Sunday, February 9, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joan Williams, performer, contemporary music creator

Seattle Times staff reporter

To the ear of Joan Franks Williams, all sounds had potential.

A composer and champion of modern music, she was credited with bringing contemporary music to Seattle in the 1960s.

She once produced a performance of a sculptor building a box around audience members. The instruments: the hammer's thud as it struck nails and the clank of wooden boards.

Another composition mixed an orchestra performance with ambient sounds of the city and a bus that transported the musicians.

Another, Frogs, premiered on opening night of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra in 1974. A composition in atonal style, it included frogs croaking, sung haikus and instruments.

Mrs. Williams died Jan. 30 in Seattle, of complications from Parkinson's disease. She was 72.

"She was very creative and avant-garde for her time," said daughter-in-law Vickie Williams, of Seattle. "She just wanted to make people think about the sounds in a different way to evoke mood."

Mrs. Williams called her music "inside out" and struggled to bring modern arrangements to Seattle audiences through New Dimensions in Music, a nonprofit organization she founded.

"She and New Dimensions made — and are making it possible — for Seattleites to keep abreast of what's happening in contemporary composition. The fact that most people in the city — even the confirmed music lovers — don't give a damn about the new music did not deter Mrs. Williams," wrote The Seattle Times' Wayne Johnson in 1971.

Born in Brooklyn, on April 1, 1930, she was introduced to music by her parents, both fans of classical music.

As a child, she attended musical performances in New York and learned to play the piano and viola. She graduated from Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Mrs. Williams continued studying music at the Manhattan School of Music, earning another bachelor's degree in addition to a master's degree in composition.

On a blind date in Manhattan, she met Irving Williams. The first part of the date, they sat quietly watching a musical performance. Dinner at a seafood restaurant followed.

"She ordered bluefish, but I said, 'Don't you like lobster?' " said her future husband, who talked his date into splurging on lobster. "We always considered that the most important anniversary we had."

They married in 1954.

The family moved to Seattle in 1962. Mrs. Williams soon founded New Dimensions, through which Seattle's first electronic music studio was built, paid for in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 1971, the Williams family moved to Tel Aviv.

During her 17 years abroad, Mrs. Williams staged both modern and classic performances and was honored with the ACUM Prize and was nominated for the Israel Prize in Music.

In 1988, the Williamses returned to Seattle. They enjoyed hiking at the coast, skiing, and being near their grandchildren.

Mrs. Williams is survived by her husband, Irving; son David Williams, and two grandchildren, all of Seattle; and father, Harold Franks, of New York City.

Services were held Feb. 2. Memorials may be sent to the Cornish College of the Arts, Office of Institutional Advancement, 710 Roy St., Seattle, WA 98102; or the National Parkinson Foundation, Development Department, 1501 N.W. 9th Ave., Miami, FL 33136-1494.

Sarah Anne Wright:


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