ETHEL’s Documerica: Composer Chat w/ James Kimo Williams

Documerica premiere is next week! We’re thrilled and honored to be playing pieces by James Kimo Williams. An Army vet, he founded the United States Vietnam Art Program. As a performer, he cofounded the “Lt Dan Band” with actor Gary Sinise. As a composer, he’s been commissioned by Joffrey Ballet, West Point Academy, symphonies, etc. Lucky for us, he’s sharing some of his remarkable story…

kimo_09TW: Talk about how music has impacted your life.

JKW: Jimi Hendrix was scheduled to play at the Waikiki Shell and I decided to go to my first ever live concert. So on May 30, 1969, I saw Hendrix Live and this began my journey in music. Watching him on stage inspired me to look to music more seriously and that I might be able to use the guitar as a way to express myself as Hendrix did.

So I left for Basic training on July 4th. Subsequently went to training as a supply clerk and then….I received my duty assignment: “ Vietnam”. So on Jan 9th 1970 the day after my 20th birthday I landed in Saigon Vietnam.

I now realized how important it was that I had music with me. It had a calming effect on me and took me into a different reality, which helped me, cope with the anxiety of being at war.

Playing the guitar actually helped me get through the emotional trauma of being in a War zone. I was also pretty popular in my hooch. My hooch mates all thought it was cool that I played guitar and was into music.

They all wanted to play at the guitar and sing along. Many times we had these jam sessions where I would play the guitar to some of the popular tunes and all the guys would take turns singing their favorites tunes. Usually Rhythm and Blues tunes as the hooch consisted of only black soldiers.

One day in late September I was out in the jungle with my unit and they played one of my favorite tunes by Jimi Hendrix called the Wind Cries Mary. I had a yellow cassette of Are You Experienced and played that tune over and over again. At the end of the song the DJ said,” This is memory of the Late Great Jimi Hendrix”. I was stunned, I did not know that he had died and it was a very sad moment in my life.

I think it was at that moment I knew I was going to use music and a focal point of my life because I played late into the night all the Hendrix tunes I knew and for the first time I actually tried to write my own song, thinking about his music.

TW: When did you get serious about playing and/or writing music?
JKW: In 1971 I heard the Jazz Rock band The Mahavishnu Orchestra and their first album “The Inner Mounting Flame”. Like “Are You Experience” this changed everything. I now wanted to be a serious musician because I heard rhythms like never before and was inspired by unconventional sound of the music. It was like no other music I’d heard before. Still I did not look at music as anything more than for fun and creative expression.

I then decided to get serious with my life and use my GI Bill to college. I decided I would pursue painting. I heard about the Arizona School of Art at Arizona University and thought I would research it as I considered myself having potential as a visual artist.

I applied to Berklee in the summer of 1972 and was accepted. I was now going to be a great jazz-­‐ rock guitar player and make my own “Inner Mounting Flame album.

TW: Tell us about your first composition.
JKW: My very first composition was called Paumalu Place. It was in ¾ and very easy for me to play with my left hand and create a melody with my right. I was not taking my keyboard classes seriously so my skills on keyboard were lacking.

But as I developed this composition and through this first arrangement I established an approach to composition that I still utilize to this day and that is to tell a story through music as if looking at a series of photographs.

I knew I wanted to be different with my musical expression. I did not want to be like everyone else as a composer. Also, the music I heard in my head included Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Roy Buchanan.

TW: How did you relationship with ETHEL come about? What inspired you to write for ETHEL’s Documerica?

JKW: In 2010 I received an Email from Ralph Farris for a possible commission to write a string quartet for his ensemble ETHEL. Ralph and I had connected previously as ETHEL was performing my Quiet Shadows composition.

The commission was connected to a 1970-­‐71 project by the EPA. In 1971 the EPA commissioned several freelance photographers to photograph environmental issues of the day as well as everyday life in America.

ETHEL developed a project where composers would view these photographs and develop compositions for the ensemble that was inspired by the photographs. Once again I was intrigued, as I always love a challenge when writing music. As had been the past, I loved for things in my life that would provide the muse to create this score.

At the time I was performing in a band that I co-­‐founded with actor Gary Sinise called the Lt. Dan Band. We were during shows all over the world in support of the military. I thought about the many wounded service members that I came in contact with during these shows and that brought me back to Vietnam.

So as I perused the photographs from Documerica, the one that stood out and moved me was the image of a Native American Veterans Cemetery by Terry Eiler. I felt a connection to that image and began planning a work that might connect to Native Americans and their military service in Vietnam.

As I began research, I realized that another composer commissioned along with me for this project was Native American and I wanted to be sensitive to his heritage and perhaps his desire to connect his new work to Native Americans.

I went back to the drawing board and viewed the photographs once again. What struck me as I looked over these images was that fact that each time I viewed an image with water, or a beach etc… the image immediately took me back to some event in my life.

As I contemplated this and viewed the photographs I thought about my life and realized how many significant memories I have of my childhood and how they seem to be connected to an ocean, lake or river. With this I was inspired to create a work that might show this “thread” in my life experiences.

I thought to create a melodic motif that I would have run through a composition (as a river might run through a canyon) but in different variations depending on the event connected to water and my life experiences.

I picked up my guitar and started working on some themes. I finally came up with a melody in F Pentatonic with a blues flavored flatted 3rd and flatted 6th. This is a melody that I had worked with in the past but never developed.

The completed composition was about 17 minutes long. The work was workshopped in December 2012 and after hearing it I knew I wanted to make some adjustments, as I could not feel the connections to my life experiences as I had hoped. After feedback from Ralph and the other members of ETHEL I decided to revise the work and try and make it more succinct to how I see my life experiences.

I added Chapters/Movements or Acts Chapter 1 my youth years, Chapter 2, My Teen Years and Chapter 3 My adult years (made it a trilogy of sorts). I included specific places associated with my life (much like events in some of my other works), made the composition shorter and wanted to break each Chapter into the two most significant emotional events that I can remember from that time in my life. Most importantly I wanted to connect the score to the concept that my adult experiences as they continue are shaped and interpreted through the prism of being a military veteran.

The last movement was written after I walked along the Chicago River on Veterans Day 2013. With this section, that I call “A Veterans Lament”, I want to honor all American veterans throughout history but most specifically those who served and never returned home as I did.

Once a veteran always a veteran and I can only see life through that prism and I am very proud to have contributed by serving this nation when called.