NAT Chat #1: Amy Williams
Ahead of NAT 28's Portraits Series concert featuring Amy Williams' music, we had the following NAT Chat with her to gain a deeper look into her perspective as an artist and composer.
published September 29, 2018
NAT 28: I’ve learned that you had a unique connection to the contemporary music world when you were growing up due to your father’s (percussionist, Jan Williams) close relationship to some of the most influential composers of the time (John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and others). Can you talk about growing up in this environment? And, more generally, describe how you evolved as a composer/performer out of this environment.
Amy WIlliams: I like to say that I went into the family business! I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a lively and dynamic musical environment. My mother is a violist, now retired from the Buffalo Philharmonic. She played mostly classical repertoire. While my father devoted his career to playing solo and chamber percussion music by living composers. So it wasn’t unusual to have a string quartet rehearsing Mozart in the morning and then a party following a percussion ensemble concert at our house that night (those were particularly lively!). Musicians were just normal, everyday people, to me…. But for sure I felt a connection, even at a young age, to both the more contemporary music and the players and composers who were dedicated to it. So much so that my senior piano recital was entirely 20th century music (including two pieces of my own—one being a trio for my parents and me to play together). I have had a number of important mentors over the years who are composer-pianists, including Yvar Mikhashoff, Nils Vigeland, and Allen Shawn, so the idea of having a dual career was always presented as a very real possibility.
NAT 28: What elements of being a composer inform your role as a performer, and vice versa? What is your relationship to the audience in both roles?
AW: I feel that these two sides are absolutely inseparable. My playing informs my composing, as well as the reverse, in countless ways. When learning a piece, I analyze it through a composer’s lens, which informs many interpretational decisions. I often write for particular performers and try to tap into their particular performative qualities. I also think very much about the challenges and issues of playing chamber music and this influences how I write. I don’t pander to audiences in my programming or compositional choices. My experience is that audiences respond to music that is well-written and well-played, no matter the style or length or instrumentation.
NAT 28: Much of your music is inspired by other art forms, such as Cineshapes, inspired by film and Richter Textures, inspired by paintings. What is your own experience with nonmusical forms of art and performance?
AW: You are right! I am frequently influenced by other disciplines, including photography, philosophy, film, visual art, and literature. I have no real professional experience with any of them, unless high school plays and art history classes count! But this outsider status allows the influence to happen without being overly dominating. For example, the Cineshape series is inspired by my experience (analysis is maybe too strong a word…) of five different source films. I was not trying to write new scores for the films, nor was I re-telling the narratives. But rather attempting to translate some of the structural underpinnings or atmospheric qualities into a new musical form. I have pieces that are influenced by texts, without including the words themselves—two are influenced by poems (First Lines and Falling) and one by a Beckett radio play (Studies in Syntax 1). I am currently dealing with text more directly in a piece I am writing for soprano Tony Arnold and the JACK Quartet. It's been a challenge for me to find texts to include that don’t over-dominate the creative process... that allow me to be free as a composer, while still providing the central thread of the piece. It’s a secret what that will be, but I think I’ve got it figured out!
NAT 28: On October 20th, NAT 28 is going to perform a revised version of Quodlibet, a piece we first performed in 2016. I assume that some of your revisions of this work are in response to NAT 28’s 2016 performance. Can you describe a work of yours that has evolved significantly through your revision process? How did your collaborators contribute to that process?
AW: Sometimes I need to hear a piece interpreted by players to hear the work freshly. Composing can be such an isolated, intellectual process that involves a great deal of problem-solving and experimentation. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, at least not quite as you think it will. The revision of Quodlibet had to do with one section that felt too contrasting for the short duration of the piece. So I consolidated and extended the opening section to flow more smoothly into the main body of the piece. I don’t always have revisions after a premiere, but I often do. I’m a tweaker! But it usually has to do with me changing my mind, more than based on the performance (unless the players reveal some impossibilities, which can always happen!).
NAT 28: Part of being an artist involves deciding whether your work will preserve and continue traditions from the past, or create new ways of thinking about and relating to the past, present, and future. Does your music tend to build on existing traditions, or is progress more important to your work? How do you respond to major art institutions that do not (or cannot) commit their missions to cultural and artistic progress?
AW: By focusing my career on contemporary music, I am obviously committed to discovering new sounds, approaches, techniques, media, forms, venues, collaborations, and so on. I’m not sure it’s possible to write music that doesn’t have some connection to the past, even if it is intentionally breaking with it. It’s a continuum that each composer wrestles with—and it can change from piece to piece. Quodlibet, for example, recontextualizes existing music from Scarlatti and John Cage—so it has more of a connection to the past than other pieces of mine. There will always be a need for museums that house historical works and for orchestras to play masterpieces of the past. But it's the institutions that are focused on new art that I am more connected to.