WHEN Canberra composer and performer Neille Williams won both first prizes in the Australian Women’s Wind Band Composition Award for two original pieces, it was not just a coup for the Lyneham resident, but for the Canberra arts scene.
The conductor for the John Agnew Band, clarinettist in the Canberra City Band and lead singer in its big band, Spectrum, is also a teacher, published author, blogger, and mother to two lively boys. She’s no ingenue.
Daughter of well-known Sydney jazz player Tom Williams and a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music with a degree in music composition, she worked in Sydney as a musician and singer, performing with musicians such as Jon English and Natalie Bassingthwaighte, before moving to Canberra in 2013.
As a child, she tells me, she spent many long hours in the lighting box watching her dad from afar. “Then he’d pick up his girl and his instruments and bring them back home – it influenced me a lot,” she says.
Here in Canberra, the scene is livening up and she points with relief to the recent explosion of activity.
“There’s still covid around and a lot of cancellations, but the music community is up and running.”
Like many writers and composers she’s found solace and productivity in isolation and Williams took the opportunity to write two pieces which saw her winning the Australian Women’s Wind Band Composition Award which, supported by Queensland Wind Orchestra, the competition is the brainchild of Rachel Howley, of Maestros with a Mission.
Assessed through a “blind” judging process, her winning pieces were “Concerto for Egg Shaker” for young players in Category 1 and “Scary Clown Theme” in the more advanced Category 2.
The prize includes performances of both works, but when music students at Grace Lutheran College in Brisbane were getting ready to premiere “Concerto for Egg Shaker” covid struck, so all that’s on hold.
Composing music and writing literature may be viewed as an unusual combination and Williams, a paid-up member of the ACT Writers Centre, has also had some exceptional success in the second area.
“I’ve always been a good writer and I worked in an ad agency for a short time, so I developed good writing skills,” she says.
“Even though music is my main career… I found an income stream doing a little bit of writing. When lockdown came, I did some blog-writing, polished up stories and my writing took off again. I got second prize in the International Human Rights Art Festival literary category in 2021 for my story ‘The Light and the Shade’. It’s something else that’s happened and I’m really pleased.”
Of late, she’s been deriving most of her income through her website, nwilliamscreative.com, of which she declares herself “quite proud”, through which she sells music band arrangements.
By night she performs with Spectrum and finds time to front her own jazz quintet, Nice Work If You Can Get It, which makes regular appearances at venues such as Molly’s and Hippo.
Her day job is as the musical director for the John Agnew Band, an adult leisure and development band component of Canberra City Band.
“We do a lot of cool gigs and have a lot of fun at places like Floriade,” she says.
“I love concert bands, I’m primarily a clarinet player. I do play sax sometimes and I play more and more jazz these days.”
As for her big award, it’s a fairly new initiative: “It really champions diversity in both composing and conducting and I’ve encountered a great deal of sexism in both… and with the organisation being called Maestros with a Mission, I thought: ‘I’m going to go for it’.
“I’m very big on writing things for kids and I love it when I see the little people creating, and in my ‘Concerto for Egg Shaker’ I have proved it can be comic and fun.
“‘Scary Clown Theme’ is a work I love and the idea of clowns being funny but a bit scary has interested me for a long time.
“Kids make jokes about it, but meaning they are interested.
“I believe my composition shows the laughing clown side but has an undercurrent of spookiness. I think I did that really well.”
So, what instruments evoke scariness? I ask.
“I think every single instrument can be used both in a dark way and a light way,” she says.
“People think that the lower registers are dark and spooky, but I think every instrument can be used in that way.”
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