An Interview with John Williams
By Tony Morris
One of the nicest surprises in recent years occurred in the Summer of 1998 when Andy Cahn of
Sony Classical called to tell me about John Williams's upcoming CD release, titled "The Guitarist",
and asked if I'd be interested in doing an interview with Williams for broadcast on
Classical Guitar Alive! I couldn't have said "yes" fast enough, and Andy immediately
went to work at making it all happen. The following interview was recorded July 13, 1998. We spoke via ISDN line; John Williams was
in the Kaman Studios in Manhattan, and I was at the KUT-FM studios in Austin. David Acecello of
Kaman Studios, and David Alvarez and Dana Whitehair of KUT did an excellent job in engineering
the interview. Special thanks go to Ron Casey of Portland, Oregon and Steve Bondy of Windsor, Ontario for
painstakingly transcribing this hour-long interview. I can personally testify how time-consuming
it is to listen to a taped conversation while typing what is being said. It takes enormous powers
of concentration, and I very much appreciate their hard work. I would also like to thank Richard Sliwa for providing a wealth of information about John
Williams on his "The Unofficial John Williams Web-site":
Finally, I would especially like to thank John Williams for being such a great interviewee.
Before the interview began, I was more than a little nervous, but was immediately put at ease by
his friendly and unpretentious manner. Clearly, John Williams doesn't spend much time thinking
about being acclaimed as the world's premiere classical guitarist before the public today- he's
much more interested in the music.
One of the nicest surprises in recent years occurred in the Summer of 1998 when Andy Cahn of Sony Classical called to tell me about John Williams's upcoming CD release, titled "The Guitarist", and asked if I'd be interested in doing an interview with Williams for broadcast on Classical Guitar Alive! I couldn't have said "yes" fast enough, and Andy immediately went to work at making it all happen.
The following interview was recorded July 13, 1998. We spoke via ISDN line; John Williams was in the Kaman Studios in Manhattan, and I was at the KUT-FM studios in Austin. David Acecello of Kaman Studios, and David Alvarez and Dana Whitehair of KUT did an excellent job in engineering the interview.
Special thanks go to Ron Casey of Portland, Oregon and Steve Bondy of Windsor, Ontario for painstakingly transcribing this hour-long interview. I can personally testify how time-consuming it is to listen to a taped conversation while typing what is being said. It takes enormous powers of concentration, and I very much appreciate their hard work.
I would also like to thank Richard Sliwa for providing a wealth of information about John Williams on his "The Unofficial John Williams Web-site": http://www.rjsliwa.dircon.co.uk/williams
Finally, I would especially like to thank John Williams for being such a great interviewee. Before the interview began, I was more than a little nervous, but was immediately put at ease by his friendly and unpretentious manner. Clearly, John Williams doesn't spend much time thinking about being acclaimed as the world's premiere classical guitarist before the public today- he's much more interested in the music.
TONY MORRIS: Thanks for doing this interview. Not only is it a real coup for me to have you on the program, but personally a real joy to be able to talk to you. You're a musician I've admired for so long, and I'm thrilled like you wouldn't believe, so thanks. JOHN WILLIAMS My pleasure, Tony.
TM: Thanks, thanks very much. I guess we should talk about your record first, and then if we have any time left over, just whatever.
JW: Okay, absolutely. I'll follow anything that you'd like to know.TM:Wow, cool! Let's see... you're just going to be playing some excerpts, right?
JW: Yes. I'll play anything that comes up you know, absolutely, yeah.
AM: Well, let's talk about the new record, called "The Guitarist", and that's on Sony. It's going to be out September 29th. Let's talk about some of the pieces on your CD. When I first got the advance CD from Sony, there's a piece on there, the "Aeolian Suite", and it says, "John Williams".
AM: And I was thinking, "oh that's got to be the other guy". But then I checked the (composer's) dates, and no, that's your piece!
JW: I thought one of the things of calling the album "The Guitarist", might help to focus people's attention on the fact that it's the guitarist JW, and not the composer. I have composed, or written - I don't call myself a composer at all - I never would. But I did write some music for an Australian film about fifteen years ago. And it actually was one of Lee Remick's last films. She went out and played an American in Sydney during the Second World War.
AM: Was that "The Walking Stick"?
JW: No, that was an English film. No, this was a film called "EmmaÕs War". And I've written music for that just for strings and guitar and flute. And it's quite nice music actually, it was one of those things that, you know, you think, "Gosh, I'm not a composer, but I can't believe I wrote that quite like it!" But I haven't had any pretensions to being a composer, but I've arranged obviously quite a lot of traditional tunes and with the group SKY many years ago, I actually wrote a couple of numbers. But they're not compositions as such. They're more like sort of short, you know, eight bar sort of songs which you repeat four times. The usual sort of pop song type format. But I've had lots of ideas, especially that have emanated from sort of guitar ideas. But I've always been rather inhibited from putting myself forward like that.
AM: Why is that?
JW: Well, I don't know. I think it's because I'm very interested in composition, and very interested in Jazz - the act of creating and improvising. Which, actually, whether it's Classical, so-called creating, or Jazz improvising, are actually quite similar. It's just the cultural process by which they're done is different. And I'm very interested, and know many composers, and we've discussed it. And, having performed a lot of new music, I'm very aware of where composers sometimes fall down. Sometimes they have great ideas, and the music is very good. But, sometimes it doesnÕt quite work when it's performed. And I've always been fascinated as to why that is the case. I've noticed that performers, who are also composers, usually don't make those mistakes. I mean, I'm sure if you think back to the old days - Mozart, Beethoven. One should also remember that they were performers as well. I'm not going to say primary performers, but they were almost equally, in their day, performers as (well as) composers. And I think they have a sense of the shape of how a piece of music..., it's not so much coming over to an audience, it's coming over to anyone that's listening, including musicians, including perhaps themselves. Once they've detached themselves from the act of creating itself.
Anyway, thats all by way of a long explanation as to while I've always sort of known so much about it - well, I think I know so much about it, it's inhibited me from doing anything. But, in this particular case, the "Aeolian Suite", a friend of mine - who wishes to remain anonymous, actually had gave me, just for the fun of it, a tune which he thought, well I thought actually, he just made it up. He's not even a musician. And I thought it sounded like one of those old medieval chants. And, I was very taken with it actually , and I played around with it. And then I did a little arrangement of it with synthesizer. I was a kind of, sort of synthesized string section.
AM: That was when you were composing the piece?
JW: That's right. And this was about two or three years ago. And there was another little phrase that he had made up. Actually I will tell you what that is first - there were two ideas. There was the Aeolian, I then called it the "Aeolian Chant", because it's in the aeolian mode. And there was another little idea as well, which I will come to in a minute. But the first one was, and I'll tune the string down, wasÉ (lowers tuning on guitar, then plays example). And I'm very taken with that anyway. And I played around with little ideas with the guitar doingÉ (plays example). Little ideas. Anyway, I knocked it into shape and it became a piece. And there's another little tune also, which he'd sort of hummed in the street, which wasÉ (Plays example) very simple (continues to play) just like that. And one thing led to another and I sort of made up a piece out of that as well. I made up a tune in the minor that wentÉ (plays example) like that. And, I don't know, I suppose it's just the enjoyment of playing around with an idea in a guitaristic way. And it suddenly sort of, just went on and on. I can't explain it more than that.
AM: There's also, I believe in the second movement, there's an old melody...
JW: That's right. Well, anyway I'll cut it short because I'm going on a bit too long about this.
AM: Feel free! I'm glad to get it on tape, trust me. I'm thrilled like you wouldnÕt believe.
JW: So anyway, both the "Aeolian Chant", and the last movement, what I called the "Toccata", sort of became movements. And I did those actually a couple of years ago with synthesizer. And I was very pleased the way they turned out. I wrote other tunes that sort of fitted in the middle. For exampleÉ
(plays example) they all made nice little episodes in the "Toccata", and the whole piece seemed to hang together. Then I thought finally when I was doing this record, which actually came about for another reason originally. But when I was finally getting the program together for this record, I thought; I think these pieces will really fit in. But, just as two separate pieces that donÕt actually belong together, maybe not so well. So I thought I must find something else to make them a suite, which is an entity, they are an entity in itself. So, that tune you just mentioned was an old Italian fourteenth century tune, which is called a Saltarello. And it goesÉ (plays example) and then, thereÕs another little dance which I knew of, because IÕve got a collection of a lot of these, an Old English country dance, which goesÉ (plays example) I took a bit of a liberty there, and put the two ends together. And that becameÉ (plays example) et cetera. So that worked quite well as a piece.
AM: Yeah, it sounds like it fits.
JW: It did. And then I thought, well, I can't remember the order of this, in fact I think that was the last thing to go in it actually. The third movement, which in many ways is my favorite, is the thing that it sounds as if in a way itÕs the most original. And it all actually came out of the original chants and last movement tune - that little tocatta tune. (plays example) And I thought I wanted a nice, simple, tune a little bit like the old troubadour song, so I called it "Ballad". And I thought it needed some solo guitar in the suite, soÉ (plays example). Just as if itÕs some troubador playing the instrument to themselves É (continues playing).
Not with a strong sense of direction, but sort of finding a way somewhere. And of course that tune is totally taken from the toccata tune. And it was a kind of compositional device which composers use all the time. ItÕs not really a device, itÕs just a development from one little germ of an idea.
AM: Right. So, you composed the piece in sections, with themes, and then you had to find...
AM: ... a way to develop, or get them bridged?
JW: Exactly. And then I decided on my orchestration, which I wanted to keep very simple - strings, clarinets and flutes. With the clarinets and flutes, occasionally a solo clarinet, or a solo flute, but mainly use them as texture with the strings. I didnÕt want any grand orchestration. ItÕs not the right record for that, and itÕs probably not something that IÕm very skilled at. But, IÕve played so much, and I did study orchestration when I was a student many years ago. And IÕve done a lot of arranging, so I thought, well, IÕm going to take a long time to get this orchestration really right. You know, IÕm going to do - which is very easy to do - you know people who sort of whistle, or sing in the bath, and get some orchestrator to do it all. I thought, IÕm not going to do that, unless things get really desperate. IÕm going to do it myself, because itÕs too easy to write a sort of flippant little tune, and then make it sound very lush by getting some orchestrator in, you know.
JW: So, I thought, IÕm really going to use my own experience here to put it together. And again, the ideas, they sort of flowed. Now I got very wound up with it. I mean, theyÕre little pieces - only three minutes, four minutes each movement. But I got very involved with it, and IÕm very pleased with it.
AM: Do you think you might be writing a full-scale concerto in the future?
JW: I mightnÕt have any ideas at all, you know. I mean this might be all I can ever write (laughter). All I know is that I really got involved with this. And the shape of it, I was very, very careful not to have it too long. I think composers often, É they should be like, they should have the equivalent of book publishers you know. They should be editors and cut them down. In fact, I think if anything, IÕve probably overdone it. I think the Ballad probably could have done with another little repeat somewhere. But, still, better that somethingÕs... the shape of it is right. And I just enjoyed it enormously.
AM: ItÕs a very nice piece, and IÕve enjoyed listening to it.
JW: And itÕs showy. I mean the "Toccata" is meant as a... I mean all the vocabulary, the musical language of it is actually old in the sense that there are no chromatic harmonies, thereÕs a concentration on open fifths, you know these sort ofÉ (plays example). Simple harmonies, except for the "Toccata". And the "Toccata", that last movement, which wanders off into all sorts of strange keys, but theyÕre all very listenable, and itÕs a slight joke. I mean, IÕm not doing it as a joke. But it deliberately wanders out of context. But it always comes back to the same feeling. Anyway, thatÕs enough of that!
AM: ItÕs a very nice piece.
JW: Thank you.
AM: And IÕm actually really thrilled to hear a top level performer, sort of "coming out of the closet" as a composer, so to speak.
JW: Well, IÕll tell you, I mean IÕve said this quite often enough, but I really enjoyed it. And I also enjoyed the orchestrating of it. In fact, I had one last problem; my problems were for it to not sound too derivative. And a great chum of mine in England, Christopher Gunning, whoÕs a great composer - does a lot of television and film music, I phoned him up one day and I said, " IÕve got a real problem in the last page of the "Toccata". Want I really want, what seems to come really naturally, is some lovely little phrases on the flute and clarinet. And if I have the flute first and the clarinet second, it sounds like a Tchaikovsky ballet! (laughs) And if I have the clarinet first, and the flute second, it sounds a bit like Sibelius!
AM: I guess thatÕs the problem with listening to too much music, you can always find something (that it resembles).
AM: Well, lets talk about some of the other pieces on the CD.
JW: Yes! Well, the CD actually came, you know, independently of the "Aeolian Suite", so É Which oneÕs in particular? Anything in particular?
AM: Well, letÕs see. Oh, I want to ask you really quickly - the other "Renaissancy" pieces - are those from the same body of work as the "Saltarello"?
JW: They are.
AM: ThatÕs what I thought.
JW: They are. TheyÕre from an old collection. 14th Century Italian collections. 14th Century, could be late 13th Century, but certainly 14th Century. And one of them might be from early fifteenth century. But yes, the first one, the "Lamento di Tristan" is a most beautiful tune, isnÕt it? The... (plays example). Anyway, I arranged them in a very simple way. (continues to play). There was one they called "Ductia" thatÕs an old English tune, a dance, IÕm tuning down now because itÕs in another tuning. And I suddenly realized, itÕs just one of those things when youÕre looking at a tune, it was in C major, the version that I had. (plays example) Of course these tunes are often done by lots of instruments either playing in unison, sometimes as little percussion instruments. But I thought, the point of playing them on guitar is that you introduce something that is specifically guitaristic about it. So now realize that in G, I can use a lot of the open string harmonics. (plays example) ItÕs quite a magical sort of sound, I thought. And the "Saltarello" of course is quite a well known one. (plays example) And those are the things that everyone joined in with all sorts of things.
Actually, the origins of getting this rather, it seems, rather disparate collection of pieces together. Where actually, two pieces, in other words the two main solo pieces, which is "Koyunbaba", which maybe weÕll talk about in a minute. And a beautiful piece, which IÕve played for many years, by an Australian composer Phillip Houghton. He wrote a piece called "Stele" which I first performed at the Adelade festival in Australia about eight or nine years ago. Stele are, the word is for, it describes old Greek stones and monuments to commemorate certain events. And the specific ones that Phillip Houghton was inspired by, various ones that are in books that are from collections in Greece. And, he has his own ideas, his own fantasies of what these different things mean. For instance, the third one, the first one Š "Stele", the one thatÕs called "Stele", the first of the four pieces. ItÕs, he thinks, of a sailor with his head buried in his hands. And he has the idea that it is a sailor lost at sea somewhere, dreaming of the homeland, feeling lonely and that sort of thing.
And the second one is called "Dervish", itÕs his interpretation of a mad galloping horse. Again, another Stele, another stone monument of a galloping horse. The third one, "Bronze Apollo" I think speaks for itself. After the end of the "Mad Dervish", which is the Dervish É (plays example), itÕs very difficult, that Dervish, that second movement. It ends up very fast. Suddenly it ends very abruptly (plays) like that. And "Bronze Apollo" comes like thisÉ (plays example). I think itÕs a wonderful chord. ItÕs a straight four (IV) chord to B flat with an A flat bass. But somehow it just sounds like a bronze statue, doesnÕt it? (laughs)
And itÕs got a last movement which sort of sums up all these ideas. ItÕs sort of rather, É (plays example) But itÕs a wonderful, very evocative piece. And one of the problems IÕve had is not with the piece, or with playing it, but is actually wanting to record it, but not finding a context for it. You know, without having a thematic idea. I did an album of Australian music about three or four years ago call From Australia. But the point of that was that it was music that in some way was inspired by, and it was not only by Australian composers, but the fact that the music itself had something to do with Australia. And of course this piece is to do with old Greek, and pre-Classical sort of feelings, you know? So, IÕve never found a way of fitting it in.
Then, about two or three years ago I heard a piece, of all places, itÕs a guitar piece that a few guitarists played. ItÕs a fairly new piece written in the, I think late eighties, early nineties. And I heard it, of all places, in Beijing, in China. I was in China about three years ago, and it was more or less a sort of combined socialÉ, I did play, through the guitar societies there. And I really went because I wanted to visit China. And I went with a English-Chinese friend of mine, Gerald Garcia. And we played some duets, and we met all the guitarists in the different towns that we went to. And in Beijing, we went to professor Chen Zhi, who is the guitar professor at the conservatory. And we heard about four or five of his students, two or three girls in their teens, who were just absolutely phenomenal. And one them played this piece called "Koyunbaba". I have to de-tune quite a lot to show this, so I mightÉ
AM: Give us a running commentary of the tuning there.
JW: Absolutely, right. Okay, well, taking from the normal E tuning. And itÕs quite interesting to know about this, because itÕs also quite necessary when you are tuning in a concert. You have to know which oneÕs to tune first, because every string is different except the top string. So, first of all, I make an octave with the... (while tuning) the third string goes up to G#. Second string goes up a tone to C#. Then the fourth string comes down half a tone to C#. Fifth string comes down half a tone to G#. And the sixth string goes down a minor third to C#. So you have this wonderful C# minor tuning. (plays example) And the thing about a tuning like this - and there are few, if any pieces that re-tune the guitar so fundamentally as that - is that itÕs not just the sound itself are the only things of course. But itÕs that all the chord shapes that you get in that tuning areÉ
JW: Just amazing, you know. And very, very, different. And totally "un-Spanish" in sound. I fact, itÕs more like one of the traditional instruments from Turkey itself. And, I mentioned Turkey. I shouldÕve mentioned that before, because Domeniconi, who is the composer, he is an Italian guitarist. But he lived and worked for many years in Istanbul, in Turkey. And he was very affected by traditional Turkish music, and the dances, and songs, and the instrumental forms.
ThatÕs what this has evolved from. So, he used a four-part piece, but he usesÉ
(tunes guitar) the open strings can sound, you know, he builds them up, I donÕt want to play the whole piece now, butÉ
AM: You can play us just some of the "hot licks" from it!
JW: Exactly, the hot licks! Well, basically thereÕs the intro I played you. And then later on you get, É (plays example) É IÕll re-tune again. Because this guitar goes out of tune all the time of course when you do this.
AM: Now, is that piece very problematic to play in concert if you... will the guitar stay in tune?
JW: It will. Because I usually introduce it, and then funny enough, I de-tune the strings much more, I was explaining what I was doing there more. But normally I would exaggerate what I was doing to get them to adjust quicker. And there are ways of doing it - sometimes I have a second guitar actually, which is quite nice. But anyway, he builds this piece up. ItÕs just very, very exciting. But itÕs one of those sort of slow build pieces that gradually gets more... (plays example). It gets very excited... (continues example) All harmonies and sounds using lots of open strings, which of course are totally bound up with that tuning. The last movement is a wonderfully long continuous jumble of notes. It starts like this... (plays example). Very repetitive, it goes on "trance-like" almost , and ends up with (plays example) et cetera. It ends like it began. But quite a piece.
Anyway, I had... going back to what I was going to describe about getting the album together, I had these two pieces, "Koyunbaba", and "Stele", which are really not just like another guitar piece, but both pieces very, very different, very wonderful pieces (that are) quiet outstanding as guitar pieces. Not just another little new guitar piece which you could stick in a program or play in the living room at home, I mean quite substantial and important pieces.
So, I was trying to find some sort of context in an album. I played it in concert, but of course people expect you to play a variety of things, but on a CD it's sometimes difficult to give a context to a variety of pieces, unless you just say it's a recital or... that can sound or look like a sort of compilation of old bits and pieces, you know? (laughs).
AM: I guess you could have called it "Music from Asia Minor", or... (laughs)
JW: Exactly! I can see you understand the problem, because I went through that, and I thought for a while of calling it "Koyunbaba", which is the name of that piece, and ...
AM: And what does the piece... What does the title refer to?
JW: "Koyunbaba" is a region, it's a part of Turkey, in South West of Turkey. It also means "The Shepherd". I don't know Domeniconi, the composer. I don't know what he was thinking of with that, but those are its two meanings.
AM: I wonder about that piece, I actually have the sheet music to it. On the front, there's this blurry watercolor.
JW: That's right! On the front, that's it, a bluish sort of thing...
AM: Yeah, it looks like a shepherd, it's almost like a Christ-like figure. I was thinking maybe...
JW: Oh really?
AM: To me, that's what it looks like. I wonder if it's some sort of...
JW: Oh, I never looked that closely at the cover! I'll have to do that next time (laughs).
AM: I don't know, that's just what I thought, "Oh, is that a picture of Jesus?" or, "What is that?"
JW: Oh, right. I don't think it's Jesus, but... (laughter)
AM: Maybe he (Domeniconi) just spilt his coffee cup (on the cover).
JW: It was very lucky, actually, that I didn't call it "Koyunbaba", and the reason was after I'd already decided not to call it "Koyunbaba", I found out that he (Domeniconi) has recorded it on an album which is called "Koyunbaba", so that would have been very confusing...
AM: A lot of guitarists are recording that (piece), in fact, Bill Kanengiser from the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet predicted that it was going to become the "Leyenda" of the 90's.
JW: Yep. Absolutely, at least!
Anyway, you said "Asia Minor", so I was thinking of things to do with the Eastern Mediterranean, the Baltics, and all that, and I couldn't think of anything. But I then sort of hit on an idea, which only existed for me in putting the album together. I didn't want it to become a concept album. I think that's sort of very 60's and passe and boring (laughter).
But I did want some link for me and I suddenly realized that, although "Koyunbaba" is by an Italian, and Phillip Houghton's "Stele", Phillip Houghton is Australian, they are actually evoking and describing, giving impressions of that Eastern Mediterranean area, Greece, Turkey, that sort of part of the world. And at least if I selected the other music that fitted in with that, that sort of echoed the same... through the same harmonies, maybe. And then I thought immediately of course of Medieval music, because it's modal, and the modes are obviously the Greek modes...
JW: ... Became the foundation of Gregorian chant and early Medieval music, and the modes that we know very well. Any listeners that may not know what I'm talking about, there may be one or two, our major scale... I don't know every mode,.. I may have to tune up again now.
So we've left "Koyunbaba". I'm going to tune up, folks. (tunes guitar) Right to the ordinary tuning. (tunes guitar up) Up that one (tunes guitar).
AM: Oh, let me ask, while you're doing that, let me ask you about your guitar. You've been playing on the Smallmans for years now, what is it about those guitars that appeals to you so much?
JW: Well, I first met Greg Smallman... (continues to tune)
AM: I know it's hard to answer questions and tune and listen! (laughs).
JW: Yep. No, I didn't want to leave too long a gap (in this interview). No, that's right. I first met him in about 19 seventy..., Oh, mid-70's, and he was a guitar maker, he wasn't very pleased with his guitars and wasn't even sure he wanted to continue making.
But he came to me one day, and I was very impressed with this, because he came and I was a little bit flattered, obviously, because he said, "I love the sound that you make on that guitar, and that guitar you play is like the best guitar. And the guitar I was then playing was by the great Spanish maker, Ignacio Fleta.
And Greg Smallman came up and he said, "That guitar is really wonderful, and I love the way you use it, and what point is there for someone like me," he said, "to make a guitar, because that, in a way, couldn't be better. What is it?"
And I thought, "This is terrific. " Because most guitar makers, most instrument makers, are really sort of..., they're quite critical of other makers, they're not over-generous, you know.
JW: And they're always full of themselves!
JW: And he wasn't; he started off in admiration of Fleta, who indeed was, (his sons are still making), but indeed by far, the only true guitar maker on the same level could count with the great violin makers.
So, he then said to... we got into a conversation and I wanted to encourage him, you see, so I said, "Now, you see, you really must carry on making, because you know the guitar can always improve. There's always things about all instruments that people want to improve."
And he said, "Well, what is it about the Fleta? (that needs improving)". And I said, "Well, the top string actually is quite hard work; it can be a little bit thin. It's very "guitaristic", very "guitary", and it sounds very... "Spanishy", and it's (a) lovely quality, but musically, it's a bit thin, and it's very difficult to make singing melodies, and ...
AM: Well, if I can "butt-in" here, explain what you mean by "Spanishy". What is that?
JW: (plays guitar) Well, I don't have another guitar here (laughter) to show you!
And also, things I said I liked about the Fleta is, it's got a lovely full bass. A lot of people used to find the Fleta a little bit too bassy. It's like saying a Steinway is too bassy, on a piano, you know? You don't have to play it loud! (laughs).
So, he set to work from there. Now, I can partially answer that by saying... for example, one of the areas the Fleta and all guitars (plays) have a little bit lacking in body is down here (plays melody on the first string in the first position). Very often we have to go to the second string (plays melody on the second string)
AM: Right, now you're playing in the first position...
JW: What I'm trying to play... yes, I'm playing it in a natural way, but often the first string would sound ... I might come away from the mic a little bit here, and I'll just ... (plays example) very difficult to imitate what it would be like, because I should have another guitar here to show you. (laughs).
AM: Actually, if you're ever in the States, I know a guitar collector in Dallas who has this huge collection...
JW: Oh, that'd be interesting!
But generally, I mean, people would be able to relate it to the fact if I said like flamenco guitars are more percussive. And they're supposed to be like that because for flamenco, for the dancing and the accompaniment of the singing, you need something which is very open and very percussive and very positive in sound.
JW: And, ordinary or typical Spanish classical guitars have a little bit of that percussive aspect to them. They... when you play loud, you get much more attack, but not more note. It's quite a complicated thing to explain, actually without having another guitar here, but I could give you an example here, for instance (plays example) where I take a chord, (plays it). I don't want to blow your speakers over here! (laughs) This is a chord that comes in a Leo Brouwer piece ("Elogio de la Danza").I'm just going to play it now, I'm not going to move anything else in my hands except play louder (plays chords with a crescendo). Often when you do that on a, I'll say, a typical "Spanish"-type guitar, although it will sound substantially the same as that, the louder you get, you feel greater percussive attack, but you don't actually get a lot more body of note...
JW: ...when you do it. It just becomes more of a rattle, and in a way, that can be quite exciting. But musically, it can be a bit of a problem, and it's indicative of the way the guitar is constructed. Its Spanish fan strutting is quite taut and "springy", kind of construction.
AM: Well, isn't the... in the Smallman, it has that lattice bracing...
JW: That's right.
AM: Isn't that also very tight? Doesn't that make the top very tight?
JW: Yes, but it's tight in a totally different way. It's tight, but it's very light. He has very, very thin cedar wood with carbon fiber-reinforced light-weight struts. It is a lattice work, but it is so light, much lighter than the equivalent fan-strutted guitars, that the whole top works a little bit like a drum skin works.
Anyone, even non-guitarists listening to us now will know, will be able to picture what the shape of a guitar looks like, and if I say that, in general, a fan strut guitar radiates from the bridge. The fan is sort of central, and the top vibrates from its tightest part, which is where the weight of the bridge, and the fan struts, and the strings are fastened to the bridge. So, that the more effort the right hand makes in plucking a note, for instance, just going (plays example) like that, the more of that mass of wood is excited.
But it dissipates its energy because... it's made to resonate from the middle outwards. Now I'm getting too technical here (laughter) and it'll become very confusing (laughs).
But generally, that's the contrast with the lattice... very light-weight lattice bracing guitar of Greg's , where the action (plays) of plucking excites the whole top more rigidly like a drum skin.
It's like if you put your hand in front of you now, or you put your two hands with the thumbs together, and keep the thumbs together but wave the little fingers up and down, you would be a
Like a conventional fan strut guitar but if you take both hands and move your whole hand up and down, including the thumbs you get an idea how the top of a Smallman guitar would work more. It's not a new idea, because the old guitars, the pre-1850's, most of the guitars had one or two simple cross struts, and of course a lot of the steel strung, in fact nearly all the steel strung guitars, Martins and things like that were all cross strutted; they weren't fan strutted.
Fan struts were introduced by the Spaniards in the 19th century to create a more percussive, they thought louder sound, but in fact they made it more percussive. It was kind of an impression of loudness. We're getting a bit technical here, and I'm sure we'll have a few guitar makers jumping on the phones saying that's not right. I have to emphasize these are quite broad generalizations.
I'd like to return to one simple aspect of the kind of lattice bracing that Greg Smallman uses in his guitars. The effect of it is not to do only with volume, it's a musical thing, the fact that you can control the volume loud and soft. It also means that you can play very, very quietly and the sound sings more. So you can doÉ (plays example) So it's not only a question of loudness, itÕs the gradations from loud to soft, and the same thing happens in tone colors. So when you go near the bridge and go up toward the fingerboard (plays example) you get a constantly changing quality of sound. Now all guitars give you a sharp sound here (plays by the bridge) and a dolce sound there (plays near/over the neck). All guitars will do that, with the way you're plucking the string, but typical of a Smallman guitar and this kind of construction is that you get a great variety between those points. It's like you have your mouth open and you're blowing smoke rings or something, and you're making different vowel sounds, like A-E-I-O-U with your lips and your mouth (plays example). So it's a musical thing, and it's why ever since he developed this in the early 1980's that I've played on Smallmans ever since.
AM: Cool. Let me ask you more about the CD. Oh, first, is there going to be a US concert tour to promote the CD?
JW: Yes, I'm doing a short tour, it's mainly the east coast, except I'm playing in Atlanta where I've never played before, but I'm playing in early October. I'll be here for about ten days.
AM: Oh, so no gigs in Texas?
JW: No, I do very short trips. I spend most of my time in London and I do short ten-day trips when I do my concerts?
AM: Why is that?
JW: Well, I've got a lot going on in London, I've always got new recordings or musical projects that I'm developing for the future. I do about fifteen, twenty concerts a year, that's all. That's all the solo concerts I do but there's often a new concerto or newÉ I do a great variety of things. In London, and the one or two trips I do make I do a greater variety than I would do if I was simply spending one month on the road playing the same recital program. I mean I can give you an example, next January, February, March in London, I'm not travelling anywhere in that period, I'm doing a concert with Peter Hurford the great organist; organ and guitar. We're playing Bach for the BBC. I'm doing a 75th birthday concert for the English composer Stephen Dodgeson. I'm doing a lot of his music. And, then I'm doing two concerts for Simon Rattle and the city of Birmingham orchestra. He's had a series of things called "Surveying the Century" and there are two pieces by the great Japanese composer Takemitsu who died last year very sadly; a guitar concerto and a piece for guitar, oboe d'amoré and orchestra, so I'm playing both those. I'm doing a great variety of things. If I was away those months doing a tour here, or Australia or something playing the same recital program it might look as if I'm very busy but actually I'll be busier in London learning all this music. But I enjoy doing that, you see.
I'd like to come back if I may just to mention again, to tie up about the record. I then felt that with "Koyunbaba" and with "Stele" that I had the sort of basis of a record, which had a kind of, slightly Asian, near-east feel and that with some medieval music, or arrangements of medieval music, they would fit together because of the link through the Greek modes. So that's what happened and I then filled out the program with some pieces by Theodorakis, Greek composer who is still living. His music is based, although it's kind of folk or popular music that he has played a large part in developing in the last 30 years, he uses again a lot of the traditions of Greek choral music and Greek dances which for exampleÉ (re-tunes guitar and plays example) These sort of parallel sixths and octaves, they remind one a lot of Greek music because the bazoukis and, it actually comes from the old simple Greek orthodox church choral writing. So I thought they might fit on in the same collection.
And lastly, and certainly not least at all, Eric Satie, the French composer. He's most well known for those "Gymnopédies", the three "Gymnopédies" originally piano solos and also as piano solos the "Gnossiennes", there's a group of six or twelve "Gnossiennes" and they are again Greek inspired for Satie. The "Gymnopédies" are the dances of naked youths and that was the thing he was inspired by. The "Gnossiennes" come from (Greek island) Gnossus I think originally, the idea, slow dances. I thought they would fit too in a way a little bit like Phillip Houghton's Stele which is evocative of Greece and Greek inspired. Actually Satie's pieces were exactly the same. So I thought they would be very good companions for Stele. On the record I've placed the two "Gnossiennes"É (plays example). And then one of the "Gymnopédies" is a very interesting story, obviously everyone knows (plays opening from "Gymnopédie No. 1") that one, which is like all Satie's music, it's bewitching, you know it's magical. I love it all, but my favorite "Gymnopédie" is actually number 3 (plays example).
Now, the "Gymnopédies" are known, or two of them are known, anyway, in the orchestrations by Debussy. But a friend of mine many years ago did his Ph.D. on Satie, and he lived in Paris for a year while he did it, Patrick Gowers. Does that name sound familiar at all?
AM: Yes, I actually have an LP you did and you played on electric guitar.
JW: That's right, that's a piece that he did...
AM: It's very old.
JW: When technology, during the making of that LP not very advanced yet. It's a bit rough in places. But he actually mainly became after that a film composer. He did a couple of films, especially television music, in fact if anyone, you must have heard of the Sherlock Holmes series, he's done all the music for those. They've been on television, broadcast throughout the world a number of times. Anyway, he did his thesis on Satie and he had a facsimile photo-page of Satie's own beginnings of an orchestration for "Gymnopédie No. 3" and he'd given me this years ago, I've always shown it to people and sort of held on to it, taken great care of it. And so I thought that on this record since the "Aeolian Suite" which we've already talked about was with small orchestra, strings, clarinets and flutes, I would do a similar thing with the "Gymnopédie" and take as my model Satie's own arrangement himself. Original piano piece but the arrangement he started. He never finished it, he only wrote the first few bars of the accompaniment and then he left it. He tells you what he's going to do, the strings play pizzicato, they do the (plays example), totally different from the Debussy arrangement for orchestra which has got muted horns and all sorts of things like that. And he's got a harp playing arpeggios and then he doesn't tell you what the tune's going to be, he just lays out what is going to be in the score, which is a voice, so he probably had a voice, a vocalise without words, oboe and two clarinets.
AM: And you used that for the basis for your...
JW: So I used that, I mean I didn't take all that, because we didn't know what he was going to do and I wouldn't try and do the- he would obviously do extraordinary things with those instruments but I just simply did the rest for guitar, so I put the tune on the guitar and I used the two clarinets and the flute for a bit of very gentle harmony in the middle. I was very pleased with that, it's a piece I love. And it kind of gave a, it connected the two solo Satie pieces, the two "Gnossiennes" that I did to the rest of the record, and it sort of fit it in with the "Aeolian Suite", being also orchestral. So that basically makes up the whole record. There are sort of links all the way around; there's the link between the ancient music, the Greek modes and medieval music, there's the link between sort of "Stele", the Philip Houghton, and the Satie and the "Koyunbaba" is very much an instrumental piece that stands on its own. Can't say it's a record with a theme, and for that reason I've definitely not said that in the notes, and I've not made any play of that in the title, but in my own mind it's how the pieces belong together.
AM: Right, well, on listening to all of it, it sounds connected to me.
JW: And the lovely thing about it, it wasn't an object of it, but I think what's lovely, is the guitar-- I'm always in awe of how wonderful the guitar is, to be able to conjure up all those moods and to evoke all those periods in such an exciting way by those composers, but it's entirely and totally "un-Spanish!" I mean I've got nothing against Spanish music, you know a lot of Spanish music sounds great on guitar but there is absolutely nothing Spanish about any of the pieces. I don't know of any other instrument that could evoke such a wide range of things you know. Even taking just "Stele" itself, the solo by Philip Houghton and then "Koyunbaba". I don't know, with a piano, in a sense you're stuck with the sound of the piano so you can only do things which use that sound. Anyway, I never cease to be amazed by what you can say with the guitar.
Tony Morris |
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