Nick Williams: I was born in Newcastle, but have lived most of my life in Yorkshire (currently in Leeds). I took up violin (changing later to viola) when I was 8, and started composing pretty much straight away (my first piece consisted entirely of semibreves on open strings and first fingers – I still think it’s the best piece I’ve written). After studying at York university I was a cofounder in 1982 of Soundpool (the precursor to Late Music), what would now be called a composers’ collective. I ran away with a circus (really) and performed with a number of bands – folk, punk, latin, free improvisation. In emulation of Erik Satie I returned to college in my 40s, getting an MA and PhD from Huddersfield university, where I taught for a number of years. Although as a composer I consider myself self-taught, I’ve had invaluable guidance and encouragement at various times from (amongst others) Christopher Fox, Bryn Harrison and Louis Andriessen, not to mention colleagues and all the performers and ensembles who have played my stuff.
SC: Can you describe the programmed works to us?
NW: The programme is a bit of a mixed party bag… the ensemble line-up is pretty unique, there’s no ready-made repertoire, so we’ve got a mix of solo, duo and full ensemble pieces. A few pieces have been specially written for the ensemble or individual members, and we’ve included some earlier 20th century classics by Cage (pre-chance) and Stravinsky. Our pianist Kate has been working with Canadian composer Monica Pearce who writes a lot for toy piano, so we’ve included some of her music alongside music for hand-cranked music box, which provides a nice contrast to the often full-on sound of the ensemble. There’s a sort of transatlantic connections theme running through the programme but it’s not totally consistent.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
NW: I don’t work at the piano, though I have one close by, mainly to check out harmonies. I’m fairly old-fashioned in my working methods – pencil, manuscript paper, eraser, ruler, pencil sharpener, gallons of tea. The computer comes later on in the process. I have a kind of pre-compositional plan, usually a structure and rough timings, with graphic representations of textures, shapes, gestures, level of activity. I always have a clear idea of the soundworld I want the piece to inhabit. There’s often some kind of fancy note permutation thing going on but as I’ve got more confident over the years about what I want and how to get it, my use of these pre-compositional aids has become much less rigid – my ear takes precedence so I’ll deviate from anything I’ve preplanned if I think it’s not working at any point. SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
NW: I think it helps to know the performers, if not personally then through recordings or concerts, to get a feel for their musical personalities (sometimes it’s great to give them something they’re not expecting, and I find most musicians are up
for the challenge of something outside their usual world). To work directly with the musicians is the ideal, and I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with some fantastic musicians (including Spelk!).
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
NW: I’ve been told I have a recognisable sound and I suppose a lot of my music tends to share certain characteristics – loud, fast, a rhythmic energy, a strange not-tonal-but-not-atonal-either sense of harmony. One reviewer described my music as ‘hyperactive postminimalism’. Can’t argue with that (though it doesn’t apply to everything I write).
SC: What motivates you to compose?
NW: It’s just something I’ve done since I was young. It was something I found I could do that other kids that I knew couldn’t (or didn’t) do. I love the act of writing music (not inputting music – I hate that part of the process!) so I need my fix – I get grouchy if I haven’t composed for a while. Composers often say they write the kind of music they themselves want to hear, and there’s that too. There’s also wanting to be useful – to write something that someone wants to play and hear (I’ve written music for non-professional/amateur/untrained players and singers and worked regularly with CoMA – Contemporary Music for All – for a while).
I’m totally excited by what sound, notes, rhythms can do in time – the sheer thrill of hearing in real life what I’d only imagined when the youth orchestra I played in ran through a piece of mine when I was about 11 has never left me. I’m always struck by the physicality of the music when its brought to life. Other reasons are more conceptual, political, social, emotional – too many to go into…
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
NW: Difficult one. There are so many! Some I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know, others I just admire from afar (without necessarily being on the same wavelength as their music), but they would include: Steve Reich, Anna Meredith, Björk, Judith Weir, Christian Wolff, Michael Finnissy, Julia Wolfe, Steve Martland, David Dramm (an American composer living in Amsterdam who also works with people like Patti Smith and John Cale)…the list goes on…I think what they all have in common is an openness to a variety of musics (jazz, pop, electronica, folk, non-Western) and often an engagement with wider social and political issues through their music. A huge influence on my way of thinking about music sadly died last year, Louis Andriessen. I never formally studied with him, but I was lucky to get to know him over the years. My stuff sounds nothing like his, but I don’t think I’d be the composer I am without his example.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
NW: It would probably have to be Satie (cheap wine rather than beer, followed by calvados). I’m fascinated by the whole scene in Paris during the early years of the 20th century, and Satie was so much part of it – knowing Debussy, Ravel, Picasso,
Picabia, Man Ray, the Dadaists. I love Satie’s sly subversive wit and he’d be a great source of gossip about everyone on the scene. I’d have to get all the drinks in as he was permanently penniless, but it would be worth it.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
NW: In no particular order (I’m hoping an album counts as one choice…):
Andriessen – De Materie
Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (or the Goldberg variations – can’t decide)
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major
Stravinsky – Agon
Anything by Satie as long as it’s played by Reinbert de Leeuw
Milhaud – La Création du Monde
Machaut – Hoquetus David
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica.
If I’m allowed just one, then probably Agon – the whole history of western music is in it…
SC: …and a book?:
NW: Probably Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose. But if you asked me tomorrow it might be a Richard Brautigan omnibus…
SC: …a film?
NW: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (or anything by Jacques Tati – can’t decide)
SC: … and a luxury item?
NW: An endless supply of Yorkshire teabags (and a mug and kettle). Or an endless supply of parkin. But I’d have to have tea with the cake…Can I have both?