‘There’s Never Enough Time’ with John Williams

classical guitarist john willliams
In Conversation With Chris Kilvington | From the October 1999 issue of Classical Guitar

When I arrived early at John Williams’ house he was deep in the throes of sorting out a welter of newspaper articles about his friend Jacqueline du Pre and the controversy surrounding the film “Hilary and Jackie.” Papers spread out everywhere, he simultaneously organised breakfast, discussed in precise detail some comments I’d made in CG, and spoke warmly about various musicians he’d met only recently. Williams is not one to settle back into a cushioned comfort zone; he’s as enthusiastic as ever about all his projects, he’s passionately concerned about a variety of things and “people that matter.” Resting on his laurels is not an option, and we soon found ourselves talking about new musical directions and current composition. As ever, he buzzed animatedly; and, as ever, his thoughts unfolded a wider view than my immediate question, a breadth of thinking that immediately complicates a basic query but which also provides it with a rich subtextual interest.

I raised something along the lines of the state of current repertoire …

JOHN WILLIAMS: There seems a need in many contemporary composers to find a language. And when has a society or culture ever previously tried to find a language? I’m not talking about how to learn to write the alphabet, or which instruments to use, but the language of expression itself.

A 20th century problem?

Yes, and a late 19th century problem too. It’s inbuilt into this culture, and has emerged in a powerful way in its ability to influence or corrupt other cultures.

Yet the opposite is also taking place, the so­called “world music,” the infiltration by all kinds of other music—and all to the good, too.

Yes, exactly, I couldn’t agree more, that’s the whole essence of it. The big hope lies in this last 20 years.

It would have been a lot earlier if there had been the same travel opportunity three hundred years ago. It’s about access. And it’s the musical-social­economic hierarchy lineage thing, the correctness of the tie and tails—

Absolutely—but it’s more than that posh tie­and-tails business. European music and its language have gone hand in hand with the rest of its culture, a technological culture to do with power. The assumption is always “the more the better,” the more “developed” the better, the more complex the better: Schubert, Beethoven, Wagner all “developed”—and by implication unquestioningly better, because they are more complex than medieval composers, or Vivaldi, for example. And, it goes without saying, also better than any other music in the world, often monodic and based on rhythms. It’s a colonial assumption—we may love jazz, we may love Indian music, we may love African music. But when all is said and done, the best music is European. That’s an assumption held even amongst progressive people. And, while sometimes well meaning, in my view it’s totally wrong. But it’s breaking down, as you say, although the classical establishment is still not comfortable with it.

It’s amusing, isn’t it, with particular regard to rhythm. Your average Haydn or Mozart is very straightforward when compared with the other music we’re talking about, music which may be melodically or harmonically less important but where the rhythms themselves are far more complicated.

Correct. But in order to combine the melody and harmony with such rhythms, something has to give. You simply can’t have those rhythms working with the other elements you mention. There’s a wonderful book I’d recommend to you written by Francis Bebey and titled African Music—People’s Art. It describes how rhythm and movement are a part of life, not abstract expressions or entertainment, things to be celebrated and shared within the community.

Part of the social fabric?

Yes. Whereas with us, orchestras will express one composer’s vision, it’s still an individualistic art. We’ve lost track of the communal element. It is all to do with what you mentioned before; yet, positively speaking, the clearer you see what’s wrong, the clearer you can see optimistic signs. You can hear someone like Roman Krynkiv, the Ukrainian bandura player, and it gives you a lovely rush of adrenalin. Tim (Kain) and I heard him play in Australia, it was wonderful. It was not like two guitarists spending half an hour working out what trill to do at the end of the slow movement of a Vivaldi piece, or whether to do a little bit more ritardando here, or play the subject a bit louder. It’s not all that stuff. It was instinctive playing from a continuous tradition.

It reminds me of a couple of pipa players I know in London. Their CD notes relate to music written 250 years BC! And we’ve been doing it in Europe for—how long? It makes you feel humble.

It sure does! Can you remember, at school or college—music history was like the bible, it started at such and such a time, with plainsong and octaves, and fifths, and the picture was built up in your mind that there was no music before then. It’s absolute nonsense. All those other folk songs and dances, ignored! We’re victims of a spurious and Eurocentric age. But enough of that!

OK, then a swerve of direction here: you’ve made a lot of records. I must have about 30 myself. Do you know how many you’ve made altogether?

I don’t know. I remember having a conversation about this with Paul Myers about 20 years ago, in the CBS days before Sony, and even then it added up to a lot. You tend to forget things because they get deleted, or put on compilations. If we add in records with Cleo and Julian, Sky, Maria Farandouri, and other artists, plus all those others I’ve taken part in—well, yes, a lot.

It’s quite a legacy.

I don’t think of recordings as legacies at all. If all my records totally disappeared it would not cause me the slightest bother. I think that the cultural cost of recordings, while they are great entertainment, rather outweighs the benefit. There is a price to pay, that of discouraging aspiring musicians and amateur players. They compare themselves to the perfection they hear on a record. I think recording has stopped more music making than it’s encouraged. People can be stopped from doing something themselves, and even when that doesn’t happen it can produce a lack of confidence. It’s a terrible social indictment. In a healthy cultural environment everything should be conspiring to encourage music making.

The idea of creating anything for posterity is anathema to me.

Yet it’s not actually the fault of the recordings per se. It’s to do with the attitudes towards them.

Well, yes. But it’s also the business of having records around us all the time.

They inhibit listeners’ individuality?


They inhibit everything. And so I do not think of legacies when I make a record. I make it, I like doing it now, I hope it will be enjoyed; and if it disappears during or after I’m around, then fine. Someone else can play the music. I think the idea of making things for posterity…

I wasn’t suggesting that—

I know. But since you mentioned the subject, I should say in passing that the idea of creating anything for posterity is anathema to me. The thought that something I record in a studio one day in London could be important in 50 years’ time is absolutely ridiculous to me. Listening to old records can be fun, but that’s entertainment!

How about Barrios? Some 20 years ago you were responsible for introducing Barrios to a public that didn’t know an awful lot about him, and made an all-Barrios disc. His work has proved to be—justifiably—incredibly popular. You don’t necessarily deserve a gold medal for it, but it’s a fact. That’s good, isn’t it? Not in the sense of being a legacy. But having opened up, introduced, this composer?

Oh, undoubtedly. There are huge benefits. But I’d still think in a wider sense the discouragement for amateurs occurs, makes them feel incompetent. And, yes, I know that some children will be inspired. But culture at large tends towards discouragement.

If so, then it’s surely incumbent upon teachers and others with influence to ensure that it’s understood that recordings aren’t presenting definitive versions. That, to put it simply, it doesn’t have to be that good.

Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.

Forgetting recording then, what do you feel you really want to do now? You’ve done so much. Or is it more a question of taking on interesting projects as they arrive, because that’s the way you are?

It is exactly that. I’m concerned, of course, with things I’m tied up with at the moment, and if I look back I see that’s how I’ve always been. Some things I’ve done were very successful, and some were not. But, even with hindsight, I’d still have done them all because they were part of the whole activity. I think it’s good for musicians to be in some constant dialogue in interviews such as this, or radio interviews, talking about what one is doing. It’s an ongoing thing.

There are always things which are part of the general process, rather than thinking “I want to do that.” I plan by negation. I organise the five or six weeks of touring, and then the rest of that year is free. For recording, writing, arranging. I leave massive amounts of time free, space for projects which come up at the last minute.

Your musical life is very much part of your own personal life, the evolution of a person rather than a person sitting outside an external career.

It is, actually. You’re right.

I’m interested in the project of your recent recording, The Guitarist. And in particular, your Aeolian Suite, which was a charming surprise. Have you been writing a lot, or was it a piece out of the blue?

To put it in context, I’ve worked a lot with composers and am pretty experienced in appreciating the shape of a piece of music when playing it. And I’m aware of that practically through arranging. I’ve written lots of little things for which I had no great hopes, some of the Sky pieces, and I did about 12 minutes of music for an Australian film called Emma’s War with guitar, flute and clarinet, string quartet. So I have an idea how it’s done. I know how to put things together, but I couldn’t call myself a composer. The Aeolian Suite started up with this lovely theme from a friend of mine—not a musician—and I was sure he must have heard it somewhere, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I used it, and added to it, developed new ideas and called it Aeolian Chant, and also soon found myself humming another of his tunes which quickly became the eventual last movement. I decided to orchestrate these myself; a professional orchestrator would probably have done it in an afternoon, whereas it took me a couple of weeks slogging over it. But I had fantastic fun doing it, and was very keen to develop it into something rather more. I stole an old 14th century Italian tune and a bit of an old English country dance; and for the slow movement I composed the Ballad, developed from my friend’s tunes. Then I played the whole work in a mock-up version with synthesiser and was able to let Sony hear it without them knowing it was me.

I do hope you’ll publish it. It’s a relatively accessible piece, I think. There’s room for that kind of work, regardless of who wrote it—15 minutes, absolutely ideal for quite a lot of players.

I want to publish it. The last movement is showy but it’s all under the fingers, patterns—easier, sub-standard Brouwer!

And rhythmically tight and self-explanatory.

I’d like to think so.

I guess, quite apart from anything else, that the matter of flabby rhythm disturbs you. Do you think that people who are rhythmically less accurate can blame lack of good training, lack of inclination, or is it simply that some are less capable?

I really don’t like to be judgmental in this.

I’m not asking you to be.

Ah, but the only way I could answer would be to be judgmental! For everyone, it’s a way we feel, a way of expressing what’s within us. Jazz players have a different sense of rhythm, even between themselves.

Basically sloppy rhythm is not the same as rubato.

It’s usually good, isn’t it?

It’s usually fantastic. I’m not ducking your question, believe me, but it’s a bigger question than I can manage in one answer. This is another whole evening discussion, and even a whole cultural discussion. There is a rhythmical pulse, or necessity, which underlies all music whether or not you play with more or less rubato—and basically sloppy rhythm is not the same as rubato, or expressiveness, or anything else which plays around with rhythm. To take just one example of why I think this is at least a whole evening’s discussion in itself: in jazz and all popular music, whether you’re playing a driving fast tune or a slow ballad, the rhythm is constant, it never changes, and the expression is on the basis of the rhythm. The whole spirit of the music rests on the rhythm not changing. A contrasting example lies in all kinds of classical music where the “judge” of an accompanist is how the melodic line is followed. And in our guitar repertoire the perfect example is the slow movement of the Aranjuez. It’s a very specific classical approach to want to follow the rubato of the soloist’s line; a conductor will always wait for the soloist to arrive at specific points. This single example epitomises the classical attitude, it’s part of the culture. It’s not wrong, it’s entirely part of the tradition; but it is a complete anathema to popular music where, no matter how slow, the bass is constant and the tune goes all the way around it. The accompaniment is always totally rhythmical, and the melody can come before or after the beat for bars on end. We’re not talking now about a little bit of catching up of a couple of crotchets, what we call rubato, what we’re taught at college we must “pay back.” It’s a fundamentally different approach; and all my instincts are with the popular version. As I say, I don’t want to be judgmental about how other people play. But what I’ve briefly said here underlies my approach to rhythm. Some may think I drive on a bit—well, that’s my taste. Looking back, I can see that at times I may have been a little too driving. If someone else comments on that I don’t have a problem—as long as they understand the fundamental point of it all.

Segovia was a lousy model for teaching.

It’s rhythmically a long way from Segovia…

I think most of the teachers and players today want to go on in their own way. And the Segovia Worship Society should call it a day. It’s a past age, the background has been revealed, and I would like to think that those who were close to him for a long time early on—like myself—have made it a little bit easier for the younger generation to also be critical. A lot of them are, and a lot of them are feeling comfortable in their own space, not following in the wake of Segovia. It should pass now; in fact, it’s passed. For a long time guitarists have been like a religious sect, it’s like taking orders—you don’t do that by following the specific word. It’s the spirit of music in gener­al you should follow. The thing is, Segovia was a lousy model for teaching.

I could never have had the privilege of a class with him.

You’re lucky! Anyway, he brings to mind transcriptions, and another point—the matter of dynamics in arrangement. I noticed a recent editorial of yours talking on exactly this subject, and the ppp final chord in Asturias in particular. I thought that was good, I know it’s the case. It’s always been my choice to play the chord loud not a rasgueado, I have to say—and we must consider how faithful one must be to the dynamics of the written note in any arranged piece. I thought your comment about the Asturias was absolutely correct, and the next time I perform it I’ll play it with a pianissimo! However, I may also on occasion continue to play it with a loud chord, as there are two ways of projecting a piece. There’s the work as it is written on the page scored by the composer—and it may even have been that he didn’t mean it as literally as it was written. But I’ve always played it with a loud chord because I’ve felt that the piece has already ended quietly, you’ve presented the audience with a picture, and this is now a concluding statement of that picture. It’s not as Albéniz wrote it, and I think when we change things like this we have to have really good reasons for it. It may not be good enough, though; on balance, in this case of Asturias—and I’m not just saying this—I’m inclined to think you’re right, even though in the past I’ve done it the other way. In the larger view of other transcriptions and arrangements there are often many different things you have to; ironically, you sometimes have to change the notes fundamentally to be in the real spirit of the piece on the different instrument which we’re playing. It’s important that we recreate the spirit of the music in the arrangement. I’ll point here to a very interesting example: the arrangement of Satie’s third Gymnopedie on the same CD as Aeolian Suite. It’s always been my favourite of the three; it’s the only one where there is an indication by Satie himself of the kind of orchestration he’d want—in fact the first page of score. Debussy orchestrated two of them, elaborately, with muted horns and brass, sustained strings, using the same notes as on the piano. Satie himself doesn’t do that when he writes for orchestra; he writes pizzicato strings, in contrast to a piano playing a bass note and chord with pedal, and he totally recreates the feeling of the piece with pizzicato chords and arpeggios on a harp in quavers running all the way through the bar. Yet this doesn’t exist anywhere at all in the piano original. It’s a perfect example of how the mood of a piece on a new instrument or set of instruments becomes a second creation, and has to be thought of differently. It’s not an imitation, it’s not a photocopy.

Well, that’s going to lead me on to my next question about a new project of yours I’m aware of, the Schubert Arpeggione. Can you tell me more about that?

I’d like to, although, as we’re talking about arrangements and new ideas, I’d like to talk about Giuliani first. I was over in Australia in December, recording with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the two pieces on the CD became, in the end, one project. This began because I had attended some classes of Carlo Barone’s in Darwin; he and two of his colleagues were giving a course on 1800s guitar style, and in particular Giuliani. His main thesis is that Giuliani’s music was developed from, and was steeped in, the tradition of bel canto and vocal music, as seen in the operas of Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini—the latter particularly for us guitarists because of the Rossinianas. Carlo’s belief is that the way we have been playing Giuliani’s music, in common with a lot of other late 19th century attitudes which have been carried over in music at large, has been without a social and cultural framework. We’ve played it rhythmically four square, like studies. He has immense documentary bibliographic evidence to show that Giuliani’s own compositions and the way he played, of which there are descriptions, was in this very free and expressive bel canto tradition. I was so convinced by this, having been a prime offender in this old-fashioned way, that I became a real convert. It made a lot of sense to me. I was thinking about re-recording the Giuliani concerto and, with the benefit of Carlo’s help, l looked through the full uncut version again with the opening orchestral tutti and the development section, most of which has been cut in the versions usu­ally played. When I looked at the parts which have been cut and played them in this “operatic style” they took on a totally new life; instead of being rather boring, they suddenly became the most interesting and best bits of the whole piece. So I became even more determined to re-record the piece totally with this new attitude.

I went to Italy, to Carlo’s festivals, and played there on one of his old guitars, a Guadagnini, with a string ensemble. It was a perfect sound for Giuliani. l did that to gain experience, and was really excited. I don’t think, in the end, it’s totally necessary to play it on the old instrument; the musical style speaks for itself on whatever instrument you choose to play. The idea opens up the Russian dance in the last movement, which I’d never thought of; it’s not in the written score, but it’s obviously right. And there’s the character of the Siciliana, which I learnt more about—it all makes sense. But the main gist of it is in the first movement, which becomes alternately operatic, dramatic, vocal, virtuosic cadenza, constantly shifting tempos, constantly shifting dynamics. It’s not square 4/ 4 from beginning to end.

It shows that we have an obligation to keep our minds open. Good to see you doing it all over again—it must be a while since you last recorded it.

Yes, indeed. And for this particular recording I wanted something else in the spirit of that period; I didn’t want to fill up the CD with solos, or something of another period, or even another of the Giuliani concertos which I don’t feel have the overall quality of Op.30. And I came back to something I’d thought of on and off every five years for the last 30 years, the Arpeggione Sonata of Schubert. It’s a wonderful work, nearly always played by cello and piano. The arpeggione in question was built for a virtuoso of the time and for whom Schubert wrote this piece. The instrument fell into total oblivion—as did the virtuoso player—and the composition was then adopted as a cello work. As you know, the arpeggione was a six-stringed instrument with frets and tuned exactly like the guitar—but it was bowed. The music is actually rather awkward on the cello, because the chord shapes, melody and harmony are strange for an instrument tuned in fifths. And, of course, on the guitar it’s totally under the fingers, and what’s more it sounds like it. Ironically, although the arpeggione was bowed, there are not many long notes in the piece. But the reason I’ve always put the idea on the back burner is simply that guitar and piano is not a great ensemble, you don’t get a real feeling of overall musical legato. It’s a question of the texture. But last year the penny dropped, and I thought—of course! The piano part needs to be arranged for strings! I went to Christopher Gunning, who made a most a wonderful orchestration. We took it out to Australia, did a couple of warm-up concerts, and then recorded both pieces. l must say that I think it’s absolutely wonderful. We had a German producer, Andreas Neubronner, someone I’d never worked with before but with whom I really got on well with, and he was absolutely bowled over by it. Now, you know how l hate hype. But this is really exciting and really successful; I’m thrilled by it. And this is going to be published as well.

You sound as enthusiastic as ever.

Well, I am. I feel the same as ever. There’s always something inspiring coming up, there’s never enough time.

Better not to have enough time than to find that time is hanging heavily?

You said it!

We drew a line under it at this point. John had an afternoon meeting with journalists regarding the du Pre film, and it was time for him to collect his papers and his thoughts. But such is his passion for his music that, just like guitarists everywhere, he inevitably found himself picking up his instrument again and playing fragments of the Schubert arrangement for me, as he had done earlier with the “new” Giuliani, not to mention his Aeolian Suite. He’s the same as the rest of us, he loves playing the guitar. I believe that this shows in his performance even more than ever, which is very good news indeed. John Williams is very much one of us, but he is also a marvellously unfailing inspiration for us and long may this continue. I have no doubt whatsoever that it will.