WHEN Canberra composer and performer Neille Williams won the top two awards in the Australian Women’s Wind Band Composition Prize for two original pieces, it was not just a coup for the Lyneham resident, but for the Canberra art scene.
The bandleader of the John Agnew Band, clarinetist of the Canberra City Band and lead singer of his big band, Spectrum, is also a teacher, published author, blogger and mother of two spirited boys. She is not ingenuous.
Daughter of famous 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 to move to Canberra in 2013.
As a child, she told me, she spent long hours in the lightbox watching her father from afar. “Then he would take his girlfriend and his instruments and bring them home – that influenced me a lot,” she says.
Here in Canberra, the scene is coming alive and she points with relief to the recent burst of activity.
“There’s still covid and lots of cancellations, but the music community is up and running.”
Like many writers and composers, she found solace and productivity in isolation and Williams took the opportunity to write two pieces that won her the Australian Women’s Wind Orchestra composition award which, backed by the Queensland Wind Orchestra, the competition is the brainchild of Rachel Howley, from Maestros with a Mission.
Evaluated through a “blind” judging process, his winning pieces were “Concerto for Egg Shaker” for younger 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 preparing for the premiere of “Concerto for Egg Shaker”, covid hit, so all of that is on hold.
Composing music and writing literature can be seen as an unusual combination, and Williams, a dues-paying member of the ACT Writers Center, has also had exceptional success in the second area.
“I’ve always been a good writer and worked at an advertising agency for a short time, so I developed good writing skills,” she says.
“Even though music is my main career…I found a source of income by doing some writing. When lockdown hit, I blogged, polished stories, and my writing started up again. I won the second prize in the literary category of the International Festival of Human Rights Art in 2021 for my story “Light and Shadow”. Something else happened and I’m really happy.
Lately, she gets most of her income from her website, nwilliamscreative.comof which she declares herself “quite proud”, through which she sells arrangements of musical groups.
By night she performs with Spectrum and finds time to lead 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 Music Director of the John Agnew Band, an adult development and leisure group of the 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 am above all a clarinettist. I sometimes play sax and I’m playing more and more jazz these days.
As for its grand prize, it’s a relatively new initiative: “It really champions diversity in both lineup and leadership and I’ve encountered a lot of sexism in both…and with the organization that is called Maestros with a Mission, I thought, ‘I’m going to go’.
“I’m very into writing stuff for kids and love seeing little people create, and in my ‘Concerto for Egg Shaker’ I proved that it can be comedic and fun.
“’Scary Clown Theme’ is work that 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 it means they’re interested.
“I believe that my composition shows the laughing clown side, but has an undertone of phantasmagoria. I think I did it very well.
So, what instruments evoke fear? I ask.
“I think every instrument can be used in both dark and light ways,” she says.
“People think the lower registers are dark and scary, but I think every instrument can be used that way.”
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Ian Meikle, editor