The website of classical guitarist David Tanenbaum

Staccato Interview

“Today is the Best Time for Guitar in its Whole History”

Interview with David Tanenbaum
by Jörg Jewanski

This is edited from the interview as it originally appeared in the German magazine Staccato and subsequently in the San Francisco Classical Guitar Society Newsletter.
Reprinted with permission of Jörg Jewanski and the San Francisco Classical Guitar Society.

The 25th of July 1997 will surely go down in the history of San Francisco. Five thousand bicycle drivers, protesting for a “city without cars”, blocked large parts of the inner city. Total chaos. In mad-about-cars-America it seems a travesty to sit in your car at a green light and not be able to move just because a bunch of bicycle riders are demonstrating. This was the background scene of the day we met David Tanenbaum in the offices of the San Francisco Classical Guitar Society (SFCGS). David is one of a few performers worldwide with an international reputation who devotes a large part of his activities to New Music and not only encourages compositions to be written but also plays the first performance and later records a CD. These are reasons enough to speak with him about guitar music in the 80s and 90s. The focus of the interview was compositions by American composers which were written for him. Not all of these compositions are known in Germany. This interview with David was preceded by a videotape concert he presented, which the SFCGS broadcast on its weekly local cable TV program.

STACCATO: Mr. Tanenbaum, in 1990 you made a CD of guitar music from the 80s: The Blue Guitar (1983) from Sir Michael Tippett, Electric Counterpoint (1987) from Steve Reich, Sonata  (1983/84) from Peter Maxwell Davies, Triptico  (1989) from Roberto Sierra and All in Twilight  (1988) from Toru Takemitsu. What was the concept for this CD?

D. T.: I cannot say that there was an overall concept. The whole thing was just made of the parts. I got very interested in all the parts and the idea of having great composers and not one of them being a guitarist. They are just composers. The other ideas were that there would be a big contrast in sound and that it would not be a solo guitar CD.


D. T.: I was tired of them. The language is limited. There are so many guitar composers in the history of guitar: Sor, Giuliani, Carulli, Legnani. Now you have Brouwer, Koshkin, York and Dyens. With all respect to them, I’m more interested in Takemitsu, Henze, Davies, Reich, Kernis and Terry Riley. Partly because those composers don’t fit so well. That makes me work a little bit more. With Brouwer everything is easy to play. With Takemitsu and Riley I have to work harder. Their ideas seem almost too big for the guitar at first. But while studying I become more part of the creative process of these composers.

STACCATO: But why did you choose exactly these pieces? There were lots of great composers in the 80s.

D. T.: I was interested in these five pieces. These pieces are in my life for different reasons. And, except for the Tippett, none of it had been recorded. I knew that I could do something new with the Steve Reich. It had been done by Pat Metheny on electric guitar, but I did it with classical guitar. The Davies and Takemitsu were unrecorded, and Triptico was written for me.

I feel that the world is too crowded, that there are too many things in it, and if you really want to put out something new, it should be really new, not another recording of Recuerdos de la Alhambra. So I wanted to find pieces that I thought were very strong and that no one had done before. And I continue to try to find that equation.

STACCATO: You said that there is a big contrast in sound between these five pieces.

D. T.: What I’m looking for is a lot of contrast in a guitar record, not just in the sound but also in the styles. We know that the guitar has such wonderful colors, but it doesn’t have a big dynamic range, so you still have to look for contrast in as many ways as you can. For instance, Steve Reich is writing minimalism, which is the style that brought pulse and tonality back to classical music. This is a very American style that provided a kind of recovery from serialism. And to have so many guitars playing minimalism makes for a very effective piece. I think that style doesn’t work as well on solo guitar.

STACCATO: There is big difference to the music of Takemitsu.

D. T.: The contrast between Reich and Takemitsu is very big, because Takemitsu does not concentrate on pulse so much and he has a harmonic language that is very similar in some ways to Claude Debussy. He is interested in sound texture and harmony, whereas Reich’s main things are counterpoint and rhythm.

STACCATO: What about the other composers?

D. T.: Sierra also is interested in texture, and his music has pulse. In some ways his music is a combination of Reich and Takemitsu. He always likes atmospheric music, and in particular he’s trying to capture the sounds of Puerto Rico. I think he is just homesick, basically. He left Puerto Rico but he is always writing about it.

Maxwell Davies’ music is unlike any other music. His musical language is absolutely unique. No one else has written such thick and complicated counterpoint for guitar. And very often this is at the lower end of the instrument. It is not music that says hello to you very readily, but if you really work you will find fantastically rich music.

STACCATO: And Tippett?

D. T.: He studied musical color when we has young, and he is into opposites, always wanting to contrast dark and light. Tippett does try to make very beautiful sound, but with him it can be very hard to perceive structure. What is amazing is how he contrasts dark and light colors on a small level.

STACCATO: So each composer of the CD is unique.

D. T.: Yes.

STACCATO: Did you meet the composers to work with them?

D. T.: Yes, I worked quite a bit with Michael Tippett. I played the piece on three different occasions in his presence. I knew Takemitsu and worked with him on nearly all of his pieces, including All in Twilight. I worked with Maxwell Davies in England. Sierra is a good friend of mine; he wrote this piece for me. I toured with Steve Reich for two years, playing Electric Counterpoint many times.

STACCATO: Normally in a score only the parts of the music are written which are in the mind of a composer. During your contact with the composers did you get ideas for your interpretation which are not to found in the score?

D. T.: Composers and performers both have the problem of notation. The inspiration from the composer has to be put down into the score and the performer has to find a way to take it back. The composer needs to be a good enough musician that he gives you the complete message on a piece of paper, because all composers will die some day. I think that you really should not have to talk with the composer. And I have to tell you that in some cases the composers have confused me.


D. T.: Should I name a situation (laughs)? O.K. Davies told me to go slower than he marked for the first movement of his Sonata. Before that I was using his tempo marking, but my recording is a little bit slower. Now six years have passed, and I have to say that I like the written tempo marking more than his later idea.

Composers have to write everything they mean on the score. If they don’t, then they are at fault. They haven’t done their job if the score is not clear. On the other hand, most of the time it is fantastic to work with composers, and one finds that the music is usually like the personality. The art comes from the person. Usually the best thing is to get to know the person. Then you can get some messages about the music, perhaps indirectly.

STACCATO: Is it possible for you to change something in a piece of music when you feel you should do it?

D. T.: That is a good question. The first thing I do is to try everything I can to believe the composer. He starts with a blank page and every mark he puts on the page should be there because it means something. First you have to trust him. You find later that some composers are more careful than others. When Reich writes a crescendo at the second eight-note, he wants it at the second eight-note. He doesn’t want it at the first eight-note. He is absolutely precise.

I’m currently playing two Sonatas from 1979 by Alan Hovhaness, an Armenian-American composer who is now in his eighties. He has written some 600 pieces and they all are very spiritual and meditative and almost all slow. One of his guitar sonatas is published but going out of print; the other is unpublished. No one has recorded them, and almost no one has played them. The problem is that the tempo markings are just too slow for the guitar. In some cases I had to play twice as fast as he marked to feel that it worked. On my new recording I change all his tempo markings, and I say so in the program notes.

So at first I try to make the score work. But I have gone completely against it and I have quite a few times told the composer and he has often said ok.

STACCATO: In 1993 you made a CD named Great American Guitar Solo with music of William Bolcom, Curtis Curtis-Smith, Bryan Johanson, Marilyn Currier and Shirish Korde. In Germany not much is known about these composers.

D. T.: A company (Neuma) came to me and said that they would get a grant to do basically a copy of Acoustic Counterpoint, because this CD had some success. So they wanted to have another recording with five different composers from the same period but with all American music. I used it as an opportunity to play some of the pieces that I had liked from composers who are not so well known.

STACCATO: What is the style of the composers?

D. T.: First I have to say that I get a lot of music in the mail. Nearly every week I get a new piece. Most the pieces are not so good and I play them one time and put them away. But when the Sonata from Currier came, I was very interested, because it had a lot a energy and a lot of drive. It has many beautiful harmonies and a particular quality that I would call female, which is an impression I can’t explain. There aren’t many women composers who have written for guitar, so I was happy to add that piece to the catalog.

Time Grids by Korde also came by mail. He was born in 1945 and the piece is from 1988. It is nice to have a piece where the relationship with the tape is free, so you can play each performance in a different way and even improvise, and that occurs in the second movement of Time Grids. When I recorded it, I made three absolutely different versions and afterwards chose the best.

Johanson is an old friend of mine. He was born in 1952 in Portland in Oregon. He has written much music for solo guitar. Mortua Dulce Cano from 1989 is a very short piece. (Tanenbaum showed a thick book titled: Bryan Johanson: Music for Guitar solo).

STACCATO: All for solo guitar? Dozens of pieces.

D. T.: Yes, isn’t it amazing? Mortua Dulce Cano is based on a poem about the how wood that’s used to make lutes was alive in the forest, was dead when it was cut down and now it comes back to life as the lute. It’s dedicated to Johanson’s guitar-maker (Jeffrey Elliott).

Bolcom is a very famous American composer who was born in 1938. Seasons is from 1974 but it had not yet been recorded. It uses many different American styles.

Great American Guitar Solo from 1982 is the name of the piece by Curtis Curtis-Smith, who, by the way, comes from Walla-Walla, Washington. He told me he wanted to write a piece for the former head of the U.N., Boutros-Boutros Gali! And the form would be, of course, AAB. His piece has some ragtime and some swing and it is also very American.

STACCATO: What is typical for “very American”?

D. T.: America is a melting pot. Speaking very generally, The East Coast composers are more influenced by Europe, while the middle of the country, where Bolcom and Curtis-Smith come from, often incorporate a lot of different American popular styles like ragtime and swing, and many West coast composers like Terry Riley or Lou Harrison are influenced by Asia. So the geography is reflected in the music, but in each case there is a confluence of styles. That’s what I’d call American.

A second point is that most of the composers who are thirty-five or forty now, in Europe as well, are influenced by the pop music of the 60s. You can see it everywhere. Much of the music of these younger composers has a beat.

STACCATO: If you compare the pieces of the Great American Guitar Solo CD with the pieces of the Acoustic Counterpoint   CD, is the style similar?

D. T.: I think it is not. Except with Bolcom and Curtis-Smith, it is hard to find even any common style between the two CDs.

STACCATO: Now we have the names of ten different composers of the 2 CDs. Hans Werner Henze said one time about the situation of composers: “Each composer stands at a different place and stands alone at that place.” Is it a typical sentence of American composers of the 80s? Or are there groups of composers composing in a similar style?

D. T.: For me, what Henze says is a half truth. While each composer and each person is unique, no artist works alone without influence.

STACCATO: But in the 50s many composers wrote in a Post-Webern style; in the 60s many wrote in an experimental style.

D. T.: You can find trends now, but they’re far less universal now then even 30 years ago.


D. T.: Today everyone speaks of post modernism. If modernism was the breaking down of a lot of systems, post modernism is the period where they are broken down, where everything interacts and it’s much harder to define borders or create separate categories. What exactly is “classical music” anymore? Does anybody care? I think it’s healthier that styles are not distinctly separated from each other, because music is bigger than categories anyway. The problem for composers is that now they have to create a new language for each new work, or at least address the questions of language anew each time. There are so many choices now and there is no predetermed way to go. Composers can no longer go into a corner and say, “We are serialists.”

STACCATO: Do you see tendencies in guitar music of the last decade of the 20th century?

D. T.: As I said, I think there is more sense of pulse in music than there was thirty years ago, because of the influence of pop on younger composers. You could also say that composers these days are generally working a little harder to please the audience. Certainly they are doing so more now than during the serialists’ time. And there are composers trained in classical music, writing pieces for “classical” performance situations that sound just like commercial music.

STACCATO: Like Brouwer during the last years.

D. T.: You said it, not me (laughs).

In general, it is the best time for guitar in its whole history. There are so many great composers writing for guitar in so many different styles. It is also the best time for luthiery because the best instruments are are being built now. Clearly the level of guitar playing is the best ever. And guitarists are more educated. They are playing more chamber music. They know more what they are doing than they did some time ago. It is a fantastic time to be a guitarist.

STACCATO: Which five composers and which five pieces would you chose to make a CD similar to Acoustic Counterpoint   with music of the 90s?

D. T.: The answer to the question is that you can’t do it. You can’t limit it to five. I can start naming you some names, but I cannot limit it more than that. In my new CD I have just chosen some pieces which interest me.

Let me tell you some about my work with Terry Riley, the inventor of minimalism. He lives not far from here. I asked him for a piece some years ago, since I’ve known him for fifteen years. In 1992 his son started to play the guitar and brought many CDs and the sound of the guitar to the house, and partly because of that Terry decided to accept the commission and wrote a thirteen-minute piece called Ascencion. I was very happy with it and felt, ok, this is a wonderful piece and a new experience. However, soon after that he called me and said: “I decided I love the guitar and I’m entering my Spanish period. I’m going to write twenty-four pieces for guitar in various combinations.” And he said further, “I don’t want to accept commissions anymore. I want to write pieces and then send them to players I like. If you like the pieces, then you find the money. It will be like guitar/percussion piece for only $39.95!” Now he’s writing his tenth piece. He has written three solos, a duo for the Assads, five for flute and guitar and is now writing for percussion and guitar. Just two weeks ago I finished raising enough money to pay for all the music for my next CD, which I will record this fall. It will be a complete Terry Riley CD.

Also on the new CD there is a piece created with Steve Reich. I got a call from my friend Aaron Kernis and he said: “I heard a piece of Steve Reich’s last night and I think it will work for two guitars. It is called Nagoya Marimbas and is a five-minute piece for two marimbas.” I called Steve, got the music and made an arrangement, or I should say, I sight-read the music from the score. I got a friend, we did a tape, sent it to Steve, and he said, “People have tried it on piano and on other instruments; I don’t like it on anything but marimba. It doesn’t work and I reject it.” I was stunned, but I went back and changed the key, added some slurs and some harmonics – and now he loves the piece. This could be a real repertoire piece for two guitars.

STACCATO: So this new CD is the successor of Acoustic Counterpoint?

D. T.: In some ways. It has six composers. There is one piece which is nearly forty years old, the rest is music from between 1979 and 1994. The old one is by Frank Zappa from 1958 called Waltz for Guitar, written when he was eighteen years old.

STACCATO: What is the style?

D. T.: It is twelve-tone-serial style, typical for the 50s. He studied Webern, of course, at the time. It is only thirty-six seconds long, so I play it twice in concerts.

STACCATO: Is it published?

D. T.: It was unknown till 1992. There was a Zappa celebration edition from Guitar Player magazine in which it’s published.

STACCATO: I think no one knows it.

D. T.: Yes. There are so many pieces written for classical guitar in the 20th century that no one plays.

STACCATO: Who are other great composers of the 90s?

D. T.: Aaron Kernis is an important composer. He was born in 1960 and has written a twenty-two minute Partita in 1981 that he revised in 1995, and he has written a double concerto for guitar and violin. He also has written 100 Greatest Dance Hits for string quartet and guitar, which became the title of a CD for New Albion. I have played it twenty-five times and it is very popular. In January the San Francisco Ballet will choreograph two of the movements. The inspiration for that piece was that Aaron was writing his “serious” music every day and then he went out at night in New York and heard the kids doing Rap-music, playing ghetto-blasters and so on, and he thought, “Why is there a separation between my writing during the day and what I hear now?” So, using the guitar as a catalyst, because it is an popular instrument, he wrote a very well-structured piece in which the guitar leads the string quartet through various pop styles. That’s why it is called 100 Greatest Dance Hits. It is a real American experience, including rap, salsa, easy listening and other styles. It is absolutely successful.
There are so many things going on. Roberto Sierra is also a very important composer. He has written a set of five short solo pieces and he is writing a concerto for me next year. There is an American composer named John Anthony Lennon, who wrote a concerto and a set of 12 studies for private practice, not for the concert. But I just disagree and think they need to be played in concerts. He’s presently writing me two pieces.
Let me tell you one more story with a private background. Another CD I’ve just released contains guitar chamber music of my father, Elias Tanenbaum, who’s been writing pieces for me since I began the guitar. He was born in 1924 and teaches at the Manhattan School of Music. He lost his leg fighting in World War II in 1944 and for many years wanted to write a piece about that war. He finally set the Last Letters from Stalingrad,which many Germans know because of the recent WCR production. Those are letters that the German soldiers wrote home when they were surrounded in Stalingrad. My father set the piece for guitar, viola, percussion and baritone. It is loosely modeled after Henze’s El Cimarron in that the instruments act out the feelings of the letters, and all players play percussion. I play piano as well. That is the centerpiece of the new CD. One of the points my father is making in the piece is that everyone suffers in war, and though he lost his leg fighting Germans, he sees their humanity and suffering in the piece.

STACCATO: Mr. Tanenbaum, thank you for your time and we wish you much future fun in your discoveries of new music for guitar.
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