When did you start playing the guitar and why? What did you study and what is your musical background? With that guitar do you play and have you played?
I began playing the guitar in school – just a few chords to accompany group songs. I think I must have been about 9 years old. Then I stopped for a few years and then started studying formally with Jeremy Herbert – my teacher until I left for University. He had a very interesting way of teaching, he rarely demonstrated what he wanted, but instead stimulated me by asking questions and always asked me to really consider what I was doing and why I was doing it. Looking back he was responsible for me developing my own approach and helped me on the path to finding myself not only musically but also as a human.
During my teenage years I studied classical guitar but also played electric guitar influenced by rock guitarists (Vai, Satriani,Van Halen etc), Frank Zappa and Jazz too. My little Welsh town of Brecon (where I grew up) had a fantastic annual Jazz festival where I got to see the greats including Joe Pass and Pat Metheny. At University I concentrated on the nylon strung instrument and have never looked back.
How did start the idea for your latest CD “The First Beat is the Last Sound”?
My new CD can be seen as the next step in my evolutionary journey to my music making. It seemed quite natural to do an entire CD of my own work after the gradual increase in the number of original pieces and arrangements which have appeared on my previous CDs.
I have been encouraged by discussions with my friend Derek Gripper who like myself has been trying to find a new repertoire for the guitar which is more culturally relevant.
The main influences for the CD are quite clear – on the disc I have written homages to Arvo Part, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John McLaughlin. Though not directly named the influence of Leo Brouwer is never far away either.
Though McLaughlin might seem disparate from the other composers listed, I feel a clear link via John Coltrane, Indian music and New York.
What were and are your main musical influences? How do you express your “musical form” both under execution that improvisation, whether you’re playing “solo” both with other musicians? Do you draw up a “form” by default making adjustments when necessary, or you let the “form” itself to emerge in different situations, or exploit both creative approaches?
The form of the piece is whatever is ‘demanded’ by the piece. Sometimes I may use an exact template from a previous composition or a time limit or sometimes I set up a process and just let it write itself . When I was a student I would often be more rigorous with letting a process become the most important element, but after studying Bach in particular and seeing how he was quite flexible about compromising process, I realised that I preferred my music this way with more freedom of expression.
Though the forms I use when composing are unique for each piece, though I seem to have developed a methodology for the process of writing:
The initial idea can come from anywhere (from reading, studying a score, improvising or listening). Then I’ll write down the idea and see if it’s physically possible, if it is I’ll input it into the computer and work at it away from the guitar. Then I’ll print out the new version and try to physically play it again. This feedback process may be repeated many, many times or maybe just a few depending on the success!
Working like this achieves a good balance of music that is not too confined by my physical technique, but the result is music that is largely idiomatic to the guitar.
What does improvisation mean in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, jazz, contemporary, etc.?
As regards improvisation – I have been increasing the amount that I do with each concert, and I find that improvisation is becoming an attitude rather than something that I do for one piece and not another. It is about finding a freedom within whatever piece you are playing. Sometimes this might express itself with a structural change, or a melodic change or simply a change to the phrasing and dynamics etc.
When I first started playing classical guitar I thought the score was sacrosanct, even to the extent that I would torture myself trying to play difficult fingerings etc which I now see were just misprints! Gradually I’ve come to the conclusion that I must view the score as a means of communicating not just ‘how’ but ‘why’. I’m constantly trying to find answers to what the composer ‘meant’ for each phrase, then you can play with true conviction which as Julian Bream suggests is probably the most important thing you can do.
One of the reasons I write and play so much of my own music is that I can fulfil the need that I have to play music that seems to mean something now, something culturally relevant. I also enjoy the fact that an audience is more accepting of me having a very free approach to my own works as opposed to contradicting their ingrained realisations of standard repertoire.
I saw you play a lot of contemporary composers music (like in “A Gift” cd), how does your music methodology is influenced by the community of people (musicians or not) you work with? Do you change your approach in relation to what you directly or indirectly receive from them? If you listen to a different interpretation of a song you already played and you want to perform do you take care of this listening or do you prefer to proceed in complete independence?
I’m not really sure how this came about, for the CD ‘A Gift’, I wanted to make a CD which was not just another typical classical guitar disc – with all the usual repertoire. At the time I was working and teaching at the Spanish Guitar Centre, London – which enabled me to see all the latest publications and CDs and to meet the many guitarists who visited. I went to many concerts in London and often heard new pieces, that’s how I came across the John Tavener piece for example. After seeing the score for this piece though I wasn’t afraid modify various things including retuning the guitar in order to express my vision of the piece more clearly.
As for hearing and being influenced by other players, I now have enough confidence to find my own way. I don’t mind hearing other performances but when I sit down with the score, but I need to understand the music on my own terms. Just copying someone else’s ideas won’t make sense to me. Of course, sometimes it’s very hard to ignore someone else’s rendition completely and I find I have to let go of my ego and make sure I’m not just trying to compete with them. Ego can be great for motivation, to practise harder and perfect techniques, play faster etc, but that must all be forgotten when it comes to performing.
I sometimes feel that in our time the history of the music flow with no particular interest in its chronological course, in our disco-music library before and after, the past and the future become interchangeable elements, could this be a risk for an interpreter and a composer of a uniform vision?
That’s a really interesting question, and the phrase ‘uniform vision’ is intriguing. I think it seems obvious to us that the most famous composers/artists do have a uniform vision. But on further reflection, there is usually quite a large evolutionary journey for each of them. Only rarely (and this is probably the true sign of genius) does an artist maintain his highest quality of work throughout this process, and often an artist will lose his initial audience as he continues his exploratory journey. Paco de Lucia, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Picasso immediately come to mind as artists who never stood still, but we can immediately recognise them – that has to be the goal, to maintain one’s own personality, to create a voice that is immediately recognisable and continually learn and evolve. As long as the core is there, then there should be no harm in being exposed to so many ‘interchangable elements’ indeed it is a privilege of our time to have access to so many worlds of music etc. There is danger to a composer of trying to replicate a novel idea that one has just encountered, but I think if you have truly absorbed the idea and it has personal meaning or resonance then it can only enhance your vocabulary.
What are your essential five discs, always have with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island ..?
I find this impossible question impossible to answer! In some ways if I was stranded on a desert island I’d like 5 (great) albums I’ve never heard before. Listening to music is often a frustrating process for me as I find it difficult to simply enjoy it. I either want to be part of it and play along or I end up analysing it and imagining ways of trying to arrange it for the guitar! But there are some artists who do transcend that and they include Julian Bream, John Coltrane, Shakti, Martha Argerich and Jordi Savall so a disc from each of them would be lovely.
Who would you like to play and who would you like to play? What music do you usually listen to?
I’d really love to get a group together maybe percussion, violin, bass and guitar and start exploring my guitar pieces in that context. As for listening – it constantly changes – I find I listen to music via youtube the most so I can end up on long journeys following links…In the car I only have a few cds.. My current favourite is ‘Sorrow and the Phoenix’ by the Andy Nowak Trio – a pianist I met at this year’s Brecon Jazz Festival and a man kind enough to join me at very short notice to perform Terry Riley’s IN C.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
Earlier this year I arranged and performed Miles Davis ‘In a Silent Way’ for 2 guitars/sax/bass and drums and it was so much fun playing in that group that I’d love to do it more. I also led a performance of Terry Riley’s In C which I do every year at a festival in Wales. I’d love to tour those 2 pieces.
As for solo guitar, alongside more composing I’ve been busy arranging the music of Philip Glass and hope to record a CD entirely of his music very soon.