Interview for “LOST ISLANDS” BY Richard Parks Anderson (February 2018)
When did you start playing the guitar and why? What did you study and what is your musical background?
You could say it was a synesthetic experience I had when I was twelve, on a school trip to Versailles. I was separated from my group and spent the day wandering the palace and the gardens. It made a profound impression on me. Shortly after my return, I heard a recording of Segovia playing a piece by Robert de Visée that I immediately associated with that enchanting place. I became obsessed with learning how to play it! With no guitar teacher available, and no musical interest in my family, I came up with the idea that I could learn it by listening to the record, played at half speed (an octave lower) on my Grundig, picking up the notes by ear.
Did I study music? The short answer is: I didn’t. I learned to play by ear, and taught myself to read music – very slowly, and on a very basic level. Being the son of a Swedish-American army officer and a Venetian mother, I counted going to 22 schools in different countries. That gave me a broader exposure to other cultures, but made any longterm musical education impossible. As a teenager, like many others, I was inspired by the Beatles to play electrical guitar, cajoling my younger brothers to form a rock band. But it was blues guitarist Albert Collins’ “Snow Cone” that sent me in the direction of a very black style of blues and I ended up joining a black R&B group, playing black clubs in (at that time still segregated!) Oklahoma.
By the time I was eighteen, I was touring the East coast, honing my “chops” by playing grueling 8-hour sets every night. And then…. I got drafted to fight in Vietnam, a war I vehemently opposed. Listening through headphones to my cassettes by John Williams and Segovia under artillery fire in a bunker, gave this music an outer worldly dimension, intensified by the fear of death. It also provided a refuge from the brutality of combat, and, most likely, helped me keep my sanity.
What were and are your main musical influences?
My earliest influences were Renaissance and Baroque composers such as Robert de Visée, Ludovico Roncalli, and Henry Purcell. Later, music from the French impressionists, Hector Torroba, Castelnuovo Tedesco, and Benjamin Britten moved me. Although I could appreciate the virtuosity and passion of the romantic period, it was the French impressionist composers Débussy, Fauré, and Ravel that most influenced my own compositions.
It’s a pity that they did not write for guitar!
How did you get the idea to release a solo album like “Lost Islands”? And is it your only record?
The daily demands of “Mr. Profit and Mr. Loss” of my furniture business left me with very little time to pursue my musical interests. But 20-years ago, I decided to book a day in a recording studio to see what I could achieve when I was not distracted. I produced a CD, titled “Incarnation of a Firefly” which featured four Renaissance pieces and four of my own compositions.
Although I recorded the whole album in one take in only five hours (and with a raging migraine), it got frequent airplay on public radio and managed to sell a couple of thousand CDs.
That was my motivation for attempting something more ambitious, this time with just my original compositions.
I sometimes feel that in our time the history of music flows 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 composer of blurring into a uniform vision?
I find that my musical thoughts flow freely between time and place. I’d like to think of my lyrical ideas as “post-edgy”, looking to the future. Perhaps I’m too jaded, or perhaps it’s over my head, but much of what is new for guitar today doesn’t speak to me, or is not accessible to average listeners. There is a fine line between beauty and banality, and treading that fine line is the hard part. Composing music that is accessible to a larger audience, but at the same time has depth of meaning and a deep spirituality is something I had hoped to achieve.
How do you express your “musical form” under the aspect of both, execution and improvisation? How did your instruments changed the way you play and think about music?
No one could ever accuse me of being a virtuoso. However, being self-taught, I developed my own kind of “goofy” technique. I never played to perform classical guitar, my efforts were to play in order to compose and record. I use only one guitar made by a local (amateur) maker and do not record with effects other than reverb. I consider mic placement (I use a Neumann KM 184), and not EQ, as critical in capturing the full spectrum of sonorities lost in a live performance. I like to think of the reverb (either natural or modeled) as the same as a sustain pedal for a piano legato effect. With a more holistic approach to the album, I wanted to account not only for the music, but also for the recording process in the overall listening experience. Since projection and nails are not a consideration for me, I probably owe more to Debussy’s idea of touch and sensibility, and how it affects overtones and dissonant harmonics.
What does improvisation mean to your approach to music? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as in the classics, or are you forced to look elsewhere and turn to other genres, like jazz, contemporary, etc.?
I like to think of my compositions as “polished improvisations”. Most of them are for six hands, with a continuo part that creates a scene, and two lyrical parts that have a dialog in that time and place. Usually I start with an emotion I want to create and experiment with a continuo progression. Once recorded (and this where the improvisation comes in), I improvise the two lyrical voices in that situation.
And what do you think is the “function” of a moment of crisis?
If you mean a crisis in the life of a composer: suffering can lead to an epiphany or catharsis. A crisis can also inspire ideas that manifest themselves outside of your normal mind set, and can result in extraordinary leaps of creativity.
If you refer to a crisis in my music: while there is some level of tension it is not a emotion I strive to emphasize.
What are the essential five discs, always to have with you…the classic five records for the desert island…?
A difficult question. My answer could vary from day to day… but today I would say:
- “Maestro Segovia” (my first classical guitar recording)
- Samson François: “Debussy”
- Håvard Gimse: “Sibelius Piano Miniatures”
- Letizia Michielon: “Frédéric François Chopin – Complete Piano Works Vol.1”
- Graham Anthony Devine: “British Guitar Music”
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I’m working on a new CD which is a bit of a departure from “Lost Islands”. While it will include some new compositions, it contemplates a modern, and very personal, interpretation of early composers, such as Purcell, de Visée, Scarlatti, Roncalli, and Lawes. My interpretation of these century old pieces through the prism of my 21st century mind and life experience. I must confess, though, that part of the reason for embarking on this musical adventure is my jaded reaction to a lifetime of listening to recordings of the same repertoire, played flawlessly and authentically by very talented guitarist.
Somehow, I don’t think that they would mind that a 21st century composer would, centuries later, interpret their works in a different and modern style. When I’m playing their music, I feel as though I’m channeling their spirit in a way they themselves might play it today.