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Remembering Roger Williams

Every now and again something happens to remind me that the life of a freelance performer is not quite the same as those who do a regular job. You share with your fellow musicians the excitements and the uncertainties of life on the road or in the studio and you have to get to know people pretty quickly, often working in intense bursts with people who briefly become great friends but whom you may never see again.

A few months ago I was contacted by Gillian Williams, wife of the trombonist Roger Williams who died earlier this year after a long struggle with cancer. Gillian had some photos that she thought might be of me, that Roger had taken back in the eighties. Would I like them? The first rule of being a performer is never listen to your recordings and the second is never look at your photographs, so it was with some trepidation that I asked Gillian to send them. I’ve lost count of the number of photographers I’ve met over the years, but some stand out. My earliest pro photographer memories are of sitting on a canon in the Tower of London with the Gentle Power of Song while someone from Polydor tried to get us to take the session seriously. Some years later Colin Gibbs took the iconic shot of the Swingles in a mason’s yard that became the cover of Madrigals (but what impressed me most was being driven around in CBS art director Roslav Szaybo’s brand new E-type Jag). The Douglas Brothers pics for the cover of Red Byrd’s Songs of love and Death were also spectacular (Factory Records sparing no expense).  The Hilliards used to dread photo sessions, but every so often Roberto Masotti would hit the mark between espressi at his Milan place (the Officium cover is one of his) and Tonmeister Peter Laenger was, like Roger Williams, a musician who also had a very sensitive eye for a visual composition. The other cover pic that stands out is Anna Tchernakova’s shot of Anna Maria Friman and me for Gavin Bryars’ Oi me lasso – Anna looking serene as ever and me close to death with ‘flu. More recently I’ve had some windy, wet and wonderful times with Guy Carpenter and the Alternative History project (there was a wonderfully orange reproduction of his water shot in the programme booklet for the Poznan Nostalgia Festival last week).

Seeing Roger Williams’ photos brought back a sheaf of memories from so long ago it seems like another life. As a musician Roger knew what it was like to be photographed, to have to summon up enthusiasm for something so vital and yet so tangential to what we do. We were all struggling young(ish) musicians then and it probably cost him more in film than I was able to pay him. The results still look convincing after thirty years. I probably first met him around 1983 as there’s a set of shots from the one gig I did with Gothic Voices, Christopher Page, Rogers Covey-Crump, Margaret Philpot looking very young.

Sometime after that there’s a set of formal portraits to send to promoters and agents (in which I look uncannily like my son Ned who’s now several years older than I was then)  and a series of publicity shots for Henry Brown’s ‘And the Word was made Flesh’. This was an elaborate theatre piece that subsequently got me into no end of trouble. The pictures are from a dress rehearsal and Henry hadn’t finished constructing the set so Roger had to capture the spirit of the work with none of us quite knowing what the show would actually look like.

The plot was based on the pataphysical concepts of Albert Jarry, and took place in and around a giant vagina…

…and involved a complicated sound and light set-up as well as monkey masks and rather fine waistcoats.

One of the props was a ‘Physick stick’ –  part pistol and part loo-plunger. The score specified one shot, standing on one leg behind the audience before I clambered onto the stage while everyone was still in shock. The business end of the physick stick – a German bird-scaring pistol – hadn’t arrived in time for the photo session so we had to improvise:

After the first performance I was advised that theatres would require me to have a gun license so I took the contraption to the Essex Police fire arms department, who clearly thought I was bonkers (it’s not me guv, it’s the composer!) but conceded that I’d better have the right paper work. By the time it came through I’d done what turned out to be the last performance and I forgot all about it until a knock on the door a few years later. ‘About your gun, sir…’. ‘What gun?’ ‘The one with the expired licence…’ I retrieved it from the attic. The somewhat bemused WPC obviously hadn’t seen a physick stick before but after some rather surreal discussion she granted me an amnesty on the condition I gave her a carrier bag to take it back to the nick without anyone seeing it. I later kept the props (including a large plastic penis and two infra-red sensitive monkey costumes) in my office at York, and left them there for my successor to enjoy.

‘And the Word’ was the most elaborate and most fun theatre I piece I ever commissioned. It was also the most exhausting, needing hours to set up and take down (it had 8 channel tape wielded by the legendary John Whiting), and I just couldn’t keep it up. The photo session was also the last time I remember seeing Roger. He went on to become one of the most successful bass trombonists, and I got very busy with the Hilliard Ensemble and the newly-founded Red Byrd. I remember him as a warm and charismatic fellow musician with a huge amount of patience. There’s a wonderful online tribute to him by the trumpeter Paul Archibald. I think I only worked once with Paul, and that was on the first performance of part of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag at Riverside Studios under Richard Bernas. It was my first experience of Stockhausen and led indirectly to my being one of the few performers paid a huge sum not to appear at Covent Garden when I understudied the role at very short notice a few years later. My audition piece to Stockhausen and Michael Bogdanov was the monkey dance from ‘And the word was made flesh’.

with huge thanks to Gillian Williams

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