The curious case of John Williams

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Steven Joseph
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Sun Feb 17, 2013 8:57 pm

Prometheus wrote: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.
I actually think the Smallman he uses in his Seville concert was good, a tad honky and hard, but for the pieces he played on that video it was great. But from the radio interview he did a few years ago about Smallmans some of the stuff he was saying was frankly a load of rubbish. I think he actually said he found traditional guitars too percussive and Smallmans were warmer and more musical (or something like that) when clearly the general consensus is the opposite is true!?
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Gruupi » Sun Feb 17, 2013 9:03 pm

I agree for the most part with the original post. John Williams does have a very punchy sound and a strict approach to rhythm. He certainly doesn't have the widest dynamic range or as many tonal colors as others like Bream. This style works really well in some pieces like Asturias and some of the Bach, in other pieces it doesn't come off as well. I had by chance been listening to some Williams CD's this weekend as well. I'm listening to Barrios and Ponce right now in fact. This Cd's doesn't work as well as some of the better ones. His punchy sound and his rhythms don't suit most of Barrios' music too well in my opinion. It just comes across as lifeless, and I don't care for the phrasing. It's not bad playing, but it just doesn't inspire me.

It's hard to be critical of such a great musician, but nobody is perfect. Some of his performances are terrific, I have "The Seville Concert" DVD and in my opinion it is the best filmed performance of a classical guitarist yet. He seems more musical in this performance than most, and the material suits his style well. I personally don't mind the sound of the Smallman. I suspect that a punchy sound and a loud guitar really serve him well in projecting to the back of a large hall.

In the end I think it's great that we have a player such as Williams representing the guitar. At a point in time after Segovia died he has helped keep the guitar in the spotlight. I wouldn't want to model my playing after his, but he is still an influence. The comparisons to Bream are really a good way for someone to look at such differences in style, and use that as a basis to formulate their own style.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Denian Arcoleo » Sun Feb 17, 2013 9:15 pm

I'm finding this thread very amusing. I'm not one for hagiography, but bearing in mind the level that Williams introduced to the guitar and the fact that he's been at that level (or thereabouts) for more than half a century, I find it rather hard to fault him. To say that one wouldn't wish to model oneself after him...well, you wish.
I remember an LP that I bought when I was 13 years old which, sadly, I no longer have, on which Williams played, if my memory serves, five Scarlatti sonatas and the five Villa Lobos preludes. The playing of the Scarlatti was just mind-boggling to me then and I'm sure it would be so today. Absolutely amazing playing.
The man is someone to be revered.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Sun Feb 17, 2013 9:34 pm

Hi Denian. The point of this thread was not to knock JW, not at all. Im a huge fan, have loads of his CD's and his Seville concert video, which as Gruupi said is arguably the best bio/performance video a guitarist has ever done. As i said in my opening he is and remains one of my heroes.

But this a positive critique from which we can share opinions and hopefully learn from. Simply saying 'well he's John Williams so is immune to analysis' is hardly constructive. As JW himself said of Segovia in the Seville video documentary: "honesty compels him to reassess"

And this thread was more orientated to John Williams of today, who as i said, for me, has lost some of his magic and verve in performance.
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Praeludium » Sun Feb 17, 2013 9:42 pm

I know he's an important guitarist and I don't question that, but honestly I find it very uninteresting to listen to him - and on some of the recordings (I've never heard him live) I've heard, the tone was so much exactly the reverse of what I like in the guitar that it was unbearable to me.
To me, like Segovia, he doesn't compare well with the other great musicians of the XXth century, even though he's a virtuoso guitarist who has been/is very important in the development of our instrument.
Williams mastery isn't in question, it's rather an aesthetical question. But if I had to lend a recording of classical guitar to a non-guitarist musician (with highly discerning ears), I wouldn't give him something by Williams.

Bream does (maybe he had a much wider range of experience as an instrumentalist (piano, lute, etc.) ?) compare with the other great instrumentalists of the XXth century. There's a recording of him playing Henze's Drei tentos on YT and it's just stunning.
Cette dernière trahison m'a été également reprochée. Ce que je trouve à répondre, c'est:"merde aux conventions!"

- Ligeti

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Denian Arcoleo » Sun Feb 17, 2013 9:50 pm

stevenhickeyguitar wrote:And this thread was more orientated to John Williams of today, who as i said, for me, has lost some of his magic and verve in performance.
I take your point, and in general I agree that no one should be above analysis/criticism. But for me Williams' achievement kind of puts him beyond the reach of criticism. Pianists have their Richter's, their Rubinsteins and their Gilels (insert any other superlative pianist you may admire). For me Williams is say, our Richter. The pianists tend to simply say, just listen, he is Sviatoslav Richter. I say the same about Williams

As for the oft levelled accusation of robotic playing, I have a theory about this vis-a-vis performing artists. Those who betray no expression in their face are often accused of this in contrast to those who grimace and gurn. I think that people subconsciously associate rather involved facial movements with deep musicianship.
I say just listen.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Sun Feb 17, 2013 10:08 pm

"I agree that no one should be above analysis/criticism. But for me Williams' achievement kind of puts him beyond the reach of criticism."

....right. In regards to your comments about pianists, believe me, NOBODY is immune to even extreme criticism in the pianist world - FYI singers are the worst!

And my analysis is based purely on the sound. I actually get more pleasure watching Williams over other guitarists.

Also, in regards to his of Bach, Scarlatti etc. working so well because of his rhythmic playing, are they really the best youve heard? No offence but any decent guitarist plays 'rhythmically', its kinda the basics. The advanced stuff is the phrasing, nuances etc. So yes he does that stuff well, but i.m.o. many others do it equally well and 'better'.
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Macleod410 » Sun Feb 17, 2013 10:27 pm

I can't think who does it better,Barrueco? Close, but I find he over articulates compared to Williams.
Russell, yeah possibly, love his Scarlatti but I think I like the sound Williams gets from a Smallman better than Russell's Dammann .

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Jeffrey.C » Sun Feb 17, 2013 10:30 pm

stevenhickeyguitar wrote: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.


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.

When John is talking about traditional guitars being more percussive than Smallmans, it has to do with the attack of the instrument and the sustain. Traditional guitars tend to have a quicker attack that can give the impression of more volume initially but the sound dies off very quickly and you are left with harmonic resonance instead of the note you are playing (which is beautiful in its own way but not what John is looking for). In the case of Smallmans, the tops are made super thin and the back/sides are braced to minimise vibration so that the top is left as free as possible to vibrate which gives Smallman guitars a slower attack and gives the guitar more sustain. The result of that is a less percussive sounding instrument (Smallman guitars aren't percussive...go play a few) and a more resonant instrument.

As for the Smallman bashing, I hope you've actually played a bunch of them before actually making that judgment about the qualities they have and don't have.

John thinks they're more beautiful because the harmonic resonances you get with a Smallman are higher in number (or at least they appear to be because of their loudness and sustain) and the sustain is greater than a traditional guitar.

Williams still loves playing the guitar. He actually really likes the music of Phillip Houghton. John played a rewrite of Light On The Edge in London a few months ago.
"If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music." - Gustav Mahler

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Sun Feb 17, 2013 10:44 pm

I think Galbraiths interpretation of Bach is fantastic, similar to Williams in its rhythmic intensity, but it has added nuance and subtlety, not to mention that incredible guitar! Frankly, I think its difficult to improve on Gary Ryans Bach :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cp4EW4G3Ldk
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7tWFqMYvJA

Unfortunately, there are only these snippets on youtube for us to enjoy, but ive heard him play whole suites live and they are just as refined and polished.

My issue with Williams these days is this. Say if you took two greats of the violin world, Vengerov and Pearlman for example, got a panel of musicians together to compare recordings of them playing the same piece, I think its fair to say some people on would prefer one over the other, but all would agree both are equal in musical merit, all that separates them is personal preference. However, if you took a recording of Williams playing and compared to lets say Galbraith, I reckon an educated audience would recognise the interpretive and musical prowess over Galbraith over Williams, even though both players are equal in technical ability. I also reckon Williams has the knowledge and interpretive skills of his peers, he just doesnt exude this as much for some reason. BTW i dont mean any of this too literally, its a way of me conveying my feelings about his playing, pure opinion!

Enjoy Garys stunning playing!
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Denian Arcoleo » Sun Feb 17, 2013 10:58 pm

stevenhickeyguitar wrote:....right. In regards to your comments about pianists, believe me, NOBODY is immune to even extreme criticism in the pianist world - FYI singers are the worst!
You remind me of being at music college :)

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Sun Feb 17, 2013 11:01 pm

Jeffrey.C wrote:When John is talking about traditional guitars being more percussive than Smallmans, it has to do with the attack of the instrument and the sustain. Traditional guitars tend to have a quicker attack that can give the impression of more volume initially but the sound dies off very quickly and you are left with harmonic resonance instead of the note you are playing (which is beautiful in its own way but not what John is looking for). In the case of Smallmans, the tops are made super thin and the back/sides are braced to minimise vibration so that the top is left as free as possible to vibrate which gives Smallman guitars a slower attack and gives the guitar more sustain. The result of that is a less percussive sounding instrument (Smallman guitars aren't percussive...go play a few) and a more resonant instrument.

As for the Smallman bashing, I hope you've actually played a bunch of them before actually making that judgment about the qualities they have and don't have.

John thinks they're more beautiful because the harmonic resonances you get with a Smallman are higher in number (or at least they appear to be because of their loudness and sustain) and the sustain is greater than a traditional guitar.

Williams still loves playing the guitar. He actually really likes the music of Phillip Houghton. John played a rewrite of Light On The Edge in London a few months ago.
Actually as college student and a regular at various guitar courses over the years, ive tried 8 different Smallmans since 2007. One was Gerald Garcia's 80's built Smallman (previously owned by Williams), one was Craig Ogden's 2002 Smallman (which was sadly stolen a few years ago), and the rest were all owned by my college friends, built between 2005 and now - I also owned a Jim Redgate between 2008-2011. So i think ive had a pretty full experience of Smallmans. I can say that Craigs 2002 guitar was a beautiful instrument that was powerful and deep, but like all the Smallmans it was punchy, tonally a bit more limited than others and touch honky. I dont consider this to be 'bashing', i think these are widely agreeable views on Smallmans and indeed many people like those qualities.

More resonant - absolutely. Louder - undoubtedly. But when I say percussive, I mean they have a strong and immediate attack which gives them a hard sound.

Im glad he still loves playing guitar.When I see him playing in ensembles he seems more animated and to be enjoying himself.
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Gruupi » Sun Feb 17, 2013 11:06 pm

Denian Arcoleo wrote:I'm finding this thread very amusing. I'm not one for hagiography, but bearing in mind the level that Williams introduced to the guitar and the fact that he's been at that level (or thereabouts) for more than half a century, I find it rather hard to fault him. To say that one wouldn't wish to model oneself after him...well, you wish.
I remember an LP that I bought when I was 13 years old which, sadly, I no longer have, on which Williams played, if my memory serves, five Scarlatti sonatas and the five Villa Lobos preludes. The playing of the Scarlatti was just mind-boggling to me then and I'm sure it would be so today. Absolutely amazing playing.
The man is someone to be revered.
Well yes, I do wish I was as gifted a guitarist as John Williams, but when you are talking about the elite players, each of us is going to find who our favorites are. At that point you start to analyse why you like ones playing over another, so it's not really trying to find fault, but making value judgments. Even the rank beginner can have an opinion on what sounds good, sometimes it is good to step back into that mindset and judge music on the gut level, sometimes our academic approach to music can overlook the most obvious things. If we can't make up our own opinions on how the top players shape their phrasing, then what do we use to develop our own style. Do we rely on reading a book or do we let someone else tell us what to sound like, do we follow in the footsteps of the latest competition winner? Not me!

So, sure...I wish. But once I had reached that level, I would not choose to sound like or play like John Williams. In the end we should all strive to sound like ourselves, and that is influenced somewhat by choosing what we like to hear in other musician's playing.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

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

Denian Arcoleo wrote:
stevenhickeyguitar wrote:
You remind me of being at music college :)
Haha, yeh! But we often have lectures analysing and comparing several performances of the same piece. Its constructive and educational. I think some people wrongly see it as bitchiness or an attack, but its the best way of forming your own musical opinions and shaping your interpretations. You take aspects that you like about someones playing/interpretation and use it to inform your own. Im proud to say most of my first hearings of many works I play today where a Williams recording and that has deeply shaped my playing style and interpretation of all those pieces. Id say im more Williams than Bream in fact!

Plus it seems you and I have similar tastes in guitar at least ;) I too play Stephen Hill.
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Macleod410 » Mon Feb 18, 2013 3:28 am

Yes, it was hearing Gary Ryan play which made me buy a Stephen Hill guitar, I think he is an increadible player. World class.

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