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Denis Azabagic - Competitions, Collaboration, & Chicago!

B: When were you first introduced to contemporary guitar music? How has your perspective on this repertoire changed over the years?

D: I can’t recall a single moment where I was introduced to contemporary music, it was certainly a time during secondary education. Later on in Zagreb I was introduced to more contemporary music - I do remember for example works by Henze: they were a set piece for a competition in Germany. I heard various contemporary pieces throughout my studies here and there over the years. The term itself “contemporary music” is very broad, and embarks every composer in this period. The way I view it is that also within contemporary one may find different styles such as minimalism. The way I view music in general as well as with other periods (Renaissance, Baroque Romantic etc.) is that there is a certain stylistic line which ties the composers of these time periods and has helped their music survive the test of time. In contemporary music, it is much harder to find similarities from one composer to another. There certainly are commonalities, but the variety of approaches is as big as the number of composers. It very much comes to liking the voice of a certain composer. That is what resonates with me. So for me I prefer to say that it is my knowledge of composers and growth as a musician that has changed rather than my perspective on this music. Part of the process is also getting to know the up and coming composers who are writing today who don’t necessarily have the fame of Bach or Brahms, and they are making their way up. Generally, I am attracted to music that has more of a traceable tonal center and I don’t necessarily brand myself as a contemporary guitarist. But there are composers who resonate deeply with me - one of them being Toru Takemitsu who has a peculiar style of music. The other day, a friend of ours was conducting a new piece with the Chicago Symphony and I was just mesmerized by this performance! The piece was written by Augusta Reed Thomas...I cannot recall the title, but what was stunning for me is that it sounded like I was looking at the paintings of Kandinsky. We later saw the composer in the green room who also happened to mention his paintings as part of the inspiration as well. When I listen to this piece, it's not like I can state that this piece clearly belongs to a genre or era but it has a unique signature. It has a unique rhythmic complexity, and requires a deep level of precision from the ensemble and conductor. One of the things I find with contemporary music is that you have to spend a lot of time studying these works and getting to know the meaning of these works, and especially working with the composer to bring out the meaning of these works as well. Which is why I believe collaborating with the composer is extremely extremely important as well.

B: Yeah I totally agree with everything you just said because we have labeled everything from Debussy onwards as the same! Which is why I also believe that collaboration with composers is so important to not just understand their unique artistic statements but to also further expand our knowledge of the sheer diversity of musical ideas capable in the present day.

D: One of the things in working with the composers, for example with my Cavatina Duo (guitar-flute), is that we want to give the composers an idea of the kind of project we want to work on then to provide them the freedom to work with what they want. We tend to have an interest in folkloric musical materials which can then inspire the creation of these many new works.

Do you have any other upcoming projects or performances?

D: Aside from the Chicago festival, my wife also has her flute symposium at the same time. There is one point where we will intersect and teach about guitar/ flute collaboration. Afterwards, we will go to her hometown in Spain and put together a festival known as “Flute Guitar Plus” which is a chamber music competition for duos with guitarists and other instrumentalists. This competitions’ aim is to promote repertoire for flute and guitar. We hope to also inspire the next generation to expand the flute and guitar repertoire to further integrate this combination in their careers.

B: Sounds great. I only recently moved to Montreal where there is much more opportunity for collaboration with musicians outside of the conservatory and will definitely consider this festival in the future as well. The earlier us younger musicians can perform chamber music the better!

D: This was an inspiration to me many years ago when I was observing the career of the Assad Brothers, and there was one point where Sergio came to Chicago and he became a mentor to me from that point on. He was often telling me to do chamber music over and over again because it exponentially opens new doors to much more “market” (I don’t like the term much) but it creates more opportunities for us to promote and put our work out there. There are exponentially more opportunities to perform in chamber music than just staying as a soloist, and there are lots of us out there who aspire to perform in chamber music concerts as well. My very strong advice is to promote the guitar as a harmonic instrument capable of collaborating with many other musicians. Very similar to the collaboration ongoing at Twisted Spruce between guitarists and composers.

Tell us about the Chicago Guitar Festival.

D: This is a guitar festival that represents the guitar community in Chicago where there was not a festival for quite some time due to COVID. We have a competition in four categories and concerts/ masterclasses/ clinics as well as we have reached out to our colleagues from Jazz departments and other musicians who are working in world music genres. I am trying to integrate these styles to see the guitar not just as a classical instrument as we were just mentioning in regard to using folk tunes as the basis for compositions. I would very much like to see this grow into a community based event where we gather for a few days and celebrate as guitar nerds from various genres as one big party!

B: Absolutely! We can already see this happening to some degree in different organizations where we are working with guitarists in other genres to learn from each other. For example with Jazz musicians we can learn from their expertise in improvisation and learning by ear from popular/ blues musicians. That's a great feature of your festival - I'm really happy to hear that!

D: Thank you! I am also encouraging our participants to attend the various lectures from guitarists of other genres to expand their knowledge of the instrument because it is so versatile and there is so much out there to learn at every stage of expertise. The more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn!

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