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Christopher Adler on Composing for Guitar

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

Luke: Why do you think it's important for guitarists and composers to work together on writing new music?

Christopher: That’s a great question! I think it means in general composers and performers should be working together. I hope performers would like to support the music of our time and the music of living composers, understanding that the music tradition we play is a living, changing one, not only about composers of the past. It's essential to keep that tradition alive, and one of the best ways to do it is face-to-face.

Conversely, composers have a tremendous amount to learn from performers, and I think that is especially true when it comes to an instrument like the guitar. For a piano, you can see the placement of the high notes and low notes, so it's conceptually simple. With an instrument like the guitar, it's actually quite puzzling for a non-guitarist. If you want a specific note, then all of sudden your other fingers are constrained. The guitar is an instrument that guitarists understand really well, but a non-guitarist can really struggle with how to write idiomatically for it. So collaboration becomes really essential. Also composers love to explore extended techniques, and it's always best to do that with a player, both from a practical standpoint and a philosophical standpoint. That sort of collaboration is a great way to produce good new music.

L: What do you think makes the guitar unique and exciting to compose for?

C: Like all instruments, the guitar bears a history. It has a tremendous, international history going all the way back to Middle Eastern music. This relevant musical context can be brought into how one thinks about writing or even playing the instrument. It's really interesting to think about how musically one needs to engage with that heritage.

Also, in contrast to players of the bowed stringed instruments, guitarists are comfortable with retuning strings, which allows for flexibility and interesting possibilities. Of course, it's also such a ubiquitous instrument. Many students who may not have a formal music education have played the guitar. Thus, whether or not they read music, people can engage with the guitar. It's often used in popular music, and it's not that hard to pick up. It can be a wonderful connection.

L: How do you believe that the Twisted Spruce Symposium will further the careers of young guitarists and composers?

C: Anything that gets composers and performers talking to one another and producing together collaboratively is really valuable. Collaboration is a skill that I think performers and composers can take into their career. It's not about saying it's my way or the highway, but instead it's about talking about what music can be and to have one's imagination provoked by that interaction.

Then, in general summer festivals are a great way to meet peers in your field that you're not really going to meet at your institution or where you are locally. We live in an instantly international music scene. We can mediate on Zoom and give concerts on YouTube. In a way, you are able to collaborate with anyone in the world, but at the same time you're also competing with everyone in the world. It's really important to kind of be aware of that and to participate in these networks to build your own networks. Even if people are far away, they can still potentially be very valuable professional connections.

L: What do you think is the most gratifying thing about writing for the guitar?

C: I choose the instruments not so much because of the instrument but because of the person playing it. For me, the most gratifying aspect of composing for the guitar is that I've been able to collaborate with a stellar performer, Collin McAllister, who is on the faculty of Twisted Spruce. Most of the guitar music I've written has been as a result of collaborating with him. He's able to bring a tremendous diversity of musical ideas to life for the instrument. Fo me, regardless of the instrument, that’s the ideal scenario.

L: Thank you!

Find out more about Adler here.

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