|Timothy Walker, Strings of Life|
|Saturday, 31 July 2010 18:02|
by Aryo Adhianto, Ginastera Sianturi, and Jonathan Wiseman
Timothy Walker, born in 1943 at Durban, South Africa, is a world renowned guitar player, composer, and a master-class teacher as well. Being raised in the midst of a musical family -his father played violin and his mother played piano-, he began playing the guitar at the age of 12 and continued to gain knowledge and experiences from guitar masters like Narciso Yepes, Ida Presti, and John Williams.
Timothy Walker has long been settled in London and was the guitarist with the London Sinfonietta and has played with the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Royal Opera Covent Garden along many other orchestras. He has also worked with great conductors like Pierre Boulez, Hans Werner Henze and Walter Susskind. In addition to his solo career, Tim Walker is recognized as one of the foremost guitarists in the world of chamber music, and has encouraged composers to use the instrument more in ensemble works. He has played groups such as the Melos Ensemble, Ensemble Musique Vivants, the Nash Ensemble, the Lindsay Quartet and many other leading ensembles. He has performed in duo with John Williams, as well as with some of the world's finest singers and instrumentalists including Robert Tear, Philip Langridge and Sarah Walker.
Now with over 30 recordings of guitar works made on his name, while also serving as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and still continuing to play and perform all over the world, he surely does have some stories to tell. And we are very grateful he was willing to share them with us.
Ginastera Sianturi (LttW): You were born at Durban, South Africa?
Timothy Walker: Durban, South Africa yeah.
…yes, a region long considered to be among the birth place of African music. What kind of music are you familiar with from the region? Does it have an influence on your music?
From South Africa? Phew… really, I don’t know the names, if you had to give them names, music..?
I remember as a kid hearing a lot of Black African musicians—well, they weren’t really professional musicians, but they would walk to work just strumming a guitar, you know and they had to go miles to get from where they were living to work, and they would just strum and sing as they walk the road. And it made, sort of, the journey much easier I guess. Now I don’t know if that has any particular sort of name…
And then you’d also have some groups, some of them playing on street corners, with string and base, you know, just one string and a broom handle, a box, a pennywhistle, other instruments, and someone playing a guitar. I don’t know if that has any particular of name to it, we just call it… folk music.
Did that play any influence in your earlier musical journey?
Oh very much so. Quite a few pieces that I’ve played or I’ve composed… I think anybody who’s heard any of this African music of the type that I’ve been talking about will recognize immediately the kind of rhythm, strumming… and usually very simple melodically… but very lovely, beautiful.
Can you share your tale on how you chose guitar to be your “partner for life” in your early age while living in the middle of a community rich with wind and percussion musical instruments?
Well, I come from a very musical family; my father played violin, and my mother played the piano. So I was listening to music everyday of my life since I can remember; I would listen to Mozart, and Bach, and Beethoven… There was always something in the backdrop. My father was a music critic; he was a general arts critic for a daily newspaper in Johannesburg. So he would have to review concerts, records, and he would have to make very good writing. But I was more interested in “cowboy music” (sic.), stuff like Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel. Then I decided that I just had to play the guitar… with “Heartbreak Hotel”…ha ha ha.
So, my father got me a guitar, I strummed a couple of cords, and my mother told me I played good music; and then I heard Segovia - one of the records my father had to review for the newspaper - and then I heard these two Handel minuets and I couldn’t believe my ears. So I went from playing “Heartbreak Hotel” to trying to play Handel minuets… That’s how I got into playing [Classical] music. It was Elvis Presley at first, but [Classical] music was always there.
Classical music from its beginning has a deep relationship with the sciences, specifically with astronomy, geometry, mathematics, and architecture. In your opinion, how was the interrelation between these disciplines established?
I’m not sure quite how that relates to me, except…ha ha, I remember at school I once got 108% for Maths and I figured that one out – well, I did [answer] more questions than I actually needed to in the paper. So I kind of liked… adding things together. The next year I got 8% in mathematics, because the teacher didn’t like me and I didn’t like the teacher.
I’ve done a lot of modern music where you have to do a lot of ‘calculus’; so if you’re talking to me personally, I like mathematics as a sort of thing but sorry I’m not really sure how it relates to me. I think mathematics is wonderful, I’ve even watched programs about Einstein’s theory of relativity without understanding at all what’s going on, but I still find it fascinating.
You have experiences in performing as a soloist, as well as playing in an orchestra-scale ensemble. Can you describe the meaning and function of each of these two types of experience for you?
What, playing solo as being different to playing with an orchestra, or just as a person?
Yes as a soloist, and as a playing member in an ensemble.
Well the thing is, playing with an ensemble, ideally, you are listening to the others [playing] and they should be listening to you. Which is much more—if you like—how we are as people in society, relating to each other ideally as we listen and hear what other people have to say and hopefully they do the same for us. So I think that’s why we always encourage [musicians] to do them, and you hear a lot of people saying it is the most… it can be the most satisfying form of music making, because you bounce it off each other.
Even if you learn a piece, learn all the notes, and you’ve got yourself a plan of how to do things, of course the weather can make a difference, all sorts of circumstances so you don’t always play it the same, which you don’t as a soloist anyway either. But it means that when you’re with somebody else, you know you have to - well if you’re really listening - play along with them or against them.
While you’re on your own, you can always do what you like and hope that the audience likes what you do of course, but… it doesn’t require the same discipline, and I never think it’s quite as rewarding actually in the long run. It’s great, you know, the places [you go to], and you get the applause and it’s all for you; it’s great, and very nice. But as an all-around experience I think it’s nice if you can do things with other people.
Would you agree if I said that people are preoccupied with their solo careers? Because there are far too many excellent and gifted young players around but only a few can make it. So perhaps building a career with an ensemble should be the alternative way of looking at things?
Oh absolutely! For sure! When I started - it was quite long ago now - there were really not that many solo guitarists travelling the world, not many. So if you worked hard, obviously, and if you have any talent - but you always have to work hard - there was actually a sort of chance to actually join that group of people travelling the world. But now, it’s not like that because there are many very fine players.
The problem with the guitar is that the solo repertoire is very limited compared to, say, the piano or the violin. So everyone is playing the same repertoire, or very often if people are playing a different repertoire, the music isn’t of such a high quality, you know, and it doesn’t have the audience either. Now I think it’s much more difficult than when I started to make it in a solo career.
When I started that’s what I wanted to do, was to be a soloist like Segovia, and Julian Bream, and my teacher Narcisso Yepes, so I was very fortunate, he [Narcisso Yepes] was a great, great teacher. But then I kind of fell into playing ensemble music, and I hadn’t realized that, “gee, you know, I really like doing this.” At the Royal Academy where you are now, [ensemble] is emphasized quite strongly, and I think absolutely rightly is that one should learn to play with other people, singers, other… duets and bigger groups.
I mean, for example, when the first time I ever did something with a conductor I got sent this music. With a friend of mine, an Australian I used to play duets with, we got sent this music to play in a film that was called “The Conductor”. We got the music, and it was really pretty easy for us to play, and a lot of rests also because there were some other people coming in.
So anyway, we arrived for the recording of this music for this film; we were late which is professionally not the way to start off , ‘Be there on time!’. We got to the recording studio and there was this orchestra of a hundred people, so suddenly we felt a little bit twitchy. We sat down, and the conductor went like this (pulls up hand), down beat (pulls down hand), and we played down there, and then the orchestra came in, played there. The conductor then, ‘Stop, stop, stop.’ We were a bit too soon, and this happened several times, we kept on… we were getting increasingly nervous; we had never worked with a conductor before.
They finally got in somebody else; he probably wasn’t anywhere near as good a guitar player as my pal or I, but he had worked with conductors. So when the Conductor went boom, like that and down beat, he knew exactly when to come in. This is a horrible experience for me; I will never, ever forget it okay. If I had come in to a place like the [Royal] Academy, I wouldn’t have had that experience because I would’ve learned what to do.
So, you know, this is what you guys, here, could learn, and also working with other people, what to do, rather than finding yourself in a professional situation and making an idiot of yourself, you know. I don’t know if that answers your question, maybe not, but anyway (laugh), it’s something.
Timothy Walker in his room at the Royal Academy of Music, London
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You have also collaborated with various world-class musicians and composers in the past. Can you tell us about one or two in which you gained great experiences from?
Well, yeah one… I will always remember working with Pierre Boulez, he was an amazing musician, conductor, composer. It was at the BBC Orchestra, a huge orchestra, and there was [classical] guitar, very nice piece of pretty solo. At one moment he wanted just to rehearse the strings, double basses. There were eight or more double basses, and each one was playing a different line. We weren’t playing together. This was very, very modern music; everybody played their own thing. So they played this section, and when he said, ‘Oh excuse me, double bass number eight, you played that ‘D’ in bar so-and-so at the wrong octave.’ The double-bass player looked at the part, and said, ‘Oh sorry Mr. Boulez.’ We were playing the correct note, it was a ‘D’ and I really remember the note it was a ‘D,’ but he was playing it at the wrong octave. This man could hear, even with all this jungle of notes, and he could hear it was the wrong pitch, even with all that….
So here it is when you work with somebody like that who knows, who really knows (laugh) what’s going on it’s fantastic… and yeah, some musicians are like that while others are quite different.
Also, you have created and played various musical compositions from all over the world starting from folk, classical, even to complex modern compositions. Is there something you seek to achieve from these experiences? And how does the public respond to it?
What, playing folk inspired music?
I mean from different genres, from folk, classical to the complex modern compositions today.
Uhm, the only thing I would want to achieve is to… convey to people the pleasure and enjoyment I have received from listening and working at the music. It doesn’t really matter to me if it’s… twelve-tone music or simple folk music, you know.
Sometimes as a professional musician you get asked to play something, and you get the music and you learn it and you play it, and you might not really like it at all, it doesn’t mean anything or doesn’t speak to you personally. But as a professional, you still have to do as good a job of trying to understand what it is the composer is trying to do, and sometimes you dounderstand but it still doesn’t move you or do anything. But you still have to do a good job.
So there are a lot of pieces that I have played, that I would never, ever choose to play but I get paid to do it so I do it as a professional, you have to make a living.
But that’s one thing actually, I suppose, with playing solos, is that you get to choose the program that you want to play, you know. So it has happened sometimes, you get a job or a condition that you play at least by some, or whatever, but usually you would… choose the pieces that you want to play. It might depend… the program one chooses might depend on where, what type of audience that you’re playing for, or you just do, play what you enjoy playing. I suppose if you have a broad range of interests that means that the repertoire you choose will be pretty broad as well.
Well, moving on to a different area: In the context of music industry—
I HATE that expression by the way. Music industry, errghh... I know, hey I understand that’s what it’s called but uhh, I really don’t like…
…(laugh) what have you seen in the last decades of music business? Are there any changes? And does it have an impact on Classical music?
Well I think, you know with all the modern technologies these days, somebody could put it on Youtube or whatever it is, and then download it or whatever the expression is. My son is not in classical music but he does some type of music. Unfortunately his type of music is being completely killed by modern technology because he can’t make any money from people buying these things because people would get it for nothing from, you know, downloading.
When I started playing it was just records and of course vinyl and then CDs; now you can get things off of websites and stuffs like that, people can download [anything]. So they don’t go out and buy your CD [anymore]. This makes it difficult [for a musician] to make a professional livelihood; it’s made a big impact [on such issue], and I’m afraid I’m not too supple on those type of things. That’s that, but people still like seeing it happening in front of them in the flesh, so…
The live experience, yes.
Yes, there’s still that. And of course as a professional musician there are still other things, one could teach, compose, arrange, there are lots of things that one could do. But on the playing side, making CDs is – one needs to do stuffs like that to get… known, but as far as making a living out of [that]… I don’t think it’s like it used to be.
In music education sector, have there been changes too? What problems are being faced? And how do you personally face them?
In education? Uh…
In the last decades, compared to what we have today.
Well I think that, again just from the guitar point of view, there are more and more good players but not everybody actually has the ego, or the ambition, or whatever, to follow that through to… you know, become a big time soloist or whatever. However, that doesn’t mean that there are more and more people who [can] actually teach, who are of a good, or very good, standard.
That obviously has a big effect on… because you know, a kid could come along and be pretty talented, but for one thing they could be put off doing it at all if they have a lousy teacher; that’s one thing; or, they could have this very dedicated teacher. Professionally I had a lovely fellow, but he wasn’t a great player by any means; unfortunately he got me started. But then I went to somebody else who was really… quite talented at teaching. If I had carried on with the first guy, I know that I was getting into lots and lots of habits which would have taken a lot of work to get out of.
You know, we all can get into good habits as much as we can get into bad habits, but if you get into a lot of bad habits early on, which can become quite difficult to get out of, it could be very discouraging, disheartening, depending on one’s character. But these days there are more and more… good and very good… players around who obviously perform which wasn’t actually the case.
I’m looking at the other side of the world, particularly in Indonesia and perhaps several other countries too. Every parent having a musical child is faced with a dilemma to either discourage the child’s dream in becoming a musician by encouraging other “conventional” fields, or to let things take their course with the possibility of equally dire results. How would you deal with this case?
Yes, that’s a very tricky one because I mean, for example, I was very lucky. As I said before, my father played the violin. Well I guess, I think I was about five when I said, ‘I want a violin.’ So my dad brought home a small instrument. Shortly afterwards I put it under my chin, and I went scrape, scrape with the violin, with the bow. It was the most diabolical noise, I couldn’t believe what was coming out when I did this. I was always listening to Fritz Kaiser and Jascha Heifetz, great names of violin, you see, who made rather sweet and wonderful sounds.
My father wasn’t a great violinist but, let’s say he had professional music in the dance fair, and was more interested in classical music—but even though he didn’t make sound like Fritz Kaiser, not by a long run, but he sounded okay. So anyway when I went scrape, it was the most diabolical noise, so I said,” no, I don’t want to play this.” I was very lucky because he said, “Okay, no problem.” He took the violin, fine. Later on I said, ‘I want to play the guitar.’
Now he could have said, “oh well, but you said you like the violin.” But so okay he got me a guitar and I took to it, okay.
While… I always remember teaching; when I was about 16 I had these two girls, sisters, came to me for lessons, and I did teach them. One week after, they hadn’t made any kind of improvement at all. Now I wasn’t doing this to make a lot of money, I was doing it for purpose… but it was extremely boring for me, I kept on having to repeat myself. So I said, ‘Sorry girls, I don’t want to teach you anymore,” and they both started crying. I didn’t know what to do; then the parents came to see me and it turned out the parents, they had come to South Africa. He was from Ireland, and his wife was from Yugoslavia or something like that, and neither had any [musical] background. They had a successful restaurant business.
I was taken to see them, to talk about their children, these two girls. Then it turned out that the girls, their children, were going to school, and had ballet lessons, piano lessons, percussion lessons, violin lessons… something else, and guitar. So no wonder—I mean, these poor girls were so overloaded. The parents are probably trying to give them stuffs that most parents would want to do for their children, right, but they were just overloaded.
Maybe these girls would’ve loved to play the guitar, may have loved to play the piano, they may have loved to do ballet, all these kinds of stuff, but then… they didn’t have the chance to find out about any of it. So they were crying to me and I was still going to teach them. I wasn’t going to, you know… and put that kind of pressure on them. So, yeah, some parents… but perhaps most will uh,… make their children — for whatever reason — do these things. It’s not a good idea at all… but what can you do? You can’t choose your parents… I was lucky. I know some other people [who are] like these two girls…
There’s another story, and it was a long time ago. There was this woman in South Africa whose name I forgot. When she grew up in Hungary, her father had made her start to play the piano at age three. He made her get up in the morning, to practice piano before going to school. She got very good at it, and traveled to places playing concerts until she finally had a nervous breakdown at the age of fourteen. I think she left Hungary then, and she didn’t play the piano until maybe her twenties. She sat down, and suddenly, even though she hadn’t eventouched [a piano] for a long time, she felt that she could play. There, suddenly she discovered that she enjoyed it.
She had not enjoyed it when she was made to get up, you know, at six o’clock in the morning by her father, who wanted to make money out of her, or wanted her to fill some ambition of his own, or whatever. But years later she discovered she actually liked it. So she had to work really hard, and well, she traveled the world again playing concerts. But gee, it was a hard way for her to find out that she actually loved doing this, you know. It could have been totally killed by her father. It was great to hear her play Lizts, Paganini, which were not easy… and stuffs like that, it was great.
But there was that gap in between; she probably felt very guilty about her father and all sorts of [issues]… if he had gone about it in a different way, you know, introduced her to the piano and let her do it in her own way, with encouragement, without brutally pushing her, she might have been giving concerts at the age of fourteen and carried on giving concerts for the rest of her life, instead of having a [bitter] break. Who knows what could’ve happened in between, you know.
I’m sorry, I don’t know if I’ve answered your question. It’s a very difficult one because parents so very often do these things with the best of intentions, but they sometimes would do something stupid with the very best of intentions, while doing it for the wrong reasons. If they really loved their kids, you know, they would make all these things available according to what they are able to, and encourage that talent, and… see what happens.
If we should invite you to share your knowledge and do a performance maybe, in Indonesia, would you be willing?
Of course. Why I would love to? I’ve never been to Indonesia. Yeah, it would be great!
I must say I really enjoy teaching, because it is a way of sharing… something, you know . I was very, very lucky. The first teacher I had was a really lovely Portuguese man… and then I went on to this other fellow who may be self-taught who was a very passionate guy. Then, Narcisso Yepes came to South Africa, and I was sixteen when he appeared, and… I tried a little bit of Spanish before I went there, I was a hopeless, lonely …
Yepes didn’t speak much English either, but he was able to communicate so much. If I hadn’t gone to him … had I gone to somebody else … I might have gone in a different direction. As I said, I was really very grateful.
Do you have any words for Listen To The World dot Net? And the young generation?
Do what you love to do.
If playing music is what you love to do, do it. It’s not easy, but hey, doing anything that is interesting is never easy, you know.
You can do it without becoming a professional, and that’s one thing too, which is great, you know. I think, ideally, the best professionals are still amateurs at heart. Amateur [is] from the Latin [meaning] ‘lover’; so you do it because you love it. You need to keep that.
If you are able to do what you love to do but can’t make a living from it, I hope that, you know, one could still, find something else that you enjoy doing. That’s very important… very important to do what you love to do, but if you can’t make a profession out of it, then carry on, and enjoy doing it.
That’s why (laugh) you see, when you say ‘Industry’, I come to think of this smoke, pouring out into the atmosphere, you know, and making more problems that you don’t really need, and stuffs like that. That’s why I don’t like that (laugh). I don’t see playing a lot of notes as an ‘industry’. I hear and understand perfectly the term, but it’s terrible. That’s all that I would say. I think, that’s it.
Yes, that’s it. Thank you for your time… for doing this interview
My pleasure. I hope I made sense, with what I said, okay.
*Video to text transcription by Ferdi Zebua