Gui­tarist John Wil­liams prefers the word di­a­logue when dis­cussing his col­lab­o­ra­tions across mu­si­cal gen­res, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts - Matthew West­wood

AD­MIR­ERS of John Wil­liams and his al­most preter­nat­u­ral touch on classical gui­tar will recog­nise his sound on the duo album, Places Be­tween , with Bri­tish jazz gui­tarist John Etheridge. On the retro- ti­tled Peace, Love and Gui­tars , Wil­liams sets up a rhyth­mic ac­com­pa­ni­ment over which Etheridge plays elec­tric gui­tar. Etheridge can go places that Wil­liams’s acous­tic gui­tar can’t: he length­ens the notes, bends and dis­torts them. Soon he’s burst­ing the sound bar­rier with a lead gui­tar break.

Wil­liams, a record­ing artist for al­most 50 years, has been down the fu­sion path be­fore, with the group Sky and his world mu­sic col­lab­o­ra­tions. But fu­sion doesn’t seem an ad­e­quate word for Wil­liams’s search­ing mu­si­cian­ship: th­ese days it seems to sug­gest a com­pro­mised end, a half- baked melange, rather than a dy­namic meet­ing of ideas.

Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is the other con­ve­nient, but un­sat­is­fac­tory, word that comes up in con­ver­sa­tion with Wil­liams on the phone from his home in Lon­don. ‘‘ It’s a bit like us­ing the word fu­sion, isn’t it?’’ he says rhetor­i­cally, in an ac­cent that is more English than Aus­tralian.

Though Wil­liams still trav­els on an Aus­tralian pass­port — he was born in Melbourne to an English fa­ther and an Aus­tralian- Chi­nese mother — he and the fam­ily moved to Bri­tain be­fore he was in his teens.

Wil­liams will be mak­ing a re­turn jour­ney to th­ese shores in Fe­bru­ary. He and Etheridge, on a multi- city tour, will per­form mu­sic from Places Be­tween . He will also be a guest soloist with the Melbourne Sym­phony Orches­tra in a se­ries of sep­a­rate con­certs.

Places Be­tween was recorded at a con­cert in Dublin in July 2006, but the com­po­si­tions — by Wil­liams, Etheridge and oth­ers — are works in progress and the per­for­mances are still evolv­ing.

Wil­liams has dropped a piece called Slow Dub from the reper­toire be­cause, he says, it sounded too much like baroque pas­tiche. Added to the playlist is Raga Juma , by the Sene­galese ac­tor and mu­si­cian El Hadj N’Di­aye. Peace, Love and Gui­tars , with Etheridge’s elec­tric gui­tar licks, has been through re­vi­sions.

‘‘ We worked like stink on that be­fore the record­ing,’’ says Wil­liams, adding that he and Etheridge, both vet­er­ans of the con­cert stage, were un­fazed by record­ing new ma­te­rial in a con­cert set­ting.

‘‘ And to be hon­est, it has got a lot bet­ter since the record­ing. It’s a cou­ple of min­utes shorter, and I don’t switch gui­tars: I used to use two gui­tars with dif­fer­ent tun­ing. I worked that out dif­fer­ently, so the whole thing is tighter.’’

Rather than a fu­sion of classical acous­tic and jazz- rock elec­tric, the Wil­liams- Etheridge project, I sug­gest, is more like a di­a­logue be­tween two mu­si­cians, two gen­res, two in­stru­ments. ‘‘ That’s a nicer word,’’ he says. ‘‘ We do have an idea of what we want to avoid. We want to avoid me play­ing out of my depth, try­ing to play jazz in the real sense. And John wants to avoid, as a jazz per­son, play­ing in a classical style, which is what of­ten hap­pens with fu­sion: both play­ers play a bit out of their style, and sound as if no one’s re­ally good at any­thing. So we avoid that!’’

For all his mu­si­cal ex­plo­rations, Wil­liams has re­mained re­mark­ably true to his in­stru­ment of choice, the classical gui­tar. He loves the rich­ness of its bass, and its plain­tive, lyri­cal qual­ity. It’s an hon­est in­stru­ment to play: ‘‘ Your fin­ger touches the string and that’s the sound it makes. There’s no me­chan­i­cal de­vice in be­tween. It’s very in­ti­mate.

‘‘ All of the plucked string in­stru­ments — the harp, or the lute or the sitar, or any of the Chi­nese in­stru­ments — have a kind of magic about them, to do with the plucked string and the dy­ing of the sound into si­lence. The gui­tar has that in com­mon with a lot of in­stru­ments.’’

The classical gui­tar — ‘‘ I just mean the ny­lon­string fin­ger- plucked gui­tar,’’ he says — is so wide­spread through­out the world that it makes sense to en­gage with those mu­si­cal cul­tures where it has taken root.

He means not only those coun­tries with a His­panic cul­ture, but through­out Africa, ‘‘ from Mada­gas­car off the east coast to the Cape Verde is­lands off the west coast, and all the coun­tries in be­tween . . . I just think it’s won­der­ful that the gui­tar can be such a strong pres­ence in those cul­tures’’.

Such wide- rang­ing mu­si­cal in­quiry has led Wil­liams into some in­ter­est­ing ven­tures. His widely ad­mired 2001 album The Magic Box was an ex­plo­ration of gui­tar styles from Africa, a col­lab­o­ra­tion that be­gan with Cameroon’s Francis Be­bey.

At other times he has es­sayed South Amer­i­can mu­sic: he is cred­ited with help­ing re­store to cir­cu­la­tion the mu­sic of Paraguayan gui­tarist and com­poser Agustin Bar­rios.

Other cross­cul­tural col­lab­o­ra­tions have some­times ac­com­pa­nied larger state­ments on pol­i­tics or hu­man rights. He gave con­certs with the Chilean band Inti- Il­li­mani when they were in self- im­posed ex­ile dur­ing the Pinochet years, and in the early 1970s recorded protest songs by Greek com­poser Mikis Theodor­akis — with the singer Maria Faran­touri — dur­ing that coun­try’s mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship.

An­other po­lit­i­cal cause led him into the cel­e­brated dou­ble act with the Who’s Pete Town­shend for the 1979 Amnesty In­ter­na­tional ben­e­fit, The Se­cret Po­lice­man’s Ball.

Some col­lab­o­ra­tions have pushed the artis­tic en­ve­lope in dif­fer­ent ways. Wil­liams was a found­ing mem­ber of the clas­sic- rock fu­sion group Sky. Their al­bums, and the baroque ’ n’ roll sin­gle based on Bach, Toc­cata , be­came best­sellers.

Not ev­ery­one was im­pressed. ‘‘ Some peo­ple hated Sky, es­pe­cially in the classical world,’’ he says of his genre- bend­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions. ‘‘ I just do it, prin­ci­pally be­cause I en­joy do­ing it.’’ A no­table naysayer was Span­ish leg­end An­dres Se­govia, Wil­liams’s one- time teacher who had called him ‘‘ a prince of the gui­tar’’. Wil­liams says he has al­ways fol­lowed his own in­stincts when choos­ing reper­toire and col­lab­o­ra­tors.

‘‘ It’s to­tally just what I want to do as a gui­tarist,’’ he says. ‘‘ The way the gui­tar can ex­press it­self, or be ex­pressed in a variety of cul­tures, it’s the won­der­ful thing.’’

Wil­liams’s fa­ther, Leonard, was a res­i­dent gui­tarist with the ABC Orches­tra and was John’s first teacher on the in­stru­ment. His mother, Mee­lan, was the daugh­ter of the Chi­nese- Aus­tralian bar­ris­ter William Ah Ket, who cam­paigned for the rights of Chi­nese work­ers in Vic­to­ria in the early 1900s.

Wil­liams has said pre­vi­ously that his po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tions — ‘‘ ig­no­rance and re­ac­tion and right- wing views’’ are anath­ema to him — were due to his fa­ther’s in­flu­ence. Did his Chi­nese her­itage, and Ah Ket’s ex­am­ple, have any bear­ing on his in­ter­est in hu­man rights? He con­fesses he does not know all he could about his ma­ter­nal fam­ily.

‘‘ It’s chicken- and- egg, re­ally, you never know what comes first,’’ he says of the in­flu­ences in his life. He is the long- time pres­i­dent of Mu­si­cians Against Nu­clear Arms and pa­tron of the Pales­tinian Sol­i­dar­ity Cam­paign.

‘‘ I don’t think that be­cause I’m one- quar­ter Chi­nese has any­thing to do with it; it’s just the way I view mu­sic and the way peo­ple share things, and know­ing how so­ci­eties work,’’ he says. ‘‘ Lon­don is just the most amaz­ingly cos­mopoli­tan so­ci­ety, and that’s how it works best. Life is so rich. I think the tra­di­tional English at­ti­tude of tol­er­a­tion — tol­er­at­ing peo­ple from other cul­tures — in a sense is good, but it has a neg­a­tive as­pect: it im­plies you have to tol­er­ate. I don’t like that. It is ac­tu­ally a plus . . . an en­rich­ment.’’

In Wil­liams’s con­certs with the Melbourne Sym­phony, he will re­visit the gui­tar con­certo that Peter Sculthorpe wrote for him in 1989. Wil­liams and Sculthorpe have been friends since the ’ 70s, and Wil­liams had long tried to per­suade the com­poser to write for gui­tar.

‘‘ The gui­tar was new to Peter Sculthorpe be­fore he and I col­lab­o­rated a lot, go­ing back 20 years,’’ Wil­liams says. ‘‘ It was dif­fi­cult tech­ni­cally. Some­body said once that when com­posers start writ­ing for the gui­tar, once they are cap­tured by the sound, they can never stop. Sculthorpe has loved it ever since.’’

Nourlangie — the piece is named for the mono­lith in Kakadu Na­tional Park — is not a con­certo in the tra­di­tional sense. A sin­gle­move­ment work, it does not make the gui­tar a pro­tag­o­nist in the way that Ro­drigo’s fa­mous Concierto de Aran­juez does, for ex­am­ple.

‘‘ Peo­ple are used to hear­ing a vir­tu­osic, showoff piece,’’ Wil­liams says. ‘‘ It’s not that sort of piece. That’s why I usu­ally per­form it with some­thing else; I might play the Ro­drigo con­certo in the same pro­gram. I rarely play it on its own be­cause it’s not what peo­ple ex­pect. It’s very at­mo­spheric and earthy, and very lyri­cal. A won­der­ful piece.’’

In Melbourne, Nourlangie is cou­pled with an­other con­certo work for gui­tar and orches­tra, To the Edge of Dream , by the Ja­panese com­poser Toru Takemitsu. Wil­liams says the two works com­ple­ment each other, not least be­cause of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two com­posers. ‘‘ Takemitsu and Sculthorpe were great friends and col­leagues. There’s the very earthy mu­sic of Peter’s and the very del­i­cate, im­pres­sion­is­tic mu­sic of Takemitsu. That’s why I think the pro­gram is re­ally nice. It’s not only the two very dif­fer­ent ways of us­ing the gui­tar; it cel­e­brates the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Takemitsu and Sculthorpe.’’

At 66, Wil­liams is still busy with con­cert book­ings, al­though he prefers to avoid lengthy over­seas tours. For 10 months of the year he’s at home in Lon­don, from where he’s able to dash to con­cert venues in Bri­tain and con­ti­nen­tal Europe. Vis­its to Asia, the US or Aus­tralia are less fre­quent, and when he does tour, he likes to com­bine work with a hol­i­day.

He’s plan­ning a trip to Chile, and says he’d also like to visit Iran, per­haps, even­tu­ally, to per­form at the Tehran Con­ser­va­tory.

Af­ter many years of writ­ing tran­scrip­tions of ex­ist­ing com­po­si­tions so he can play them on gui­tar, Wil­liams is work­ing up to pos­si­bly record­ing a com­plete album of his own mu­sic.

‘‘ I’m writ­ing a lit­tle bit more,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’ve never thought of my­self as a com­poser, but I find I’ve got quite a few lit­tle ideas on the gui­tar,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t have a set pro­gram ahead, or a set am­bi­tion. There’s usu­ally, at any one mo­ment, a num­ber of things I’d like to do. It’s just find­ing the time to do them.’’ John Wil­liams and John Etheridge ap­pear in Perth, Fe­bru­ary 27; Dar­win, Fe­bru­ary 28; Ho­bart, March 1; Melbourne, March 3; Can­berra, March 9 and 10; Syd­ney, March 11; Bris­bane, March 13. Wil­liams also ap­pears with the Melbourne Sym­phony, March 6, 7 and 8 at Hamer Hall.

Soft touch: John Wil­liams as­sumes a familiar po­si­tion, main; and with John Etheridge, above

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.