The curious case of John Williams

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Steven Joseph
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The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Sun Feb 17, 2013 11:17 am

Williams was, is and always will be one of my all time guitar heroes. He was my biggest inspiration as a child learning guitar and it was always my aim back then to become the next John Williams.

Ive recently been having a bit of a JW video and CD fest, listening and watching all the stuff I used to worship as a child, and as JW once said himself in regards to Segovia - "honesty compels me to reassess what he was like" - or in Williams' case still is! By this I dont mean him as a person, but as a musician. Ive met him several times and he's a lovely bloke!

Its been a while since I really listened to him and in that time ive met new people, musicians, had new teachers, been through music college, matured, become wiser, experienced a huge amount of all kinds of music, studied and played with non guitarists etc. etc. and coming back to Williams' after all this has changed my perception of him as a musician.

He has always had a firm, 'punchy' attack - no doubt helped by his strong rhythmic style, RH position and nail shape. However, once he started playing Smallmans in late 80's, whose natural sound accentuated all these features, It seems that he greatly reduced what little romanticism there was in his playing further. Also, having listened to and read many interviews of his, you can see how more and more he becomes almost obsessive over the rhythm and drive of the music, which again you hear in his playing more and more.

Why I find Williams 'curious' is that in these interviews he often talks about musicality and tone, and frankly some of the things he says come across as plain naive or misinformed, but he says them with such conviction you almost feel he's aurally deluded somewhat!?! Things such as declaring Smallmans a more musical and beautiful guitar. In a recent interview with he and Smallman, I remember him saying how he found traditional guitars too percussive compared to Smallmans, when just about everyone would agree the exact opposite. He also said many other uncomplimentary things towards traditional guitars whilst praising Smallmans for features which frankly they dont have. It really was eyebrow raising stuff.

Also, I remember when I was young (and very stubborn and naive!) my teacher played me some Bream. "dont you find it more musical than Williams?" he asked. "Williams is better" I replied like a true teenage fanboy. Of course over the years I learnt to appreciate the genius of Bream and his outstanding musicality, which again cast a shadow of my musical assertions in regards to JW. Doubts about his musical perceptions are further raised when you hear him discussing his playing and interpretations in highly musical terms, often talking about tone colours and phrasing. But then you hear him play it and ask - "well where is any of that stuff John?"

I recently saw him in concert and came out feeling rather sad to be honest. His technical ability and prowess have not waned even a little, which is incredible considering his age. But there was just something about his playing, his over demeanour that seemed to say - 'im just playing for the sake of it now, I don't even enjoy it that much' - which i hope isn't the case, but that's what i got. His playing was so 'matter of fact', like he was just slopping the music on a plate for the audience and shoving it in front of you. Everything was slap, bang, wollop - 'take it or leave it'. And i dare say he has barely changed his programme in over 10 years apart from putting in a few of his own works. I was especially sad as I began to think perhaps my hero should take a break, or even retire (from a purely musical point of view), because my impression was there was little joy for him.

However, being the curious chap he is it wouldn't surprise me if Williams was deliberately playing this way as he considered it 'more musical'.

Im interested to hear your opinions on our greatest ambassador? Please note these are purely my own observations and am by no means attacking JW on a personal level. Merely offering a critique on his musical offerings! thanks
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cliffbryant
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by cliffbryant » Sun Feb 17, 2013 3:20 pm

Among other things - you touched on the old "Bream vs. Williams" thing.....In my own case, I find I appreciate Williams' playing and technical prowess as much as I ever did. As I get older though (I'm in my 50's now) I find that Breams playing (which I have always liked) has only grown on me with time....

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Kent » Sun Feb 17, 2013 3:37 pm

A new can of worms has been opened. :P
Probably no one has a more diverse background using a classical guitar the Williams. The man is so gifted he may sometimes look like he is not into the music when playing. Perhaps this is attributed to his masterful skills and the ability to get through highly technical movements with ease. Look away or close your eyes for a little bit, and maybe the music will reach your levels of expectations.
No one argues that their is distinct differences between Williams and Bream. For me, when I need to concentrate on the whole aspect of a piece of music from a learning standpoint, I listen to Williams. When I just want to enjoy what a guitarist can do to make a piece come alive, I listen to Bream.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Sun Feb 17, 2013 3:56 pm

Though I dont really want this to become another bream v williams thread, I dont mind using that comparison as its a valid one and good for contrast/argumentative purposes.

I think you're right about Williams looking somewhat uninterested simply because he's so amazingly calm and in control, but these days I honestly dont see the level of enjoyment, which was apparent not so long ago in his playing. When i saw him with the ensemble on the Magic Box tour 12 years ago, there was a spark there. I was only 12 at the time and went to speak to him back stage and he was full of vigour and enthusiasm. However, I saw him a couple of years ago doing a duo set with John Etheridge (which seems to have been going and touring forever now!?) and in his solo sets he played the usual best of Williams and I spoke to him after as well. He seemed far less keen and chatty. This could have just been his mood on that day and i understand he was 10 years older than when I last spoke to him.

Again I saw him in London last summer and he opened this ensemble concert on his own with Prelude, Fugue and Allegro. I cant tell you how awful the Prelude was, rushed, hammered out and tinny. He even did this weird speed up and slow down massively thing with the opening theme which was very out of character, it was like he was trying to finish as quickly as possible.

I dare say general public wouldnt notice too much or indeed care, but as a musician ive become to find his performances lazy and substandard, and its nothing to do with his age or ability. Put it this way, if he performed like that in a music college recital the panel would tear him to shreds!

I doubt he'd care one bit about that, but I fear he doesnt care about much these days in regards to music. Bream retired when he was 70...... (though im not sure exactly why!)
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by lagartija » Sun Feb 17, 2013 4:33 pm

With regard to JW's sound, have you considered what happens to people's hearing as they age? What John hears now is likely to be totally different to what he heard in his youth. It may be like Beethoven as he lost his hearing; he would bang on the piano making a terrible din, but the music in his head played beautifully. He knew what it should sound like. Of course, I have no way of knowing the state of JW's hearing, but it is likely that there is a bit of hearing loss at his age. So what you hear in his playing now is different than what he might be hearing. I know that when I play, I respond to what I am hearing. What happens when I don't hear certain frequencies that others can hear? There is no way I could correct for what I can't hear.
John has been playing for longer than I have been alive and I am 57! I am sure that when he plays, his fingers do exactly what they should to get a sound he knows it would make. Whether he hears the result in the same manner as in his youth only he knows, and perhaps he knows not....

As for the sound of the Smallman, as we know there are people who hate the sound because it is so percussive and not at all sweet. It is a different sound from traditional as nearly everyone agrees. I suspect that recording engineers have not found a good way to mic this sort of guitar and as a result, they sound poor in many recordings. (And yes, I know that some would argue that they hate the sound live, as well.) When I listened to JW live, the sound from his guitar was fine (to my ears). Well, my ears hear a clarity and separation in a lattice braced guitar that I find appealing.... and as a result, the guitar I chose as my voice is a lattice braced design (although not a Smallman!) The more percussive aspect is not the thing I hear the most... it is the clarity and separation. For those who prefer the more traditional sound, they can't get past the percussive aspect. Perhaps JW hears in his Smallman the aspect of clarity and separation and the percussive aspect is secondary and to him less important.

As for his perfunctory playing in concert.... at his age, being on the road is stressful. Interruptions in one's normal schedule are harder to endure as one gets older. He could easily be exhausted by the travel or just the hubbub of concertizing. All of this is speculation on my part, but I can certainly imagine him doing what he is doing at this point in his life.
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Sun Feb 17, 2013 4:53 pm

To be honest, I think JW's hearing is good enough that he can hear his tone, which these days you have to say is very hard (his nails maybe arent what they used to be also). But what is 'curious' ;) is that from what he says he believes his tone is beautiful and warm, and so he should, but im afraid by modern standards it just isnt. Also, i dont believe that Smallmans make a bad sound. When played by the likes of Gabriel Bianco or Thomas Viloteau Smallmans can have a gorgeous sound, whilst maintaining their powerful, clear cut character.

Williams has always had a distinctive, crisp/percussive attack even from a young age. Hers a vid of him nailing Asturias in the 70's:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0y8l4KijBA0

Even on his Fleta (which I think suited him more than Smallmans) there is a 'Williams' sound. For me, all changing to Smallman did was to bring to the fore the 'negative' aspects of his sound. If anything I think he would have been better off changing from a Fleta to a spruce top traditional guitar - something warm and mellow.

My natural tone and nails are not too dissimilar from a young Williams (if i do say so myself) in that I have a firm nails with a strong attack and crisp sound. However, a few years ago I was playing exclusively on a lattice Jim Redgate (very similar to smallmans, though a tad more traditional sounding) and my teacher would often bring attention to my hard sound on that instrument, which was a combination of my playing style and the guitars natural sound. So I ended getting rid of it for a more traditional sounding instrument.
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Scot Tremblay » Sun Feb 17, 2013 5:18 pm

There is a segment of Williams musical life that usually gets overlooked but which I think must have had a big impact on his classical playing. That would be his work with the fusion group "Sky", his collaboration with rockers like Pete Townsend and his exploration into the world of the electric guitar. That hugh body of work aside from classical cannot but have an influence on him in some way...we would hope positive but perhaps not.
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by ChristianSchwengeler » Sun Feb 17, 2013 5:24 pm

Gabriel Bianco states in an interview in Guitare Classique, that he was lucky to be able to choose between a few Smallmans when he bought his, and he said there was a pretty big difference between the instruments. You should listen to the CD: "El Diablo Suelto" from John Williams and you will understand what Williams wants to say about his Smallman sound: in fact it sounds much better than its fame - even if you consider modern recording tecniques and everything - the Smallman he plays on this recording is an outstanding instrument and the sound he produces on it is fantastic.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Kent » Sun Feb 17, 2013 5:28 pm

Scot Tremblay wrote:There is a segment of Williams musical life that usually gets overlooked but which I think must have had a big impact on his classical playing. That would be his work with the fusion group "Sky", his collaboration with rockers like Pete Townsend and his exploration into the world of the electric guitar. That hugh body of work aside from classical cannot but have an influence on him in some way...we would hope positive but perhaps not.
Good point Scot.
This stray from the traditional Holy ground of classical guitar, perhaps gives him an overall view of what sounds good to be significantly different from what we expect.
It is hard for me to find criticism with someone I respect so much.
I wish Mr. Williams would dare to add his point of view. You out there JW? :P

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Macleod410 » Sun Feb 17, 2013 5:35 pm

I think a lot of Williams style comes as a backlash against the overly romantic style of Segovia. I'm not sure i would say he's unmusical , he just doesn't play around with the music as much as Bream etc.
I find his playing so uncomplicated and easy, even when it's the most difficult repertoire , his sense of line is so increadibly fluent and rhythmical he brings to the guitar an unfussy and direct style which I guess can be seen as unmusical but I can't find fault with his Allbeniz recording. His Barrios is amount the best, Aranjuez is easy and lyrical with no struggle , his Bach has such clarity and drive and again sounds so easy.
His tone ? Well I quite like it . His playing is well thought out and must be a reflection of him but I'm not sure it's unmusical .

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Sun Feb 17, 2013 6:55 pm

What i dont get is Segovia, who was very particular about how people played as we know, loved Williams. But the playing style of Williams is the polar opposite to Segovias in every way? I would have loved to have heard him playing to Segovia in his lessons.

I think its fair to say from what Williams has said about Segovia (especially in his new bio) that he was not a fan of his approach. And from what ive heard and seen I think Segovia was a pretty awful teacher in that it was his way or the highway. It wouldnt be so bad if Segovia's approach to music was so ridiculous and OTT.

There just isnt really any subtlety to modern day Williams. Very little dynamic contrast, tone change, phrasing. I guess its the no frills, no BS approach!
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Macleod410

Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Macleod410 » Sun Feb 17, 2013 7:11 pm

Did Williams play the way Segovia wanted in the lessons or did he do it his own way, I have heard some very early Williams sound a bit Segovia ish ?

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Denian Arcoleo » Sun Feb 17, 2013 7:44 pm

ChristianSchwengeler wrote:You should listen to the CD: "El Diablo Suelto" from John Williams and you will understand what Williams wants to say about his Smallman sound: in fact it sounds much better than its fame - even if you consider modern recording tecniques and everything - the Smallman he plays on this recording is an outstanding instrument and the sound he produces on it is fantastic.
Agreed. That album is a marvel in all respects; the sound of the guitar, the playing, the music. It wasn't recorded so long ago either. Personally I wouldn't worry too much about Williams, just be thankful that the guitar has produced such a master. There are plenty of other people one could criticize with much more foundation.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Macleod410 » Sun Feb 17, 2013 8:23 pm

Mind you , no matter what you say , look at him playi g the chaconne live on YouTube .....it's flawless , he just nails it . Live and on film, not a single mistake ! How many can do that

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by John Oster » Sun Feb 17, 2013 8:40 pm

He was once one of my favorite guitarists, and I dutifully bought all of his LPs, then CDs. I don't recall which one was the first on which he used a Smallman, but I immediately heard a vastly inferior sound and wondered how the engineers made his Fleta sound so awful! I then read the fine print and discovered he was now playing a Smallman. I've hated their "tone" ever since.

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