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Interview with Marco Oppedisano

img  Tobias Fischer

Will people occasionally find it strange that a contemporary composer should be working with an electric guitar rather than, say, a string quartet?
When I began music studies in the conservatory almost twenty years ago, there was very little electric guitar visible in the classical conservatory and very few recorded “serious” works in the contemporary repertoire that utilized it at all. Nowadays, the electric guitar has made mighty leaps and bounds in finding its way into the contemporary concert music world. I’m pleased to see the progression.

Have artists like Glenn Branca been important in terms of obtaining a “permission” to pursue this direction?
Interestingly, I had known of Branca, but did not become familiar with his music until after I started working with electric guitars exclusively a little over ten years ago. Personally, it was encouraging and influential to hear someone doing this type of innovative work with electric guitars coming from a musical sensibility I felt comfortable with. Also, I’ve had the pleasure of performing some of Branca’s music and it was quite the experience on many levels.

In an interview, Chinese classical guitarist Xuefei Yang once said “To me, the guitar is my portable orchestra”.
Having studied classical guitar, I can relate with this statement. My use of multitracking guitars stems from my love of all kinds of orchestral music. Working in electroacoustic music I have an electronic orchestra with an unlimited sonic palette at my disposal. I love the sound of multiple electric guitars. I often layer guitar sounds alone or in combination with other sounds, allowing for various sonic textures and colors.This is not so different from what orchestrators do and something I plan on exploring more.

Would you say there is a difference to the sound of your compositions because they were played with a guitar rather than a keyboard?
Yes, I would say there is a difference. I am very aware that music created on an instrument can definitely be influenced by the physical process required to perform on that instrument. And that is fine for me as there is still a lot that can be done with idiomatically, but I know that by deliberately looking at the guitar differently and thinking past what it can do, I’m less likely to fall into a rut. Alternate tunings, playing percussively, prepared guitar - wedging objects between the strings - manipulating feedback, and various other extended techniques are examples of ways of thinking about the instrument differently. The electric guitar is capable of a broad sonic spectrum and that has always been of interest to me. For as long as I can remember, I would experiment and see what else the guitar could do.
It is also important to mention that I do not discriminate when it comes to using guitar sounds in a piece. ‘Clockwatcher I-III’ from my new CD, Mechanical Uprising, is a good example of a piece that uses a wide variety of guitar sounds.
What will influence your decision to use a guitar or a different instrument for a particular section, then?
It depends on how I initially plan on using electric guitar in the piece. After a composition starts to really develop, I’m never totally sure what is going to happen. For example, a composition like ‘Imaginary Portal’ on The Ominous Corner was inspired by various radio samples. So, in my current music that utilizes other sounds than guitar, such as processed waveforms, voice samples, virtual instruments and samples, there is a symbiosis occurring between all sounds. With guitar driven compositions like ‘Seven Pieces,’ ‘Triptych’ or my work from Electroacoustic Compositions for Electric Guitar, I focus on how creative I can be with using only guitar sounds.

There are a lot of musicians out there who use the guitar to build ambient soundscapes, but they rarely leave the original sound-qualities of the instrument intact. With you, I am often under the impression that you really want people to hear that you’re playing a guitar. Why is that?
With my last three CD releases; The Ominous Corner, Tesla at Coney Island with David Lee Myers and Mechanical Uprising, I’ve rediscovered playing the instrument again. I grew up a child of the 80’s and technical rock guitar playing was what I focused on. Much of my guitar technique comes from this formative period in my life.
On my first release, Electroacoustic Compositions for Electric Guitar, a compilation of my electroacoustic work form 1999-2005, I became interested in using the guitar as a sound source and thinking unconventionally - prepared guitar, alternate tunings, extended techniques and so forth. I was interested in being ambiguous, with certain carefully placed moments that were obviously electric guitar. I think this anti-technique/ sound based approach was a reaction to the many years I spent focused on being technically proficient as a guitarist. I hit a wall with the constant emphasis on technique and wiped the slate clean regarding how I wanted to compose with electric guitar.
Now after all these years laying guitar and composing, I feel like I have finally found a form of expression and creativity that encompasses all aspects of my guitar playing, ability and experience in a genre of music that I enjoy the most, electroacoustic music.
I sometimes feel as though opposing tendencies are battling for supremacy inside your soul: One wanting to build rich, complex, polystylistic music. The other aiming at simplicity, purity and reduction. 
I would prefer not to think of it as “battling for supremacy.” I deal with whatever musical conflict by working it out in a way where I think it sounds good to my ears and sensibility. I go for a balance that I think works over time in a composition. A good amount of my compositional decisions are surprisingly rational, but I do my best to not make them sound like that.
You’ve stated that “I think I’m channeling everything I’ve ever heard when writing a piece.” Does that mean that the more music you listen to, things are getting easier - because it expands your palette - or more difficult, because it means you have more music to gauge it against in terms of originality?
It just means that I think of myself being influenced by everything. I might spend an afternoon listening to jazz and then write music later in the day that although on the surface sounds nothing like jazz, might be influenced by it on a small level. I’d say it has something to do with an all-encompassing musicality. The influence of other music on my music isn’t always obvious or direct.
I find that I listen to more music when I’m not in intense creative mode. Sometimes in between pieces, I will just listen to a variety of music for a week or two to get me out of my own head for a little while. Every once in a while, I‘ll make a great musical discovery and that might stimulate a few ideas. Listening to music is usually serious business so I need to make time for it. One can learn a lot by being quiet and listening closely.
Do you see a fusion of the two approaches of richness versus minimalism, in the sense of learning from a puristic approach in choosing your notes more carefully even when you’re building opulent works?

Every note and sound is chosen very carefully in my music, no matter how dense or complex the moment or section may be.
And yet, “The Bumbling Seer” from your current album "Mechanical Uprising" may well be the most accomplished combination of these two tendencies and it also highlights another contrast in your work, namely of pulsation/motion vs stillness. How did that track take shape?
The track came about from some improvised and worked out two handed tapping guitar improvisations. Essentially, ‘The Bumbling Seer’ is a good example of a composition sculpted from improvisations. I spend considerable time tweaking and editing recorded material and I’ve developed a very personal way of composing that works for me.‘The Bumbling Seer’ is an example of a musique concrète work, so I am obviously not concerned with recreating it in a live performance – although every part of the piece is entirely playable. I’ve heard positively by some people that my music has an improvised quality although it is exacting and carefully thought out. In regards to “pulsation/motion vs. stillness,” “The Bumbling Seer” is a short work -  around a minute long - so it was fun challenge to create this sense of contrasting movement in a relatively short amount of time.

Can this tweaking and editing in the studio sometimes get in the way of your musical ideas?
From piece to piece, I will deliberately make some small changes in my process in order to keep things fresh. There are things that I do the same at the outset of every piece. Routine is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, I always arrange a palette of sounds in the session and select with my “paint brush” from that. I find when starting a new piece, preparation of materials is very important.
I do see the studio as a musical instrument and my studio and the technique involved do have a strong influence on how the music sounds, but this is why I enjoy recording guitar too because it provides a different perspective - it gets me playing and away from staring at the computer screen and creating with clicks of the mouse.
Where do you see a connection between contemporary composition and rock?
The connections exist because it’s all music and there is no reason why they should not connect or coexist. I grew up listening to rock music and didn’t really know much about classical music until I went to study music seriously in college. I was a predominately self taught electric guitarist whose introduction to the music conservatory was to study classical guitar. I did that seriously for two years and then started composing seriously. Composition opened up a whole new world and a significantly more satisfying one for me. I never expected to go in that direction.
In which way can these two spheres of influence benefit from each other?

Well, they can start by listening closely to what each has to offer. I’ve never liked music elitism and each genre has its own bad music to contend with, so nobody’s perfect ... I get a different type of satisfaction listening to rock music than I do from classical music. As I mentioned earlier, now that the electric guitar has lots of crossover appeal, there is less of a divide between rock and contemporary classical music.

How do you develop themes over a longer stretch of music without merely copying and pasting?
It’s a combination of craft, imagination and intuition. I’m not interested in telling stories per se with my music or utilizing rigid procedures to produce results, but I am interested in an imaginative real time flow, a sense of direction, and portraying various moods and sensations. Music is an abstract art and I don’t have to necessarily explain the directions pieces take. The direction, form and sounds in a composition can be appreciated simply for what they are. From the perspective of compositional craft, I guess some of my decisions come from the idea of development - not so much in themes or motivic development in the traditional sense – but of musical ideas or gestures, however big or small. I’m interested in tension and release and how that is accomplished. A particular sound might take a piece into a direction I did not expect and I allow for this happen often, especially at a transitional point in a piece. Will an idea return later in the piece? I use some repetition, but I’m very careful about what I repeat and how I repeat it.
Lately, I have been interested in the associations made with my music to progressive rock music. I’ve never thought of my music as progressive rock, but I think the electric guitar riffing and soloing heard in my music allows for listeners to make this association.

You’ve stated that “I’m not sure I’ve made many wise musical decisions because most of them have been dictated by the art I wanted to create.” Is that another way of saying that, for you, there is really no other option than being an artist no matter where that decision takes you?
Obviously I would have stopped being an artist long ago if I wasn’t serious about it. Like many artists I constantly question what it is I am trying to achieve with my art. I think by asking questions like this, it has kept me going.
I’ve been very busy with my own music the last 10 years and am relatively satisfied with what I have accomplished creatively up to now. At this present time, I’m a new father to a baby daughter, so I’ve taken some time off creatively to experience this new and wonderful change in my life. I do have some musical ideas brewing, though …

By Tobias Fischer

Marco Oppedisano Discography:
Electroacoustic Compositions For Electric Guitar (OKS Recordings of North America) 2007    
Tesla At Coney Island/ w. David Lee Myers (OKS Recordings of North America) 2008    
The Ominous Corner (OKS Recordings of North America) 2008    
Mechanical Uprising (OKS Recordings of North America)    2010

Marco Oppedisano

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