MUSIC / The whole world on six strings: Why would anyone take up the classical guitar? John Williams puts the case for an 'underprivileged' instrument to Nick Kimberley

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the conquistadores who introduced the guitar to the Americas. You could say that the conquered lands took their revenge by first passing the guitar from Latin America to North America, and then re-colonising the world. As we approach the end of the 20th century, the guitar can claim to have provided the century's musical voice, around the globe.

Some will say that the guitar's contribution has been another example of Coca-Cola imperialism, as American rock music spread its net to trap the world. That would be to deny, firstly, the huge variety of ways in which American popular musics - blues, bluegrass, gospel, country - have adapted the instrument; and secondly, the local transformations in Africa, the Caribbean and beyond. To say nothing of pre-20th-century retentions in Spain, Latin America and beyond. Truly, the guitar has the world on a string, or six.

There is one conspicuous gap in this catalogue of musics inflected by the guitar: Western classical music. Rodrigo, you may say; Villa-Lobos . . . but the fact is that from the Baroque to the middle of our own century, the literature for classical guitar is minuscule, so much so that you wonder why anyone would ever want to take up the classical guitar.

One who did, and who is now actively working to regenerate the repertoire for his instrument, is John Williams. He is acutely aware that, in some respects, his chosen instrument is underprivileged: 'The clearest way of seeing what the guitar is now is by looking factually at the past as it's related to 'classical' music - meaning the European tradition. And you have to say that the guitar doesn't have a repertoire. There is a repertoire for the Baroque guitar, which is really a different instrument; and for the early forms of the guitar of the medieval and Renaissance periods, the citterns and variations of lutes.

'After the Baroque - Haydn, Mozart, on into the 19th century - the plain fact is that the guitar does not have a serious repertoire in the Classical period, for very clear reasons: the scale of the music, both in its musical thought, and in the circumstances in which it was made. The guitar is not loud enough; and it's technically curious, it's hard to adapt to other instruments. It's a very individualistic solo instrument, of great charm, which is why Schubert, Berlioz in a small way, Boccherini - to name a few - loved the guitar and used it in limited ways. But that doesn't constitute a repertoire.'

Things began to change at the beginning of this century. If one person can ever be credited with changing the way we think about an instrument, that person is Andres Segovia who, from the moment of his debut, aged 16, in Granada, began to alert the world to the guitar's potential. Segovia not only transcribed much pre-existing music, opening up the past for guitarists, he also commissioned new works from many composers.

The rehabilitation of the instrument had begun, but Williams is not wholly convinced by the results: 'In my view, despite the wonderful things Segovia did, the first rush of music from 20th-century composers - inspired by Segovia, although it's not necessarily his fault - hasn't been significant music. It's been likeable, no more. Only in the latter half of the century, in specific countries - in Britain, with Julian Bream collaborating with Walton and Tippett, for example - have really significant pieces emerged, and others, me included, have followed on with different composers. Now the guitar, in terms of contemporary music, is in a position no different from any other instrument. With its limitations, and with its unique benefits, it makes its contribution in its own right. I don't think anyone should worry about 'creating a repertoire' for guitar. That suggests it needs special pleading. If we guitarists want music written, we want it to be right for the instrument - but so does a flautist.'

Amplification, Williams believes, is crucial: 'Over the last 200 years, the guitar's main disdvantage has been volume. The acoustic guitar lends itself to amplification in ways many instruments don't. In any hall over about 600 seats, I use a small - sometimes very small - amount of amplification. It adds a fullness, a greater range of dynamics, not simply volume. If you're busting yourself trying to play loud enough to be heard, you can't get the tone colours which are the guitar's special characteristic.'

Like most musicians at the top of their profession, John Williams has his instruments specially made. They are built by fellow Australian Greg Smallman, and the guitarist recalls their first meeting. 'I first met Greg in Sydney in the mid-1970s. He showed me a few guitars he'd made, not particularly good, and asked me what I thought. So I told him. He came back a year later and said, 'I like the sound you make, that's your sound, on that guitar' - which was a Fleta, a great Spanish maker - 'but if you could, how would you improve the Fleta?'

'That's unusual. Instrument makers all over the world are bursting to show you their instruments, they've always made the best ever, and they run down the other makers. I thought Greg had an unusual approach, and we worked from there, on very simple but thorough principles, developing my ideas about the musicality of the guitar. To simplify things, the guitar needed to be slightly less percussive. What you hear when you pluck the string is the thwack, the percussive attack, you don't hear the body of the sound. You can have a threefold increase in the initial attack, but you only get a small increase in the body of the sostenuto. It doesn't matter how pretty it is - and I'm not denigrating the guitar's traditional sound - that is fundamentally unmusical. Greg is not trying to change the sound, but I'm certain what he's done - like using carbon fibre in the struts - to bring more sostenuto, the high-frequency resonances, into play at the 'front' of the note, almost to fatten the sound, is an objective improvement.'

New design, new possibilities opened up by amplification, new compositions: as the guitar has shaped the 20th century's music, so the 20th century is now shaping the music of the guitar.

(Photograph omitted)