During your childhood you gained a reputation as
a prodigy. Could you tell us something of your earliest musical experiences
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 78rpms 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
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 Id
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 Elgars
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 couldnt 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 couldnt 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
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 dont
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
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 its 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
If youd said FULLY
fully (!), maybe Id
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, Ill opt finally for the String Quartet
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 wasnt
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 Id not long completed, he accused me
of lacking integrity, asserting that if I couldnt
tap a given rhythm on his table I was therefore unable to hear it in
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)
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 Id
known. He didnt give me much strictly pianistic
advice although occasionally hed 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 RCMs 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 havent 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 dont actually think
that he is such a great figure, but I cant
help but be drawn to certain fine works and his world in general. For
example I dont think I could live without
his Violin Concerto. Incidentally, I dont
think he or any of the Celtic romantics has musically influenced me.
My weakness is simply that Id sooner listen
with pleasure to a really great work with holes, like Baxs 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 Baxs masterpiece
beats Stravinskys 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
couldnt live without, his 3rd
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
To put it mildly, I was a clot, despite what Im
about to say. I would put it down to the old c
word again, confidence. Id 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 wasnt
yet developed enough to be able to reap any real benefit from being
there. I had images of being homesick amongst those who didnt
and couldnt 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
In retrospect what I actually dreaded would probably
have been a reality. But, there was always a chance of a life-changing
situation, and thats why I was a clot. Things
could have been very different now if someone had pushed me to go, no
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 Id
based the harmony on four chords of three notes each, making a 12-tone
system. Splendid! Id got away with a system,
which side-stepped having to come face to face with a true harmonic
language! In atonal music its possible to
sacrifice ones integrity on the altar of
fashion easily. This scepticism is one of the reasons I become irritated
listening to much atonal music, even Schoenberg. Im
not saying my Symphonic Studies is rubbish and in fact it works
well as a piece with its other qualities. But it didnt
pass thoroughly enough through my aural perception. Ridout had been
right. There were indeed aspects of that work I hadnt
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 didnt really matter to
the composer. Later I developed this into a kind of blueprint, If
the notes dont matter dont
write them, write aleatorically and only write precise things to avoid
things happening you dont want.
Whilst at school Id studied
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! Its 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
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 (Id been 13) talking about his symphony.
Ligeti, Berio and Penderecki were also more meaningful to me than theyd
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
Id 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
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 Im 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
No I didnt 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 its
not the case. For one thing until now Ive
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 Andrews
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 ones 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 cant
think why I didnt 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 couldnt 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
its not actual ideas themselves, its
a feeling of readiness to create ideas. One must feel ready to just
pick up that paper and scribble something. Its
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 wasnt
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 Im supposed to be doing, I know theres
lava bubbling up inside. Recently Ive 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 its off when I sit down to write, I lose
interest until next time.
If I prepare to write, theres
no guarantee Im going to find an idea with
legs. But theres 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 Im 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 cant
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
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 cant 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 couldnt 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 its
one of my best single movements.
My desire is always to try and be meticulous over the
harmonic language, because I think its the
most personal and the most difficult. Creating original harmonic movement
in contemporary music is a composers 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 cant 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 cant
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. Im
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 composers own website www.adrianwilliamsmusic.com
List of works