Amy Williams, a pianist and composer, is watching Run Lola Run, an action-suspense thriller from Germany. The 1998 film shows three different scenarios in which its main character has to run, literally, to collect 100,000 deutsche marks to save her boyfriend’s life. Each scenario takes a drastically different turn. Can she find the money? Will she be killed? Will her boyfriend survive?
As Williams watches, she isn’t hearing the movie’s actual soundtrack. Instead, her own brain is running wild, taking the movie’s structure and applying it to her own compositional ideas. She is imagining a solo piano piece in three large sections that can be played in any order. She is thinking of how to embody the feeling of Lola’s perpetual motion, her breathlessness, her intensity. She is watching how each new development in the story affects the minor characters around Lola, thinking about how those subtler undercurrents might be expressed musically.
Williams—a Pitt music professor—is in the midst of composing her own collection of filmic music, which she calls Cineshape. It’s a work-in-progress that began about a decade ago, interrupted by the increasing demands of her rising career. She has thought about the mood and melodies of Run Lola Run for many years. Meanwhile, she has created other musical works inspired by films for the Cineshape series; recorded a CD of her own music, Crossings: Music for Piano and Strings; toured the world with her group, the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo; and premiered her full orchestral work Flood Lines with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
This year, thanks to many of those accomplishments, Williams was named a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, an international award that, according to the foundation’s Web site, recognizes those “who have demonstrated exceptional creativity in the arts or exceptional capacity for productive scholarship.”
Williams’s award of the Guggenheim Fellowship is one of the premier benchmark achievements that a composer can earn. And for her, it comes with an invaluable prize—the time to complete more compositions and to record them.
“It’s a joy to see someone receive an honor like that,” says Frank Oteri, a senior editor with NewMusicBox, a publication that focuses on contemporary composers and music. “The field is very competitive. It makes more people aware of the music, and it affords her the opportunity to write the extraordinary music that she does.”
For Williams, writing music is like sculpting. She begins with a focused idea of what she wants the piece to be, but she also allows the materials to develop. Often they push her in new directions. Her ideal workday begins with composing for a few hours in the morning. When she needs a break, she pivots to practicing the piano.
Her active international career as a pianist feeds off of her career as a composer and vice versa. Recently, when she and her piano-duo collaborator, Helena Bugallo, were researching Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, the two were confronted with creating a performance from four different historical versions of the piece. They studied Stravinsky’s archives in Switzerland to help with their interpretational choices. In May, the duo recorded the Stravinsky album—their second CD of his music—in Germany. All of that Stravinsky, says Williams, is likely to affect her own compositions in ways in which she may not even be fully aware. But it is clear to her that “there’s this very synergic relationship between my composing and my performing. They influence each other constantly.”
NewMusicBox’s Oteri is familiar with Williams’s piano recordings and her work as a composer. “It’s always interesting to hear people who are active as composers and as interpreters. Usually you’ll hear a keen idiomatic sense of the instrument they’re writing for, and Amy’s piano music is really fluid. However, what’s extraordinary is she also writes so well for strings and creates even richer textures,” he says.
Oteri, a composer himself, is also inspired by the nonmusical content of a piece. Williams’s First Lines captured his attention because of the way she interpreted the text musically. The piece is written for flute and piano, inspired by the first lines of texts in various works by women poets. Often, when poetry influences music, composers will write a vocal setting of the text itself, says Oteri. But Williams’s works are all instrumental, which he feels can be very effective. “It’s simply a reference to the work, and it brings an audience in more. It’s rarefied and abstract; it’s like having an open window,” he says.
It’s not surprising that Williams landed a career in music. She simply went into the family business. Growing up in Buffalo, New York, she would wake up on a Saturday morning to the sounds of a string quartet rehearsing Mozart chamber music in the family’s living room. Her mother, Diane, played the viola with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Later, her father, Jan, a percussionist and professor, might take her to a percussion ensemble concert, followed by a big party back at their house full of composers and musicians. She met some of the most influential modern composers that way, including John Cage, George Crumb, and Elliott Carter.
In this childhood milieu, she began playing piano at age 4 and added flute lessons at age 8 with famed contemporary flutist, Robert Dick, who helped to cement her love for modern music. She has written that Dick taught her to play “Chopsticks” in multiphonics, meaning she was using special flute techniques very early on in her studies to produce two tones at once.
Those adventurous lessons would keep Williams composing for the flute through the years, as in her well-regarded First Lines, which she composed during her first year of teaching at the University of Pittsburgh. When she had a first draft of the piece, she worked with Lindsey Goodman, who is the flutist for the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. They also worked together when Goodman was a graduate student at Northwestern University, where Williams taught before arriving at Pitt. Goodman was immediately intrigued by Williams’s ear for the flute’s possibilities.
“Her ear is astutely attuned to color and sound, allowing her to use extended techniques as fluidly as some composers use traditional harmony. Pairing that with her knowledge of the flute, again from a distinctly avant-garde perspective, Amy’s flute writing is extremely organic to the listener, even when it stretches the ear,” says Goodman, who will play on Williams’s second CD of her compositions being recorded next spring.
Williams’s ability to toggle between the dual careers of both pianist and composer came from a careful culling of what her career would look like. She knew she wanted to perform modern music but not travel endlessly as a featured soloist with orchestras.
“I would need to practice six or eight hours a day to do that,” she says. She also takes commissions sparingly, calculating whether she’ll have enough time to write the piece well. But she is firm in wanting the career breadth of both regularly composing and performing.
“I feel as though, personally, I need to have both sides to feed each other. Playing the piano makes me a better composer. And composing makes me a better performer,” she says.
Her compositions have been performed in renowned venues by leading symphonies, ensembles, and solo artists at music festivals nationally and abroad, including Tanglewood in the United States, Ars Musica in Belgium, and the Thailand International Composition Festival.
There is yet another important piece to Williams’s working life—her teaching and mentoring of student composers. After earning a master’s degree in piano performance and a PhD in composition at the University of Buffalo, Williams went on to teach at her undergraduate alma mater, Bennington College, and at Northwestern University before joining the University of Pittsburgh in 2005. The Pitt job, she says, is particularly well balanced in enabling professors to have careers as working artists while sharing their knowledge and expertise with students through teaching and mentoring.
Williams teaches undergraduate theory classes and particularly enjoys introducing young musicians to 20th-century approaches to analysis and composition—music they likely never encountered before. Even her more theoretical graduate seminars always have a compositional component. Her essential role as a teacher of composition, however, comes through teaching one-on-one composition lessons to doctoral students.
“It’s wonderful to interact with students,” she says, noting the joy and challenge of encountering their diverse individual compositional styles. “I’ll have a student bring in an electronic soundscape; the next student, a full orchestra score; and the next, a multimedia installation,” Williams says.
One of Williams’s former students, James Ogburn, is now an assistant professor of composition and theory at Columbus State University. He continues to be inspired by her teaching techniques, some of which he said he’s working to emulate.
“She’s so fast. She can look at a score and hear a recording and immediately come up with different ways of thinking about passages that would make the piece stronger. That’s really rare,” says Ogburn.
Another of Williams’s former students, composer Matt Heap, recalls her guidance in working through the “whys” of musical composition. If he wrote a melody line for an oboe that was suddenly taken over by the clarinet, Williams would push him: What in the music made it inevitable that the clarinet had to pick up the line there?
“This really resonated with me,” says Heap, “because I have spent many years working in the theater world, and this concept of action and reaction in music allowed me to more closely combine my interests. Now, I rarely write any big change in a piece without following this concrete musical logic.”
Given the dazzling facets of Amy Williams’s talent, it’s not surprising that she is among the latest set of prestigious Guggenheim Fellows. She will use the 2015-16 fellowship year to finish her composition inspired by Run Lola Run, which will complete the Cineshape series.
During this time, she will also collaborate with Aaron Henderson, a video artist and Pitt assistant professor in the Department of Studio Arts, to push this creativity into new territory. Henderson will generate five entirely new short films based on her Cineshape works. Then, Williams will write five new pieces to underscore each of his short films. The evening-long series will be performed with live musicians at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in May.
“It’s this infinite loop of collaboration and artistic creation,” Williams says, which is also characteristic of New Music’s energy and evolution.
In the months ahead, when Williams needs a break from finishing the Run Lola Run piano piece, she’ll rehearse for upcoming piano-duo concerts with Bugallo, whom she met when both were graduate students in Buffalo. She is also composing a new work for wind ensemble, which will be performed in April 2016. And she will record a second CD of her chamber music, including a few of the Cineshape compositions as well as duos for cello, violin, piano, and flute. Her former student and ongoing collaborator Lindsey Goodman will be among those partnering in the music-making.
“There’s never any artifice to Amy musically or personally,” says Goodman. “She’s simply who she is: a fiercely intelligent and inspiring force who’s intensely curious about the music world she loves and the people in it.”
The year ahead will likely prove to be Amy Williams’s own action thriller, continuing her rise as a leading lady in the world of New Music.