Amy Williams: gripping music of broad gestures and arresting presence

Amy Williams is a composer of music that is “simultaneously demanding, rewarding and fascinating” (Buffalo News), “fresh, daring and incisive” (Fanfare). Her works have been presented at renowned international contemporary music venues, including the Thailand International Composition Festival, Ars Musica (Belgium), Gaudeamus Music Week (Netherlands), Luzerne Festival (Switzerland), Dresden New Music Days, Festival Aspekte (Austria), Festival Musica Nova (Brazil), Whitney Museum, Roulette, Bargemusic (New York), LA County Museum of Art, Piano Spheres (Los Angeles) and Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. They have been performed by leading contemporary music soloists and ensembles, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JACK Quartet, Ensemble Surplus, Ensemble Musikfabrik, Dal Niente, Talujon, Bent Frequency, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), H2 Saxophone Quartet, pianist Ursula Oppens, soprano Tony Arnold and bassist Robert Black. Her pieces appear on the Parma, VDM (Italy), Blue Griffin, Centaur and New Ariel labels and there are two portrait CDs of her solo and chamber works on the Albany label. 

As a member of the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo, Ms. Williams has performed throughout Europe and the Americas, including the Ojai Festival, CAL Performances, Miller Theatre, Musica Contemporanea Ciclos de Conciertos (Buenos Aires), Palacio de Bellas Artes (Mexico City), Warsaw Autumn, 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) has garnered much critical acclaim. Wergo released subsequent CDs, including the music of Stravinsky (2007 and 2018), Morton Feldman and Edgard Varèse (2009), and György Kurtág (2015). Their recording of the Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion was released in a monograph by the Paul Sacher Foundation in 2018. Ms. Williams has also recorded for Mode, Albany, Beauport and Hat-Art. She is the recipient of a Howard Foundation Fellowship, a Fromm Music Foundation Commission and a Koussevitsky Music Foundation Commission. She was named a 2015-2016 Guggenheim Fellow in Music Composition, winner of the 2016 Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ireland for 2017-2018. 

Ms. Williams holds a Ph.D. in composition from the University at Buffalo, where she also received her Master’s degree in piano performance. She has taught at Bennington College (1997-2000) and Northwestern University (2000-2005) and is currently Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Pittsburgh. 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, and the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music. She is Artistic Director of the New Music on the Point Festival in Vermont.  


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

I grew up immersed in music. My father is percussionist Jan Williams—a true pioneer in the world of contemporary classical music, one of the first of his generation to make a career playing percussion as a chamber and solo concert musician, not in an orchestra or pit or studio. My mother is a retired violist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and was in string quartets when I was growing up. My maternal grandmother was a pianist and organist and taught college-level piano in Kansas in the 1930s—no small feat! I feel very fortunate to have grown up in an enriching, inspiring, supportive—and music-filled—environment. 

It’s really impossible to think of one single musical memory. I played piano four-hands with my grandmother—absolutely destroying Haydn Symphonies and laughing at every wrong note. I sat in orchestra rehearsals when I didn’t have school. I banged around on a roomful of percussion instruments. Robert Dick was my first flute teacher (in the 3rd grade) and pretty soon I was playing Chopsticks in multiphonics. 

One vivid memory is when I was maybe 8 or 9: sitting on a stage, coloring on a piece of paper, while musicians were spaced all around with their instruments. I was supposed to give my drawing to one of them and they would “play” it. I kept giving my dad each new picture until he told me to “give it to someone else.” 

I met incredibly eclectic and memorable composers and performers growing up—people like Julius Eastman, Morton Feldman, and John Cage—and this world (of experimentation and new sounds and fascinating stories) was something I was drawn into. 

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Some composers are lifelong: Stravinsky, Bach, Monteverdi. But if I stopped listening and learning and engaging with new work, I would be dead as an artist. So of course there are new composers who enter into my field of influence all the time. As a professor and festival director and adjudicator, I am lucky to listen to a lot of music by young composers and this is often more inspiring than listening to established works by master composers. 

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

Up to now, I have approached longer pieces more as a series than as a single stand-alone work. My Cineshape series is about an hour of music, but was written as five smaller pieces (8-12 minutes) over many years. Form is usually defined at the early stages of my creative process, but I actively work to foreground different components of music to create new forms in each piece. One piece may have a very clear macro-structure (an arch or ABA or whatever) and another may evolve more organically during the compositional process. One may be harmonically determined—another by register or instrumentation. 

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

I write at a desk or at the piano and I don’t use the computer. I am writing this from a lovely studio at MacDowell at the moment—having a beautiful solitary space and other artists to interact with is luxurious and most definitely NOT part of my typical working process. I write as much as I can, when I can, while balancing life as a mother, professor, pianist, and festival director. Deadlines are certainly motivational. 

Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip.

Speaking of series, I have two short cello and piano pieces (both included here) written several years apart but related to each other. Perhaps this will become a series!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s