Marisa: Why is it important for guitarists and composers to collaborate on writing new music?
Ben: It’s important so that then they can get together, disagree and fight. Then, the guitarist can take his guitar and bang it over the composer's head, and the composer can take the computer and… that’s why! Next question? No, (just joking)!
I’ll answer that in a personal way. I’ve been blessed to have so many friends that are brilliant composers. The perfect example is Aaron Kernis, whose best friend is David Tanenbaum. Aaron wrote this insanely great piece for my wife and me, which is actually an arrangement of a piano piece. He came to my apartment, and I worked with him on his ideas and watched him think. As a non-composer or composer/guitarist, in a sense (it’s like) studying with the composer. You’re able to learn about how they write music through this one experience, this one piece. You’re able to collaborate. It really improves you as a musician and as a person. Then you develop a new friendship with a composer. (The process) is invaluable. It’s one of the joys of my professional career.
I’ve recorded the piece I was talking about from Aaron on my record, On Vineyard Sound. The title track of the CD was a piece that the (late) composer Ezra Laderman wrote for me. (At the time) he was already in his late 80s, and we developed this really great friendship. We hung out and talked about all kinds of things, and he encouraged me in my own writing. It was extraordinary.
M: What has been your favorite collaboration?
B: That’s tough! My dear friend Jack Vees, a composer, wrote a piece for me for digital delay and classical guitar. It was the first time I had ever worked with digital delay. That was illuminating for me as a composer. The way that Jack used the delay was so interesting to me. (The composition was inspired by) this piece for string quartet and a foghorn sound effect called Fog Tropes, written by Ingram Marshall. Marshall was a really good friend of Vees, so Vees introduced us. When I met Ingram, it started a composer relationship and great friendship. Ingram wrote a piece for digital delay and guitar called Soepa that completely changed my life. It has three movements. I’ve recorded it on a record called Soepa. He uses one of the most amazing techniques in the third movement, a delay that creates a rhythm through (overlaying different tempos).
I learned so much (from that experience). I ended up writing two digital delay pieces, one that used what I learned from Vees’ piece called Be Kind All The Time and another called Philippe’s Center, dedicated to Man on Wire. In that piece, I used Ingram’s technique of moving the rhythm. Those are some of my favorite collaborations because I directly learned from them and then employed it in my own music. Also, the composers are both great friends of mine.
It’s a great honor to have someone write a piece for you. As the great pianist Dinu Lipatti said, ‘You don’t pick pieces, pieces pick you.’ When you learn a piece of music that you really love, that’s the beginning of the journey. Then the journey (continues) the more we learn, as we add fingerings and discover phrases that are special to us. Then the final stage is playing for the public. With a piece of new music of course, you have to play it many times. It’s always a pleasure when a certain piece really takes off. People will come up to you and say, ‘Wow! That was a great concert, but I really liked that Ingram Marshall piece.’
M: Why do you think the guitar is bridging the gap between traditional and modern music?
B: I think it always has. Every culture has some kind of plucked, guitar-like instrument. The history of the guitar is so endlessly interesting, even in this country and in the Midwest. It’s extraordinary! In my youth, if it wasn’t the Beatles, forget it! The Beatles led me to Jimi Hendrix, someone that I never got over. Then, I decided to go to classical guitar because Bach called (to me).
There’s always this blend of cultures with the guitar, this feeling that it can be used (in many different ways). It has emerged as an instrument that we now study in conservatories. For example, Schubert only wrote one song for guitar, but in his lifetime, a lot of his songs were arranged for guitar.
I would say it’s always been that way because people can play it no matter how skilled (they are). A friend of mine, composer David Lang, once said in an interview that you would never go up to U2 and say they couldn’t play (because) they’re filling stadiums with 40,000 people!
M: How do you hope a piece written for you will reflect your artistic voice, and why is that exciting?
B: I never thought of it that way. I don’t think I ever hoped it would reflect my artistic voice, (but) I hoped that I would like it. There have been a couple of times where someone wrote a piece that I really found difficult to embrace emotionally and technically. That was uncomfortable. When you set out to commission (a work from) a composer, I would highly recommend that you really investigate them, listen to their music and talk to them, even when you feel like you know their music.
The last piece that I commissioned was by Sergio Assad. Sergio was just so great. He said that it was my piece, (so I could) do whatever I wanted. This is something that never happened to me before. As I was learning this great piece, I noticed he had really written a personal piece. Knowing that, I asked about (changing) this returning little interlude that’s similar to the beginning of the piece. He said that I could do whatever I wanted, so I did. I wrote four bars of my own, and he loved it. That was wild! That’s a great example of when a composer allows you to use your voice, to make the piece your own. Then they’ll tell you when you overstep your bounds.
M: Why should people get involved with Twisted Spruce, which is an avenue to guide collaborators in the creation of new music?
B: We’ve made a good case for that throughout the interview. Twisted Spruce is wonderful because it’s providing quite an unusual opportunity. I’ve never seen a program like this. It’s great for people to experiment and have that experience (outside of a university program). It’s a chance for composers to go back and think about their piece, and the guitarists can learn the piece at a little less of a frantic pace. That’s very important because with art and life, we need time. We need to breathe. When we’re in the middle of our school year, we’re supposed to be internalizing this deep music, but at the same time we’re doing 40 other things. Art needs space and quiet for you to really look at it. That’s what the Twisted Spruce allows, space for the composers and the performers to think and to converse (without needing) to come up with a solution immediately. That’s very important. Great art needs that. If nothing else, it brings people together. It creates a community for the guitarists, the composers and the teachers. That’s what makes the world a wonderful place, people sharing and learning.
There’s a lot of things that Twisted Spruce is giving us, the opportunity to learn and to grow. I’m convinced that every composer and guitarist that does this program will come out saying, ‘Wow! That was time well spent. I really learned a ton, made a ton of new friends and learned something about myself.’ Art is always a reflection of who you are. It will be great for the musicians that go to Twisted Spruce to see where they are in five years or if their relationships continue. I’m really impressed and honored to be a part of it.
M: Thank you so much!