John Williams: Classical Guitarist

An Interviewed with John Williams by Greg Marshall
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.83/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven

John Williams by Kathy PanamaOne thing John Williams will never be accused of and that’s being complacent. He may be known as one of the world’s best classical guitarists, but Williams is also one of those very special musicians who is blessed with an ongoing curiosity and an equally adventurous spirit especially when music is involved. His recording career began in England in 1957 when he was just seventeen, and he’s never stopped. His recorded legacy is not only prolific, but includes an incredible array of albums that encompass a wide variety of music. In addition to his magnificent recordings of classical guitar works on Sony Music by Bach, Scarlatti, Rodrigo, Albeniz, and Villa-Lobos, Williams has recorded music from all over the globe, both traditional and by twentieth-century composers such as Leo Brouwer (Cuba), Astor Piallolla (Argentina), Mikis Theodorakis (Greece), Toru Takemitsu (Japan), Paul Hart (England), Peter Sculthorpe (Australia), the group Inti-Illimani (Chili), and so on.

He has also embraced the pop world on numerous occasions, forming a rock group called Sky in the late seventies, dueting with Pete Townshend at the benefit concert and corresponding album, THE SECRET POLICEMAN’S BALL, supervising the classical guitar ensemble for Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS, and collaborating with Stanley Myers on a pair of albums in the seventies, including the landmark Changes, which introduced the famous ‘Cavatina’ theme. Williams has also performed on soundtracks composed by Patrick Doyle (GREAT EXPECTATIONS), Patrick Gowers (STEVIE), Stanley Myers (THE RAGING MOON, THE DEER HUNTER), and, on one occasion, himself (EMMA’S WAR). He has also performed concert works by numerous composers who have worked extensively in films: Malcolm Arnold, Andre Previn, Richard Harvey, Patrick Gowers and Nigel Westlake.

When I heard that John Williams was going to perform solo at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis, I thought it would be interesting to interview him about his work in films and with composers associated, at least in part, with films. At the time, I had no idea how this idea would be received. After all, Williams was promoting his latest CD release, ‘The Magic Box’, a wonderful collection of African music, much of it very contemporary and all of it extremely tuneful, and the program for his pending Sf. Louis concert contained no film music. Nevertheless, an interview was arranged, but, oddly enough, not in St. Louis, but a week later in Chicago. When I phoned John Williams in Chicago at the previously-determined time, he was expecting my call, but somehow word had not reached him that the interview was to focus on his work in films. For a moment, I wondered what his reaction would be.

Your concert in St. Louis was absolutely wonderful.
Thank you.

I had not heard ‘The Magic Box’ pieces until then, and I was very impressed with the melodies. Your career is so fascinating. You have a deep respect for classical repertoire, but you’ve played music from all over the world – Cuba, Japan, Africa, Chili, Argentina – you’ve performed on numerous film scores, you’ve played works by twentieth-century composers, and you’re not afraid to incorporate pop elements into your music. It’s just an amazing career, and I have such admiration for your open-mindedness towards all types of music.
Thank you very much. I take that very nicely. However, from my point of view it’s the nature of the guitar that lends itself as a popular instrument to almost anything, as long as you can technically play it. The sound of the plucked string is such a universal and very intimate sort of quality and lends itself to all kinds of music.

And that would include film music. And since Soundtrack is a magazine devoted to film music, I wanted to talk to you a bit about your work in films and composers Stanley Myers, Patrick Gowers… Let’s start with the late sixties. You’re a young classical guitar star, and Stanley Myers is a young film composer on the rise. How did you two meet?
I remember the very first session I ever did for him. Around the sixties I had played for one or two films for television, because I played a lot for the BBC anyway. A lot of musicians in London do general work. I might have been, in those days, doing very avant-garde chamber music for the BBC. I might have also been playing background music for a play for either radio or television. I can’t remember exactly how many and which films I might have played for anonymously before meeting Stanley, but I do remember the first film was THE RAGING MOON,

It’s one of my favorite scores.
Well, then you remember the whole thing – Nanette Newman and Malcolm McDowell. I think it was one of his very first films. From that time on, whenever I could, if Stanley had something with a guitar in it, I did it, sometimes it was quite a smallish part and I’d do it unnamed. It would depend. In London I have done quite a lot of things unnamed simply because I’m there, and I like doing it.

I didn’t actually play on THE WALKING STICK.

Wasn’t that the film where Stanley Myers…
… wrote ‘Cavatina’? It is. I think it was Stanley’s idea, actually… because we worked so successfully together on THE RAGING MOON, the idea of that classical sound but with quite a big sort of session orchestra worked so well, in the sense that It was different from playing a straight sort of concerto but that the idea of that feel of the music worked so well… So Stanley suggested that we do a record together where he would write some other material, do some arrangements of some popular numbers, but for that instrument, a kind of session band plus guitar. It was the first time that that sort of thing had been featured on a record. And that record was called ‘Changes’.
When we were doing that, in fact, we were doing it bit by bit, you know. When we did those sessions over a few weeks at Olympic Studios, we’d do a few numbers and then think about what numbers to do next. We were sitting in a wonderful Italian restaurant off the Fulham Road in London, and they had a piano bar downstairs, and Stanley went and played those bars from THE WALKING STICK, but just the opening eight or sixteen bars, which is what was used in THE WALKING STICK. I hadn’t played it; a London session guitarist had played it. But I immediately said, “Stanley that is fantastic. You must expand that into a proper, full, instrumental piece.” And then, about four or five years later, Michael Cimino had been given that record, ‘Changes’, by his production assistant. That’s where he heard ‘Cavatina’, and then used it for THE DEER HUNTER.

It’s an interesting story of a…
A tune, yes.

I wanted to ask you about the Changes album. Some of the tracks are on a CD called ‘The Very Best of John Williams’. When I listen to those… it’s a nice compilation, but when I play the LP of ‘Changes’, I am so impressed with how well that album is put together. When you play the pieces out of context… they’re still very good, but that album has somewhat of a power to it. I’m thinking that that must have been a very daring album for you to do at that point in your career.
You know, it’s funny, that’s what it looks like, and it’s used as a bit of a yardstick for what it was – changes, a really quite a challenging sort of thing to do because no one had done that with so-called classical guitar before. A lot of people, like Andre Previn, are really, really keen on that album.

I would imagine that at that time there probably weren’t a lot of classical musicians stepping into that…
Well, there were none; there weren’t any that had that opportunity that I had. I mean, where better could a guitarist have an opportunity but in London, working together with someone like Stanley Myers with the London musical scene. It wasn’t really courageous on my part at all. You’ve got to sort of imagine me as a London musician… I might be off in America for two or three weeks doing a tour, but then I’ll be back in London for four or five months, doing concerts, maybe going over to Paris doing a concert or going to Spain to do concerts, but basically I’m in London all the time. And during that time I might be on the BBC doing some very contemporary chamber music, I might be doing a recording, and then I’ll play for a film, and Stanley Myers might suggest that… It’s like you’re playing sports and someone says, “Why don’t we go over there and play table tennis with someone?” Someone says, “Why don’t you come into the studio and do…” The significance of it at the time and the reaction you don’t foretell or even think of for a moment.

We’ve talked about how diverse your career has been and how willing you are to try different types of music. I know you’re from Australia but you’ve spent most of your life in England, it seems to me that British musicians and composers are less hung up over labelling of music. A composer like Patrick Gowers or Richard Harvey will write for films, and then they’ll write concert music, and as long as they’re writing music and it’s good music, they don’t seem to be as worried about being labelled as a film composer or a pop musician or whatever. They seem more open to trying different types of music.
Yes, that’s true. However, there is a little hierarchy in England in the very-closed classical music establishment. You do have a group of recognized contemporary classical music composers and the world that appreciates them and develops them. You’ve probably heard of them: Mark-Anthony Turnage, Thomas Ades, in the sixties and seventies it was Peter Maxwell Davies, which are regarded by the classical musical establishment as, you know, not my words, “proper music”. And then you’ve got people like Patrick Gowers, Paul Hart is a very underestimated composer, Richard Harvey, etc., people who, as you describe it, work in all these different worlds, both as composers and, as in the case of Richard Harvey, as composer and performer, as well. They kind of don’t get a look in on the establishment circuit. The sort of music we’re talking about – film music, popular music, world music – with people that are difficult to categorize – none of that is quite the real thing, however nice or contemporary people might be about it when they like it, they don’t really regard it as the real thing.
I know what you’re saying, and I think you’re absolutely right, but it happens much less in England than it does here. Strangely enough, I think the classical music attitude is probably slightly more isolated here than it is in Europe and therefore more cut off. To give an example: the orchestras here, I think without exception, are all privately run. In England most of the orchestras are either self-governing or run by the board members themselves. You have a tradition of public music-making through the BBC and a big system of funding and support. So I think this blurs all the issues, you know, and the BBC itself still broadcasts an enormous amount of live, orchestral music, so there’s an availability of music that is wider spread. There’s certainly less separation in the audiences. I think you have to look at the history of London, in particular with the session orchestras during the thirties, forties, fifties, Ealing film studios, Denham, Elstree, all the music scores, there were two or three fully-salaried music bands. All the Muppet music was done in England. You’re talking about things going on for years where the session orchestras are booked, you know, in rotation up to a hundred and fifty to two hundred of them, alternating between Denham, Elstree, and Ealing, and then those same musicians might have been playing on a film session that I did or in the case of Tristan Fry, for example, might have been playing a lot of very contemporary avant-garde chamber music for the BBC, so the experience and the communication between the musicians is unique. Here, there’s more of a tradition that if someone is playing, like now in Chicago playing with the symphony, I don’t think the people who play in the symphony here have any experience of playing other music. Even in New York I think that would be the case. There’s not a big session scene in New York, so I think the thing about London is you’re talking about the edge of Europe and you’ve got this cross-fertilization starting with the musicians themselves for various social and historical reasons.

John Williams in Action by Kathy Panama

John Williams in Action by Kathy Panama

Speaking of London, it seems to me that the late sixties there must have been a really exciting musical time, aside from the pop music with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. There was an influx of films being made there from all over Europe and from America, and there was suddenly a new group of English film composers with very diverse backgrounds: Richard Rodney Bennett from the classical world, and John Addison, John Barry, Stanley Myers. It must have been a really exciting place to be musically.
Yeah, absolutely. It still is, I have to say, even with the changes and things go up and down and you get recessions and things like that.

And this time period preceded your album, ‘Changes’, and when I listen to that album, it still sounds very refreshing. You must have been really itching to stretch out a little bit from what you had been doing.
You know, as I explained before, it happened very naturally, so it’s the chicken and the egg, isn’t it? I can look back and say, “Well, maybe there was something in my subconscious.” I was known mostly to everyone as a so-called classical guitarist, but my father was a jazz guitarist so I was brought up with Django Reinhardt playing in the house all the time.

That’s not a bad way to grow up.
My father and friends playing it weekends, as well as Segovia, so I think once it’s in the blood… My family was very interested in politics, society, and history, so all of this was in context of understanding jazz culture, understanding classical culture and what it stood for and how it related to society. I come from a background of assuming that all of these things coexist in their different ways, so it really was not a surprise to me. They were just opportunities.
It was a great thrill to go into studio and. play ‘Cavatina’ for the first time, and then, of course, to redo it in L. A. for THE DEER HUNTER. It’s as big a thrill to go and do that as it is to play the Rodrigo Concerto with an orchestra in a classical concert. Musically, what it stands for, what it expresses in the case of the film and how you match the little bits to Robert DeNiro’s expression, all those things that come up when you’re doing film music. It’s a great privilege and incredibly enjoyable. That’s why for me it’s not remarkable. It is a shame and a pity, and it is remarkable, that so many guitarists are caught in the same classical prison that many other instrumentalists are caught whereby they can’t see their way to partaking of the opportunity when they get it. Now, that’s changed a lot in the last ten years. All of this has blown apart, but we’re talking about the time you asked me about. I’m very lucky, but from my point of view, it’s a natural thing to do. I’m not being cool about it. It’s just that that really was the case.

That’s what makes it special. It was a natural development.
Someone in my position would have to be some sort of antisocial idiot not to have responded to the opportunities that I had, and I think a lot of people were idiots because a lot of other people had those opportunities then.

I have a quote I want to read to you. This is from an interview that Stanley Myers did for a magazine called CinemaScore, and this is about you. “I always feel very happy working with him, because I suppose he’s arguably the best guitar player in the world. What is unique about John Williams is that he can play very legato song-like melodies on the guitar, which is really, in a way, against the true nature of the instrument. John has a musical shading which very, very few guitarists have, and a great sensitivity to add to the melodic sound of the guitar.”
Well, that’s very nice. I have not heard that particular quote. Why I got on so well with Stanley, especially in that point of view, I realized that he really did understand that nature about the guitar. Don’t forget that he wrote ‘Cavatina’ before we met. I don’t know if he had heard my playing or not, but I did not play ‘Cavatina’ in THE WALKING STICK. So Stanley already had this very unusual appreciation of the guitar as a melodic instrument.

He seemed to have a flair for writing very delicate music.
Absolutely, but if you think of the tune of ‘Cavatina’, I mean, no one would have thought of writing a tune for ‘Gavatina’, which was simply one note per bar (laughs) and regarding that as a tune, do you know what I mean? So he had already thought of that, and it happened to very much suit my style and the things that I love about the guitar. It’s a very flattering quote, but it’s absolutely true that in that sense we saw eye to eye. One or two films after that I did for him he continued to do that. One that I particularly like, and not a lot of people know, was THE BOOST, with James Woods as a drug addict. It’s got the most beautiful score of Stanley’s. Beautiful tune, really simple, a typical Stanley tune.

You did an album of film themes a few years ago.
I should have put that one on it, actually (laughs).

Is there any chance of doing another one?
Well, I would love to. The record promotion thing is very wayward at the moment. Sony is sometimes very good at the effort they put into it. Every time I do a CD they put a lot of effort into the promotion. But the business itself is so wayward and the marketing and the retailing… I’ve often gone into record stores and can’t find it. It was pushed very heavily in England and did very well. I don’t think it did that well here. A couple of months after it was out I went into Tower Records in L. A. and couldn’t find it.

That surprises me.
I was very, very fond of that record. I think there’s some great stuff, great arrangements. ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, the Morricone arrangement, is wonderful.

I gather you’re a big fan of Morricone’s.
Oh, absolutely, yes. He’s the boss.

Any other film composers you admire?
I love film music. I’m very interested in the way it’s used. Of the American ones, I like Thomas Newman. He’s very original in the sense that I’ve often picked his scores without seeing the credits. I think his music manages to capture an essence, a mood about the film without being overbearing.

Yeah, without being obtrusive. I like the fact that for each of his scores he starts from scratch with his instrumentation. He doesn’t bring a predetermined orchestration to his films.
AMERICAN BEAUTY was a fantastic score. The other composers I haven’t concentrated on a lot. There are a few people that have been really good in the odd score, but Morricone I’ve consistently found terrific.

Have you ever had the opportunity to work with him?
No, I’ve been trying to, but he actually draws an absolute line between his concert music and his film music, and he writes very, let’s call it, contemporary concert music. I’ve tried writing him letters. I think he’s absolutely great. A lot of film composers have drawn a straight line and will not mix the two. In other words, they won’t write in concert in anything like their film style. In their film style it’s the images that inspire them. The abstract music they write is a different thing. It’s a real shame.

Let me run some names by you of people you’ve either worked with or you’ve performed their music. Richard Harvey?
Well, Richard Harvey’s concert music, as opposed to film music, works in his own language whatever he does, and that’s why I think he’s successful in both. His concert music is great, as well. He’s written a lovely concerto for me, ‘Concerto Antico’. But his harmonic vocabulary, which he himself says is quite a simple one, his musical vocabulary, that’s just him, and he uses it for whatever he’s writing. Patrick Gowers would be the same.

He is interesting. I think Americans know him best from the SHERLOCK HOMES TV series, but he wrote some concertos for you and the score for STEVIE.
STEVIE – well, the concerto was based on STEVIE so much I said, “Why don’t you write a concerto.”

Unfortunately not recorded, though.
Not recorded. He had problems with that. His first movement was terrific. He could never quite find the shape that worked in concert. He wrote it, and I’ve performed it about three or four times, but I’ve never quite thought it would work as a recording. He’s revised it twice, and it’s still not quite good enough. It’s the shape of it that doesn’t quite…

I think the first time I saw his name was in the mid-sixties. He was the musical director for the Royal Shakespeare’s production of…

And that was long before I knew he was a composer.

No, but I have the album.

Mikis Theodorakis. You’ve done a lot of his music.
Yeah, but not for films. I’ve played a lot of his songs with a Greek singer, and the one song that was used in the film Z.

Christopher Gunning?
John Williams: Chris Gunning I do a lot with, actually. He’s never written me piece. I first met him because he very kindly agreed to arrange some of those things on the movie album. He doesn’t normally do arrangements these days. And then we worked on an arrangement of Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione Sonata’ for guitar and strings; it’s originally for an instrument called the arpeggioile. It’s often played on the cello. Yeah, like his stuff a lot. Terrific.

I read somewhere that when Stanley Myers died, Christopher Gunning stepped in and finished MIDDLEMARCH.
That’s right, he did.

You wrote a film score.
I did one for an Australian film called EMMA’S WAR.

Right and I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of this until I was reading something about you, so I’ve never heard it, but I’m very intrigued.
I’ve got to say that I’m quite proud of it, actually. It’s set in the Second World War, so there’s a lot of big band music. They used a whole list of the old records, Glenn Miller, and all that stuff. So there’s only about twenty, twenty-five minutes of my music that comes in and out, the main title tune and the main personal scenes. It’s Lee Remick’s last film, I think. It’s just flute, a few strings, and guitar. I’m very fond of it, actually. I think it’s a very good, little score.

I would imagine that if the right film opportunity came up again you would be willing to do it.
I certainly would. The sort of thing that real film composers do I wouldn’t touch, although I noticed a lot of people do it and then get people to orchestrate for them. That’s always a possibility, but anything that’s on a sort of personal level where the guitar can sort of speak through the characters is something I would be interested in. It’s not an overriding ambition; therefore I don’t have agents working on it, but if anything got suggested… It’s why I accepted that one. Normally, I say no. In fact, when the request first came through I said no. I said, “You got the wrong John Williams” (laughs). But then when they described it, they said, “No, no, no, we mean you” because x, y, zed: I was very flattered and did it. I have a couple of questions for you, actually, Have you seen the IMAX film, ACROSS THE SEA TIME?

No, but I have the CD. The movie never played St. Louis.
That’s the John Barry score. It’s a nice score, isn’t it? I thought it was very good.

Have you listened much to Barry’s music?
A little bit, yes. He wrote a guitar piece, and I haven’t heard that.

It’s called ‘Romance for Guitar and Orchestra’. It’s from a film called DEADFALL. I read somewhere that he thought it would have been pretentious for him to call it a concerto, but it is a piece for guitar and orchestra performed by Renata Tarrago. I know he devoted months to working on it, and as you know film composers do not get that much time.
That’s right (laughs).

It’s performed on-screen in the film, with Barry conducting the London Philharmonic while a robbery is taking place. Bryan Forbes, who also directed THE RAGING MOON, cuts between the concert and the robbery, so the concert piece has to stand on its own but also serve as background music. The film is not necessarily great, but that sequence with the way that Forbes cuts between the two is really fabulous.
Actually, there’s a funny story about that I’m now remembering. Before they did that, there was a possibility that the guitar piece was going to be the Rodrigo that I might have played if it had been the Rodrigo. Isn’t that interesting? I remember it now. And the reason was that they wanted an original score, which is always better. They were absolutely right. And, also, Renata being a woman player in a low-cut gown… It looks better than me in my glasses at the time.

I admire the fact that Forbes chose to go with an original piece because how often do these film composers get a chance to stretch out and write a fourteen-minute piece?
I must have a listen to it, actually, and you must somehow chase up THE BOOST.

I’m also going to track down EMMA’S WAR, because I’m very intrigued to hear that now.
There was an album of it. I don’t know where that would be now, but there was a vinyl of it.

Special thanks to Susan Schiffer at Sony Music and to everyone at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis.



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