Charles Mokotoff Interview
Charles Mokotoff is a classical guitarist based out of the Washington D.C. area. He reccenty returned to guitar after a long break and has remastered an old recording for his first CD Autumn Elegy. I had the chance to Ask Charles a few questions regarding his experiences as a performer in the 1980s and today.
Classical Guitar Blog: Can you give us a bit of background on yourself? How did you start playing? Did you begin with classical guitar?
Charles Mokotoff: I guess I started like everyone else, playing electric guitar in a rock band, pretty young, something like 13 or 14. I kept that up right through to college, playing in one not so great band after another. When I hit college at 17 I met someone playing classical guitar, and that was it. She was working her way through the Six Lute Pieces of the Renaissance you know the Chilesotti works…and I was totally awed by it. I picked up a classical guitar somewhere and just kept on plugging. Lucky for me there was a fantastic teacher in my area who had worked with Yepes for years. She was very strict with me and laid the groundwork for my further study.
I also had an enormous capacity for practice. I just kept on improving and my family was very encouraging. It was all pretty surreal now that I look back at my college years, graduate study and resulting career, because, at around 15 years old, I lost a lot of hearing. But I just put on some blinders, ignored the apparent futility of it, and kept at it.
I studied with Edward Flower at Ithaca and also Carlos Bonell in London. Then I went on to do some work in early music on the lute with, among others, Paul O’Dette. But my real mentor was Michael Lorimer, who showed me what it was to be a pro. He knows the guitar, music and the business very well and has a way of guiding that is unlike any other teacher I have ever had, in any discipline.
CGB: You’ve just released a new album, tell us a bit about it. I noticed on your CD page that your recently released album was recording in 1985, was it released then? What did you have to do to get it ready for release now?
Charles Mokotoff: I did my New York Debut at Carnegie in 1987, but leading up to that had quite a lot of work in New England and also overseas. When I came back from some concerts in the Far East, I knew I just had to do some recording. We laid down the tracks on the CD Autumn Elegy in the summer of 1986 (that’s a typo on the web page, it says 1985) at a church inside Harvard Yard in Cambridge. We recorded at night so we could take advantage of the great acoustics but minimize ambient noise outside. Keeping that up for about a week, I learned what it was like to do the graveyard shift!
But, for some reason, with the pressure of performing and teaching and the looming NY Debut, the master never got pressed into a CD. It was way more complicated back then, so it just languished in my closet.
A good friend (that would be Scott Kritzer, no stranger to your blog) suggested having it re-mastered by Bernie Grundman. The before and after of this recording is just stunning. When I heard what he could do, I finally took the ball over the finish line after all those years and produced this CD just a few weeks ago.
CGB: You’ve been an active performer for a few decades now, what has changed about the classical guitar concert? Is it the same world out there for the classical guitarist today as it was 15 years ago?
Charles Mokotoff: Actually that is not entirely the case. Around 1993 or so, I just hung it up. Got a job in the IT world and started a family. I just said goodbye to the guitar for quite some time. It was a period of reflection and self-examination for me; I also became fluent in American Sign Language and met lots of fascinating people, both deaf and hearing. But one day, really just one day, I felt I had to play, of all things Sor’s Andante Largo Op.5 #5. I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I took my old concert guitar, out of that same closet, the very instrument on which I recorded my CD and did all my concerts, and started to play again. It was slow going for about a month, but things picked up quickly.
That was about 3 years ago and I have been practicing daily ever since. I do lots of small gigs around the DC area, but also some full recitals. I performed a concerto with a local orchestra this season, and have a few recitals out of the area. One recital in Chicago this June is under the auspices of William Coble, composer of the wonderful guitar solo, Autumn Elegy. I keep busy and, in many ways, sound better than ever.
2009 is a much different world for guitarists and I can sum it up in one word: “internet”. When I was doing my thing in the ‘80’s I had to send out typed sheets of paper with my PR, headshots, and cassettes. Then spend at least an hour or two daily on the phone. Now, one URL does it all, you send a couple emails and there you go, contact made. Of course it isn’t any easier to get a gig, but at least by the large number of contacts you can make, the odds increase greatly. The downside of this is a lot of players are perhaps better at websites and publicity than the guitar, so that can’t be too good. But in general, I am overwhelmed with the sheer number of guitarists, many who are quite accomplished. You can hear them all going at it on YouTube, which has to be one of the wonders of the world…it can be a big time waster too if you aren’t careful!
Another thing that fascinates me to no end this time around is the guitar itself. Back then, I was faithful to one guitar for 15 years or more, now in three years I have bought and sold quite a few. I have already had, or still have in a few short years, guitars by Delarue, Bernabe, two different Humphrey’s, and now my current love, an instrument by Andrea Tacchi. I also have on order a guitar by Ross Gutmeier who is a very talented luthier in Baltimore, I am sure we will hear more about him in the future.
CGB: What was it like coming back to the guitar after such a long break? What did you do to get back to your former level?
Charles Mokotoff: Coming back to the guitar after a long break was a complicated experience. Over all of it was relearning the music, my hands seemed to move like always, just a bit slower, but I didn’t recall anything to play. Reading music came right back of course, but I grappled with scales, arpeggios, tone production, LH slurs, like anyone does. It all came back faster than I could imagine.
The big thing was more psychological, i.e., I am technically not a professional guitarist anymore, wow, this is fun! I was just doing this because I wanted to, not because I needed or had to. There were many other hobbies I could pursue, but with my training and diligent study many years ago, why not enjoy myself with the guitar? There have been a few full concerts I did last season and so far this one where I got nervous, questioned why I was doing this, etc. In the dress rehearsal for the Concerto I did a few months ago I recall thinking, what am I crazy? Why am I doing this again? But, not unlike Segovia who claimed nervousness and apprehension before each concert, that he made up his mind each one would be his last, and then after the performance just dying to do it again, I decided this was fun and worthwhile, I should be doing this. I have been preparing for these concerts basically all my life.
What I do now is really not much different than what I had always done, only less of it. That would be daily practice, no matter what, come hell or high water as they say, I would spend at least an hour with the guitar. I wrote out a schedule of pieces to review, new music to learn and at least 15 minutes or so of technical exercises. Some good days I get two hours, rarely up to three. This is a big departure from the old days when five or six hours of practicing was fairly routine for me.
CGB: How did you go about picking pieces for the record? There’s a piece on there that’s written and dedicated to you, can you tell us a bit about it?
Charles Mokotoff: Most of those tracks are from my NY recital. I was hell bent, at the time, to not try to make a living playing the Segovia repertoire. This may or may not have been a good idea. But when I debuted, I put together an all 20th Century program. I just wanted to do something different.
For example, I had a correspondence going with Nikita Koshkin way before he became famous and still have a number of his early works in manuscript. I premiered his work The Porcelain Tower in 1989 or so, and also was the first one to play The Usher Waltz here in the US (at least that is what he told me at the time). I was also big on Bream’s repertoire and of course played the Walton Bagatelles and other famous works he commissioned. So my idea for repertoire back then was to play accessible, yet modern music for the guitar, no transcriptions. I did end up with the Tedesco Capriccio because I just loved that piece and thought it the greatest opening work, dramatic, lyrical, everything you want in a guitar solo. The rest of it just flowed. The Sakura Variations are everyone’s favorite and the Rodrigo pieces always intrigued me.
I met Bill Coble in Boston around 1981 I think, and he was just chomping at the bit to write a guitar solo. We worked very closely on this piece, he is so intense and amazingly talented, music just pours out of him. I have to say, if you want to take your playing up a few notches, work with a talented composer like Bill. For example: “can you make that trill just about 10% faster?” Get the idea? I really wanted to make the guitar do what he was trying to portray. What an amazing and worthwhile experience to have done that. Maybe someday one of us can get him to write another!
CGB: What are your future plans in the guitar world? Will you be releasing any more recordings?
Charles Mokotoff: I can’t bite off too much more in the guitar world these days; I’m a single Dad with young kids and a full time job. But I have been able to keep this going very well as a dedicated hobby. Perhaps in a few years I can give more time to it. But for now, it stays fun, and I am thankful for the practice I did years ago that led to the refined technique I enjoy so much these days. I really do sound better and better. There aren’t a whole lot of things great about getting older, but this, the ability to interpret music naturally, to build on the diligence of my youth and to understand how to practice is, for sure, one wonderful thing about maturing.
I already started to do some recording of how I sound now in preparation for a new CD hopefully in 2009. It is more of a guitar recital album, not a specific era or composer. Lots of transcriptions this time around!
CGB: Do you have any tips for guitarists?
Charles Mokotoff: You have to love practicing, I really look forward to my time with the guitar, I never feel like it is a chore. Be inspired by the greats, not just Segovia, but also others e.g., Pablo Cassals (“of course I continue to play and to practice, I would do so if I lived another 100 years…”), Rubinstein, Heifitz, others. You can listen and see these geniuses on YouTube. I got more out of Horowitz playing Scarlatti than anything I could hear of a guitarist. Explore the more remote works in our repertoire but stay in touch with our roots. It is amazing that here in 2008 many of my audiences are hearing, for example, Leyenda for the first time! Don’t dismiss the Segovia repertoire, there is a good reason this music is called classic.
CGB: Any final thoughts?
Charles Mokotoff: Thanks for this opportunity to tell the world a little about myself. I have been inspired by many of the wonderful musicians and artists I have met throughout my life. I hope that I might, in some small way, inspire others to stay dedicated to music and the guitar. As Bream said in A Life on the Road, when talking about Segovia’s “threads of guitar poetry”: “…and it is the constant reminder of such a thread in this, the noisiest and most violent century in history, that I believe to be Segovia’s greatest achievement.” What an amazing opportunity some of us have to be playing music on the guitar with all that is happening around us. All of us benefit by remembering how fortunate we are to be the beneficiaries of the work of Segovia and the other greats. The baton has been passed to us, now lets see how much further we can take it.