John Williams on Composing His Own Music and Releasing on His Own Terms

Classical guitarists John Williams and Richard Harvey
John Williams and Richard Harvey. Photo by Kathy Panama
Interview by Therese Wassily Saba | From the September 2009 issue of Classical Guitar

It is well-known that the recording industry has been experiencing difficulties and crises for many and varied reasons, including having to adjust to the demands of the ever-changing and rapidly developing digital formats as well the changes in the marketing of music. While many artists have sought out other avenues for their releases, John Williams has continued to release his valued recordings on Sony Classical. However, for a recording of his own compositions, he has chosen to make a private recording release.

I spoke to him about his From a Bird recording and his compositions which, as always, led us down many paths of music-related discussions.

Read more articles on John Williams here

Classical Guitar: It is quiet a momentous occasion when an artist of your standing releases a CD on their own and, what’s more, of your own compositions for the first time. Have you abandoned Sony?

John Williams: Not officially, no.

Do you feel that this recording marks a big shift in your career?

There are two reasons why I released the recording myself. The main one is that, being mostly my own pieces, I didn’t want the recording to be the victim of Sony or any other big recording company deleting it in a few years” time, which they do often, or of not having it distributed properly. I wanted to make sure that it was totally owned by me, so that I can then re-release it, and license it if necessary in different countries. I wanted to do it in my own way, with the lovely cover design which my wife Kathy painted a propos the title, From a Bird. I wanted to produce it in a classy package, with the folding cardboard, not in the usual plastic case which breaks. After Kathy had done the general layout with the photos and the painting for the front cover, we then got a graphic designer—Rod Steele—to finish it. He is in fact the main graphic designer for West One Music which is a major library music company; I have also done a CD for them. Do you know what Library Music is?


Library music publishers distribute music for use by media and commercial organisations, or to be used on television, radio or in film as background, for online commercials, etc.; you could call it commercial music.

Do you keep a portfolio of tracks with them?

There are many ways of doing it. It’s a major industry and it’s been going for about 30 or 40 years; a lot of the music publishers have their own library music division. So they print 2,000 or 3,000 CDs and send them out to organisations who may want to use the music.

And if they choose to use the music then, do they have to pay the usual performing rights?

Yes, but the advantage of an advertising agency or a film company using library music, especially in commercial music, is the speed of production and permission to use the music. For example, if a media company wants to use a piece of music from Joe Bloggs’ commercial CD, they have to write to the recording company to get permission. The recording company then have to write to Joe Bloggs to get his permission, and then they have to clear the composer’s copyright. So there could be three permissions involved. If it’s a contemporary composer and a living performer and a record company, it can take a long time. The point of this is that you get the recording supplied by the library company, and although you have to pay the copyright when you use it, it is automatically registered and the permission is already given.

So I made a music library recording at the end of last year for West One Music, which is Richard Harvey’s company—Richard Harvey, the composer—he’s the major partner, I did a recording for them called Pure Acoustic.

Is this a move in a different direction for you?

No, it was just an opportunity I had. It was all my own music, mostly solo guitar with a couple of duets in it. Sometimes I did the accompaniments.

So you overdubbed for the duos?

Yes. The usual form for library music is that you have anything from 12 or more tracks or pieces. They can all be in the same mood, or as in my case, they can be different pieces in different moods.

Are they all roughly three-minutes long?

Or less, some of them are very short. The usual form is that the full piece is there, you then have 30-second versions of every track, and maybe one-minute versions of some of them. So the people that are using it know exactly what the timing is. It will be edited and performed to be exactly that time. They know it’s 29 seconds, so if they want a 30-second slot for their background music or their advertisement, they have it already supplied and edited on the spot. They don’t have to do it themselves; if they had bought a commercial record, a normal record from a shop, they would have to find out which part of the track to use. Then for a few selected tracks, for example, you have just the accompaniments to tunes; they are called the underscores, which can be used as background music, say in a play or on the television, where you know what the theme is, but you want to hear something which conjures up the same the mood underneath conversation.

So that’s what got me going because I really do not think of myself as a composer. Writing short, nice pieces doesn’t mean you’re a composer in the classical sense. I’ve worked a lot with composers and I’ve played such a lot for film that I’ve got a feel for it. The guitar produces such a unique sound, and sound itself is the critical thing in commercial music.

As a composer, I did actually write the music for an Australian film about 25 years ago called Emma’s War. It was directed by Clytie Jessop and it had Sam Neill and Lee Remick in it; she was a lovely actress but she died of cancer. That was her last film. In that I used the tune of a bird, a honeyeater, that I heard outside my cousin Paul’s house in the countryside, south of Melbourne. The film script arrived while I was staying at the farm. It was so perfect for the mood of the film, which was set in the Second World War mostly in a girl’s school in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.

In the opening of the film, kids are picnicking under the bushes, it was just really lovely, but it’s only a few notes; only the main theme was used in the film. It wasn’t called From a Bird then; I wrote From a Bird about three years ago. There were seven pieces originally, but I decided I didn’t like them all! I’ve played them a bit here in Britain and in the US on a tour. I’ve improved the seven pieces and reduced them down to four, but they are not what I view as the main pieces on the recording, it was just a nice title to use.

The recording begins with Hello Francis which is dedicated to Francis Bebey. Is it of great significance that you open the CD with it?

Well, I play that piece in concerts a lot. In fact, the first six pieces from the recording I am now playing in concerts all the time. They are really what I view as the best pieces.

Are they the ones you are happiest with?

No, I’m happy with all of them, otherwise I wouldn’t have recorded them. Let’s just call them the main pieces. Then Running Dog, Day’s End, First Light, and Spring Tide are actually slightly different versions (but renamed) of pieces from the library music album—the four that I like most. I like all the pieces but it’s just that some of them are so short that they are not substantial enough. Actually Day’s End I play sometimes in concerts as an encore—it’s a sentimental little tune. First Light and Spring Tide are the only duos. The Irish tunes are solo. I have played some of them in the past in the different groups, in John Williams and Friends concerts years ago, and I play some of them now with Richard Harvey. I didn’t have enough pieces of my own that were good enough, so I thought of the Irish pieces, and I’m playing those in concerts as well.

Are the arrangements new?

Yes, absolutely but the tunes are played in traditional style.

I really like Carolan’s Concerto.

That’s a very well-known piece but there are about ten different versions of it. The thing about Carolan being a popular, traditional musician, is that his music is now a part of folk music, so the versions are irrelevant in a way. You would play it differently on the harp from what you would play on whistles and flutes, so the different versions reflect the different instrumental qualities. There’s no “one” version that we know because it wasn’t written down at the time.

I’ve got a book of Irish traditional music which has three different editions in it from the 1780’s, the 1810’s and the 1840’s; a lot of them are harmonised for piano. But even the earliest ones, in the case of Carolan, are what one harpist has remembered Carolan playing, he’s then played it in his own way, someone has jotted it down, and then they’ve made an arrangement for piano. Of course, the people that have done it for piano, being very classically-minded, have done a classical version, so you’re already a long way from the original. I prefer to try and take the spirit of it more as it is played today by traditional musicians because they will have departed less from the spirit of the original.


Carolan’s Fanny Power is a lovely tune and I did an arrangement with low C and G tuning because I felt it gave a little of the feeling of a harp; I also use it in Slow Change and Notes in the Margin. I love the low C tuning.

Is that the main scordatura you use if you do make a change?

It’s just the usual mixtures of D and E tuning. Except for Fanny Power; the Irish pieces use D and G. They are in G major. The Bottom of the Punchbowl is usually done in D but you need a lot of open strings to keep the bass notes going, especially to keep them going freely. If you start stopping them on frets then you don’t get the freedom of the rhythm, so G major suited those really well.

Tell me about the piece Hello Francis

I really loved Francis Bebey, who had three sons and a daughter. We’re still really close with the family, particularly with his son Patrick (who John Etheridge and I have performed with), and Madé who is Francis’s widow. I really just wanted to write my own little tribute to him; that was before I really thought of doing the CD or playing these pieces in public. For a lot of my pieces, in addition to Hello Francis, I like to use a kind of starting point of rhythm and in the case of Hello Francis, it was perfect because one of his favourite rhythms was the makossa. It also has two quotes in it that I wanted. There is a sort of hidden quote from Bach because Francis loved Bach.

So it’s very hidden?

Actually once you recognise it, it’s obvious and the other quote is from his piece called The Magic Box. It’s a short piece. I play it in concerts and it’s very popular, which is pleasing because it’s a homage to Francis.

The other pieces just followed on about three or four years ago when I had a temporary balance problem. It was a virus but it meant that I was around the house for two or three months, which was actually a blessing in disguise because I sat at the piano or the guitar fiddling with ideas for tunes and I started writing a lot of music.

For Prelude to a Song what sort of rhythm did you use?

Not much! It was an arpeggiated piece. It has a bass line which is a sort of tribute to Mangore. It’s in 3/4 and is a bit similar to La Ultima Canción, but it’s not a tremolo.

Does the Song Without Words have any reference to Mendelssohn in it?

No, not at all.

But it’s very melodic?

It’s absolutely melodic; it’s an unabashed romantic melody. Song Without Words was one of the first ones I wrote and I’ve been playing it on and off in different programmes for two or three years—sometimes as an encore. Actually it’s been through two or three versions until I got to its final version. I’ve had very nice comments from composer friends, who I won’t name, about Hello Francis and about Prelude to a Song; I had some very useful criticism of Open End so I changed that. I played those four in the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years ago. Then there’s Slow Change which I like for its mood and that’s with the low C tuning. Its harmonies change very slowly. It’s also on Pure Acoustic. It has a slightly French feel…

Do you mean impressionistic?

Yes, an impressionist feeling with a tiny, tiny bit of bitonality, so I must send it to Leo Brouwer because he likes bitonality! Actually in concert I play them as one piece: Slow Change and Notes in the Margin. Notes in the Margin was a rhythmical idea originally and it closes with another piece from the library album. It is based on an African polyrhythm, which sounds very pretentious but it is a very, very simple polyrhythm. It’s a rhythm that I used in a piece called Musha Musiki which is on The Magic Box recording and the main section of that is a combination of 4/4—12/8 with different cross beats. So the 3 and the 2 are the most basic building blocks of a simple polyrhythm. When you listen to it, you don’t remark on it; it just makes the rhythm more interesting to listen to.

The trouble is, when people talk about either their own compositions or other people’s compositions, it can sound so pretentious, because it’s a way of describing what’s on your mind at the time. You could take From a Bird for example, the references in the second one are obviously from the first one, but in the third and fourth ones, it’s just that there are odd repeated notes. It’s not important; it’s a starting point and sometimes you have an idea, but you end up somewhere different.

“Often the composer doesn’t quite realise the potential of a piece that they have written.”

I know how much composers hate writing programme notes for their own compositions; it’s torture for them…

It is, because most of the time it doesn’t relate to the music, although of course sometimes it does and for a very real reason. Someone like Peter Sculthorpe often has very specific things to say, but even he says that when he is writing about his own music, it’s mainly about what his responses are to the environment. It’s not descriptive of the environment; it’s about his emotional, imaginary responses to it.

Sometimes you read critics saying that a composer’s work reflects the anguish that they were going through at the time in 1932 when they were writing the slow movement, blah, blah, blah… and it’s usually nonsense! Composers, most of the time, are doing a “professional job”—they are writing a piece of music that makes sense; they are not necessarily baring their soul. They are just as likely to be hiding what’s going on. Of course, sometimes it is all coming out from their soul. With someone like Rachmaninov who was having psychoanalysis and a breakdown, clearly his music reflects this, but usually it is a job with its own disciplines: you have a theme and it has to be convincing in its own terms. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve had a bad day or got out the wrong side of the bed or had food poisoning, or you’re annoyed with your partner, etc.!

You see these things sometimes in reviews about a performer: “this performer brought out the ‘x’ in the music,” but that may not be the composer’s intention in the music, it’s what that reviewer thinks is in it.

It’s a very difficult thing John, writing reviews!

No, I know you do it, that’s why I am being quite frank.

Ideally music is to be heard, but writing about musical events gives people who were unable to attend the opportunity an idea of what it was like.

I understand. Look, I’m totally sympathetic, but it can be a problem.

I know you’re not attacking me, but it’s a point that I worry about as much as the performers do, in trying to describe what I hear.

That’s why I have never in my life written a response to either a favourable or an unfavourable review. I suppose it would be naughty of me to say that a reviewer’s opinion is just as important as that of each member of the audience. I think it would be preferable if society were different, if reviews were like news reporting. That’s what it should be really.

Yes, but news reporting is as subjective as music reviewing.

I’m sure we agree on that, in the sociological sense, but there are basic things that can be described in the common sense of the word. The American dancer Mark Morris was once asked by an interviewer about his “philosophy of dance,” Morris answered, “I make it up and you watch it.” But back onto the music, I think you just have to take the rough with the smooth. Also, often the composer doesn’t quite realise the potential of a piece that they have written.

Do you not think that that’s a very controversial thing to say, and that we will end up with a thousand Letters to the Editor?

No, I don’t at all! Sometimes many composers would absolutely agree with that because what is instinctively in a composer, is sometimes more there—or it might be less—which is more amazing than they are aware of and it may take a performer to bring that out. This is a very general comment but quite quotable, generally you find that composers, when they conduct their own music, are much more “matter-of-fact” than when conductors conduct their work.

Do you think there is a certain inhibition there?

No. It’s a very complicated subject but I would say in most cases it’s better for it because most things suffer from over-interpretation—from a subjective view. One of the things that comes up a lot, and this is referring to how objective is the news actually, is that in our world, performing guitar pieces or classical string quartets or piano music, we’re talking about the classical approach. “We,” and I mean the general “We,” tend to assume for example that if someone has a slow melodic line with an even beat in print—let’s take a very well-known example, the slow movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez—most conductors will expect to accompany that by following what the soloist is playing. This is, in the European sense, a very classical, traditional way of accompanying and it is viewed as automatically good if the conductor does that.

And it is viewed as being very good if the soloist is playing with the assumption that the conductor will do that. That is viewed as being expressive. But European classical music is unique in making that assumption. If you listen to any popular music, where there is a slow beat, and more than anything in jazz, a beat is a beat, is a beat. Right? (John is banging his hand on the table as he speaks.) And what happens above it, around it, upside down, in front, behind, that’s what the soloist is doing—the beat is internally and externally pulsating like a heartbeat—slow or fast.

So the soloist should follow the conductor?

No! All of them should follow the beat and the beat is unchanging! Classically-trained people find it very difficult to keep “crotchet equals 44” absolutely even. A lot of them will start rushing; they won’t have the internal feel of it. But in jazz and in popular music—and when I say popular music, I mean the whole history of traditional music, going back to anything that is danced to, which has a beat—you have a slow beat or a fast beat. You don’t hang around with your foot in the air waiting for it to come down!

Has that view been reflected in your playing throughout most of your career?

I think I’m on that side but I must add that I make a big distinction between ballad, recitative, poetry and song, and dance. Dance is a rhythm—it can be slow, very slow, or it can be fast. If we’re talking ballad, if we’re talking expression and poetry in the voice line, it’s totally different. You can hang around for hours! As in the slow section of Sevilla. but no Flamenco player or dancer ever stops to dwell on a beat in a sevillanas; it just does not happen. If someone wants to have individual expression and play around with the beat, that’s ok but it’s not a sevillanas anymore—no one could possibly dance to it. So that has, in my case, been a guiding idea to traditionally-inspired pieces like Sevilla of Albéniz. I played it with Paco Peña together once in a documentary; he played an actual sevillanas, and I played the Albéniz piece. That’s a perfect example. Sometimes I’ve heard that some guitarists say JW plays a bit too rigidly.

But that would be a compliment as far as you’re concerned!

Absolutely! It applies to a lot of things. You know rhythm is the fundamental, really. If ever one did a sociological study, not just a historical but sociological study of European music since the middle ages, it would be very interesting to see why rhythm has become very deconstructed and simplified. When you go back to mediaeval and renaissance music, it has all sorts of lovely hemiolas and cross-rhythms, and then by the eighteenth century—even with Haydn and Mozart—you have the most simple, foursquare and three-four rhythms, but it’s great music; I’m not criticising it.

But the harmony has developed.

That’s the reason! The harmony has developed at the expense of the rhythm and the melody.

In my generation we were taught that back in the twelfth century they only had plainsong and Gregorian chant, where you were only allowed to use octaves and fifths. Never mind about Africa and the Far East three thousand years ago where you can see from the instruments, the lyres and the harps etc., that they were playing all sorts of harmonies, but we were taught that they were somehow all “primitive.” But of course as you develop four-part church harmony, it is at the expense of the rhythm and melody. You can’t have all the rhythmical complexity that you get in African music and the melodic nuance of Arabic and Asian music at the same time, it becomes too complex and what you end up with is breakdown and that’s what you have in the twentieth century: you have serialism, you have atonality, you have to deconstruct melody and then you have to deconstruct rhythm itself. You get lots of complicated time values but not rhythm. The whole thing is deconstructed. This is a discussion for a symposium really.

Is that how you view the development of music in the twentieth century?

That’s what I think, absolutely. I think that it’s obvious. So many of the contemporary composers, Peter Maxwell Davies and Leo Brouwer to name two of the most representative, have all written and talked about this deconstruction that ended up in the so-called 1960’s avant-garde as if that were a dead-end. You need a sociological explanation for why it has resulted in that because it’s all to do with culture and class and the way that music and people have been taken from their traditional roots—then industrial societies created a language for the rising middle classes. It became an entertainment and then it became a specialisation for the people who are practising it themselves, that is, the musicians. I can remember the Thursday Invitation Concerts on the BBC in the 1960’s, which got called the Thursday Irritation Concerts by the musicians. They were playing the basic standards in modern music: Schoenberg, Webern and a lot of other stuff. It was actually great fun; it was like doing mathematical puzzles. Of course it was interesting to listen to and, for the musicians, it was a great challenge, instead of just churning out Haydn quartets, or Sor and Albéniz. You could say that the practice, discovery, and trial and error of the time is an important aspect of musical progress. That is true but it is another subject.

“I have started a new website for my music… I am putting my own pieces and transcriptions on the website for free download.”

Can I take you back to where you were talking about composers conducting their own music, I wanted to ask you, a propos you playing your own music, is it better for you to play it, or other people?

I don’t know because people haven’t had the music yet. I’d be interested to see what people make of it. I may change my mind totally!

Will the music become available?

I have started a new website for my music. It’s a non-response website, so it will not be for correspondence of any sort. I am putting my own pieces and transcriptions on the website for free download.

Wow, John!

A lot of people say that and I’ll explain why. When you publish music with music publishers, the arranger, the transcriber, or even the composer sometimes, might get one pound or less from a ten pound selling price. But that ten pounds is a lot of money for students and amateurs. A lot of them get photocopies when they can, but a lot of them simply can’t afford it and don’t have the music at all. Now, the least I can do after a long time of playing concerts and having a very nice life, thank you very much, is to provide music which they can get hold of for nothing. If a performer, like a solo guitarist wants to make a CD or perform it in public, the usual rules of copyright apply; they have to pay copyright for that sort of reproduction, but with the sheet music, for the sake of me getting an extra pound or so, it gives me much more pleasure that someone in Nigeria or Kenya or wherever, even here in the United Kingdom, can easily have a copy of it, whether it’s Granados or Vivaldi—or even me!

Are you going to put your arrangements from years ago on there?

I’ve got a plan. The first piece I have put on is Hello Francis because a lot of people want that, and I might follow that with a couple of the others, like Prelude to a Song. Certainly during the middle of this year, I’m going to put the arrangement I do of the Vivaldi concerto—Concerto in D—which is a piece people hear me play in concerts. The arrangement is based on Bach’s version for solo harpsichord of the same piece. The two main pieces are going to be that and Granados’ Valses Poeticos.

And other pieces?

There are a lot of things that I don’t think are important to do: Bach, for example. I’m not criticising others for doing it, but Bach is there in its original form, certainly with the lute suites. I don’t see what there is in arranging, just by sticking a bit of fingering on. So I would never do editions of Bach.

People would be very interested in your fingering for Bach. I would be!

But it changes; I’ve refingered things. It’s a very low priority for me. I think some Scarlatti sonatas would be interesting to do. Some of the pieces have already been done, Boosey & Hawkes published Cordoba ages ago. That’s an example of something that needs arranging in a particular way. Vivaldi and Granados both have lots of little problems in them that need sorting out, and I would like to make available my way of sorting them out. Especially with the Granados where, funnily enough, I am continually finding little things which could be improved. The Vivaldi is very important because that’s an amalgam of a violin concerto by Vivaldi and an arrangement for harpsichord solo by Bach, which I then arranged for solo guitar and it works wonderfully well. I have played it in concerts for years.

It is going to be in my hand-written scores, but it will be a clear manuscript. Most guitar music is cluttered with too much fingering, too many up and down stems, and sustain ties, so I’m spending quite a bit of time trying to work out how to economise the amount of clutter on the page.