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Ken Meyer - On Recording a Concerto for Bridge Records!

M: What has been meaningful for you about working with composers to collaborate on new music?

K: I think in general it’s the idea of bringing something new to life into the world of music. It’s lovely to play the pieces that many people play and standard parts of the repertoire, but it’s lovely to able to be associated with the birth of something new, some kind of new art. Personally for me, I studied composition as an undergrad, and I’ve always been passionate about new music, [and] at some point I just fell more in love with the playing of the guitar as opposed to the writing of music, but I’ve always loved being a part of that creative process. So this is selfishly a way for me to be involved in that process.

M: That’s great that you compose too! I didn’t know you were an undergrad composition major, that’s wonderful!

K: I was just going to school for music, [and] I said that’s kinda cool, I’ll do that. And then I found out about performance and I started doing that. I did it a little bit in grad school, but ultimately shifted focus to just playing.

M: Do you still compose today?

K: I love the idea of improvising [and] coming up with ideas, it’s then the idea of writing them out and the meticulous things that I don’t seem to mind when I play guitar, like practicing the same passage over and over again, that for whatever reason in my brain I can do and love it. I think every musician should study composition just for the sake of looking at the blank page and having to put something on it. You understand a little bit what a composer is going through, dealing with, when they’re trying to create and come up with their ideas. I think it just makes you a better interpreter and probably a better collaborator when dealing with composers or creators. That’s what’s so great about this festival, it’s one of the first ones. When Nathan was talking to me about it last year, I was thinking I don’t think there’s anything like this where you’re pairing collaborators to create something and then giving them the opportunity to marinate a little. Those opportunities are so great, but oftentimes so labor-intensive to get off the ground. And this is like, you show up to this festival, we’ll put you with somebody, and you can be a part of that process.

M: What was an inspiring moment or moments you’ve taken away from your personal collaborations?

K: The thing that I always tell my students is that: have a lot of guitar player friends. They’re the people that understand the world the most. Be friends with flute players, violinists, cellists, because they will give you guitar player gigs, guitarists won’t give you guitar player gigs. Later on I found out that nobody wants to get you a gig more than a composer that you are working with. That’s the other great thing about playing new music. As somebody who wants to get it right, I can go to the person because they’re alive and say “how was that?” It’s that gratification

of knowing that you [might have] done it right. Another thing is that I’ve been able to play and do a lot of recording, things that would never have happened had I not been involved in new music.

M: That’s the point of the festival, to have inspiring moments like you just said!

K: Sometimes I’ll get asked, “I’m applying for this festival, do you want to do this?” That’s the thing I think that surprised me the most. Just that there’s somebody out there advocating for you, as much as you’re advocating for them. The more you meet people and get out there, and if you do the job well, you [become] known for somebody who is open to playing new music, and things just become sent to you.

M: How do you approach learning new music when you’re dealing with new idioms that aren’t second nature?

K: I think that’s the best part, because then you can have the conversation of “what are you looking for?” and “how can I best manipulate this thing to do that?” I remember one piece I played, it was with a computer, and I’ve never played with a computer before, but I was really taken by the idea of playing an electro-acoustic piece that I would release sound files from the computer and then I’d have to play things along with the guitar. The concept that the composer came up with was like, the guitar is so beautiful you don’t even have to really touch it. It was essentially almost entirely harmonics. It worked, but that was one of those things [that] I’ve never done before. Almost every time I’ve done something, composers will become inspired by something that isn’t necessarily something that we would do in a traditional guitar piece. It’s just a question of practicing it slowly and being very clear in your conviction when you do it live. Hopefully all the notes are there, but if they’re not, at least the intention is there, and the shape and the bigger things.

M: That’s the important part of collaboration too, to be able to understand what the intention of the piece is by collaborating with the composers. Of course you have to be technically precise as much as you can, however, in every performance there could be mistakes, [so] as long as you’re getting the interpretation out there that’s important.

K: There’s a couple really interesting things that I learned. I learned that composers are just as frustrated with notation as we are with technical limitations. It’s interesting to bridge that gap, and that’s what’s so great about the collaborative part, because notation is a great way for communicating intention, and music and sound and phrase, but it only goes so far. It’s still very 2 dimensional, very black and white, literally. So it’s nice to have that conversation and to say “is that what you mean? Is that what it is?”

M: Would you tell us a little bit about your recent recording released with Bridge Records, and tell us what you think about Rob and David Starobin joining the Twisted Spruce Symposium this year to talk about Bridge Records?

K: So this is another one of those things where you sort of say yes to something and then you never know what’s going to happen. A friend of mine who is teaching composition at Syracuse University, named Andrew Wagner, he’s a great composer and we were sort of friends with each other, he was actually the guy who hired me many years ago. We had talked about coming up with an idea for a piece, or writing something at some point, and then one day he was just like “how about a guitar concerto?” And I was like, ok, I had never done a new concerto before, and so he wrote it. I played it, we premiered it, there’s a really great new music society here in town that is very active in commissioning and premiering a ton of works, and so they were very helpful in giving us a venue. And then he said, I’ve got two other concertos, I’ll pitch this idea, and maybe it’ll turn into a recording. And then it happened on Bridge, which I thought for sure, that’s a fantastic label for new music. David’s one of those guys who has at least hundreds of new pieces commissioned. They’re working on a new installment of a George Crumb series, I mean he is it, they are it, as far as new music. And then when you factor in all the guitar stuff that’s on those recordings, it’s just an honor to be associated with it. And so he has a violin concerto, a piano concerto, and the guitar concerto. We did it with the Seattle Modern Orchestra, went out to Seattle for like two days, and it was just a phenomenal experience. It starts as this idea, and it doesn’t always end up in a recording, but it always ends up as a surprise. Something bigger than you had intended.

M: How did you feel being on stage there performing and doing this recording? Was it a little bit nerve-wracking, it seems like a big deal, or was it just exciting?

K: It was totally nerve-wracking. I had never recorded a concerto before, I’ve played them and generally when you play them you’re amplified and you can hear yourself, and there’s a monitor maybe. I was set up in the middle of the room, and it was a smaller chamber group, but they were loud. I flew to Seattle and I was thinking “should I have bought amplification? We didn’t even talk about this.” When I got there I was relieved to know that no, [they] were just going to mic [me] close, and that’s how it’s going to come out. That part of it was very difficult, because I felt I really had to press a lot to get the volume that I wanted. The other thing that was stressful but really fantastic was the recording process, which was focusing on bits and pieces and kind of putting it all together as a whole, because it’s a gritty, tough, sort of thorny piece. At the end of the day, I wasn’t sure if it had gone well or it hadn’t gone well, and I talked to him about it afterwards, and he felt the same way after he did some recordings with this particular engineer, but she’s fantastic. She knows exactly what she wants. The end result was fantastic.

M: I’m sure it turned out great! Where can we access this recording?

K: I think you can get it from the Bridge site, iTunes, maybe it’s even on YouTube. It was just such an awesome experience. He calls the CD Quantum Memoir, and it’s just Concerto for Violin, Concerto for Piano, and Concerto for Guitar. The Guitar is definitely the shorter one, and Julia Tai was the conductor with the Seattle Modern Orchestra, they were phenomenal also. There’s a lot of percussion [and] really interesting orchestration stuff. It’s a really strong piece.

M: How do you feel about the fact that Rob and David Starobin are joining us in the Twisted Spruce Symposium to give a talk?

K: That’s so fantastic! For what Rob and David had done for new music is... I don’t know that anyone parallels it, really, as far as what they have done with that label. Even from a guitar player’s point of view, it’s phenomenal. To hear [David] play Regondi and Giuliani, the guy is such a talent and so devoted to new music. I remember hearing him play Babbitt and Carter when I was a student, and I think it was from memory. I had a score and I got lost in the audience, I didn’t know where we were in the score, and he was doing it from memory. This guy is on another level.

M: David Starobin really is the guy for new music in the guitar world. And David and Rob are really pushing for the guitar to be brought into the new music world, so I really admire and respect them for that, of course.

K: As players continue to get better and better, it seems like that could be another frontier. There are great pieces that use the guitar in a chamber situation, but not nearly as many as there are in the solo realm. In working with some composers for doing even guitar and voice or guitar quintet kind of things, where the guitar isn’t necessarily the focus, it’s just part of the group, I think that’s a great way to introduce composers to the guitar, because they don’t have to rely on the guitar for all of the piece. The guitar can just be a color, and they can learn about what it is and then write a solo piece that’s maybe more effective, or at least they understand the instrument more. That’s the great thing about working with a few of the composers I’ve worked with. They’ve written a few different pieces, and each one is like an evolution in their thought and their idea. We have to talk about what’s possible less and less with each piece that they do because they have an understanding of how their language meets with the instrument. I think in a chamber context, it’s perfect. There are pieces out there, but I don’t know that there are as many people writing for guitar in ensemble as they are writing for solo.

M: My experience with chamber music as a guitarist is that often the guitar is used either as percussion, or that it’s used in a way that if we’re doing some kind of standard technique on the instrument it tends to be drowned out by the other instruments because it’s so much softer than the violin or the piano, for example. In that case, how would you approach those kinds of problems with the composer [or] the other musicians in the chamber group?

K: I think I would point out the best pieces that are sort of written [orchestrally] in consideration of how loud the guitar is and then especially how loud it is in certain registers, and then how you can use registers to have it stand out from a clarinet or a violin, just by having them in different registers. Amplification is [also] part of the process now, part of the norm. I’ve seen solo guitarists amplified, just to be a little more prominent or present in the hall. As a last resort, you can always amplify. And if you get more than 3 or 4 people I think it’s almost a necessity, because when it’s that many, you’re not going to have so much activity in the guitar part and it’s going to be very easy to get lost, unless it’s really desired to be a homogeneous sound. Like in the concerto, it’s purposefully part of the ensemble, so it doesn’t really stand out as the soloist

and the orchestra, that’s not really how Andy envisioned it. In that way, it fits that we didn’t amplify and it does become part of the ensemble. I think registration, orchestration, and just introducing the composer to pieces where the composers did a particularly good job of orchestration.

M: Why should people get involved with Twisted Spruce?

K: Because Nathan’s a great guy, you seem like a lovely person, I’m having a great time talking with you! I’ve known Nate for a really long time, and he will consistently re-think the current trend of things, and either find a better way, find a more interesting way, or just find a different way to do something. When it comes to festivals, he’s run a bunch of different festivals, and this seems like a perfect time for this type of collaboration, because it’s so different [from] what festivals are usually like. It’s kind of a testament to his ability to re-think a format, because you have people showing up, you have teachers instructing, you have a competition, but it’s a totally different thing. It’s a competition that’s based on how well you collaborate really, it’s not so much a performance aspect, and I just thought that was great.

M: This is really important for everybody just to be able to get us into the new music realm, because guitar is such a great instrument, we should be able to play music today, too.

K: For as much as we pride ourselves as guitarists on being the “other” in a conservatory setup, and I still think we are the other, we tend to be a little more relaxed than other instrumentalists [and] vocalists, we are the other in some respects, but we are still super conservative in terms of the music we play. When you look at who’s playing competitions and what they’re playing, it’s the same 20 pieces that’ll occasionally change a little bit. This [opportunity] is fantastic, especially for some folks who haven’t had the opportunity or even understand that it is an opportunity to just meet a composer. Even when we were at Eastman together, there was a semester where we were encouraged to each pair up with a composer from the composition department. It was great, and we all premiered a piece, commissioned, worked with. It seems like this is kind of one of those things, and it’s so great.

M: Thank you so much, it was such a pleasure to talk to you today.

K: Thanks for taking the time, this was lovely.

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