Interview with Daniel Lippel (October 2018)
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
I started playing at age 11. I remember hearing the guitar solo on a track from Jimmy Page’s solo album, “Outrider”, and leaning over to my brother and saying I thought it’d be cool to be able to do that. I have to hope I would have had an even stronger reaction if I had heard a Led Zeppelin album, but Page’s solo record was what was playing on the radio that day. I started lessons not long after just learning general guitar, rock songs, and then when I was 12 or 13 a couple early teachers exposed me to some simple solo Bach arrangements and transcriptions of Wes Montgomery solos and that’s when I really started to get more obsessed.
What did you study and what is your musical background?
I began studying classical guitar when I was 13 years old, and jazz around the same time.
I was lucky to have some great teachers in both styles early on before I went to college and some cool chances to go to summer chamber music festivals where I could play with other instrumentalists, and I eventually went to Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio to be a classical guitar major, and kept up with secondary jazz lessons while I was there. I moved to Cleveland, Ohio to keep studying classical guitar at Cleveland Institute of Music and got a lot more involved in chamber music at that point and while there I was also playing jazz gigs pretty regularly. Eventually I moved back to the New York area in 2001, which is where I grew up, and did a doctoral degree at Manhattan School of Music, concentrating on contemporary guitar repertoire, and I’ve been in NYC since.
What were and are your main musical influences?
This is a hard question, I think for me, the influences thing is happening very subconsciously, and I’m really just seeking out music that speaks to me, provides some sort of solace or stimulates me in some way. I guess what I mean is that I’ve never tried to integrate other people’s music into what I do on a conscious level, though I acknowledge it probably happens regardless, and I respect anyone who can do this more actively. I think at different times in my life, I’ve been influenced by a lot of different kinds of music. I’ve always listened to a lot of jazz and it might be that I feel a little more comfortable with an improvisatory sensibility even when I’m playing notated music. My favorites are probably everyone’s favorites, Coltrane, Miles, Wes Montgomery – and when I was young I was very into a lot of fusion stuff – Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, John Scofield. Bach’s music has been a constant for me throughout, though it took some maturing to appreciate the cantatas – when I was young all I wanted to hear was his instrumental music. I love the chamber music tradition, from Haydn quartets to late Beethoven to Brahms trios to Bartok, and I also really became fascinated with the various schools of composition that developed in the 20th century, from Stravinsky to Debussy to Webern and then later to Messiaen, Carter, Babbitt, etc… And I also really love listening to music from other cultures, particularly Indian music and South American music.
I listened to and reviewed three records of yours, I found them all very interesting. It seems you have a deep interest into contemporary music…how did you get this?
I think my gravitation to contemporary music came about because of a few factors –I really love playing chamber music and for the guitar, I think the richest chamber repertoire is from the mid 20th century up to today. I’ve always also been attracted to the way that various aesthetic philosophies collided with other schools of thought in 20th century music and produced such amazing results. So there was a richness for me about a period in musical history that could encompass at the same time figures like Carter, Davidovsky, Reich, Andriessen, etc.. Finally, as much as I’ve always loved the classical guitar repertoire, I didn’t feel as compelled to work on my interpretation of music that I was hearing many other great players perform beautifully as much as I was motivated to seek out composers to work on creating new work with and unearthing music that I thought was great and deserved wider exposure. That said, there are obviously some pieces that are an exception, that I’m drawn towards but are obvious iconic pieces in the repertoire, like Bach, Electric Counterpoint, but also some of the canonic music from the modern guitar repertoire, like Takemitsu or Britten.
How did you start to work with New Focus Recordings? I have seen this is a very active label in contemporary music….
I founded New Focus Recordings with my friend and excellent composer Peter Gilbert in 2004. It was really initially almost sort of a joke – we wanted to put out a recording of his piece Ricochet and my performance of the piece that inspired it, Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #10, and we figured it’d be smart to have a label name associated with it without knowing that much about what that entailed. After that, I sort of got bitten by the recording bug – I was captivated by the possibility of sculpting an artistic statement as opposed to a performance that would be over in 90 minutes. I began working very closely with another amazing composer/engineer, Ryan Streber, who owns Oktaven Audio, which has become a major studio for new music in New York. After putting out a few recordings, some colleagues expressed interest in working with New Focus to put their music out, we grew and got distribution, put together more of a business model by necessity, and all of a sudden 14 years later, I look up and there’s a growing catalogue… So it’s been a very interesting ride and I’m very honored to be able to work with so many musicians doing great projects and help them get their work out. And of course, it still is a great platform for me to put out my own recordings of music I’m interested in.
I really love your record “Resonance”, how did you choose that repertorire? It was released in 2004, but I think it’s still a great contemporary record with great music…
“Resonance” really grew from my collaboration with composer Peter Gilbert. He had written the piece I mentioned for me for guitar and electronics, Ricochet, which was meant to be a companion piece for Mario Davidovsky’s great Synchronisms #10 (written for guitarist David Starobin who was my teacher at the time). We wanted to record both and include them with some other repertoire that I was working on, and found that a common link between all these pieces was how they engaged with resonance and sustain of the guitar in a contemporary pitch context. I had recently performed a Carter chamber work, Luimen, in a Carnegie Hall celebration of Carter’s music in a student ensemble conducted by Oliver Knussen, and Luimen contained a short solo work within it, Shard, which had also been written for Starobin. Nils Vigeland was one of my professors in my doctoral studies at Manhattan School of Music and had this previously unperformed and unrecorded piece, La Folia Variants, a truly amazing piece that I really felt needed to be more widely well known. Two other great pieces by colleagues my age, Judah Adashi’s Meditation and Soonjung Suh’s Garak hadn’t been recorded and were pieces I had been enjoying playing a lot, and they seemed like natural fits to go on the program.
In 2016 you released your version of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, you did a really exciting version, reaching new connections between Reich’s music and the African music that partially inspired it:how long did it take you to create this new interpretation and what was Reich’s reaction?
Thanks for checking it out! We recorded the tracks in July 2014 over two sessions at Oktaven Audio with Ryan Streber at the controls, but then the editing and mixing took a while of course, so it finally came out a year and half later. I had been wanting to make a version that emphasized the African sources of inspiration for several years, partially as a result of listening to some African traditional music and being exposed to the amazing rhythmic systems that are developed in that music. I was really grateful to meet the musicologist Martin Scherzinger who shared so much detailed insight with me on the connections between Reich’s music and specific traditions and validated some of the ideas I had about how to make a version that would be more responsive to the original traditions. So we did a session which incorporated preparations on some of the guitars, embellishments to the repeated modules in the canonic parts, and a few other adjustments that felt like they helped to create a different kind of version. I’ve always loved Pat Metheny’s version so I wanted to do something really different, less homogenous, and with a bit of a different rhythmic approach I guess. I did get a chance to play this version for Reich, both live and the recording, and he was really enthusiastic about it. It was a really gratifying moment for me to get that response from him, I’ll never forget it.
And this is this new record “…through which the past shines…” playing music composed by Nils Vigeland and Reiko Futing, how did you met these composers and why did you decide to play their music?
Both Nils Vigeland and Reiko Fueting were professors of mine at the Manhattan School of Music where I did my doctoral degree, and Fueting was my advisor for my dissertation on Davidovsky’s music. I first played Vigeland’s large solo piece La Folia Variants, and he subsequently wrote two chamber pieces for me, Quodlibet for guitar and cello which I premiered and recorded with the excellent cellist John Popham, and then “…through which the past shines…” for guitar, piano, and cello, also with John and with Nils on piano. Nils Vigeland is really a phenomenal musician and a pivotal figure in New York new music and I think he deserves much more attention. He studied with Morton Feldman and Lukas Foss, ran the Bowery Ensemble that premiered several important works in the 1980s, and taught countless influential young composers. Reiko Fueting, who has since moved into Vigeland’s role at the Manhattan School of Music, was born in East Germany and has been living in New York for several decades. He writes beautiful music that incorporates an affinity for early music into contemporary instrumental techniques, and I’m very lucky he has written three beautiful solo works for guitar. Both of these musicians have been inspirational to work with, and it was a true joy to release this recording of their works for guitar.
You are not only a classical and contemporary guitar player, I know you have a post-rock attitude playing with Mice Parade, how did you start to play with them and when you will play again?
I first started playing with Mice Parade in 2004 when they needed a guitarist for a US and Europe tour opening for the UK band Stereolab. The role was for a nylon string player and the music was heavily influenced by styles from Brazil, West Africa, and Spain, so it was a natural fit for me (as opposed to a band needing a more conventional lead electric guitarist). Post-rock always felt like an inadequate genre description for the band – I thought of it more like eclectic indie rock built on influences from a few global music traditions. I had experience playing in some bands in high school and then later as a jazz guitarist, but I was not at all prepared for how different it was to perform with a band like this on that level. They are great musicians and great performers who put out an enormous amount of energy in their live performances. I toured several times within the US and internationally with Mice Parade for about ten years after that and played on a handful of recordings. It was really a great, diverse experience, a balance of very tightly composed material that frequently got into interesting rhythmic territory, improvising, and a whole range of music making somewhere in between the two. I mostly played in alternate tunings, sometimes using effects. None of these musical elements were in there in a self-conscious way, it was just a function of the omnivorous musical appetite of the bandleader, Adam Pierce, and the other band members. It was also great to learn about a different side of the music industry, to work with really creative people whose approach is different from what I was accustomed to my experience to that point, and to play for audiences who were really responsive in a very direct way to what we were doing. I don’t know if we’ll tour again, I’m still in touch with the bandleader and we play low key gigs together every once in a while, but going out on the road in that context… might be best left to the young.
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.?
I’ve always felt that improvisation was a big part of who I am as a musician. You’re bringing up a fascinating question though, and one I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about. The art of creative improvisation has become more and more of a presence in the classical concert community and it’s definitely caused me to reflect and think about the contexts in which I’ve been an improviser, and I think it’s worth us all as a community clarifying some terms. For instance, improvising in the context of a John Zorn game piece is drastically different than improvising over a jazz standard is drastically different than improvising with free jazz or creative improvisers who have developed a language over decades is drastically different than improvising in Indian classical music, etc…. My background as an improviser is mostly coming from someone who learned it within systems – whether in the context of playing a jazz standard or a rock or pop song. I started to get involved and attracted to free improvisation when I was a student, but I feel even when I improvise in a free context I tend to gravitate to creating mini-systems within which to improvise anyway. I hear improvisers who have worked many years developing their own language that seems to defy boundaries and it’s really amazing, and it really interests me, but I haven’t carved out the time to do that in any way that feels substantial yet. As for improvising within older classical forms, I think this would be a wonderful thing to see come back into the tradition and the pedagogy, as it really reinforces how so much of our canonic repertoire was conceived – so many of the great figures of Western music history were improvisers and their systems for improvisation were often also the context within which they wrote through composed music.
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…
That’s a cool question. Yes, I think putting it this way, that “error” is actually the catalyst for growth, is a great way of seeing it. This also speaks to one of the most interesting distinctions between improvised and through composed music – the notion that there is a sort of platonic ideal, the score and the envisioned realization of it, and that anything diverging from that realization is an error. But we can adjust our understanding of the score I think to contextualize it as a template for say 90 or 95% of what is meant to happen, with that essential extra 5% being variable from performance to performance and coming from the performer. I’m still a believer in realizing the score as written, but then the extra variability each time is really what makes music alive, and in that sense, an “error” is really sometimes just an expression of that irreplaceable variability. Without that variability, what we have is fixed music making and I fear that has bad implications for an era where we have already handed so much over to robots and computers. So I guess I would distinguish between an error that is decidedly an incorrect understanding or actualization of a piece versus the inevitable and actually desired variability of having a human being performing or writing or whatever.
I also think that some artists see errors as an indicator to evaluate the frame in which we decide what is right and what is wrong, and others see it as something to work on avoiding in the future. Of course, any instrumentalist needs to practice and wants to avoid mistakes. But on a larger aesthetic level, evaluating frames seems good… In art, in politics, in many things these days it seems people are too willing to accept the frame that is given.
And what do you think is the “function” of a moment of crisis?
Well, if you mean in life, I think a moment of crisis tends to serve two functions – one it lights a fire under you to avoid calamity (hopefully), but it can also be an opportunity for change and reevaluation if you seize it. Musically I’ve often thought that how a composer handles the climactic moments of their pieces, I guess you could call them the crisis moments, sort of defines who they are as an artist. That may be less true these days though, as the emphasis seems to be on materials and timbre rather than structure for the time being. I’m a sucker for narrative driven music, and so for me I listen for how a piece develops its internal conflicts and then how those conflicts are manifested when they arrive at a climax. Some composers drive through those moments heroically (I think of mid period Beethoven), some composers seem to instinctively crave balance, turning away from bombast immediately after a melodramatic moment (I think of Davidovsky like this… a lot of his pieces have an extroverted climax followed immediately by some kind of soliloquy, or heavily wraught passage followed by a comic moment)… It seems that these “crisis” moments show us who these artists are.
Reflecting on our political situation in the United States right now, it sometimes occurs to me that the crisis we’re having now is the result of the smaller crises we didn’t have for decades when we should have been having them…. Is now the crisis or was the crisis all those years we didn’t address what needed to be addressed? And I think this could be true for musicians too, and for music. It seems we have an ebb and flow, there are moments where a status quo is established musically in the community and then other transitional moments when everything seems in flux. Which one is the crisis and which one is healthy? Neither, both? I’m not sure. Everything is always changing, so in that sense, maybe crisis is only the moment that more people become aware of those changes and perception shifts.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I’m working on editing a recording of Bach Suites BWV996, 997, and 998 that I recorded on a guitar with moveable frets that were organized in Kirnberger III temperament, a tuning system from Bach’s time. That project was a collaboration with John Schneider in Los Angeles, a fascinating musician and expert on microtonality. I’m also working on a two cd set of premieres of works for electric and classical guitars, with and without electronics. There are works by Dai Fujikura, David Crowell, Karin Wetzel, Peter Adriaansz, Orianna Webb, Sidney Corbett, Sergio Kafejian, and Ryan Streber… I’m excited about it, it’s repertoire and composers I’m connected with through various different working scenarios but there’s an internal logic that feels cohesive in terms of presenting these pieces together. There are also some cool performances coming up, I’m playing a program mixing art songs with early jazz and cabaret songs in October with some longtime colleagues mezzo-soprano Tara Venditti and vibraphonist Nick Mancini on a concert in Graz, Austria where Venditti is now teaching at the conservatory there. With the International Contemporary Ensemble, a group I’ve been a member of since 2006, I’m involved in concerts this season on new pieces that include guitar by Du Yun, Wang Lu, Tyshawn Sorey, Nathan Davis, Karola Obermueller, among others. It’s really great to be plugged in to a group that is doing so much cutting edge work with excellent living composers. And I keep up solo playing with recitals from time to time, usually mixing Bach and older repertoire with contemporary music or sometimes doing all contemporary programs, with and without electronics. I’m very grateful, I have great opportunities to play really wonderful music with many inspiring musicians. I’m not sure what the world will look like for music and musicians in coming years, but I do think we’re in an interesting position of fulfilling a role that can emphasize the human experience, as distinguished from an automated one.