Interview with Smaro Gregoriadou
1. When did you start playing the guitar and why? What did you study and what is your musical background?
My actual love and attraction to the “silver sonority” of the classical guitar as well as my desire to compose new music, both started as early as it is hard to recall. In my family environment there didn’t exist any professional musicians; just a genuine love for all kinds of good music, including classical, folk, jazz, etc. Now, my formal education in classical music started not before I was 12 years old. I met distinguished teachers, especially the great Greek pianist and conductor George Hadjinikos (1923-2015) as well as my principal guitar teacher George Kertsopoulos. Later, I studied with outstanding classical guitar specialists of our time, notably Roberto Aussel, Jesus Castro-Balbi, Paul Galbraith, Carlos Bonnel and John Williams, whose presence in my musical life has always been inspiring. I took my Classical Guitar and Music Composition degrees in Athens and later completed my guitar studies in London at the Royal College of Music as a holder of a Senior Exhibitioner scholarship.
2. You play some very particular instruments: how did you get in contact with Kertsopoulos Aesthetics?
George Kertsopoulos is a distinguished Greek guitar soloist, guitar/string maker, composer and researcher. As already mentioned I was blessed to have him as my principal guitar teacher during my studies in Athens. He is the inventor of Kertsopoulos Aesthetics, an internationally acclaimed platform of original inventions and pioneering achievements in guitar and string construction. This methodology focuses on reviving/redesigning the historical forms and sound traditions of the instrument, while expanding the highly advanced guitar-building standards of today regarding modern repertory. Innovations include innumerable combinations of historical tunings, working tensions and timbres, doubling and trebling selections, acoustic applications for enhancing sustain and sonority, novel acoustic devices. Its contribution to the classical guitar world is unique in its originality and inventiveness and I have been tremendously inspired by all these innovations. This encouraged me to continuously experimenting and meticulously checking the impact of every new idea on my sound and technique. Kertsopoulos Aesthetics stands as the scientific and technological basis in my musical projects. From there are drawn all of the instruments as well as the stringing, trebling and tuning options that I use in my concerts and recordings.
3. How did start the idea for your latest CDs “Reinventing guitar II” and “El Aleph”?
The term “Reinventing guitar” describes in general my overall interpretive and pedagogical approach which I managed to crystallize after many years of study and experimentation on Kertsopoulos Aesthetics. Introduced in 2009, the term projects the need for a redefinition of the classical guitar’s sound and technique. This is crucial for early music interpretation, given the great distance between modern guitar and performance practices and sound idioms of the past (forms, number of strings, tuning ranges, registers, timbres); but it is equally important for contemporary guitar music that depends on novel tone qualities for its expression.
So my discography is just a living application of this “Reinventing guitar” approach. The american label DELOS has already published three discs, namely “Reinventing Guitar Vol. 1 and Vol. 2” and “El Aleph”, in which four centuries of music from Renaissance to today are interpreted on a variety of exceptional instruments, upgraded with various constructional features and acoustic applications, newly developed strings and alternative tuning configurations of Kertsopoulos Aesthetics that enrich tremendously sound, technique, interpretation and style. My purpose is twofold: to provide historically compatible, convincing period interpretations, and re-evaluated guitar transcriptions; and to offer a new reading for new repertoire, suitable for modern audiences and venues.
4. What were and are your main musical influences? How do you express the way you think about music, your style both when you interpret a piece or when you improvise?
I feel very close to the baroque musical ideal and especially Bach, Purcell, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. But I am equally inspired by more recent musical creation; particularly the music of Bela Bartok and Skalkotas and their individual way of exploring folklore; the mathematical structures of Schonberg and Xenakis; the physical dynamism of Messiaen, Debussy and Crumb’s musical scale; the micro polyphonic form of Ligeti, Stravinsky and Varèse; and Reich’s minimalism. As for guitar music, I respect immensely composers who have ingeniously explored the folk element, like José, Ponce, Rak, Peyrot, Bogdanovic…
To my mind there is something common in the work of all genuine composers, and this is also the way I like to approach music, either when I interpret, compose, arrange or improvise: I see music as a way to express our deepest nature, our existential concerns, the physical laws that surround us. I like to explore and express musically the main parameters of the human existence, the human nature behind breathing, movement and energy, and try to incorporate all these elements to my musical creation. Additionally, my links to the Greek musical culture are definitive, maternal. I have particularly studied the musical essence and structure of the ancient Greek Drama, which -few people know- was a purely musical form. There the fabric of music (poetic meter, rhythm, melody) together with movement and meaning form a tightly woven entity. I have thus discovered and explored a universe of musical laws, principles and structures that help me especially in composing stage or vocal music. Another firm root and influence for me as a composer and is Greek song, either in its sacred religious form or in its pure folk expression. It teaches me the importance of crucial artistic principles, abstraction, spontaneity.
5. How did your instruments change the way you play and think about music?
Well, these instruments never stop to excite my creativity. They provide a new meaning for every single texture in my playing, but above all, they highlight and resolve some crucial matters of technique and interpretation; articulation, phrasing, dynamics, ornamentation, hand mechanics etc., are constantly reformed and even pushed to unaccustomed edges. Furthermore, the exploration of the Kertsopoulos’ versatile, all-frets tuning system yields some quite new and interesting results in my playing. This is particularly useful for early music interpretation. By selecting from a whole variety of newly available string diameters and working tensions, we can play up to an octave higher than ordinary, which is around the violin’s range! Or, we can apply several tuning settings of double or triple courses on our standard instruments, approaching early traditions of lute, harpsichord, mandolin, or guitar. Or we can choose the timbre that we wish to prevail according to the case. So for example, a Scarlatti Sonata can be played in various ways, all of which can faithfully transmit different atmospheres of the baroque era.
All these new possibilities can charge in an unbelievable degree the emotional content of the various interpretations and expand tremendously the performer’s horizons. Additionally, Kertsopoulos’ structural interventions in construction have delivered diverse acoustic applications for further enhancing sonority, tone-colour, sustain and volume in the instrument. They include right-hand or back pedal mechanisms, scalloped fingerboards, and unconventional resonators, such as the multi-timbre rectangular guitar, the minimal guitar with carton or plastic resonators, and the air-pedal guitar. All these innovations are ideal for improvisatory new music.
6. What does mean improvisation 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.?
Well to my mind improvisation contains two basic, crucial elements that coexist when someone improvises, they are risk and freedom! I can’t imagine any musical act without these two elements. They keep the music creation fresh and alive. But in order to be effective in the classical repertoire, which is strict and encoded as you say, improvisation should nevertheless obey some rules, follow some discipline. The balance is always difficult. Take the baroque music, for example. It was meant to be improvised and the interpreter was a sort of second composer. All composers were fine, some of them even outstanding, virtuosi and devoted arrangers, while many well-known performers composed. But in order to perform properly this kind of music and offer it with the required taste and compatibility, the interpreter has to improvise in a large extent, following some exact rules, and has to be well informed on the performance practices of the era.
7. I saw you play a lot of contemporary composers music. How your music, the way you play, the way you think about music are influenced by the people you play and work with?
People interact with each other and may give you different kinds of energies to work with. You may perform one piece hundreds of times before different audiences and the result is never the same. It is always different to play for Europeans or Americans, for children, scholars, or simple people of the community, etc and I always take into account or try to feel the special qualities of each audience. But the elemental function of music is always to make a synthesis of individual differences between people and join them to the spiritual dimension of music; raise them to the mysterious world of archetypes! This is my map either as a composer, interpreter or arranger.
8. 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?
Yes, I prefer to be independent; I want to discover the piece myself. It is almost like a trip to an unknown country, if you are already possessed by an idea about this country from other people that have already visited it, then you may miss a lot of things, even your own identity sometimes. An eminent Nobel-awarded Greek poet, George Seferis, was always saying how sad he was that he had missed forever the possibility to “see” the Parthenon of Athens himself for the first time.
9. 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?
Uniformity is a great risk, I suppose, you are absolutely right. We lately hear more and more interpretations that almost sound similar! More and more musicians, critics and audience are well aware of the fact that Rameau, Handel, Chopin, Brahms and Bartok were acquainted with different kinds of instruments, so they thought their piano or string music in a totally different way that cannot be really flattened for the sake of uniformity. This is among the reasons why the question of “authenticity” and period performance is so much active and alive in the international musical discussion nowadays.
In the case of the classical guitar as we hear it today in the concert halls or recordings, uniformity is a main issue. To think about the guitar as a single type of instrument is highly misleading; it implies a uniformity that never existed. Long time before the modern guitar was established as a six-string concert instrument with tenor to bass disposition bearing single nylon strings, it had during the centuries undergone enormous modifications in shape, proportion, tuning, stringing, number and materials of strings, playing techniques and social role. Every new radical change, the last being the introduction of nylon strings by Segovia and string maker Augustine in 1948, was inevitably pushing into oblivion all previous long-standing traditions associated with guitar: high tuning ranges, catgut or wire strings, double-course stringing patterns. As time passes and research deepens our response to the music of the past, the modern guitar’s limited ability to convincingly perform Renaissance, Baroque and Classical repertory is more and more emphasized by specialists, and demands flexible alternatives. Transcribing old music onto 20th c. guitar, a practice in which generations of guitarists are always keenly involved, deserves a re-evaluation in the light of new historical-aesthetic evidence on the guitar’s tradition, a lack of which might seriously detract from this music’s spirit.
This is actually the core of my “reinventing guitar” approach and Kertsopoulos Aesthetics’ methodology. Today, after so many years, classical guitarists have the opportunity to enjoy a faithful recreation of many long-abandoned areas of guitar’s fascinating sonority. This actually bridges somehow the enormous distance that modern guitar retains from historical performance practices and sound idioms of the past. It is an effort against uniformity! Will that last or expire? Time will show. These innovations have to prove their health and value, and equally the guitar world their tolerance towards tendencies that step outside the established style. But judging from the people’s response so far, I feel very optimistic.
10. What are your essential five discs, always have with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island ..?
Definitely Bach: The Six Cello Suites, Violin Sonatas and Partitas and St. Matthew Passion. Brahms: Song of Fate. Bartok: String quartets.
11. What would you like to play and who would you like to play with? What music do you usually listen to?
I would wish to transcribe more works for my unorthodox guitars, originally written for harpsichord, piano, violin, or cello. Not only in order to be competitive or for personal improvement. This would challenge us, guitarists, to border on the technical, interpretive and sonic limits of our instrument, and, much more important, would broaden tremendously our admittedly poor in compositional resources original repertory. Guitar needs desperately this kind of feedback, I strongly believe that! It needs to be instilled with the flavor of great composers, like Handel, Brahms, Debussy, Gubaidulina or Bartok! But apart from that, there is a bulk of baroque transcriptions that was ill-served in the 19th or 20th century and deserves to be restored according to our modern ideals: meticulous study of the sources and urtext scores, thorough knowledge and documentation of historical data, perfect acquaintance with performance practices of several instruments and periods, and above all, a fine taste and judgment to combine them all.
And finally, I would definitely like to play ensemble staff. The creation of the guitar quartet, with guitars tuned in soprano, alto, tenor and bass ranges similar to the strings or winds, stands as a cornerstone of Kertsopoulos’ system! A whole variety of beautiful chamber music works can be thus impressively projected. And, as I have experienced many times, the lovely way with which these astonishing guitars match with large ensembles and orchestras, offers countless new sound perspectives that more and more interpreters, composers, and music enthusiasts, will hopefully explore worldwide!
12. What are your next projects? What are you working on?
My next project is a concert tour in California, USA in mid-November 2016. The South Bay Guitar Society has invited me to a fantastic project that will contain my giving concerts, master-classes, video recordings and lectures to young guitar students of the west coast area. I am also preparing the world premiere performances of pieces of two great composers: The Estonian René Eespere, that has composed for me the excellent piece “Twelve in Six”; and the Chech composer Stepan Rak that has trusted to me the first world presentation of his marvellous “Renaissance Suite”. I am really looking forward to work on these projects.