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A Conversation with Composer Haralabos [Harry] Stafylakis

Sy Anderson: Can you talk about where you first started with music in your life? Did you start as a classical musician? A metal-guitarist?

Haralabos Stafylakis: As a toddler I’d regularly observe my grandfather Angelos Drosopoulos, a professional clarinetist of traditional Greek music, practicing his instrument, while noodling around on his Fender Rhodes.

At the age of four I began my classical piano training. At twelve, as I began discovering my love for rock, pop, and heavier music, my cousin lent me one of his guitars and I started to teach myself to play. The guitar soon took over as my primary musical interest and I dropped the piano (for a few years, at least), setting off down the road of metal and shred guitar.

As I developed my craft over the years as composer/songwriter/producer/guitarist in the real of progressive metal, I eventually sensed a roadblock and decided to divert to university in my mid-twenties to study composition and classical guitar.

I eventually dropped live performance from my range of activities, focusing entirely on composition and production, though I still play on recordings of my own more metal-oriented music.

S: From educator, to composer, to guitarist, you’ve obviously had a lot of experience with guitar in the classical music scene. Could you talk about some differences between working with guitar in classical music vs. other musical interests that you have?

H: When I first came to the classical guitar in university, I tried to approach it as an extension of the electric guitar, which I’d already been playing for over a decade by then. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that they are actually two totally different instruments in just about every relevant sense: in construction, sonority, technology, technique, repertoire, culture… All they have in common (besides the word “guitar”) is that they both have strings – but so do the piano, viola, and cimbalom, so that’s not saying much.

Some of my earlier compositions for classical guitar, like Hyperion and Critical Density, show me grappling with that reality. At times, they sound convincingly classical guitar-esque. In other places, I was forcing electric guitar/metal idiom onto an instrument that didn’t really support those techniques and sonorities by default.

Adapting electric guitar idioms to the classical required more thought and nuance on the compositional side (i.e., me) to really work; that is, they required adapting, not just direct transplanting. On the performance side, successful adaptation of electric language to classical guitar also depends heavily on players being fluent in both worlds and bringing a lot of their own understanding to the table. Having worked over the years with players like Patrick Kearney, Tariq Harb, Adam Cicchillitti, and Steve Cowan – all of them beasts of the classical who happen to have a deep, intuitive feel for modern metal – both spoiled me and taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

A more recent piece like Focus for the Cicchillitti-Cowan Duo is, I think, a good illustration of how those electric idioms can be made to work on classical guitar, particularly with the right players.

S: Your bio on your website piqued my interest with the mention of “an intimate background in progressive metal and traditional Greek music.” That sounds pretty awesome! Could you talk more about that?

H: I grew up in a Greek household in an Italian neighborhood in French Canada and emigrated to New York City. There is a lot of competing cultural baggage that comes with that. Traditional (and modern) Greek music was just a regular part of daily and communal life for me, always playing on the radio or record player, at the Greek community events we attended as a family, at Greek school (which I attended in parallel to French/English until college). My sense of melodicism, harmony, and especially rhythm, is as informed by this lifelong immersion into Greek music as it is to my other formative musical influences, from American & British pop to Western classical.

Metal happened to emerge in my teens as the umbrella genre that hit my internal buttons most frequently – and most violently. I first came to it with the more mainstream stuff of the ‘90s –Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Pantera – and as is usually the case for metalheads, I went down the rabbit hole into increasingly intense and complex heavy music as I discovered Death, Dream Theater, Nevermore, Symphony X, Meshuggah, Spiral Architect, Opeth…

It turns out that all of those latter artists (and so many others) are in some way connected to this somewhat vague term “progressive metal", which I broadly consider to fold in elements of all the other subgenres, from thrash to symphonic to black, death, tech, etc. As “prog” became codified as its own subgenre, one particular musical element emerged, in my mind, as the most common characteristic amongst the artists associated with the term: a pervasive interest in complex groove characterized by asymmetrical meter, polymeter, polyrhythm, and in general a high degree of metrical dissonance. This temporal dimension of progressive metal happened to hit a nerve in me, probably at least in part because those characteristics also appear prominently in Greek music, classical music, and film music.

Though my profession is as a composer of concert music (a “classical composer”), in truth I consider myself a prog metal composer who happens to mostly write for classical instruments. This is why I gravitated towards collaborations in recent years with non-classical artists like Animals As Leaders, Bent Knee, ShoutHouse, and Hard Rubber Orchestra.

S: You have such a unique perspective on guitar composition compared to a composer who doesn’t play guitar. How does your compositional process work since you already know the instrument intimately? What advice can you give to composers who don’t have this kind of experience? .

H: When I'm composing an orchestral or chamber piece, I work primarily at the piano, with additional assistance from a DAW and software instruments, synths, etc. I’ll use a guitar occasionally as well while composing, just to break myself out of a pattern or to work out melodic or string-focused ideas.

But when I write any piece that involves guitar, I have to work primarily on a guitar. I keep seven guitars with different tunings and numbers of strings in my studio so I can work in a wide range of keys and frequency ranges, but the essential thing is that the core musical ideas – the basic musical materials – are generated by my fingers on a fretboard. It’s really the only way for me to be certain that it’ll play well and sound good.

Here and there I’ll put aside the guitar, even while writing a guitar piece, to work out an idea that doesn’t depend on idiomatic playing, like a pseudo-Baroque contrapuntal passage in the second movement of Focus. I got this idea years ago from Patrick Kearney, who’d told me that he had written the ‘chaconne’ section of his piece Collage on paper because he didn’t want the counterpoint to be unduly influenced by his fingers’ tendencies. But besides that, pretty much everything gets written on the guitar, with additional tools for creative variety (pick vs. no pick, slide, e-bow, capo, effects, alternate tunings, etc.).

Now, how do I translate all the above into advice for a composer who’s not a guitarist?

One stock answer is to say: learn as much as you can about guitar. Buy yourself a cheap acoustic, learn to play a bit, get a feel for it, learn the fretboard layout, study some repertoire, listen to recordings. Yes, absolutely, do all of that.

But also: knowing a bit of guitar is no substitute for being completely fluent, natural, even virtuosic at the instrument. I think I write very well for guitar because it is my instrument. So if I break down the process, what it amounts to is that I am functioning as two different musicians working closely together: a guitarist and a composer, with both aspects of myself informing the activities and decisions of the other. My feel for the guitar influences the ideas I generate, and my musical imagination pushes my hands to try things on the instrument I otherwise would not.

Therefore: perhaps (and I say only “perhaps", because what do I know, really) the best thing is to partner with a guitarist and compose in tandem with them. Guitarist and composer working closely together at every stage of the process, from brainstorming to experimenting to crafting to notating.

[Oh hey, that’s what you’re doing at Twisted Spruce!]

S: I took a listen to your guitar works, “Hyperion” and “Focus,” on your website, and loved both of them! What was your experience writing commissioned works for guitar instead of writing them for yourself?

H: Pretty great: these were pieces written for beasts of the classical guitar (Tariq Harb and the Cicchillitti-Cowan Duo respectively) who happened to also be good friends of mine. That’s an ideal kind of partnership because we know each other’s musicality intimately, and also happen to share similar interests (e.g., our shared metal background). So in reality, it was a lot like writing for myself, just without having to worry about any particularly difficult parts since I wouldn’t have to perform them myself!

And in fact, that’s what it was. I wrote the pieces entirely on my own and delivered completed works to them. From there, as the players learned the pieces, internalized them, and made them their own, I adjusted some things in the scores based on what the players were doing, their own idiosyncrasies, fingerings, solutions, etc.

S: Out of curiosity, does the inspiration for “Hyperion” come from the Ancient Greek Titan by the same name? If so, does that relate to your background in traditional Greek music at all?

H: Good catch. Hyperion is indeed the Titan god of the sun who was supplanted by Apollo when the Olympians took over.

My piece is not directly related to the Ancient Greek myths, however, but rather emerges from John Keats’s never-completed epic poem Hyperion, in which he explores that mythology in his own brand of Victorian poetry. The piece is in fact structured in three “books” rather than movements, each of which is inspired by a passage in Keats’s work.

I was just coming off a huge John Keats kick at the time, and he also happened to be a principal character in the incredible science fiction series Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons that I was deeply into around then.

S: As a composer and a teacher, are there any other thoughts or advice you would give to the composers participating in Twisted Spruce this summer?

H: 1) Do as much preparatory work and research as you can. If you’re not a guitarist yourself, now’s the time to do what I mentioned earlier (learning as much as you can about the guitar, teaching yourself a bit, etc.).

2) If you can do some preliminary brainstorming of musical ideas, motifs, etc. in advance, that could be helpful to you. You’ll be on a timeline for this project, so having some basic materials (that you already like) to toy around with on Day 1 can help you kick things off with your guitarist collaborator quickly and smoothly.

3) Work closely with your collaborator at all stages of the process. This is the hardest bit of advice to give and to take, in my experience. I like to work on my own and to deliver completed things. That just doesn’t work with writing for guitar if the composer isn’t fluent in it. Really think of it as a collaborative composition project, or band writing an album together, if you prefer (Dream Theater write together in the studio; that’s endorsement enough). Have daily sessions together if you can (or as often as possible).

4) Hold onto this tenet: your piece will sound its best if it is flattering to the player performing it. In other words, always ask yourself (and your collaborator): what is the most efficient and most effective way to manifest this musical idea on that instrument with that player’s hands.

S: And finally, if you were the captain of your very own pirate ship, what would be the name of the ship?

H: Hyperion.

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