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Interview with Michael Karmon, composer

2013 July 2
by Giacomo Fiore

Michael Karmon is a California-based composer who dedicates much of his output to the classical guitar. We sat down (virtually) for a little interview about his background, composition process, and new models for commissioning music.

CG.org: Tell us about your musical education and the path that led you to the guitar

MK: I took the usual academic path as a composer, and was trained to write for orchestra, voice, and various chamber ensembles. I didn’t write much guitar music while in school, but once I got my degree I felt drawn back to the instrument. I was very fortunate early on, because I got to work with some terrific players (Joe Hagedorn, Denis Azabagic, Newman/Oltman Duo,) and that set me on the right track. The guitar is a really tough instrument to write for, but I’m continually inspired and energized by the various challenges it poses.

Karmon3

So did you study guitar formally before you commenced your composition studies? or did your interest in the instrument prompt you to learn to play later on?

A bit of both. The extent of my formal training is two years of lessons when I was very young. I picked up the guitar again in high school for the usual reasons. In college I played a lot of jazz both as a soloist and in various ensembles. After school I started playing classical, and this was very much driven by my interest in writing for the instrument. I’m not a good player, but I’m better now than I was when I first started writing for guitar. It definitely helps to be able to play through my own music.

As a composer, what’s your relationship with and attitude towards the “canon” of our repertoire?

I can’t say I share most guitarist’s love for the Spanish repertoire. For me things start to get interesting with the pieces Bream commissioned, especially from Takemitsu, Berkeley, and Walton. I try to play and study pieces from the repertoire as often as I can, and I find many of them inspiring. I’ve certainly learned a lot about writing for guitar through these pieces. Having said that, I do wish guitarists would embrace new music more readily. There really are a lot of worthwhile contemporary pieces out there.

You’ve developed some projects through online communication and networking. Tell me more about them, and do you think they may hint at a new, viable way of commissioning music?

Backpack Pieces, a suite of 10 easy movements, was such a project. I proposed on the Delcamp Guitar Forum that players could each have a movement dedicated to them in exchange for a small fee. Unfortunately, in this scenario participants could not have any input about the music, but they could choose which piece was dedicated to them. I even wrote the first movement in advance so people could have something concrete to look at. It went over well. I think all the spots were filled within a few hours. It certainly looks like there’s an interest in this kind of crowd sourced commission, and people seemed genuinely excited about being involved in the creation of a new piece. I think there is a lot of potential out there both in terms of getting funding and finding players to write for. Meeting players in person can be inspiring and valuable, but I’ve had great experiences writing for guitarist that I’ve met only online and never in person.

Do you write music that is strictly pedagogical? can you tell us more about your approach to this subset of the repertoire, and how much your own technique influences what you write in this context?

As it happens, my current project is a set of etudes, but they focus on the techniques of composition rather than those of playing. Developing musical material can be tricky on the guitar because of its limitations and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes it can be easier just to come up with new musical ideas rather than effectively use what you already have in different contexts and guises. But I feel that development is a hallmark of good music. These etudes are partly an immersive exercise for me, and partly an effort to showcase different ways to develop material on the guitar.

To conclude, tell us about your current projects.

Recent commissions include All in a Day’s Work for NYC Duo, which aims to evoke the busy life of a New York musician; Ice for 10-string guitarist Jouni Stenroos; and Dreams Laid Down, based on poems by Janice Notland, for guitarist Alan Rinehart. All these projects were unique and highly satisfying. I’ve learned through experience that it’s not wise to plan too far ahead into the future. But tentatively, projects for guitar duo; for a trio of guitar, violin, and clarinet; and for voice and guitar are on the horizon.

Many thanks to Michael for his time and insights. Make sure you check out his website, where several of his scores are available.

A Cure for the Common Fetish: The $100 Guitar Project

2013 February 15
by Giacomo Fiore

The $100 Guitar, Signed by the Musicians

The $100 Guitar, Signed by the Musicians

Most musicians (myself included) spend way too much time thinking, fantasizing, and obsessing over their instruments. Whether the object of desire is a vintage specimen or the latest contemporary fad, I have noticed a tendency in my own thinking to anticipate all kinds of tonal, musical, and practical improvements with the acquisition of the next best thing. I unabashedly call it fetishism, as that’s all it is: the projection of ineffable, magical powers onto an inanimate object.

In this light, the recent release from Bridge Records offers a welcome change to gearheads like me. Take the cheapest, least identifiable guitar on the online catalogue at Elderly Musical Instruments (a website where I have spent my fair amount of time drooling over vintage resonators and boutique steel-string acoustics), send it along on a 30,000 mile-long journey, with 65 stop-overs at the homes of some of today’s most adventurous guitarists, have each musician come up with *something* inspired by the guitar, record it, and see what happens.

Oh, did I forget to mention that a sizable portion of the proceeds go to CARE, a foundation fighting hunger and global poverty? The pairing seems especially fitting to me—consider the thousands of musicians throughout the world who are vibrating the air with whatever salvaged instrument they can get their hands on. The wonderfully strange music of the $100 Guitar Project reminds us that it’s the hands, hearts, and brains that count—not so much the wood, metal, and glue.

The range of music on this double record is such that it would be pointless to go into a detailed review. Expect to hear a wide variety of styles as the list of participants amounts to a sort of who’s who in the contemporary experimental, avant-garde, and indie scene (Nels Cline anyone?!):

Alex Skolnick, David Starobin, Elliott Sharp, Mike Keneally, Barry Cleveland, Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser, Mark Hitt, Keith Rowe, Nels Cline, Andy Aledort, Hillary Fielding, John Shiurba, Karl Evangelista, Phil Burk, Ray Kallas, Janet Feder, Thomas Dimuzio, Julia Miller, Chris Murphy, Chuck O’Meara, Marty Carlson, Shawn Persinger, Kai Niggemann, Steve MacLean, Ken Field, Roger Miller, Michael Bierylo, Bill Brovold, Larry Polansky, Biota, Bill Sharp, Ava Mendoza, Amy Denio, Bruce Eisenbeil, Caroline Feldmeier, Colin Marston, David Linaburg, Hans Tammen, James Moore, Jesse Krakow, Jesse Kranzler, Joe Bouchard, Jon Diaz, Josh Lopes, Kobe Van Cauwenberghe, Marco Cappelli, Marco Oppedisano, Joe Berger, Mark Solomon, Mark Stewart, Mike Lerner, Nick Didkovsky, Rhys Chatham, Ron Anderson, Taylor Levine, Tom Marsan, Greg Anderson, Han-earl Park, Del Rey, Matt Wilson, Bruce Zeines, Toon Callier/ZWERM, Juan Parra, and Wiek Hijmanns.

Despite the diversity (and the home-rigged nature of many of the recordings), the album is extremely well produced and feels like a cohesive, polished listening experience. Kudos to project originators Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’Meara, and to Bridge Records’ David Starobin for bringing this adventure to the public. You can see videos, maps, and pictures over at the official website; the album is available on Amazon and iTunes.

I urge every guitar fan to check out this unprecedented and unmistakably cool project, as it offers a wonderful snapshot of today’s fertile and diverse guitar scene while also contributing to a noble cause. And who knows, it may inspire some of us to ease on the fetishising and focus on the music.

Interview with Gyan Riley

2012 December 17
by Giacomo Fiore

Gyan Riley is active as a soloist, ensemble player, composer, and improviser in a wide variety of styles. We bounced off a few questions via email over the past weeks.Gyan Portrait

CG.org: When did you start playing guitar, and what was your path to serious study?

Gyan: I started playing guitar at age 12, when I won a cheap classical instrument in a raffle. Although I had previously found it difficult to find inspiration in the violin, my former instrument, I didn’t want to ever put the guitar down. It just felt right to me. So I guess serious study began right away…with figuring out how to play all my favorite rock and punk songs in my cassette collection by ear, then learning classical guitar methods soon after that.

CG.org: I have heard that your father, composer Terry Riley, wrote you a guitar piece for one of your birthdays. Can you tell us that story?

Gyan: He wrote Piedad for me as a gift for my 18th birthday. I had just begun studying at the San Francisco Conservatory, and was eagerly eating up as much repertoire as possible. But I found the process of learning that piece fairly daunting at first. Over the years I have revised my interpretation of the piece many times, and have found new solutions to it’s many challenges…but often I find that solving an issue that isn’t satisfying to me musically results in an even greater technical challenge! But of course it’s worth it…

CG.org: You are an improviser as well as a composer. In terms of improvisation, what is your background and your approach to the instrument?

Gyan: Well I began noodling around on the guitar pretty much from the beginning of my relationship with it, but it was years before I approached improvisation as a serious focus. I took an improvisation/fretboard harmony class with Dusan Bogdanovic at the conservatory, and later began full-time studies with him. He introduced to me a completely new way of looking at the instrument from an imrpovisational standpoint, approaching it compositionally rather than just meandering. Of course searching is always a major part of improvisation for me, but I’ve learned that having a larger lens of focus in which you perceive your improvisation can help to create a clearer picture of whatever structure is it you’re going for. Over the years I have also performed a lot with my father. He is incredibly unpredictable, so it’s always a fun challenge to follow him down whatever improvisational road he takes. I think this experience has helped me to react/interact much more intuitively as an improviser. I think being overly analytical with improvisation is a slippery slope. Spontaneous analysis/reaction is great. But if you get too clever with planning an idea, it will quite possibly sound out of place by the time you can execute it.

CG.org: Somewhat relatedly—how do you approach solo improvisations? Do you think more harmonically, melodically, modally, contrapuntally…

Gyan: That completely depends on the improvisation of the moment. Sometimes an improvisation will be all of those things, sometimes none of them. For me the most important thing is to follow my instincts. I think that if you listen to your little internal voice, it will tell you what needs to happen. And if what you do is genuine and honest, your audience will sense that and be moved. Or perhaps not…but at least you will feel good about it!

CG.org: What is the most useful thing that Joe Sixstrings can do to become a better improviser? I must admit it can be pretty daunting, especially if you are used to playing exclusively from sheet music, or exclusively by rote.

Live @ MOMAGyan: I think the first thing is simply to do it. Nine times out of ten when people ask me this question, I ask them how much time they spend each day practicing improvisation, and they say not much, or even or at all! Just like playing scales, arpeggios, composing, or whatever, you have to do it regularly to make progress. And be smart about the way you approach it, by constantly thinking about what it is you want to achieve and evaluating the efficacy of whatever approach you are taking. Ask others whom you admire what their approach is, knowing that it may not work for you, but odds are, you will learn something from studying that approach anyway. One general guideline that seems to work for many people is to start small…smaller than you think. For example, just working with 2 or 3 notes: seeing how many ways you can play those 3 notes. Reodering them, changing the rhythm, playing them fast, slow, loud, soft, as a chord or several chords, with different timbres, in different moods, etc. Setting parameters can actually be quite liberating! Then of course you can expand outward from there gradually, but I find that starting out in this way greatly diminishes the daunting element of improvisation that you mentioned.

CG.org: You’ve performed all over the world in a variety of settings. What’s the most fun you’ve had on stage?

Gyan: That’s a tough question. But generally I think that for me, having fun on the stage is a result of being able to play with musicians who are great listeners and improvisers, and having a receptive audience. I can definitely have lots of fun playing solo too, but it’s always an added bonus to have other like-minded co-conspirators to bounce ideas off of.

CG.org: And the least fun?

Gyan: When I was 19, I played my first concert on a cruise ship, after spending the entire day vomiting from seasickness. There was a serious storm the night before and stretching into the day of the show, and the rough waters drove nearly everyone on the ship into a miserable state. The concert was decently attended considering the circumstances, but it was hard to keep it together while the ship was still rocking back and forth. At one point I had to duct tape my music stand to the floor because it kept sliding across the slick hardwood stage!

CG.org: Tell me about your guitars, and your approach to amplification—especially on how you approach a solo vs. an ensemble show (as I imagine sometimes things can get a bit loud!)

Gyan: When I play amplified solo classical guitar, I always just use a microphone becuase I think it sounds the most natural. But when playing in groups at any substantial volume, I find that compensating by using an active pickup (and possibly a mic in front of the guitar as well, if you can hear that signal and avoid bleeding) is almost always necessary, especially when particularly loud instruments are involved.

CG.org: What are you current projects and upcoming releases?

Gyan: I have a brand new new trio project that I’m really happy about. It’s called Eviyan, with singer/violinist Iva Bittová and clarinetist (and Bang On A Can founder) Evan Ziporyn. We are all composers and improvisers, and the combination of these creative forces is really exciting. I have a duo project called Pluck with Chinese guzheng player/singer Wu Fei (we released our first, self-titled, digital only recording last year), a duo with percussionist David Cossin called SuperBalls, and an ongoing duo collaboration with my dad. I play in an electric guitar quartet called Dither, and a 5-piece classical Arabic rock group called Al-Madar, led by Lebanese composer/oud player/flutist Bassam Saba. I am also a member of the Falla Guitar Trio, with Adam del Monte and Kenton Youngstrom. We released an album last year called Excursions.

CG.org: Looks like you’re keeping busy. To our readers—be sure to check out some of Gyan’s projects!

A Double Eulogy: Celebrating Hans Werner Henze and Elliott Carter

2012 December 1
by Giacomo Fiore

Two giants of twentieth century music left us within a week of each other a few weeks ago. Hans Werner Henze died in Dresden, on October 26; Carter followed him within a ten-day, as he passed away at his NY home on November 5th, at the youthful age of 103.

There have been excellent obits written on both composers—I recommend the Guardian’s synthetic overview of Henze’s career, and New Music Box’s more personal remembrance of Carter by colleague and friend Joel Chadabe. For this blog I would rather spend a few words highlighting the tremendous amount of music that Carter and Henze gave to the guitar. Their contributions are different in scope and language. Carter’s include pieces from the two stylistic poles of his career: the neoclassical early years, and the ultramodernism of his maturity. Henze’s affair with the guitar was more sustained, as the composer kept incorporating the instrument in numerous chamber and stage works since its initial Holderin settings from Kammermusik 1958. As a matter of fact, Henze should be celebrated as one of a handful of composers (others include Peter Maxwell Davies and Toru Takemitsu) who have kept writing for guitar throughout their careers, despite not being guitarists themselves.*

Despite being fewer in number, the significance of Carter’s contributions should not be underplayed. The rarely-performed “Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred” evokes the sonorities of Elizabethan England as a fitting neoclassical complement to Shakespeare’s text. The contrast with Changes (1983), Carter’s most widely-known solo, is stark and immediate, yet the composer’s humor, energy, and musical vitality transpires equally from both pieces. My favorite example of Carter’s mercurial writing is found in Luimen (1997), a mixed ensemble piece that explores a variety of plucked and percussive textures (provided by the combination of vibraphone, harp, guitar, and mandolin) alongside trumpet and trombone; the piece was composed to incorporate a shorter guitar solo, Shard, written for David Starobin’s project New Dance. An earlier, rarely performed chamber work including guitar is Syringa, (1978), written for American new music hero Jan De Gaetani. Here’s a Youtube of this evocative and dramatic work.

Mentions of Henze’s guitar music usually evoke his popular solos: the three, beautiful miniatures Drei Tentos, and the monumental Royal Winter Music diptych. Yet again, there are more treasures to be found in the composer’s chamber catalogue. The Tentos themselves are excerpted from a larger work for string quartet, harp, guitar, and tenor, the above-mentioned Kammermusik. The unusual instrumentation (exacerbated by the fact that the forces are not employed together throughout the work) make performances of Kammermusik very rare, despite the indisputable beauty of the writing. Another rare work of Henze’s is the hour-long chamber drama El Cimarron, which tells the incredible tale of Cuba’s runaway slave Esteban Montejo, and includes some of the greatest theatrical writing for instruments of the century (how often do you see a flutist, a guitarist, and a percussionist chasing the singer around the stage?)

Finally, Henze should also be remembered as a writer. His autobiography Bohemian Fifths goes in great detail about how his personal life (especially his political leanings and sexual orientation) affected his career, leading to his decision to leave Germany for Italy in 1953. Another book of Henze’s, Music and Politics, articulates the need for an artist’s involvement with and reaction to the events of his/her times. I highly recommend both books to any performer, scholar, or enthusiast who is approaching Henze’s world.

In conclusion, there is a plethora of beautiful, energetic, and lyrical guitar works in the catalogues of Elliott Carter and Hans Werner Henze. I cannot think of a better homage to these wonderful (and generous!) composers than to consider programming some of their music in recitals and concerts…and don’t stop at the solos, as there are some real wonders to be found in their chamber repertoires.

Interview with luthier Benz Tschannen

2012 November 12
by Giacomo Fiore

Benz Tschannen is a Swiss-born guitar maker living in Fallon, Nevada. I sent him a few questions after first meeting him at the Sierra Nevada Guitar Festival this past summer.

Benz at the Bench

CG.org: What was your path to luthiery? How old were you when you started building guitars, and how did you move your first steps?

BT: Music was always a big part of my life, singing in school, at church, with the boy scouts, where I started playing guitar. From there I went on to take lessons from Miguel Rubio at the Conservatory of Bern. So after graduating from Gymnasium, instead of going to University like most everybody else, I attended Professional School at the Conservatory, graduating in 1973. From about 1970 to 1975 I taught Classical Guitar at various Music Schools and Teacher College in Switzerland.

In 1976 I moved to Denver, where in 1978 my Ramirez was stolen. That was a big blow, and I started reading books about building instruments, while learning to become a cabinetmaker. About 1980 I started cutting pieces for 2 guitars, and alongside built a “Lute-thing”, a Lute body with long neck and a Sitar bridge, with gut strings. It turned out to be too impractical to play for several reasons, later underwent two rebuilds, and is now at my shop as some kind of 10-string, lute bodied instrument.

The guitar parts moved with me to Fallon, NV in 1987, but did not get worked on until after I built a shop on my property in 2003. After that date, I started to spend more and more time building guitars. In 2005 I sold my share in a local cabinet shop and started building guitars full time. I was 56 at the time.

The first guitar I built after Arthur Overholtzer’s book, then went on to build after plans from the Guild of American Luthiers (www.luth.org), building a Cedar top and Spruce top in parallel, first after Ramirez plans, then after Romanillos plans. I was lucky that from the first guitar, they all sounded way better than anything I had played after the Ramirez. So that encouraged me to keep going, and I even started playing again, after a break of about 25 years.

Over time I settled on a symmetrical bracing pattern, started to sell my guitars, first in Scottsdale, then also at GSP in S.F., later at Trilogy. Nr 14 was my first double top, a cutaway model after Lowden. Nr 18 was the second double top, still Spanish style; Nr 19 was another carbon top, this time with an elevated fretboard design.

Nr 20 was the first model with most of the features I have kept since then: double top, elevated fretboard, truss rod, light radius on the frets, sound port. I have built two 8-string and one extended 7-string guitars with the same design features, and am currently finishing Nr 44 and 45.

CG.org: Where do you see yourself on an imaginary continuum between tradition and innovation? What do you consider to be innovative or progressive elements in your design?

BT: The main purpose of innovation should be to achieve any of the following: Easier playability, wider sound palette, (which includes volume, timbre, sustain, difference between “soft” and “sharp”), but also a more stable design weather-wise—i.e. less sensitivity to humidity changes—and, lastly, easier serviceability. To me, the double top serves all but the last: It gives more volume because it is lighter, it increases the sound palette, and, in combination with a built in dome, is more stable. A sound port gives the player direct feedback without having to rely on the acoustics of a given space. A light radius of the frets makes barres easier. The truss rod allows for fine tuning and stabilizing the neck relief and action. The elevated fingerboard helps indeed with reaching the high notes.

Another feature I really like is the “wedge”, where the sides are not symmetrical, but narrower on the bass side of the guitar. It allows for a more relaxed right arm position, and, in combination with a shallower body at the heel, also for a more relaxed left arm.

I have tried one “fanned fret” guitar, which I really liked, and want to try another with a slightly more pronounced fan. Another thing I would like to try is a “heelless” design, because I think it will help with serviceability, and also possibly with playability.

All these design features have been used for some time by different builders; some might by now be considered part of “tradition”. I believe it is the combination of all of them into one guitar that makes my own unique. One has to keep searching, picking up ideas, trying things in order to keep abreast with the competition. Benz test-driving

CG.org: Describe your ideal guitar sound in so many words.

BT: Clarity and evenness across its range, warmth, good sustain, but above all, a wide range of “registers”, controlled by right hand position and attack.

CG.org: What’s your ideal client? Do you find that players can help you build a better guitar by telling you what they want, or perhaps do you tailor your building to match a client’s playing style and technique?

BT: An ideal client has some idea of the parameters they like in a custom made guitar, i.e. scale length, action, string spacing, wood choice. But all of these can be worked out by asking leading questions in regards to a person’s playing style, hand size, etc. Wood choice can be refined by mailing pictures of a particular set. Sometimes it can take several clarifications to arrive at a point where I can actually start building. Players usually just tell me if they like my guitars, unless they have a special feature in mind. I would not have built an extended 7-string without being asked to do so, for example.

CG.org: Do you have favorite woods or combination of woods? Are there some woods you just will not work with, and if so, what is the reason why?

BT: There are many beautiful woods suited to build guitars. There are some to stay away from for legal reasons, such as Brazilian Rosewood and certain Ebonies. There are also woods that are not well suited because of their dampening qualities, Linden or Bass being some of them.

CG.org: What’s your stance on environmentally conscious guitar building? I’m thinking specifically of illegal or environmentally harmful logging practices of very in-demand woods, local and/or sustainable alternatives to tropical tone woods, etc.…

BT: As long as I can get tropical hardwoods legally, I see no reason not to use them. Even though in some instances the definition of “legally harvested” is probably questionable, as there is corruption in governments of many developing nations, and revenue from the sale of these woods sometimes goes directly into the pockets of government officials—check out the Bruno Manser Fund (www.bmf.ch/en/) to see what I’m talking about. As for using domestic woods, I have not tried many, but given the realities of CITES Government regulations no doubt will, sooner or later.

CG.org: Do you have any advice for players looking to buy a new instrument?

BT: Trying out a new guitar, I would suggest taking as much time as possible at a specialized store with good selection. Go back more than once, keep an open mind and don’t necessarily go for names. Instead, try to explore each guitar’s full range by changing right hand position and attack position. Pay attention to feel if your left hand feels comfortable. Remember, you are making an investment, so take your time.

Great Guitar Pieces Nobody Plays: James Tenney’s Septet (1981)

2012 November 4
by Giacomo Fiore

The repertoire of American composer James Tenney (1934-2006) is among the most diverse and stimulating in experimental music. Tenney wrote several works using algorithmic procedure, yet always producing music of striking clarity and unassuming elegance. Most of his pieces explore aspects of sonority and resonance—the gradual change of musical parameters over time (e.g. textural or temporal density), the cognitive resultants of acoustical phenomena (like the infinite glissando of For Ann (rising)), and so forth. Several of his most successful pieces were written in alternative tunings, transferring the acoustical properties of the overtone series into a more immediate musical domain.

The Septet (for six electric guitars and electric bass) is one of such pieces. The entirety of its musical materials is derived directly from the ratios of the harmonics of the overtone series, in this case built upon a low A fundamental. The first section of the piece consists of a unison canon, whose rhythmic figures present a harmonic progression of attacks as the various voices enter in staggered fashion—as marked in the excerpt below.

Tenney_Septet_Example1

At the apex of the canon, the seven instrument sound a complex polyrhithm that reflects the ratios of the overtone series up to the 12th harmonic. In the second section, Tenney introduces harmonic pitches for each rhythmic value; for example, Guitar 1, who is playing in sextuplets, switches its As to Es, the latter pitches being the 3rd, 6th, and 12th harmonics of the series. The concept of having harmonic pitches sounding in rhythmic ratios dates back to ancient Pythagorean theories (both musical and spiritual in nature), and was revisited in the 20th century by composers such as Henry Cowell and Conlon Nancarrow.

Some of the harmonics on the series would be quite out-of-tune if played on a regularly tuned, equal-tempered guitar. If the 5th harmonic (major third) is only a little sharp in ET (14 cents, to be precise, with 100 cents equalling one half-step), the harmonic 7th and 11th are more problematic, being 33 and 49 cents sharp in ET, respectively.
Tenney obviates this problem by retuning a couple strings on the guitars responsible for each harmonic—and restricting the musical material for that guitar only to those notes that can be sounded accurately in tune. Guitar 2, for example, tunes its top two strings flat by 14 cents, and sounds a pure major third against the ensemble’s equal-tempered A by fretting a C# on the detuned strings. Similarly, Guitar 3 detunes by 49 cents to play the 11th harmonic in tune, and Guitar 6 deals with the 7th harmonics by retuning its top string by 33 cents. These deviations are marked by the odd looking accidentals in the example below. Tenney’s brilliant solution allows complex harmonic relations to be sounded by the ensemble without the need for custom or otherwise adapted instruments (which can be expensive as well as problematic to get).

Tenney_Septet_Example2

Two-thirds of the way through the piece, the series “modulates” up a fifth to E, with a new chord built progressively out of a unison. I put “modulates” in quotes because, strictly speaking, each new pitch is simply a higher harmonic of the original fundamental (A), multiplied by a factor of 3—for example, the 3rd harmonic of E (B), is at the same time the 9th harmonic of A. The modulation is highlighted by two solos: first the Bass plays harmonics of A up to the 12th, then Guitar 3 descends down a series based on E, playing harmonics 8-1. The beginning of the bass solo is also shown in Example 2.

The resulting sonority must be heard to be fully appreciated. There is an unmistakable serenity and a “groundedness” in this music, deriving from the pure, simple-number relationship that governs the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic ratio between every single pitch.

Tenney’s Septet counted a number of performances at the time of its premiere, which was given by Larry Polansky and the Mills Contemporary Music Ensemble in 1985. A couple of recordings can be found online here and here. More recently ensembles have picked up the piece again—here is a video by the NYC electric quartet DITHER, augmented for the occasion by guest players Nick Didkovsky, Devin Maxwell, and Dan Josephson. There is also a commercial recording by Seth Josel—hard to find, but here’s a link. Josel also recorded Tenney’s other guitar ensemble piece, the monumental Water on the mountain…Fire in heaven, whose workings will have to be described in another post.
The Septet offers incredible musical rewards to any small group of players with the courage to step outside the comfort zone of equal temperament—all that is needed is an electronic tuner, a keen ear, and the ability to count to eleven. Here’s to hoping more and more players people will get a chance to hear Tenney’s mesmerizing exploration of the overtone series.

Battle of the Nocturnals

2012 August 19
by Giacomo Fiore

Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland is one of those rare pieces that almost single-handedly changed the history of an instrument: dedicatee Julian Bream’s premiere at the 1964 Aldeburgh festival made waves in the contemporary musical establishment, leading to top-flight composers writing several other substantial pieces in the following years. Almost fifty years after its conception, the piece remains popular, featuring on countless recordings and in historical and analytical writings (check out, for example, Stephen Goss’s illuminating article in the EGTA Guitar Forum #1).

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten (Photo from Wikipedia)

I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose a few recordings of the Nocturnal to see the range of interpretive approaches that a piece of this caliber encourages. I am not comparing or evaluating these recordings against each other, or against an idealized model—I’m simply hoping to show their differences as a testament to the piece’s musical depth. Sifting through my iTunes library I came across three examples that offer a wide range of contrast — I could have easily chosen others, but I purposely avoided Julian Bream’s own terrific interpretations if only to ensure I would not suffer from a sort of “originality bias” in the process. The three recordings in this roundup are by Craig Ogden (from Tippett: The Blue Guitar), Edin Karamazov (from Come Heavy Sleep), and Antoniy Kakamakov (from Inquieto).

Surface differences abound, most obviously in terms of the instruments chosen by each player. Karamazov’s stands out, as the disc, which pairs the Nocturnal with Bach’s BWV 1004, is recorded entirely on archlute (!!!). The instrument brings a sort of wispy, ethereal quality to the music that is perfectly fitting; moreover Karamazov does not shy away from employing the archlute’s extended lower range to thunderous effect. Purists might be turned off, but let’s not forget that Britten’s original concept for the piece involved the lute, and it wasn’t until Bream insisted for a guitar piece that the composer changed his mind.

Ogden’s Smallman, conversely, brings a modern and distinctive sound to the music—rich, clear, if a bit hollow at times. Kakamakov is the only of the bunch to align himself with recordings of yesteryear, employing a 1967 Hauser II borrowed from the Harris Guitar Collection for the occasion. His tone is perhaps the perfect mix of clarity and mysticism, at least to my ears: in his hands, the Hauser II growls assertively in the fast passages of Very Agitated and in the furious ending of the Passacaglia, but it can also whisper beautifully in the quieter and slower sections of the piece.

Tempo and rhythm also differ between each player’s approach. Ogden’s recording is the fastest at under eighteen minutes; the Australian-born guitarist also offers the most accurate reading of the score, as exemplified in his Passacaglia, which maintains the same tempo throughout (despite the tendency for many players to accelerate as things get busier and louder, there is no such indication in Britten’s score!). Both Karamazov and Kakamakov, on the other hand, approach the phrasing in a less strict way; Karamazov may be a bit over the top for the more conservative listeners—his gutsy approach to the movement’s finale varies wildly in tempo before settling into the slowest and quietest Come Heavy Sleep of the bunch. Once again, Kakamakov seems to split the difference between the other two performers, flexing the rhythms without losing touch with the score, and offering a clearer balance of modernism and romanticism in his reading.

What is perhaps most surprising is that each of these very different performances manages to be perfectly successful as a listening experience—a product of the artistic maturity and interpretive coherence of the three artists in question, but also a testament of the piece’s ultimate power. With its microscopic thematic and motivic development, its large-scale formal design, and the emotional punch packed in the harmonic trajectory of the music, Britten’s Nocturnal still makes for a challenging and rewarding benchmark for the modern guitarist. Here’s to hoping for a thousand more recordings of the caliber of Ogden’s, Karamazov’s, and Kakamakov’s.

[CD Review] Connie Sheu: The Woman’s Voice

2012 August 7
by Giacomo Fiore

Connie Sheu: The Women's Voice

Through the history of Western Classical music women have been dramatically underrepresented: consider that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has only been integrated from a gender standpoint for a whopping fifteen years. As far as composers go, historical surveys generally include but a handful—usually starting with Hildegard, maybe Barbara Strozzi, then skipping to Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, and finally mentioning Ruth Crawford Seeger and Sofia Gubaidulina. Even though there are some historico-sociological reasons for this paucity (especially in terms of access to education and the “moral suitability” for women to dedicate themselves to a performing career), the attitude towards female musicians and composers has only begun to change slightly in the past few decades. [For an illuminating read on this subject, I heartily recommend Marcia Citron’s Gender and the Musical Canon].

Women guitarist, in particular, suffer from a kinf of double bind: the instrument, considered too “effemminate” for a gentleman, was at the same time too sultry for a proper lady (the lute was the more appropriate choice). In the twentieth century, the guitar struggled at the edge of instrumental historiography and musicology, not worthy of the same attention of the violin or piano. Again, things have been lightening up considerably, and a program such as the one recorded by Connie Sheu on this album, which focuses entirely on four female guitarist-composers, is not as subversive as it might have been in the past. But enough with this post-modern psycho-babble on gender and canons: let’s move on to the music.

First on the disc are seven selections by Emilia Giuliani (daughter of a certain Mauro, who I’m told used to play guitar quite well): a theme and variations clearly reflecting her father’s bel canto-inspired style, followed by a set of “Sei Preludi” which foreshadow much more adventurous harmonic directions (and thus more in sync with contemporary musical trends).

Canadian-born Dale Kavanagh’s Three Preludes provide a distinct compositional contrast to her predecessor: albeit at times a bit monothematic, her composition explore a much broader range of the instrument, often esplicitly evoking (with their titles or idiomatic writing) classics of the repertoire by Britten and Turina.

Continuing on the modern trend, Segovia by Ida Presti was successful in alluding to the styles of some of the composers associated with the Spanish Maestro — I hear some of Torroba’s trademark rhythmic and melodic turns, and pentatonic passages that could have been penned by Tansman. Sheu’s elastic phrasing and the warm, lyrical tone she coaxes out of her maple/spruce Byers are the perfect complement to both the music and the style of the musician who inspired it.

The shadow of Segovia is conjured once more for the final piece of the disc, a substantial work by Dutch guitarist-composer Annette Kruisbrink (b. 1958). Unlike the Presti piece, her Homenaje to Andrés Segovia departs stylistically from Segovian territory — extended techniques, angular writing, and dark, dissonant harmonies were predominant, creating a mischievous (and exhilarating) atmosphere. Kruisbrink is exceptionally prolific as a composer — this award-winning piece is only one of over two hundred other works, many for different kinds of ensemble combinations.

Throughout the disc Sheu performs with authority, sensitivity, and flair, demonstrating the musicianship necessary to back up her programming choices. The recorded sound is clear and open, allowing the playing to come through unhindered while also providing a fair share of aural indulgence. I don’t simply recommend that you check out Connie Sheu’s excellent The Woman’s Voice, but also urge you to accept her implied invitation to explore this seldom-heard side of the repertoire.

Know Your Worth

2012 July 9
by Giacomo Fiore

With few exceptions, many professional classical guitarists derive their income from a variety of sources—including private lessons, wedding/corporate kinds of gigs, and of course concerts. All of these situation require the artist to act also as a negotiator, discussing compensation, logistics, and terms with a varied array of client types (that is, unless the musician would rather bypass all of the gory details and resort to a dedicated managing agent, a solution that is somewhat in decline at the lower end of the professional spectrum).

For those who are just starting to build a “gigging” schedule, let’s go over some of the aspects of negotiation that you are likely to encounter as a classical musician.

Know Your Market

Your geographical location will play a fundamental role in the kind of gigs (and the kind of pay) you will be able to secure. Competitive markets like large metropolitan areas or University communities can mean fewer gigs, but also higher pay, as the cost of living is generally higher and, simply put, customers are willing to spend more for luxuries such as background music for a party. If you have friends who are already getting gigs, it would be good to quite candidly ask them what their hourly rate is so that you can be prepared to ask for a figure in the same ballpark when the time comes. What you don’t want to do is underbid them—it may get you a gig or two, but you’ll lose their respect and also hurt the entire musical community by driving the prices down.

A Game of Rates

While we are talking about rates—your rates should be both realistic and flexible, but with a solid “bottom” underneath which you are simply not interested in performing anymore. This of course can vary a bit for extraordinary circumstances (such as friends, fundraisers or other events for a cause you want to support, or gigs that have the potential to become recursive and therefore more lucrative), but again you should always remember that by underpricing your own services you will be hurting others trying to make a living in the same field.

Personally I tend to charge a two-hour initial rate, with a higher hourly rate for any additional time. Since time is money, I also charge for travel time in excess of twenty minutes (albeit at a reduced, but still “professional” rate); again the details can be defined in the negotiating process, and include other elements such as whether or not I will be fed, weather I have to provide sound equipment for the event, and finally whether there are specific pieces that I have to learn (or arrange) for the occasion—I also bill arrangements by the hour, providing an estimate in advance.

Even though these guidelines may seem excessive, I have found that many clients are just not used to dealing with musicians—it actually helps them to have a clear pricing structure laid out in front of them, and they are free to come up with a counter-offer or ask for a discount. Sometimes it turns out that they cannot really afford me for their particular event (or, we could say, that their particular event is simply not worth my time); by being clear about your pricing, your qualifications, and your responsibilities as an entertainer you’re putting them in the same negotiating situation they are used to deal with when they arrange for catering, bartending, or valet parking for the same event.

To conclude, you should always remember to be courteous and patient—to many clients, you may be just another hired hand, and not the wonderful artist that you consider yourself to be. That’s OK—gigs help pay the bills, and in my experience are still more fun than many other jobs. By establishing a clear pricing structure and being firm about what your time is worth you will find that negotiating with brides and retirees is not as bad as they make it to be—it can actually be quite rewarding!

2012 GFA Competition Winners

2012 July 4
by Christopher Davis

The Guitar Foundation of America convention, along with its international and youth competitions, just concluded last weekend.

2012 International Competition Winners

First Place: Rovshan Mamedkuliev (Russia)
Second Place: Celil Kaya (Turkey)
Third Place: Silviu Ciulei (Romania/USA)
Fourth Place: Ivan Sanchez Flores (Mexico)

2012 Guitar Foundation of America Winners

Watch Winner Rovshan Mamedkuliev Play

Youth Competition Winners — Junior Division

First Prize: Kevin Loh (Singapore)
Second Prize: Woo Tak Kim (S. Korea)
Third Prize: Ashwin Krishna (US)
Fourth Prize: James Graham (Canada)

Youth Competition Winners — Senior Division

First Prize: Huaicong Mu (China)
Second Prize: Shon Stelman (Israel/US)
Third Prize: Noam Kanter (Netherlands)
Fourth Prize: Tobias James (US)

International Winners Source, Youth Winners Source