Interview with Aaron Larget-Caplan (December 2018)
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
I had a few short lessons when I was 4 or 5, but the store closed after a couple of months so I stopped. Thankfully, once a guitarist always a guitarist, as the feeling of playing stayed in me. I picked it up again when I was 11, because of rock music and whammy bars. I was in Jazz band for a year, but a broken finger playing dodge ball ended that.
My classical studies began at age 16 after watching a video of Segovia in Spanish class. By this time I tired of the repetition of rock music, carrying gear, and trying to rehearse. Writing songs wasn’t interesting to me and I knew I didn’t want to be a cover guy, but classical music was very inviting to me.
I was completely naïve about the classical music world and what it meant to study an instrument, so I read a lot of interviews and biographies and gleaned from them what I could. I love the feeling of playing a nylon-strung guitar, contrapuntal music, Spanish music, contemporary; I love creating sound. The shear energy of being in complete control of the sound is freeing. No more third party effects, just me and strings.
What did you study and what is your musical background?
I do not come from a musical family, nor was I a prodigy. My parents both enjoy music, but neither was warm to me being a professional musician. After a year at Boston University I transferred to the New England Conservatory without telling my parents until I was accepted. While at NEC I studied classical guitar and took flamenco lessons outside of school. I think the most influential aspects during this time came from attending concerts and performing chamber music, especially working with non-guitarists. I performed Stravinsky, a number of duos and works with singers, as well as a large choral-guitar work by Castelnuovo-Tedesco. The introduction to North Indian Classical Music by the late sitarist Peter Row opened my mind and ears to music in a way that the western music establishment doesn’t quite appreciate. Maybe it is my electric guitar background, but bending a pitch is awesome. After NEC I began private studies with Dmitry Goryachev. It is easy for me to say that he was the most influential teacher to my guitar foundation. He treated me as a son rather than a commodity, the goal being music rather than a piece of paper (diploma). And though I was already performing and teaching, my seven years with him felt like an apprenticeship. Lessons were every week, often twice a week and 2-3 hours in length. I would occasionally work with his son, Grisha as well. Dima reconfigured how I played, explained, demonstrated and assisted in the creation of consistent full sound, encouraged me to expand my repertoire beyond a conservatory repertoire, and was extremely patient.
I am a product of consistent work, listening, and collaboration.
I have forged my path.
What were and are your main musical influences?
Recordings of Julian Bream, Wanda Landowska, Richter, Gould, David Starobin
Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Kahn,
Writings of Hazarat Inyat Khan, Toru Takemitsu, Rilke, Rumi, John Cage
70s-80s electric players like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Steve Vai and many others. I loved the effects they created, and I still love a well used whammy bar and wawa pedal.
All of the contemporary composers that I have been lucky enough to collaborate with. Each has their own identity and musical voice, and with each new work I find myself digging deeper in myself as a musician and artist.
How did you decide to arrange John Cage’s music for guitar?
I was introduced to John Cage while at the New England Conservatory as a student listener. I read and went to lectures about him, and as my ears opened I became more and more intrigued in his music. I was also a bit jealous that I could only partake in the works written for open instrumentation. In 2013 I was speaking to pianist Stephen Drury about a group he coached of mine many years prior, and we started talking about Cage. He mentioned that he always thought the piano part of Six Melodies for violin-piano would work well on guitar, so I tried.
My colleague at the Boston Conservatory violinist Sharan Leventhal agreed to premiere my arrangement, and Edition Peters liked it. From there I continued to listen to his music and read through his scores, and I found that the works on the album, as well as a few more, were quite successful on the guitar.
What kind of difficoulties have you met in your project?
For works like Dream and In a Landscape, resonance is an extremely important factor success in the piece. Of course the piano has a pedal to easily facilitate resonance, as well as a three strings per note and a cast-iron frame. The guitarist must use special cross-string fingerings (campenella) that allow the notes in a scale to resonate over each other. I also use some harmonics to assist. I also had to adjust for a smaller range of notes. This was not an issue for many of the works, but In a Landscape required such adjustments.
For the prepared guitar duo, Bacchanale, finding proper tools to create the preparation was key. I listened to many prepared piano versions and experimented on the guitar quite a bit.
Choosing music was another challenge. I wanted to create something that surveyed a period of the artist’s life, but also gave a dramatic arch to the listener. I know I have often not enjoyed single composer guitar recordings, as everything tends to sound the same, so I worked very hard to find piece that would compliment and not bore.
I think a good transcription sounds as if it were originally written for the instrument, and this project really started with arranging. I felt a good deal of pressure to make my arrangements as authentic as possible, which is difficult with any music, but I really felt extra weight since this was Cage and Edition Peters was asking me to do it. Edition Peters with over 150 years of publishing!
The last thing I wanted to do was make watered down versions aimed at amateurs where I tell exactly where to put each finger. These pieces are serious additions to the repertoire, so I worked to create arrangements that allowed the player to be the artist. Cage is much like Bach: the music is strong and very personal, so one must take the time to find one’s voice in it.
Lastly I put a lot of pressure on myself as ‘John. Cage. Guitar.’ is the first recording completely devoted to John Cage’s music by a classical guitarist, and it’s my first devoted to a single composer.
Why did you choose to play Cage’s music composed between 1933 and 1948?
It was not something I set out to do, as prior to this project I was not aware of Cage’s writing before his Sonatas and Interludes. I was so surprised by Six Melodies and how they fit so naturally on the guitar, that I went to the library and started looking at scores. I found works that I thought would be successful on the guitar and they reflect beautifully on Cage the artist, collaborator and even painter.
I did make a conscious decision not to play some of his later works that I don’t think translate well to recordings. As much as I like his silent pieces, I did not wish to go there with this recording.
Talking about Cage, we know that he didn’t like improvisation but 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.?
If we are talking strictly about pitch and rhythm then I do not really improvise in my performances, but if we add the musical elements of timbre, breathe, dynamics and so into the conversation then I am regularly improvising with the room I am in. I don’t believe in a single interpretation of a piece of music, especially as each room and guitar has their own voice, and if our art is alive it must adjust continually for our lives.
I have recorded one piece that asks for improvisation: The Legend of Hagoromo by Keigo Fujii. In it he gives a scale and duration and asks the player to use artificial harmonics in the scale while keeping the rhythmic drone. It’s a blast!
When I play Bach many of my ornaments are improvised. I often rehearse many variations and even write in some, but what I use when and where often changes from performance to performance. I perform the Chromatic Fantasy by Bach, which must have the feel of improvisation, which requires a whole other level of mastery as well as performance.
In 2016 & 2017 I toured with fingerstyle guitarist Peter Janson and I would join him on stage for one of his original compositions where he asked me to improvise. Again it was a blast and very freeing. Peter comes from a jazz background, studied classical, and then went into writing originals, but more importantly he was very supportive of me taking risks and having a good time on stage. I was able to ask question and he helped create a set of boundaries for my improvisation. I felt very overwhelmed by the possibilities in improvisation, which I think many classical musicians feel, so this guide was very reassuring.
After a short time I began taking liberties in works where I knew the composer came from an improvisatory background, ie Roland Dyens or the musical style asked for it. But as you can read in the comments to my performance of his Tango en Skaï by Dyens for Guitar Salon International, the classical guitar world has a very hard time with deviation, even in a piece born of improvisation: https://youtu.be/hRzSLrL9wJs
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…
Not enjoying the moment.
And what do you think is the “function” of a moment of crisis?
To prove one can recover, improve and live on.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
• For the last couple of years I have been arranging keyboard works of Bach. I performed my first all-Bach program in March 2018, and have another to commemorate his birthday in 2019 in Boston. I look forward to recording the arrangements as they settle in and mature.
• I am very excited and pleased about a current collaboration with composer Vineet Shende of Bowdoin College on a collection of Carnatic Preludes, After J.S. Bach. These are Bach preludes re-imagined as if Bach were from Mumbai, India.I arrange the Bach Prelude and then pair it with his Carnatic version. Three have been premiered and are working on a collection of 12 to be finished in 2020. A recording will be done shortly after.
• I am very proud to announce that I am starting a new series in Boston, ‘Now Musica’ which highlights new & neglected music using the guitar with other instruments. The first concert will be April 13, 2019 with Chicago-based violist Michael Hall. We will premiere works by American composer Francine Trester and Brazilian Antonio Celoso Ribeiro on a program of duos and solos.
• Since 2007 I have been collecting miniatures in the form of a lullaby for solo guitar for my New Lullaby Project. I have since premiered 55, and recorded 17. It continues with concerts, though instead of focusing so much on premiering new compositions, I am now starting to record a second disc.
• I have multiple arrangements in queue for Edition Peters by John Cage and Alan Hovhaness, as well as a few pieces for chamber ensembles.