An Interview with John Williams part 1
Interviewer: Austin Prichard-Levy
Published with the kind permission of Ron Payne
John Williams needs no introduction to classical guitarists, or indeed fine music lovers the world over; since his debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1958, he has attained enormous popularity with his voluminous recordings in both the classical repertoire and with his rock group, Sky. John was in Australia touring with the Australian Chamber Orchestra for performances of Rodrigo’s Aranjuez Concerto and Nourlangie, a new work for guitar, strings and percussion by Peter Sculthorpe. During this visit, Austin Prichard-Levy talked at length to John on topics of particular relevance and interest to classical guitarists, such as string selection, his known dislike of guitar competitions, his ambivalent relationship with Segovia, the impact of his technical prowess on a generation of young players, his views on guitar pedagogy, and his love of the Bach Chaconne, which many regard as his signature piece, such is the authority he has stamped on it with superlative concert performances and recordings.
AP-L: John, to begin with a prosaic, nonetheless very interesting question for a lot of guitarists, what strings do you currently use on your Smallman?
JW: At the moment, I’m using D’Addario trebles and basses, although the top string is a little heavier than the standard top string they make – I got them to thicken it up a bit. The biggest problem I find is getting the basses right; I often find that with Augustine Reds, for example, the 5th string is a little bit thin, whereas the D’Addario has more body without the brittleness that comes from going up to a higher tension string. Another problem is squeaks – no matter how you rationalize it, they’re always there although they can be minimized by both the player and the string manufacturer. I like D’Addario’s polished and semi-polished strings, although I haven’t tried the ones put out by LaBella. The polished string is a flat wound string, but the secret is in the winding and there seems to be a number of new approaches around to this.
A-P-L: What is your opinion of guitar competitions? Do you think they are good for developing young players, and do you support them?
JW: No, basically I don’t like or approve of competitions on any instrument. I don’t think music can be evaluated like a race – I know that’s an obvious thing to say and that there are many ifs and buts involved, because they do help some artists and concentrate the public’s attention on music. But I particularly don’t like the way many guitar competitions are run, the confusing way points are awarded differently in each round of a competition, and especially the over-exploitation of the “Big Winner” and the competitive values that puts on players and the activity of guitar playing itself. Winning is a matter of taste in most cases, and there are often many other equally deserving competitors other than just the First Prize recipient. I feel it would be fairer to have a select group of finalists, each of whom receives the same award and status.
I have served on juries in the past, but these days I refuse to take part, and I feel it is important to take that stand otherwise your reservations have no meaning. Having said all that, I know it happens anyway and sometimes there is sponsorship involved which does help the general public interest and support. But it still doesn’t need to be a cut and dried thing, where each finalist is ranked as precisely as 1,2,3. I think it is those competitive values that are wrong, not the celebration of excellence in music as such. I have talked about the idea of setting up a competition where this other approach is used, but nothing definite has emerged from it yet; it may take some time to develop.
AP-L: So would you support a competition here in Australia if it were organized along the lines you have indicated rather than the usual prize system?
JW: (laughs) Well, that’s like when a politician gets asked whether they will support something if x,y and z happens. Let’s wait and see if it occurs first!
AP-L:Julian Bream has remarked in A Life on the Road that he was glad he came onto the guitar scene in the 1950’s because it gave him the time to develop a proper musical personality without the pressure to achieve quickly that exists today. Do you feel the same way? Would you feel as confident starting out today as you might have been in the late 50’s and early 60’s?
JW: I don’t remember that from his book, but it’s a very good point. There’s no doubt that it is true, and Julian has achieved that development magnificently, and I think coming somewhat in his footsteps in England also made it a little easier for me. I suppose both of us have found it less pressured in the UK by being the leading players there and while Julian and I have different attitudes about some things, we are close friends and both of us feel the same about allowing musical abilities to develop at their own pace; to some extent that’s a another justification for expressing reservations about competitions.
AP-L: To many players, you are an icon of the guitar, due to the power of your technique and playing style. Has it ever bothered you that a generation of young players have sought merely to emulate your technical prowess and perhaps have neglected discovering their own musical identity in the process?
JW: Well, if it’s like that, then it’s a pity! I know that that is the case to a point, but if one doesn’t develop one’s own musical personality, that’s a major problem facing any player. I guess I have been lucky to an extent, because having a well formed technique from an early age I haven’t really had to think too hard about it, but it has always been at the service of musical goals rather than an end in itself for me, and it should be that way with all musicians. I suppose it is part of the history of the guitar that guitarists have been obsessed both with technique and also the technical aspects of the instrument.
I often notice students preoccupied with fingerings and not notes, much less sounds, and yet at the same time finding it difficult to immediately locate C sharp on the 4th string, say. Of course, if students do see me as Mr. Technique, then that can also reflect negatively on me too, because Mr. Technique isn’t usually also Mr. Music! But in the last five years or six years, there has been a very great acceleration in the awareness of some very basic musical facts by guitarists, and that’s a topic I would like to talk more about because so much is changing for the better.
Another thing I’ve noticed in master classes, is that players will come on and play the most difficult solo works from memory, and yet if you give them a part to play in one of the easier Haydn String Quartets, as I often do, they’re lost in no time, and have a very poor sense of ensemble or timing. Guitarists are among the worst sight-readers I’ve come across. Julian Bream and I are both dead average sight-readers by orchestral standards, but among guitarists, we are outstanding! This is an area of the guitar that has been poorly taught up until recently.