Marisa: What was your experience going through the Twisted Spruce Symposium last year?
Thomas: Last year, I had an overwhelmingly positive experience and (was selected) for the guitar prize. Nathan encouraged me from the first day, and I enjoyed listening to all the different guest speakers who (presented) over the summer. It was nice to hear Colin talk about his experience of performing and commissioning new works for the instrument because he’s been incredibly active in that way. It was really interesting to hear Anthony Tan talk about his experiences as a new music composer. Working with Miles was great. We already knew each other because he went to Indiana University for his bachelor’s degree back in the day. It was good to reconnect with him and put together an awesome piece with him. It was overall a very great experience for me.
M: What was the most gratifying part of working with Miles Friday last year?
T: It was the first time I had worked hand in hand with a composer on a new piece of music for the guitar, so that alone was a great experience for me. You often hear about really famous guitarists like Andrés Segovia or Julian Bream doing this, but you don’t really think about yourself doing it. It was very fun to take part in the tradition of expanding the repertoire for our instrument. Compared to the violin and the piano, the guitar has a smaller modern repertoire, so it was cool to work with him to make a new work.
M: Have you had much experience playing new music or working with composers before?
T: To some degree. I admit that my tastes in music lean toward the so-called ‘Segovia repertoire,’ including Albeniz transcriptions, Torroba, Ponce, Turina, etc. There is a bit of a self-selected bias in the repertoire that I’ve played. I knew it was high time for me to look into new music. When I think about my repertoire, the newer music I play includes a couple of Brouwer works and Tansman’s Cavatina, which is already 70 years old. Cavatina is not very different in age from Torroba’s works, so it is neo-classical in style and doesn’t sound modern. I think that taking that step forward (into new music) was important for me.
M: You mentioned a modern sound just now, so I was wondering what this means to you. What’s your definition of new music and modernness?
T: For me, I think the absence of clear tonality or traditional modes of establishing tonality is part of what defines the sound of modern music. I’m not the composer, and I honestly haven’t thought of Miles’ composition from a highly theoretical standpoint. Although you could probably make the argument that it establishes tonality in some way, I don’t think that was his goal. Also, I think that the structure of a modern piece isn’t traditional in an obvious way, such as a sonata form, dance suite or ternary form. Listening to Miles’ piece, it’s easy to hear that there are very uncommon techniques, such as rasgueados and (unconventional) harmonics.
M: You compose a bit yourself too, right?
T: The compositions that I’ve done are quite different from (what Miles wrote for me). My compositions have been mainly jazz. I’ve taken a couple of arranging courses for big band at IU while doing doctoral coursework, so I arranged a blues song and a movement from one of Bach’s violin sonatas for big band. For my own doctoral project, I studied the improvisational styles of Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and then wrote several works in each of their styles. For Christian, I focused on writing in his improvisational style with a rhythm change format. Then I wrote a short, slow blues (tune) and made an arrangement of Ray Noble’s Cherokee, both in Christian’s style. The work I did in the style of Montgomery was a theme and variations on John Carisi’s tune, Israel. It features several different sections, which were modelled on the form of Ponce’s Theme, Variations and Finale. It had a mixture of influences.
M: Why is it important for guitarists and composers to collaborate on writing new music?
T: The guitar’s repertoire needs to be expanded. The solo repertoire is relatively limited compared to a lot of other instruments. Segovia had such a great influence, and at least two generations of guitarists grew up under his influence and listened to his music. But we need to add on to the works he commissioned, transcribed and popularized. (Otherwise) the instrument might become ossified, which could lead to a (loss) of interest eventually.
I have also heard many composers at IU talk about feeling anxious about composing for the guitar because they don’t know how to write for it. Guitarists need to reach out to composers and help them understand what works well for the instrument, what’s possible and what isn’t. Guitarists can provide guidance (beyond) what comes from composition professors.
M: So, you won a $6000 Wilson Burnham guitar last year. Will you play on that guitar this year, and what will you play for the concert?
T: I will be performing on that instrument. I’m looking forward to it! It’s a great instrument, and I like its sound a lot. I’ve tried a couple different sets of strings out on it, and it has held up well under the influence of those different sets of strings. I’m going to play Miles’ work again because I want to see how it sounds on Burnham’s instrument compared to last year’s performance on my Ramirez. I think it’s going to sound great! I also might have an easier time getting some of those difficult harmonics to come out. For the program, I will play Ponce’s Sonatina Meridional, and I was considering featuring a couple of the pieces I wrote for my doctoral project. I’m excited to play it!
M: We’re excited to hear you program too! Why should people get involved with Twisted Spruce?
T: For guitarists, it’s important to gain experience working with composers and learning new music from the ground up. Often we’re asked to learn new music without being able to talk to the composer at all. The first Brouwer work I learned was El Decameron Negro. Even with the guidance of Ernesto Bitetti as my instructor here at IU, sometimes I didn’t know what to do or how to interpret certain sections, in terms of phrasing, dynamics, tone color and articulations. Working with the composer from the ground up on a new work can help the guitarist understand how to approach a piece of music and interpret it successfully, while also gaining experience with helping a composer understand the instrument. For composers, it’s great to learn to write for the guitar or to (gain experience) if they already have experience writing for it. Guitarists are always hungry for new music. We appreciate the attention. We like having you guys write for us!
M: What’s in your musical future?
T: I am (almost finished) with my doctoral degree at IU. I’ll be defending my project in early July. On June 25, I’ll be performing on part of a program with the Racine Symphony Orchestra in Racine, Wisconsin. Then I’m going to be one of the guest performers for Twisted Spruce this summer. Next March, I’ll be playing Rodrigo’s concerto Fantasia para un gentilhombre with the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra in southern Wisconsin.
M: It sounds like you have an exciting summer and exciting future ahead of you! We’re all looking forward to hearing you perform on the Wilson guitar as the winner from last year.