The Guardian June 28, 2000

Cuba and Art:
John Williams on the guitar

Renowned Australian musician John Williams was recently in Cuba for the 
Tenth International Guitar Festival in Havana. He was interviewed by Mireya 
Castaneda of Granma International.

Cuban classical guitar maestro Leo Brouwer was right when he stated that it 
would be superfluous to talk about Australian John Williams' 
accomplishments. In Brouwer's words, he is "the most important figure in 
the history of concert music in the second half of the 20th century".

This legendary guitarist, among other greats, opened the Tenth Guitar 
Festival, selecting from his extensive repertoire a program consisting of 
Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Albeniz, Mangori, Theodorakis and Carlo Domeniconi.

Naturally, at a concert in Havana it would be unthinkable not to include 
works by Brouwer, and Williams regaled the audience with the Cuban 
composer's El Decameron negro (The Black Decameron), El harpa del 
guerrero (The Warrior's Harp), La huida de los amantes por el Valle 
de los Ecos (The Lovers' Escape Through the Valley of Echoes) and La 
balada de la doncella enamorada (The Ballad of the Lovestruck Lady).  
It should be recalled that Brouwer dedicated to Williams his Concierto 
de Toronto No. 4 (Toronto Concerto No. 4) for guitar and orchestra, 
which speaks volumes about admiration and friendship.


Is that why Williams came to this island? There are two reasons, he told 
GI. For a long time he had wanted to make this visit, because he has 
always considered himself a friend of Cuba.  He has followed its problems 
and triumphs very closely and identifies with them. So, he said, he has 
always had a reason to come here.

Of course, he added, he always wanted to come when Brouwer was here, 
because he is an old friend from the '70s, and he wanted to come when he 
himself had more time than what would be needed to participate in the 

He went on to say that he feels he has come at just the right time, and 
that it's marvelous to be able to visit the island and play here. Perhaps 
he could have done it sooner, to do a concert, spend two days here and go, 
but that would have been taking Cuba lightly and it was important to 
Williams to do it in another way.  We asked his opinion about this and 
other contests, and Williams responded, as with the first question, that 
there are two answers, reflecting the chiaroscuro so well loved by 
Renaissance artists.

"I believe that festivals are very good for the guitar and guitarists. When 
we get together we always have a great time. We like each other, we admire 
each other, and we're not jealous of each other, because we have different 
personalities and styles.  Festivals also allow us to find each other and 
learn about new projects, thanks to the atmosphere they create." But as for 
contests, Williams is not so sure, because personally, he said, he's not in 
favour of competition. "You can't judge a musician like they do in the 
Olympics. I think that the qualities we listen to when someone plays or 
sings can't be measured." But he did recognise that contests can be 
exciting, and maybe he could accept them if there were three or four 
recognitions on the same level. On principle, he never serves on a contest 

Fascination or Magic?

For a century, the guitar has fascinated different people and countries. 
What does Williams think is the reason for that?  First of all, he noted 
that it has always been popular, and he briefly described the origin of the 
guitar and other string instruments such as the laud, and the guitar's 
journey from India to Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and later from 
Spain and Portugal to the Americas.

Besides, they are instruments that are harmonious, rhythmic and easy to 
carry, which facilitates communication and helps people incorporate their 
music into daily life.

Williams has no doubt that the guitar's magic will not only continue in the 
21st century, but will increase, because of what we now call global 
communication, and also fusion, a word he doesn't like very much, because 
it would be better to call it the influence of different musicians and 
musical cultures.  There is more communication now than what was possible 
100 years ago, and it doesn't depend on colonial influence, but instead is 
based on the desire to unite, for a flow of musical ideas.  But does that 
magic extend to classical music concerts? Does the audience have to have a 
music education in order to enjoy them?  He thinks that classical music, by 
which he means fundamentally European and in this case contemporary music, 
needs a public, which is educated in its language, because the music itself 
has become more specialised, and even narrower in terms of the world.


Williams reflected on education in general, taking as an example the 
situation in England, where it is increasingly expensive and therefore 
limited. He feels there has been a regression from what was achieved after 
World War II, when musical education was incorporated into the elementary 
and secondary school curricula.  This has been eliminated now due to budget 
cutbacks.  However, he expressed optimism and even noted an increase in the 
number of children and young people studying music and the guitar in 

Does Williams believe in musical schools? He laughed at the question and 
responded that in this case, there cannot be a definitive answer, either.

When schools follow a personality, they can become static, looking only 
inward, he explains. That is limiting for the instrument, and schools 
become like a small religion. So in this case, he does not believe in 

But he does think that they are very good when part of a national movement, 
such as the Venezuelan school with Antonio Lara and Alirio Diaz, although 
the problem in this case is knowing when to open up to a more universal 

Sometimes the national schools boost the guitar; they communicate with 
their own people and take pride in it.  John Williams does not belong to a 
school, even though he studied with Segovia, and later at the Chigiana 
Academy in Siena, Italy, and the Royal Academy of Music in London. "My 
father taught me, and at age 50 I embraced Segovia, as we all have in this 
century, because he was a great artist of his time." He noted that the 
development of ways of playing the guitar has gone far beyond Segovia. 
"Indeed, here in Cuba, with Leo Brouwer's influence as a composer and a 
concert guitarist, you have a much higher level.

Leo, like me, was influenced by Segovia, but it is important to recognise 
when that time passed and we entered into something new."

Which Williams?

John Williams has played a lot of music for films and is considered one of 
the century's most important musicians, although his importance is often 
overlooked. His influence has been enormous, and the majority of those who 
go to the movies are not aware of it, because the music is in the 
background.  He explained that music for films is part of musical 
development and gives continuity to popular culture, like Bach with his 
religious music in the baroque period and the 19th-century composers of 

Surely the distinguished concert guitarist has often been confused with US 
composer John Williams, who has composed scores for movies such as Star 

"Yes, they confuse us, but that's not important, because he composes music 
and I play for films, which is an enormously powerful way of communicating 
with the public." John Williams, the great Australian concert musician, was 
in Cuba for two weeks and left great art in his wake.

* * *
Granma International

Back to index page