I first met Benjamin Verdery, in person during the summer of 2001. I’ve always admired his playing greatly, and the inventiveness he brings to his work as an artist. In the early nineties, he released an album of his own compositions titled: Some Towns and Cities. The works are snapshots, in sound, of various places that Ben visited or stayed for a period of time.
Getting back to the summer of 2001, I heard Ben close his concert with his piece “Keanae, HI.” I left the hall wanting to hear that piece again, and determined to find the sheet music—fortunately he published it!
Here are a few words from the composer about the piece:
“ Keanae is a peninsula on the island of Maui in Hawaii. You will pass it if you drive the extraordinary beautiful road to Hana. It is more of a sleep community than it is a town. It made me think of what old Hawaii must have been like….My wife has relatives on the island of Ohau, and someday we hope to reside there permanently. Oddly enough, I wrote Keanae, HI in New York City and New York, NY in Hawaii.”
I’ve played this piece many times now in concert and I must admit that it’s one of my favorite things to play. There are, in fact, some mornings where I just play it over and over. I recently had the chance to film a live performance. Click here to see what all the fuss is about.
Playing the guitar, or at least the “classical” guitar, creates a challenge that I find both unique to the instrument and to my view as an advocate for the mighty six-string machine.
What I find unique about this instrument is how difficult it is to find well crafted pieces of music to perform that are not overplayed by guitarists around the world. There are some wonderful pieces in the standard repertoire, but you do have to dig into the literature, at this point in time, to find them. The piano or violin, on the other hand, have an enormous repertoire of magnificent pieces for an artist to share with their audience. A challenge guitarists have is creating a program that does not overlap with their contemporaries. It becomes a question of what to choose rather than what you managed to find in the stacks of a library or, god forbid, the internet and YouTube. Please don’t misunderstand me. This is not a knock against the guitar, I love the instrument and the composers commonly associated with the standard repertoire. The goal, to me, is keeping an eye on where we, as guitarists, came from while focusing on moving the instrument and its repertoire forward.
Since my first days of lessons, I was encouraged to find pieces that were unique and resonated with me. It was cool, according to my teacher at the time, to have a set of pieces, concert program, or work that no one else (in the studio) was performing. Much like that great line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody!” What better way to prepare a student for a career in music than having them make their own decisions from the very start!
Surprisingly, the actual “work” for me became taking pieces that I was drawn to, often times those that are off the beaten path, and sharing them with an audience. Ask any performer and they will be able to tell you a story or two where the audience was with them, or had checked out for the evening. The latter is perhaps one of the most grueling. You’re 20-30 minutes into a concert and the crowd is wiggling, carrying on, and not-so-quietly looking for an escape. They were sending me a message: Hey kid, I don’t like THIS music… As the Sex Pistols would say: The Problem is You! It only took a couple of these concert experiences to quickly adjust my concept of what “work” was going to be as a performer. It went from studying the piece, which just became perfunctory, to creating a situation that engaged listeners and kept them open. This was perhaps the best discovery I could have made! Finding a way that will show an audience the beauty in what is new or unusual.
Keeping that in mind, this week I had the pleasure of performing David Revill’s “Harihara” for solo guitar at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. One of the best parts of working with pieces written by a living composer is you can actually ask them questions AND they will have (hopefully) an answer! There is a sense of collaboration and excitement in the process that is, for me, inspiring. As a performer you also get to move towards the unknown, the unfamiliar, and it pushes you (just as my first teacher encouraged me to do many years ago). Finding ways to interpret that which is unfamiliar as a guitarist and how to bring this to an audience so that they, too, can understand the piece is the best part of the process. As I approached the concert I was working through the final movement of David’s piece when an eleven year old student came into my studio for his lesson and asked me, “What’s that?” I explained to him that it was a piece written by someone that I know and wondered what he thought of the sounds and colors of the work. The student replied, “I didn’t know you could do that on the guitar and I want to hear more.” What more could a composer or performer hope to hear… And if that wasn’t enough, a kind member of the audience posted a review of the performance that you can read by clicking here