Gregory Doc Rossi is a citternist, composer and scholar born in Dayton, Ohio in 1955, emigrating to Europe in 1984. Today, He Lives In France. He studied music from an early age and began performing at 14. He has B.A.s in Music and English Literature, and was awarded the Ph.D. in 1991 from the University of London, where he wrote on Shakespeare and Brecht under the supervision of René Weis and Keith Walker. He studied guitar with Andrea Damiani and has had tuition from John Renbourn, Ugo Orlandi, Richard Strasser, Christopher Morrongiello, Ljubo Majstorovic and John Anthony Lennon.
Rossi has had a lifelong interest in the cittern, having built one at the age of 13. He now performs on a variety of instruments, including the diatonic Renaissance cittern, the modern Irish cittern, and especially the so-called English guitar or cetra, an 18th-century instrument. He also plays guitar, bass guitar, tenor banjo, mandolin and mandola.
His recordings include Six Sonatas for Cetra or Kitara by Pasqualini Demarzi with Andrea Damiani, and La Cetra Galant, a CD of solos and duets. His publications include The Celtic Cittern and The Celtic Guitar for Centerstream/Hal Leonard; The Compleat Cittern, a tutor for 18th-century cittern (with transcriptions for guitar and other six-course instruments), the English translation of Andrea Damiani’s Tutor for Renaissance Lute, a modern edition of Thomas Robinson’s cittern music including New Citharen Lessons (1609) and pieces from manuscript sources, and The Original Guitar Styles of Jerry Donahue. He has published articles dealing with guitar and cittern history, Shakespeare and Brecht, Scott Fitzgerald, and the Beat Generation.
He is a founder of The Cittern Society.
In 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011, he gave lectures on playing techniques at the Waldzither-conference at Suhl in Thuringia, Germany, where he was invited as a specialist to revive the German cittern. He has performed as a soloist and with various groups across North America and Europe and has recorded in a variety of contexts, playing Early Music, Hawaiian Slack-key guitar and Celtic, Mexican and American dance music. One of only a handful of players who specialize in the cittern, he is involved in recording projects and performances dedicated to 18th-century composers for plucked string instruments. During the 1980s Doc Rossi was resident at London's acclaimed Islington Folk Club and The Last Straw, a London club that featured less traditionally oriented acoustic music. He has appeared at the Hudson River Revival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and the National Folk Festival (UK).
What do you recall about your playing learning process?
No one will believe this, but it’s the truth. I started taking guitar lessons when I was 12. It was tough, but I was really driven, sitting up in my room trying to get it while the other kids were waterskiing or whatever. I remember being at the grocery store with my mom one day - the radio was on and there was a new song by some group that I liked. I was baffled - I couldn’t understand how a guy could know how to play more than one song. I was really struggling - I just couldn’t change chords on time. Well, that night I dreamt how to do it. When I woke up, I grabbed my guitar and poof, there it was. When I went to my weekly lesson, my teacher said “what happened?”
I had a similar experience a few years later when learning to fingerpick, but without the dream. Suddenly, after weeks of struggling with “Blackbird”, it just started happening, I don’t know why or how.
What do you expect from music?
I guess the simplest answer is that I expect it to say something - I’m not thinking about words, especially since I listen to, play and write mostly instrumental music. It can be a narrative or a series of scenes or images or sounds, but it has to say something. I tend to let music tell me how it wants to be played. Sometimes I can understand a piece intellectually, but it doesn’t say much to me - I suppose I’m not capable of hearing what a piece music has to say in some cases, or I might not even be interested! I like surprises, but my tastes have their limits, and so does my musical vocabulary, so in the end, a piece of music has to hit me somewhere - in the gut, in the heart, in the head, in the feet - somewhere.
What is your relationship with other disciplines such as painting, literature, dance, theater ...?
I painted and drew a bit as a kid, and I’m still visually oriented for some things, but I don’t think this has entered my music making that much - any sound painting I might do comes from literature and theatre, which have always been important to me. The ideas of narrative or episodic structures - although they exist in the visual arts - have come to me through literature, above all drama and poetry. I don’t read novels much. When I was studying Shakespeare, I began to see how he’s put all the direction one needs to perform the play right there in the text. This helped me to see that even a simple tune that grabs me has an element of that - it’ll tell me how it wants to be played if I listen. I’ve played a lot for dancing, too, and I love it - folk dancing and rock - but it’s cut-and-dry - you lay down a groove and play the tunes or improvise, and the dancers just go with it. Playing for dancing taught me about time and grooves.
Where are your roots? What are your secret influences?
My roots are in The Beatles, The Byrds, The Band, the Airplane, and all the roots music that they led me to. Plus, the local library where I grew up had an interesting record collection - I heard medieval music, slack key, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, The Chieftains - all kinds of stuff, and I kept digging deeper. It was the late 60s, early 70s, so there was a healthy music scene anyway, and Detroit had a couple of hip FM stations and a folk program on the classical station on Saturday, and some local TV with live music - I remember seeing Mason Williams playing solo on Tom Shannon’s show, and a local guitarist named Ted Lucas, who improvised.
I had a neighbor who was a bit older than me who played guitar. His dad worked at Ford and they had spent some time in Europe. I was really struck by medieval and renaissance music, so tried to learn some on the guitar. I wasn’t so good at playing by ear yet, so my brother took me to the local university and I copied some music and started trying to play it. Believe it or not, the first piece I tried was “The Earle of Salisbury” by William Byrd. I chose it because it was in A minor and seemed pretty straightforward. I worked it out and played it for my neighbor, thinking I was really on to something, and he said, “Oh, you’ve been listening to John Renbourn.” I was crushed, but he turned me on to Pentangle and other stuff I hadn’t heard, so I soon got over the disappointment of having been scooped.
As far as the cittern is concerned, my parents had bought the Encyclopedia Britannica and I loved looking through it. One day I came across the cittern and something stirred inside. There was a photo of the famous instrument by Virchi and a description of the tunings. I was already playing guitar by that point. There was a cabinet maker nearby, so I got some wood and tried to make one - I was 13. It didn’t stay together very long, but I enjoyed it while it did!
What's the relevance of technique in music, in your opinion?
If we go back to what I was saying about music telling you how it wants to be played - technique allows you to do that. I’ve never had huge chops, but I do work on technique, and I enjoy it. Technique is a tool that needs to be used wisely. One thing I learned when I was studying with Andrea Damiani is that there are many kinds of virtuosity. I think too many players concentrate on speed and dexterity, but the players I really admire have an emotional virtuosity, and it’s technique that allows them to achieve that. There are a lot of people who fake it with body language and expressions, but when you close your eyes, you can hear and feel the emotional content when it’s played by a genuine virtuoso. Technique is all about getting yourself out of the way so that the sound of the instrument and the music can come through.
What’s the difference between a good instrument and a bad one?
Beyond having a full, bell-like tone and great action, a good instrument is like a good piece of music - it’ll tell you how it wants to be played - what works and what doesn’t. It’ll challenge you to open its potential and let it sing. A good instrument doesn’t lie, either! It will teach you a lot about yourself if you follow it rather than forcing it to do what you want. A good instrument will engage you in a relationship.
What quality do you admire most in an musician?
Besides tone, expression and inventiveness, the thing I admire most is a great groove. Clarence White still drives me crazy, and Ry Cooder.
Define the sound you're still looking for.
If we’re just talking about sound in general, I want a sweet, round, full and crystalline tone. That said, this ideal might not suit some music. The sound I’m really reaching for is what comes out when I am as much out of the way as I can be, when I can be as much a vehicle for the instrument and the music as possible and facilitate their being heard.
What's the special flavour of a cittern?
In general, I would say it’s twangy and swirly with a sweetness on the top that can be almost like crying. I might also say it’s a cross between banjo and guitar, but you know the cittern is a family of instruments, and like the guitar, it’s changed a lot over the centuries, and each type has its special flavor.
“The duet” by Cornelis Saftleven c. 1635
There’s a medieval instrument called the citole, which most scholars like to think of as the earliest cittern. I’m not entirely convinced. The sound is somehow thin and full at the same time. I haven’t had one very long, so I’m still discovering it. The earliest citterns seem to have come from northern Italy, but they’re found virtually all over Europe. They’re very shallow and have this wonderful wispiness about them, but at the same time, they project like crazy. By the 18th century, citterns had become deeper and were often tuned to an open chord. These tend to have a delicate, quiet sound. Modern citterns are for the most part based on this type of instrument, but are larger and more heavily built. Even without octave stringing, the double strings give citterns a 12-string vibe - the swirling quality comes from the double strings. The twang comes from the relatively small body and floating bridge. The upper harmonics are emphasized, so they blend in well in a group as well as being an interesting solo instrument.
What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?
I visited my grandmother just before she passed away. She took me aside and said, “Never stop playing your music.” That really shocked me because I didn’t even know that she knew I played. Her words somehow validated me as a musician in a way that I couldn’t do myself. At a more basic level, I had a lesson once where the guy said “Play something so we can see where we are.” I started playing and he got up, walked behind me, and put his hands on my shoulders. He didn’t say anything, but the message and advice was “Relax.”
What are your motivations for playing music?
I love it. I get a lot out of it. I learn so much trying to do it. The physical act of playing makes me feel good. I can’t imagine myself not playing.
Spyros Halaris (lavta) and Doc Rossi (citole) performing at Holandsburg Castle, Alsace, 23 June 2013
What instruments do you use?
My main instrument for general music making is a 5-course cittern built for me by Peter Abnett. I also have one of his Irish bouzoukis - they’re both wonderful. I have a very large cittern built by Ian Chisholm that is tuned in octaves, like a bajo sexto or a Cretan laouto. I use that in the band Phémios, which specializes in Greek, Corsican and Italian traditional music. I also have a guitar by Ian that I love, and a very early Harwood parlour guitar built in NYC when they were still handmade. I have a mandocello from the same period - there is no name, but it looks like instruments built by the DeLuccia Brothers, who were also in NYC. My electric is a Tele with a Parsons White Stringbender that I play through a ’55 Fender DeLuxe. I have a citole built by Ugo Casalonga which is very nice. I have a beautiful renaissance cittern with diatonic fretting made by Malcolm Prior. I’ve had a couple of original 18th-century citterns - one was a Hintz, and the other the Preston I used on the Demarzi recording. I’ve sold them, but I have another being restored. I have a copy of a Gibson of Dublin 18th-century cittern in G, and the lovely 7-course instrument in A built by Carlo Cecconi that I used on La Cetra Galante. My latest is an 8-course Corsican cittern built by Christian Magdeleine. The Canadian composer Richard Gibson is writing a concerto for this instrument that we hope to premiere in Coimbra in 2015-16.
La Caracossa & Saltarello from Pacoloni's collection
What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?
Well, there’s the concerto - it’s unlike any music I’ve ever played and technically rather challenging, but I’m enjoying it. I would love to perform it more than once, and even record it if I get it right.
I’m playing with a songwriter called Tim O’Connor. I guess you would call it acoustic folk-rock. I haven’t played this kind of music in a long time so it’s really refreshing. Tim and I have a lot in common musically, so it’s a lot of fun and very rewarding. Our first recording will be out early in 2015, and there’s a preview available now on Soundcloud.
I’ve been working on a project for the past 5 years based on 18th-century French contradance music. The recording has about 10 different musicians on it, but I’ve put together a group called Góntia to play the stuff live. There are of course lots of citterns on the recording, but also bagpipes, flutes and whistles, fiddle, hurdy-gurdy, ‘cello, percussion. I worked for about two years picking out the tunes, putting them into sets like traditional Irish musicians do, and then writing arrangements. All of the recording has been remote, so it’s taking a while, but it’s been a lot of fun. I hope to finish it in 2015.
I’ve already mentioned Phémios. It existed as a trio, and I rather forced my way in! They were doing Byzantine music when I first heard them, and then we did a celtic/medieval project together. Our new project is based on links between Greece and Corsica. We’re recording at the end of February 2015. Along with the large cittern and Corsican cetera, there’s Spyros Halaris on lavta and kanun; Sébastien Benoit on flutes and pipes; Christophe Tellart on hurdy-gurdy; Mighela Cesari is singing and has written a lot of the lyrics. On paper it might look like a crazy combination of instruments and cultures, but the blend is quite evocative and has a lot of drive.
Doc Rossi & Andrea Damiani
2003 – Six Sonatas for Cetra or Kitara
2003 – Six Sonatas for Cetra or Kitara
Click the image to Listen
2008 – La Cetra Galante
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2012 – Alma di Qui
Jean Piere Godinat
2012 – Basta u pocu?