GUITARRA Magazine: Today we have the pleasure to interview the internationally renowned guitarist Benjamin Verdery who is currently in Hawaii performing and teaching the guitar. Welcome Maestro Verdery.
Ben Verdery: Thank you, welcome Maestro Banana!
GM: Well, we have many questions for this interview. Lets start by you telling us about the experience you have had with the guitar and how it has influenced your life.
BV: Basically the guitar entered my life, I think, in the form of what we used to call 45 (a vinyl record) and I think it was a Beatles song called I saw her standing there, in 1963 or 1964. Hearing that music I remember almost getting a lightning bolt just being so excited by the sound. When I was 9 my parents bought me a little plastic guitar. Later after that, I got a wooden guitar, and then, several electric guitars. From age 9 through 18 I played with so many people and at that time music became such a [important] part of my life. I guess you can make a comparison in the way computers now, [they] are such a [important] part of children's lives. Our thing was to own what we called a "stereo", an actual record player. What we did was to buy records and we became crazed by all the music that was coming out. There was so much creativity in terms of the popular music that was coming out at that time which I tended to listen to pretty much exclusively.
When I was 18 I started to listen to the music of Bach, oddly enough through a synthesizer record called Switched on Bach. Then I heard a harpsichord recital where a guy played the whole first book of the Well-tempered Clavier, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and the Italian Concerto all in one night. Anthony Newman was the artist's name. He latter became a friend of mine but that concert was like a lightning bolt, you know, just like "oh man, wow!!" 'cause he played this music with such fire, energy, and passion that as a guy that was listening to Rock and Roll it totally zapped me. I thought "I got to do that on guitar" and then sought out a classical guitar teacher and started to take lessons from Philip Defremury. I had a month's worth of lessons with Enric Madriguera, and then he left and this guy Phil Defremury came in and really took me under his wing. He used to give me like 5-hour lessons, you know, it was ridiculous. He would be teaching and my mother would make him these big dinners and then he would just sit down and start playing and he wouldn't leave. It was a blessing because this guy just gave me so much time, and that was a time when classical guitar was still pretty esoteric. I mean, Segovia would come to New York but I lived kind of far from New York. It pretty much was a Segovia (and later Bream came into the scene) dominated scene. Now a days you find great classical guitar players anywhere in America, which is amazing. But that wasn't the case. You really would have [get to hear] two concerts a year, and if you could make it into New York, and I grew up in Connecticut.
Then I went to a conservatory where they didn't even have classical guitar. I remember begging to the Dean to take me because he had been sort of interested, they had a guy playing the lute, and he didn't really know if he wanted to have guitarists but he eventually took me. And that was the big life-altering thing, because again, they didn't have a guitar program like you have now.
GM: It is interesting to hear how the first type of music that made you interested in the guitar was the Beatles, which is a popular style of music. There is something very interesting happening in the present with what we call the "classical guitar" and it is that there are so many influences from other types of music from all around the world that are taking over what we used to call the "classical guitar repertoire". Many classically trained guitarists are starting to create music outside of the so-called academic world. What do you thing about this?
BV: I think it's great. I think that anything that helps people be more true to their own musical direction is right. That means that if they play electric guitar as well as classical because they really love it, then they should do it. And I think that it will enrich their music making in the long run. I have tons of students that are exactly like what you described. This student of mine just graduated from Yale who is in a major Death Metal band and he is a really great classical guitarist. Several other students have been in bands. I think is quiet common and quiet healthy. One thing that you have to work out is that the classical guitar demands a certain amount of time and a certain amount of discipline that won't come without induced focus and work. You can't fool yourself in that sense thinking: "well, if I practice just a little bit it will be fine". I think you will know that you have to put a certain amount of time to get certain results and that the two will meet further on. It is always interesting to see how people marry the two [music styles].
GM: How do you think the classical guitar technique and the muscular development achieved through its practice helps other types of playing and even other instruments such as a the electric guitar?
BV: I started on electric guitar and was pretty serious about it. Right when I became a "classical guitarist" I was on the threshold of being a jazz guitarist or a classical guitarist and I went with classical guitar mostly because of Bach. And I even remember buying a Julian Bream edition of Bach Preludes (I still have it) and actually trying to pick out the notes. I could barely read. I would sort of look at a note and play with a pick and then, little by little try to work through it (but all with a pick). And then I went into classical guitar pretty exclusively and I always found that when I was really in shape on the classical guitar, going back to the electric felt great. I always felt that it actually improved my electric playing even though, when I went to play an electric solo, I would still use electric techniques. Playing the electric guitar with the same technique of the classical is obviously very difficult because of the structure of the neck, the string spacing and everything else. But I always felt that, once again, being in shape in the classical I always felt better in the electric. The same thing with the steel string because I have done a lot of steel string playing. I used a fair amount on my UFONIA record and I love steel-string [guitar], generally. I made a record with Bill Coulter, who is a great steel string player; we did it last year [it is] called Song for Ancestors. So I think it can really help.
A lot of people ask about their nails and I try to tell them, "well, maybe you have to use a little bit of tape on your nails when you go to a steel string" you do have to be careful with your nail wear, but I think there are ways around it.
GM: I am going to ask about your latest CD releases; UFONIA and SOEPA. There are all sorts of wonderful things going on in these CDs. They are definitely very different than what people are used to hearing. In your CD Ufonia you actually play with an ensemble of different instruments. Could you tell us what instruments are in this CD and how you came to choose these particular instruments?
BV: Yes, well first of all thank you for your first comment about the two CDs. UFONIA is very simply an extension of a record that I made in 1991 called SOME TOWNS AND CITIES. On that CD which is now in a vault in Sony records (which is a whole other discussion), I had written something like 15 or 14 short pieces based on my kind of impressions of some towns and cities across America. And I was lucky enough to have a lot of great artists help me on that record, like John Williams, Paco Peņa, Frederick Hand, Leo Kottke (those are the guitar group). And then some non-guitarists like my wife, who is a flutist; a good friend of mine Keith Underwood (he is a flutist); Harvie Swartz bassist; John Marshall (percussion); and Vicki Bodner an Oboist. On the piece Seattle that was the instrumentation; Guitar, oboe, flute, double bass and percussion... and I kind of looked around the room and thought: "Man, this is such a cool sound", you know, because it really functions as a band and I was doing things that brought me back in a way to my Rock and Roll days being in a band, being part of something. And after a few years (10 or 15 years) of playing solo Classical Guitar this was a really nice feeling; being in an ensemble and then using the guitar as I wanted it in the ensemble. You know what I am saying Like writing my own guitar parts, writing things where I would do little duos with the oboe or the flute. So, from that record SOME TOWNS AND CITIES, and from that particular song Seattle, I though: "I should do this, I should make this a band, I should try to somehow get concerts and write for this group" (which all are my really good friends). And that is how Ufonia developed. On the UFONIA album we do a new version of Seattle, and UFONIA grew from that piece (Seattle). And I decided to write a CD worth of music for that ensemble, but I also included a guitar solo and a piece for Ukulele.
When you ask: "How did you come up with that combination " actually, the combination found me through my friends: Vicky Bodner, Keith Underwood and John Marshall the percussionist, who is one of my oldest friends from grammar school. The bassist was actually the "new guy on the block", I got to know Harvie through Keith who had worked with him and thought he would be great with the band. They kind of picked me but I picked them through this piece Seattle. I wrote this piece for my friends, then, it just kind of stuck.
I think these instruments are beautiful together with the guitar; oboe and guitar are insane. Off course we know that flute and guitar are great. Also hand drums and guitar. It is such a great sound, even doumbek, djembe and Conga (when not played too loud). All those things sound incredible with the classical guitar. And off course tablas sound amazing.
GM: What amount of improvisation is found on your CD?
BV: Most of the music is completely through composed, there are bits in certain pieces that I allow for improvisation. For instance the flutist is a great improviser and off course the bassist Harvie Swartz took some amazing bass solos. I took a few solos but
I would tend to (play) a solo and then (maybe not write it out, but) go back and listen to it and then sketch out something else. So I did a few takes of things. There is improvisation throughout it, but the pieces are really composed with small sections of improv. There is a song called Song before Spring where the guitar is definitely written out but, I allow for occasional flourishes. I wouldn't say improv as much. I don't really consider myself an improviser, but I have an improvisational spirit. In other words, if I write a part for myself, I almost can't help but change it on the spot, and if I liked what I did I would keep it. And if I didn't then I would re-record it. The flutist and the bass player are great improvisers, for those guys I really left spots; there are a lot of flute solos all through the thing. And there are two really magnificent bass solos. Even Vicky, the oboist, had some neat moments where she improvised stuff. So I would say it is 80% to 90% written with a 10% to 15% improvised.
There is one More thing about UFONIA. I think it is fun for people to realize that, as a guitarist, I had so much fun making that record and using the guitar in different ways. Like using a 12-string guitar that I detuned. For instance in Ellis Island, I had like 10 guitars that I overdubbed, including steel-string, where, I tuned the entire six strings in unison to get a certain sound for a drum.
There are duos where I'm just playing with percussion or just bass and guitar, you know what I mean?? I think it's a lot of fun to be the leader of a group, but also allow the other musicians total freedom and room, because this guys are such great players, even though I wrote the music. I remember one day I brought one piece and they all looked at me and said " you know, this is really bad" and I said "yeah it is bad?. So when a piece didn't work I just threw it out, because I love this guys so much, and when you play with people like that you want to make sure that they are enjoying themselves and are able to express themselves even though you wrote the music.
GM: Did you do any simultaneous recordings in UFONIA where the band played all together?
BV: Oh yeah, definitively, sometimes we would do two solos and pan them or we would tape a solo again separately, it was definitively done like a rock album and you can hear that it is thick with overdub. We did a lot of tracks all together, and then people would mess with things.
GM: That gives it a feeling of a live performance, there is more communication.
BV: Yeah, for me is really chamber music, that's the other point I want to make is my music, but is a chamber music type of experience in a way I thought of it as my own Piazzolla kind of thing; even tough is not at all tango music the idea is a band that you lead but is as tight as any chamber music [ensemble] would be. We would make retards and really try to craft things in a chamber music sensibility, since, Vicki, Keith and Me are classical [players] we are used to making retards. We are used to letting music breath, but also having a lot of energy in it, and sometimes with even a rock feel. Or far out like in the case of a piece called Fireflies, which is all sounds and is very much influenced by Miles Davis.
GM: In your other recording, SOEPA, I see a lot of new interesting composers and some arrangements of popular artist like Prince. Can you tell us a little about these composers and their music?
BV: Sure, let me just go thru the list. The reason for this record SOEPA is a direct continuation of a record that I made a few years ago called RIDE THE WIND HORSE, which again is in a vault in Sony. It has some Hendrix on it and a bunch of my friends. The reason I made SOEPA was because friends of mine had written to me what I considered to be really fine guitar music and I thought "if I don't record this, the pieces won't get heard". I had played all this pieces in concerts and really felt that they were wonderful pieces. I can't remember who wrote the first piece, probably Dan Asias' piece was the first and later Van Stiefel who is a young composer, going back to Dan Asia, off course he has a tremendous history as a composer having written tons of music for orchestra and had written me a chamber music piece prior to the piece Your Cry will Whisper which is on . I just thought he would write a great solo guitar piece, which I think he did. Dan and I have been friend for years, in fact he was the leader of a group called Musical Elements in NYC, with Bob Beaser and I was a guitarist in that group. That is how I know Dan, so it really goes a long way.
GM: I believe he has some new solo guitar music.
BV: Yeah, he has written guitar sets, in fact he has written a lot of guitar music. It has been a joy to work with Dan.
I first heard of John Anthony Lennon thru David Starobin who commissioned John to write a bunch of pieces, including a very famous piece called Another Fandango, which is played a lot. I always though John had an amazing individualistic and beautiful approach to the guitar, totally original, Just fantastic!, so I love this little Sonatina that he wrote for me, and now is a part of a bigger set because he has extended it. John has written tons of guitar music. Anybody how enjoys this piece should check out his other music.
In the case of Van Stiefel, he was a student of mine at Yale and was always a great friend. We talked about writing me a piece, and he wrote this, which I think, is an incredible piece; quite a big work called On Wet Roads on Autumn Nights, and now he just finished his PHD at Princeton, and has formed an electric guitar quartet along with some former students of mine. He is doing some great work. Oddly enough he is the one guitar composer and has not written much solo guitar music, but he has obviously written a lot of music for other instruments.
Jack Vees was a dear friend and composer at Yale, runs the electronic music studio there. Jack and I, for years, have been talking about him writing a piece for me. So he wrote me a piece and he saw that I have this travel guitar (which I'm sure you have heard of) called the Soloette. So jack saw this thing and said: "I'm going to write a piece for that!!". That is how he wrote this piece, which is an amazing piece using digital delay. The way the piece works is: you play twelve bars and then you hit the delay; it means that this twelve bars are repeated, you continue; now you have a little duet with yourself and then those twelve bars are repeated and becomes a trio and it ends up that you are playing a trio, almost a quartet with yourself depending on how clear the delay is. The piece is incredibly well and interestingly crafted. Jack's language, I always think he is a very original thinker and uses electronics really well. I don't know how to call the language but is a really cool guitar piece. It also has a beautiful use of a volume pedal , very beautiful color there. The final piece, the actual title piece in the record, is called SOEPA and is written by a guy called Ingram Marshall. He is quite a celebrated composer. He is a Nonesuch recording artist, just had a new CD released by Nonesuch called Kingdom Come. The way I got in touch with Ingram is by hearing a piece of him on the radio that the Kronos Quartet was playing, called Fog Tropes and I was so stunned. I called up my friend Jack Vees and said "Jack man, I heard this piece by this guy Marshall and it is killing me... is unbelievable" and he said " Oh yeah Ingram Marshall, he is a friend of mine who lives down the road ". And I said " you got to introduce me to him".
So he did and Ingram and I started talking and he wrote me this piece, which I think is also quite a landmark piece; I have never heard any piece for classical guitar like this its definitively classical guitar but uses digital delay, and also tape loops. In the middle movement is a loop of four bars and then every other four bars keeps repeating after that, so you get stacked up at the end with like ten parts. And the outer movements are just using delay basically at the pulse of 120 (beats per minute). So you have to be quite with the delay when you play and it is quite a staggering effect, including in the first movement quotations of Bach. It is quite a large work and I just love it, like I do all the works.
GM: What is the meaning of SOEPA?
BV: SOEPA is the Tibetan word for patience, and I, being a Tibetan Buddhist, gave Ingram this book of the Dalai Lama. Ingram was very moved reading this book and there is this chapter on patience and he decided to call the work "patience", which was good, because, it took a lot of patience actually to work with electronics! I can't tell you how many times things would go wrong, or figure them out; we both thought "Oh God this piece " because there were a lot of delays in terms of me (not the digital delay) getting the piece out and performing it. But it has been a really great treat to play it. A little bit complicated, I always have to travel with two guitars, and delay units, and when I go to different countries I have to have a converter. I mean is a whole new world. And finally, the arrangements of Prince are just my love for Prince as one of America's great musicians, I think. And again is like when I did the Hendrix, or John Lennon or Joni Mitchell, again this is just a continuation, and I'm happy to say that he (Prince) apparently knows that I'm doing his pieces. I don't know if he has heard them yet, but a friend of mine told me that he had it on his website; that he was happy that a classical guitarist was playing his pieces.
There is also a piece that I wrote in there, which is a piece called Safyagraha which is very influenced by the late great Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, in the sense of the textures and the modality.
The real thing that makes me excited is that I really love these pieces, and I love these guys. I find it very interesting that they are all writing for guitar and each one has a different take on the guitar. I guess that's what excites me about the guitar, all non-guitar composers approach it in with a little trepidation. In a way they feel really close to the guitar because is such a part of our society, in another way, they feel alienated because they are not inside like you and I are. But then the fascinating thing is what they do in the case of Ingram and Jack using it with electronics and Anthony Lennon finding a great uses of the open strings and register things. In the case of Dan Asia his use of motives from symphonies and his harmonic and rhythmic approach to it. Van Vees, being a guitarist still having a more guitaristic approach. The pieces written by Van and I you can hear that they were written by guitarists, for some reason, I don't know if that's good or bad. Any way is a joy to talk about that; once again the composers are friends of mine. Is really a celebration of a certain group of people.
GM: I'm sure that the world will be glad to hear all these interesting things about your music and be able to hear some sound samples on our website.
We are very glad that you shared all these ideas with GUITARRA Magazine; we appreciate your time.
BV: Thanks so much, for taking the time to listen to me, and once again I just want to say that is great that you have such a magazine and is great that people are just being involved in music in a time that needs music, specially in such troubled times. There is still a lot of joy and great fun to have joy and discovery, I would say the guitar is an incredible instrument so your magazine's title is quite to the point? let there be more GUITARRA!!.