Saturday, January 3, 2015

Elliot Simpson 13 Questions

Guitarist Elliot Simpson has given premieres of works by such iconic and diverse composers as Sofia Gubaidulina, Alvin Lucier, and Michael Finnissy, and has collaborated with many acclaimed young composers including Hugo Morales, Ezequiel Menalled, Benjamin Staern, and Sahba Aminikia. He has been a guest of organizations including the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble, the San Francisco Symphony, the New European Ensemble, the György Ligeti Academy, and the Verband für aktuelle Musik Hamburg, as well as festivals and concert series throughout the United States and Europe in performances ranging from early music to free improvisation.

He is a member of the contemporary music group Ensemble Modelo62 and, in the 2013/2014 season, will also perform and record as soloist with the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw. Awards include prizes at the international competitions of Zwolle (NL) and Nordhorn (DE), and the prestigious Huygens Grant from the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. 

Originally from New Mexico, USA, Elliot studied with David Tanenbaum at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and with Zoran Dukic at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague. His Master’s degree in The Hague, as both soloist and chamber musician, was awarded “with distinction for his extraordinary contribution to new music.”

His recordings include the complete Royal Winter Music sonatas of Hans Werner Henze (Soundset Recordings), and the Suite for Just Intonation Guitar by Sahba Aminikia (Hermes Records). About his recording of the former the American Record Guide wrote: “He is a spectacular player and artist, fully up to the demands of this music. He has an impeccable technique, the intellect to comprehend and convey the works, and enough heart to hear the beauties behind the forbidding exterior… This is some remarkable music making.” He lives and teaches privately in The Hague.


What's the relevance of technique in music, in your opinion?

There’s a contradiction for me in the idea of technique. Obviously in its purest form it’s only the physical capacity to realize a given musical objective- the interface between idea and sound. At the same time technique is also so individual. The friction between musical thought and technique is what creates really unique, interesting performers.

Artwork by Sammy Owen

What quality do you admire most in a musician?


What’s the difference between a good player and a bad one?

A good player brings out the best qualities in the music he performs.


What are your motivations for playing music?

My motivation is the music I play (I may be a little unusual on this blog as someone who doesn’t write my own music). I perform music that I have respect for, and, very frequently, which seems underexposed or important in some way. I guess it’s due partly to a feeling of responsibility to give something back to the field in which I make a living, but also because it often happens to be what fascinates me.

What do you recall about your playing learning process?

This question has been nagging me over the last couple years as I’ve started teaching more and more. I don’t remember much of the early stages. I began piano lessons when I was little and switched at the usual age when an uncle sent me his old classical guitar. I vaguely remember teaching myself some pieces from old method books at the very beginning, but can’t remember any specific repertoire until I started auditioning at conservatories. I was lucky though to have had wonderful teachers in high school (and after); I definitely recognize parts of my playing and self that come from them.
Anyway, the process continues.

Dream about a perfect instrument.

It depends on the person, the music, everything… there’s obviously a minimum state required for functionality (even that I’m not sure of), but with a little creativity far-from-ideal instruments, or instruments that impose some constraint, can be inspirational.
One remarkable thing about the guitar is that, I guess because there’s such a direct haptic connection, it seems a little imperfect and clumsy but particularly direct and human. I think it’s safe to say that most of us haven’t found the perfect instrument, but there’s beauty in the tension between maker and tool.

Music for 6 guitars - Ezequiel Menalled.The Hague in January 2013.Guitarists: Miguelangel Clerc, Roberto Garretón, Jeroen Kimman, Santiago Lascurain, Ezequiel Menalled and Elliot Simpson

What would you enjoy most in an music work?

In retrospect I’ve always been fascinated by musical structure and the interpretation of it, and that’s probably what initially drew me towards more modern and experimental music, with its emphasis on exploration of form and development. I think that, faced with the range of artistic creation now, art is really only defined by an organization of basic natural materials (sound, color, movement, objects, thought) into something meaningful; I also like the idea of such a broad definition maybe giving an artistic context to areas that aren’t traditionally considered art.

Along with structure, and only occasionally contradicting it, clarity.

What quality do you most empathize with in a composer?


Which living or dead artist would you like to collaborate with?

So many.  I absolutely love Bill Frisell’s music. He has a mastery of melodic playing on guitar that seems so dissociated from technique. I’m not very good at playing melodies… And he is a perfect example for me of a sense of humor manifested in music.

I’m not sure, even in my craziest dreams, that I would have been capable of any collaboration with him, but the greatest for me, so far, is Sviatoslav Richter.

What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?

I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot of good advice throughout my life, which has led to a number of good decisions that I wouldn’t have been smart or dumb enough to make otherwise.
But, there was one very wise comment that made a lasting impression on me: in an interview I watched once with Maria Callas she described her breakthrough in performing I Puritani at the teatro La Fenice. It’s a long story, but the lesson is to take every opportunity, even if you don’t have faith in your ability to pull it off. This mindset has led me through countless minor disasters but also lots of amazing experiences. 

What instruments or tools do you use?

I’ve been primarily playing one classical guitar for 10 years now, built by the French luthier Dominique Delarue.
I also have a more modern classical guitar by a great young builder named Dirk-Jan Schrander in Amsterdam.
My electric guitars are a Haar guitars telecaster model and a 50’s Gibson es-125.
The fantastic oddball is a just intonation National Reso-phonic tricone, developed by composer Lou Harrison in 2002.

What do you like the most about being a musician?

Other than the music itself, the people I meet.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

I've just finished a new cd of music on the just intonation National Resophonic guitar. It includes an older work by Walter Zimmermann, and three first recordings of large pieces written especially for the instrument by David B. Doty, Larry Polansky, and Ezequiel Menalled. It will be released on Microfest Records within a few months.
There are also a couple new projects I feel excited about: one with early lute repertoire and a large project with electric guitar, which I’ve played a lot in ensembles and chamber music but not much solo.  Who knows- the really good things always seem to come by surprise.