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Alex Borg poses for a photo with an accordion on Soldiers and Sailors Lawn.
Alex Borg: Her accordion anchors a ‘no-man Jimmy Buffett band’
By Patrick Swain, Culture Editor • April 12, 2024
Opinion | CPCs, get off our campus
By India Krug, Senior Staff Columnist • April 12, 2024

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Alex Borg poses for a photo with an accordion on Soldiers and Sailors Lawn.
Alex Borg: Her accordion anchors a ‘no-man Jimmy Buffett band’
By Patrick Swain, Culture Editor • April 12, 2024
Opinion | CPCs, get off our campus
By India Krug, Senior Staff Columnist • April 12, 2024

Pitt music professor Amy Williams performs original compositions at Columbia, garners praise from the New York Times

Amy+Williams+sits+at+a+piano+in+their+office.
Alex Jurkuta | Staff Photographer
Amy Williams sits at a piano in their office.

Amy Williams can’t recall a time before she was a musician. Growing up in a household of musicians in Buffalo, New York, Williams spent her childhood tinkering with instruments around her family — tapping at the ivory keys of a piano from the time she was a toddler.

“I don’t remember learning to read music, and I don’t remember learning to read,” Williams said. “It happened around the same time.”

Decades later, Williams is a professor of music at Pitt. As an expert on classical and contemporary music, she has taught numerous courses on music theory and composition. Outside of the classroom, Williams is a composer herself — and recently, she had the opportunity to showcase her original pieces at Columbia University in February, garnering praise in a review from New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe.

Williams began composing music as a senior at the Buffalo Seminary, penning a piece for her graduating class of 48 girls to perform. With two professional musicians as parents and a few musical grandparents, Williams said music and creativity were ingrained in her life from the beginning. 

“My mother played in the Buffalo Philharmonic. She had a string quartet, and I got to hear a lot of that music from that tradition. My father is a percussionist, and taught at [the University at Buffalo] and played contemporary music, so I got to hear all the classics and all this crazy percussion music,” Williams said. “There were musicians coming through the house, staying with us, and parties after concerts, going to all these different wild concerts. The people were so fascinating.”

After studying a range of subjects as an undergraduate, Williams found herself gravitating towards music as a career. She returned home to Buffalo to teach music at her former high school, later earning a doctorate and going on to teach at Bennington College, Northwestern University and finally Pitt. Meanwhile, Williams composed and performed original music — which found a prestigious audience in the Miller Theater at Columbia University last month when the JACK Quartet performed four of her pieces. 

After rehearsing with the quartet, Williams appreciated their ability to translate her musical ideas into reality — both when she was listening in the audience and playing on stage with them.

“It’s great to sit back and hear people you trust to interpret your music, people who understand your music, and obviously can play really, really well. It’s very exciting. You can trust them — it’s theirs, and that’s a great feeling,” Williams said. “They have to believe it and understand it in order to communicate with an audience. Being a composer is not really a power trip, because you’re relying on other people to communicate your ideas. It’s best if you can work well with them and trust each other.”

Amy Williams sits at a piano in their office. (Alex Jurkuta | Staff Photographer)

Eric Moe, a music professor at Pitt and one of Williams’ colleagues, said Williams commands phenomenal skill as a composer and highlighted at the concert at Columbia.

“Amy’s music is characterized by extraordinary sensitivity to timbre and, at the same time, by exhilarating rhythmic propulsion. Her instrumental writing in general is idiomatic and practical, yet at the same time strikingly fresh, yet another uncommon combination,” Moe said. “Her consummate skills as a virtuosic performer lead her to a variety of musical expression that is extraordinarily nuanced, as exciting and rewarding to play as to listen to.”

Mathew Rosenblum is another professor in the music department. He lauded Williams’ ability to balance her own creative expression and her responsibilities as an instructor.

“Amy Williams is a stellar colleague and is a triple threat in the music world — she is a world-class composer, pianist and educator,” Rosenblum said. “Her music is rhythmically and colorfully exciting and her performances are always inspiring. She is a leader in her field on many levels.”

The New York Times review came as a surprise — Williams learned that the critic Zachary Woolfe and a photographer were in the audience after she performed. Woolfe’s laudatory piece came out the next day, praising Williams and the quartet for maintaining “characteristic, tricky balance between sobriety and mischievousness — a serious fun that’s all her own.” 

The four pieces ranged from 10 to 20 minutes. Williams said each composition, no matter how weighty an undertaking, begins from a blank page, a sense of boundaries and an inspiration.

“Often there’s some kind of a concept behind the piece that is outside of myself … there’s some kind of an inspiration or impulse that is often not musical. Sometimes it is musical. In this concert, the older string quartet is inspired by paintings of Gerhard Richter,” Williams said. “The piano quintet that was in that concert is part of a series of five pieces that I wrote that are inspired by different films … The new string quartet is very inspired by a 16th century madrigal.”

The madrigal, a genre of vocal music that emerged from Europe during the Renaissance, inspired Williams to think outside of the traditional 12-tone scale of Western music. In an era when musicians commonly borrow elements of past music and incorporate it into new art through techniques like sampling, Williams said music transforms with the world around it.

“By the very nature of the 400 years that has intervened, and the filter that is my own artistic sensibility, it will be different. It will be contemporary. A lot of music has happened since then, and the world is a different place. Arts reflect that — the changing world,” Williams said. “Trying to find ways to pull but filter it, work with it, change it, recontextualize it, I think that’s something I’m always trying to do. Is it possible to write completely original music? I’m not sure. I try to write music that feels original to me … I like to work with things that exist and add my own input. I think of it as a dialogue with the past.”

Williams conceptualizes music as a dialogue, and the people, influences and experiences that informed her creative perspective are present in her art.

“For me, talking about my childhood, it was about the people as much as it was about the sounds — being fascinated by these characters and composers … who were completely dedicated to music. That’s what drew me in as much as the music itself,” Williams said. “Being influenced by each other, compromising, working with each other together to form something new … the communication that’s happening between these people without words.”

About the Contributor
Patrick Swain, Culture Editor
Patrick Swain is a junior economics major with a minor in Hispanic language and culture. He begrudgingly removes Oxford commas as the culture editor of The Pitt News. You can find him rooting for the Buffalo Bills, invoking the third amendment and remembering the Alamo.