I had six months of lessons with a family friend during the second year of playing guitar and then was self taught right up until I starte
d college. I had learned enough knowledge of harmony and theory on my own to get in to the conservatory and was admitted as a classical guitar performance major. I studied classical guitar with Michael Cedric Smith at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music for two years and realized that I did not want to devote my studies to being a professional classical guitarist. At that time, Charles Dodge had recomm
ended that I study composition. It turned out to be a better direction for me.
As an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, I studied composition with Noah Creshevsky. Charles Dodge, and Tania Leon. As a graduate student at the Queens College Aaron Copland School of Music I studied with Thea Musgrave and Henry Weinberg.
Later on when returning as an alumnus to work at the Brooklyn College Center for Computer Music, I learned so much from George “Skip” Brunner about composing electroacoustic music and working in the recording studio. Much of my debut compilation CD, Electroacoustic Compositions for Electric Guitar (with the exception of Time Lapse, Karmicom and Three Short Electronic Pieces) was created at the Brooklyn College Center for Computer Music.
I must say that my perspective on studying with a teacher now is from someone who has not studied with anyone for over 10 years. It wa
s a good experience having worked with composition teachers who each had different teaching methods, philosophies and styles. They offered many invaluable perspectives on all aspects of being a serious composer.
A few years ago, I received a message from Ralph asking me if I would like to be in a book of guitarists he was working on. When I found out who was in State of The Axe, I was blown away. Half the guitarists in the book were influences for me growing up. It is a great honor for me to be included with such distinguished company in a beautifully put together collection of photographs.
Berlioz said that composing for classical guitar it was difficult because the composer have first to be a guitarists, these words were often used as a justification for the limited repertoire of classical guitar with other instruments like piano and violin. At the same time I think that the growing interest for the guitar (whether classical, acoustic, electric, MIDI) collected in contemporary music has changed the importance of Berlioz’s words. As a guitarist and a composer do you think that these words are even true?
First, it is important to understand that Berlioz came from a very different time. Composing for any instrument is difficult. In regards to guitar, the fourths (with the major 3rd between the 3rd and 2nd strings) make standard guitar tuning slightly unusual compared to the fifths used in string instruments. I’ve found that contemporary composers who are not guitarists are often intrigued with the standard tuning – often using it as a chord (low to high: E-A-D-G-B-E). Alternate tunings are also an option – as they make the guitar resonate differently too – but anything more involved than a drop D becomes more work to sightread.
I think it is still easy to forget that the classical guitar is capable of so much. Six strings offer many polyphonic and harmonic possibilities, requiring composers have a strong understanding of guitar fingerings. I think a composer who is just starting to write for guitar, should work with a trained guitarist closely. Another issue with the classical guitar is volume. Amplification has come a long way now in getting the classical guitar to be easily heard in larger ensemble settings. This obviously was not possible in Berlioz’s time.
Since I am a composer who plays guitar, I’ve found that the physical aspects required to play an instrument can be hindering to creativity due to the tendency on relying on familiar fingerings and tendencies. My composition, Primo Volo (composed for Oren Fader) was composed without having picked up the guitar once. I couldn’t have composed that particular piece otherwise. Also, I wasn’t composing it for me in mind as performer.
What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possible to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.?
Improvisation for me is one means of generating material for my electroacoustic music. Outside of that, improvisation is a nice way for me to perform with friends.
If we are talking about students learning classical pieces in the conservatory, there isn’t much room for improvisation there. Some people may not realize that the classical masters – Beethoven, Mozart, Handel and Bach for example – were all excellent improvisers themselves.
In 1968 Derek Bailey asked to Steve Lacy to define in 15 seconds the difference between improvisation and composition, the answer was “In 15 the difference between improvisation and composition is that in composition you have all the time to decide what you say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have only 15 seconds” .. Was the Lacy’s answer a little too much ironic or is it a true one??
Sounds to me like a clever, tongue in cheek response by a great musician. There are various forms of improvisation. For example, one must make a distinction between free improvisation in comparison to improvisation rooted in more tonal/harmonic languages. It’s not a simple or clear cut matter.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises …
As far as “errors” that occur unintentionally, I prefer to call them happy accidents. Some people believe in divine intervention – I don’t. Maybe they aren’t mistakes and were intended all along without realizing it. While working many hard hours on composing, I always leave room the unexpected. The more you work, the more things happen. An unexpected occurrence can easily direct me to a different place within a composition.
It seems to me that there is a small music scene about classical guitarists dedicated to an innovative and contemporary repertoire, as well as you come to my mind the names of Marco Cappelli, David Tanenbaum, David Starobin, Elena Casoli, Maurizio Grandinetti, Marc Ribot, etc. Are there other guitarists you know and that you can suggest us that they move on these innovative musical routes?
Hans Reichel has released albums of wonderful solo guitar music. He is a personal favorite of mine.
I am familiar with the names you mention – some of whom I admire – but to be quite honest, contemporary classical guitar music is not something I listen to as much as I used to. My primary work now deals with electric guitar in the genre of electroacoustic music. My solo classical guitar piece, Primo Volo (2003), was recorded by New York City based guitarist Oren Fader and included on a CD in 2005 that I also produced and edited called First Flight: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/orenfader2
How is the situation in USA and New York in those times? How much the crisis hit the musical scene?
Isn’t there always some sort of crisis in regards to the arts? Don’t the arts always suffer because they are not funded enough? Well, I can say that whatever “scene” exists in New York is not only in Manhattan anymore – there are still a few places to play and still some great music to catch there, but I’ve noticed that lots of stuff is now happening in Brooklyn (my hometown). I’ve done a lot less performing and concert attending the last few years, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask about this. I’ve become more of a studio composer. I haven’t ruled out consistently performing live ever again – it just hasn’t been a priority for a little while now.
I’m a Rhys Chatham, Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca fan, I know that you have played with Branca, can you tell us something about this experience?
I never actually performed with Branca. My first experience performing Branca’s music involved playing el. guitar in a US premiere of a 3 el gtr, el bass and drums piece called Guitars D’ Amour. This was back in 2004 in New York City. Branca supervised a rehearsal and we played 2 performances of the piece – a 15 minute sightreading beast of a work. A very different piece than one is accustomed to hearing from Branca and at the same time intense and also fun.
Then I performed once in Branca’s well known 100 guitar symphony (80 electric guitars, 20 el. basses and drum set) as part of a recording session in Queens, NY back in late 2004. It was a memorable experience. One vivid memory was taking off my earplugs off out of curiosity and lasting only a few seconds before putting them back on. It was violently loud and nothing like I had ever experienced before. It was great.
I have, sometimes, the feeling that in our times music’s history flows without a particular interest in its chronological course, in our discotheque before and after, past and future become interchangeable elements, shall this be a risk of a uniform vision for an interpreter and a composer? The risk of a musical “globalization”?
We’ve reached a point now where anything goes in music. I think that it’s important that there are people out there who along with listening to music also want to think deeply and form opinions about it. A problem I hear these days with much experimental/electronic music is it seems disposable. It makes no real attempt to be memorable and I hear so many of the same – sometimes recycled – gestures and sounds.
Maybe there is no more musical history to be made. I think it’s OK if the lines are blurred or simply nonexistent. If anything, technology seems to be making more history. Then again, technology could be at fault too for making artsts and listeners lazy.
Let’s talk about marketing. How much do you think it’s important for a modern musician? I mean: how much is crucial to be good promoters of themselves and their works in music today?
It depends on what you are trying to achieve with music. A good label can help get your music better exposure, but there is less emphasis these days with getting on a label because of independent/DIY releases. Self-promotion is easier with the internet now, but nowadays it is so saturated with people trying to get known, that it can be difficult to get noticed. If one can afford management, that is always useful. It seems these days a website like Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com/) is a useful way for many artists to generate funding for their projects.
What do you think about the discographic market crisis, with the transition to digital downloading in mp3 and all this new scenario?
Physical CD releases are important for artists because most reviewers or radio station programmers won’t bother with mp3s alone. Real fans of a group or an artist are mostly likely to purchase a physical disc. With the availability of many free mp3s online, the younger audience feels entitled to music without having to pay for any of it. Younger people have no idea what it’s like to go to record store and never will. The availability of music has made listening more fragmented and taken for granted. I know artists, including myself, who still think of the track order as an important part of the listening experience and that is lost with free downloading.
Unfortunately, music piracy is very difficult to control. At least now with a site like Spotify, artists get some royalties – however small – for each streamed listen, so I guess it’s better than nothing. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the idea of being able to listen to practically anything with few clicks of the mouse. It’s easy to get swept up in the new technology, but I always make it a point to remember where I came from.
Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island …
Lists like this are always challenging because they could get very long. Anyway, I’ll try to have some fun with it:
1. The American Stravinsky, The Composer, Vol. 4 – Igor Stravinsky (cond. Robert Craft)
Love it mostly for Agon. So much of why I love that piece cannot be put to words.
2. The Rite of Spring: CBS Great Performances – Igor Stravinsky (cond. Pierre Boulez: Cleveland Orchestra)
I’ve heard many recordings of this piece and this Boulez recording is my favorite.
3. Band of Gypsys (live at The Fillmore East) – Jimi Hendrix and The Band of Gypsys
I loved it when I was younger and still do. Something as incredible as Hendrix’s Machine Gun from that 1970 release will never exist again.
4. Absolutely Free – The Mothers of Invention
Everything about Frank Zappa that I love is on that album. I’m a big fan of the original Mothers and I never tire hearing that band and those early albums.
5. Sonatas and Interludes – John Cage
I have such great memories listening to this piece with headphones and the score. A defining moment in my musical development and my favorite music by John Cage.
I love everything about this album.
With who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?
I would like to play with anyone who can inspire me to play better. I listen to all kinds of music. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot classic electronic music. Then I may throw on some metal or jazz. It depends on my mood. Sometimes, I’ll even listen to my own stuff.
Your next projects? When we will see you playing in Italy?
I recently composed a piece for the $100 Guitar Project. You can read more about this very cool project and hear an excerpt from my piece here: (http://www.100dollarguitar.com). I’ve done less creatively since the birth of our first child – a daughter – in July 2010. I have started work on some new music and am looking to releasing an album of electric guitar driven music by late 2012.
I would love to come to Italy to play. I also would have a few relatives to visit… Unfortunately, I don’t expect to be there anytime soon.
A last question …. the Blog is read by several students .. any good advices to give them?
It’s obvious that one has to work hard in order to be successful. There’s no question that music schools churn out many competent musicians, so what can you do to make yourself stand out? What makes you unique? Focus on your strengths and worry less about your weaknesses. Learn as much as you can, respect tradition, be versatile, professional and never be a music genre elitist. All great players have something distinct about them that make them stand out from the rest. One must experience life outside of music too. It is important to be a well-rounded individual.
Also, avoid getting into serious debt and if you have to, get yourself a job with flexible hours….
Ok. This is really the last question .. which is more a reflection: Luigi Nono said “Other thoughts, other noises, other sounds, other ideas. When we listen to, we often try to find ourselves in others. To find our mechanisms, system, rationalism, in the other. And this is a quite conservative violence. “… Now .. does experimentation free ourselves from the burden of having to remember?
I know my sense for experimentation started as a young teenager and was based simply on wanting to be different – call it rebelliousness. I eventually learned a lot, and as I grew older, focused on what I thought to be useful in my own music. I allow for influences to get in my music in one way or another and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Conservative violence? I think that’s a bit drastic. I do think it takes a bit of courage to follow your own path. I try to genuinely tap into how I see the world and find my place in it through my art. Experimentation is freeing, but why should it require that we forget? What’s wrong with remembering? I don’t even mind being a bit nostalgic too, but that’s just me.
Thanks for having me.
Thanks to you Marco!