University of Surrey 

For Alumni and Supporters

John Williams

What are you doing on this visit to the University?

We’ve been recording Steven Goss’ The Flower of the Cities, which is an ensemble piece for two guitars, violin, double bass and percussion, which I commissioned from Steve for the City of London Festival last year, so it’s only had one performance so far. I’m also here for the Guitar Day of the Guildford International Music Festival, and will be playing with Craig Ogden. We shall play solo pieces, duos and also pieces from The Flower in the Cities.

 Why did you commission Steve to write the work?

I played at the City of London Festival in 2011, and Ian Ritchie, Director of the Festival, very kindly asked me back in 2012 because apparently, and I hadn’t remembered, I had played in the first City of London Festival which was 50 years ago. Ian asked if I had any interesting programme ideas – I knew didn’t want to do just another guitar recital because people hear that all the time. I wanted to do something a little bit special and I have a particular interest in getting the guitar incorporated in music with other instruments, and also, incidentally,  different cultural worlds. That also includes what we call ordinary concert classical music because there isn’t a good repertoire for guitar in ensemble. It is very poor. There are many reasons for that, one being that not many composers understand the guitar very well.

I have got to know Steve’s music well over the last few years, not only his guitar music but through other ensemble music for piano, strings, and wind and orchestral, and I thought he would be the ideal person to commission a special piece for that City of London Festival.

 The bonus, and it wasn’t the main reason I asked Steve, is that Steve is also very responsive to place and mood, physical and visual themes, so I knew that although |was getting him to write a piece which would be a very useful piece for guitarists after the Festival, it would also be something very specific about London. He got the title from William Dunbar’s poem In Honour of the City of London. There are 11 movements and they are all evocative and descriptive of the 11 places that Steve visited. It turned out to be a great piece with many different ideas for short solos movements and ensemble movements.

Do you have any particular modern composers you like?

Steve’s obviously a favourite! Also, the Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer. He is originally a guitarist but writes not only for the guitar, exactly like Steve, so although they are culturally different, they’re both unusual in the sense that they are composers in the true sense of the word, not only guitar composers.

Do you feel any sense of responsibility to encourage new compositions?

I do but with a proviso. I think that the encouragement of composition for guitar should not only reflect European music. That’s not to exclude European/classical music but it shouldn’t be limited to that, as far as my interest goes – others may have different opinions. One of the problems in the world of the guitar is that it reflects the social and the cultural problems in contemporary music generally and that is that a lot of the progress or development is assumed to be European or classical.  I think the vast opportunities through communication and sharing different cultures can have an enormous benefit to musicians from wherever they are. I would like to think that the future of the guitar is not just restricted to so-called European classical music. Of all instruments, the guitar has the most cultural connection with other parts of the world because the family of plucked stringed instruments is vast. For example there is the West African kora (harp), ngoni (lute) and hodu (guitar), and in South East Asia there is the koto (zither) and pipa (lute) as well as a range of South American instruments. All these express the mood of their culture. Japanese traditional music through the koto has a stillness about it and a timeless quality and these are all elements which we can incorporate into our culture – we don’t have those. Basically our music doesn’t concentrate on stillness and space. A lot of African instrumental writing is rhythmic; its vitality is complex and terrific.

 I don’t want people to misunderstand me, I’m not saying we should do this to the exclusion of European music but we must get away from the assumption that European music is the best and the greatest. We assume that our democracy, our economies, our societies, our welfare state are all the best - this is a terrible post-Imperial attitude and it applies to music as well. We must learn that’s not the case. European music is fantastic, as is lots of other music.

How has technology changed and how has it affected your work?

In my experience there’s the obvious advance in recording and amplification, so in the last 50 years you can amplify an acoustic instrument like the guitar and retain most, if not all,  of its magical sound and qualities and yet have it louder so more people can hear it in big halls.  The guitar is a very quiet, soft, intimate instrument but musically it’s expressive, at the very least, as any other instrument so you must be able to express a wide range of emotions and fullness, richness of sound and volume is an important part of that in a lot of music. So amplification has been a good advance and recording quality has done the same thing.

So that’s been on a purely technical level but as far as the instrument itself, guitarists these days are experimenting and changing some of the basic designs of the interior of the guitar and every one has their own personal choice as to what kind of guitar they have, what kind of sound they want and I’ve worked very closely for the last 30 years with an Australian maker. For me his guitars give a very wide range of sound – tonal quality - and also with the dynamics you can be more expressive. For me that has been a big advance as well.

Do guitarists worry about injuries?

Cold hands are a major, major problem. The thing about the guitar, and it applies to any instrument but particularly the guitar, is that our movements are very small, they’re all fingers. At least conductors and pianists wave their arms around and the circulation gets going. We do a lot of intricate things and use quite a lot of strength and the problem is if your hands are cold it’s like an athlete running or doing some strenuous gymnastic exercises without warming up, you can pull muscles and strain your hand. It’s not only that it’s unpleasant playing cold but your fingers are not really stretched and warm and you can injure yourself. Once or twice in the past, when I have had to play some difficult piece of music, I have found the next day that the ligaments are strained and it takes a few days to get over it.

If you were a teenager starting out again would you do anything differently?

Until I was in my early 20s I never really thought about it because I had been put on the guitar by my father when I was five and I like doing it. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I started to think, even playing with the idea, would I have wanted to do anything else? I thought well no, I’m really glad that my father put me on the guitar, and the only really thought that followed that was it might have been an extra bonus if I had actually decided myself. I’m very happy, over the moon, that I’ve done this my whole life. I’ve never regretted it, it’s been fantastic, but the only thing that occurred to me was it might have been nice to choose it myself as we live in an age where we have free choice in everything so I may not have chosen the guitar. I might have chosen something else and it might have been a mistake!

There’s one thing I wished I’d got into when I was younger and that was to improvise. I’m not an improviser, whether it’s jazz or anything. I’m not good at it and there are technical reasons for that as improvising on guitar with a pick is very different to playing classical technique. Whether that’s a total excuse I don’t know, but it would have been nice. It’s not a big regret but when people are sitting round picking up a tune they’ve never heard before, busking along, it would have been nice, more sociable to be able to do it.

What advice would you give to young guitarists who are torn between classic and rock/pop?

It depends on the assumption if they really love it all and they can’t choose what to do, but in my experience, in the main, people really know what they like doing best so my advice is that they should do what they like doing best. Do the thing that really gives them the deepest thrill and, it sounds corny, but people should follow the heart. One of the great singers told me when he was teaching he used to say to his students do you want to sing or do you want to be a singer? And I think that’s very important as a lot of people, especially in the guitar world, they want to be a guitarist more than they want to play the guitar. Meaning do you want to be a guitarist to earn a living, and have people listen to you more than just play. If no one was listening and didn’t for the rest of your life would you still sit in your room and play the guitar?

So first of all people should follow their heart and secondly ask themselves if they want to be a guitarist or play the guitar.

Are you proud to be honorary graduate?

Absolutely. I was very surprised to be asked. If I can contribute anything, I’d be happy to.


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