We are thrilled to be collaborating with some incredible artists for our January 24-26 season centerpiece together. Over the past two weeks, we’ve been talking with the artists and composers – but today we talk with Joe Williams. Joe is ACG’s Artistic Director and Composer-in-Residence. He has been shaping and conceptualizing ‘together’ from the very beginning. 

In this interview, Joe updates us on how the production is going, the inspiration for the theme, and his hope for the audience. 

Austin Classical Guitar: Tell us what’s going on with together

Joe Williams: together is a beautiful  community based concert project that has been developing over the past year. together is the third and final installment of a series of projects that  we have created about deepening compassion and understanding of the people that make up our community. Ultimately, it is about how we connect and how we experience being here right now.

With together, we realized that one of the greatest challenges of our time is isolation. Some of the most terrible things that are happening in our world are due to  isolation and loss of community. Because when we are isolated, our compassion for ourselves and others begins to slip away. The principal effort of this project is to disrupt isolation and foster belonging. The principal question of together is  how can we promote the generosity and caring that allows belonging to grow?  

Our conclusion was to listen. For the past year, Travis Marcum has interviewed people from all over our community, asking “how are you alone and how do you belong?”   We invited our community to share and help us all remember that this is a universal experience.  

John O’Donohue, the great philosopher and poet, talked about how belonging starts with with one’s desire for a sense of community and connection. Belonging begins with longing- longing for connection and we have a deep human desire for this.  One of my favorite quotes of his is “There is a huge abyss within every mind. When we belong, we have an outside mooring to prevent us from falling into ourselves.”  Everyone has a personal relationship with that continually flexing space that stretches between isolation and belonging. The circumstances are different for everyone, whether your 18 or 80, but the feeling of is the same.  It’s a massive topic and it’s been inspiring to listen to people’s personal experiences. 

I believe art, and music in particular, has this amazing ability to empower us to confront the harder things. To soothe the harder things, and to also celebrate the most joyous things. Ultimately, I think this concert is an opportunity to share.  We can go into a space surrounded and empowered by art and music. We can be ourselves and we can listen to others – and hopefully hear ourselves in others. 

ACG: How has isolation affected you? 

JW: I struggle with it. I think we are most cruel to ourselves.  Thats true for me and it is a constant practice to exercise compassion. I work on that.  The stories that people have shared make it easier.  

Last year, a dear friend of mine passed away from alcoholism. In the end, he was alone even when he wasn’t. I carry him  around with me all the time. I miss him. I resolutely celebrate the time we spent together and I also think about the times that he had when he was so alone and so distant.  I think that experience isn’t far away from any of us. We are so much more delicate than we believe.

ACG: How does together navigate these topics?

JW: At the very beginning of this, I struggled to understand how we could make this tangible. Almost immediately I arrived at the idea of a forest. Where there’s all these trees, and scrubs, and dirt, and rocks – and all these things that are existing within an ecosystem. They all thrive and fail within that place, but there is an amazing interconnectedness that is part of that. 

So from the beginning, a forest has been the metaphor that made complete sense because there is an ecological support system. Sometimes it fails, and sometimes it thrives. 

I have to read this piece for you. We excerpted it from Peter Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees: A tree is not a forest. 

On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. 

If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, making it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot trees.  

Every tree would suffer.

And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.

A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.

That helps me understand how we need each other and why sometimes we carry the person next to us. The ecology of forests has become the main organizing element that draws the entire concert together.

ACG: As an artist, as the person that has conceptualized this triptych from the beginning, does this feel like a satisfying resolution to you artistically? 

JW: I think there is no end to these types of work. I personally believe that art is a way to understand ourselves. All of my music is inspired by narrative, people, and experience. So for me, it is endless. 

What is fascinating about this triptych, is how it expands.  i/we was about the experience of small group of people on a journey:  refugees from Syria and Irag that had settled here in Austin in their first 90 days. Dream was about young people in Austin and their hopes, fears and dreams of the future. Finally, together is everybody. Everybody has a relationship with this. In that aspect artistically, in terms of a narrative, it has grown and opened up to include all of us. 

And so that feels right and it feels good.

ACG: How do you hope to impact the community beyond this concert? 

JW: This is a call to action for all of us to savor the relationships we cherish. To nurture. To look for opportunities where we can positively impact someone’s life, and also to have some deep and sincere compassion for ourselves when we are suffering. To break that cycle of suffering.

Ultimately, I think when a person comes into this space and they hear all these stories, these different composers and the music we created that was inspired by these interviews – that they will see the incredibly rich landscape or forest scape that we inhabit. That they listen to any of it and recognize that a piece or a story might mirror their own experience or discover that someone they know carries this experience with them. That is what I hope for. 

ACG: Would you like to add anything? 

JW:  Yes!  This concert is a celebration. These topics are heavy and there is heaviness here, but there is so much joy and lift in it too. I am overwhelmingly filled with hope and astounded by the beauty we have created here. The interviews Travis put together are gorgeous. The music Russell Pinkston, Celil Refik Kaya and I have made  is so deeply connected to those interviews  

I hope people will allow themselves to go on this journey.  By seeing ourselves in others, we all become stronger.

If you would like to know more about the inspiration of ‘together,’ we invite you to read this article by Artistic Director, Joe Williams, and Education Director, Travis Marcum.