Luke: Why do you think it's important for composers and guitarist and musicians in general to collaborate?
Tan: I think that when you are the type of composer who is writing for other instrumentalists, writing for ensembles, large ensembles such as orchestra, there's a tremendous amount of knowledge about instruments that you need to be able to write for these formations. A big part of learning about those instruments is through collaboration. As you’re aware, each instrument is its own universe. Each performer on their instrument is an expert. It’s very hard for composers to become experts at every single instrument, even though that’s what we should probably be moving towards or striving towards. It's really important for us as composers is to work with the experts on those instruments to learn about them and to figure out what is idiomatic, how you can push the boundaries of it, and to learn as much as possible about the repertoire. Especially for this piece that I wrote for guitar, I've never written for the guitar before and so it was a big learning curve for me to just understand the basics of how the guitar works. Of course you have a very special conceptual idea of the physics of the guitar, such as voicings of chords and how that works, and that’s a big part of it. I think that's why it's important for composers and instrumentalists in general to collaborate. Secondly, it's really interesting when you work with a performer who definitely has a musical personality and how that interacts with your own compositional personality. You can therefore craft a piece that really works or kind of speaks to their musical sensibilities and that's something that I also really enjoy when I collaborate with different performers. I try to explore some of the things that each performer is interested in and what's going to make the piece interesting to them to perform musically as well. I think that only happens through collaboration.
Luke: I'd certainly agree, especially my experience. It's really hard master everything, like you said, or at least have a pretty comprehensive knowledge of everything, so it’s nice to have people to consult with especially the collaboration aspects.
Tan: Absolutely! There are a lot of different types of composers out there, and right now a lot of people are saying they are composers, which is great, with a lot of interesting compositions. I think the kind of architect that we're generally used to is this sort of ‘performer-composer,’ who writes for themselves because they’re either a pianist or guitarist and write music for themselves, but it’s something different to write for somebody else and it requires a different sort of training that you need.
Luke: You definitely have to think outside of your own limitations. I know some of the pieces that I've written for myself to perform are considerably different than what I write for other musicians just because I'm not a professional on my instrument. That's definitely a really good insight that you have and a good way to think about it. That also gets into the next thing, which is what you think is the most gratifying thing for you when you write for the guitar?
Tan: I've only written one solo electric guitar piece and another as part of an ensemble, but I think the guitar is actually quite challenging to write for. The classical guitar is super quiet, so there's an interesting balance issue when you combine it with other instruments. There's an intimacy about the sound that I think has to be respected. It's also one of the other polyphonic instruments, which is something that I find as a pianist myself as really inspiring. The guitar presents this kind of multidimensional challenge of dealing with multiple music lines at the same time. With the electric guitar, I approached writing the piece in a similar way that I would write for synth because it can be passed through a lot of different effects and you can do a lot of really crazy things with it. I really tried to actually negate all of that and I didn’t really want to do any effects at all because I knew it was a common thing to do. I wanted a more clean guitar sound. There's an endless possibility of sound exploration that you can have with the electric guitar. This is with my limited experience with the guitar but it's definitely a challenge.
Luke: It’s really cool that you mention that. I guess it’s sort of an unspoken thing between composers when writing for new instruments and it’s that sense of gratification. When you conquer something that is not typically something you're comfortable with, it’s such a rewarding feeling. I know when I wrote for guitar for the first time, I was very nervous going into it but coming out of it I just felt more comfortable with that piece than I had with the material beforehand. Getting over those challenges are great and then you have those extra sound-worlds that you can explore too.
Tan: To add to that, the guitar is still so present in our society. It’s not just a classical music thing, but it’s also a popular music thing. It’s everywhere and it has so much cultural weight to it. If you think of electric guitar, you think of Hendrix and all of these other great electric guitarists. Even with classical guitar, so many households have guitars sitting around. It’s an extremely prevalent musical instrument that is everywhere, but it is also extremely difficult to write for. It creates one of those weird paradoxes.
Luke: Yes and I think it also comes with the whole connotation that you mentioned with how it's everywhere in our music today. I believe you talked about that on your piano piece where you had the piano used as a percussive instrument more to try to circumvent the connotations that come with the piano.
Tan: Absolutely! That was because I'm a pianist and I was tired of hearing Chopin and Bach kind of stuff. I wanted to break that down, but I’m totally new with the guitar so I was a bit more traditional. I’m still exploring the sound-world of the guitar.
Luke: How do you approach a new piece, whether it’s a commission or personal project? More importantly, what's your creative process? It’s a loaded set of questions, I know.
Tan: Every time I begin a new piece, I feel like I don't know how to compose. [Laughs] That's kind of the answer.
Luke: That’s a very relatable answer.
Tan: It's like every time you finish, you feel like you’ve figured it out. Then you start a new piece and think, ‘I don't know what I'm doing.‘ That’s often how I start. For me, there’s often a period of conceptualization, meaning that I think about the instruments and the materials that I'm working with and oftentimes some extra-musical concept will emerge in my mind. Those concepts could come from anywhere, from signs to mysticism, for example. Then, I’m just often thinking about how to respond to those concepts or what it means musically. Other times, I will just hear something in my head. I think that a lot of composers can relate to having a period where you are sitting with material, listening to a lot of different music, and just living your life. You could be washing the dishes or mowing the lawn or something and you have this idea that comes to you and it's just abstract. Then comes the part of translation and it is very much a translation for me, where I go from what is going on inside my mind to how I can put it to musicians or to musical notation. That’s a big part of that kind of creative process for me, where I work on getting the music to the world out there. The conceptualization aspect is a big part of the process for me. Simultaneous to that, there’s also a sound exploration phase where I'm exploring what's possible on the instrument and exploring what sound-world I'm going for. For example, with this guitar piece last summer, I was working with a system at the time where I just had him record all of these random sounds on the electric guitar. We created a humongous catalog of electric guitar sounds for me and I would just go through them. That catalog and my favorite sounds became the basis for the work for the electric guitar. Then, I worked with Colin and came up with some ideas based on my concepts and he tested them out for me. He would play these for me and then I’d respond and it’s often this back-and-forth. I would say that my approach is fairly experimental because I don’t often know what the result will be. I don’t typically hear the whole piece until it is performed and it is all put together, which means that sometimes it does fail. But, sometimes it is also a success. I believe the failures are as important as the successes.
Luke: I absolutely agree. To have that catalog that you can reference is super duper helpful especially if it's something about an instrument you're not as familiar with. That’s a great ‘rule of thumb’ to go about writing, not just for the guitar. Since you were talking about finishing up your piece from last year’s Twisted Spruce Symposium, what was the most exciting thing about the symposium last year in your opinion? What should people get excited about for this year?
Tan: You know, it’s really amazing to see what emerges from the collaboration because you don't know who you're going to get paired with, unless you're coming in as a duo. Like I mentioned in the first question you asked me about collaboration, the performer will have his or her personality and the composer will have a personality and each transition is bringing their ‘baggage’ and their schooling. Then, they come together and they collaborate over a month and then something emerges from that, whatever it is. It's very fascinating to witness that kind of creativity of collaboration and what comes out of that. I think that’s the best part of it. Also, to really hear the pieces at the end and hear how they develop. It’s sometimes hard, as you know as a composer, to get people to play your music. In most composition festivals, you just go as a composer and maybe you’ll write for an ensemble. Here at Twisted Spruce, you really get to collaborate and you're really given that space to write something. That's another exciting part for me.
Luke: It’s great to have the two-way street of collaboration instead of just sending your music off and hoping for the best. That certainly makes me excited about this year. Thank you so much for your time, Professor Tan.