Worth Fretting Over

Performer-Composer

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: David, you primarily play without amplification on a traditional Spanish guitar, yes?

DAVID LEISNER: I play with amplification when I play chamber music or in a concerto situation. Once in a while I’ll play a solo concert with amplification, but mostly, yeah, I’m playing a more traditional instrument. Certainly I only play the guitar. I don’t play the electric guitar, I don’t play the lute, I don’t even play the 19th century guitar, so I suppose I’ve limited myself, but then I do so many other things to. Being a composer at the same time—almost by necessity I have to limit myself.

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: You seem to present yourself as both a guitarist and a composer on an equal level…

DAVID LEISNER: It’s just who I am. I’ve always felt that I’m split down the middle 50/50, part performer, part composer. And no matter how much time I spend actually doing one or the other, I feel that my way of looking at the world and my way of thinking about things and my way of thinking about music is really split between the two. And it’s very weird what I’m doing, though I supposed less and less weird as time goes on. Certainly for most of my life I was kind of an outcast in that way because you were either one or the other in the 1900s, except for in popular and jazz music where of course all along it’s been the norm. But in classical music, it has not at all been. Rachmaninoff was basically the last of the great performer composers…

JAMES EMERY: Bartók was an incredible pianist.

DAVID LEISNER: He was a great pianist and so was Benjamin Britten. Britten is maybe even closer to the model that I’m thinking of. Bartók didn’t play a lot of other people’s music as far as I know. Britten did, in fact played incredible Schubert and Brahms, really I think one of the great pianists of the 20th century, but in terms of someone who plays other people’s music as a large chunk of their repertoire and someone who writes music that’s not all for their own instrument, but for orchestra and so forth, there are very few people doing that.

MARK STEWART: That’s true.

DAVID LEISNER: Part of the reason why it’s not easy is that in this age of specialization that we’ve been in for a hell of a long time, each of those careers requires, practically speaking, a great deal of time and effort just to promote yourself. So just to hustle for the next concert or hustle for the next commission or performance or whatever, you have to put a tremendous about of time into it, so to do that in both streams has been remarkably difficult.

MARK STEWART: But you look great. [everyone laughs] He’s a survivor. He walked in, I thought, “Man he looks great.” Maybe this is the answer?

DAVID LEISNER: It is, it is. Stop practicing and start writing.

MARK STEWART: I mean that!

DAVID LEISNER: I appreciate that, thank you. Well, I guess in terms of spirit maybe it’s done me a lot of good, but it terms of more practical things it’s been really difficult.

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: Now you’ve added a publishing division to your record company with a composition of yours…

DAVID STAROBIN: Yeah, last night I was playing this piece with my daughter. I am not a composer. I have composed a few pieces, but I am a player and a businessman, pretty much, and a teacher. But I would like to think that there are some pieces out there that I would like to write. When I can see clear to getting time, which as David said is a real problem. I felt encouraged by my last effort and I’ll hopefully do some more of it, but I’m a performer not a composer.

MARK STEWART: I think when you talk about the age of specialization…in classical music improvisation has been abandoned almost completely except for the French organists who have kept it wonderfully alive in their very small world, and that’s starting to change in certain areas of unpopular music. Like for James the thing is completely blurred because you’re making it fresh every night, you’re composing every night.

JAMES EMERY: That’s required. That’s the tightrope too, because sometimes it’s not happening…

MARK STEWART: And that’s why when it’s happening…I remember René Lussier, wonderful Quebecois composer and guitarist, and his tough nights were the most thrilling, nights that were really hard where he was having to work it out. And James, you’re the same ilk, and it’s an opportunity to really do some finding. We heard a thing the other night and you know the moment of the making is such an exciting moment, and of course the idea when we’re playing wonderfully written music is to give people a sense of the moment of the making, but [points to James] you’re really there. I mean, you’re there.

DAVID LEISNER: And we can watch him in that moment and listen to him in that moment.

JAMES EMERY: Well, I guess it takes some nerve [everyone laughs] but there’s an awful lot of training and practice behind that, and it’s like speaking a language. You build up a vocabulary over time and you learn other dialects perhaps so that you can say the same thing in different ways, and just piling on, things build up over time. You learn to live with it.

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: Going back to the idea of guitarist-composers, bringing those traditions together and integrating them in a way that maybe they haven’t been in the past couple of generations, what’s your philosophy behind that and how did you come to decide that you would have both?

DOMINIC FRASCA: You know, the music that I wanted to play, there was just nothing for solo guitar, so I kind of got into writing just through wanting to play that stuff on the instrument. When I started, I found out there weren’t that many guitarist composers in college at all—none of the students were doing it. Now there’s a much bigger wave of it happening and it’s really great. Just over the last few years I’ve realized that you can work on other people’s music and then on your own, but eventually you have to decide how much you want to give to other people’s music, because you can dedicate your life to doing that and in the end it’s their music.

Recently I’ve been realizing that I want to spend more time writing music. I have a friend Marc Mellits whose stuff I’ll always play. We kind of think as one, so working with his music is great because he lets me do what I want with it, he lets me kind of half-compose it. I think when you’re working on other people’s music and it’s strict—I’m not the type of guy who just wants to do what’s on the page, I find that really confining, and sometimes that feels like you’re just serving somebody else’s ideas. You only have so much time in the day and so there does get to be a point where I think you have to say, “Well, I want to perform and I want to perform my music.” It’s nice that you can go out there, play your stuff when you want to play it and control your own world. I like that aspect of creating everything from the bottom up.

DAVID LEISNER: It’s important, I think, to be true to yourself. You have to find out who you are and then follow that path.

MARK STEWART: I’ve been involved very seriously in instrument construction these last five years, in fact it’s probably the most important thing in my musical life right now. My current definition of instrumental music is find out what an instrument does, do it, and music tends to emerge. And I would say what you [gestures to David] just described was to find out what you do, do it, and the music tends to emerge. And you just described [gestures to Dominic] your version of it—you know, how much time do I have in the day.

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