Mention Johnsk,2 sw,-2 ld,10 Williams and either "Star Wars" or guitar scores comes to mind. Qualify the name with "missing in action as a recitalist in the United States" and the identification is clear -- "the guitarist John Williams," as the gregarious Londoner mentions he is now occasionally billed.
The Washington Performing Arts Society will rectify the situation Friday night by bringing Williams to the Kennedy Center for a rare concert appearance as part of his first U.S. tour in 13 years. Though he's much in demand worldwide, Williams prefers to keep his schedule open to pursue many musical projects closer to home. "I don't like to have the future mapped out like a committed diary," he says. "So I take things month by month."
Williams has the luxury to pick and choose his spots because of a reputation for guitar brilliance since his London debut in 1958. A poetic, prophetic Andres Segovia then commented, "God has laid a finger on his brow, and it will not be long before his name becomes a byword in England and abroad."
At the time, Williams had been playing for 13 years, having begun lessons at age 4 with his father in Melbourne. After moving to London in 1952, Williams met Segovia and became one of the maestro's students. He's quick to correct the illusion that he obtained his "magic" from Segovia -- "it doesn't work like that," Williams explains, citing his formative years developing technique and a good tone as being the most important.
Segovia did provide inspiration, especially at the Accade'mia Musicale in Siena, Italy, where Williams spent several summers in the mid '50s alongside the likes of Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta. It was an ideal setting for total immersion in music. "There were all instruments of the orchestra, opera, conducting, piano, chamber music -- everything. It was the biggest and most well organized summer school of music," he recalls.
This exposure to many kinds of instrumentalists broadened Williams' idea of the guitar and showed him he needed to be a proficient reader and a well-rounded musician. "All guitarists should be able to read all the Bach and other Baroque lute music at sight," says Williams, commenting on the many guitarists who rely heavily on transcriptions complete with fingering guides.
Williams has been listed as an arranger on programs and on recordings, a description he says he thinks is perfectly ridiculous. "It's not like arranging an orchestral piece for piano; you're playing the same notes, and in most cases, in the same key," he says.
What interests him in terms of transcriptions is taking chamber music, such as a string quartet by Haydn or Mozart, and playing it on guitars. "This helps a guitarist's attitude toward phrasing and shaping of melodies and harmonies," he says. The idea in such an ensemble performance is to approach the music like a string player, not a guitarist dependent upon someone else's written arrangement.
Teaching, performing and recording in London keep Williams busy. He thrives on activity, whether it's writing music for the soon-to-be-released Australian film "Emma's War," starring Lee Remick; playing classical guitar at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club; or helping out friends Cleo Laine and John Dankworth. A recording artist since 1964, Williams has covered the classical guitar literature as a soloist and in duet with Julian Bream, upped the decibel level by going electric with the fusion group SKY and, most recently, celebrated his eclectic cosmopolitan artistic life on the LP "Echoes of London."
Whatever the musical source, Williams' brand of guitar remains the same. Eschewing the Ramirez (favored by Segovia and Parkening) and having abandoned his Fleta in recent years, he now plays guitars made by the Australian luthier Greg Smallman, whose instruments have the sensitivity Williams demands. "He's added a slight modification to the design and sound. The differences are in the strutting and bracing on the top, which results in a wider and richer dynamic range of tone. It's also slightly louder, but that's not the purpose, that's the byproduct."
Loudness brings on the question of amplification. Segovia won't consider it; Williams wouldn't consider performing without it. In a hall the size of the Kennedy Center, one should be amplified "not for the sake of volume," he maintains, "but for the sake of the dynamic range of the guitar.
"A sound like a guitar in a large space does not carry uniformly. Certain frequencies carry more than others. What you hear is a distorted sound, not in terms of unwanted signal. You are not adding anything. You are losing the natural balance of the guitar."
To ensure that Bach, Albeniz, Praetorius and the rest keep their balance on tour, Williams carries his own sound man and system. There's no guesswork in reproducing his guitar's sound, live or in the studio. Unlike many performers, he knows exactly what he wants and speaks knowledgeably about miking and digital echoes.
"I think there's still this old-fashioned attitude that somehow a recording is producing a substitute of what would be in a recital hall. And it's not. I view it from the other end of the glass. The recording is a substitute for having the person in your room.