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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
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Adrian Williams

Interview by Chris Thomas

List of works

During your childhood you gained a reputation as a prodigy. Could you tell us something of your earliest musical experiences and influences?

In our house was an old white upright piano belonging to my elder brother. He never played it so it was pretty awful but I recall making up my own tunes and sequences on it aged about 4. At the same time I recall 78rpm’s of Kathleen Ferrier singing Gluck, Charlie Kunz and Russ Conway booming from within a dusty radiogram full of valves. Piano lessons began at 6 but I hated having to learn to read notes. Getting me to practise was impossible. However the notes had some kind of mystique, and so I started writing complicated heaps of notes without much idea what they sounded like. A local piano teacher somehow gained some influence over me at the age of 8 and fired my imagination, and she pushed me into performing advanced repertoire like Chopin Ballades or light music like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor by the time I was 10. At about the same time I stopped listening to pop music and a simple LP of Chopin and Liszt favourites bought for me by my mother on Liverpool Street station finished my collection of pop singles off forever.

Also around then, when not improvising on my tin whistle from atop the cherry tree in our garden, I also started to compose seriously, the first piece being a piano trio in G minor which I played with my music master and a senior pupil at a school concert. Then, aged about 12, came some piano-duet dances, a string quartet, clarinet trio – all with a strong Mozartian influence - and a symphony in D minor during which the orchestra increased in size as I acquired bigger and bigger score paper… My influences were all standard classical composers, such as the ones performed by the London Philharmonic at its Watford Town Hall concerts, then four times a year, which I’d attended since the age of about 9. But Dvorak, Schubert and Tchaikowsky and later Elgar made the strongest impressions. I remember feeling something quite deep and special when Boult conducted Elgar’s 1st there when I was 11 – that noble A-flat-major region, hitherto not activated in me except by Beethoven in the slow movement of his fifth, also at Watford Town Hall.

The influence of British music really began when I was about 13, hearing Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia for the first time, coinciding with the big Stravinsky ballet scores and major works by Ravel and Bartók. Soon after I began immersing myself in more and more British music and I became less and less interested in the avant-garde. It seemed so unfriendly, unmusical and detached. To me listening to it was a non-musical experience, like going to the dentist, and every bit as painful. That it was categorised as music alongside what I knew to be music was confusing and aggravating. In my teens I began to discover that I had landed in a pretty unfriendly time for a composer who couldn’t help his distaste for the avant-garde, feeding the beginnings of resentment towards the intellectualisation of music and what some called music. I tried, oh I tried. But I couldn’t see the point of listening endlessly to music that did nothing for me. Trying disturbed and upset me, and being challenged about it made me angry and only hardened my attitude.

In your early years was your intention to be a composer or a pianist?

There never seemed to be any need to make that decision, for both things always carried forward neck-and-neck. For a start I obtained a double scholarship to the Royal College of Music. But I think the general assumption was that it would be composition that had the edge. However, there are some who say they think I should have pursued my piano playing more actively. When I don’t play for a while I get serious withdrawal symptoms. I need to play. Especially I need to improvise.

What do you consider to be your first fully characteristic work?

This is difficult partly because of your word ‘fully’. Maybe I can answer it like this. In terms of accomplishment the String Quartet no 1 (not the one mentioned before) at age 16 is good and solid and has a lot of fertile ideas, but you have to excuse the Bartók and Vaughan Williams.

But in terms of works reaching a characteristic peak the orchestral poem Tess (1982, Guildford Philharmonic/Vernon Handley) and the String Quartet no 2 (1981, Chilingirian Quartet) are significant. I think it’s best not to regard too seriously works written before about summer 1980 but just after that many stylistic aspects came into focus. A piano piece Horseman, pass by, some songs Five Songs of W.H. Davies (sets 1 and 2) and the church anthem My Heart is Steadfast, all from 1980-1 are all very characteristic in their melodic and harmonic language but I think the most important, characteristic and deep work of my more traditional vein is the cantata/song cycle The Ways of Going (1990, John Shirley-Quirk, Sara Watkins, Alberni Quartet/Hay Festival).

If you’d said ‘FULLY fully’ (!), maybe I’d have to give the prize to later works; Aruga (1996, Brunel Ensemble/Austin, Music Past and Present, London), the Chamber Concerto (1998, Brighton Festival, Brunel Ensemble/Austin) or Migrations for 22 solo strings (1998, Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam, Concertgebouw). But, I’ll opt finally for the String Quartet no 2.

What are your memories of your composition lessons with Bernard Stevens and Alan Ridout at the RCM and who had the greatest influence on you at this time?

I had known Bernard Stevens since he adjudicated the Watford Festival composition class when I was a teenager! So I had an idea of his personality before we began. But when it actually came to it I was less happy with him as a teacher than I was later as a friend and fellow composer. Lessons were more often than not lectures in political history and seemed interminable. A score would fall open at a place which would set him off on some musically connected point, but which often veered off into a kind of socialistic outer-space. I was a late developer in terms of my attitude towards life, the world, religion, current affairs etc. so much of what he said meant very little to me. I learnt little about other composers and being scolded for not turning up to college composers’ workshops wasn’t helpful. But I liked Bernard, admired him as an important but neglected composer and my connections with him and, after his death in 1983, the Stevens Trust continued for many years.

But my first encounter with Alan Ridout in my third year (1976) was a painful one. Looking at my score of Symphonic Studies, which I’d not long completed, he accused me of lacking integrity, asserting that if I couldn’t tap a given rhythm on his table I was therefore unable to hear it in my head… ‘Art is art’ he said ‘and that means precision’. Good contentious material that. Of course he hit a few nails on the head at once for me in view of my battle with style and aural integrity.

Anyway, the college orchestra that December conducted by the then Director of the RCM, Sir David Willcocks, an almost unheard-of accolade performed Symphonic Studies. It was a huge success. Things improved with Ridout, who I soon realised had wanted to give me some kind of opening shock. He became a close friend, like Bernard, but Alan I could telephone for advice on the most personal of matters and he would give as much time as it took. He loved delving into the recesses of the mind and he was an astonishing psychologist, intuitive, perceptive, perspicacious, direct. As for his opinion of my later pieces, he thought my Sonata for solo cello (which won the Horowitz Prize) a masterpiece.

Having said all that neither had the greatest influence on me. After two years studying the piano with John Lill, I had the good fortune to meet John Russell, a pianist and conductor and former broadcaster, who had been a close friend of Gerald Finzi and who had known many of the great figures of the past. Being as I was, so absorbed by 20thC British music, being close to him was for me like being close to them, whose world I wish to this day I’d known. He didn’t give me much strictly pianistic advice although occasionally he’d put me on the right track. He enabled me to be close to those I admired and he gave me deep friendship, even loved me like a son. And all this distilled itself into one very important commodity: self-confidence. I made it to the final of the RCM’s main piano prize and got the silver medal – on a programme of entirely British music, Bax, Tippett, Ireland, Rawsthorne, Grainger … Grainger?? Well, that was my world at the time.

Have you attempted to distil the influence of any of the English composers who have meant so much to you?

I haven’t tried to distil their influence at all and maybe not doing so has carried some kind of price tag! In the case of Moeran for instance I don’t actually think that he is such a great figure, but I can’t help but be drawn to certain fine works and his world in general. For example I don’t think I could live without his Violin Concerto. Incidentally, I don’t think he or any of the Celtic romantics has musically influenced me. My weakness is simply that I’d sooner listen with pleasure to a really great work with holes, like Bax’s 5th Symphony than a faultless masterpiece like Le Sacre du Printemps. In order to rate a work I not only have to feel an affinity with its sound-world, to be moved by its emotional expression, but also to admire it as a work of art, of genius, something which only that person could have created. But the reason Bax’s masterpiece beats Stravinsky’s for me is the fact that I feel I could have sat down in a pub or by an open fire in some country place with him and felt a kind of kinship of music and life. I even feel this about Rachmaninoff, who is responsible for another work I couldn’t live without, his 3rd Symphony.

Britten I doubt I could have spent time in such places with, but I admire him enormously and I know I have been strongly influenced by him musically, especially in the vocal works. Though conscious of this, I decided to allow his influence, and indeed all my influences, to work through and see what happened somewhere down the line!

During your period of study at the Royal College of Music you were offered and turned down an opportunity to study at Tanglewood, a privilege afforded to an elite few. What prompted this decision?

To put it mildly, I was a clot, despite what I’m about to say. I would put it down to the old ‘c’ word again, confidence. I’d never been abroad and my horizons were very narrow. I feared flying and I had an image of those dreaded workshops, intellectualising. And, to be honest, maybe deep down I felt my musical personality wasn’t yet developed enough to be able to reap any real benefit from being there. I had images of being homesick amongst those who didn’t and couldn’t begin to appreciate the music I loved. I imagined the mincing Boulez-sycophants with their hot air, likening English music to "a blind alley, a little brick lane to nowhere" (to quote some such character at an SPNM composers course). So whilst other composers swam lengths I was eyeing the life jackets without the confidence to jump in.

In retrospect what I actually dreaded would probably have been a reality. But, there was always a chance of a life-changing situation, and that’s why I was a clot. Things could have been very different now if someone had pushed me to go, no arguing.

How would you say your music developed during the years following your college studies?

To properly answer that I need to look closely at what I achieved as a student. The most advanced work was undoubtedly Symphonic Studies, which was in fact an orchestration of a piano-duet work Nine Pins. Maybe the most accomplished was the Sonata for solo cello (mentioned before) but even in those days my music spread itself over a broad stylistic range.

It may be that with Symphonic Studies I was just playing with a more atonal idiom, not paying so much attention to detail. The cynic in me says that maybe I just fired off fourth/augmented fourth discords without too much regard to overall harmony, being sure nobody would notice or care anyway. In the original duet work I’d based the harmony on four chords of three notes each, making a 12-tone system. Splendid! I’d got away with a system, which side-stepped having to come face to face with a true harmonic language! In atonal music it’s possible to sacrifice one’s integrity on the altar of fashion easily. This scepticism is one of the reasons I become irritated listening to much atonal music, even Schoenberg. I’m not saying my Symphonic Studies is rubbish and in fact it works well as a piece with its other qualities. But it didn’t pass thoroughly enough through my aural perception. Ridout had been right. There were indeed aspects of that work I hadn’t heard clearly in my head but which were written precisely and not aleatorically and they bothered me. Precisely the same things that had always bothered me about much avant-garde and atonal music, lack of aural precision, haphazard, careless notes. As a pianist I refused to play new works if I felt the notes didn’t really matter to the composer. Later I developed this into a kind of blueprint, ‘If the notes don’t matter don’t write them, write aleatorically and only write precise things to avoid things happening you don’t want’.

Whilst at school I’d studied Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. I loved it actually but I could see many devices used with careless abandon to link passages or change mood, as if Walton had bent the jigsaw pieces to make them fit. The fact that I could see through it irritated me! It’s this search for integrity that may be the reason for not having been able to find my way into a homogeneous language of my own for such a long time.

At the time of leaving the RCM I was um-cha-ing my way through an overblown, banally tonal Concerto for Piano Duet and orchestra. I was totally depressed by writing it, although I later enjoyed the fun of the performance. Soon after that I wrote a big choral orchestral piece Maiores Ignoti, for the Weald Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic. Full of Walton, Rawsthorne (that neglected masterpiece Carmen Vitale was surely in my mind) Mathias, even Bernard Stevens. Yes, it was squarely mid-late 20thC stuff, unsingable, orchestrally lavish, pompous. Interestingly on an SPNM course in 1979, a tape playing of Symphonic Studies had drawn awe and wonder; side-stepping a real harmonic voice had worked! So the following year, 1980, a crowd gathered to hear my latest - Maiores Ignoti – there was palpable disappointment. Williams had regressed, vanished from the atonal world.

At the start of 1980 I began a period as composer-in-residence at Charterhouse School, in southern England. I was in stylistic oblivion. A work for the school strings produced a pathetic little suite. Then a bombastic school hymn. Of course I could have produced more atonal music but the very thought of starting such a work filled me with gloom. But on a holiday in Ireland in 1980 something happened in a little piano piece Horseman, Pass by, which edged me closer to what I had been looking for. The works I mentioned with this piece earlier, the songs, the anthem, and Where Chimneys Fall, the solo oboe work, all showed me able to breathe as a composer, not with the oxygen cylinders of systems and avant-garde devices. I had mysteriously become free.

Then, largely due to my own students at Charterhouse, I came into contact with the work of figures like Knussen and Benjamin. Knussen especially impressed me. I remembered seeing him aged 15 on TV (I’d been 13) talking about his symphony. Ligeti, Berio and Penderecki were also more meaningful to me than they’d been before. Within a couple of years, spurred on by commissions, the two major works I mentioned earlier appeared, String Quartet no 2 and Tess. Both these works have tonal backbones, lavishness, virtuosity and employ aleatoric and other contemporary effects but importantly have a strong, poignant melodic element, which is so important to me.

However my move to Wales in 1982 saw another collapse in focus! I began to write a lot of church music, which honed my skill in writing for the voice, especially amateurs, but major works became a little thin on the ground. Due to a constantly difficult financial situation I always had to rely on writing to commission and so was severely compromised. Work on the Presteigne Festival in the 1980s also limited my time. I loved living in Wales and I regret moving away but on the other hand my day-to-day life there may have once again narrowed my horizons. Having said that I still managed some good works such as the orchestral work Dies Irae (a BBC Wales commission), The Ways of Going (mentioned earlier), Images of a Mind and Spring Requiem (both cello and piano), and notably A Smile and Ashes (1993, 5 voices a capella, for Warwick Festival and I Fagiolini).

It was exposure to the Brunel Ensemble and the Nieuw Sinfonietta, Amsterdam in the mid-1990s that gave me the chance to express myself freely again. Aruga was the first work for the Brunels. It is full of anger, chaos and passion, full of feeling about the Newbury by-pass, which was ravaging Berkshire at the time (1996). And again that melodic poignancy comes through. But the work through which I felt I’d come home was the Chamber Concerto, a musical portrait of the bandit Ned Kelly as seen by Sidney Nolan in his famous paintings. On the other side of the same coin was Migrations for the Dutch orchestra, also deeply felt, employing contemporary effects and devices, influenced a bit by minimalism maybe but also totally me.

A period in Japan since 1999 stemmed the tide of new works for a while, but in 2002, a new commission for the Cheltenham Festival and I Fagiolini (my third piece for them) Out In The Jungle, started a new flow. I feel that I have at last found a true path for my music, where I’m happy to live in the present contemporary world with confidence in my own integrity.

For many years you lived in rural mid Wales. Did you grow up in the countryside and how do you feel landscape has influenced your music?

No I didn’t grow up in the countryside as we know it today but the countryside as the engineers of the Metropolitan Railway would have known it. I could see the Watford branch of the Met from my bedroom window, the many pocket handkerchief gardens of our pre-war estate, the orange glow of the greater sprawl of Watford at night and also the dark outline of the nearby woods in which I spent many happy childhood hours and days. It was easy to find wild places as a child. My father always took me fishing at weekends, or on his bicycle to a woodland pub for a silent lunchtime lemonade. Now the M25 motorway has destroyed the peace forever.

The experience of the building of the M25, the deception of the people by politicians, stirred in me a lifelong desire to fight the destruction of the natural world. Also I felt a hopelessness about it and a desire to leave the southeast of England, which I saw increasingly as just money-driven, crashingly middle-class and uninteresting. The borders of Wales, first introduced to me by a school friend, had a magical quality and it had been my desire to one day live there since the mid-1970s.

Some thought my music would become very connected to the landscape of mid-Wales once I moved there but it’s not the case. For one thing until now I’ve always shied away from pieces descriptive of landscape. I felt that – for me at least - it might be playing into the hands of cliché. Instead pieces have been about my feelings for it and the danger to it from the destructiveness of man. However, my feeling about my own music has changed and so I might begin to think more about landscape-orientated works.

What was behind your founding of the Presteigne Festival in the early 1980s?

A challenge, creating a niche for myself in a place not charted before, making a platform for my music in a place I love. Also the thrill of starting something from nothing. Bringing people of like-mind together. Also the beauty of St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne and the many other idyllic places in that region. The quality of life in the Welsh borders was and is so superior to that in the southeast and I wanted to draw others to experience what I was experiencing, to create a fusion of great art and beautiful environment.

In 1999 you emigrated to Japan, a momentous decision for a self-confessed "English romanticist". What were the reasons and events leading up to you taking this decision?

It was indeed a momentous decision but in some ways one which was made for me. Disasters in my personal life created the backdrop for such an event. After the festival of 1992 I passed the directorship over to George Vass, sold up, moved back to London and got married. What I was thinking that year I cannot imagine. It was altogether the most stupid thing I ever did; refusing the offer to go to Tanglewood was minor by comparison. For some reason getting married loomed large in my mind having reached 36 and feeling left behind. Utter folly. I ended up in 1998 with money problems and going through a divorce. Amazing for one’s creative life!

But by extraordinary stroke of fate I met my present wife who is Japanese and she lured me back to Japan where I landed in early 1999 with virtually nothing and where we lived for a while in a tiny flat in a Tokyo suburb. I had a little corner of this space in which to compose and stay in touch with my old life by email. I felt out of place of course, although of late we have been living in Nara, a place a little like a Japanese version of where I grew up.

I had no money when I arrived in Japan so I taught English. I felt a bitter resentment towards my musical life and myself in general in the UK and so I was, for a time, content to forget everything. It was extremely tough though. I imagined how astronauts felt in space, leaving earth behind. Then in 2000 we had our son, Eugene. Only after two years in Japan did I start to roll out of my little ball and discover more about the country and how it could influence my creative life. People wonder how it is that someone so connected to the British countryside and way of life could survive in such a place. For me place is crucial and my feet only feel right in the Wales I love.

Was your work for strings, Migrations, a conscious farewell to your home country?

No, surprisingly. I can’t think why I didn’t make the connection. But it very obviously is a farewell. It was written in the dying autumn months of my tenure of a remote farmhouse in Radnorshire, hill walks with my spaniel, Cedric, crackling log fires at night. The final chorale is a totally tonal, exposed baring of emotions. I had been to Japan for Christmas and New Year 1998-9 and managed to get chronic bronchitis so I couldn’t go to the Concertgebouw premiere in early January. But it was a triumph, cheering, great applause - I felt a mark had been made.

How do you approach a new work and would you expect the first ideas to be musical or otherwise?

Approaching a new work is always accompanied by acres of time fiddling around doing unimportant other things. Time slips by. But I later realise that something was being fermented in my mind. If it’s not actual ideas themselves, it’s a feeling of readiness to create ideas. One must feel ready to just pick up that paper and scribble something. It’s an instinct. And part of that instinct is knowing beforehand whether what is going to be written is momentous or derivative. If I feel put off after a minute of thinking ‘shall I write now?’ then it wasn’t the right time to start anyway.

The first ideas are usually musical. If I find myself pacing around the house in internal improvisation mode, having forgotten what I’m supposed to be doing, I know there’s lava bubbling up inside. Recently I’ve had a lot of that. But the start has got to be just right. It feels like throwing a dart not knowing where the board is let alone the bulls-eye. If it’s off when I sit down to write, I lose interest until next time.

If I prepare to write, there’s no guarantee I’m going to find an idea with legs. But there’s magma there, so expectation is high. And I have to be in a positive mood, maybe confident, excited, angry, melancholic or elated. I cannot write when feeling depressed, gloomy, irritated or trapped. Also, as someone to whom word-setting is very important, when I’m using a text, the process of creating a text can be as absorbing as writing the music itself, as in the recent piece Out In The Jungle, where I created a text from old letters I found in my attic. I can’t write the music unless the text is just right, but when it is right it makes a great structure for music.

Could you tell us something of your compositional processes?

These are complex and difficult to verbalise but maybe the best pieces come from a kind of improvisation in my mind, hearing the complete score (I mean instrumental palette) as I improvise. I find myself doing all I can to avoid cliché, lapses in interest. I try to keep up the level of ingenuity, quality of ideas. I imagine myself as the listener; would I be bored or disappointed by this? I always want to be captivating, or to move, startle, affect people in some way. This results in a pile of ideas, often in the first few minutes of a piece. Off the top of my head, pieces that are like this are Chamber Concerto, Aruga, Images of a mind, 3rd Quartet (1st mvt). In his critique on my work, Ates Orga refers to this as a ‘seed bed’. As a piece progresses I can see further ahead in terms of structure. I only usually determine a structure beforehand in vocal works where it is often dictated by the text. In instrumental works I usually just begin, not thinking of structure, and as I go along, always playing the music in my head from the beginning each time I go to write more. So the structure is formed and is shifted, extended and adjusted, sometimes radically, often determined by some striking new idea, which could be harmonic, rhythmic, melodic or textural.

Sometimes whole sections are scrapped; usually the beginning when I can’t produce ideas which I think would be striking or original enough. In my 3rd Quartet, begun in anger having been ditched by a girlfriend, four pages of crazed ideas fell out, after which I couldn’t write more. For six months I attempted the same work three times, eventually coming back to the original four pages and a sudden breakthrough unleashed the rest of the movement in about a week. I still think it’s one of my best single movements.

My desire is always to try and be meticulous over the harmonic language, because I think it’s the most personal and the most difficult. Creating original harmonic movement in contemporary music is a composer’s biggest challenge in my opinion and hearing it from within is the mark of greatness. Like many composers I have absolute pitch and so hearing complex harmony is not so difficult. However, I often like to briefly try things out on a keyboard. I try to discipline myself from improvising a lot on the piano when composing a big piece because this can destroy the inner momentum. Then maybe I can’t continue for another day until my head is clear again.

For about the past six years I have used a computer to engrave scores. Sometimes, for simpler pieces with just a few staves it can be useful and speedy. But for actually composing complex scores or for getting down ideas I find it unwieldy. Manuscript paper is faster. These days I use a small book, and scribble things on two or three staves, fragmented ideas. I feel free when not in front of the monitor.

I have a small collection of MIDI equipment, sampler, synthesizer etc and I enjoy building fragments of pieces and even silly cartoon-type pieces with this, sometimes when not in the middle of a big piece (again it could destroy the overall view). But I can’t compose meticulously with it because the sounds are predetermined and always the same and so get in the way of real instruments and players. The use of MIDI-playback in engraving software worries me because I can see how some composers have become trapped inside consistent time signatures, using cut-and-paste passagework. Of course it sounds okay but is the software controlling the composer?

Do you have any unfulfilled musical ambitions?

Yes, maybe the self-inflicted circumstances of my life prevented me from being able to write bigger works. And big works are certainly in me. I just need peace of mind to write them. I’m searching for the right subject for an opera at the moment, and ideas for any works connected to the present state of the world, its ecological crisis and its powerful despots are at the top of the agenda.

© Christopher Thomas 2003

Further information on Adrian Williams and his music can be obtained from the composer’s own website

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