Interview for Elliot Simpson (February 2016)
The first question is always the classic one: how does it start your love and interest for guitar and what instruments do you play or have you played?
Well, my parents first started me with piano lessons when I was very young, so I’ve been playing music for as long as I can remember. Around the age of 13, and after a couple of years playing flute in the school band, my uncle sent me his old classical guitar and I started lessons in school. I was very lucky and there happened to be an unbelievable guitar program, out of which several students each year went on to study in conservatories. At the time I was simply going through the program like others before me without realizing how extraordinary it was (and is still); my interest and early experiences are thanks to those teachers, older students, and the fantastic guest guitarists that would come to perform and teach.
What was your musical training, with which teachers have you studied and what impression they left in your music?
Following secondary school, I went to study with David Tanenbaum at the San Francisco Conservatory. He was a wonderful, structured, teacher, especially for someone who still had a lot of developmental work to do. I think what has stuck with me the most was his attitude towards music: his respect for it, for the composers, his work ethic, and his belief in the importance of new art and its relevance in the world. In 2009 I moved to The Hague to study with Zoran Dukic. What has remained with me from him is the connection between musical idea and technique, the physicality of an interpretation, as well as a demanding attitude towards one’s own abilities.
How was born the idea about your last record “The Wayward Trail” and how do you choose the composers and their scores?
The Wayward Trail came about after a series of coincidences over several years. The first step was getting the chance to acquire one of the National Reso-phonic just intonation guitars designed with Lou Harrison, of which only five were made (several copies have been done since). I was studying with David Tanenbaum at the time, who was involved in the creation of the instruments and who Lou Harrison’s work was written for; at the time, National still owned 2 of the instruments for the purpose of loaning out, but had decided to sell one. David connected me with the company and I managed to buy it. There was one fantastic piece immediately written for me by Sahba Aminikia, but then several years passed without it seeing any use. The next series of coincidences came about in 2013, when I was contacted by David Doty to edit his composition for the guitar, met Larry Polansky, who gave me the score for Songs and Toods, and was involved in the application for a commission for a new guitar piece by Ezequiel Menalled. The two existing un-played and unrecorded works, and the then un-composed piece by Ezequiel, came together in my mind to form the cd. The last piece to be added was Walter Zimmermann’s work, which, although older and not specifically for the instrument, seemed like an effective counterpoint to the rest of the program, seeming to come full circle aesthetically and structurally with many of the elements in the other pieces.
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.?
First of all, I think it’s not only possible, but important to talk about improvisation in the context of both historical and contemporary classical music. There’s a long legacy of improvisation throughout the classical repertoire, much of which is effectively ignored in contemporary practice. As for myself, I had almost no experience with improvisation until arriving in The Hague, where I was exposed to it through a conservatory seminar and some fantastic improviser friends, nearly exclusively in the context of contemporary/atonal language. I think it’s easy, as a classically trained musician, to lose the ability to react, or interact, spontaneously with music during a performance. That’s what improvisation taught me to start thinking about. The music world being what it is, students are trained for consistency, but I think it’s exactly the opposite of this, the spontaneity, the feedback loop between music and player, that makes some performers and performances remarkable.
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…
One of the things that define art for me is that there is no single correct answer, there’s no perfect object or interpretation, only the distance between the artist’s concept and its realization, and even that doesn’t necessarily determine the effectiveness of a piece of art. I like the idea of imperfection as style. So, to try to answer the question, I don’t search out “error”; rather, I try to get a performance as close as I can to what I consider my perfect interpretation, knowing full well that implicit in that are innumerable errors and imperfections, some of which might even make up my “style”, such as it is. And, as you say, sometimes, upon noticing one of these errors, it shifts the interpretation in a way that perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise occurred.
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”?
I can understand that feeling, but think that I disagree with the idea behind it. I would say this is the result of postmodernism- of everything being equally accessible and valid in the creation of art. What is true is that when one looks back in history one can see trends and dramatic shifts that weren’t at all visible to people in the time. I suspect that we are in an era of transition now (in many ways, hopefully) and that it will take another generation or two to conclusively look back and map our path. I think that the ideal of modernism is an awfully heavy weight, and in that sense I have no problem with our eclectic musical world. I find it to be a bit like the internet: there’s more information and content than ever before, and the possibility of encountering all of this material and interacting with it instantaneously is leading to amazing results. The risks are also similar though: mostly the proliferation of junk and ignorance, and the possibility of being overwhelmed by the amount of material, which can seem simultaneously too diverse and not diverse enough.
Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island …
Just for the moment:
Mozart Piano Concertos 27 and 8 played by Rudolf Serkin with Claudio Abbado conducting
Maurizio Pollini playing Schoenberg and Webern
Stephan Schmidt playing Ohana
Tom Waits (I guess Mule Variations is my favorite…)
Fred Frith- Step across the border soundtrack
What are your five favorite scores?
I’m not sure if you mean scores as compositions to play or the scores themselves for visual reasons, but I’ll try to give a compromise. I’ve started getting more and more interested in renaissance lute music (at the moment Giovanni Battista dalla Gostena), which also happens to be incredibly beautiful visually, either when handwritten or in early printing. The music for 6 or 7 course lute fits easily on the guitar, and it’s a shame that it’s not a more prominent part of the guitar repertoire. Another Italian composer who writes confoundingly beautiful music is Maurizio Pisati (who I know you’ve also talked to on your blog). His Sette Studi and Poema della Luce are some of my favorite pieces for guitar, and his scores have a striking calligraphic attention to visual detail. Further along in a slightly different direction would be Ferneyhough’s Kurze Schatten II, which I’m haltingly learning. I think the stereotype of his music is that it is a kind of sterile chaos, but I find it to be the opposite- manically hyper-expressive and with some breathtakingly beautiful moments when you manage to get a slightly wider perspective. Visually, although printed as normal music, it’s such a ludicrous extension of the technology that it seems to become something else- like looking at cities from a plane. Cornelius Cardew is a composer I’ve become quite interested in, Treatise immediately came to mind when I read this question. It’s rightfully considered a masterpiece of graphic notation, and I’ve been thinking lately about some ideas for realizing it, although am still lacking the confidence to start with any decisions. A shorter work, For Stella, is also very beautiful, but enigmatic. The last responses that come to mind are more experimental works. James Tenney and Alvin Lucier are two composers whose pieces I’ve been fascinated with, arranged, and performed. The scores themselves come in a variety of formats, from diagrams to typed instructions. When I think back on concert-going experiences that have really changed my life, some of the most powerful have been from this type of music (Tenney defined it as music “for the sake of perceptual insight”).
With who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?
I listen to all sorts of things based on how much concentration or emotion I feel like investing in the moment. Lately I’ve also been spending more time not listening to anything- intentionally being in silence (or, in most cases normal city-noise). I can’t say this is true for everyone, but I find that I, at least, can become a little desensitized to music if I have it around me all the time. As for who I would like to play with- that’s a harder question than it seems. When you get thrown into a situation playing with other people, whether in ensemble or chamber music, you always end up learning a huge amount in a kind of abrupt and terrifying way. There are lots of people and groups I really respect who I would love to play with, and I’m sure many of the most important experiences are still ahead and with people who I don’t know of yet.
Your next projects? When we will see you playing in Italy?
I’ve actually been studying a lot of Italian music lately: other than the 25 dalla Gostena fantasies and Pisati works I mentioned above, there are also upcoming projects with chamber works by Donatoni and Romitelli… I’ve never played in Italy- hopefully I’ll end up there eventually.