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Kevin Callahan Interview

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Kevin Callahan

Kevin Callahan is a guitarist, composer and teacher based in Seattle, Washington. A few weeks back, I went to a concert given by Odair Assad where I heard a piece by Kevin called The Red Fantasy. I was fascinated by the piece, and looked up and emailed Kevin a few days after the concert. This is a great interview, and I hope you enjoy!

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CGB: When did you start playing guitar? Classical first?

Kevin Callahan: I started playing guitar when I was about 12 years old living in a town just outside of Boston. I have some singers in my extended family, and my parents were always very supportive of music, so they did whatever possible to make music available to me as a kid. We found a teacher, Charlie Chiarenza, a Sicilian, who was more-so a violinist and jazz bassist, although he taught beginner level guitar. Being of Sicilian descent myself, we had some things in common. I remember bringing my steel-string made by Harmony to my first lesson only to discover that Charlie required a full month of Solfége before allowing me near the instrument. I wanted to play the Harmony; he made me read the dots!

It wasn’t long, however, before I was playing Tico Tico and tunes by the Ventures. Charlie introduced me to the music of George Barnes and Bucky Pizzarelli and he even brought me to a club to meet Joe Venuti. Sadly, I was too young to understand the scope of that genre of music. But as I grew older, I discovered how much I loved jazz. And just last year, I met Bucky at Jazz Alley here in Seattle. Great player!

I didn’t study with Charlie for very long. A year later, I entered high school, and I was so busy with schoolwork and cross-country/track that lessons had to stop. But, Charlie’s impact on me was far-reaching and remains to this day.

Throughout high school, I played folk-rock. Important influences included Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, The Beatles, Neil Young. In fact, even now, I listen to many of those artists whenever I can. I did a lot of transcribing from records in high school. James Taylor is an excellent guitarist and I learned quite a bit by copying him off vinyl. I remember hearing an interview with Pat Metheny a few years ago in which he said one of his favorite guitarists is James Taylor. I can see why.

When I entered Dartmouth College as an undergraduate, I was pretty sure I wanted to major in Chemistry and be a doctor. Not having to declare a major until sophomore year, I enrolled in first-term Music Theory. I had had no classical training prior, but here we were required to take 4-part dictation. Ouch! By the end of the first 8-week term, skills were being honed, albeit inchoate as they were. My roommate, an all-state clarinetist out of New York, turned me on to YES and like everyone else, I *had* to learn “Mood for a Day”. Having had developed some right-hand technique as a result of copying James Taylor, MFAD didn’t seem all that difficult. My roommate and I decided to form a duo and we started getting gigs in and around Hanover. Guitar, clarinet and my mediocre voice. In fact, I could have been a stand-in for Neil. Gigging at 17 and getting paid seemed pretty cool, though.

The same year, I took a seminar on John Coltrane with Professor/author Bill Cole. That changed my life. Bill gave me transcriptions of a collection of Coltrane solos. Those very transcriptions are sitting on my desk as I type this (although I prefer to learn by ear). Everything about music suddenly changed. I heard new things and thought about music and sound from an entirely different perspective. And while all these Trane and Davis tunes began informing my musical imagination, I was also discovering Jeff Beck and Deep Purple, Larry Carlton, Steve Morse, Sonny Stitt, Art Tatum and others. By my senior year, I was in an all-instrumental band called Naughty Zoot consisting of keyboard, bass, drums and guitar. We started doing gigs playing tunes note-for-note by Pat Metheny, Weather Report, Jeff Beck, Charlie Parker, Dixie Dregs … and we wrote some of our own stuff in what would probably be considered a fusion of be-bop and rock. While I loved music with a passion, I ended up with a B.A. in English with a secondary focus in environmental studies, thinking I would go to music school post-Dartmouth. That never happened.

After graduating, I spent a short time back home in Boston, left for the West Coast and wound up in Seattle thinking about becoming a Naturopath. My passion for music never waned, though, and while I wanted to learn Flamenco, a friend suggested I contact his teacher, Gary Bissiri, to learn classical guitar. Gary’s beautiful tone and musical insights were an eye-opener. So, at age 25 or so, I bought a nylon string guitar and took about nine months of intense classical guitar lessons. I went from playing Beck’s Constipated Duck to Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in a matter of a few months and I was hooked. So hooked that I got injured and had to stop for some time. Over the years, I’ve gone in and out of the music world as I concurrently developed an interest in programming computers, well, Macs. And with the iPhone and iPod Touch, I’ve got the jones to port a music theory app I wrote for my students. Right now, I’m spending a lot of time learning the iPhone SDK.

Though I’ve not had much formal guitar training, I’ve learned a lot by paying attention to anything that catches my ear, no matter the style, no matter the player. I’d listen, sometimes emulate and then experiment with new things. It’s not that bad a path, and eventually, you may come up with your own approach.

CGB: Is composing something that you just started doing naturally? Any formal lessons, etc?

Kevin Callahan: In high school, I wrote folk and soft-rock tunes. Dylan and Taylor were huge influences – I didn’t know much about music that wasn’t sung. And yeah, I played “Stairway to Heaven” too. When I entered college, I enrolled in Music Theory 101 (or whatever it was called) freshman year. I then took a year off from school, booked some jazz guitar lessons with Mitch Coodley, and was able to hook up with Thomas McGah, who at the time was head of composition at Berklee School Of Music in Boston. My private studies with Tom were more analysis of the Common Practice Period followed by 5th species counterpoint than actual “composition”, but it got me thinking. Other than the compressed nine-month stretch with McGah, I’ve mostly learned by listening to music. But, because of having crammed in a jazz background some time ago after having gone through Common Practice Period, counterpoint, and having read numerous books on 20th century music, I have a pretty good knowledge of theory, and I naturally tend to analyze pieces I’ve learned to play. It’s funny, because after a while, the categories or genres tend to fade around the edges and the language blurs. You’ve got notes and no-notes. And it’s really just about the sound you’re going for, anyway. That’s pretty much it.

Other than the folk-rock and fusion tunes I’d written, I didn’t start composing anything intended for classical guitar until Badi Assad had heard me improvising on something and then asked if I could turn it into a ballad for her album, Rhythms. So, that was really the start. Then Sergio Assad encouraged me to surround the ballad to make a suite. I think that’s when I realized that this could be fun and a new vehicle of expression.

CGB: You recently wrote a piece for Odair Assad, how did you connect with him?

Kevin Callahan: My first connection with Odair was well before meeting him. When I heard his playing with Sergio’s in their early recordings of the 80′s, I was blown away (isn’t everyone!). Can guitar really be played like that? Hearing the Assads makes you re-think everything, not just what it means to be a guitarist, but what you eat for breakfast to how you dry your socks. And it’s not only their impossible playing, it’s also Sergio’s arrangements and compositions that make their contribution to the guitar world extremely important. I think right now, Odair is raising the bar. When people call his playing “phenomenal”, they’re selling him short!

I met Odair at Cooper’s Tavern in north Seattle after a concert many years ago. We instantly bonded. Over the years, Odair has heard various compositions and arrangements of mine, including a suite I recently wrote for the “Alki Guitar Trio” (Magali Rischette, Adrien Brogna, Hughes Kolp) – recorded on GHA Records. When Odair asked me to write something for him, I was truly honored.

CGB: Can you tell us a bit about that piece, The Red Fantasy?

Kevin Callahan: Structurally, it’s a fantasy, as the title predicts, where seemingly unrelated ideas emerge and circulate in a world awash with red wine varietals. The piece gets underway with a slight Spanish flavor, so we open a Tempranillo soon followed by a Syrah built on a driving 5/4 meter with an admixture of jazz, classical and maybe a hint of renaissance. After the Syrah, we reach for a gutsy Barbera invoking rock ‘n roll, and just as the Barbera gives rise to Malbec with its South American rhythms, we settle down with an Amarone – a slow, contemplative waltz, aged and perhaps revealing a complex bouquet, originally attended by a Beaujolais Nouveau, but I jerked the Beaujolais as its lightness was structurally inappropriate to follow the Amarone (obviously!). We then re-savor a couple of the earlier varietals before reckoning with a strong finish. Harmonically, the piece varies quite a bit. I wouldn’t say I was using any particular language and the above descriptions are very informal. When I write, I don’t think so much about style or musical boundaries, but I do draw on theory to enlist the aid of a device or two if I get cornered. There’s definitely a rock ‘n roll element to the Barbera and Odair just nails it! Must be the Scorpio in him, maybe the long hair. With earlier pieces, I’ve worked directly with my editor of choice, Sibelius, and sometimes with a guitar (and or cat) on my lap. Sibelius makes it very quick and easy to produce great results and allows me to work fast. For “The Red Fantasy”, I took a different approach: rather than going directly to the score, I sat in front of my Mac and launched Quicktime Pro to video-capture improvisations and record rough ideas, shapes, colors. Sometimes I used PhotoBooth as it can also record audio-video. Later, I’d transcribe what I played, more or less, and rework the ideas into the composition using Sibelius.

CGB: Any other big composition projects in the works?

Kevin Callahan: My wife is still waiting for her piece :-) And several players have asked that I write something for them (soon). Gotta roll up my sleeves and get to work! I’d like to write more for other instruments as well. I’ve studied orchestration and I’ve done some writing in that area. It’s an art form I’d like to pursue more seriously given the opportunity (and time).

CGB: You’ve had your music published by some major companies, what’s the process like? How does a composer get their music published?

Kevin Callahan: Once you get a piece accepted for publishing, the process can then turn a bit tedious as there’s a fair amount of back-and-forth checking of the scores for every detail you can imagine. Yet, mistakes can and still do happen. I know I’ve overlooked or missed things and wondered how. It seems to take six months to a year for the score to make it out the door. Today, it’s not that hard to publish your own scores, but it is nice to have a publisher like Henry Lemoine Editions working with you. They put out a quality product and are great people.

CGB: As a teacher you’ve worked with competition winners and other successful guitarists, have any tips for aspiring musicians?

Kevin Callahan: The wider the foundation, the higher the peak. Make sure you develop your basic musicianship and lay the groundwork (which you can continue to refine throughout your career) but at the same time, don’t be afraid to check out the stuff you think is beyond your reach. Instead of telling yourself things are hard, tell yourself just the opposite: “music is easy” – then listen and play the music. I like to remind myself that all I have to do is put fingers on the fretboard in a sequence while I generate sound by and large with the right hand. Mechanically, our bodies learn what needs to happen to make music, provided we have a concept of what it is we’re looking to achieve and provided the foundation is stable. Here, I’m reminded of “The Inner Game of Tennis”. I don’t recommend tackling monster pieces on no foundation, however.

A lot of our problems arise out of misconceptions or lack of awareness with respect to what it is we’re actually trying to create *musically*. Learn to be the detective and figure out what’s keeping you from realizing the musical idea, the passage, the phrase, or even the larger scope of a piece. Always start from the musical idea if you can. Get the musical concept of the passage or piece first. Creatively visualize and hear the music in your mind. How does the music talk to you? What emotions are evoked? Feelings? Sensations? What’s the story being told? Sometimes we need help with that part and an experienced teacher or coach, another musician, or perhaps a great recording, can help you explore the possibilities that might not be readily apparent.

Of course, we run into a bit of problem when we’re looking at a brand new piece of music that we’ve never heard before. Looking for the music in a new score can be like searching for oil! In this situation, we often have to play through the score and trust the music will begin to reveal itself. With good technique and imagination, you can experiment quickly with various ways to finger and interpret a given passage as you bring the piece as a whole into shape. Fingering, I believe, is an expression of one’s personality and it has a lot to do with how a piece actually sounds.

Create the mechanical solutions that allow your musical ideas to be born. At slow and very slow tempos, try to execute the nuances you’ve conceptualized. Virtuosity is in nuance. If your basic foundation is good, you’re likely to be quicker to the results you are looking for. That said, don’t always play a passage the same way. Try unfamiliar things, surprise yourself with a different dynamic or accent or rhythmic detail and listen for the music it might suggest. Don’t be stuck on fingerings too early when learning a new piece. Fresh ideas may emerge. This will give you more skill and opportunity to play in the moment when performing. The worst thing is to have one and only one way of playing something – then when you are performing and you don’t do it exactly as you had planned or practiced, you start that inner dialogue and all hell breaks loose. While sticking to written notes, there can and perhaps should be an element of improvisation in the performance.

I think the most important thing is to play what you like and love what you play. Only you can know what that is. If you go that way, your music will be honest and people will get it. Not only that, music becomes a lot more fun and you’ll undoubtedly play better.

CGB: You play quite a few styles of music, correct? Do you feel that it’s important for every guitarist to be fluent in multiple styles? What genre or style do you spend the most time performing in? How do you think all these styles factor into your playing as a whole?

Kevin Callahan: I do play quite a few styles of music, some better than others, and they often merge when improvising. I can’t say it’s necessary for every guitarist to be fluent in multiple styles. Important? maybe. To play a style well, you have to have an affinity for the style, of course, because if you force it, it won’t sound authentic.

Most masterful musicians are dedicated to one and only one style, be it classical, jazz, rock, pop, blues, flamenco… And while they may often enjoy numerous genres, they dedicate themselves to mastering that one style. Playing multiple styles can be a double-edged sword: while it may help your overall musicianship as you explore a broader range of musical ideas and have to develop specific skills necessary to execute those ideas, the downside is that there’s only so much time in the day to excel at any one of them. So, there’s a matter of practicality to consider. It’s time consuming enough to be at the top of your game in one style. If you take on too much, you could find yourself compromising on the things you love most. If you are interested in numerous genres, you’ll need to establish your musical goals and objectives. Those may change over time, of course.

I normally have my Millennium by Thomas Humphrey on my lap for most any kind of music I might be playing. The nylon string just seems organic. But, if I need to shake the room, I grab my ’61 Strat!

CGB: Any other thoughts?

Kevin Callahan: Everyone can learn to play music and play quite well, and no doubt we can all learn from each other. I’m learning a lot from my students now and in ways that never would have occurred to me. Keep an open mind, and don’t forget that making music is fun!