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