Trevor Babb

Guitarist – Composer

2nd Dublin Guitar Symposium

I landed in Dublin around 11am on February 22, having slept a mere hour or two since waking up Thursday morning to pack my bags and catch my flight. Knowing what was going on all morning in the northwestern quarter of the city at the DIT Grangegorman campus, however, sleep was the last thing on my mind. I received the symposium schedule ahead of time and knew that I had already missed a stimulating morning session of papers and lecture recitals discussing 19th century repertoire by Mertz, Giuliani, and Schubert and contemporary music by Boulez, Miranda, and del Puerto. I hightailed it out of the border control at Dublin Airport and caught a bus, knowing full well that I hadn’t a chance in the world to catch Steve Goss’s keynote lecture on the guitar and the politics of nostalgia. Regardless, I didn’t want to miss another moment of what was promising to be a rich, thought-provoking conference.

While I missed Steve’s keynote, from what I read in his abstract, the lecture clearly set the tone for much of the conference. Steve posed questions about whether the guitar favoring tradition and heritage over innovation and culture, whether Segovia’s vast repertoire expansion for the instrument was more interested in constructing a historical repertoire over genuinely responding to the current historical moment, and if so, have we simply carried on this conservative legacy through apostolic succession? I don’t think these questions are especially new for many of us on the forefront of the guitar world.

Reading Steve’s abstract calls to mind my years on the circulation staff at the Yale music library, perhaps containing one of the most comprehensive collections of guitar scores in the world among other things. Yale’s purchasing budget was so large that they would simply buy ostensibly whatever was published every year. The guitar collection had grown so large that I was tasked with thumbing through several thousand solo guitar scores and pulling aside anything that I considered obscure, lacking in quality, or otherwise justified for off site shelving in order to make room for more acquisitions. While I enjoyed a wonderful tour through much of the guitar’s greatest repertoire, I also encountered a lot of lame neo-baroque compositions and insubstantial impressionistic pieces with silly titles that I will withhold from mentioning in this post. And as Steve mentions in his abstract, many of the landmarks of the guitar repertoire - Aranjuez, Britten’s Nocturnal, da Falla’s Homenaje, Ponce’s entire oeuvre - are more concerned with responding to history than their contemporary context.

Its been clear to me, even from my earliest days of professional study in undergrad, that the guitar repertoire has a blatant inferiority complex. This condition is the result of many factors. The guitar’s limited dynamic range makes it difficult to incorporate into larger chamber music contexts. I sat in a music history lecture on Berlioz where my professor noted that Berlioz played the guitar, an instrument that lacked repertoire written by “major composers.” Perhaps the historical reconstructionist approach to the instrument’s repertoire was Segovia’s and other guitarists’ way of saying “look at us, we can play serious music too! Please, pianists, violinists, take us seriously!”

And so here we are, in the 21st century at a conference in Dublin asking the questions: How do we respond to this? How do we move forward from this? What is the future of the guitar, not just with new music but with historical repertoire too? I was encouraged to see a wide variety of answers and perspectives regarding the guitar community’s current state of affairs.

The first paper session I attended was largely concerned with the topic of transcription. Going back to the Renaissance intabulations of polyphonic mass settings, transcription has long been an important activity in the plucked instrument community. A real highlight of this session was Katalin Koltai’s lecture exploring many of her original transcriptions. By using innovative scordatura, single-string capos, and a heaping helping of ingenuity, she demonstrated some wildly effective transcriptions of Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes, Bartok’s The Night’s Music, and a movement from Ligeti’s Musica ricercata. Her single string capo approach in particular emerged as a woefully under-utilized technique to expand the guitar’s musical language.

David Harvey then gave a thoughtful presentation on the principles of arranging for the guitar, using Albeniz’s Torre Bermeja as a case study. Harvey illustrated a wide range of decisions in comparing the variations in the piece’s first few measures in many different published arrangements of this piece by Segovia, Llobet, and others. Ultimately, Harvey explained the decisions that he arrived at in his own arrangement of the piece and laid out a series of principles for transcription seeking to honor the original source and avoid arbitrary decisions to stay true to the original work.

I confess that as the afternoon wore on, I was starting to feel the weight of exhaustion and was tired of lugging my rolling suitcase around, having arrived at the conference directly from the airport. After hearing an interesting lecture from Jamie Akers encouraging celebration of the historical repertoire and bringing to light several charming 19th century works by female composers who unjustly have been shrouded in obscurity for close to two centuries, I checked into my AirBnB accommodations and retired from the conference for the day.

Saturday proved to be an even more invigorating as the morning paper session kicked of with Francesca Naibo demonstrating free improvisation on the classical guitar. As a resident of New Haven where there’s a lively free improvisation scene, I was pleased to see this addition to a conference spanning the spectrum of tradition and innovation. Martin Vishnick’s paper on sound sculpting followed and made it clear to me that his books on the same topic are worth digesting thoroughly.

Ioannis Theodoridis then presented a well researched presentation concerning the physiology of guitar playing. His exploration of the ways that our bodies work illuminated just how little we know about how our bodies work in order to accomplish instrumental performance and how much needs to be done. I’ve been tremendously self-conscious of my collapsed shoulders ever since.

Mark Del Priora’s keynote lecture was also concerned with history and moving the repertoire forward. Priora effectively rejected a Harold Bloomian anxiety of influence with regards to his own composing and instead, viewed the past as a deep well from which to draw out, modify, adapt, and synthesize the musical practices of his predecessors. Much like I discussed in my own research on John Zorn, Del Priora freely draws upon the compositional practices of his predecessors who he admires and creates something new as a result. The idea of the compositional mash-up was especially celebrated by Del Priora.

As a side note, Priora also lamented the lack of performance of transcriptions in competition performance due to the fear of irritating the juries with one’s decision of key, or other superficial aspects that come with a fluid musical text. This provoked a lively discussion about the progress in guitar technique over the last 30-40 years as evidenced in recent competitions, the dismissal of the concept of the “Urtext”, and a solidification of my personal subscription to the old maxim of Béla Bartok stating, “competitions are for horses, not artists.”

I had the privilege of chairing the afternoon session “Exploring Compositional Boundaries.” My job was easy as we had two presenters in the time allotted for three, so there was little moderating to do and presenters weren’t held back from thoroughly saying their piece. Leonardo de Marchi led off discussing new commissions for ten-string guitar, tuned as in the works of Maurice Ohana. Leonardo exhibited detailed analysis and impeccable performances of two new works written for him by Italian composers Stefano Alessandretti, and Giorgio Colombo Taccani. These works illustrated the ten-string guitar’s vast vocabulary of natural harmonics, clusters, and extended range while forging new idiomatic technical ground expanding upon the historical repertoire of Ohana, Maderna, and others.

The other presenter in this session was Belfast based composer Alan Perrin who demonstrated a unique vocabulary of harmonic hybridity in his guitar quartet Kosmos. Perrin’s lecture made me wish I had three other ambitious guitarists in my vicinity to take on this piece, as the work has yet to find an adventurous quartet to give it a first performance. Discussion primarily centered around how a composer writing ambitious and demanding music can get said music performed, illuminating the uphill battle that it is to take music beyond what’s deemed to be standard practice.

I had the privilege too, of getting something of the last word of the conference giving my lecture recital on early electric guitar repertoire at the end of the last paper session. After going beyond my allotted time trying to cover too many pieces, the wine started flowing and we all went out for a lovely dinner, assured that the future of the guitar lies in the hands of many capable, thoughtful, and intelligent individuals. Onward and upward, and kudos to Eion Flood, Marco Ramelli, and the rest of the committee who worked so hard to make all this and more happen.

Kickstarting my first record, Warmth

I'm delighted to share that I have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fun the label fees for my first record, Warmth, featuring music for multiple electric guitars by me, Paul Kerekes, Carl Testa, David Lang, Steve Reich, and James Tenney. The album will be released on Innova Records this year and I'm raising funds to cover design, duplication, distribution and publicity. Innova is an awesome, not-for-profit record label with a long history of supporting artists making adventurous, forward-thinking music that don't conform to traditional genre distinctions. Your support for this project is much appreciated! For more information, please click on the following link and consider making a pledge. Every pledge, no matter how small, will help this project come to life

Favorite Contemporary Guitar Records of 2016

As we draw to the end of the year, I'd like to offer a list of some recordings that have caught my ear this year and pushed the guitar to exciting new places. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but I hope that you may discover something here that enriches your listening life and I'm interested to hear more great music in 2017.

Amy Brandon – Scavenger – Amy Brandon's debut release is a lovely soundscape of improvised solo guitar, electronics, and performances by special guests. Brandon's cascading arpeggios and harmonic language evoke an unplugged Ben Monder and guest performances from Roddy Ellias, Mike Rud, and Laura Swankey add to Brandon's sensitive and fine-tuned performance.

James Moore – The Book of Heads – New York City guitarist, James Moore, has released the first complete recording of John Zorn's ambitious Book of Heads since Marc Ribot's 1995 recording. These 35 études for solo guitar that fearlessly challenge traditional modes of guitar playing, embrace polystylism with open arms, and trade compositional specificity for the creative improvisational interpretations of the performer. As far as I'm concerned, these pieces cannot be recorded enough. Every interpretation I've heard has allowed for the creativity of the performer to shine through and many etudes take on a completely different character when passed from one performer to another. Moore's recording comes with a DVD of all 35 pieces as well, giving the audience an up close view of how all of the balloons, cello bows, talking dolls, nail files, ratchets, and other unconventional equipment make the sounds on the recording.

Nels Cline – Lovers – While Cline has recently risen to high levels of popularity due to his joining Chicago rock band, Wilco, Cline has been a long standing figure in experimental guitar music for a long time. His latest Blue Note release, Lovers, takes on original compositions, jazz standards, and popular tunes on the topic of Love. Ranging from Rogers & Hammerstein to Sonic Youth, this recording is a lovely exploration of love songs old and new. Featuring an ensemble with a vast color palate and sensitive orchestration from Michael Leonhart, this recording is not to be missed.

Diego Castro Magas – Shrouded Mirrors – Chilean guitarist, Diego Castro Magas, released this tour de force of rhythmic complexity late in 2015, but it appeared on my radar screen this spring. Castro's Shrouded Mirrors takes on some of the most ambitious repertoire of the British New Complexity school with staggering control and musicality. Every piece on this record is expertly performed and the amount of rigor that went into preparing this repertoire is absolutely stupefying. The title piece by James Dillon is performed with new perspective and precision, Bryn Harrison's M.C.E. is absolutely hypnotising, Michael Finnissey's Nasiye is incredibly evocative, and Brian Ferneyhough's ever divisive work Kurze Schatten II is presented with a depth of understanding and clarity of it's many layers of complexity that is unrivaled. Magas's playing is exquisite and the sound on this Huddersfield Contemporary Recordings release is quite stunning.

Sergio Sorrentino – Music from a Parallel World: New music for electric guitar – Italian Guitarist, Sergio Sorrentino has released a very interesting compilation of new music for guitar by Italian composers. The real standout on this record is Sorrentino's collaboration with legendary pianist, Bruno Canino, on the pianist's own rarely performed composition for electric guitar and piano, A Due. Worth seeking out for just this one piece, Sorrentino dishes up inspiring performances of five other fantastic new pieces by composers from his own country.

Mary Halvorsen – Away With You – Halvorsen has been a longstanding favorite of mine in the jazz world for years. Her newest recording on Firehouse 12 records finds herself at the top of her compositional and orchestrational game with a fantastic band. Halvorsen's playing is as imaginative as ever and is beautifully complemented by playing from pedal steel player Susan Alcorn and an all-star bill of six other players. These compositions shift between order and chaos with all eight players performing together with cohesion and intimacy. 

So that's my list. I'm sure there are many great records that I missed. Sadly, being primarily occupied with making music affords less time than ideal for listening. Hoping for more great music in 2017!

Electric Guitar and Classical Music in the Guardian

I was delighted last Friday to stumble on an article by composer, Christopher Fox, in the Guardian about the electric guitar with particular attention given to its role in classical music. Mr. Fox makes many great points in this short article (which you can read in it's entirety here) that I'd like to point out and respond to in this blog post.

Fox opens the article describing the history of music not as a history of music, but a history of machines, the tools that musicians use to make sound. Fox describes "the technology that channels people's imagination" as the real driving force behind musical change. This is an interesting proposition to consider, though my performer brain likes to think that music exists no more than in a machine or instrument than it exists as notes on a page. However, his illustration of is primarily used to show that the survival and proliferation of music relies on the survival of the instruments for which the music was written.

Another noteworthy point that Fox makes when talking about the genesis of the electric guitar's invention is that the electric guitar's "main source of energy is external to the player." The amplifier being the primary variable affecting the amplifier creates a tremendous challenge for electric guitarists, especially those of us who play in a notated, classical idiom. The electric guitar's volume can be unruly and taming undesired sound in a notated idiom where one must play from a fixed score presents a challenge that is diametrically opposed to the challenge of the classical guitarist. While the classical guitarist is trying to project as much sound from a relatively quiet instrument as possible, the electric guitarist is taming a boisterous beast whose loud volume is primarily controlled by forces that are only indirectly under the instrumentalist's control.

I also thought that Fox's point about different types of performer ownership between popular music and classical music was also worth musing over. Fox illustrates how when listening to a violinist play a Shostakovich violin concerto, there's a sense of detachment between the instrumentalist and the sound of the music. Perhaps this is in part due to the strange dichotomy between composer and performer in which we all (composers and performers alike) are navigating through a sticky mire of ambiguous ownership. Fox muses that the vast timbral variety in the electric guitar's sound that is accessible through its multiple designs and many technological accessories and auxiliaries makes for a greater degree of creates a stronger link between guitarists and their sound. Perhaps this is why Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint has been recorded many times over and still receives fresh and new interpretations 30 years later. Each guitarist uses not only their unique musical individuality but their unique techno-instrumental interface to create a different timbral atmosphere that is more explicitly linked to the instrumentalist than other traditional classical instruments.

Fox's comments on classical music written for electric guitar cover some unique material. Fox mentions pieces for multiple electric guitars by Rhys Chatham, Glen Branca, and Tim Brady. Brady's piece 100 questions, 100 réponses is especially intriguing as a piece for 100 guitarists, 80 amateurs and 20 professional musicians. Brady describes the piece as an attempt to break down the divide between creative music and the general public. I've argued elsewhere that the use of the electric guitar in vanguard composed music moves toward a more accessible avant-garde through it's cultural associations, deep roots and signification in popular music, and experimental appeal to composers. I'm heartened to see Brady working to cultivate a deeper relationship between the avant-garde composer and the general public.

I thought it was interesting the Fox, a Brit, only referenced classical music from North America. Electric guitar music by British composers such as Laurence Crane, Gavin Bryars, Brin Harrison and many others was a noteworthy absence from a British publication. However, I'm encouraged to see that Fox has his own ideas that he is developing for Brady's group and for the Berlin based electric guitar quartet, e-werk in the near future. Fox's earlier electric guitar work The Grain of Abstraction is certainly a standout in the electric guitar literature and I can't wait to see what he puts out next.

On a less related note, I'm looking forward to giving a performance of Christopher Fox's work Chile – originally for solo guitar – with an added organ part. The concert will take place on September 16 at St Thomas's Episcopal Church in New Haven. The fantastic English organist, Simon Jacobs, will be joining me for a whole program of works for guitar and organ by Chris DiBlasio, Daniel Pinkham, Ian Krouse, Christopher Fox, Rene Eespere, and Simon Jacobs. More details are available in the Upcoming Concerts page of this site.    

Welcome to the Contemporary Guitar Blog! [or] Why I do what I do...


Welcome to my newly revamped website! I've migrated my website from Wordpress to Squarespace and I'm now able to keep up with website maintenance immeasurably easier! I encourage you to look around at my new content and hope that you find this platform appealing.

But before you click away from this page, I'd like to introduce my new blog: The Contemporary Guitar Blog! On this blog I will be writing about all things pertaining to contemporary music and the guitar. My own professional activities will certainly influence the content of this space, but I also hope for it to be a place where I can cultivate a community of people who are interested in contemporary music and/or the guitar and having reviews, interviews, and other content that is about the work of others in my field. I hope that you will keep coming back for enlightening information about the world of contemporary guitar music and I'd like to see this become a place where a community of guitarists, composers, and other contemporary music enthusiasts can come together.

I'd like to introduce the blog with this first post to address why I do the things I do. After all, many of my friends and colleagues may view contemporary music as being difficult to play, difficult to listen to, unpopular, etc. So why on earth do I devote so much energy to playing this strange music?

First of all, I find playing contemporary music to be incredibly rewarding. The challenges that must be risen to, the problems that must be solved, the off-kilter energy of the first performance of a new work, and the endorphin-like rush after the double bar keep me coming back for more. Wrestling with music that no one else has played before and presenting to an audience for the first time gives me a rush that is unlike any other. And seeing the joy in the eyes of a composer who heard their musical ideas transform from notes on a page into waves in the air is one of the most rewarding experiences ever.

The connection of the composer and the performer brings me to my second point for why I do what I do: the sense of community fostered among musicians who play and compose contemporary music. In many areas of classical music, the quickest road to success is to win competitions by playing music better than your colleagues - as if there were some way to objectively judge a superior performance. In the world of contemporary music, I've found that success comes from people who cultivate relationships in the field with other composers and performers. The sense that "we're all in this together" is very strong among performers and composers of contemporary music and the kind openminded people I've met in my journey through this music are lifelong friends as well as colleagues.

My friend Mark Stewart said that playing contemporary music is akin to drinking a home-brewed beer: "good or otherwise, it's always fresh." I love playing this music because it's alive, changing, and always trying something new. Being on the leading edge of music as it adapts to the world we live in is incredibly exciting. 

Lastly, I play this music because I love sound. Not just music, sound. Whether it's the sonorous sound of a major triad, the percussive click of muted strings, rich ear splitting feedback, or the street noise coming in the hall from outside, it's all music to my ears. I love the ways that imaginative composers choose to arrange sound into cohesive works of art and get a huge rush from hearing something new for the first time. It's an exciting field to work in and I'm always ready for the next masterpiece to drop. Watching the future of music unfold before our very eyes is an exhilarating experience and I hope that you will join me on this mellifluous odyssey of new music! 

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