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 » Tue Feb 26, 2013 4:40 pm

Gruupi wrote:I wouldn't call John Williams mediocre, but I understand the sentiment that Dogonjon is trying to express. At the highest levels, musicians and great artists are expected to do more than play all the right notes and interpret the composers intentions. I think the title of this thread is appropriate for the dilemma. John Williams has certainly pushed the boundaries of playing the right notes to the highest level, sometimes the composers intentions and playing the right notes is all that is needed to get the music across. At times though, this way of playing leaves me feeling empty and cold, like it is perfect but just lacks passion.

To be fair, sometimes John Williams' approach works, in my opinion his Aranjuez is the best out there. The music is impassioned enough to stand on it's own, and it takes a very steady reasoned approach to play it correctly with an orchestra. This is the case in a few other pieces as well, in some surprisingly different styles. So for this reason, I wouldn't label John Williams as mediocre. He does miss the mark in some pieces (opinion), but since he is so prolific in his output, I can forgive him of that too.

So, maybe we expect to much from the demigods of performing. To expect perfection, passion, and a wide repertoire over the whole course of someone's career is a monumental achievement, and no one in the history of music could really live up to this. So rethinking what I said earlier about not modeling my playing on John Williams, it would be more appropriate to say I wouldn't model it solely on John Williams approach, but there are some aspects of the way he plays that would be relevant to any student.
EXACTLY! it only took 4 pages of replies but someone finally got my point! I also think people were being deliberately facetious in regards to the guy who said Williams was mediocre, when he was clearly referring to his musical interpretations not his technical ability.

There is (or in my opinion 'was') a great conviction to Williams' playing. You believe he plays exactly how it wants the piece to sound, which is much harder to do than you think. One thing many artists struggle with is conveying what they hear in their head to the audience, but perhaps what Williams plays is exactly how he thinks it should sound - you certainly get that impression.

To loop all the way back to were we started, my issue with Williams is that his interpretations of many works to me lack real depth and exploration. He seems to approach every piece in the same way, which is why his Bach and Scarlatti are brilliant, but his Tarrega and Sor are for me rigid. There is a real joy to hearing someone just play the music - no fuss, no muss. But I rarely feel emotionally charged by him - he just makes me happy :) . I think that truly great musicians have the ability to stir emotions as well as make you happy, but i just dont think its in his character. He has the ability to do that for sure, but its just not who he is.
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Cary W
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Cary W » Tue Feb 26, 2013 5:52 pm

stevenhickeyguitar wrote:He has the ability to do that for sure, but its just not who he is.
His conscious refusal to emulate Segovia no doubt made him fall from grace.
But you were the chosen one! If you follow the dark path, forever will it rule your destiny...
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woodenhand
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by woodenhand » Wed Feb 27, 2013 5:48 am

This is a worthy topic, and there are so many thoughtful posts. Any way you look at it, JW is a giant. Like just a few other guitarists, he overshadows the whole classical guitar world. In terms of technique he is what I'd call absolutely rock-solid. I suppose that makes him sound "punchy" to some people. He has been my primary (though not sole) model for technique. I personally dislike guitar playing with a fuzzy, infirm sound, which I hear all too often, so in that sense JW's playing is especially "music" to my ears.

In terms of performance, however, I feel that JW has never attained his true potential. Not to say that he is a poor performer, of course. Quite the opposite. I've never met JW, but have heard about him from people who know him, or have studied under him. Without exception, everyone says he is a warm, personable, and pleasant person. I have no reason to doubt it. So, why does his performance so often lack that warmness? After a performance here in Japan some years ago (which I attended), a Japanese guitar music critic wrote that JW's music is technically flawless, like a finely cut diamond, but a finely cut diamond has a cold beauty. She had captured my feeling of many years in one sentence. It's like JW is wearing an expressionless mask which is meant to conceal his inner warmth. Occasionally, however, the mask slips, and we can glimpse (with our ears) that inner warmth. It seems to me that JW nearly always "has his guard up," to so speak, as if he is afraid to show his inner self via his music. I know there is a warm, passionate person inside there, but most of the time he is hiding. Why doesn't JW show his heart a little more? I'm certainly not saying he should play like Segovia or Bream, or that he should play lugubriously. No, he should play like himself, but not just the side of him that is paying attention to the rhythm and the score. Most of the time his playing is bright, but it's bright like a cool, fluorescent light, not like a warm incandescent light.

It's not too late. Williams is 72, but he's still going strong. John, if you are out there and listening, do this one thing for us. Take off your mask, and let your heart show through more. I don't mean give in to your emotions and start slobbering and crying on your guitar. Just add that warmth without changing anything else.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by lucy » Wed Feb 27, 2013 7:47 pm

stevenhickeyguitar wrote: There is (or in my opinion 'was') a great conviction to Williams' playing. You believe he plays exactly how it wants the piece to sound, which is much harder to do than you think. One thing many artists struggle with is conveying what they hear in their head to the audience, but perhaps what Williams plays is exactly how he thinks it should sound - you certainly get that impression.
Also, someone once told me that apparently Williams doesn't believe in "putting his personality into his playing" (for want of a better expression). He believes that the music stands on its own and so performs in a way that is true to it, consciously avoiding putting a personal stamp on it.

Some may agree with this approach - some may not!
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Steven Joseph
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Wed Feb 27, 2013 8:41 pm

Yes I believe you're dead right there Lucy. Its a good thing every performer doesn't share this view otherwise they would all render themselves pointless! I don't agree with Williams on this though and neither do most musicians I've learnt under or studied with.

You respect the composer yes, and try to convey his music as he/she intended of course, but most composers enjoy hearing you put your own voice into their music. In fact their joy comes from hearing each persons different take on their piece. Its a fairly dull, unimaginative approach to music, and life, to just do as you're told. I know that's greatly over-exaggerating Williams' approach, and to be honest I'm not even sure if he does think that way, but he treads dangerously close to it from what I can hear.
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by BlueNo » Wed Feb 27, 2013 9:15 pm

Apropos, I hope, the last two thought provoking posts, I attended a Xuefei Yang concert, brilliant, but I liked less the pieces into which she seemed to be trying to inject passion. Perhaps there are some artists more to be admired for technical superiority than emotionality, or we chose the artist on the part of the spectrum with which we most resonate?

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by PaulHardy » Wed Feb 27, 2013 10:06 pm

stevenhickeyguitar wrote: There is (or in my opinion 'was') a great conviction to Williams' playing. You believe he plays exactly how it wants the piece to sound, which is much harder to do than you think. One thing many artists struggle with is conveying what they hear in their head to the audience, but perhaps what Williams plays is exactly how he thinks it should sound - you certainly get that impression.
Conviction is an excellent word for him. I feel this with the rhythmic sureness & authoritative style. However as you say I understand those who long for a little more personality.

Perhaps a synonym for dogonjohn's "mediocrity" might be... "consistency" ? Which is a virtue and a vice, of course

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by woodenhand » Thu Feb 28, 2013 2:17 am

lucy wrote:
stevenhickeyguitar wrote: There is (or in my opinion 'was') a great conviction to Williams' playing. You believe he plays exactly how it wants the piece to sound, which is much harder to do than you think. One thing many artists struggle with is conveying what they hear in their head to the audience, but perhaps what Williams plays is exactly how he thinks it should sound - you certainly get that impression.
Also, someone once told me that apparently Williams doesn't believe in "putting his personality into his playing" (for want of a better expression). He believes that the music stands on its own and so performs in a way that is true to it, consciously avoiding putting a personal stamp on it.

Some may agree with this approach - some may not!
I suppose that is one way of looking at musical performance, and I would not claim it's invalid. But I would like to respectfully disagree for two reasons. First, let's say that all musical performers strove to shut out their personalities and feelings, and "stick to the score." Wouldn't that tend to standardize musical performance? Why not just have computers play MIDI files? MIDI files are boring precisely because they are literally true to the score and have no personality or emotion. Second, music is emotional. It moves people, or at least it should. It expresses and makes us feel the gamut of human emotion. Again, I am not saying musicians should perform in a lugubrious or frenzied manner. If you go to a poetry reading, do you want to hear a computer reading the words in an emotionless monotone? Of course not. Poetry, like music, generates feelings in people. Or at least it should.

Music should have feeling, and in my view too much of JW's performing lacks it. Sometimes I think he is influenced well when performing with someone else. Take his duets with Bream, for instance. Many people have strong feelings about those duets. I think they were very good for three reasons: First, two of the world's greatest virtuosos were playing together. Second, Williams and Bream have radically different approaches to the same instrument, in terms of both technique and style, yet they managed to meld themselves harmoniously. Third -- and this bears directly on this topic -- I think JW's playing was more sensitive, nuanced, and full of feeling than when he plays solo. My take is that he was positively influenced by having to accommodate Bream.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by stavros » Thu Feb 28, 2013 12:25 pm

So many years i hear all this critic about Segovia and his playing. Latelly i heard a Barrueco interview say that his sound was dull.

But they all forget that Segovia was a genuine product of the romantic area.He played the repertoire of this area much better than most today's learned and well-educated musicians.
The only critic which can be acceptable is acceptabe is the way he played Bach on his own romantic way and of course those perfomances are importand too ,but what about the rest of his repertory? a lot of todays top classical guitarists when it comes in playing Romantic music sound like they playing Back to my ears.

Ee certainly need to examine of what is played and the time that was written,if you hear Sviatoslav Richter in Baroque you will hear a very different person who follows exactly the score and his playing is conservative.

Williams fair or unfair judgements of Segovia hurt me in the way that whenever i hear this great guitarist speaking about Segovia ,he never refers to him as a player but only as teacher.The same do many other musicians of the time ,with the exceptions of David Russel,Parkening and Alexandre Lagoya who spoke very highly for this outstanding musician.
Segovia had nothing to teach ,than his own style and basically this is what many teachers do until today.Of course this is not quite good from one point of view since music has unlimited possibilites but think what the players had to learn by seeing directty the master to give them advise ,or to have the chance to examine his hands In my ears Segovia's imaginary sound and tone colour and his unique ability to transform the pieces into something that even the composer didnt ever imagine,is something that hasnt been surpassed yet.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Thu Feb 28, 2013 3:30 pm

Are you sure you're not seeing Segovia through rose tinted glasses? Regardless of what he was like as a person, as a musician it is well documented now that he was an egotist and a bit of a bully who spoke in absolutes and thought his way was the only way. When you speak with such authority as he did you open yourself up to criticism, especially when you don't have the musical or technical skills to justify such lofty remarks.
stavros wrote:But they all forget that Segovia was a genuine product of the romantic area.He played the repertoire of this area much better than most today's learned and well-educated musicians.
Segovia's 'musical assertions' where dubious at best. His phrasing was designed to accommodate his limitations not serve the music. Many guitarists have remarked on how he often 'phrased' difficult passages by slowing down for the hard bits, then tried to pass it off as good musicianship. 'Well educated' musicians know phrasing comes from singing and breathe. You play a phrase/melody as you would sing it, creating musical 'sentences'. Segovia would often randomly hop from string to string or timbre to timbre mid melody, with rubato thrown in for good measure. If a singer sung something the way he played it you'd think they were mad!
stavros wrote:Williams fair or unfair judgements of Segovia hurt me in the way that whenever i hear this great guitarist speaking about Segovia ,he never refers to him as a player but only as teacher.
The fact is we'll never know exactly what happened between Segovia and Williams over the years. Maybe they had personal conflicts? Maybe not? Perhaps Williams' clear resentment of Segovia's musical methods is purely professional. You have respect the guts and maturity of Williams to forge his own path and stick with his gut and not be bullied in to following his teachers way. And if there's anybody in world who has the right to criticize Segovia its Williams.
stavros wrote:In my ears Segovia's imaginary sound and tone colour and his unique ability to transform the pieces into something that even the composer didnt ever imagine,is something that hasnt been surpassed yet.
Listen to Bream or Pavel Steidl or Marcin Dylla then tell me that ;)
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Les Backshall
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Les Backshall » Thu Feb 28, 2013 3:47 pm

Curious how the curious case of John Williams is morphing into yet another Segovia thread.
Actually I suppose it isn't really - on this forum a discussion about the merits of any particular guitarist always ends up at Segovia sooner or later.
Could I humbly request Segoviaphobes/phones read some of the other thousand or two threads on this subject and perhaps respond to those instead.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by stavros » Thu Feb 28, 2013 4:47 pm

Bream himself quoted that Segovia's articulation was unsurpassed ,Al.Lagoya ,said that even his mistakes had tremebdious charm due to his great sound and these persons didnt had the best relations with him as he was a cruel quy to deal with ,it is well documented that.I have nothing more to say on that but really i dont care about his personalitly as a teacher or person to others we are not here to judge him as a person but only as a musician,it is obvious that everyone tried to imitate him for many years ,Bream was one of those ,but some Segovia's perfomances especially in the Spanish Romantic repertoire are still unsurpased.

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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Mark Clifton-Gaultier » Thu Feb 28, 2013 5:04 pm

stevenhickeyguitar wrote:Segovia's 'musical assertions' where dubious at best. His phrasing was designed to accommodate his limitations not serve the music.
Maybe he read your post - "Play the way you can, not the way you should" Steven.

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Steven Joseph
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by Steven Joseph » Thu Feb 28, 2013 6:06 pm

Mark Clifton-Gaultier wrote:
stevenhickeyguitar wrote:Segovia's 'musical assertions' where dubious at best. His phrasing was designed to accommodate his limitations not serve the music.
Maybe he read your post - "Play the way you can, not the way you should" Steven.
Haha. Well then he should have played slower so he could maintain the tempo ;) . And I was told that little fact nugget by a very respected guitarist/teacher so its not exactly an original thought. I wouldnt have minded the weird phrasing if he hadnt been so bullish to claim it was the more musical way to play it.
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PaulHardy
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Re: The curious case of John Williams

Post by PaulHardy » Thu Feb 28, 2013 8:00 pm

It seems to me that Williams & Bream played as they spoke, that their playing reflected their personalities. Williams was always matter-of-fact and undramatic when talking, with little rise and fall and the familiar control & precision. Bream by contrast would gesticulate as he spoke, wander off the point or into poetic flights of fancy, laugh and joke etc. Neither should be seen as better, we are fortunate to have had them both and to have heard them play together. It's tempting to say that probably Williams had fewer off nights but Bream had more inspired nights.

Segovia, with his studious glasses and cherubic features, looked like Mr Mainwaring* but played like Don Quixote. The interviews I have seen showed a quiet man who was undemonstrative when he spoke, but I recognise I am listening to someone speaking not in his mother tongue. I know from when my car was run into by another motorist in France how hard it is to get impassioned when you don't quite have the words for it!


*Mr Mainwaring was a bank manager turned Home Guard captain from a UK sticom of the 1970s.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arthur_Lowe.jpg. The Home Guard was a civil defence volunteer force seen in Britain in the 2nd World War.

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