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Guitarists as composers

I asked Nathan Bredeson about composers of guitar music....

Your program will be consisting of guitar works by living Canadian composers. As a pianist, I find that the most difficult piano music to play has been written by pianists (Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, for example). Is it the same for guitar music, or does it make a difference if the composer is a guitarist?


Compared to piano or violin, guitar is challenging in that there is a certain amount of playing know-how required in order to really write a piece that is idiomatic, or feels natural to play. The works from the classical period were all written by guitarists (Sor, Guiliani, Carcassi), while most of the classics from the early 20th Century were written in conjunction with a guitarist that would edit the score for “playability” (usually Andres Segovia, and later Julian Bream or John Williams--different from the film composer!). I recently participated in the “Class Axe Project” which pairs guitarists with composers who have never written for guitar before. After giving Sean Clarke (my composer) a brief overview of how the guitar worked I told him to write whatever he wanted and then we would work through it together to figure out if anything had to be changed. In the end, almost everything he wrote was playable! The most successful pieces written for guitar by non-guitarists tend to be this sort of collaborative effort where the guitarist helps the composer best realize their idea on the instrument.

In the case of guitarist-composers, the pieces are often more idiomatic, or what I like to call “guitar tricks.” But that doesn’t mean that the pieces are easy! If anything, the familiarity with the instrument allows the guitarist-composer to write pieces that are even more demanding, as they exploit every nuance in the guitar’s technical limits. Composers such as Leo Brouwer, Roland Dyens, and Nikita Koshkin are known for these sorts of pieces.

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