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Interview with John Williams

Enjoy The Practice! Part 2.

Mr. John Williams, one of the world most known classical guitarist, comes from Australia and lives with his wife and 2 dogs in England. He gave the Vienna Classical Guitar Society an honour to interview him on October 30th, 2020. The grand Interview with him, “Enjoy The Practice”, will appear in 3 Parts.

Part 2.


Tanja Snyers (TS), Rosaline Snyers (RS), John Williams (JW), Eugen Schmidt (ES), Edda Mogel (EM)

TS: Which guitarists are the ones that have been inspiring you to play?

JW: Oh, many, many, many.

When I was very young, Andreas Segovia was an inspiration, when I was 12 or 13 and I was very coarse. After that Alirio Diaz, famous and great Venezuelan guitarist. Django Reinhardt, I never played any jazz, but his way of improvising, his soul, his spirit, it´s very inspiring. Julian Bream, of course, he was a very close friend and colleague I worked with, played with. I knew him for 60 years. And there are two or three really good young players that I admire. But then, you know, there are lots of other things that I find very inspiring in smaller and bigger ways. There's a wonderful recording called “The Moon and the Banana Tree”, from Madagascar. It's a mixture of a whole different guitars, singers, guitar styles of Madagascar. I really recommend it. That's really inspiring. And of course, that's just on guitar. You get to other instruments and singers, many, many, many people.

RS: How did you meet Julian Bream?

JW: I can't remember exactly the very first meeting, but the first time I heard him play was in London when I was about 12 or 13. Just after my Family moved from Australia, Melbourne to London. Julian was playing Rodrigo Concerto de Aranjuez in North London. It was a local town hall. It was actually a swimming pool, which was covered over, on Sunday afternoons for having afternoon concerts. And that's when Julian was about 19 or 20. We met during that period, because my father had re-created or resurrected the London Guitar Society.

That's where I met him, and then we continued. I left home very early, age of 17. I had a flat in the centre town, which I shared with some friends. Julian used to come there often, he would have been twenty-five, twenty-six. We saw each other often. Since then we used to play table tennis. That was one of the things we did a lot together. But he moved out to the country, about two or three hours from London. So, we didn't see each other as regularly, except when we did some tours playing concerts.

TS: What kind of a personality was Julian Bream?

JW: When you know him very closely, he was very dedicated and very, very dedicated to the guitar and the lute. He used to play the lute a lot. Almost as much as the guitar. In those early days, he played both a lot. He was very dedicated to the period. He loved tradition. When I say tradition, he wasn't a conservative in the sense of socially or politically. He was very sort of free thinking. He was very interested in his garden and growing things naturally and things like that.

He had a great sense of humour. He used to love me telling him jokes with my Australian accent, which I could do quite exaggerated for him. He thought that was very funny. We were very different people. I think people can tell from our styles of playing, we're very different. But both of us used to think that was a very positive thing. To have two people playing a duet and they're both playing exactly the same, it's almost like: what's the point? But if you have two contrasting things that are meeting you somewhere, in the sum total is more than the two of you. You can have an extra.

ES: If you would be talking to your younger self now, what would you recommend to yourself as a young boy, what would you have done differently or advised to make differently?

JW: When I was in my 20s, I used to look back and say, well, I like what I'm doing. And of course, I liked what I was doing, and that I was making a living, I was successful at it. Maybe a lot of people ask this question, they say, well, what would you choose? Would you have chosen? My father sort of put me on that path. But would you not prefer to have chosen that yourself? And I used to think that just a little bit, I didn't worry about it, but I used to think, perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen it. But then immediately I thought, well, I might have chosen the wrong thing. People our age are obsessed with freedom and choice and the implication is always that the choice is good and that the freedom is good.

Not necessarily. It's maybe, but not necessarily. We've made a kind of God out of that. And indeed, when I was in my 20s, I might have chosen the wrong thing. I might have chosen something that I was unhappy with. Many people do. Many people drift into something. But if I look back, I think probably I would have liked to have known more, learned more, played more, let's call it popular music, it may be jazz improvising. I don't improvise. I'm not a good improviser. And maybe if I'd had more early experience at doing that, I would have liked that.

But that's a difficult question, if I'd done that, I might have been doing not concentrated so much on what I do, I think I do well, and I might have not done that so well, so, who knows?

TS: Tell us about the guitar life in England and Australia.

JW: Australia, I keep in touch with Timothy Kain, he has a group called “Guitar Trek”, the Guitar Quartet, and that's very, very active in Australia, they have a lot of new music composed for them. And they are very successful. There's a lot going on in Australia.

England is OK. The Royal College of Music has a very good teacher, Gary Ryan. He is a very good all-around musician, which many guitar teachers are not. A very good pianist, also plays the organ. He is a good composer and player, and his whole attitude in music is very, very good. I would pick him out as a teacher here. I think a lot of institutions in England are a little bit limited, a little bit squashed by the syllabuses and the institutions themselves that create a kind of very tight framework. Very difficult for the teachers and the students to break out from that.

Gary Ryan

TS: You were one of the founders of SKY, the British rock band, in the late 70s and 80s. What was the intention of this project? Would you like to tell us more about this time in your life?

JW: One of the very good satire programs in England on the radio, did a sketch about. And one of the things they had was a fake interview with me, someone doing my voice, and at the end of this little answer, I was saying, you know what? We are doing things a little bit like rock music so that none of the classical players liked it, and a little bit of classical also so none of the rock players liked it. So, no one liked that.

It wasn't an absolute programmed idea when we got together. It was because we had all worked together in different settings, like on the sessions or on a film music session or in a contemporary avantgarde music composition, or when we'd all worked in different ways. But the main thing at the time, it's very dated the idea now, was the combination of acoustic instruments with the electronic or synthesized instruments.

So, Francis Monkman, the keyboard player, we were the first to couple an actual piano or a harpsichord to the synthesizer. I mean, all this is old hat now. Each key was coupled to the synth so you could basically get a combination of an organ-harpsichord sound, it had the attack of the harpsichord, the grandness and the sustain of the organ. But he only played one instrument, and that could be adjusted. So, you could have like 80 percent harpsichord sound with 20 percent organ, or whatever you want.

And then we had the guitar. Things are obviously so-called classical guitar. Kevin Peek, the Australian guitarist, was playing the electric and also a bit of classical. He was a very good classical player as well. The idea was to combine those two things and the mixture of the music just happened because of that kind of synthesis of styles. The first three or four years were great, and I think about half of what we did was musically very good.

The other half was OK, pretty good average. But after that, it just started getting a little bit like, I don't mean to be insulting to say media music, meaning a little bit middle of the road, soft sort of and I left, and they gradually disbanded after that. But I think we did a huge amount of things with the guitar. I mean, an amazing number of guitar students and guitarists now when they were young, really liked SKY, a lot of people now in their 40s and 50s, 60s, remember SKY. Remember that in many cases, the first thing that introduced into the guitar and music. The show was great at that time, the quality of the recordings was not good. Especially on the acoustic sound wasn't good. The sound of the guitar was not good for different reasons, but the actual live shows were really fantastic. We did regular tours of Australia and England.

© Vienna Classical Guitar Society

Part 3 "Enjoy The Practice" will be published in July 2021.