New Twisted Spruce Director, Olga Amelkina-Vera, has a conversation on Guitar Composition
Sy: Being both a composer and a guitarist, do you have any unique advice about
writing for guitar? Perhaps something that a composer who doesn’t play guitar could benefit from understanding?
Olga: When writing for any instrument, I think it is very important to write idiomatically, which means making the instrument sound its best and utilizing its full expressive potential. This is especially tricky with the guitar if the composer is not a guitarist; the guitar is a quirky instrument and must be understood to write well for it. If you are not a guitarist, my main advice is to get your hands on a guitar to understand how everything is laid out and what is possible. Keep in mind that open strings are your friends when writing for solo guitar or guitar ensemble; even when not plucked directly, their sympathetic vibrations give the instrument resonance and fullness of sound. As a general principle, in my own compositions I usually avoid tonal areas that do not allow for the use or sympathetic vibration of open strings since I like to make the instrument sing in a sonorous, open way. I created a document some years ago that is a quick guide for non-guitarists on composing for the guitar, and it goes into more detail on this topic. (Sent it to Twisted Spruce Foundation)
Sy: When learning a new piece for guitar, what are some things you expect and/or hope to see from the composer in their writing or notation?
Olga: Because of the multiple possible fretboard locations for most notes on the guitar, the following are needed in the score (unless there is only one way to play a certain passage):
1) Left hand fingerings;
2) String and/or position indications;
3) Barre and half‐barre indications;
Of course, this means that the composer has to make those decisions first and choose where/how each passage should be played. I consider this to be mandatory and not optional, because on the guitar the choice of left-hand fingerings and positions is an expressive decision, integral to the sound of the piece. It is not simply a matter of technical expediency. The composer should make those decisions and not leave it up to chance. Right-hand fingerings, on the other hand, are usually not necessary to include because those are highly idiosyncratic from player to player, and generally don’t have the same effect on the interpretation as left-hand choices. In addition, voices must be indicated with up- and down‐stems, and clearly separated. As always, include plenty of dynamic shaping, expressive and timbral markings, and articulations. I use the abbreviation D.A.T.E. to remind me of the elements expected in a professional score: Dynamics, Articulations, Timings, Expressions. It is a matter of personal taste, of course, but I do not like “naked” scores with no D.A.T.E. markings.
Sy: Do you have any recommendations of highly praised (or favorite) compositions for the guitar to study and learn from?
Olga: We can learn so much from studying the scores of Heitor Villa-Lobos, Leo Brouwer, and Roland Dyens! All three wrote music that is highly idiomatic and effective. For an example of my favorite piece for the guitar written by a non-guitarist, I like to point out “Homenaje (Le Tombeau de Debussy)” by Manuel de Falla. I think it is an absolute genius composition, a tiny gem that demonstrates the composer’s understanding of the instrument and his ability to do more with less.
Sy: I heard your recent commissioned composition for solo guitar, “Western Vista,” and it was so fun! Did you and David Russell collaborate on the composition? If so, was there anything about your process that composers should consider when working with a guitarist?
Olga: I wrote the first draft of the composition and submitted it to David, who then recorded a home video performance of the first draft and sent it to me. We met via Zoom to go over each measure of the piece in detail, and David gave me a lot of feedback and suggestions for further developing some of the passages. I incorporated his input in the second version of the piece, which is the one that he premiered and performed live and recorded in the video available on YouTube.
I learned a great deal from this process, and feel grateful for David for sharing so much of his insight with me. I think my biggest takeaway from that experience was to remain flexible when given feedback; even though I was largely satisfied with my first draft, it turned out that following through on David’s ideas made the piece a deeper composition. If you respect the person you are working with as an artist, be sure to listen to their opinion, and be open to change! Watch Western Vista performed by David Russell.
Sy: You’ve received a lot of awards and prizes for your compositions! Do you have any advice for our participants on how to be efficient, competitive, and attractive as a competitor?
Olga: My advice is simple: do your best work. As Radiohead sang, “The best you can is good enough.” You cannot control outcomes of competitions, and should not put too much stock into whether you win them or not (most of the time, you won’t!) I always remind myself that the chances of winning any competition are always slim, and try not to let it affect me in any way. Keep developing, keep learning, keep taking every opportunity to improve. Stay confident if you don’t win, and humble if you do—successes of that sort are fleeting and “failures” are not really failures. Maybe this is more philosophical of an answer than you were looking for, but I think having the right attitude is key when getting into competitions!
Sy: Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your knowledge with us!