One Guitarist’s Creative Process Pt. 1
I’m up early. I managed to wake up before the tiny baby. You remember, the small earthling that has taken over my home and all the waking hours in it! My unusual alert state has provided me with a rare moment to pause and reflect. Coffee in hand, laptop at the ready, I’m thinking about the process that an artist goes through in order to create their work. This is on my mind at the moment as these days I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. Little handsfree miracles of information, entertainment and insight mean that I can still do something while I push my sleeping child’s stroller up and down a series of hills (that’s a story for another time). Podcasts have given me the opportunity to hear some fantastic interviews from a number of artists on how they approach their work and this has inspired me!
Listening to these artists’ stories, I quickly noticed the circuitous path that each travels while developing their craft. Interestingly, the starting point often has little to do with where they find themselves later on in their artistic life. Funny how it works that way…
It is an interesting proposition for someone like me. I generally play other people’s music, whether it is created for me or initially for someone else. So when I approach the creative process I am thinking about crafting a convincing interpretation, taking something and making it “my own,” and that is in itself no small endeavor. The notes of a given piece are the same for me as they are for you, or any other artist. The challenge that presents itself is choosing which elements of the work to bring out or emphasize. How will I keep the audience engaged but also support the goals and vision of the composer? All the while, I need to maintain that all-important connection to the piece itself; if I lose interest how can I expect the listeners to stay with me on the journey?
As a young guitar student, the goal was to get the pieces I was studying to sound as close to those of the guitarists I had on recordings. After all “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and imitate I did…well, as best I could. It’s the starting point for so many guitarists, and instrumentalists in general, copying something that inspires you or excites you is the push to get better and stretch yourself as a beginner. After years of “trying to sound good like—(fill in the blank),” I began to develop my own opinions about how a work should be approached and performed—freedom, baby! A big part of this shift occurred, in part, through my own research about the composers I was performing. It was pointed out to me, by someone far wiser than I, that “if you’re going to spend all this time playing these works, why don’t take some time and get to know more about the people who created them?” Good point. Who were they? What interested them? What were their struggles? What did their other pieces sound like? Did they rely heavily on coffee like me? I needed more information! In its earliest stages, solving this question was accomplished simply by reading books, articles, and journals about the composers I was studying on the guitar. Mainly the old dead dudes: Bach, Scarlatti, etc. As I continued to broaden my listening and playing, I discovered new composers—living composers! They walk! They talk! You could actually ask them questions and they would give you an answer—Boom! (Mind. Blown.) This really and truly crystallized for me in the summer of 2000 when I attended a week of master classes with Cuban guitarist/composer Leo Brouwer.
For (classical) guitarists, Brouwer is one of our towering new music figures and his works have impacted countless players of the late 20th and early 21st century. By the time I met him, I had played all his etudes and so many of his pieces for guitar that I had lost count. He is still, importantly, one of my favorite guitar dudes! You can even see me play his 3rd guitar concerto here or listen to my recording of his Sonata for solo guitar here. So, meeting the guy who wrote all of this music that I’d spent a pretty sizeable chunk of my life studying/performing had a significant impact on me. In the days that followed, amongst a sea of guitarists, that were all trapped in Canada, I was able to get answers to questions I had about his music from the source. It was both incredibly inspiring and exciting. All the guitarists I met during that week, myself included, walked away with a stronger understanding of Brouwer’s music. We became new advocates for his art.
Perhaps what’s most interesting to me is how something as simple as meeting another artist can impact your musical development in such a profound manner. After that summer, it became an integral part of my work to get to know the composers I was performing. The creative process shifted from simply working up a piece, to understanding it and its creator. It became a 2-part process:
1. Studying the work itself
2. Getting to know the composer
This last bit is especially important as the composer holds all the cards, so to speak, regarding how the piece came into existence, what sparked the direction of the work, and important details that often times can’t be communicated (or get left out) on the written page.
Getting to know a composer, by meeting them in person or through research (in the case of the old dead dudes), becomes an essential part in understanding their style. For the guitar players: you probably want to listen to as much of their music that’s not written for the guitar as possible. Open those ears! Once, I had to perform a work by a living composer and had nothing to go on. Even the ubiquitous Google search yielded nothing. It was me and the guitar sidling up to the practice chair, mano a mano, for hours going: “I guess this is what the composer wants…” or as I call it—flying blind. All this to say: playing music whether solo or with others is a collaborative effort. The performer(s) needs the composer just as much as the composer needs musicians to realize their work.
But don’t take my word for it, go and ask a composer! Don’t know one? I’ll do one better—I’ll bring one to you in my next blog post. I’m going sit down and chat with the amazing David Revill about his work as a composer, recording engineer, writer, percussionist, and general creator of awesome things, and you’re invited! Also, we are going to discuss the painful process he’s been going through working with me as he creates his new work for solo guitar and electronics Tiahuanaco!
I’ll close with this thought by Tom Waits, as it pretty much nails the creative process for any artist: “For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”