Innerviews, music without borders

John Williams
The Subtlety of Emotions
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2024 Anil Prasad.

John Williams GuitaristPhoto: Sony

There is no hyperbole in saying John Williams is synonymous with the phrase “classical guitar." Many consider him the most technically-advanced guitarist in history. His precision approach and dedication to his craft have enabled him to perform some of the most complex music ever written to spectacular effect.

Williams’ virtuoso work on the instrument, as well as his compositional and arrangement prowess, have had a profound impact on the world of classical music. The Australian guitarist, who resides in London, has sold millions of records during his career which first began in 1958. His music and techniques are also central to countless educational institutes specializing in classical guitar instruction.

However, Williams’ influence goes far beyond the classical realm. He’s explored music from across the world, including Africa, China, Japan, Latin America, The Middle East, and Russia. His work also appears on many soundtracks, including A Fish Called Wanda, Emma’s War, Great Expectations, Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, and The Deer Hunter. Notably, “Cavatina,” from The Deer Hunter, was a major crossover hit single for Wiliams in 1979 which charted in the UK Top 20.

Williams also co-founded the British progressive rock group Sky. Between 1978 and 1984, the band, which also featured Herbie Flowers, Tristan Fry, Francis Monkman, and Kevin Peek, was a hugely popular draw across Europe, bringing its unique amalgam of classical music, rock, and jazz to enthralled audiences. The six albums Sky recorded while Williams was a member remain touchstones for anyone interested in how the three realms can seamlessly and expertly intersect.

In addition to Sky, Williams' other rock credentials include a duet performed with Pete Townshend on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for The Secret Policeman’s Ball, the 1979 Amnesty International benefit show that yielded an album and home video release. He also contributed to Kate Bush's 1985 LP Hounds of Love.

Williams just released Paseo, his seventh independent CD on his own JCW Recordings label, which follows more than 75 previous studio albums for major record companies. It’s a solo guitar album of works by Leo Brouwer, Antonio Carillo, Manuel Ponce, Joaquin Turina, and Fernando Sor. It also features three of his own new compositions, “When the Birds Return,” “Homage to Barrios,” and “Another Time.” It’s a recording of immense beauty, soul, and ambition. Notably, it found Williams deeply contemplating and evolving his own writing in the context of the master composers he typically interprets.

Innerviews spoke to Williams on Zoom about the making of Paseo, how he situates his work within a global musical perspective, and his drive to continue exploring and challenging himself with new repertoire at age 82.

John Williams GuitaristPhoto: Sony

What’s your perspective on music serving as a language that transcends borders in an era of increasing global fragmentation?

Music is a great, sustaining thing. It’s an international language. But it’s important to remember that there are cultural differences. A Western music vocabulary doesn’t necessarily convey the same feelings some of the vocabulary from India, the Middle East, Africa, or East Asia do. Those vocabularies are different and mean different things.

In the West, we often assume things like minor keys are sad, and major keys are happy. In a universal sense, that’s rubbish. But within Eurocentric culture, that sort of holds true in a very rough way.

A lot of people in Europe who are very classically trained are brought up to believe theirs is the one great vocabulary of music, but actually, they’re very restricted in their outlook and they don’t understand other cultures. I think that’s a problem.

So, we often assume that music transforms and connects everyone, and to some extent, it does—certainly more so than written or spoken language. In that sense, it is fair to say music is a universal language, because the sounds are universal. But I think we do have to remember that from a so-called Western perspective, we must be very careful in assuming that the vocabulary of Western music is universal.

People also assume that because Western classical music is so popular throughout China and Japan confirms it’s universal. But actually, what that’s confirming is the power of an imperial culture, which can carry the message to some extent.

So, I’m always wary of myself being brought up as a Western classical musician, albeit with my interests spreading out in various ways. We really must be careful not to assume that the actual Western European vocabulary itself is universal. There are some universal aspects, because everyone loves rock music and its chord and harmonic structures. They’re comparatively simple, as they should be, and therefore rock carries its message very easily across boundaries. But nevertheless, it’s not necessarily a truly universal language.

This is a hell of a big subject, and we can get into some very deep water. I am generalizing about things, but a lot of the aspects are vehemently opposed by many, many people.

Let’s take a traditional Japanese tune. One of the best-known ones is “Sakura Sakura,” a folk song about spring and cherry blossom season. Everyone in a way knows it, and often plays or sings it in their own way. But, basically, it’s in the minor pentatonic mode. However, you wouldn’t say it’s a sad song. It’s beautiful. And as far as beauty goes, you could say it’s sort of happy. So, that’s just one example of how things are different elsewhere.

You’ve famously said, “the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves.” How does that apply to this cross-cultural dialog?

It’s definitely true. It’s also true in terms of interpretation. I think that’s why, for example, a tune like “Sakura Sakura” is said to be peaceful. There’s a lot of distance between the words when it’s sung. You could say it’s a characteristic of a lot of Japanese music, especially if you look at the music in theater plays. There can be long pauses between the different percussive sounds. Even the stringed instruments are used quite percussively to deliver a percussive note at the right moment. And in terms of European music, again, it comes down to interpretation. The gaps between the notes are a critical part of the expression.

I once heard someone quote from a book by an American composer that posed the question “How would you describe music?” The composer responded, and this is an obvious thing that’s been often repeated, “It describes the indescribable.” It’s about the subtlety of emotions. And it’s why I think the space between notes in any culture is important. When we try to express things in words, sometimes the pause is important, such as in theater. It influences the way words are expressed. It’s very important in that context, too. So, in a way, it’s a truism, but it doesn’t have to be there.

The space between notes in interpreting instrumental music is maybe a substitute for what words that are sung can express. Again, it depends on the culture and the language being used. You wouldn’t say that for Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are a-Changin'" or “Love Minus Zero,” which is a great song. Those don’t have any pauses or gaps between notes, but that doesn’t make either any less of a great song or great expression. So, again, it depends on the context.

John Williams GuitaristJohn Williams, 1972 | Photo: Sony

Tell me about your relentless drive to propel forward with new repertoire and compositions at age 82.

That’s a difficult one. I have to digress to answer it, because I’m not someone who self-analyzes why I do things. It’s a very good question, and for some people, it’s easy to answer. I’ve read people discussing it in interviews. I’ve also talked to others about it. Those people find it very easy to talk about their own inspiration. I find it complex to discuss the creative impulse, myself.

I used to get asked very often when I started experimenting with African music, “When did you start getting interested in it?” My father had a very good answer to this, because he was a guitar teacher, and he taught me. He was many other things, too. He had a monkey sanctuary for species from the Amazon, which he was trying to reintroduce. He was very interested in philosophy and evolution. He was also a very funny man. And to those questions, sometimes, he’d say “Well, it’s funny. I woke up the other night at 2:38 in the morning and said to my wife, ‘I think I’ll explore X, Y, and Z in terms of music or animal behavior.'” [laughs]

What my father meant was, it’s very difficult to pinpoint a moment, sometimes. It can just be a feeling that arrives. My father was a jazz and dance-band guitarist. He was influenced by Django Reinhardt and that whole era of jazz guitar. I was brought up in that. I was also brought up in very political and socially aware surroundings. I’m sure those are quite deep influences in the way I think about things. I’d say the first 10 years of my professional life were very much in the wake of learning from not learning. I was attending summer school classes with Segovia, which was kind of entrenching me in that classical way of playing and classical attitude towards music.

In my late twenties, I was living in London. And it was very difficult to be unaware of everything going on. You’d have to be some sort of hermit to not be affected by the vast number of influences and cultural opportunities you came across. You’d almost have to shut yourself off in your little classical room and not do anything else. But one of the fantastic things about the guitar is it is by nature, culturally diverse.

Originally, of course, it’s a folk instrument that goes back to the Middle Ages. The old guitars started off as four-string rhythm instruments for local folk dances. It gradually progressed through to the Baroque five-string guitar, then to the early 19th Century and the six-string guitar, and then the Spanish guitar. Then you have all the South American instruments. The guitar and all its derivatives just exploded. You had the tiple in Colombia, and the charango from Bolivia, Peru, and the Andes. Then you had the little cuatro, which probably came from the old mandolin. So, the guitar is by nature, a popular instrument.

It also happens to part of different social contexts of the 19th Century and became a classical instrument. But mainly, at the start, most of its activities have been amateur. They’ve tended to imitate classical traditions that have already been in existence.

Going back to being brought up in London, I was asked to play on film sessions and attend a concert by the Chilean group Inti-Illimani, who are fantastic. If you go to one of their concerts, you’re exposed to wonderful music that’s like a breath of fresh air, especially if you’ve been enclosed. And then I found myself being invited to play with them.

A lot of my interests also come from being part of a left-wing family, intellectually. There were exiles from Chile in Inti-Illimani from the dictatorship there. Also, the dictatorship in Greece of the late-‘60s and early-‘70s meant there were a lot of Greek musicians in exile in London and Paris. For instance, the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis or the great singer Maria Farantouri. I knew them on a social level. When I was asked to do something with them for the sake of solidarity, of course, I said yes. So, these things lead on and on.

There was a celebration at the Royal Albert Hall in the very late ‘60s for Africa Freedom Day. And when I was there, I met the great jazz musician Ronnie Scott, who also ran the famous Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. He said, “Why don’t you come and play at the club?” I said, “I don’t play any jazz. I wish I did. My father was so keen on keeping me on the classical guitar, even though he was a jazz guitarist. So, I didn’t do it.” Ronnie replied, “No, just come and play your thing. Do what you do. It’s wonderful.” So, I did two or three weeks of shows there over a couple of years. And through that experience I met John Dankworth and Cleo Lane, which developed into a partnership. John wrote arrangements for me and Cleo to play. Incidentally, Ronnie Scott had actually been up to my father’s guitar center to try and learn classical guitar himself. He loved it.

Of course, Stanley Myers, the English film composer who did the music for The Deer Hunter asked me to work with him as well.

So, if you’re in London, partaking of that social and political activity, all these things become connected. It’s inevitable. You’d have to be some sort of idiot to say you weren’t inspired by everything. I made many connections through it all.

Those are some main examples of motivation. You can say these things happen because of luck or chance, but I welcomed all these opportunities with open arms, but so would any other guitarist if they’d been lucky enough to be in that situation. Today, I continue making connections and following opportunities as they emerge.

John Williams GuitaristPhoto: Sony

Let’s explore some of the key repertoire on your new album Paseo.

They’re all originally pieces for the guitar, with the exception of “Scherzino Mexicano” by Manuel Ponce. It’s originally a little piano piece. It’s a very short piece. It starts off in B minor and the fingers move chromatically down. It’s a very chromatic passage. It was Ronnie Scott’s favorite piece. He used to love the movement of the fingers moving like a crab down the fingerboard.

The Leo Brouwer piece, “La Ciudad de las Columnas,” was written in 2004 and published in 2006. A friend of mine gave it to me, even though I’ve known Leo since the mid-‘70s. But I’m not the sort of person that goes into the music shops to buy every new edition of every new piece that everyone wrote. I just hope one way or another that I’ll become aware of them, which is probably a mistake, because I probably missed out on a few things.

I came across “La Ciudad de las Columnas” about five years ago. I was about to make this recording three years ago, but thanks to COVID, I didn’t fancy going into the studio and meeting young tape operators who had just got off the tube and went into the studio without a mask on. I thought, “I’m not going to go into a crowded studio and catch COVID.” Because of that, I changed the repertoire. I decided to have more pieces of my own on the recording. But going back to the Brouwer piece, I thought, “Now, I’ve got time to really study this work.” Having played a lot of Brouwer works going back 20-30 years, I had a basis to work from. I’ve played his “El Decameron Negro” concerto often, which is a wonderful piece. In many ways, I’d say “La Ciudad de las Columnas” is even more wide-ranging.

Paseo was originally going to be called When the Birds Return, which is the name of the second piece on the CD. There was originally also going to be more music written by me, but thank God there isn’t. I enjoy writing things, but I had to be selective, because a number of the pieces I wrote during that period, I felt “Oh my God, they’re not good enough.” I suddenly thought, “I can’t put some of these pieces in the middle of the other pieces, because of the difference in quality.” But I’m pleased with the ones that are on there. Don’t get me wrong. They’re fine, but I’m not a professional composer. Rather, I’m a musician who writes a few tunes every now and then. The piece “When the Birds Return” has a different feel to the other works on the CD and fits in the running order nicely.

I should mention the sheet music for “When the Birds Return” is on my website as a free download. A lot of my pieces and some arrangements are there. I’m very keen to do this. I think solo guitar is very suited to free downloads. By the time the publishers do it, they print it on very nice, glossy paper, and it can be a lovely production, but it can cost $15-$20 and become very expensive. I know there are a lot of students who are interested in what I write and arrange. So, they can download it.

The last track on the CD, which I wrote, “Another Time,” is a rather sentimental piece. I quite like it. I’m given to writing music like that from time to time. It’s on the website as well. You’ll find it has quite a long introduction. Sometimes I revise pieces three or four times. I know proper composers do this as well. Sometimes it takes me a few runs at it for things to click. I’ll think things like, “Oh God, those four bars are rubbish. That’s just a cliché I can do without.” But it’s fun to write. I really enjoy it. I’m going to do more of it when I have the ideas.

I think I’m a very good judge of composition. When I’m hearing a new piece of music, I can tell straight away, “This composer is up a blind alley here,” or “This is going to go nowhere,” or “They don’t have the textures. There are too many notes.” I’m very aware of all those things. When I’m writing myself, I’m very self-critical. I hope I don’t throw away things that are actually good. I don’t think I do.

Measuring your own compositions against the most expansive works ever conceived for the instrument seems like an impossibly daunting task.

Yeah, it is very daunting, but it doesn’t stop me from doing things. I enjoy the process and also really enjoy what other people do. I’m very, very taken with all of that. Someone like Leo Brouwer is so unique as a guitar composer. Composers who don’t play the guitar find it very difficult to work with the guitar’s sound and language. They tend to write things that are impossible or not very interesting. Leo’s unique approach when it comes to Afro-Cuban culture is strong in his work. He’s very influenced by that.

Leo’s facility and knowledge of the orchestra is remarkable. He’s written more than 150 film scores for the Cuban and Mexican film industries. He’s written a load of guitar concertos. His inspiration is extremely varied across literature and the visual arts. For instance, “El Decameron Negro” is also the name of a famous book by Leo Frobenius. Leo Brouwer’s “La Ciudad de las Columnas” is based on a book by Alejo Carpentier. So, he takes his inspiration from ideas like that.

I think in the best sense, Leo has a genuinely eclectic cultural mindset. The fact that he was a terrific guitarist is also important. He has so much imagination. He’s working with his fingers, his mind, and a lot of elements of the guitar traditions. He’s an amazing bloke and so unique. So, using his pieces as a comparison point for my own compositions is inspiring.

John Williams GuitaristPhoto: Sony

At age 82, your technique remains impressive. How do you maintain such superb form?

By practicing much more than I used to when I was younger. I hear some of the younger players today and they fly around like anything. I think, “Oh my God, I could never even start that.” I don’t want to sound like I’m conceited, but there are some early recordings of myself in which I am, in a sense, flying around a little bit more fluently. But my technique’s not necessarily based on speed. It’s based on many influences that have gone into it. I love the cello and violin. I love the way you play them with both hands, the bowing, and the way the left-hand slurs without the fret. It’s a style of playing which is just very natural to me. That’s what I like doing.

But in terms of the last few years, I have to practice a bit more. Going back, I’ve never had to practice a lot. Of course, I would when I was learning new pieces. I’ve always had headroom, if you like. Today, I have to practice more to do the same things I did when I was younger. There’s going to come a time when it won’t go on forever, but at the moment I can do that.

There are endless young fleet-fingered virtuosos on YouTube. My perspective is many of these musicians may have the precision element, but they are often lacking soul or introspection. What’s your view?

You are absolutely right. You’re spot on there. It’s a very important subject, too. It has a lot to do with two things. The first is teaching. I previously referred to the guitar being very much an amateur’s instrument, historically. It’s because guitarists have been aping, as we discussed, 19th Century Eurocentric culture represented on other instruments. Therefore, all the new advances and learnings came more from learning about period music. Culturally diverse music has escaped the 19th Century classical outlook. Guitarists have often missed it. They should be the first to embrace all those opportunities. That limitation has been reflected in teaching, and secondly, in competitions.

Competitions are the death knell as it relates to this discussion. Julian Bream and I used to bemoan the effect of competitions. People in competitions play reliably. They get through all the notes. They do most of the musical things that the 19th Century tradition teaches them. And they all play the same. None of them have got what we call soul. It’s why I hate competitions. The last jury I sat on was 1976. I did it out of loyalty to the Venezuelan guitarist Alirio Díaz, because it was in his honor in Caracas. I thought, “I can’t be so small-minded to say no to him.” But again, the guitarists all played the same.

At that competition, it was set up in three or four rounds, quarterfinals, semifinals, and then the final one. I felt what they’re judging the guitarists on is something totally unimportant. It was like they were predicting the future. The judges are saying, “Oh, this person is very reliable. They got through the difficult piece. They’re the most likely to be able to perform a good concert in five years’ time at the Royal Festival Hall.” But my attitude is totally different. Mine is, “If I’ve heard this person, do I want to hear them again?”

I think competitions are hell. Okay, people point to the main advantage, which is the competition can help a guitarist in their career. Occasionally, there are exceptions and someone extraordinary comes along. Pavel Ralev is one of those people. He won the Adelaide International Classical Guitar Competition.

Julian Bream asked me to take over the Julian Bream Trust a few years before he died. I’ve tried to change the direction of it a little bit in the way it awards guitarists. Every two years, there’s a concert put on at Wigmore Hall in London. The trust commissions a piece from a composer for guitar, and they get someone to play it.

In my opinion, students who’ve graduated from colleges are not necessarily ready to be out in, let’s call it the marketplace. By that, I mean being out in life, doing concerts year after year. That’s where you learn what you’re about musically. You don’t necessarily learn that after three years at a college. In regard to the Julian Bream Trust, I feel a student having the responsibility of performing a new work is ridiculous. So, I said, we should get someone to perform the commission. Tony Palmer, the well-known English film producer, is a friend of mine. He phoned me up last year and said, “Have you heard of Pavel Ralev?” I said, “I’ve never heard of him.” Tony said I should give him a listen.

Now, people who are not guitarists are not always a good judge. They can be very impressed by a guitarist who’s actually pretty ordinary, but out of respect, I went and saw Pavel perform. He’s from Bulgaria but has been based in London for many years. I thought he was terrific, so we got him to do the 2023 Julian Bream Trust concert. He performed a great program, including music by Ant Law, Arvo Pärt, David Matthews, and Carlo Domeniconi. He finished with Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint.” He did his own version with acoustic tracks and speakers, not electric guitars, which some people do.

Pavel gave a spellbinding concert. His technique is so effortless, graceful, and poetic. The audience went crazy, stood up, and cheered him. It was the best guitar concert I’ve been to in years.

John Williams GuitaristJohn Williams, 1967 | Photo: Sony

You’ve been outspoken from an early age about adhering to your creative and personal priorities. You minimized touring, despite intense industry and public pressure, and ultimately retired from the road in the early 2010s. Talk about your approach to touring and why you chose to stop.

Well, I do think a lot of it is luck that I’ve been able to have all of these opportunities. I sort of followed in Julian Bream’s footsteps. He was eight years older than me. A lot of the early things, including a lot of the chamber music, he passed on to me. Those sorts of things happened once in a while.

Then I went on my first tour of the States, and I was introduced to Sol Hurok, the great American impresario. His office was great to me. Harold Shaw was in charge of a lot of the solo chamber music. I had an introduction through my English management to them. And with that came the introduction to CBS. As early as 1965, I was recording a concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. I was 23 or 24 at that point and I remember thinking “God, that’s the end. A lot of people’s whole career is built with the ambition of doing something like this.” But through luck, I had this just fall in front of me. And then regular tours started. So, I didn’t have to grasp at every opportunity for a concert.

I’m not being overly modest. If I’d been a struggling musician, things would have been different. Today, people have to hang around forever just to get one concert in a month. So, it was all handed to me on a plate, and I was very lucky. I could afford to live well.

I had a young daughter at the time, and I was getting divorced. A common thing that happens with first marriages is that they can end sort of amicably. I used to see my daughter every weekend and then during holidays. I thought, “How can I see her during holidays when I’ve got a concert in Timbuktu?” I didn’t want to say, “I’m sorry, we can’t spend time together because I’ve got to be away." So, I had an absolute rule for a while within England, which was I never did concerts on weekends. I also wouldn’t do concerts during Easter and summer holidays. I wouldn’t take anything from the end of July until the middle of September. I was lucky I could afford to do that. It became a pattern for me—a way of thinking about things. And it just went on from there and it’s always been the case. I’ve never gone anywhere I didn’t really want to go.

Hotels and traveling weren’t attractive to me. I never did as much as most people. It’s just not something I really enjoyed. I did it because I love the music and playing.

Even though I love the intimacy of the guitar, I had started using amplification for solo guitar in the ‘80s. It was frowned upon, but it enabled me to play in the biggest halls, which I think was worth doing. I got in a lot of trouble with purist guitar critics after I said, “By amplifying the guitar, it makes it more natural than if it’s unamplified.” I had to explain it, of course. What I meant was that the colors, warmth, subtleties, and communication of the guitar can be projected better with amplification. What you hear of the guitar in a large hall unamplified is a travesty. What many people hear sounds like a whole lot of pins dropping. The goal is to get the sound to the walls of the whole building, whether that’s The Kennedy Center in New York City or Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.

Going back to the question, I’ve had the opportunity to perform extensively. I’ve done all that. I got sick of traveling and I like my ordinary London life. I’m not a frantically busy person. I don’t get up early in the morning, write notes, and practice. You could say I’m lazy in many ways. I take things in a very considered, relaxed way. It wasn’t always the case, especially with the groups I’ve been involved with, particularly way back in the ‘80s when I had one called Sky.

John Williams SkySky, 1980: John Williams, Tristan Fry, Kevin Peek, Herbie Flowers, and Francis Monkman | Photo: Ariola

The Sky back catalog has been extensively reissued in recent times, resulting in new people discovering it. How do you look back at that period of your career?

Well, there’s a bit of a scandal about all of that, which isn’t the fault of the people who have reissued it. On principle, the musicians don’t get paid anything for all of them. Someone had the tapes and carried on with selling them. I’m sure the label involved had to pay someone.

When I look back at Sky, I think of Herbie Flowers. He’s a wonderful character—really brilliant. He played on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

When I think about the repertoire, I think about one-third to one-half of it was really good. But I think a lot of it, especially when I was leaving, was becoming a bit tame, like library music.

The first two Sky albums and those early shows were fantastic. I don’t think the recording quality is very good. The acoustic instruments, including piano, sound a bit thin. The engineer Haydn Bendall was a sort of rock and roll engineer, concerned with bass and drums. He didn’t get the classical instruments. The speakers used for heavy music are basically all mid-range. They give you that punch in the belly, but they’re lacking in extreme real bass and in real top. I don’t know how they’ve remastered the recordings, but when the albums came out, if you put them on a good hi-fi set, the acoustic instruments sounded crap. So, I had to put up with a whole lot of things like that.

The live concerts with Sky were amazing, sonically and visually. Together with the original keyboard player Francis Monkman, we’d really go places. We’d play the Apollo venues in London, Glasgow, and Manchester. Those were in areas you wouldn’t want to find yourself at two o’clock in the morning on your own. A lot of the audience were rough and ready, but with hearts of gold.

It sounds crazy now, because technology has evolved so much, but we were the first to combine acoustic and electronic instruments the way we did. We coupled the harpsichord with a Fairlight CMI and Oberheim synths. So, when you played the harpsichord, it would have a half-organ sound with all the dynamics of the harpsichord.

Francis would play Padre Antonio Soler’s “Fandango in D minor” and it would go on for 12 minutes. The rock and roll audience at the Apollo in Glasgow would jump up and down and go wild with enthusiasm. Culturally, this was really important. You wouldn’t get them into a normal harpsichord recital at a small hall. It was because of this setting. Kevin Peek, the Australian guitarist, and I would also play some Praetorius 16th Century pieces—just for five or six minutes—and the audience would hear them in a way they’ve never heard them before.

Francis Monkman’s “Where Opposites Meet” is an absolute masterpiece. A lot of the other stuff was just entertainment. I don’t think many pieces transferred to a pure listening experience as a recording. They didn’t stand up that well. They’re okay, but they’re not great. But in concert, we spent a lot on the presentation and the lighting. Even the music stands were set up in a way in which you couldn’t see any of the music. They were on nice little white tables angled away.

After the first tour, a fan outside London somewhere made Herbie an enormous blue traditional English teapot. We always had that on stage.

For me, Sky was a question of being on stage and how I approached that. I remember for one track, a single Francis wrote called “Cannonball,” I would stand up, playing my RD Artist electric guitar with the fingers. The crew went absolutely wild to see me standing up, so out of character. There were a lot of great things about Sky and the band did very good shows.

John Williams SkySky, live at The BBC Television Centre, London, 1980 | Photo: BBC

You’ve pursued other populist projects in addition to Sky, such as the 1971 album Changes. Was this an intentional approach to create pathways back to the more serious repertoire and recordings you’re best known for?

It was. It's deliberate, but in the sense that I wanted to do them. I wasn’t sitting down thinking, “How can I get across to a popular audience? I better do something with some rock musicians. We’ll do a mixture and see what happens.” When I worked with Inti-Illimani or Greek musicians, I came to them through socio-political reasons and from being interested in attending their shows. With Sky, it was purely musical. I was very interested in Tristan Fry, the percussionist, who was involved in contemporary percussion music, and Herbie Flowers. Funnily enough, I met both of them on the sessions for the Changes album.

There’s a little story there with Changes. It had the original version of “Cavatina,” the theme from The Deer Hunter, on it. Michael Cimino, who directed it, was given a copy of Changes by his assistant producer for his birthday. He was so taken by “Cavatina” from Changes that he said, “I want it used in The Deer Hunter." In fact, it had been previously used for an earlier English film called The Walking Stick from 1970.

We did an expanded version of “Cavatina” for Changes which came about from me being in London at a rather swish Italian restaurant off the Fulham Road in London called Portofino. Stanley Myers and I were working on Changes. We’d done a whole lot of tracks together. We were eating upstairs and on the ground floor there was a piano bar where a very good English pianist named Alan Clare would perform there as bread-and-butter work. He had the evening off that night for some reason.

Stanley mentioned “Cavatina” and that he’d written it a few years earlier for The Walking Stick. He said, “What about making it an instrumental for Changes?” We were going into the studio in a couple of days. He went downstairs and figured it out on the piano. I said, “That is fantastic.” That’s how it started. So, these things just happen that way.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Sky was a huge influence on young players. As one example, Stephen Goss, the English composer, guitarist, and educator, who is Professor of Composition at the University of Surrey, remembers being a fan of Sky as a kid. He grew out of it and moved on to more serious things. But it was an influence on a whole generation of people. It made the classical guitar into a more—in the best sense—popular instrument, in spite of the fact that classical people didn’t like the group. That was fair enough.

One of my best friends, Robert Layton, was an editor and record reviewer for Gramophone for many years. He hated Sky. He said “Really?” when I joined. He didn’t like jazz, either. So, I wasn’t surprised. But for that generation of people in their twenties and thirties when we were doing Sky, I know it led a lot of people into the guitar. And in retrospect, I’m pretty proud of that.

John Williams GuitaristJohn Williams and John Etheridge perform at Ronnie Scott's, London, 2010 | Photo: Ronnie Scott's

Even though you don’t tour anymore, you’re known to pop up at Pizza Express in London for club shows with John Etheridge occasionally. Talk about that friendship and working relationship, and the enjoyment these rare gigs provide.

I had seen John play a couple of times, but the first time I met him was when I was getting the group together for The Magic Box recording from 2002. I thought I needed another guitarist to contrast with my style, who could improvise where necessary. I feel the sound of the steel-string combined with the nylon-string is a great mixture. And John is a great person. He lives near us when we’re in London. He became a great pal.

The Pizza Express shows are a lovely thing I do with John occasionally. When I stopped traveling and doing recitals in the early 2010s, the one thing I did continue was to perform with John. We’ve done some concerts in Australia and in the States. It’s great fun.

I hadn’t done a Pizza Express show in quite a few years because of COVID. We did our first shows since the pandemic in September 2023—three nights. And sure enough, I got COVID. But I’m fine now.

Reflect on the origins of The Magic Box and what you sought to achieve with it.

During that period, Sony was very complimentary to the things I wanted to do. I basically had an open book to do anything I wanted. Peter Gelb, who was president of Sony Classical then, was someone I got on famously with. The label’s A&R director, Jean-Huges Allard, said to me one day, “Have you ever thought of doing anything with African music?” He was interested in it himself. I said “No, but I love different things from Africa, including music from Cape Verde and Madagascar.”

Jean-Huges suggested a few things to consider which didn’t work at all. I remember we went to see a very popular African-inspired crossover group, but it was very manufactured. It was all tracked music. It was a blind alley and I wasn’t taken by the idea. But Jean-Huges was determined to find something for me.

One day, Jean-Huges said, “Do you know this chap in Paris named Francis Bebey?” I said “Yeah, I met him 20 years ago in Paris. It was a social occasion at some big guitar do. Why?” And one thing led to another, and I got together with Francis. We got on like a house on fire. As soon as I met him properly, we worked on music, and he told me many wonderful stories.

Francis was really pivotal. He said, “The guitar is the most important instrument in Africa.” I sort of blinked and said, “What do you mean?” He replied, “Of course. We use it in different regions. We have our own instruments like the kora, but the guitar is popular everywhere.” I thought that was really interesting and a kind of justification to look at doing some arrangements of African music.

I know in many ways The Magic Box can be looked at as a classical musician’s idea of trying to be a bit African. But on the other side, why not? All cultures can influence each other. Doing that doesn’t denigrate the real local music of the regions. It just tries to take aspects of that music and introduce them to people from outside of those regions. So, I was very keen on that.

I remember going to Virgin Records in France, where we had a place at the time, and I bought 60-70 African CDs from all over the continent. I sat down and went through every one of them, track by track, to find pieces I thought might be suitable. It was a great exercise. I loved doing that and I still have all those albums. One of the pieces I found was “Maki,” which was written by Paul-Bert Rahasimanana and I had great fun arranging it for the guitar.

In addition to working with Francis, I brought in my pals including the winds player Richard Harvey, the bassist Chris Laurence, and John Etheridge to play on it. So, that’s how The Magic Box came about.

John Williams GuitaristPhoto: Sony

Since 2014, you’ve released music on your own label. Tell me about the shifts in priorities and perspectives that informed your desire to go that route.

The main thing is that I had previously always worked with Sony, and before that CBS before it was acquired by them. People are amazed when I tell them this, but apart from the very first three-year contract with a two-year extension, I never had a long-term contract with Sony or CBS. I’ve had individual contracts for each CD.

I enjoyed working during most of the early years, right up to the mid-‘70s with the producer Paul Myers. He produced The Cleveland Orchestra and Glenn Gould. He got caught up in an executive fight and then I had a period of working with different producers. I got on with them okay. I told Sony and CBS, “I’ll stay with you for as long as I like working with the people.” I also said, “If I don’t like Paul’s replacement, I might go to another company.” But I did like working with the newer people, and that was the basis for remaining with Sony.

Then came a period when there was no permanent producer for me at the label. Peter Gelb, the president of Sony Classical, came in and said “Produce your albums yourself if you want. Do what you want.” That was great, but then he left. And then there were a couple of producers I worked with who were hopeless in terms of understanding the sound of the guitar. A couple of them had what I call “The classical producer’s approach to editing and recording.” What that means is doing as many takes as necessary and editing and patching them up by doing a difficult bit again. I never liked that.

When I started producing myself, I would not edit between takes. I play a piece all the way through. If something has a little glitch, a buzz, or a mistake, I’ll go back a bar and then carry on. It’s like when I’m practicing. I’ll come up to a difficult bit and redo it, but the frame of mind, tempo, and feel are absolutely continuous.

You lose something when you go back into the studio a half-hour later and say, “Well, I’m going to fix that bar because the C# had a buzz on it. Let’s splice in three bars.” I know I’m going to get fired at from all sides for saying this, but I feel many classical producers are not very sensitive to real pulse or rhythm.

I’ve recorded all my main repertoire for Sony and CBS, but a couple of really bad distribution things happened. Their English office is also pretty disorganized and became a minor part of the whole operation.

In 1996, I made what I think is a really good recording with an Australian guitarist called Timothy Kain, titled The Mantis and The Moon. I thought it would do really great in Australia, because we’re both Australian, and the repertoire was very wide ranging. Sony did nothing to promote it. Six months after it came out, I learned this is now how they operate. The sales weren’t great for the recording, and they deleted it. I realize this started happening all the time, but it was a bit of a shock for us at the time. So, that’s another example of a contributing business factor for leaving Sony.

Another issue was sound. Sony was great for a while. I used to use an engineer named Mike Stavrou who I had met when recording an album called Travelling from 1978. Although Mike was from the pop side, he really had an ear for my guitar sound. All during the ‘80s, I used him. And then later, when I was producing myself, and Mike had moved to Australia, Sony agreed to fly him to London to do the sessions with me. So, that was a good period.

But in the end, there were too many disappointments and changes in producers and engineers. I did a CD called Takemitsu in 1991. It sounds terrible. The guitars sound three miles away. It’s got none of the intimacy in the colors, in spite of me talking with the engineer and producer about my concerns. They couldn’t hear the problems and they didn’t address them.

In the end, I chose to produce myself and start my own label. I can’t afford to bring Mike over from Australia, so I thought I’d go back to AIR Studios, where he used to work at in London, and work with the great engineer I know there called Geoff Foster. He has worked on many big film soundtracks. He really understands what I want to capture in terms of a guitar sound. He worked on The Magic Box, too.

So, I’ve happily been working with Geoff on the last few CDs. We did Vivaldi, etc! from 2017 at AIR Studios, and 2017’s On the Wing and Paseo at RAK Studios in London, where Yes used to do a lot of recording. Mike Horner recorded and mixed Paseo and he’s fantastic. He plays a bit of steel-string guitar himself. I think he did an excellent job on Paseo, and I’m so pleased with it.

John Williams GuitaristPhoto: Sony

What’s your view on the state of the recorded music business?

It is scandalous. Streaming is great entertainment for people, but when I look at a royalty statement, I’ll see something like “127,000 streams. Here’s four cents.” I don’t know what we can do about that.

What we have done recently is an agreement with Presto Music in England, who now sell my CDs and handle the digital element. They’re terrific, lovely people to communicate with. They’ve initiated a new way of rating the value of streams, which is now done by the second, rather than by the track.

People can buy my music from their website. We used to sell it from my own website, but it was actually quite a lot of work. So, we moved it over to them because they’re a proper retail outlet and now my music is sold exclusively by them.

Does spirituality influence your life or music?

Not in a conscious way. I was brought up in a pretty non-religious family. My mother was brought up in a typical Melbourne sort of Protestant, English White family. She was half-Chinese. So, I’m quarter-Chinese. My father was a Londoner and an agnostic.

I’m interested in the philosophy of things, including Buddhism. I think it’s because my main interest is evolution, and the nature of animals, which some refer to as the philosophy of ethology. I’m also interested in the origins of religion. I don’t subscribe to any sort of view that believes that there’s something in religion that gives people a kind of moral outlook. I think that’s totally false.

I think what we call morals are pretty loose, and the word stretches across all ordinary social behaviors. So, I’m much more interested in the origins of those behaviors. Where does religion come from? The Judeo-Christian tradition and other religions are exploited by the construct of organized religion. It causes, as we can see, a lot of trouble.

I think you have to look to evolution and animals. They’re quite justified and logical in their fears and celebrations. What happens in the forest when gorillas or chimpanzees encounter storms, thunder, and lightening? They leave the trees because they’re frightened of what’s going on.

But I think religion is something that gives fear an outlet. The idea is if you’re afraid of something, then worship what’s more powerful than you are. Pay homage to it. Just be in fear of it. All the morals attached to it are used to justify antisemitism and The Holocaust. Jim Jones used it in British Guyana. They’re used by Israel to justify the horrific genocide going on in Gaza. You end up with the religious fervor of self-justification. I mean, where does Israel stop in Gaza? How many dead is enough? What’s a relative answer? It is madness. It’s not a question of condemning their actions as immoral. Morality has become a superfluous word. It’s meaningless. Rather, what’s happening is psychotic. The experience of emotion is another point. If you’re dropping bombs on thousands of people, you can’t be experiencing what’s happening to those kids whose arms and legs are being blown off. And if you can’t experience that, it’s a kind of psychosis, isn’t it?

There’s that usual trope, especially from religious people, that’s all about salvation and how the human soul can be saved. Why? Because they say the human soul is more important than the soul of a chimpanzee or orangutan. I don’t know why, but for a lot of people it is. So, you get that question, which goes “You’ve got Hitler and you’ve got an orangutan and they’re both drowning in the pool. Who do you save?” For the religious person, despite how bad and awful Hitler is, that’s a human soul that might be able to be saved. It’s bollocks. It really is. And that’s the dividing line for me. I’ll save the animal every time.

Special thanks to Kathy Panama and Richard Sliwa.