When did you start playing the guitar and why? What did you study and what is your musical background?
Larry Polansky That question is of course WAY too large to answer in any depth, but I started playing guitar when I was about 9 or 10 I think. The only serious formal “study” I have done is with jazz masters (George Barnes, Mick Goodrick, Chuck Wayne) and on mandolin, with two great bluegrass players (Paul Kramer, who was also my bandmate for two years; and Frank Wakefield, who I also played with while a member of the Berkeley Mandolin Ensemble). My musical background resides mostly in the world of american vernacular musics (jazz, rock, bluegrass, blues, folk music) and of course as a composer and guitarist in experimental music. I do not really play classical guitar (though I took lessons for 1 or 2 years in college so as to simply familiarize myself with the repertoire and technique).
Why do I play guitar? I’m completely smitten with the instrument and its possibilities and mysteries, and always have been.
What were and are your main musical influences?
LP Again, impossible to really answer, but I feel like, through what I’ve written, composed, played, taught over the years I’ve answered that with my own life. I will say that there’s almost no music that I don’t love, or would love if I knew more about it. An anecdote: My friend, the composer David Dunn was once at my house having dinner with me and a couple of my grad students at Dartmouth. They wanted to hear some music while we ate, so I told David “just go down to the basement and pick out a few records”. At the time I had an enormous record collection (still too large, I’ve been trying to weed it out…). David came back up with a few records and said with a smile: “Larry…. do you only have records of guitar players?”
GF I am an odd mix of classic rock (Beatles; Queen; Eagles); Heavy Metal (especially Iron Maiden, some obscure-ish Scandinavian stuff); acoustic music, especially US finger style and British celtic music; classical guitar; and post-Cagean experimentalism. Larry’s music has obviously been a major influence since I was first introduced to it in 2010 or so (though I have to say it wasn’t love at first sight!); I’m happy & honored to call him a friend and fellow guitar nerd these days.
Guitar players who have shaped my playing, one way or another: Armando Corsi, Muriel Anderson, Stephen Bennett, George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Bill Frisell, Julian Bream, and David Tanenbaum.
Why did you choose to become a composer?
LP I didn’t, it choose me. Or rather, I had no choice. Composing (and improvising) always seemed to me like the only thing I could devote myself to.
How did it start the idea for your last cd “freeHorn”?
LP Another long story. The piece freeHorn is a complicated multi-generational development of my old piece Psaltery, which had a number of incarnations (Choir, Canon for Flute, Flutes, Horn, and other pieces based on the modulation thru harmonic series idea). In the mid 90s, a wonderful french horn player, who had heard Horn, to write her a new piece, sort of based on that idea, commissioned me. I decided to “generalize” the concept of Psaltery into a computer program, sort of mimicking the computer parts for Choir and Horn, but also completely malleable: any harmonic progressions, different modulation algorithms, timings, etc. With the help of Phil Burk (and later, Mike Winter) we developed that program, called freeHorn, which was something I could send to anyone, and used in a piece, without me dictating the form of the piece other than what the program did. I premiered a version of that with David Dunn (violin) in Santa Fe, and me on fretless electric sometime later, and it’s been played many times since. I’ve done it with a number of different ensembles, and Giacomo does a beautiful solo version. They’re all different, but they’re all the same. When I moved out to Santa Cruz, we formed a little “ensemble” with me, my partner Amy Beal, the horn player Krystyna Bobrowski (for whom Horn was written, and who recorded it for Artifact), Ma’ayan Tzadka, and then Giacomo became a part of the group (if I remember correctly), and he began to play the piece himself (he is a sort of expert on my music, and knows the historical and theoretical genealogy of this piece probably better than I do!). I had always dreamt about an all-star ensemble playing the piece, and doing a recording that was how I’d always wanted the piece to sound, so using that ensemble (minus Ma’ayan, who had moved back to Israel), and adding David Kant (who had played the piece with me and Amy on tour several times), David Dunn (who is also one of the finest recording engineers in the world, plus a great violinist), and two members of the virtuoso ensemble SFSound that I had worked with several times (Monica Scott and Tom Dambly, the latter of whom had been in a performance of the piece for something like 25 trumpets in a big church). Tom and Monica are extraordinarily sensitive musicians, and very sophisticated in terms of tuning. We did a concert at Stanford University of that group, the first half consisting of duets from Giacomo, and me and I loved the recording of that. So we did a controlled recording of that ensemble at UC Santa Cruz, where Giacomo and I teach. freeHorn was the core of the Cold Blue CD, but Giacomo and I had been playing ii-v-i and minmaj often, and we made a really nice recording of those as well. Giacomo played a huge role in all of this… without him, the two guitar duets would not really have gotten to the level of performance that they are now at. We worked on those for a long time, and so much of how good they sound is a result of his contribution, not just as a guitarist, but also as a musical thinker. minmaj is ridiculously hard, and I want to publicly apologize for making him learn it!!!!
Interestingly, I began to write minmaj many years ago, for a duet tour I did with the argentine guitarist Claudio Calmens. I abandoned it because I simply couldn’t figure out how to do the “arrangement” for two guitars of the Ruggles piece that I’ve always loved. Somehow, when I was writing the Three Translations for Electric Guitar (with GF in mind), it came together.
I like to play fretless guitar, I saw you have used the fretless guitar in the record, how does it start this interest for you?
LP Because I’m so interested in tuning, and because I simply love the idea and sound of fingers on wood, I had always been interested. In the early 70s, I made one out of a cheap electric (I just yanked the frets and filled them in badly with wood putty), but it sounded horrible, so I put the idea aside. But somewhere, I guess, around 1996, my friend, the guitarist and composer Nick Didkovsky said to me “Hey Larry, let’s go check out these neck-thru guitars that this guy Steve Marchione is making in a tiny little shop in midtown Manhattan. Amusingly, I had just gotten tenure at Dartmouth, and was a bit depressed about being a successful academic (!). Maybe some sort of midlife crisis. Some guys buy sports cars, I went to see Steve’s guitars, and they were really beautiful. Nick was “setting me up” I think. Anyway, somehow the thought came into my head and I said to Steve “hey, you think you could make a fretless” (thinking that the neck-thru added resonance would make it sound better, as well as a really hardwood fingerboard). And he said sure. About a year later I had it, and fell in love with it. I was also, consequently, considerably poorer. I brought it into my local guitar store, where all the employees were friends of mine, and they couldn’t believe I had spent so much on what they considered a basically worthless guitar! They referred to it as “Larry’s folly”.
How long do you play a fretless guitar and what kind of instrument do you play?
LP I guess since around 1996. I play the Marchione neck thru. I think it’s a pretty early Marchione, and the one that GF plays is quite different (and I also think that Steve is more known for arch tops…. at the time that I bought mine there was one jazz player playing an arch top fretless, and he was amazing. That’s probably what gave Steve the idea that he could make one). I also have an inexpensive but quite nice sounding classical fretless adapted for me by my friend and student Matt Mitchell, who has also made me a 5-limit just intonation guitar and one in a well-temperament that I designed.
What do you thing are the best suggestions you can give to the musician who would like to start to play a fretless guitar?
LP GOOD LUCK!!!!! It’s really hard, especially if one’s aim is to play “normal” music. Chords are devilishly hard, and by definition, not in “tune” for equal temperament. The high strings are not very resonant. It takes a very long time to get melodic intonation under control (it’s like learning the cello!). But certain things, like open tunings, are fantastic. I don’t use it hardly at all for “regular” things. It was my main instrument for maybe 10-12 years with my Trio (me, Christian Wolff, and Kui Dong), which was a free improv group. In that group, I would use that guitar, maybe a Rat and a volume pedal and some reverb, to go along with the two pianos (I also played a lot of mandolin in that group). Ron Nagorcka, a great composer from Tasmania, has written a number of pieces for me on that guitar, which we’ve recorded, which are in quite complicated just intonations (which is possible, but really no easier to play in tune than regular 12TET on the instrument). The few times I’ve performed notated, 12TET music on it I’ve been really frustrated, so I don’t do that anymore. One could, and some people do, but the amount of practice one has to do, for me, as a composer, is something I can’t afford. When I got the instrument, I was suddenly in touch with a number of other fretless players (like Tom Baker, in Seattle), and that was fun to see what people did (a lot of them used it like bottle-neck guitar, playing traditional blues and such). Some people had metal or glass necks, which solved the string resonant problems to some extent, but I didn’t want to do, because, as I said, for me the guitar is very much about “hands on wood”.
(to Giacomo Fiore) I have seen you playing a lot of guitars made by Stephen Marchione, I’m very curious..how are his guitars?
GF the funny thing here is that I sort of met Steve through Larry. I was one of the artists for the Healdsburg Guitar Festival (RIP) back in 2011 or so, and I walked past Steve’s table. He had these incredible semihollow guitars, finished in the most perfect, bright red, and with impeccable lines. I knew the name from Larry’s fretless, so I just walked up to him and told him something along the lines of “Hey, I’m a friend of Larry Polansky’s”. We hit it off and stayed in touch, and in late 2015 I got a solid cedar guitar from him. It’s really light, resonant, with beautifully woody sort of voice, and like all his guitars (no matter the construction) it has an incredibly consistent and “singing” tone in the treble register. When I play trade shows for Stephen I’m often playing several guitars across his line, from 17″ inch arch tops to solid bodies; the amazing thing is that though they all obviously sound different, but they all still sound unmistakably like Marchiones.
Your previous record was “iv: american electric guitars”. You released it in digital and vinyl format, how did it go ? When I received it I thought it was nice to see and LP again, now a lot of people into avangard music decide to release they works as LP, would you do it again ?
GF I still have several boxes of albums in my garage, and I’m sure they’ll be there for a long time. But I’m happy to have pressed that record, and I think I’ll press some more, different albums again in the future. I think it’s still important to have a physical product (both economically, historically, and from a tactile point of view); this fall I’m releasing an accordion book to accompany an otherwise “digital” release.
I know that you like to write academic essay and articles, do you still write for Classical Guitar Magazine ? Do you think to make a book with your essays and interviews ?
GF Probably not. I don’t think they’re that interesting as a collection, personally. I hope to write other books, some other time.
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.?
LP Improvisation has been central to my musical personality since I was very young. I never had to “leave” classical music because I never really entered it, and am not really part of the European classical music tradition. I come from vernacular musics, which is not to say that these musics are any less technically and aesthetically sophisticated. I can’t imagine spending a day without picking up an instrument and improvising, though it could of course be what Derek Bailey calls “idiomatic improvisation”. Many mornings, I bring my partner a cup of coffee in bed and grab an instrument off the wall (mandolin, banjo, guitar, uke….whatever) and improvise a song for her to wake her up.
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…
LP Hmmm… I don’t understand that question very well, but I will quote my friend, the composer Charles Dodge, who once turned to me while we were listening to a very conventional and academic jazz concert, and said “This guy doesn’t play any wrong notes! That’s why it’s so uninteresting”. I have a funny childhood memory of a jazz quintet I was in in high school, and we were on stage doing some blues or something, and when my solo came around it popped into my head “Why don’t I just play my solo in the key a half-step higher” and did, and I think that’s more or less what I’ve been doing my whole life, both personally and musically. Incidentally, some years later, I happened to hear an amazing Taj Mahal recording where he whistles a little solo in a key a whole-step higher than he’s playing on the guitar. Amazing. I stole that idea for one of the pieces in my large piano set B’midbar.
GF given my primary training as a performer I don’t have a particular good relationship with mistakes. I try to accept them since they happen all the time, and I’ve grown more patient with myself of late.
(to Larry Polansky) Berlioz once said that composing for classical guitar was hard to do because you first had to be a guitarist, and these words were often used as a justification for the limited repertoire of classical guitar compared to other instruments like piano and violin. At the same time these words seem not to be so important in the contemporary music’s world where guitar (either classical, acoustic, electric, midi) seems to attract a lot of attention. As a composer, do you believe that there is still something true in what Berlioz said?
LP Yes, and no. One standard thing to say to a young composer is to “compose away from the piano [or any instrument]”. I think one of the major problems with the classical guitar repertoire is that it’s way too “guitar-ry”, full of the same kinds of technical cliches. I think that people from my generation (like Nick Didkovsky, Elliot Sharp, John King, and many others) who grew up 1) playing electric and 2) playing all kinds of music have added a LOT to the idea of composed music for the guitar. But what does that really mean? Sunshine of Your Love is a masterly composition for the guitar. So is Listen to the Mockingbird or (with Clarence White and the Kentucky Colonels), or any recording or performance by Mary Halvorson, Jim Hall, Dick McDonough, George Barnes or any other great jazz guitarist! As much as I love Berlioz (I think his orchestration book is one of the most visionary things written about how to compose), those kinds of discussions seem to me to be very antiquated, and almost irrelevant nowadays.
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you .. the classic five records for the desert island ..?
LP Too many to mention, but one of them would probably have James Burton on it.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
LP As usual, I’ve got a long list of projects (compositions, writing, playing), but at the moment I’m 1) working on a piece for haegum and live computer. But it really could be played by any melodic instrument 2) and a long mathematically theoretical article about “contour”
GF I’m hoping to see “almost ready” albums and EPs released on Paper Garden Records, Spectropol, and Pinna Records this year; anything from live-looping, through graphic scores/improvisations, to a piece for prepared guitar I commissioned and premiered several years ago. Larry and I also have some backlog from the freeHorn sessions that we should get out into the world at some point.
Last question: a few years ago, during an interview with Bill Milkowski for his book “Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries” Carlos Santana said, “Some people have talent, some people have vision. And vision is more important then talent, obviously.” I think both of you have a great talent, but … what is your vision?
LP Well, one of my visions would be able to play the solo from “Black Magic Woman” and have one thousandth of Carlos Santana’s ear, intelligence, precision, and artistic vision. But honestly, I’m not sure what “vision” or “talent” really means, and I think it’s wrong to try to decide how much or how little any musician has. There’s beauty in anyone doing anything in music, in my opinion, and the way I would like to proceed is to always, first, try to find that.
GF My vision is excellent, though I expect to become far-sighted as I grow older.