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David Tanenbaum Interview

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

Marisa: Why is it important for guitarists and composers to collaborate on writing new music?

David: I think it’s important for composers because the guitar is such an idiosyncratic instrument. It’s tuned different than most of the Western string instruments. It has its own kind of logic and language, and composers are intimidated by the guitar a lot. The best way to get around that is to have a guide and work with an actual guitar player. It really helps composers to be guided by an actual player.

From the guitarist's perspective, I think there’s a sense of ownership for repertoire that you helped create, whether you compose the piece yourself or helped guide a piece into fruition and were part of the process from the beginning. It is an opportunity for us to reach outside of our our little (world) and to (engage) with the larger classical music world. In my case, I would say my greatest teachers have been the great composers I’ve worked with like Takemitsu, Henze and Reich. They are all great people who have unbelievable ears and also an outsider’s perspective on the guitar. So, they’re writing pieces that are not influenced by what is more convenient on the fingerboard. They look at it from afar, while we help adapt it. That’s been one of the joys of my musical life, to work with people like that.

M: Why do you think the guitar is bridging the gap between traditional and modern music?

D: The guitar is the crossover instrument. Right now, it’s the most popular instrument in the world, played by more people than any other instrument, and we know well how many different styles it can encompass. If you look back at what we call modern music, I would say probably the biggest gap between modern music and popular music began in the 60s, when the world was just exploding with the Beatles after Elvis. At the same time, modernism was at its height.

There was this article published by Milton Babbitt called “Who cares if you listen?”. It was basically about how composers were going to write what they wanted, and if you didn't want to listen, that was fine. (The audience) would come to us. I don’t mean to paint a black and white picture because I think there were some great pieces written in modernism. But there was a tremendous divide. Then we began to bridge that divide. Most of the composers now, younger composers and maybe middle-aged composers, are influenced by pop, especially American ones. The guitar became the perfect catalyst for that. If you’re writing in any kind of a pop style or want to get into world music, the guitar can own all of that more naturally than many other instruments can.

In 1993, a piece was written for me called 100 Greatest Dance Hits by Aaron Jay Kernis. It's for string quartet and guitar. Now, he's a Pulitzer prize winner and a multi-Grammy winner, a very well-known composer. At that time, he wasn’t (as well-known), but he was on the rise. He had all of these orchestra commissions. He would write music in his apartment all day, and then he would go out at night and hear completely different music from what he was writing. He lived in a Spanish area, so he (would) hear salsa and rap on the subway, all kinds of things. He started to ask himself: 'Why is my daytime musical life so different than my nighttime musical life? And is there a way to bridge that gap?' So, he wrote this piece for the most traditional of all ensembles, the string quartet, with the most crossover of all instruments, the guitar. (The piece is) called 100 Greatest Dance Hits because it goes through all of these pop styles. (For example,) there is a salsa movement that is easy-listening music, but it’s in a classical structure. It’s an immensely popular piece that shows what the guitar can bring to classical music.

M: What has been your experience performing a piece like that?

D: It has been amazing. You need a string quartet with two (attributes). They have to be excellent technically — it’s difficult to play with the (voices trading back and forth). But they also have to be able to groove. Sometimes older quartets are not as good at the groove part, so you have to find the right group that can really handle the technique but also groove. I don’t remember ever doing it where there wasn’t a standing ovation. People go nuts over it! I think I’ve done it 50 times. There are four recordings. Manuel Barrueco has toured and recorded it, as well as Jason Vieaux. It’s an example of what the guitar can do, how it can bring these different languages into a classical structure.

M: Do you hope a piece written for you will reflect your artistic voice? Why is that exciting?

D: I would say I don’t necessarily hope for that. I think my artistic voice will find a way. I concentrate more on the process and the composer’s voice. I don’t try to impose what I know about my voice onto the piece. I would rather get completely engaged in the process because I know that being engaged is (a part of) my voice. I’m going to speak through this piece if I just focus on what the music is, where it wants to go, how it moves and how to express this piece: that is my voice. I don’t spend time thinking about me in that process too much to be honest. I will say that composers write from knowledge of who I am as a player. People study me and my recordings. Even for younger composers and guitarists, they can listen to each other. The guitarist should be listening to what other pieces the composer has written, and the composer should listen to what the guitar player sounds like. If composers come into the process with this knowledge, they’re probably writing for what they think my voice is. I feel like that is taken care of in the process.

M: Has there been a piece that has been written for you that you performed that really stood out?

D: Actually there is, (though there have) certainly been more than one. For my birthday in 2016, a few friends of mine (put together) a beautiful concert party. Kernis, who I’ll be doing the (Twisted Spruce) talk with, flew across the country and handed me a piece he had written for me for my birthday, called Soliloquy. You cannot give me a better present than that! We’ve been best friends for about 40 years, so he knows everything about me. He knows all my secrets. He knows who David is. There’s something in that piece that I cannot stop playing. Basically, every time I play, I find a way to play that piece. There is something just really deep for me with that piece.

M: Wow, that’s an incredible gift!

D: Sergio Assad did the same for that birthday. It was incredible to have two friends do that. What more permanent (gift) can you give someone than to write a piece of music for them?

M: Why should people get involved with Twisted Spruce, which is an avenue to guide collaborators in the creation of new music?

D: These kinds of collaborations could really use help and guidance from people who have been down the path before. Twisted Spruce really provides the framework and structure for this work. For young people are getting started out with this kind of collaboration, they'll learn (a lot) by going through this organization, which they can take with them for future collaborations. People like Aaron and I have been working together for so long, and we’re going to talk about our process. Aaron wrote the first piece for me in 1981 when we were students. The most recent one was (written) in 2016. That’s a lot of years of collaboration. He doesn’t play a note of the instrument, so we have a lot to say about how that process works. We are both very detail-oriented. There’s so much to learn when it is put together into one festival, guided by people who have really been through the process. I think it can be an inspiration for young people for a while to start out with this.

M: Definitely, I think Twisted Spruce is a great organization for that. I was surprised to hear that Professor Kernis had not written for the instrument before (working with you). That's wonderful that a non-guitarist became so passionate about writing for the instrument after (these collaborations). That’s really inspirational!

D: We have solo pieces from him, two concertos (one of which will be coming out on Naxos in July) and pieces for the string quartet and guitar, flute and guitar, violin and guitar, and various mixed ensembles. It’s just a really big repertoire that we’ve got from this one terrific composer. It can really lead to a long-term collaboration getting started like this.

I think Twisted Spruce is good for teaching young composers and young guitarists how to work together and how to work for an instrument that is a little more challenging to compose for. I look forward to guiding this process. It’s really fantastic to be able to bring what I know and what I’ve been through and to help make these pieces come to life.

M: We’re all so excited to have you as a guest artist. It’s been such an honor to speak with you today. Thank you so much!

Find out more about Tanenbaum here.

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