Meet the Artist – Tim Williams, Artistic Director of Psappha / Percussionist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My great uncle gave me the family piano when I was six and I started to have piano lessons. I then went to a pretty average comprehensive school in Liverpool. The music teacher, Edward Fielding Kirk, was a great inspiration to me. He was a composer, arranger, pianist and conductor. He spotted early on that I had some musical talent so took it upon himself to come to my house one evening and talk to my parents (both of whom were not musicians). On his advice, I took up the opportunity to have free cello and percussion lessons at school (as well as keeping up the piano). It soon became clear that my real interest lay in percussion.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Mr. Kirk arranged trips to concerts throughout the school year. I attended performances given by the RLPO, Fires of London, London Sinfonietta and many others. This initial exposure to new music really fired my enthusiasm for contemporary performance. I then went to Huddersfield Polytechnic for one year before moving to the RNCM in 1986. At Huddersfield I organised all the percussion for the 1985 festival and I attended as many performances as I could… reinforcing my passion for new music. In 1991 I formed Psappha based on the instrumentation of the Fires of London for whom Peter Maxwell Davies [known as ‘Max’] had already developed a body of work. Max was composer/ conductor at the BBC Philharmonic. I met him regularly as I was freelancing with the orchestra. Max officially became Psappha’s Patron in 1995 and continued to be my inspiration both personally and for the group until his death.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I formed Psappha in 1991 as I really enjoyed the challenge of performing new music. I also looked after the management of the group from the outset. As our work has developed my main challenge has been the balance between practice time and administration duties.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Psappha was invited to give the 70th birthday concert for the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall for our then Patron, Peter Maxwell Davies, in 2004. It was a concert of works selected by Max and the performance was well received. It was a fantastic occasion that I won’t forget. The group has performed Eight Songs for a Mad King more than 70 times over the years and worked with Max on interpretation on many occasions. We decided to make a second recording of the work (on limited edition vinyl) as Max agreed to supervise the recording. This was a very special collaboration and I’m very pleased that we managed to do this only a few years before Max passed away. I’ve worked with American composer Steven Mackey over many years and I really enjoy his music. We recorded his Micro-Concerto for percussion and ensemble with Steve and I’m proud of the recording.

Playing Harrison Birtwistle’s Axe Manual at Plush Festival with Tim Horton on Harry’s 80th birthday (at the composer’s invitation) and working with György Kurtág on his Scenes from a Novel were real high points too.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

It’s rare that I’m completely happy with myself. I’m very critical… Most recently I was pleased with the performance of Stravinsky’s Renard with BCMG and Oliver Knussen – I played cimbalom.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I listen to lots of music when I’m deciding on the repertoire for each Psappha season. I like to support composers at all stages of their careers as well as including some classic works each season.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I’ve been lucky to play in many fantastic concert venues all over the world with Psappha and through my work as a percussionist/timpanist with symphony orchestras. But I’m really fond of the intimacy of Psappha’s two Manchester venues – St Michael’s and Hallé St Peter’s in Ancoats.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I learnt a lot about music from Peter Maxwell Davies, I love the spontaneity of Bernstein, the intimate musical knowledge and showmanship of Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the amazing performances of Claudio Abbado.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Every concert is special but if I had to pick only one concert experience it would be a performance with ECYO in 1988 at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder conducted by Claudio Abbado. It was the first time Abbado had conducted the piece and the performance and rehearsals were from memory. The soloists were the best in the world and included Jesse Norman, Brigitte Fassbaender and Philip Langridge (I didn’t know at the time but he was to be my future father-in-law!). The performance was amazing and perfect in every way….

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be well prepared and give the best performance possible. If the audience enjoys the performance, is moved, or hears something new that excites them, then that’s a success.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

My musical development started properly from the age of 14 and involved attending as many performances as possible. I was born in Liverpool and attended every RLPO performance – I also managed to sneak into rehearsals too. I learnt a lot from those years and continued attending performances all the way through college too. You have to be true to yourself but at the same time listen to others and take advice, listen to live performances, listen to multiple recordings of the same piece and work out how you want it to sound. Record yourself and listen back; in my experience it doesn’t always sound the way you think it does! If, like me, you have the privilege of working with composers, make sure you spend a decent amount of time with them and get into their sound world.

Don’t limit yourself to a single genre. Communication with an audience is just as important in classical music as it is in other genres. I recently took my son to an Earth, Wind and Fire performance… Verdine White, the band’s founder bass player, who’s been with the band for 45 years was one of the best communicators I think I’ve ever seen.

What is your most treasured possession?

[Sir Peter Maxwell Davies] Max gave me two handwritten manuscripts, which are my most treasured possessions. The first was the timpani part to Throstle’s Nest Junction – he knew I was playing timpani in the première of the piece with the BBC Philharmonic so wrote a special part for me. The second was the sketches of the scene change music for Mr Emmet Takes a Walk the opera Max wrote for Psappha in 1999. Both include personal notes to me.

Tim Williams is the founder of Psappha, which launches its 2018/19 season on 27 September 2018 with ‘New Adventures’ at Stoller Hall, Manchester. The full programme is available here:

Tim Williams has performed with most of the UK’s symphony orchestras, opera and ballet companies as a freelance percussionist and timpanist. His particular interest in new music led him to form the ensemble Psappha in 1991. Since its inception he has been its Artistic Director, General Manager and also its percussionist. With the ensemble he has performed throughout the UK, in Europe (France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Ireland & Belgium), North America (New York and San Francisco), South America (Caracas and Buenos Aires), Hong Kong, Australia (Barossa Festival) and most recently at the Jerusalem Festival.

He has been featured prominently in such works as Stockhausen’s Kontakte (also broadcast on BBC Radio 3), Birtwistle’s The Axe Manual (including a performance for the composers 83rd birthday), Peter Maxwell Davies’s Stedman Doubles (original 1955 version) (also recorded for CD, film and BBC Radio 3), Steven Mackey’s Micro-Concerto (UK tour and CD recording), Martin Butler’s Going with the Grain, Gordon McPherson Little Moses (also recorded for CD and BBC Radio 3), Alvarez’s Temazcal, Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maitre (also recorded for BBC Radio 3) and Anthony Gilbert’s Moonfaring (UK tour and recorded for CD).

In 1999 Tim Williams went to Budapest, bought a cimbalom (Hungary’s national instrument) and taught himself to play it, going on to perform many works on the cimbalom including Stravinsky’s Renard (BBC Proms, BCMG (This is Rattle)) and Ragtime (BBC Proms & Britten Sinfonia) , Jonathan Harvey’s Weltethos (CBSO UK premiere), Boulez’s Eclat/Multiples (London Sinfonietta), Mackey’s Five Animated Shorts (Network for New Music, Philadelphia and Princeton and with Psappha, Cheltenham Festival, Lancaster, webcast and CD recording), Peter Maxwell Davies’s Image, Reflection, Shadow (UK tour), Peter Maxwell Davies’s Sonatina and Farewell to Stromness. In 2001 he worked on Scenes from a Novel with its composer György Kurtág at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. He has had works written for him by Gordon McPherson (Memory Crash and Lorelei), Anthony Gilbert (Vers de Lune) and John Casken (Fractured Lines). He has also taken part in Kodály’s singspiel Háry János on a number of occasions, Howard Shaw’s Lord of the Rings Symphony and Kurtág’s Stele.

Since 2008 Tim has developed Psappha’s online presence and has directed all the films you find on Psappha’s websites.

Tim is a Sabian Artist


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