noise after a nice quiet piece, a couple of thousand people clapping their hands, it’s not exactly musical and it’s not got to do with the magic of silence either.

It’s one of those subtle things that’s not easy to explain. I’ve controlled it by only doing a certain number of solo concerts a year; I look ahead a year or two years and say that is all I’m going to do solo. I’ve got about 13 or 14 solo concerts in 1996, 16 or 17 in 1997. And that’s it. I know my programmes; I’m going to be playing quite a lot of Leo Brouwer, because I’m going to be making a record of his music.

There’s nothing inherently special about playing solo in a concert. But there is something really special in playing with other musicians, which you don’t get at home simply because of the kind of preparation that goes with rehearsing with other musicians, the feeling of something coming together. You’re listening, you’re almost half of the part of the audience, you’re listening to your partner, to how they are playing.

This is not to say I hate playing solo concerts, I don’t, I love hearing the sound of the guitar amplified or unamplified in a large space. One of the things is that you get to hear your own instrument.

Now—if a little trip in Europe comes up, someone asks if Tim Kain and myself will come and do four duo concerts I’ll say yes. But if they say, “Here’s a million pounds, will you come and play one solo concert?” the answer will be “No.” But if something comes up like the little concert next week (December 1995, Wigmore Hall, in aid of War Child), well that for me is unparalled pleasure.

The sort of thing that can just be accommodated into your life…

That’s it. I’ll say it again—I do like playing solo, but I want to know that when I play I’m going to enjoy it, which I do because I don’t play too much. So at the end of this year I’ll be doing five in Germany, three on the West Coast of America, one in Paris and one in Manchester and that’s it at that time. I know I’ll have my programme really worked out, I know what I’m going to be working on.

You put all your effort, all your adrenalin into that, and then it’s done. You don’t suffer burn-out that way, do you?

You’ve got it—and it leaves big periods free for me to follow up other projects for the future.

Wasn’t there a time when you played a lot more solo concerts?

Oh, yes. Actually, a lot more of everything. But this goes back a long time, to the 60s. But, then that took its course, I don’t regret doing it, and thank God I also learnt from it. I learnt from doing it, and I also learnt to stop doing it. Emmie Tillett, who was lbbs and Tillett, looked after me, not only with booking lots of concerts—there were many more music clubs than there are now—but also put me with a chamber music group called Musica da Camera run by the flautist Harold Clark. Julian had done some playing with them and I took it over when he left. And also the trio with Alan Loveday and Amaryllis Fleming. And she put me together with Wilfred Brown, the tenor; Julian had the duo with Peter Pears, a very famous and well­ established pairing. Emmie Tillett looked after them too, but thought there was room for another voice and guitar duo. So in the sixties I did lots of chamber and duo stuff; I never counted the concerts, but during the season I would be doing four, five, six concerts a week. I might, for example, go off with Musica da Camera to the middle of Wales and do six concerts in six days with a couple of school concerts—always some school concerts. I did that for years, absolutely wonderful, I didn’t get sick of that, it was terrific experience. And then there were all the Thursday invitation concerts, for Radio 3, a lot of contemporary music, mostly with the Melos ensemble. What happened was that in the early ‘70s, up to ‘72 or ‘73, I can’t quite remember, I was doing a lot of foreign tours. I was going to the States every year, Europe, all the usual things plus all the English concerts. So there were two decisions which came fairly close to each other. First of all, I actually stopped travelling, and this coincided with me starting to go to Australia in ‘72 to do some teaching every year or two for a summer course in Sydney or the ABC in the winter. I thought “I want to maintain this.” It was half a sort of social/family thing as well. So I stopped all the touring, I really got sick of that; only solo…

“I more or less don’t play at weekends”

Concert, hotel room, concert, hotel room…

God, yes! And it’s not like playing here where I might have done some solo, some with Wilfrid Brown, and so on. Here is a different question. I decided that I liked playing here more, plus I like playing all the other things such as film music… so that was that. And then also another decision, which I pretty much still maintain—I more or less don’t play at weekends. There’s a lot of social life which I like with people who aren’t necessarily musicians, who work during the week and not at weekends. And if I was to be away playing at weekends all the time… well, you basically don’t get to socialise with ordinary people.

You actually consciously structured how your own professional life would dovetail into your private life?

Exactly.

Being who you are, you could be playing 365 days a year if you didn’t watch it.

I know I’m lucky to be in this position. But I always think that if people who are lucky can’t organise it, you can’t expect much from people who aren’t so fortunate. I almost feel it’s a responsibility to make sure I do it right.

Can we go back to something you mentioned earlier? I was really fascinated by this, especially as I play in duo myself. You were talking about the Nigel Westlake piece and the rhythmic complexity and how you’re a stickler for getting rhythms exactly as they are on the page. And Tim, as you put it, is better than you in terms of being flexible. Well, how on earth do you handle this at distance? You don’t see each other for God knows how long and then you’re going out on tour. Will you be able to immediately reconstitute it all?

Well, it will help having the record, of course., We can rehearse before we meet with the record, working on the difficult bits. For this disc, we did some concerts in Australia the year before and Tim came over for two weeks especially, just to practise. Then I went over to Australia for a few days…

“Because of the percussive attack of the guitar, ensemble is always a more difficult thing than, say, for string players”

You really built a foundation.

Yes, and for awkward pieces like that it all just needs practising up again. It won’t be a problem. I think it’s a little bit like riding a bicycle.

Just to go back on that bit about the rhythmical thing: one of the problems is that, because I’m so rigorously exact, I’m also rather critical, and even as far as the composer goes I’m critical. And there are certain things which I feel don’t work on the guitar. They may be playable, but they don’t really work. And there are a lot of rhythmic figures to do with offbeats, where both guitars are playing off the beat. Because of the percussive attack of the guitar, ensemble is always a more difficult thing than, say, for string players. And certain rhythmical phrases don’t, for me, really work. You can get them, but they upset me because they don’t sound natural. It’s to do with the attack of the note, they are really not guitaristic. Not for technical reasons, but for rhythmical reasons; they don’t suit the kind of rhythmic articulation of the guitar.

Keep talking!

Well, I can play you a bit too. I think I’m more upset by this than most people. And because of that I ask for it to be as absolutely as precise as possible in feel, which is not necessarily the same as metrically by the split second. Unlike, say, two clarinets; with the guitar, because the notes are not sustained, you’re only hearing the attack, rhythmically speaking. Certain phrases on two guitars are rhythmically only felt in the real sense through the attack of the note. If they’re on sustaining instruments then the rhythmic feel is maintained through the note, and therefore the stop and start of each note becomes less critical, there’s a kind of pulse which is there. Those phrases on guitars don’t work in the same way; OK, they’re done and we’ve got them but the listener is constantly sniffing on the offbeat. um-da, um-da… actually, Nigel changed one passage to make it easier for me.

You mean the listener is too consciously aware?

That’s it. It’s not that I can’t do it, but I just have a psychological resistance to it.

You’re a very precise musician; maybe that can sometimes work against you?

It does, that’s well put.

Thinking of this precision of yours, I’m still interested after all these years in how you go about it, I suppose the solos in particular. This kind of thing is always of interest to everybody; slow practice? What? (a big humorous “important” cough, which has us both laughing.)

Well now, let me see…

Ah yes, you just rattle it off and that’s it, right? OK, equally crazy—can it in any way be almost a disadvantage to have such a great technique and such highly developed sightreading? Is the music so available to you that you don’t have to fight for it at all, and as a consequence it can come too easily?

Absolutely not. Any instrumentalist will say that fine sightreading and a real technique cannot be in any way a disadvantage, absolutely not, without any qualification whatsoever. Anything in interpretation or commitment or whatever which might be lacking is totally one’s own responsibilty. It’s a question of what you choose to do with it. It’s nothing to do with the ease of it at all. Sightreading is just obviously useful. technique too. Bearing in mind that technique can be many things, we know that it’s not just about moving quickly. I remember talking with a friend of mine a long time ago, a very well-known trumpeter, and we were talking about people who play really fast, and he was talking about the problem of what we are doing with the sound, how we “speak” with it. I’m not talking about interpretation now, that’s another thing. I’m talking about the sound itself, the variety and quality of the sound—he said we’re done for before we start.

“I want to know by the time the fingertip is on the string exactly what sound I’m going to make.”

What exactly did he mean by that?

Meaning—before you even play a note you have it in your head, as if you were a singer, what you want to come out. You know right in that fingertip, or on your lips if you’re that trumpeter, exactly what you want. Like I’m speaking deliberately now… you know what you want, I know that I’m enunciating the w and accenting the want. Well, it’s the same with making a note and enunciation, articulation, and the quality that you’re aware you want to bring out. I want to know by the time the fingertip is on the string exactly what sound I’m going to make.

Music continues in time, and you know that your fingers are maybe sometimes slightly behind. But you know what your intention is, you know what sound you’re going to produce, and that is technique. It’s not really about moving quickly. I’m the most unenvious, unjealous professional that one will find. There are a lot of instrumentalists, fiddlers, pianists, and guitarists who play really fast, and it means absolutely nothing. If all you want to do is to play fast, well sure, you can. Anyone can play fast if they just don’t care about anything else.

You’re selecting from an interior range of ideas and are able to reproduce those ideas—that’s what counts?

Exactly. That’s technique for me.

A lot of people, most of us, don’t really have that. I suppose we all work hard to get as far as we can, but, yes—that cannot be anything other than really very nice. Maybe you sit down and look at a piece, and start to plan out what you want to do with it?

Well, I don’t know about plan out. But whatever the music there’s never enough technique as I understand it, that’s what I’m saying, you can always do with a bit more. Composers have their own little figurations which are difficult. Leo Brouwer has a particular knack of writing patterns with ligados which are within the pulse but actually go across natural groupings of notes. I find them very tricky, my fingers themselves want to move in rhythmical groups—you know the kind of phrases? He’ll have a phrase of five or six notes of ligados seemingly at random; there are a lot of these things which I find very awkward. You can always do with more technique.

That’s interesting. A little phrase such as the one you’ve just described which you say you find difficult—and I don’t find that surprising because I’m sure you must find some things difficult, although people don’t believe it. How do you go about your work here? Slow practice?

Yes, indeed. Slow practice, really slow practice. My belief is in very slow practice and very relaxed practice. The opposite of being set in front of a music stand for an hour and ten minutes without moving, where you’re repeating the same phrase at whatever tempo it is, over and over again. That’s often like practising the mistakes, entrenching them. My idea of studying a difficult passage is to be very relaxed, a cup of tea on the table, maybe playing on my right knee, and I’ll be looking at it and thinking “That’s really nice, I like that, now get the quaver rest there, now there’s this, now that will be a very nice way of doing it. Ooh, doesn’t that sound good, and I’ll try the grouping that way, and I might just play this quietly maybe…” This is all me talking to myself, getting the feel of it in the fingertips, it’s almost like musing over a chess problem very, very quietly.

Do you play?

Yes, I do. But this is just like looking it over, not thinking I must solve this in ten minutes, but knowing I’ve got it on the table for the next couple of days; anyone who plays chess will know exactly what I mean. I’m not tense about it; I might be choked if it’s still there after a week. It’s just there to ponder.