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15 Questions to David Tanenbaum

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi. I’m fine, at home in Berkeley, California on a beautiful day.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I'm in the middle of 4 recording projects, I'm artistic director of the 08 GFA festival, and between now and the end of the year I'll be in Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Europe and Korea.

If you hadn’t chosen for music, what do you think you would do right now?
I'd be writing, which, actually, is what I'm doing right now.

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist?
I come from two professional musicians, so I was grinding away on piano and cello when my father took me kicking and screaming to a Segovia concert. I remember that concert like it was yesterday. I was around 11 and I knew right then what I wanted to do. I've never done anything professionally but play and teach the guitar.

What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?

One of the hardest parts is the isolation. Between practicing and traveling, you have to be really comfortable being alone. A characteristic that is both good and bad is that you can never leave it at the office. Guitar playing is a physical and artistic pursuit, and
the work knows no bounds. And finally on the hardest part: around five minutes to eight on a concert day.

There are many great things: travel, the rich detail of the process, collaborating with fine musicians, playing concerts, working with really talented young players. One can learn from anyone who is similarly dedicated to the art, but my deepest teachers have been the great composers I’ve had the honor to work with, like Takemitsu, Henze,
Terry Riley, Steve Reich.

What’s your view on the classical music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

The oldest story in classical music is that it is dead. I don’t think so. The level of performance on the guitar and all instruments has never been higher, and wondrous things are being written all the time. I’ve just been to four concerts in four days and I’m thrilled by what is going on. And there’s something for everyone: if you want new age
music there’s an abundance, and if you want atonality you can find plenty of that too. There are certainly massive changes in terms of funding and distribution. Classical music is like a torrential river that keeps getting damned up, and new ways keep having to be invented to keep that river flowing downstream.

Some feel there is no need to record classical music any more, that it’s all been done before. What do you tell them?
That the basic idea is right. There is simply too much out there. So they should not do something unless it is really new. Either make a big statement, like a truly original interpretation or the complete works of a composer, or find new repertoire to play.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?

I want to work as hard as I can, study, research and practice, so that I can be as soulful and lost in it as some old, blind blues player. I really feel that, no matter how hard you work, performing is always a matter of walking into the unknown. That’s both the beauty and the danger of it. So I spend a lot of time making sure that my spaceship is ready-that it’s fully fueled and all the screws are tightened, and then
I launch. When I’m playing a concert or listening to one, there’s a quality to the silence of the audience, a collective listening, that I always seek.

What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?
We are like actors with a script, and in music and acting I like interpretations in which I’m not so aware of the interpreter. While a virtuosic, romantic show piece can be fun and entertaining, playing  that calls attention to itself, or say a Jim Carrey vehicle, ultimately wears on me. I’d rather watch William Hurt, or hear Dawn Upshaw give
herself fully to a piece.

How do you balance the need to to put your personal emotions into the music you play and the intentions of the composer?

I don’t worry about it. I dive as deeply as I can into the intentions of the composer, studying his or her work in as large a context as I can. It’s inevitable that my emotions, my history, will be there as long as I have the courage of my convictions.

True or false: People need to be educated about classical music, before they can really appreciate it.
Both. The more you know the more you potentially get, but great works like those of Bach work wonderfully for the uninitiated. I remember hearing a Bach organ concert once at the Mormon Tabernacle in Utah, and it was this huge wash of sound with very few details audible. Yet the place was packed and people were ecstatically swaying to the music

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?

I’m dealing with programming a festival right at the moment, but that’s a guitar festival. If I had free reign I’d invite who I wanted, just because I could, and that would include Tom Waits, Hermeto Pascal, Dylan, Mark Morris, Il Giordino Armonico, the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle, Ensemble Modern, a production of Golijov’s St.Mark’s
Passion and Pierre Laurent Aimard playing the complete Ligeti Etudes.

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?
Everything is there. All of my emotions, my discipline and procrastination, successes and frustrations. It’s a place of struggle and of refuge, the constant in my life.

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?

I played 8 years of piano and 4 of cello when I was young, and I got pretty good at piano. In fact when I transitioned to guitar I was at first pretty disappointed with the repertoire compared to the piano, and that led to my seeking out composers for new pieces. The first one was almost too easy-I mentioned to my father, a composer, that I wanted new repertoire and two weeks later a new piece was on my music stand. So that gave me confidence to work with other composers as well. Later, when I was learning Henze’s El Cimarron, I studied percussion for around three months because the guitarist plays a lot of percussion in that piece. I was also a harpsichord minor at school.


An eine Aolsharfe (Ars Musici) 1986
Estudios 1990
Acoustic Counterpoint (New Albion) 1991
Great American Guitar Solo (Neuma) 1994
El Porteno (New Albion) 1994
David Tanenbaum (New Albion) 1997
Pavane (Acoustuc Music Records) 2000
Plays Weiss (Acoustic Music Records) 2001
Royal Winter Music (Stradivarius) 2005

David Tanenbaum

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