Composer / Pianist  Amy  Williams

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Amy Williams was born in Buffalo, NY in 1969, the daughter of Diane, now retired violist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and Jan, percussionist and Professor Emeritus at the University at Buffalo. She started playing the piano at the age of four and took up the flute a few years later (her first teacher was the legendary Robert Dick, so she could soon play “Chopsticks” in multiphonics…). She grew up in the heyday of the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, hearing all the latest contemporary music and meeting composers who would later become influential to her: John Cage, Morton Feldman, Lukas Foss, Elliott Carter, Julius Eastman and many others. She went to Bennington College and, while there, decided to devote her life to performing and composing contemporary music. After a fellowship year in Denmark, she returned to Buffalo to complete her Master’s degree in piano performance at the University at Buffalo with pianist-composer Yvar Mikhashoff and her Ph.D. in composition, working with David Felder, Charles Wuorinen and Nils Vigeland. She returned to Bennington in 1998 as a member of the music faculty and she then moved on to a faculty position at Northwestern University in 2000. Since 2005, she has been teaching composition and theory at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is an Associate Professor. She was a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar at the University College Cork, Ireland and a Visiting Professor of Composition at the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2019.

Amy’s compositions have been presented at renowned contemporary music venues in the United States, Asia, Australia, and Europe, including Ars Musica (Belgium), Gaudeamus Music Week (Netherlands), Dresden New Music Days (Germany), Festival Aspekte (Austria), Festival Musica Nova (Brazil), Lucerne Festival (Switzerland), Thailand International Composition Festival, Music Gallery (Canada), LA County Museum of Art, Piano Spheres (Los Angeles), Lincoln Center, Roulette, Bargemusic (NYC) and Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. Her works have been performed by leading soloists and ensembles, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JACK Quartet, Ensemble Musikfabrik, Ensemble Surplus, Dal Niente, Wet Ink, Talujon, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), H2 Saxophone Quartet, Bent Frequency, Grossman Ensemble, pianist Ursula Oppens and bassist Robert Black. Amy’s pieces appear on the Parma, VDM (Italy), Centaur, Blue Griffin, New Focus and New Ariel labels, in addition to two portrait CDs of solo and chamber works on Albany Records: “Crossings: Music for Piano and Strings” (2013) and “Cineshape and Duos” (2017).

Amy formed the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo with Helena Bugallo, while both were graduate students at the University at Buffalo. The Duo has been featured at important contemporary music festivals and series throughout Europe and the Americas, including the Ojai Festival, CAL Performances (California), Miller Theatre (New York), Ciclo de Música Contemporánea (Buenos Aires), Festival Attacca (Stuttgart), Palacio de Bellas Artes (Mexico City), Warsaw Autumn Festival, Cologne Triennale, and Wittener Täge für Neue Kammermusik. The Duo’s debut CD of Conlon Nancarrow’s complete music for solo piano and piano duet (Wergo, 2004) garnered much critical acclaim. Subsequent Duo CDs on Wergo include, Stravinsky transcriptions (2007), Morton Feldman/Edgard Varèse (2009), György Kurtág (2015) and a second volume of Stravinsky transcriptions (2018), as well as the original version of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in a recently published facsimile. Amy has performed John Cage’s masterpiece, The Sonatas and Interludes, all over the country and often includes new interludes written for her by over a dozen composers.

Amy has received fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (Goddard Lieberson Fellowship), American-Scandinavian Foundation, Howard Foundation and John S. Guggenheim Foundation. She received a Fromm Music Foundation Commission to write “Richter Textures” for the JACK Quartet and a Koussevitsky Foundation commission for soprano Tony Arnold and the JACK Quartet. An avid proponent of contemporary music, she served as Assistant Director of June In Buffalo, Director of New Music Northwestern, and is currently on the artistic boards of the Pittsburgh-based concert series, Music on the Edge, the Amphion Foundation and the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music. She has been the Artistic Director of the New Music On The Point festival in Vermont since 2015.

==  Biography from the composer's website  
==  Throughout this webpage, links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

amy williams
If I may, a bit of personal history is in order to introduce this interview.

After working at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago for just over twenty-five years (1975-2001), the Dean of the School of Music at Northwestern University, Bernard Dobroski, asked me to join the faculty expressly to teach Introduction to Music, which is an elective course for non-music-majors.  I was delighted to do so, and spent several years doing so in both the regular program and the Division of Continuing Education for adults.

I had grown up in Evanston, Illinois, and NU was an overwhelming presence in the city.  For several years I studied bassoon with Wilbur Simpson of the Chicago Symphony.  I went elsewhere for my undergraduate degree in Music Education, and then returned home for my Master
s Degree in Music History and Literature from NU in 1973.  During that year, besides continuing my lessons (on contrabassoon this time) with Simpson, I was the Graduate Assistant for Thomas Willis, who was also Senior Music Critic at the Chicago Tribune.  Throughout the years I had maintained my contact with the university.  The Head Music Librarian, Don Roberts, had regularly asked for copies of some of the premieres from around the world which had aired on the station, as well as my interviews with composers.  These went to the Archive of Contemporary Music.  In 1990 I had also been asked to deliver the Address to the Graduates at the Convocation.  

After leaving WNIB, I continued to do interviews with composers, and some of my colleagues at NU agreed to be guests in the series.  A brief list includes John P. Paynter (Director of Bands 1951-96), Fred Hemke (Instructor of Saxophone, Chair of the Department of Music Studies, and Associate Dean of Administration 1962-2012), Margaret Hillis (Director of Choral Activities 1970-77, and Founder of the Chicago Symphony Chorus), and composers Alan Stout, M. William Karlins, Stephen Syverud, Amnon Wolman, Jay Alan Yim, and Frank Ferko (who, rather than teaching, worked in the Music Library).

One other composer who was there for a few years was Amy Williams, and it is with pleasure that I am able to present my conversation with her on this webpage.  As it happened, we sat down for this chat on her last day at NU before she left for her next position at the University of Pittsburgh . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You just finished talking with a doctoral student.  [With a sly grin]  Is it fun grilling them?

Amy Williams:   [Laughs]  It’s a celebrative passage for those of us with doctoral degrees, who went through it ourselves.  The whole process of comprehensive and oral exams, and dissertations is something that we do, and it’s always interesting to me to have students go through this process of seeing that they know, and what they know.  They know where their holes are in their knowledge, and they also know and (hopefully) feel very confident about the things that they know.  We all have things to learn, and we all have holes in our knowledge, but it’s important for the student to go through this process, and be aware of what their interests are, and know what directions they want to go in in their own scholarly and creative work.

BD:   As a composer yourself, since you’re dealing with budding composers all the time, does that help pique your interest to find holes in your own compositional technique, or your own ideas and thoughts?

Williams:   Absolutely!  I learn from my students constantly.  Probably one of the things I enjoy most about teaching is being challenged, and being introduced to new things.  One of my students brought me a Nine Inch Nails CD that I’d never heard.  I listened to it, and found something interesting in it.  So I’m as equally involved in the learning process as they are.  Working with students of all different levels provides that in different ways.  The graduate students are bringing me pieces that I don’t know, and the under-graduates bring me genres of music that I don’t know.

BD:   Does this help you keep in touch with the audience that your music will eventually be played for?

Williams:   Sure.  It’s all part of living in a society and being aware of what’s around you.  Universities are just a small microcosm of the larger society.

BD:   Is the university a microcosm, or an ivory tower?

Williams:   I’m not sure which!  [Both laugh]  It depends where you are, but composers can get very much in their heads, and very much into their own personal process, and it’s easy to forget about the audience.  It’s easy to forget about what’s around you.  You have to make an effort to be out in the world, to be listening to music, to be looking for inspiration everywhere in art museums, and films, and poetry, and in travel.  It is necessary to always be looking for inspiration, and be engaged with the world around you in a different way than performers.  Maybe it’s more important for performers to practice twelve hours a day, and it’s more important for composers to be in the world, and be living and engaged.  Students help with that process as well.

BD:   When you’re actually putting the pen to the paper, are you conscious of all of this, or is it just a part of who you are, and then it becomes part of the music that goes on the page?

Williams:   Being conscious of the inspiration depends on the piece.  I’m often inspired by very different things, sometimes something very specific.  I have one piece for flute and percussion that is inspired by a Korean film called ‘Chin Jung’.  It’s not a retelling or narrative translation of that film, but it follows the structure of the film and translates that into music.  So, the piece has a similar structure to it, and also allows an influence of Korean pansori, which is the singing story-telling tradition in Korea.  In this film there is a pansori singer who tells this story, and it’s just this one singer accompanied by a single bass drum player, who ornaments and inflects and comments on what the singer is saying through the drum.  The piece is for alto flute, who represents the singer, and a single bass drum percussionist, so there are a lot of connections between the film and the piece.  In that case the inspiration is very clear.  In other cases, it’s more general.  For example, I was generally thinking about a book of photographs that I saw.  No one photograph in particular, but this general feeling of these water images in this particular book was interesting to me, so I used that in a more general way as inspiration.  So it really ranges from a general inspiration to a very specific kind of inspiration.

BD:   Can I assume that will change considerably if you’re directly asked to write a specific piece, as opposed to just a piece that you have to get out of your system?

Williams:   Sure.  That’s a different kind of challenge when you’re asked to write something for a specific purpose, or a four-minute piece that is lively and energetic and sort of tonal.  Commissioning groups can give you all kinds of specifications.  Sometimes you have to say no, that I simply can’t be true to myself and follow those guidelines.

BD:   Do they ever just come to you and say,
Write a piece”?


Williams:   Yes, and that’s the best kind of commission to get because then you can find the best inspiration.  However, I’m often inspired by the performer that is asking for the piece, and thinking about writing for that particular person.  That doesn’t give me specific melodies or anything, but it gives me ideas about what kind of a piece I want to write based on what I know of that particular person’s musicality, and talent, and what they bring to their instrument that is special to them.  I write for them, and that I really enjoy because I’m a performer myself.  My piano concerto was written for Ursula Oppens, and I was very much thinking about Ursula’s sound.  She has an amazing power and clarity to her playing, and I really wanted to exploit that.  The piece is somewhat tailored to her, at least the strength that I see of her playing.  She can also play beautifully, lyrically in other ways, but I wanted to play with that one particular aspect of her playing.

BD:   Does that preclude it from being played by anyone else?

Williams:   Absolutely not!  Anybody who wants to, can learn it.  [Laughs]

BD:   But then they have to come up to her ability.

Williams:   If they respond to the piece, that means they can probably do it that way.  The piece at least starts very high at the piano, with a dry, fast toccata-like sound.  So, if another pianist wants to play lush romantic music, they might not like the piece.
BD:   I made an assumption that they have to come up to her talents.  Are they really more having to come up to your talents and your instructions?

Williams:   It’s my translation of Ursula’s playing, so they have to respond to my interpretation of it more than hers.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you write a piece, and you get it all down, are you very careful to make sure that they play it exactly the way you want, or do you expect some inspiration and idea from the performer?

Williams:   It depends on the piece quite a bit.  For some of my pieces, if you play what’s written the interpretation will be right.  Debussy is that way, really.  He has so much important instruction in the way that he notates things, and the words he uses tells you how to interpret the piece.  My Cineshape for Flute and Percussion allows more interpretation, more freedom.  [This work, along with others by Williams are shown in the CD at right.]  My scores will range from very detailed notation, to being a bit more flexible, with a bit less information, giving the performer a little more freedom.

BD:   Are there ever times when the performer will discover something, and then you wish that others will do it that way next time, and the time after that?

Williams:   Sure.  I’m always inspired by what performers do, especially when I am writing for piano.  I also will find better solutions as I’m working on the piece when I play my own music.  It’s one reason I don’t like to do that, because I’m constantly editing and finding another solution to a problem.

BD:   When you play your own works, how much conflict is there between you the composer and you the performer?

Williams:   There can be quite a bit of conflict.  It’s hard to feel like a piece is finished when I’m playing it because when you interpret, you are, in a way, still composing.  You’re still making it real, and that process brings you to different places.

BD:   You just can’t divorce yourself and say,
“This is what it is?

Williams:   That’s very hard to do when I play my own music.  It’s much easier with pieces that are written for other ensembles and instruments that I’m not playing myself.

BD:   What about when you play music by other composers?  Do you approach it as a composer, or as a pianist?

Williams:   I do have somewhat of a composer’s approach as a performer, but they’re so integrated that I replace one word with the other!  As a performer you have to internalize the piece.  You have to understand it from the inside out.  So, if I’m working on a piece, and there’s a place or a shape or something that I don’t quite get, I will really put on my composer’s hat and try to understand.  I will try to get inside the composer’s head, and understand what is it that the composer is doing, what the composer is trying to make happen at this place.  I will analyze the piece from the composer’s point of view, look at it motifically and harmonically, look at the phrasing and the overall formal structure, and try to really understand the composer’s intentions.  Maybe I can do that a little bit more than some performers who don’t compose, because I’ve had the experience.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Yet we expect mere performers to perform these works that the composers give them without having to look at them through a composer’s eyes.

Williams:   Well, the best performers are the ones that can also take a piece apart and understand it intellectually, and come to it.  People like Glenn Gould are the ones we remember because they have that ability to see the piece from different sides.

BD:   Is there ever just one way to perform a piece, or are there always several, or myriad ways to perform a piece?

Williams:   I hope there are always many ways.  It would be very stale as a performer if you felt that there was only one ideal.  As a performer, it’s been interesting to work on these Conlon Nancarrow player-piano studies because we have this ideal, which is his recordings on his pianos of his player-piano rolls.  These are mechanical pianos playing the music, and we have that in our minds as we interpret these pieces.  Then we have to separate from this ideal, and try to find a new way of interpreting the music.  Having played a number of them over five or six years, it’s interesting how they stay alive, and how they do change over time.  Even though they were mechanical music, we have found ways of interpreting them, though perhaps somewhat less than you would a piece that’s not written for a machine.

BD:   You’re almost in a unique position to have taken something that was written for machine, and then play it in a human way.

Williams:   Right.

BD:   Can you compare this to music written for humans?  How is it different?  How is it the same?

Williams:   It is different because you don’t have as much space to be an interpreter.  It always requires concentration that is very intense.  We just played a program at the Ojai Festival, which was thirteen Conlon Nancarrow studies, and then Stravinsky’s arrangement of The Rite of Spring [studio recording shown below].  Even though we’d been playing Conlon Nancarrow for a long time, and given many more performances than we’d done of The Rite of Spring, with the mechanical aspect of the interpretation and the complexity of the rhythms, the music is extremely fragile, and as a performer you can fall off the edge even though we know the pieces very, very well.  In a way it’s dangerous music to play, and you can easily just lose it.


BD:   Did Nancarrow transcribe them and notate them, or did you have to transcribe from a piano roll or recording?

Williams:   He wrote scores out.  He started by writing, and then punching the rolls himself.  After that, he wrote out rolls, so the transcription process is different for different pieces.  There are some where he doesn’t even have common bar lines.  He just has different lines and different speeds, and we have to work out all of the rhythmic relationships so that we have common bar lines, and common tempos.  There are others that transcription was merely deciding who was going to play what.  Not as much had to be worked out, but we do have the scores, and then we would always go back to those ideals.  We would always go back to the recordings of the rolls because we sensed that is what he considered the perfect versions.  There are inconsistencies between his printed scores and the rolls, and we would usually give preference to the rolls.  So, if we found that there was a discrepancy between them, we would lean towards what was written on the roll, not what was written in the score.
BD:   The score is a score, and the rolls are his performance?

Williams:   The roll is the proper edition, the Urtext.  The score is supposed to be the same as the roll.  He was intending it to be the same, so there are just mistakes and things like that which we have to correct.  But it’s hard to know.  There could be places where he changed his mind.  He punched the roll, and then as he was writing it out he decided this would really sound better an octave lower, or an octave higher, or he’d bump up the tempo a little bit.  There’s also the issue, which he didn’t write in the scores, which is because of the mechanism of the roll itself.  As the paper moves from the main roll onto the secondary roll, there’s a slight acceleration.  So each one of those pieces starts at a different tempo, and it ends a little bit faster.  The acceleration is just the natural property of that mechanism.  The pieces want to move forward, but he didn’t write for it to speed up in the scores.  That’s just something which happens by the rolls.  So, if you listen to the recordings, you hear that happen, and we had this interesting dilemma of whether or not to do it.  In the pieces where the music wants to do that, it accumulates an energy, and if it wants to speed up, we let it happen.

BD:   How do these pieces, which were written for a mechanical device, stack up in terms of heart and human emotion?

Williams:   It’s interesting because some of them really are very lyrical and expressive, and they want to have some shaping and some musicality, and some singing line, and you want do that.  The music calls for it, and so we did it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask you the great big easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Williams:   [Laughs]  Ah, that is a nice question!

BD:   It is something you think about at all in your daily life of composing or teaching?
  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Ralph Shapey, David Rakowski, Frederic Rzewski, Lou Harrison, Jeffrey Mumford, and Betsy Jolas.]

Williams:   I just assume that music is important and necessary, and because it’s a natural assumption from birth, it’s very hard for me to justify it.  I don’t really feel the need to justify it because it is very much who I am.  Literally I have had music from birth.  Both of my parents are professional musicians, and three of my four grandparents are pianists.  It feels so inherent, and so internal that for me it’s not something that needs to be explained.

BD:   Is it something that you accept gladly, or do you ever wish you had gone into something else?

Williams:   [Laughs]  My father still tells me I can go to medical school!  That’s the professional musician talking.  I absolutely had this special moment in my life... I was in college, and was interested in lots of different things.  I never felt pressured to become a musician, but always had music in my life.  I never felt that I was limited, that I had to go with that one thing until I made that decision myself.  I decided there really was nothing else that I would love as much as music.  For me it’s not just one aspect of music.  It really is the total picture of creating, and being a performer, and being a teacher.  It is being able to communicate and understand music from an intellectual point of view, and also to be able to get inside the heads and the creative processes of my students, which is sometimes more psychology than it is music.  It’s just a fascinating thing to be doing, and so for me, music is so multi-faceted.  There are so many things that you can do with it, and so many ways you can be involved with it and connected to it that I can’t imagine ever feeling limited by the possibilities of music.

BD:   Do you get enough time for each aspect?

Williams:   No!  [Laughs]  The answer is no!  It’s very hard to balance teaching and playing and writing.

BD:    With a little bit of personal life?

Williams:    A little bit of personal life is important, absolutely.  That is my life’s struggle
to balance the things because they take such different energy.  I can teach all day and go home, and practice for a few hours, but if I’ve been looking at students’ works, or brilliant Beethoven string quartets all day, it’s hard to feel like you have something to say compositionally.  At the end of the day, composing requires an absolute obsession, which gets into the personal life a little bit.  You have to get so consumed by this idea sewn in your own head.  Sometimes it’s a struggle to get it out, and sometimes it’s easy.  But even when it’s easy, it’s all-encompassing, and that requires a very different kind of concentration and energy and devotion and time than practicing.  Practicing is something you can fill the day with, and teaching has its own curve to it, being a semester or a quarter.  There are times when the teaching takes a lot of your time and energy, and there are other times when it coasts along.  It depends on what you’re teaching, and where your students are at that time, and what extra-curricular things there are besides your courses that are always connected with them.  Being part of an institution and a community takes a lot of time as well.  I organize a lot of concerts, so there are busy times with that.

BD:   If you could, would you clone yourself so that you could have two or three of you lined up and help out with some of the details?

Williams:   Just having a secretary would be nice [laughs], and maybe a house-cleaner!  There are ways of doing it.  There are tricks.  I do tend to compose when I have larger chunks of time that I set aside for it.  I’m not one of these composers who can compose a little bit every day.  Like I said, it requires total obsession that’s harder to turn on and off.

BD:   When that larger chunk of time comes, is the inspiration there?

Williams:   One hopes!  It’s not always the case, but composers find ways of seeking out that inspiration, and calling it up when it is needed.  Part of composing is technique and experience.  You have a vocabulary that you work with and that you’re familiar with and that you know will work.  There are usually things that you want to say, and you have some reserves that are there, hopefully, when it
s time to compose.

BD:   Do you ever have a brilliant idea in the middle of dinner, or in the middle of class, and you have to break away for five minutes just to jot it all down?
Williams:   It does happen sometimes.  I do get ideas for pieces in strange places and at strange times, and I do have notebooks of sketches, and pieces of paper, and napkins that have ideas on them.  I never throw those out.  I don’t always incorporate them, but I never throw them out so that I have them if I need them.
BD:   You don’t go back to them unless you’re stuck for something?

Williams:   No.  Sometimes I’ll just go through that pile or that box of ideas that I threw out from another piece that might or might not be interesting now.  Some of them have been in that box for a long time, and will probably always stay there.  I am always thinking, and always looking for ideas, and using what’s around me.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   When you’re working on a piece, you’re getting it down, and you’re making the notations, and you go back and polish, and you edit.  How do you know when it’s done?

Williams:   That’s very hard.  We were talking about how the interpretation of the piece in some ways is part of that compositional process, and when you take that into consideration, it’s hard for it to ever be done.  Really, it never is done because someone will always interpret it differently, and that changes the piece.

BD:   But you’ve got to let it go.

Williams:   You’ve got to let it go at a certain point.  Usually, the deadline is when it’s done.  [Laughs]  I do often go back to pieces, and re-think spots and places in it that I want to change.  If each of us had a string quartet at our disposal when we were writing, we wouldn’t have to do that, but you’re constantly learning.  Some idea doesn’t work quite the way you expected it, but you don’t know that until you hear it.  As much as we study orchestration and instrumentation, if you only write what you know will sound good, then you’re not growing as a composer.  I try to allow myself some experimentation to write some things that I’m not exactly sure how they will work.  Sometimes I’ll be happily surprised that it worked maybe even better than I expected, and other times it will not go so well.  What’s what re-writing is for.

BD:   Is it good or bad that we have now mechanical devices where you can make your notation, and then put it into the computer which can play it, and you could adjust it so that the sound can be a string quartet or five clarinets?

Williams:   I don’t use that at all.  I don’t notate my own pieces.  I have a copyist who does that, so I’m not sitting at the computer putting the piece in and hearing it played back.  I really try to hear the pieces in my head.  I work a little bit at the piano... not constantly, but it’s the medium I’m most comfortable with, and it’s how I hear.

BD:   What do you say when one of your students is utilizing all of the newest gizmos and gadgets?

Williams:   Many composers do, and it works for them.  There’s no one process.  Everybody finds their own way, and maybe I will come to a point where that makes sense for me.  But I find the mechanical aspect of midi-playback and its horrifying sounds to be not helpful in the process for me.  Someone asked me once what the number one rule was that I tell my students who are now always writing with the computers, and I tell them the number one no-no is cut-and-paste.  That is so easy on the computer, and it is very dangerous.  At any moment in the piece, you need to make a decision about where to go next, and you need to have a lot of options.  Cut-and-paste is just too easy.  You’re not thinking about what the other options are at that moment.  You’re not making a very conscientious decision to repeat this bar, so you’re going to write it again.  That’s how much you want it to repeat, as opposed to just cut-and-paste.  If one accompaniment worked for that bar, I’ll do the same accompaniment for this one...

BD:   It sounds very formulaic.

Williams:   It’s too easy.  It’s much too easy.

BD:   [With mock horror]  Composing is supposed to be hard work???

Williams:   Absolutely.  It’s the hardest thing ever done.

BD:   Even Mozart just dashing things off is supposed to be hard work???

Williams:   We’re not all Mozarts, that’s for sure!  [Both laugh]  No, composing is very hard work.

BD:   Earlier you used the word ‘brilliant
.  What kinds of things go into making a piece brilliant?

Williams:   That’s a difficult question because it’s so subjective.  What I think is brilliant, someone else might not think is brilliant.  I only know what interests me.

BD:   Then what do you look for, or listen for?

Williams:   I look for surprises.  What I enjoy about listening to music is not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next, and being pulled some place.

BD:   Does that rule out any kind of second or third listen?

Williams:   No, because you hear different things.  When you hear the same piece again, you hear different things in it, and you hear it deeper.  You hear it at different levels, and you listen for different things.  You might listen harmonically one time, and then structurally another time.  First you might listen for phrasing, and another time you listen to the orchestration.  You can focus your listening experience on different aspects of that piece, and if it’s a good piece, you can do that endlessly.  Every time you might hear new things.  You might hear something different, and that experience of being pulled in an unknown direction is what really excites me about music.
BD:   Is that what elevates a piece of musicthat you never plumb all of its depths?
Williams:   Maybe.  There are some pieces which are so simple in their construction that you think you’d get bored by them, but you don’t.  Some little Mozart sonatas that are simple and clear, but there is always something unexpected about them.  That’s just something which interests me.  It’s really hard to say what is better than something else because it’s your own experience.  It’s what drives you, but that’s still a judgment.

BD:   You understand these things that make a piece brilliant for you.  Do you consciously try to put those into your new compositions?

Williams:   Sure.  I like to be surprised in my own pieces.  It’s harder when you’re so inside of it, but, as I said, I try to do different things.  I try things that I’m not exactly sure about so that I will maybe be surprised.  Hopefully I will be surprised, and we always want to be surprised for the better.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Williams:   Earlier I mentioned the Ojai Festival, and this is almost a sixty-year-old festival, one of the great festivals in this country.

BD:   Is it just a festival of new music?

Williams:   It’s not just new music.  It’s all music, although they certainly have a very open-minded attitude about contemporary music, which is unusual.  Apparently, last year they didn’t program quite enough new music, and the audience complained a bit.  So they wanted to have more surprises, and going to a festival like this really felt like classical music was thriving.  They had big and enthusiastic audiences, and people were so excited.  There were standing ovations at almost every concert, and the thrill about classical music was very refreshing.  We don’t always get that experience, so I am cautiously optimistic.  There are amazing things happening in music these days.  There are more and more students coming into school, and the level of performances is going up and up.  There are very interesting new voices in composition that are emerging.  There are exciting things happening in music, and also interesting bridges between music and other art forms, as well as within music.  Performers who compose and improvise and play present a bridging of styles.  There are concerts where you hear music that ranges from very accessible conservative music to hard-core crunching music, and you hear everything in between on the same program.  There’s an open-mindedness and an openness to the presentation of music nowadays, and that’s exciting.

BD:   In a festival like Ojai they want more crunchy music.  How do we get more crunchy music on the standard concerts elsewhere?

Williams:   [Thinks a moment]  A lot of it has to do with education, and education can happen at the concert, in the hall itself.  Sometimes just framing a piece with good program notes, or with an introduction, or a pre-concert talk are ways of opening people’s ears to new forms of music, to new sounds that they may not be familiar with.  It’s always good to aim high.  You might lose a few, but you might also bring along many others, and it’s better than dumbing it down, and just assuming the audience is not going to like something because it’s a little bit dissonant, or because they’ve never heard it before.  We have to present it in a form that shows this is what’s happening, this is all exciting, you want to be a part of this.  Ask them to come along, and people will come... not all of them, but some people will come.

BD:   Would you rather have the music you compose played on a new-music concert or a mixed program?

Williams:   I hope it would work on both.  It’s just a question of programming.  It’s not just my music but programming is something that I’m very interested in.  What makes a good program, and what makes it work is an interesting issue.  Mixed programs that have some theme or thread that connects pieces of Bach and Mozart up to the newest piece are really fascinating.  With my Duo we play very little music older than Stravinsky and Debussy, but when we do, it’s usually in the context of new pieces.  It can be very interesting to hear a piece of Bach played on a program of all contemporary pieces.  Then I always think the Bach sounds strange, and that’s cool.

BD:   I would think you would always keep some Schubert duo-piano music, or a couple of Mozart duo sonatas in your repertoire.

Williams:   That’s wonderful music!  They’re wonderful to play, and hopefully because of our experience, contemporary performers will hear it and then play it in a slightly different way on a mixed program, or an all-contemporary program.  But it’s more important that it’s on a good program, an interesting program.

BD:   When you play music by past masters, do you feel that those composers are pleased with your performances?

Williams:   [Laughs]  That’s hard to say.  For instance, we’ve heard from many people who knew Conlon Nancarrow.  Unfortunately, we never got to work with him because he died in 1997.  But we have heard from a number of people who worked with him closely who think he would have appreciated and been happy with this project that we’re doing.  Actually, the composer, James Tenney said to us at the Ojai Festival
, “If Nancarrow had heard you guys, he probably wouldn’t have written for the player-piano.  That would have been terrible, of course.  He never would have turned to this medium that pushed him so far, and in such a unique direction.  So, that was a strange complement!  [Laughs]  But you try to get inside a piece and interpret it in your own way, and hope that the composer would be pleased.


BD:   Do you think that you’re going to be pleased a hundred years from now when people play your music?

Williams:   I would be pleased a hundred years from now if anybody would play my music!  [Has a huge laugh]

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  Do you expect it to do die with you???

Williams:   Who knows?  You never know how long these things will last.

BD:   Do you write it to last, or do you write it for the moment?

Williams:   I don’t think so much about the hundred years from now.  I’m living in the present, and I try to make things work in the present as much as I can.  I don’t even think about what kind of music am I going to be writing ten years from now.  I’m trying to write the best music I can right now, and I’m trying to live my life in such a way that I have experiences in which I’m constantly growing, and evolving, and changing.  I am expanding as an artist, and because of that, maybe my music will change over time, but I try not to force it in any one direction.

BD:   As much as you have already grown and changed so far in your young career, do you go back and disown the early pieces, or do you like the fact that they’re occasionally brought back?

Williams:   It depends on the piece.  There are some pieces that are really sort of juvenile, and are not pieces that I would readily share.

BD:   What about after a certain point?

Williams:   After a certain point you move on, and you say that it was interesting at the time.  Sometimes you go back to an older piece and feel it wasn’t as bad as you thought it was.  There was something there, but I can appreciate now that it needs a little bit of distance, a little bit of time to actually be able to see it more objectively.  But yes, there are certainly pieces that I would not share with people today.

BD:   Are we introducing a joker into all this because a hundred years from now, no matter what, even if your pieces are not played, they will still exist in flat plastic or in a digital memory?

Williams:   Sure!  They will be there and that’s part of my life’s story.  It’s like those awful yearbook pictures of you.  It’s part of who you are.  It’s not all perfect, but...

BD:   Do you want it to be perfect?

Williams:   I don’t think there is such a thing, honestly.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   [Noting that this was her last day on campus]  How long have you been at Northwestern?

Williams:   Five years.  Before that I was teaching at Bennington College in Vermont for three years.  That was a very different kind of experience... very experimental, but a real arts college.  They had a very beautiful program there.

BD:   Now you’re heading off to Pittsburgh for what position?

Williams:   I’ll be Assistant Professor of Composition at the University of Pittsburgh.

BD:   Are you looking forward to that?

Williams:   I am.  It’s a new challenge.  It’s a very different program from Northwestern.  There is a Ph.D. program, and they have degrees in composition, ethnomusicology, and musicology, so it
s very different than a comprehensive school of music with a large performance component.  Also at Northwestern we have a big music education program.  They don’t have music education or performance majors at Pittsburgh, so it’s a very different kind of a program, but it will be interesting.  It’s always interesting to start at a new place, and to bring your experiences there, and get to know a new city and have new colleagues.  But also, you miss everyone around you.

BD:   I hope you enjoy going to Heinz Hall.

Williams:   Oh, absolutely!  The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is wonderful.

Pittsburgh Symphony Music Directors and Artistic Advisors
  • 1895–1898 Frederic Archer (Lead Conductor)
  • 1898–1904 Victor Herbert
  • 1904–1910 Emil Paur
  • 1930–1937 Antonio Modarelli
  • 1937 Otto Klemperer (Guest Conductor)
  • 1938–1948 Fritz Reiner
  • 1948–1952 Vladimir Bakaleinikov

Under Maazel's direction, the Pittsburgh Symphony commissioned several works to showcase principal players: Benjamin Lees' Horn Concerto, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra, Leonardo Balada's Music for Oboe and Orchestra, Rodion Shchedrin's Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, Roberto Sierra's Evocaciones and Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, and David Stock's Violin Concerto.

In January 2004, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with conductor Gilbert Levine became the first American orchestra to perform at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II to commemorate the Pontiff's Silver Jubilee celebration. The program included the world premiere of Abraham, a sacred motet by John Harbison. Among other premieres, Joan Tower has had two works commissioned: Tambor and Stroke. In 2012, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra commissioned Silent Spring by Steven Stucky in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, the 1962 seminal work by Pittsburgh-area native Rachel Carson, and in 2018, the orchestra introduced Jennifer Higdon's Tuba Concerto.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

Williams:   That’s an interesting question!  In some ways I feel like I’m on track.  [Laughs]  I feel sort of old for my age in some ways, because I started teaching full-time a week after I took my doctoral exams.  So I’ve been teaching for eight or nine years full-time, and I feel like I have a lot of teaching experience.  However, I’m not a little old professor-type.  On the other hand, things are still moving forward compositionally and as a performer.

BD:   I hope it keeps you eternally young.

Williams:   I hope so too!  I doubt it but... [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:   It’s been a pleasure knowing you and working with you.  Thank you for this conversation.

Williams:   Absolutely.  Thank you, Bruce.



See my interviews with Tania León, and Shulamit Ran


© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in her office at Northwestern University on June 29, 2005.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.