No resident Buffalo musician has ever been more important to its avant-garde musical history than Jan Williams.
It should be said here that all superlatives aren’t hype. And all hype doesn’t necessarily arrive in superlative form.
What I’m propounding here is a proposition so demonstrably precise and obvious to observers of Buffalo music over many decades that it can’t be disputed.
He’s certainly not the most influential avant-garde musician in this city’s history. That would be former Buffalo Philharmonic conductor Lukas Foss whose time in Buffalo most radically and permanently changed the city’s musical climate.
Michael Tilson Thomas’ tenure later solidified the city’s international reputation that Foss so radically transformed.
But neither conductor could be exclusively called an avant-garde musician.
Nor, when you define the superlatives closely, would Williams be the most internationally acclaimed resident Buffalo avant-garde musician. That in 2014 would certainly be the late composer Morton Feldman, even more than the late Lejaren Hiller, the primal composer of computer music. The reputation of Feldman, Williams’ fellow director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Creative and Performing Arts, has expanded enormously since his death in 1987 – way beyond what it was when he came here to become the university music school’s Edgard Varese professor of music.
What Williams has been, though, since he became a Creative Associate in 1964, is the ubiquitous and indispensable figure in Buffalo’s musical avant-garde – as a teacher to percussionists in all musical genres, a performer, conductor, chairman of the UB Music Department, key member of major music ensembles (the Creative Associates, the SEM Ensemble) and the enabling administrative collaborator of musicians of potentially far more volcanic and off-putting temperament (Feldman, pianist Yvar Mikhashoff, with whom Williams co-directed the North American Music Festival from 1983 to 1991.)
As a percussion virtuoso, Williams has been crucial to so much historic music performed here, whether it is “playing” a metronome in Györgi Ligeti’s “Poeme Symphonique” for 100 metronomes, or hitting wooden blocks together in a typical phase piece by Steve Reich or becoming a virtual collaborator with Elliott Carter while he was writing tympani music dedicated to Williams.
The list of composers who have written music for Williams is beyond formidable (the list of those he has played is encyclopedic): Feldman, Foss, John Cage, Frederic Rzewski and Nils Vigeland, to name just a few.
Vigeland – the composer son of the great Buffalo musician Hans Vigeland (music director of Buffalo Seminary and Westminster Church who, among other things, is famous for insisting that Duke Ellington be depicted in Westminster’s stained glass windows) – has this to say about the great 20th century percussion composers whose music sired Williams, such composers as Stravinsky, Cage and Carter (one might well add Lou Harrison too): They “were not only imagining a whole new world of sound, a new combination in the hierarchy of instruments, but also a new kind of performer, one who understood that percussion neatly bridged the supposed divide between ‘noise’ and ‘music’ … What Jan does when he plays is to make us aware that a ‘noise’ is a ‘note’ and a ‘note’ is a ‘noise’ and in so doing enlarging our definition of music, engaging us in the totality of sound.”
It is that “totality of sound” that will be celebrated at a musical event in Williams’ honor at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Burchfield Penney Art Center that bids fair to be one of the most important celebrations ever of an authentic hero of Buffalo avant-garde music, certainly one of the most important in our new century.
The event is the celebration of Williams’ 75th birthday. The featured event at its conclusion will be Williams conducting Edgard Varsese’s seldom-heard percussion masterpiece “Ionisation” for an ensemble of 13 musicians, including Williams’ composer/pianist daughter Amy. Before that, though, a small platoon of Williams’ former students and associates will play everything from Reich’s elemental “Clapping Music” (to begin the concert) to Feldman’s “King of Denmark” and “A Very Short Trumpet Piece” to music by Cage, Foss and Elliott Carter.
No small measure of Williams’ importance to the ongoing life of music in Western New York is his enormous influence as a percussion teacher. Drummer/percussionists of all sorts have been Williams’ pupils and gone on to be leading figures in Buffalo’s musical life. Drummer John Bacon, for one, will take part in Wednesday’s program.
And, perhaps, most renowned of all in the world of jazz, is composer/drummer/percussionist Bobby Previte, who said he will be forced to miss Wednesday’s event because he is finishing a new percussion concerto that is being dedicated to Williams.
“So I will be honoring him that way I suppose – yet another work going out into the world because of him,” he said. “Otherwise, you bet I would be there.”
Previte – whose birthday coincidentally is also Wednesday – said Williams is one of his biggest influences and in many ways is responsible for him becoming a musician.
“He took me as a student without my having any real credentials or special skills in percussion and opened up an entire world for me I had no idea existed. Jan Williams is a giant of modern percussion music and a seminal figure in the genesis of late 20th century music in general – a legend. We are all extremely lucky he is among us.”
When you ask prominent members of UB’s community with whom Williams has worked to comment on their lives with him, what you get – not surprisingly – is a lovefest and an insistent appreciation that would, frankly, be unlikely for any other living Buffalo musician.
UB Composer David Felder, who is due no end of credit for picking up Feldman’s “June in Buffalo” festival when Feldman’s death threatened to end it, wrote this about Williams and his “excellent percussion program” at UB “where none existed prior to his efforts … Jan worked largely with people ‘from the wrong side of the tracks,’ inexperienced, non-conservatory types and he gave many the real chance at a life in music. Impressive indeed and under-appreciated.”
Beyond that, said Felder, “Jan Williams was very important to the earlier development of UB’s unique position in the musical world. While composers such as Foss and Feldman have received most of the notice, Williams advocated for performance of contemporary music at a high level and brought a remarkably open attitude to assessing the merits of wide-ranging musical work. … Work was done based on its merits and Williams had the grace and guts to say yes and no.”
Renee Levine Packer was a longtime co-director with Williams of the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo and has known him for almost 50 years.
“First of all, Jan is a kind man, a family man through and through … He is steady, fair and principled – qualities he brings to performance as well as to life. He is a consummate musician, always dedicated to realizing a composer’s vision. … He is, to be sure, a living legend.”
Williams’ history in Buffalo has hardly been without a few bumps in the road. One of the most dramatic things I have ever witnessed in a long career was Cage’s explosion of anger after the S.E.M. Ensemble , including Williams, performed one of his “Song Books.” It wasn’t really Williams’ interpretation of Cage’s “aleatoric” composition that provoked Cage’s fury, it was the late Julius Eastman’s homoerotic undressing of a young boy during the piece in proclamation of “a new kind of loving.”
Mostly because of Eastman’s pointed satire, what Cage said the next day that enraged him was the attitude of those musicians who thought that anything at all could be done in the composer’s name during one of his aleatoric pieces. He felt, said Cage, somewhat akin to an anarchist friend who had never made a rule for someone else in his entire life but discovered after adopting two war refugee children that he’d finally had to shout “no jumping on the beds!”
Such, is the nature of avant-garde musical performance.
But those in disagreement with all of the praise for Williams’ position in the history of Buffalo music are simply those who don’t know enough of what that history in Buffalo has been.
Among everyone else, the best guess is that you’d find unanimity.
And it’s all leading to the unique celebration Wednesday at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.