Classical guitarist blends music and memories


Fabian Fernandez

Joseph V. Williams II, classical guitarist and composer, is the 2013-2014 Composer in Residence for the Austin Classical Guitar Society. Williams says his musical compositions reflect the memories and experiences he has treasured over the years.

For Joseph V. Williams II — a classical guitarist, composer and UT alumnus — music has always been “an expression of the human experience.”

As the 2013-2014 Composer in Residence at the Austin Classical Guitar Society, Williams is involved in everything the society does, from creating learning modules for students to writing new musical pieces for ensembles and groups. 

The society’s educational outreach extends to more than just schools in Austin where student guitarists are encouraged to take guitar classes. As part of this education program, Williams also plays his own compositions in outreach concerts and collaborates on compositions with other musicians.

Williams’ first big collaboration as a composer is with Randy Avers and Benoit Albert of Les Freres Meduses. The origins of this piece, titled “Memoria,” can be traced back to Williams’ Hungarian ancestry. His great-grandparents were Hungarian immigrants, and Williams always felt he had a connection to Hungary. 

“When we think of our past and of our ancestors, what we have from them are passed down,” Williams said. “We have memories that are shared. There’s only so much you can get from that direct experience.”  

Memoria — the Hungarian word for memory — is how Williams attempts to connect with his ancestry.

“I asked my mother about my ancestry, and there really wasn’t much she could tell me,” Williams said. “She could remember a handful of stories. If I think about my connection to Hungary, then it’s a tiny thread. That is the basis for this piece.”

“Memoria” is a two-movement piece, including a prelude and a fantasy. The prelude is a nostalgic record of Williams’ own experiences and memories growing up. The fantasy represents the non-nostalgic aggressive search and desire for a lost memory or a memory he does not have.

Williams has also collaborated with the society’s executive director, Matthew Hinsley. Hinsley said Williams’ compositions are best described as authentic.

“I was quickly impressed with both his playing and his unique and exciting compositional voice,” Hinsley said.

Hinsley’s first major collaboration with Williams was in October 2011 when Williams wrote a piece titled “Austin Pictures,” which he said provides a snapshot of his experiences in Austin.

“Austin Pictures” was a five-movement piece, including Hill Country, Floating on Lady Bird Lake, Dance of the Grackles, Violet Crown with Cicadas and Capitol City Construction.

Williams wrote this piece for 115 student guitarists — from Brownsville, Austin, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque — who collaborated with UT’s Miro Quartet. 

“The music is so beautiful because it takes literal experiences and expands on a more subconscious experience,” Williams said. “How you feel when you see the light shine off of Lady Bird Lake.”

As a young boy, Williams’ first experience with music was at his brother’s house when he saw a piano.

“I remember just pressing the keys and listening to the amazing sound it produced,” Willliams said. “It was a really special moment in my life.”

From then on, music became a “beautiful world” he wanted to know everything about. 

“When I picked up my first classical guitar, it seemed so natural in my hands, to my ears,” Williams said. “The piano and the classical guitar have things in common. You can play multiple lines of music at the same time, a bass, a melody and an accompaniment.” 

Adam Holzman, one of Williams’ professor at UT’s Butler School of Music, first met Williams at the Boston GuitarFest international guitar competition in 2006, where Williams tied for first place. The thing that struck Holzman about Williams was his creativity and enthusiasm.

“His compositions are first-grade,” Holzman said. “His growth as a composer and performer has been wonderful to watch. Joe has turned out to be a wonderful teacher.”

For Williams, classical music is his way of understanding more about himself and the world at large. 

“Listening to music is a life long development and appreciation,” Williams said.