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Artist Interview: Norbert Dams
by Stephen Rekas
Norbert Dams is the president, chief recording engineer, and editor-in-chief of Editions Daminus in Germany. He likes it that way because being number 1 empowers him to publish only the materials he feels are worthy. Norbert also has a long history as a teacher and concert artist on guitar and lute, so brings a sophisticated mix of experience and insight to the demanding world of guitar publishing and recording. In assessing a player's skills he discretely asks, "What pieces are you playing now?" The answer to that question sets his mental search engine in motion and soon he is making astute personalized recommendations from the Editions Daminus repertoire and recording catalog.
Norbert's dedication to the cause of guitar and lute publishing is unquestionable. As he hand-carries the materials he sells at international guitar events, he may forego packing a third or fourth change of clothes in order to stow away more music and CDs in his luggage. So who would you expect to be the one vendor still hawking his wares at the final concert of the recent GFA Convention in Montreal? - None other than Norbert Dams!
I should add that when I first approached Norbert for this interview, he responded not with the expected answers to my questions, but instead with a web link to children's relief agency firstname.lastname@example.org operating in the tsunami-ravaged areas surrounding the Indian Ocean. Here then is an exclusive interview with a humanitarian who happens to be a musician/publisher with a unique perspective of the guitar world.
Guitar Sessions: Who or what events inspired you to play the guitar?
Was music or the classic guitar a part of your household when growing up?
The guitar was not a part of my family background, but there was a strong musical influence. When my parents where refugees after the Second World War, they lost all their possessions. Once they got back on their feet and into a flat of their own, the first piece they bought was a piano. All the other things in the flat were borrowed.
So I grew up surrounded by the sound of my father playing the piano. As my mother originally came from Vienna; we spent our summer vacation at grandpa's place - a little garden house in the 14 Bezirk. Quite often I remember -I must have been 9 or 10 years old- we listened to an "open-air" orchestra concert that deeply impressed me as a little boy. I had the privilege to attend a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic in a Hofburg-Konzert. Another family tradition is still is very much present in my memory... New Year's Eve was always reserved for listening to one of Bruckner's symphonies on the radio, as there were no TVs or stereo phonographs around at that time.
My parents wanted me to play the piano but I refused...it still has too many keys for me. Later I had to take violin lessons but again, that was not the right instrument. For sure, I also played the treble recorder at a pretty high level, but you have to fall in love with your instrument or it is the wrong choice!
When I began to play guitar, at first I was just strumming chords and fumbling around a bit, until by chance (??) I came across a score for guitar! What a surprise for me, being 17at the time- a score with printed music for the guitar. I had no idea how it would sound. It was a Siegfried Behrend edition of Mauro Giuliani's "Rondo" from 3 Sonatinas, op. 71 labeled as "Rondo, op.1". I tried to figure it out on my guitar, still at that time a Höfner steel-string cutaway. As I was able to read music, thanks to my parents' efforts to make me play piano and violin, it was not too hard to find the notes on the fingerboard- but how was I to manage to get all the notes down in the right proportion? It took a while to figure that out as you can imagine.
Again, by chance (??) the first classical guitar LP I heard in my life was a recording by Siegfried Behrend. Can you imagine my surprise when I could finally listen to "my guitar piece" on an LP, and how different it sounded on a nylon-string guitar? I began working hard to save money for an instrument with THAT MAGIC SOUND! That was the sound I immediately fell in love with, and my "acoustic romance" is still very much alive!! By the way, after so many years I still enjoy playing that little Giuliani rondo from time to time and I recorded it on my CD, Easy Going.
What styles interested you when you first began to play? How do those early preferences influence your current repertoire?
As mentioned earlier... the world of pop music, especially the Beatles and personalities like Bob Dylan and Donovan were on the one side, and after I found "my" guitar piece, I began looking for more printed music. As life often moves in circles, I have just now returned to some of the "old stuff" in my recent solo guitar recital programs with a set called "Songs without Words", where I include some Beatles arrangements and improvisations as well as some ABBA material.
I would like to hear some of that! What teachers did you seek out, or was there any method book that was particularly helpful?
Living in a small village with no guitarists around, there was only a very short period when I took lessons from the local church organist, who also taught a bit of guitar; through him, I became acquainted with some Carulli and Küffner. We were using the method by Walter Götze and the Carulli Guitar Method, Volume 2.
My main teacher was Julian Bream...even though I NEVER had a lesson with him, and for sure he does not know this "pupil". Listening to that great artist in a concert opened my ears to the many colors hidden in plucked instruments. So after hearing him for the first time in concert, I followed his tour and heard three more concerts; All the while I hitchhiked between cities, as I had hardly any money, and slept on park benches after the concerts. Each time I heard him, I would dive into the sounds of his "magic box" - as he calls it... and watch what he was doing with his hands.
Another "teacher" was my best friend in those days- Matthias Perl, a flute player who is now the principle flutist with NDR-Orchestra in Hamburg. We played a lot of flute and guitar duets and his repertoire demanded quite a few things that I could hardly do on the guitar, so I had to find solutions to keeping up with the speed of the flute.
At that time I had already begun to research music that was not printed in standard catalogs. The "Franz Vester" catalog for flute music included lots of information on 19th century chamber music with guitar, for example. So knowing about the existence of many unpublished works in that field, I never could understand my student's colleagues arguing about the limited repertoire for the guitar. And if I look back, how many previously unpublished works found their way into new editions, I still have an extremely difficult time understanding or even sharing some guitar players' opinion about the lack of high quality guitar music!
My so-called formal studies took place in Bremen at the conservatory with Christian Kaiser, and later on I studied for a very short period in Berlin with Carlo Domeniconi.
Do you play any other instruments besides the guitar? If so, is there any particular advantage or disadvantage to being a multi-instrumentalist?
As it is the sound of plucked nylon that fascinates me, I do not play any other instruments with the exception of other "pluckeries" like the Renaissance lute, the vihuela, and a 7-string Panormo copy made by the brilliant luthier Paul Fisher of Oxford, UK. The first instrument I acquired after the guitar was the lute. In the 70s it was much more a la mode to play Renaissance music on the guitar, as it is nowadays. Somehow I was always dissatisfied with the way that music, with such a filigreed structure, sounds on the guitar- so I looked around and got a lute from Reinhold Seiffert with quite a high string tension and a sound not too far distant from a "naily" guitarist's way of playing; I used that instrument for several years until I got a 9-course lute made by the fantastic German luthier Dieter Hense. I also have a spruce and a cedar-top guitar by the same maker. Both lutes can be heard on my recording Greensleeves.
Even though I still play mostly with nails, the sound of the double strings and the extra bass strings on the 9-course lute produce a totally different overtone structure and sound quality than the guitar; especially in the polyphonic world of the fantasias, I never again want to miss this rich sound. In the meantime, I have become used to switching from one instrument to another, and I enjoy playing the same piece on different instruments in a single performance, just to open the listeners' ears to different timbres.
Later in the mid eighties, I got my "Panormo" copy. This was the first instrument I ever ordered. I had acquired all of my other instruments in a different way; they were all preexisting babies that I fell in love with. Regarding a 19th century guitar, I was unsure about whether to get an old instrument- if I did, if it weren't in playable condition I would have to get it restored- or to get a new one.
As I did not have an instrument with a maple body and a spruce top in my collection at the time, and as I had met Paul Fisher at the Zeven Guitar Festival [in West Germany], where I tried out some of his existing Panormo copies, I decided to get a "new" copy of a 19th century instrument done in the wood combination mentioned above; It's a brilliant instrument that has given me a me a new approach to the 19th century repertoire.
Studying the old scores of the period- like first editions or even autographs, and comparing them with some of the modern editions- I always wondered about dynamics. You find extreme changes in dynamics in the old scores, which you can hardly execute on a heavier modern concert guitar. But once you have a period instrument in your hands, due to the different string tension and fan-bracing and the reaction of the stroke being so much quicker- all of a sudden the music takes on a totally different quality. So- by changing instruments, my approach towards 19th century music has also changed enormously.
Later, when I did more studies of the music of Napoleon Coste, we went one step further and Paul Fisher added a seventh string to the instrument, as Coste also used a seventh string on his guitar. This one extra string significantly changed the sonority of the instrument and it is a great pleasure to play a D major chord, the final chord in "Le Tournoi" op. 15, using both low D and F-sharp and so on.
The "youngest" instrument in my collection is my vihuela made by Frank Ercolano. I will talk later about another aspect of being a "multi-instrumentalist" when we will talk about performances in general.
Have you participated in any small or large ensembles? If so what are the benefits of ensemble playing?
I love ensemble playing!!! And I've done a lot of it. Besides playing in a flute/guitar duo for many years, I have performed with Tilman Purrucker as the guitar duo "Die Zwei Gitarren" for 30 years now and we have released 2 LPs and one CD together so far. I have made several guitar trio attempts but that constellation has always proved difficult to maintain for more than 5 concerts, as the energy levels of my colleagues where too disparate. I have done some work with a string quartet which requires a totally different approach regarding intonation, as well as playing in a violin/guitar duo.
My latest exotic combination is church organ and guitar. Some interesting original music exists for that rare combination. Once a year we have an open-air performance in the city of Zeven with a group consisting of flute, violin, viola, violoncello, guitar, and sometimes accordion, and we play some original works...like the Matiegka-Schubert Quartet, or some Baroque music or whatever...It is a nice experience to play left and right-hand music from piano scores. I may play the right-hand chords while the cello plays the baselines. You can do interesting basso continuo settings, and we love to do that while sight reading.
I find ensemble playing a fundamental experience. It is hard for me to understand how a young musician would want to make an artistic statement as a soloist, if he or she has not first learned how to "discuss" music in a group! In real life, you would not want to listen to someone who has not yet absorbed too much in life.... so what can they say as soloists?
What motivated you to get into the music publishing business?
Well, that's quite a story! Together with the guitar duo "Die Zwei Gitarren" we made our first recording back in 1981. Frankly speaking, it was a very tough experience. We definitely were not prepared for what was expected of us in the recording situation, but thanks to the technical skills of our producer Wolfgang Hoff, we managed to create a master tape that was worth publishing. Wolfgang had what I call "magic scissors"; his editing work was remarkable, but his psychological state while working....well, that's something better left unmentioned! The LP was first released on the Torophone Label and later re-released on my own Daminus label.
So here I finally come to the point of answering your question... The abovementioned experience led me to the question of whether I ever wanted to undergo THAT procedure again and my definite answer is NO!!!! On the other hand, I still wanted to make more recordings of my own playing and that's how it started. Having had no formal education in sound engineering, I started the whole recording business from zero. Not having had any prior idea about recording equipment, I began looking for information wherever possible and concluded that, in the long run, the cheapest way to start a recording studio would be to acquire the best possible tools. So I started my studio with very few pieces of high-quality equipment, like a Studer two-track analog high-speed tape recorder including Studer mike pre-amplification and a pair of good Neumann U 87i microphones. That was all I used at the start. Other equipment followed but still nowadays, I think that good tools and the knowledge of how to use them are the precondition for good work.....but the human aspect of recording is far more important!
But let me stay with the beginning of it all for a little while. As I noticed the importance of "editing" I recorded several C-major scales and tried to construct songs by editing the tape so that the listener would get the illusion of the songs being performed in one take; that's how I acquired the editing skills that later surprised some of my fellow guitarists. In 1986 I published my LP French Guitar Music that got pretty good reviews internationally and was first imported to the US by Matanya Ophée. May I express my thanks here again! This recording opened many doors; it also established my contact with the French composer Francis Kleynjans. As both of us seemed to have a "soul relationship" we decided to collaborate in recording a CD with only music by Francis Kleynjans- about 2 hours after we first met! That was a challenging enterprise for me as Francis was the first composer to collaborate with me in a recording project. Just listen to the result; the CD Oeuvres is one of the highlights of my recording offerings, and Francis Kleynjans is a fantastic player!
I spoke about the lute and vihuela previously. The recording session with Francis Kleynjans expanded my vision in many ways. Imagine being an untrained recording engineer and producer working with one of the most famous composers in the guitar world in 1988 and even today. You hear things in your speakers and get different opinions about the technique, the sound and so on. So how does one approach the artist to propose different options without destroying the positive constructive atmosphere of the recording and, being a "no-name" myself- how should I handle the situation with the composer himself? We managed to find interesting solutions but my primary experience was a new look at "Old Music". I asked Francis about a passage that sounded quite different from what was in the written score-manuscript and he answered, "Oh, it was long ago that I wrote that." But after persistent questioning I found out that "Long ago" meant six weeks.
So, if a living composer shows this much flexibility and variety in his approach to his music and how pieces change within 6 weeks, how can we as performers of "Old Music" assume to believe to know how Old Music has to sound? My work with Kleynjans made me reflect upon composers' personalities in general.
What, or who are composers? That's a big question!!! Having been in contact with quite a few of them now, I've met some who are extremely open to different situations, who are curious about the world, about life, and about communication and have the gift to express some of their emotions in a musical language.... but as the circumstances of their performances vary, I personally find quite a free approach regarding my own interpretations.
How did you establish your standards?
They just developed by themselves in trying to improve the quality of the recordings; in the end, the goal is to have the privilege of making my own personal taste the standard for the choice of what I publish. I don't look for the big profit primarily, but rather for the interesting artistic content. That is my big personal luxury!
We haven't yet spoken about sheet music publication as part of your editorial work. How did you enter upon this aspect of your career?
Having done some first recordings of then unpublished music, people increasingly began to ask about where to find that music in print. I had never even considered the idea of working as a music publisher, but life goes different ways as expected. About 14 years ago I had a severe problem with my back, a slipped disc- so I was unable to play the guitar for more than six months. It was not clear if I ever would be able to perform again, so what can you do? If you still want to work in music, you can do the recording job or you can do computer engraving, so that's what I did, and so I started publishing sheet music, which nowadays is much more a part of my life than the recording aspect. And I am glad to say that I am back on stage ....and on the dance floor again for some time now.
What keeps you interested in the performance and publishing music business?
That's a very simple question to answer- curiosity and communication. . It is very satisfying to bring different artists together and see what happens. The success I've enjoyed has been a stimulating factor in addition to the positive feedback I've received. As a result of my long-term effort, I am gratified to see that the distribution of my products has spread nearly worldwide, and I'm very happy about the fact that Mel Bay Publications has been my U.S. distributor for the last two years. I love to communicate with all kinds of people, and performing gives me the chance to reach many peoples' hearts...which is a wonderful way to contribute a bit of emotional beauty to the world.
Are you actively seeking new compositions to publish?
There does not seem do be the need to seek, given that so much interesting music finds its way to me on its own. This last October in Montreal, I had the pleasure of "discovering" two composers who are new to me- Hayley Savage from England and Jim Skinger of New York. Both composers are contributing new entries to my catalogue. Certainly, my ears are always open to hearing new works for or incorporating the guitar.
Which of your albums/compositions would you recommend to someone buying one of your recordings or publications for the first time?
That is a most difficult question!! A real masterpiece of a remarkable dimension is "Sonata for Guitar" by the Bulgarian composer Rossen Balkanski, as it includes all the elements that I expect to find in valuable music: It covers interesting rhythms, possesses formal aspects of thematic development as well as polyphonic structures... to satisfy the intellectual part... and also touches the listener emotionally due to the beauty of the melodies. This demanding work has been recorded by 2002 GFA prizewinner Dimitri Illarionov.
I also have a very personal relationship with the music of Atanas Ourkouzounov, the Bulgarian Master, as I had the privilege to be the first to publish the fascinating music of this composer; his work is also published by several larger publishing companies.
It is so difficult to single out particular works, as that automatically gives an unfair treatment to others...... As my personal taste determines what I am going to publish, you can imagine that there is a common ground between more or less ANY piece in my catalog. What I might point out, are some very rare, exotic chamber music combinations like organ and guitar. In general, I am sure that every single guitarist would be able to find an interesting new piece to enrich his or her repertoire, with heretofore relatively unknown but interesting works in my catalog!!
Looking at my published catalog, if you want to become more familiar with the Daminus materials I would point out four recordings as MUST-Haves:
Apart from music, what are your interests?
That has changed a lot over the years but some things can be considered to be more or less constant. I like to play pool or billiards; from time to time I like to shake my old bones on the dance floor in a discotheque with my ears protected by earplugs, and I am a freak regarding the old British way of motoring. I love Jaguars. Too bad that for financial reasons, I recently had to sell my four-wheel beauty, but I still have quite a library on this topic. I also I like to hike in the loneliness of the Norwegian mountains far from any traffic, giving the soul a bath of silence and space.
Do you teach or act as a musical mentor?
Oh yes, teaching is my main "business". I started teaching about a year after I began to play classical guitar, and since then I have been teaching without a break worth mentioning- for more than 30 years.
How did you overcome performance anxiety?
That was indeed a real problem for a while. As a student, it was a nightmare to perform. It really took me a long time before I did a solo recital, but I was playing lots of chamber music. There I felt at home on stage and did not have too many problems. When I changed my personal approach towards performing, the problem of performance anxiety automatically disappeared. So what happened? Like many younger players I tried to perform pieces that where on the edge of my limitations and sometimes even over the edge.
It took a while before I understood that general audiences can't perceive whether a piece is hard to play or not. If you play Asturias by Albéniz you will have a great impact on the audience, but if you play a by far more difficult fugue by J. S. Bach, the reaction normally will be much less enthusiastic.
As I grew older, I did not feel that I was less worthy as a human being if I played a few wrong notes during a concert. The more positive feedback you get from your audiences, the more relaxed you become on stage. In addition, as a daily practice routine I gave a "performance" to my microphones using the same surroundings and dressing as I would onstage. Whenever possible, I travel with my own candle holders and perform only by candlelight, with the audience completely in the dark. That way, I get immediate and predictable results:
- The stage setting is very personal and intimate.
Even when I practice my recital programs at home, I light the candles so I have the same surroundings at home that I have on stage; this gives me the feeling of being at home on stage or ... just turn it around ... of being on stage at home. This helped me quite a lot psychologically.
What sort of practice routine would you recommend for the beginning, intermediate or advanced player?
There is no way for me to give a recommendation to an advanced player. If a student is working at an advanced level it is time for them to find their own very personal way of working.
With young beginners, I am happy if they practice for about 30 minutes each day. I have no idea about the teaching situation in US. In Germany I see a real problem with the willpower of many guitar students. Many of them come with the idea of playing the guitar... without any effort on their behalf. They want YOU to make them play the guitar. Some of my pupils play badminton on Monday, go horse-riding on Tuesday, come to the guitar lesson on Wednesday, go swimming on Thursday and so on, so some of them only touch the guitar during the guitar lesson.
For me it is incomprehensible that a guitar student would not go to a guitar recital offered in their own city. At the Montreal GFA Festival I met a young lady who was studying classical guitar in Montreal in the same building where the vendors' fair, some classes and the evening concerts took place. She had not been to a single event!!!!! She did not have time!!! Looking back at my own crazy way of living.... I sometimes traveled hundreds of miles just to listen to ONE concert.... So I must admit that I have a real problem understanding THAT mentality. Maybe I am growing old...but I also don't understand guitar teachers who don't send their students to concerts, especially if the students themselves are thinking of making their living with the guitar.
To keep my own pupils working with the instrument, I set up student recitals as real concerts in nice surroundings, like small churches.... and we do have beautiful ones in the region, so that the kids have a goal to work for... and for sure I try to prepare them in a way that their performance will be a positive experience for them.
Describe your own practice routine.
I have no routine. As I have to work in so many different areas, more or less at the same time, I have to work in segments. Of course, I play my guitar during lessons, and join in with the students with their technical studies, but there are periods when I do not touch a guitar for up to three or four days. If I am working on a recording project as a producer, I dive into a totally different world, and do not touch my own guitar. On the other hand, if I am preparing for a concert tour I focus my main energy on to that. I am quite happy that I do not need much warm-up time to prepare for a concert. When touring it may be even happen that I play the first note of the day on stage!
Do you recommend any particular teaching/learning techniques, such as maintaining a log of practice time?
I recommend maintaining a log of the time spent in front of the TV to those students who complain about not having time to practice. They are always shocked when they see how much time they are waste in front of this stupid time-killing machine.
As a lutenist as well as a guitarist, what is you opinion of tab vs. notation?
As standard notation is the only written language worldwide that uses the same letters all over the world, I definitely prefer notation over tablature. As a musician it is magic to be able to communicate via your instrument and play with someone using the same score. It may be with someone from China, and I do not speak Chinese - but through reading music, you have the opportunity to play something together. I must admit, however, that I use tablature from time to time when I play the Renaissance lute.
What do you do to keep your repertoire sounding fresh?
I change it quite often. That's the best way to keep the adventure of the music. It's like eating. Wouldn't it be boring to have the same pizza every day? As I usually have to keep about four different programs under my fingers, and due to the fact that I am so curious about new music, it has actually never been a problem to keep my repertoire fresh, and any performance is a new and special situation anyway.
Are there any areas of the standard repertoire you would like to explore?
In general, I am not so much concerned with what is considered the standard repertoire anymore; I have already done a lot of that. There are so many great players performing these pieces that I don't feel the need to contribute my part to this field, unless I feel I have something special to say in a piece. What attracts me about studying a new composition is the opportunity to start from the point that I call the "virginal approach". I love to work on totally unknown pieces. Once you have heard a composition played, that interpretation is saved somewhere on your internal hard disc and your subconscious always will go back to that first listening experience.
In your role as a teacher, what areas do you emphasize with your students?
My main role as a teacher is basic, elementary work. I try to be very precise in helping students to develop a sensibility for tone production, as that is what I most often find lacking. And I try to encourage them to write their own music. For starters, I try to develop a five-note scale from c-g with the pupil; this comes after they know how to play open strings etc... The basic stuff.....and then ask them to play their own little song with that material and to find songs they know with these notes. So I encourage them to bring their own materials to the table, but as I said before, there are quite a few who simply want to be "served".
How do you approach the teaching of interpretation?
I start at a very early level to include interpretation as a part of playing. If you take a look at my book Hallo Gitarre that deals with a student's first experience with two-voice playing, you will find besides left and right-hand fingerings (which for sure are NOT interpretation) - a lot of dynamic marks as well as suggestions for sound colorization. In a piece called Moods for example, you find contrasting moods which require different approaches. I always need to imagine what I want to express...as a student as well as a teacher. I have participated in the "Zevener Gitarrentage" now for 25 years. Teaching a master class means that you have to be very placable.
Any suggestions on forming a concert repertoire?
The most important aspect of forming a concert repertoire is to find your own voice, your own personal style that makes you on stage what you are as a human being in real life and makes you unique. You have to have an idea, of what that special performance will be about. I always try to have a catchy title for my programs. If I perform a more meditative program I might call it "Dream Time"; In the US I might play something like "European Impressions" or my latest program is called "Songs without Words", so I always like to have a theme. That helps the audiences to follow a red line and that assists the organizers in promoting the concert. I always try to include one so-called "standard piece" but I also like to introduce new works.
That is what I find so interesting about the guitar scene- the variety in programming. If I go to a piano subscription concert in Germany, the programming is usually quite conservative, mostly the big B's of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms; you hardly ever find the "smaller" B's such as Berg, Busoni, Bruckner, Barber, Britten etc. In the guitar world, many of the compositions that are considered standard now didn't even exist 30 years ago, so I am very thankful to be living in a time that offers so many novelties for our instrument.
Can you offer any tips on touring, performance etiquette or artist/venue manager relations?
Be prepared for the unexpected and take risks! A concert that offers something special in whatever direction will stay longer in the memory of the audience than a "normal" one. I always talk to my audiences, hoping to establish a personal contact. There are performances where I play on four different instruments...NOT at the same time, mind you...but I might start with the lute, than switch to the vihuela, then after the intermission pick up the modern guitar and end with a 19th century instrument. I encourage listeners to enter a dialog with me by asking them if they have any questions about the instruments and, as most of them have never seen lute tablature... I offer them the chance to have a look at it at the CD display desk. That's the place I want to have the audience during the intermission- so it provides a benefit for both the listener and the performer.
One thing I am always prepared for is to play a solo recital within the next 10 hours or less. I remember a situation when one of my small ensembles was booked for a chamber music performance on an island in the North Sea. My partners did not arrive; due to a traffic jam they had missed the ferry. Previous to the island performance, I had performed with a guitar duo in the same region and had arrived by another ferry. So what to do? I had to play a solo recital instead!
Even if an audience is very small... I remember one concert around Christmas... The roads were so icy that evening that I also had problems reaching the concert site... a beautiful little church which, by the way was always very, very cold in winter. There were just five people in the audience that had risked going to the concert in spite of the icy rain. For sure, I played my complete recital for them, even though I lost money with that concert; it turned out to be a very inspired performance.
If you perform a lot you have to accept that you have your good days and your bad days. If you are working in an office... or a bank, you may be able to simply go slower with your work on a bad day, but on stage - you are still in the spotlight even on a bad day. Whenever I do a really bad performance I try to arrange the next concert in the same location as soon as possible. It's ironic that if you mess up a concert AND get a bad review, that might actually be good publicity, as people are curious to witness a "scandal" and want to see if that artist is going to mess up again; so far; I have not had a bad day in the same place twice, so people expecting something outrageously BAD are positively astonished and will even purchase your CD's and ask you to perform for them again. Having had this experience more than once helps me a lot if I go on stage to discover that this will not be a very good night.
You might ask, "How can you have a 'bad day' on stage?" If you travel, you are sometimes confronted with the need to perform even if you feel really sick. I have never bowed out of playing a booked concert, even when I've been ill on tour. If you just stay in your hotel room, you are not in a good place to recover from whatever it is that ails you, but, if you get up onstage and perform, the adrenalin might have a healing function. At least it very often has for me; even if I play with a fever, it sometimes results in an extraordinarily good performance. If illness knocks out your concentration, however, then you might have the "bad day" described above.What do you feel are your technical strengths and weaknesses?
I will not expose my technical weaknesses here. Let's just say that my technical level may be around grade 6-8 or so [out of 10], at least the part that qualifies as technique... I never really understood this topic!! Is it speed or volume? Is it the quality of sound or how far you can stretch your fingers? For me "technique" refers to the fact that my hands are tools that transport the feelings I want to express musically... and that seems to work somehow.
Do you recommend professional management or self-management?
If you manage to find good professional management, then you are a lucky man. In general the fees for a guitar recital are so small for most or us, that professional management is out of the question. Congratulations to those who get fees that feed the artist AND management. I do not belong to that group, so my recommendations would sound like the blind man who describes a colored picture.
I do promote myself via self-management and this way of promotion has several advantages:
When I contact a concert venue or a local manager, I generally try to speak with people by phone. Quite often I encounter a situation where a local agent does not want to offer a guitar concert in close proximity to another. "We just had one," I hear quite often. If I draw them out, I can find out what the promoter would like to offer and very often, I can offer exactly that as a project, for example- a musical city tour from Paris to Vienna packaged with historical and performance notes. That sounds totally different to the venue's manager, and when you finally tell him that the "vehicle" for the journey is the guitar, there is no longer a problem with having "another guitar recital". This kind of offer can't be made by a professional manager as only you know what kind of repertoire you can assemble for whatever projects you have in mind; it's just that sometimes you have to make your repertoire or thematic choices very quickly.
Do you have any upcoming performance dates?
As I have concentrated more on recordings and publications for the last two years and have not done my booking homework properly, I have just a few performances booked so far for this year. In May I perform a program on the lute and the vihuela featuring only Renaissance music from the courts of Europe; Then I will do a few organ/guitar concerts in summer in Germany and a little tour through Switzerland where I will play various programs. Certainly, I would love to get the opportunity to do more than the handful of performances that I have done in North America.
You offered Dimitri Illarionov a recording contract even before he won the 2002 GFA competition. How did you sense that he would end up in first place?
That was one of the rare moments in life where I had a "vision". We met at the check-in desk at the hotel in Miami and exchanged a few words. We had not met before, yet I had the feeling I was talking to the winner. Later I heard him play just a few notes at the vendors' fair, but already he had shown the capacity to convey a musical feeling; so before the finals, I offered him a recording contract. Oddly enough, I didn't even have the chance to hear him during the finals! Regarding his recording East Side Story, I am more than happy to have had the chance to produce a recording with such a fine artist. It is a real pity that due to visa problems, he was only able to play a very few of the concerts on his GFA tour...and it must be pointed out again, that it was not Dimitri's fault !!
What is your preferred microphone setup for recording the classic guitar?
If you listen to my recordings, you will find quite a variety of soundscapes. I always try to capture the sound of each individual player in the given recording location, and therefore make my choice according to existing parameters. Generally, I use only two mikes. I am not a big fan of close miking, as I want to avoid artificial reverb when possible.
How has your experience as an audio engineer altered your approach to the guitar? For example, do you feel that you listen to yourself more acutely, or have you changed your technique in any way?
For sure it has changed a lot. At the beginning of the interview we talked about how I was motivated to start all this, and about the experience of my first recording as a guitarist. Working as a producer, I see colleagues in the same situation, which is totally different from a live performance.
We can compare the two genres, concert hall and studio recording with two other artistic medias/genres, theatre and cinema production, with the concert hall and the theatre as examples of live situations on the one hand, and the recording/ movie production process on the other. In each case, we are addressing two totally different approaches to achieve comparable artistic results. In both cases the highest goal is to reach our audiences on an intellectual level as well as to touch them emotionally.... but recording and live performances do require a different approach.
Let me give you an example: If we are performing on stage and want to execute a fortissimo sound we might raise our right arm high up and even move our whole body to support the acoustic event by other elements, and indeed- the listener's subjective impression is that the sound is louder given that we combine it with some "body language". If I do that in a recording session, the mikes pick up the sound of the instrument, which is what we want, but as for the "body language" it simply says "noise", so the effect that I wanted to achieve does is not accomplished.
In a concert hall it is no problem to produce a loud sound and even allow a tiny little buzzing sound, as the whole hall will provide acoustic reflections and add some reverb. But again, to produce a good-sounding loud chord on a recording requires a different approach. You get the best sound quality if you do not exceed an output of about 85 % of the instrument's potential volume. The mikes are normally situated at a spot where you NEVER have a listener's ear, so players have to get used to a different way of playing in front of a mike than on stage. Again, if the guitar is amplified onstage, you had better remember your recording experiences.
Another problem is how to balance harmonics. We are always afraid that these fragile little notes cannot be heard by the listeners, so we try to play them as loud as possible with the end result that we kind of destroy them. Due to the fact that these notes are crystal-clear resonances, they manage to project deeply into the hall, even reaching the last row! So we can feel confident in touching the strings VERY gently for a good sounding harmonic.
Our problem as guitarists is that, sitting behind and above the sound, we are always in the absolute worst position to listen to our output. The sound disappears into the concert hall and we often have the feeling of playing into a big "cotton balI". It can be compared to a transmitter/receiver situation, and as a recording engineer or more properly- a producer, my job is to hear what the artist offers and to try to find out if what I hear is what he wants to send! It may sound silly to those who have never been in a professional recording situation, but it's a fact that most artists, when doing their first professional recording, are astonished at the musical product they offer as ready for recording.
It generally requires only small adjustments to help them record a really good interpretation of a given piece, like changing a few sound colors to support the musical lines.
For a recording, I especially recommend using pianissimo combined with metálico, which is an interesting effect very rarely used by performers. I wonder why?
I have also learned that there is never enough studio time planned for a recording. I have heard quite a few recordings where you can hear the "time is money" principle; sometimes there was not even "money" to tune the guitar properly!!! This may occur in a concert but is unforgivable in a recording.
A good recording can NEVER be released too late, so it makes sense to take the time you need! Most of the recordings I have produced needed about a week just for the recording sessions, and we have not yet talked about editing!
If we are lucky enough to have made a great recording, no one will ever ask how long you needed to do it; but if you accept a badly tuned guitar, the questions comes up immediately, "Why didn't you take time to tune your instrument?"
Do we know how many Mona Lisa's went into the garbage before she got "That Smile"?
To me, recordings are like children; we have to live with them for the rest of our lives, so we have to take the time necessary to achieve the very best possible results. I consider this my responsibility to the music and the artist. That's also the reason why I don't work simply as a soundman but also provide musical input, proposing different approaches to interpretation if I feel that the offered version doesn't satisfy me completely. Usually, the discussions are very fertile for all parties included in the process.
To briefly respond to your question after this long monologue, working as a record producer has greatly modified the way I perform live nowadays. I have learned so much from the many players I have worked with, and the list of names goes from A (Alice Artzt) to Z (Milan Zelenka) and many in between. I am very thankful for having had the chance to work with such a variety of great artists.
Over the years, how do you feel you have changed as a musician and as an individual?
Do we have another 25 pages to answer this question? Sorry, just joking. I will try to be as brief as possible. Yes, I've changed. My hair is getting shorter as can be seen in the photos and greyer too, but that is of no importance. Looking back and considering the performer's part, in my twenties I tried to impress my audiences by playing difficult pieces, by playing fast and doing all this puberty nonsense. Today, it is more important for me to create an atmosphere, building up tensions and looking for the rare magic moments of total silence in a concert. It may sound paradoxical, but I play music to unite with the audience in breathing together keeping energies and tensions together in moments when it's just the world of sounds and silence that counts.
If I have the choice to perform a big virtuoso piece or a beautiful little adagio I definitely would choice the adagio. For sure, if you build up a whole program you have to think about creating moments of tensions as well as relief.
Thank you for your detailed responses to my questions, Norbert. Here's one last one.
How has your family influenced your music?
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