In conversation with JONATHAN HEPFER (Buffalo, NY - 2004)
Originally printed in PERCUSSIVE NOTES (Vol. 45, No. 1 - February 2007) as 'The Evolution of New Music'
Throughout his career, percussion soloist Jan Williams has been at the forefront of new music. As a member of Paul Price’s studio at Manhattan School of Music, Williams was among the first percussionists to help develop what has now become our standard repertoire. Composers who have written pieces especially for him include John Cage, Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Elliott Carter, Earle Brown, Lou Harrison, Frederic Rzewski, Nils Vigeland, Francis Miroglio, Pauline Oliveras, Netty Simons, Luis de Pablo, Joel Chadabe, Henry Brant, and Lukas Foss. Williams is Professor Emeritus at the University at Buffalo, where he founded and directed the percussion program for 30 years. On January 20, 2004, Williams (rarely one to look backward) reflected on his remarkable experiences. (Special thanks to Anthony Miranda and John Bewley for their assistance.)
HEPFER: Where are you originally from, and what were some of your earliest musical experiences?
WILLIAMS: I’m from Utica, New York. I started studying drums in fourth grade with a very good teacher named George Claesgens. At first, I played mostly snare drum in my high school marching and concert bands. Eventually I started studying timpani, but I didn’t have the opportunity to study keyboards in high school. Then I went to Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, which back then (1957) was called Clarkson College. I was an Electrical Engineering major but I only lasted one semester.
The reason I went into engineering was that my teachers discouraged me from making music a career because it’s tough to make a living. So I tried engineering but it was obvious to me that I had made a mistake. I went back home, and the following fall I entered the Eastman School of Music as a freshman. I studied with Bill Street, an excellent old-school percussionist and teacher who got me started studying keyboards in earnest. But I was not altogether happy at Eastman. I was doing fine in the classes and getting to do a lot of playing, but something was missing.
At the time, I didn’t know what that “something” was, but I decided that I wanted to get to New York City, mainly because I had read an article in Time or some other national magazine about Paul Price, who was a percussion teacher at the Manhattan School of Music, and how he was doing all this crazy new percussion music, which often used found objects such as automobile brake drums as instruments. Typically the pieces were by living composers such as John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Henry Cowell.
The concept of the percussion ensemble sounded very exciting to me in 1958. The idea of living and studying in New York City was very appealing to me, too. So I got accepted to the Manhattan School of Music and I went there to study with Paul in September of 1959. I was there for five years, getting my B.M. in 1963 and my M.M. in 1964. And that’s where I got indoctrinated into the whole world of percussion ensembles. That was Price’s key interest: percussion ensemble and contemporary chamber music that included percussion. He had attracted a bunch of talented students— John Bergamo, Max Neuhaus, Ray DesRoches, and George Boberg, to name a few.
Manhattan was exactly what I was looking for and all I had hoped it would be—a lot of playing time and, most of all, a lot of new music. And I mean the newest things like Stockhausen’s “Zyklus,” first performances of those graphic pieces by Haubenstock-Ramati— his “Liaisons” for vibe and xylophone,
for example—and the “Improvisations sur Mallarmé” by Boulez in addition to graphic music and also the classics—all the Cage and Harrison music from the 1940s. You know, they weren’t classics back then.
So that was my orientation at Manhattan, percussion-wise. It wasn’t about orchestral playing for me, although I got a scholarship after a year or so to play in the opera orchestra and was always a member of the MSM symphony orchestra, playing percussion and timpani. The student orchestra was very good because the school had a lot of people who were really just interested in orchestra playing, so that was great. But it was really the new music that interested me the most from a playing standpoint.
As soon as I got my masters, I was offered a job at the University at Buffalo. Actually it wasn’t a job per se, but a kind of post-doc grant—a one-year appointment as a member of a new-music group at the newly formed Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at the University at Buffalo. We were called Creative Associates. It was like a post-graduate fellowship; although we had faculty status we didn’t do any teaching. We came there, sixteen instrumentalists and vocalists the first year, and our gig was to rehearse new pieces, play concerts at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and then repeat them in New York City at Carnegie Recital Hall, which is now called Weill Recital Hall.
Lukas Foss was the director of the center. He had been appointed Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in 1963. He and Alan Sapp, the chairman of the music department at the time, started the group with help of a Rockefeller Foundation grant. Foss had hired John Bergamo as the group’s percussionist because John had been working with Lukas at Tanglewood as a Fromm Foundation player.
Since the idea was to hire two percussionists, Lukas asked John who he would recommend for the other position, and John suggested me. They asked me to send an audition tape because they wouldn’t have percussion instruments available at the New York City auditions at Judson Hall. So I sent a tape and got the gig. But I don’t think they ever listened to the tape. I think Lukas just figured that if John wanted to work with me, that was fine with him.
After spending the summer of ’64 at Tanglewood, my wife, Diane, and I arrived in Buffalo. Diane is a violist and auditioned for the Buffalo Phil when we were at Tanglewood. She got the job, which put us in quite a bit better financial position than the other Creative Associates who had to make it on the grant alone. When we came to the music department it was located in Allen Hall, which back then was called Baird Hall. The part-time percussion instructor then was George D’Anna. He was the timpanist with the Buffalo Philharmonic. He was an older guy, maybe in his sixties in 1964. Basically he came up through the vaudeville ranks with pit orchestras. He was a wonderful guy and a very good musician.
The department had virtually no percussion equipment when John and I arrived. George did manage to buy a four-octave Deagan marimba and there were a few old timps. Obviously, in order to do all this new music, we needed to buy a lot of stuff. So we bought about $20 thousand worth of instruments, as I recall. That $20K would be worth maybe $75K today.
HEPFER: Was there a percussion ensemble at the University of Buffalo then?
WILLIAMS: When John and I got to UB [University at Buffalo] there was no percussion ensemble. We were just coming from Manhattan where we were doing all of this percussion ensemble stuff with Price. There were only a few students at UB because George was only part-time. John and I volunteered to start a percussion ensemble, initially “off the books,” in that it was not an official course but just a group of students who wanted to get together to play percussion music.
We put up a few signs and put together a group of six or so players at the beginning, and started rehearsing some of the stuff we had been doing in New York. Luckily, Frank Cipolla, the band director, had bought some percussion music before we got there because he wanted the band percussion section to play something in concerts. So we had some pieces on hand to get us started—pieces like Mike Colgrass’s “Three Brothers” and the Chavez “Toccata.” So some percussion ensemble pieces had been performed at UB by the band before John and I got there. But when John and I came, we formalized the UB Percussion Ensemble as a separate ensemble that students could sign up for and get credit. So that’s how the percussion ensemble started at UB. We could only start such a group because John and I just had all of this percussion ensemble experience with Price, and we had all of the new instruments because of the Center.
HEPFER: How many percussion majors were at the school then?
WILLIAMS: Most of the students were not music majors. They were engineering majors, pre-med majors, and English majors who played in high school and wanted to continue playing in college. Most were extremely conscientious, maybe because they weren’t music majors. They just loved it and needed that creative outlet. They got to hear John and me playing on all of these concerts of new music—pretty wild stuff. This was the ’60s, so there was a lot of crazy stuff going on. These kids heard this stuff and were like, “Whoa, this is fun stuff. Let’s get into this!”
HEPFER: Was Price’s group at Manhattan one of the first university-run percussion ensembles?
WILLIAMS: Yes. Paul had taught at the University of Illinois in Urbana from 1949 to 1956. It was there that he started a percussion ensemble and managed to get it accredited as an officially recognized ensemble. He was fortunate to get hold of a large number of percussion pieces by John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison, pieces that they had written in the late ’30s and early ’40s, most of which had never been played, or maybe played once. He had contacted these guys and they were more than willing to give them to him. He questioned why this music had never been played and saw it as a kind of foundation for a repertoire for percussion ensemble. Of course, it helped to have some pretty incredible players studying with him at UI, like Mike Colgrass, Jack McKenzie, Tom Siwe, and Al Payson. Mike wrote “Three Brothers” for that group. Once Price had this group and the beginnings of a legitimate repertoire, he went through all that it took to get the percussion ensemble recognized as an accredited college ensemble. He also founded Music For Percussion around that time and began publishing percussion music.
HEPFER: When did Paul Price go to Manhattan School of Music?
WILLIAMS: In 1956. When he came to Manhattan, of course, he started a percussion ensemble. By 1960 there were several accredited percussion ensembles around the country, so we were definitely not the first. Price was the first one to get it done, which made it a heck of a lot easier for those of us coming after him! Because Paul had set the precedent at UI, we could justify gaining accreditation for our ensembles, too.
HEPFER: Was it a struggle at the time to get some of the new music, especially conceptual music, accepted by schools that might normally be considered “symphonic” schools?
WILLIAMS: Yes. It was more likely to be accepted, in my opinion, in a university or college music department than at a conservatory. Conservatories tend to be more, well, conservative, in the sense that generally percussion education is focused on orchestral and opera repertoire. At least that was the way it was 40 years ago. I’m thinking of places like Eastman, Juilliard, and Curtis. On the other hand, in a music department like University at Buffalo or at Rutgers or the University of Illinois, the big state universities, the music departments were populated more with kids who came not knowing what they wanted to do, and if they were music majors, they were more open to new music. I definitely had students that were hungry for new music. And again, it was the ’60s, audiences were interested in hearing the latest experimental music, and my students were very interested in playing it. They weren’t thinking so much about whether there were career opportunities playing new music. In a college setting like this one it wasn’t such an issue as it might have been at a conservatory.
HEPFER: What was the basis of your decision to transfer from Eastman to the Manhattan School of Music?
WILLIAMS: Eastman was, and still is, a great school, and I was lucky to get in back then. It was certainly easier to get in then than it is now. You could get into Eastman playing NO mallets! All I had to play was snare drum, timpani, and some orchestral excerpts. Just have good snare drum chops, read well, have good ears, and you were in. Obviously, it’s different now. That’s how much higher the standards have been raised in the last 40 years.
Anyway, there were several reasons why I decided to leave Eastman and head to New York. Basically, it was my romanticizing about what it would be like to live and work there. We used to go there as a family to hear jazz. My father was an amateur jazz pianist. He played in dance bands, and I played with him in those bands starting when I was about 16 years old. So we would drive down to New York to hear all of these great players three or four times a year. I loved New York, loved the music, loved staying up until 3:00 in the morning and then meeting Erroll Garner at Joe Harbor’s Spotlight bar after he finished his gig at Birdland across the street, and then getting breakfast with my old man. So I was in Rochester, and Rochester is not that different from Utica, my hometown. New York was pulling me, and I said to myself, “Well, man, maybe you should go for it.” When I saw that article about what Price was into at MSM, I decided to transfer. They offered me a scholarship to stay at Eastman, but my mind was made up.
HEPFER: Were you aware of composers like Cage and Harrison at the time, and had you played their music?
WILLIAMS: Not really. Certainly not at Eastman. The big thing at Eastman was the Marimba Masters, a marimba band. They used to play popular standards with the addition of a string bass player. They were really good at that. That group was the premier percussion ensemble at Eastman. They played great, and it was impressive, but pop tunes? Broadway shows? It seemed to me that there had to be something else for percussion out there.
The other thing about Price was that he didn’t allow anybody to perform transcriptions. You couldn’t give a recital and play any Bach or Chopin or whatever. No way! You had to play music written for the instrument. We used to play Bach and transcriptions in lessons. I remember playing “Hora Staccato” and other Fritz Kreisler pieces. We used to play those things and use them for sight-reading. All kinds of stuff: violin books, trumpet books, horn books, and stuff like that. But if you were playing a recital he’d make you play original music, and if you couldn’t find it, then you wrote something yourself or you asked some composer that you happened to know, a student or whoever, to write a piece for you. So there was a hugely different outlook between Eastman and Manhattan in this regard.
The MSM Percussion Ensemble played many Harrison and Cage pieces as well as percussion works by Henry Cowell, Carlos Chavez’s “Toccata,” Roldan’s “Ritmicas,” and, of course, Varese’s “Ionisation.” We played many of Mike Colgrass’s pieces, too. Mike was a top freelancer in New York at that time, not a student at Manhattan. He was a great, great player; one of the most musical percussion players you ever heard. He was busy playing Broadway shows and composing. He played the percussion book for the original West Side Story. I think Warren Smith played the drumset book. As Mike got more and more into composition he eventually quit playing. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his piece “Déjà Vu,” which is scored for percussion quartet and orchestra. Some of my fondest memories are of performances of Mike’s music with the ensemble.
Playing this repertoire was really fun, and, compared to playing excerpts or playing in the wind ensemble or orchestra, this stuff was extremely demanding technically, rhythmically, musically, and ensemble-wise. You had meaty parts to play, parts to really sink your teeth into. Quite frankly, practicing “Porgy and Bess” was anti-climactic as far as we were concerned. We did it, but grudgingly.
HEPFER: Tell me about the New Percussion Quartet.
WILLIAMS: The New Percussion Quartet was formed in 1966. At that time, Ed Burnham and I were the Creative Associate percussionists. John Bergamo had been in Buffalo for two years and then went to the University of Washington, and then from there, to CalArts where he has been ever since. When John left Buffalo, Ed Burnham came in. Ed and I decided to form a percussion quartet, so along with John Rowland and Lynn Harbold from the Buffalo Philharmonic, we formed the New Percussion Quartet [NPQ]. It lasted for four, maybe five years. We did a lot of Young Audience gigs in Buffalo and around Western New York, playing without a conductor. Whenever the Creative Associates needed extra percussionists, John and Lynn would usually play.
In 1967 we sponsored a percussion quartet composition contest. We had $1,000 from the Music Department for the first prize. We advertised internationally and got 70 or so percussion quartets. The NPQ did a kind of preliminary review of the pieces and then asked Paul Price, Lukas Foss, and Allan Sapp to act as the final jury. The winning piece was written by the Polish composer Rizard Kwiatkowski with honorable mentions going to the Canadian composer John Fodi and the American Barbara Kolb. Suddenly there was a repertoire for percussion quartet. All those pieces are upstairs in the University at Buffalo music library, all 70 pieces. Many have probably never been played. A lot of the stuff wasn’t so great, but many were very good.
Oh, and thanks to Ed Burnham, we got endorsed by the Rogers drum company. They gave us a bunch of free drums, a xylophone, and some other stuff, including a set of their new timpani. Then there got to be too much organizing, my teaching schedule got busier, and Ed was leaving Buffalo, so the group folded. It was a huge disappointment for me personally. See, we were getting hot. We had management in New York and we wanted to expand our bookings and do more tours. But it was just too hard to do that with John’s and Lynn’s orchestra schedule. We wanted to take it to the next level, but that wasn’t in the cards for us.
HEPFER: I’m wondering what some of your first reactions were when you got to Manhattan and had to deal with abstract concepts that had evolved over the years, like the grid in “The King of Denmark” and the phasing concept of Steve Reich.
WILLIAMS: We studied the aesthetics of the music, where these composers were coming from, what their influences were. Take Harrison and Cage, for example; they had the California influence and the Asian influence in their compositional aesthetic. Boulez’s music from Europe was totally different. We had to study this stuff and absolutely were not allowed to express negative feelings about it. Paul would say, “You take this seriously or else don’t show up; we’ll find somebody else to do it. And never say no to a composer who asks you, ‘Can you do this or that on an instrument? Can you bow a gong? Can you bow a vibraphone?’ You should absolutely never say, ‘No, that can’t be done.’ You can say, ‘Well, I don’t know, but let’s give it a shot and see if we can make it happen.’” That was the kind of attitude he instilled in us.
We were busy all the time, rehearsing constantly, playing constantly. It was an exciting time because we were in New York, and there was always some intense new music being done someplace in the city. It was this attitude that was instilled in us by Price that we had to study this music and take each piece absolutely seriously, no matter how crazy the things you had to do. Everybody had the same kind of attitude in the group. He somehow convinced us that it was in the best interest of percussion, and therefore in our best interests, to encourage composers to write music for percussion; that we should be the vanguard for finding new music for percussion or finding pieces by European composers that weren’t known in this country, like Stockhausen, for example. The first time “Zyklus” was ever performed in New York was at Manhattan. Max Neuhaus did it.
When Price was in Illinois, he began making recordings. The first were on the Uranus Records label, I think—recordings of the percussion ensemble classics. You hear them now and think, “Geez, that wasn’t a very good performance,” but back then it sounded fabulous. The performers were all students or recent graduates. The classic recording was done in New York around 1961. It was called Concert Music for Percussion on the Time label, which no longer exists. Earle Brown was the producer for Time Records, and this was the first record Time released. I missed getting on that recording because I was doing a summerstock tour of some Broadway show. I would have given anything to be on that recording, but I had to make a living. “Canticle No. 3” is on there as well as “Canticle 1,” and “Amores” with Cage playing the piano. Great stuff! Price got a lot of the instruments for the sessions from Cage, and after the recording sessions, Cage gave them to Paul. I think he gave him pretty much all the percussion instruments he collected over the years.
HEPFER: Since both Harrison and Cage are no longer with us, how can percussion ensembles in the future know what a glass wind rattle is or what a teponaxtle is?
WILLIAMS: That’s researchable now. I’m sure that the PAS archives contain plenty of information on the subject. You’re right, though; what the heck is a clock coil or an elephant bell? By now, that information is certainly available on the Internet; just “Google” it!
HEPFER: How were you able to research Harrison and Cage’s influences at the Manhattan School of Music?
WILLIAMS: They were around to ask; they came to the concerts. Harrison was not around as much because he was living in California. But Price had direct contact with these guys, and because Paul knew their music, he knew the latest stuff that they were writing. So it was through him, or direct contact. The fact is, this is the music that laid the foundation of our repertoire. There wasn’t much of anything prior to that. “Ionisation,” okay, fine, that’s still a great piece and probably the first really serious percussion ensemble. And then came pieces like the Chavez “Toccata,” Cowell’s “Ostinato Pianissimo,” Cage’s “Amores” and “She is Asleep,” Harrison’s “Fugue” and “Suite,” to name a few.
These are our classics, so you have to know them. As a student, if you are not aware of them and have never heard them, something is wrong. This is good music that is representative of certain cultures at the time—of what was happening on the West Coast with its Asian influences, and on the East Coast with its Western European musical heritage. For the most part, these were serious composers writing serious music. Take the Harrison “Fugue,” for example. Imagine what it was like playing those rhythms and having to solve those kinds of ensemble problems back then; it’s hard enough now.
And, it’s not that writing a percussion piece, per se, was their rationale. They wrote the pieces because it was what they were hearing. After all, back then very few percussionists were able to play or were interested in playing these pieces. Those early Cage pieces were played mostly by dancers and composers. There’s that famous photo of a performance with Merce Cunningham playing, I think, a marimbula. I think that’s one of the reasons the pieces never got done a lot. After the first attempts at doing them, it became obvious that the parts were too hard for dilettante percussionists to play; most musicians would have trouble playing this stuff. That’s why a lot of them were put away and not played again until there were percussionists around who could do it. And that’s what Price encouraged us to do. He pushed the young group of players to take this very seriously and to do it right.
HEPFER: What goes into a good percussion piece?
WILLIAMS: The same thing that makes a good string quartet: a good composer. I’m not being glib; it’s really that simple. Good composers write good music— most of the time!
HEPFER: What are some of your favorite pieces?
WILLIAMS: In the percussion world? That’s a tough question. Of the early pieces, “Ionisation” is a fantastic piece. It was really the first, and it’s still a “WOW.” What a piece! What a sound! Eight minutes of magic! My favorite piece is the one I’m working on at the time. At the moment that would be Lou’s “Labryrnth.” It’s a great piece, and I’m glad Mike [Burritt] decided to program it and that he asked me to conduct. Nobody does it. It’s pretty hard to even find the music. It’s scored for an ensemble of 11 players and requires some hard work to find instruments, like a pair of musical saws, clock coils, an elephant bell, and various rattles.
HEPFER: Tell me about some memorable premieres and what it’s like to be the first person to be able to interpret a piece.
WILLIAMS: There were a lot of those because in the Buffalo group (Creative Associates), we did a lot of premieres over the seventeen years of the Center’s existence. I’m not just talking about solo percussion, but chamber music that included percussion. You see, I’ve been working directly with composers ever since I was at the Manhattan School. That was my interest then and has been ever since. In Buffalo, at the Center, there were always composers around. And between those composers-in-residence and those who came just to work on their pieces with us, we spent a lot of time working on pieces with the composers present. As a player, that certainly keeps you honest and adds a level of stress, good stress, because you have direct and immediate feedback from the composer on what and how you’re doing. A string quartet playing Beethoven today does not experience that same type of stress, right? So, that puts an edge on things and makes things a lot more interesting and exciting.
HEPFER: Who are some composers you consider most important?
WILLIAMS: A few composers have been very important to my career because I worked with them in Buffalo and they had international careers. Lukas Foss gave me my first job, and we have remained close ever since. I worked with him a lot over the years and he was, and is still, a musician I admire and respect deeply. Morton Feldman came to Buffalo around 1972 and lived and worked here until his death in 1987. I toured extensively with the Feldman Soloists, playing Morty’s music and other composers that Morty liked to program, most notably John Cage, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff (the New York School). And Jerry [Lejaren] Hiller, who essentially invented computer music. I was fortunate in that they liked my playing and they liked working with me, so I had an opportunity to work with them and travel all over the world with these guys.
The premieres of pieces associated with them are notable performances for me. Lukas’s “Paradigm” and “Concerto for Percussion,” which were written for me. Morty wrote three trios for me, Eberhard Blum, and Nils Vigeland—flute, percussion, and piano. “Why Patterns?” was the first and then came “Crippled Symmetry” and “For Philip Guston.” They are very important pieces to me— memorable performances all over the world.
HEPFER: Have all your experiences with composers been positive?
WILLIAMS: Not all the experiences were 100 percent positive, but that is the chance you take when you work with living composers. You know, they’re not always one hundred percent happy with the way things come out, either the way you played or, to a certain degree, with the piece itself. But thankfully, most of the time they were happy. I remember Steve Reich trying to teach me Part Three of his “Drumming” for a performance in Buffalo years ago. I had never tried “phasing” before, and it was harder to do than I thought it would be. The performance was on the edge, so to speak, but in the end it worked out fine. Phew!
HEPFER: Did you ever have something that a composer had written and you just couldn’t make work?
WILLIAMS: Oh, I’m sure there were those times, but it was very often a back-andforth process, a “Well, let’s try it this way or that way and see what happens.” It was this way of working with composers that was so exciting for me.
TONY MIRANDA: Just to add something, Jan always had a way of taking the very best of a piece and enhancing it. Having that wisdom and that vision to be able to see the good in a piece and be able to emphasize it is remarkable.
WILLIAMS: You bring up a good point, Tony. The question came up quite often of whether, given the level of input you, as a player, had in the production of a new piece, whose piece is it? Should your name not appear as the co-composer? Maybe you came up with a lot of the sounds or you put them together within a framework. My reaction to that question was, of course it’s the composer’s piece because he or she is the one who literally conceived the piece in the first place. I always felt that no matter how open a form it is or how sketchy it is as a piece, our input as performers is just that: a performer’s input. I don’t consider myself a composer. I never did. And I never approached it that way and never got upset, because I felt my input was important and made the piece really work. But I didn’t “compose” it. It was not a question I ever gave much thought to. I think this goes back to the early inspiration of Paul Price—the notion that you’re there to interpret and to do whatever it takes to make the piece work.
Elliott Carter comes to mind in this regard. When he was in Buffalo in 1966 we got together to go over his timpani pieces with an eye towards revising them. There was a lot of give and take during those sessions. He asked me if it was possible to play harmonics on timpani. I said I didn’t know. We talked about how harmonics are produced on other instruments. On a string, you lightly touch it halfway along its length, or something like that, to get harmonics. Well, what about timpani? He had the idea of getting harmonics on timpani; I suggested touching the head lightly in the center and striking the drum very close to the rim. It went back and forth like that until we figured it out. Harmonics ended up in the piece, but it was his idea, not mine. He “heard” harmonics in the piece, and I helped him decide if it would be possible. My input was only of a technical nature.
HEPFER: What happens when you have confusion about a piece and the composer is not there to ask?
WILLIAMS: You do research. You try to find people who have done the piece and talk to them. You look at other pieces by the same composer that might give you a clue to the composer’s style, a clue to the composer’s musical world. You will get that from other scores, talking to people who have done the piece, and then you give it your best shot.
HEPFER: How do you think percussion music has evolved?
WILLIAMS: Percussion music has evolved, but then music is always evolving. I think the fact that the level of percussion playing has improved by leaps and bounds over the past thirty or forty years is a major factor in the evolution of percussion music. It’s because the players are just so much better now that pieces like “Zyklus” tend to get easier as years go by—pieces that were so incredibly difficult forty years ago. The pieces get easier because they get played more and more, and having the opportunity to hear them makes them seem less daunting.
Of course, the fact that players have so much better technique than they did back then doesn’t hurt either. So when you go back and look at the Boulez “Marteau sans Maître,” for example, back in the ’60s, man, that vibraphone part—I don’t know how anybody played it. But we did. It’s definitely still hard, but nowhere as hard as it used to be.
If you can play Donatoni’s “Omar” with all those grace-note figures, you can handle the Boulez, which came thirty years earlier. It’s a higher technical level, but compositional styles are evolving, too. For example, the world-music influence on percussion playing and writing is stronger than it was when we were students. There are many more people now playing hand drums and the percussion music from other cultures. The virtuosity across the whole spectrum is just fantastic. It’s natural that composers react to that. They hear somebody playing the marimba like it’s a piano, and then they start writing piano parts for the marimba!
Evolution: the technique supports the aesthetic and vice-versa. I mean, ask violinists how string music evolved and they would have to start looking back a heck of a lot farther than percussionists do, right? I’m not talking about orchestral playing, necessarily, but more about chamber music, solo percussion, and the percussion ensemble repertoire.
Consider Kroumata, for example; they have the same level of ensemble chops as a Juilliard String Quartet. They’re really just as good. That ability to play chamber music was not always the case. We didn’t know how to listen to each other the way members of a string quartet do. We needed to have a conductor all the time. The evolution of the percussion repertoire made different demands on players. You can’t perform the “Third Construction” with a conductor anymore. But even when there is a conductor, the ability to listen in more of a chamber-music way and not just following a conductor and playing your part is crucial. That ability has really evolved tremendously among percussion players. I mean, Steve Reich’s group, Nexus, Percussion Group Cincinnati, Kroumata — playing all those pieces without a conductor. Sure, some pieces need to be conducted. But I think that the evolution of the percussionist into a much better ensemble player has been a very big development.
HEPFER: What makes a good percussion student and successful ensemble member?
WILLIAMS: I don’t think it’s that different for a percussion student than it is for any other student. You have to be serious and do the work; it’s that simple. It’s still important for percussion students to keep their ears open, and to be always looking for signs that you’re getting opinionated and narrowing your viewpoint. I’m not saying that you can’t have a strong interest in a particular area of percussion, or music in general, for that matter.
To be a good student is to be like a sponge. Listen constantly to a lot of music, go to as many concerts as you can — and not only percussion concerts, all kinds of concerts. For example, here in Buffalo you can hear the complete Beethoven string quartets every year—six concerts played by some of the best string quartets active today. I’m not saying go to every one, but go to a couple and see what real ensemble playing is all about. You can learn so much from those groups. Be like a sponge; keep bugging people. Be a pain in the butt once in awhile. Be curious and keep an open mind: that’s what I feel is very important.
HEPFER: Where would you like to see percussion music go?
WILLIAMS: We’ve talked a lot about where it came from and how the music and the playing has evolved, but where it’s headed? It would be great if serious percussion music became more mainstream — more recordings and more radio play. It would please me greatly to see the percussionist/composer collaborative interaction that has evolved over the past fifty years continue, taking it to a new creative level. Innovation should be a driving force.
I know it verges on heresy, but I’m really not interested in hearing Bach cello suites on the marimba, or rags on the xylophone for that matter. Life’s too short. There is so much good percussion music out there and so much being written right now. I really don’t think percussionists need to rely on someone else’s repertoire any longer. The world is so much smaller now than it was when we were starting out back in the ’60s. The developments in technology alone have been overwhelming and are opening up so many avenues for exploring new ways to express oneself musically.