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Guitarist Colin McAllister on New Music

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

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

Colin: I think that the classical guitar community especially has been fairly conservative as a group over the years. We tend to gravitate toward playing new music, as well as older music, that was written by other guitarists. We’ll play pieces by Sor or Pujol or modern pieces by folks like Leo Brouwer, which is wonderful, but that’s a narrow view of the world when composers are writing for all kinds of instruments.

I think often guitarists don’t collaborate as much with composers because many composers aren’t familiar with how to write for the guitar. As part of their training, they learn how to orchestrate for violin or string quartet. But a lot of the time, even quite experienced composers don’t have a lot of expertise with the guitar. That’s why it’s really important for composers to work with a guitarist to try out (ideas) and sketches. I think we’ve seen the benefits of that over the years, all the way from Benjamin Britten working with the guitarist Julian Bream up to today with David Tanenbaum. He’s had pieces written for him by many different composers. It’s a great process and part of what Twisted Spruce really tries to aim for.

M: I agree! In general, there is so much less education on composing for the guitar than there is for other stringed instruments, even plucked strings like the harp. This type of collaboration is essential for the guitar to come to light as an instrument that, though challenging, can be written for.

C: On the other side of the coin, it also helps guitarists because they are used to playing pieces that have been edited by somebody else. When you're working with a composer and getting a score for the first time, it forces you to be a (problem solver). You have to ask yourself, 'Can I play this thing if I use open strings, or does this passage sound better in 8th or 1st position?'. We don’t get to engage with these (issues) when we’re playing from a previously edited score. So I think collaboration is great both for composers and for guitarists.

M: Have you had any experiences working with composers that have been particularly positive for you?

C: I’d say almost all of them have been positive. For example, Christopher Adler and I have worked together over a period of many years on a whole bunch of different pieces for guitar. We’ve had lots of great collaborations. I think our camaraderie just continues to grow, and he’s become more of an expert on the guitar now. There’s not even as much back and forth as there was in the old days. During the symposium, we’ll be talking about a big piece that I worked on with him, which I think will be fun for participants to learn more about.

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

C: If I commission a composer to write a piece, I want that person’s artistic voice to come through. I chose that particular composer because I think that that person writes really great music. I want to try to stay out of the way as much as possible, not to influence what he or she is doing. But sometimes I do like to give a composer an idea, perhaps from a poem, a novel, an artwork or a philosophical idea, and maybe that becomes the inspiration for the piece that the composer writes.

I’m working on a piece now with composer Jon Forshee. We both came to an agreement that the piece would be influenced by the poetry of Paul Celan. Celan is my favorite poet. I love [him], and Jon also really got interested in him after a lot of reading. So I guess my artistic inspiration is going to be incorporated into the piece. That’s fun and exciting for me!

There are others too. The Adler piece that we’ll talk about is inspired by an epic poem in Latin by Virgil, called "The Aeneid." That comes out of my interest in the Latin language and in Latin poetry. Also, I did a piece with a different composer that was based on mountain climbing because I really like to do that. He recommended I strap a field recorder onto my backpack and record the sounds of the climb, so he could write a piece that’s based on that. (He incorporated) the sounds of the wind, the snow on the glacier and other things, so it became a very personal piece for me as well. I like doing things like that a lot.

M: That must have been amazing to perform! You have such a personal connection with that. What was your experience performing a piece like that?

C: It brought me back to the climb itself. Before I would play the piece, I would show this slideshow of images from the climb as well. Even though that was over 10 years ago now, it still brings me right back into that moment whenever I play the piece. It's a great memory for me.

M: That’s amazing! I think that in general having our own influence on the piece is important to establish that personal connection, but we also want the composer of course to have their artistic voice shine through.

C: If you try too hard to control what the composer is doing, then it becomes a guitaristic piece. We want to let the composer have free rein, and we’re just there as a partner to help negotiate the way.

M: Why should people get involved with Twisted Spruce?

C: It’s great for composers who want to write for the guitar and for guitarists who want to engage with living composers. If you’re an artist, you need to engage with the music of your own time. Do you really just want to play music that’s old? I think that is sort of a tragedy.

I’ve always encouraged all of my students to get involved with living art of their own time. It’s great if you want to play Bach, Sor, Villa-Lobos or all of these composers that we love, but it’s also really important to speak to your own time. The best way to do that is by playing new music. If you’re a 20-year-old student, that would be the music of the last 20 years. Twisted Spruce is all about that.

M: What are you most looking forward to in the Symposium this year?

C: I always look forward to the presentations and to meeting new people. Last year I had a chance to meet nine guitarists and nine composers. Before I only knew my students who had signed up from UCCS. I got to meet some great composers and hear some great up-and-coming guitarists, so I’m looking forward to that again this year.

M: I'm excited too! Even during the pandemic, Twisted Spruce has been able to include all of these collaborations and presentations. I think that even online, it's going to be really great.

C: We’re building momentum for when we can do it in person next year. However, one of advantages of being online is drawing players from Europe and from Asia, who likely would not have been able to participate in person. There are some advantages to the online format. But of course, I really look forward to being in person next summer as well.

M: Thank you so much!

Find out more about McAllister here.

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