Worth Fretting Over

Acoustic vs. electric

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: The other interesting thing I think with the guitar in contemporary chamber music is that you have two instruments. You have an electric guitar and a nylon string classical guitar. And you have other guitars, ressophonic guitars. Do you have feelings about that? Do you find composers preferring one over the other? Do they consider them completely different instruments? How do you offer guidance in terms of how to write for one over the other?

MARK STEWART: Well, they’re very different instruments. For me with Bang on a Can, it’s almost always electric guitar. The kind of rules or pep talk or whatever information that I want to give to them is certainly going to be different than something David would give.

DAVID STAROBIN: Well, my guitar has pickups and most of the stuff I play that’s not 19th century is almost always amplified. Then you begin to get into differences of what you can do on steel strings that you can’t do on nylon strings…

MARK STEWART: I’m not going to make a whole lot out of the differences because of course there’s so much that is in common as well. The biggest difference that I’d say right away is the attack—with a solid body electric guitar there can be no attack: you can do the clarinet-thing with a volume pedal or a sneaky thing with a Strat. Just those kind of qualities. I’d say if you want to find ways in, then think of me as joining with different instruments, as being very chameleon-like, that’s what I do with this band a lot anyway. Extending the sound of the piano, making it into a supra-piano, or extending the sound of the clarinet. Think about it in those kinds of ways and you don’t really have to be an idiomatic master of the instrument. Get the guitar—and you should have a guitar in your lap when you’re messing around because that’s a great way to find out what’s possible. Call up your best friend who is a guitarist regularly, like you call your Mac guy when you’re having a problem. It’s the same kind of thing.

DAVID STAROBIN: I’ve got a loner. If a composer calls me up, I say, “Have a guitar!”

MARK STEWART: No hurry getting it back…I think there are still some that have some of my instruments, actually. [laughs] I’m sure of it. I’ll have to make some phone calls.

DOMINIC FRASCA: But don’t you think that the younger composers more want to write for electric guitar? Are you seeing that? More as a status thing—a lot of the new ensembles, they’re all featuring electric guitar, much more of a rock slant. It seems to be the in vogue thing.

MARK STEWART: I can’t speak about the motivation of it, but certainly people are excited about doing it. I know that to be true.

DOMINIC FRASCA: The thing about nylon string guitar is that it’s not a crossover instrument in the way that electric guitar is, you know, it doesn’t have that kind of pop appeal that people hear and say, “Oh, that’s a very familiar sound to me.” Or the hip look of an electric guitarist as opposed to a classical guitarist, so I find that the composer, especially when they’re writing for ensemble, they want electric. They’re like, “Yeah, that’s the sound I want, a little bit of distortion and that kind of rock feel.”

DAVID STAROBIN: I think if they want an electric guitar part they write an electric guitar part, when they want a nylon part they write a nylon part. The instruments really are so different and the contexts are so different that I think they’re used for what each one can do. And I don’t necessarily see them as displacing one another.

MARK STEWART: Well, when I’m on an airplane and someone says, “Oh, you’re a musician?” And I say yes the they say, “Well, what kind of music do you play?” I usually say I play a little bit of popular music, quite a bit of semi-popular music, and an enormous amount of unpopular music. [everyone laughs] And then they say, “Well, what’s unpopular music?” That’s the first question and so I begin to describe what it is I do.

I say some of the unpopular music that I play is “contemporary classical music,” and they say, “Why are you playing electric guitar if you’re playing classical music?” and I say, “Well, composers writing music today didn’t just grow up listening to Mozart and Monteverdi and Beethoven and Stravinsky and Boulez, they grew up also listening to Frank Zappa, Jimmy Page and the Bee Gees, and so that’s a sound they’re unwilling to relinquish when they come to the table to write ‘serious’ music” or ‘concert’ music.” That’s how I explain it and that’s essentially what I believe to be true and what I’ve experienced to be true. And that’s why people write for the electric guitar if that is a timbre that is important to them. I’m sure for some of them—the hipness or the showbiz aspect—I’m sure that’s part of decisions that are made. Now, I’m not an electric guitarist first. If I’m stuck on a desert island, it’s my nylon string guitar that my mom brought home when I was nine years old that I’m more comfortable on than anything. Big wide neck, nylon strings doing everything a string should…

DAVID STAROBIN: Oh, man, you’ve got to get a new guitar! They make these great guitars now with real thin electric guitar-type necks and nylon strings. You’ve got to check it out.

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