This week I was fortunate enough (and very excited) to have an interview via the wonders of Skype with Swedish classical guitar superstar Johannes Möller. For the eagle-eyed amongst you, you’ll recall that it was only last week that I posted up a feature on some of my favourite pieces of his recent work, so I was particularly excited about this interview.
Johannes is headed Down Under shortly for his first Australian tour, taking in Muswelbrook (NSW), Melbourne, Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs (NT), Sydney and Canberra in July with a program based around his both traditional classical guitar music and his own Indian-inspired compositions. He’s also popping back again for a trip to Perth in August. Johannes was kind enough to take some time out from his busy preparations to share some insight into his world and some words of wisdom.
What are you going to be playing for the Aussie audiences?
The program is “inspired by in one way or the other by Indian music……lots of retuning the guitar and making it more, sort of, Indian. And then some of the pieces are more classically orientated, because my background, I am a classical guitarist right? But I do sort of stretch on the borders, but also maybe you could say I’m taking the classical guitar to another place.”
But there are also going to be some real classics like Asturias by Albeniz, a very classic guitar piece. “
To create a balance with the known and the unknown. If it’s all completely new to you then it’s like can be a little bit overwhelming.”
The second half of the program has a night and dreaming theme “well, the concert is in the evening so by that time it will really be dark. There is one nocturne written in the 19th century by Julio Regondi. I’ll also be playing some pieces based on (Indian) night ragas, some classical night pieces.”
There are some ragas that you play in the morning, some in the evening…… I guess if you’re really very very sensitive to these modes there’s probably truth in that. So there’s this piece called The Night Flame (based on) the night ragas.”
So how does a Swedish classical guitarist and composer get into Indian music and become so influenced by Indian styles?
“Yeah, it makes me wonder too!
It was just quite an attraction since a young age, but it was also… a way that suited me, I felt comfortable with it as a form of expression. And I can’t explain exactly why. In a way the Indian classical music and the Western classical music there are similarities, but at the same time they are completely different.”
It was just kind of coming from that Western persepective, then going into that Indian more free way, and really a more modal way, that at least for me on the guitar was a way for me to create language that I am very comfortable with.”
I also had a great interest in Indian culture and mythology and spirituality, so I guess that goes together with it too.”
Do you play any Indian instruments?
“No I don’t really. I did learn some tabla, and then realised it was far too hard! You have to start when you’re about five!
So instead what I wanted to do was keep the language on the guitar rather than bring up a sitar or something. After all I am a guitarist. A lot of people ask me, should I add extra strings, or do this and that, and make some weird sort of instrument that could be more Indian, but I think part of it is that I just want to take the six string guitar as it is. That’s what’s I know.
You know, so far I haven’t felt limited. In a way I’m already creating a new instrument by retuning the guitar.
What else are you working on at the moment? What else can we expect to see from you in the next 12 months or so?
“Well I’m doing quite a lot of touring. I’ll be over in Australia for quite a bit and I’m actually going back to Australia for another thing in Perth.
I’m doing now a tour of Muswellbrook, Sydney, Melbourne and Araluen (Alice Springs), some small places out in the country.
We’ve been surprised to see what’s going on in Australia because I’ve never been. I’m quite impressed. There’s a lot of live music going on. We’re looking at the possibility of making a tour every second year or so. Making them a regular things as I think there is hopefully a market there for me.”
We also discussed the status of the classical guitar, the guitar in general and his own directions with the instrument:
“The guitar is a popular instrument. I see it in a way that the classical guitar would favour more by becoming just ‘guitar’. We could become more ‘classical’ and really fully enter the ‘classical’ music scene. At the same time maybe we should be more just ‘guitar’. And I guess that’s a whole other audience that could potentially be bigger actually.
Guitar is sort of like ‘everyman’s instrument’. It’s not like a piano, which is really expensive.”
It’s about balance. So I’m doing kind of both anyway. So of course I’m doing to a certain degree the classical guitar scene, but that was really after the GFA prize, before that I didn’t do so much actually. That was actually a great opening. And then I balanced that with my background, which is very classical, Western classical, strict.”
Now I’m also doing this thing where I’m working with a tabla playing, and I’m making it even more Indian. I started off doing it in just India actually, but now there have been a lot of requests to do it in other places too.”
I’m in all kinds of directions! Whatever comes, comes! But you can spread yourself too thin. At the moment I’m enjoying it though. I think that shows in my writing too – one aspect is becoming even more Indian, I’m playing with Indian instruments and I’m getting the Indian more. To the other I’m writing more classical style pieces, more in the Romantic style using harmony.”
The beauty of Indian music in a way is that you don’t have functional harmony, you just don’t have to bother with it. With harmony, it’s the hard thing. There’s different kinds of course, but you always really have to understand your harmony. With tonal music in the Western style you really sort of have to think about that all the time.”
The beauty of Indian music is that you just have melody and rhythm. In a way they become more emphasised. That becomes very powerful, very free. It frees it all up. The cycles become more complex.”
What music do you like to listen to that excites you or inspires you?
“I guess I’m open to a lot of music. At times when I’m working with music, especially if I’m writing a lot, I can’t really take in too much. And then there are periods when I listen to a lot of music all of the time. And that can be all kinds.
I love Chopin, I listen to that a lot. I love listening to Indian classical music. I love listening to a lot of stuff. I like listening to Bob Marley also!
Its like there’s no bad music, there’s just music for different things. You don’t always want to listen to an intricate piano concerto or something. It might put you off.
I guess I’m a music junkie!”
As a guitarist, are there any other classical guitarists who inspire or who have inspired you?
“Of course, there’s so much classical guitar. If you go back in time there’s, of course, Segovia, these names, Julian Bream, John Williams and so on. And it’s almost like there was one, then there was two, then three, then it multiples.
So many more people are playing now and the level is so high. So many interesting things going on.
The only shame there, unfortunately if you look in the general classical music scene, its pretty unaware of this fantastic development that has gone on…….This is where I come back to my thing where we should be just more ‘guitar’ to a certain degree.
Barrios, he was playing perhaps even better than Segovia at the time. He maybe got better, certainly later. Barrios he played tremendously well, transcriptions of Bach, he played Chopin…….his fretboard harmony and so on was tremendous. The man was a genius.
So he was a kind of idol for me, but that’s very far back. I do keep a picture of him though in the place where I work. I really respect him a lot. I really like his playing too.
Many people of my generation also admire David Russel a lot. I think the young generation now also do. He revolutionised the guitar playing. He showed up and played up with so much warmth, fluidity and freedom, that technique and tone. That affected a lot. A bit like Galway was for the flute.”
Johannes has also been greatly inspired by his teachers throughout the years, including the Pavel Steidl, Zoran Dukic and Gary Ryan (not a bad set of teachers!).
As a composer, who or what inspires you in your writing?
“That’s a very hard question actually as it’s been different things at different times. We talked about Indian music being a big influence. I love Chopin, I love Debussy, but I guess on a more deeper level, I guess it’s about human experience and life.”
When you’re not playing and composing what do you like to do?
“Well, we have a son now, so he comes first. Catching up with him, we’re enjoying that a lot. You get to be a kid again also.
What happens to a lot of musicians is that I think your hobby, your interest is your life. It becomes very hard for me to put a line between what is my work and what is my life. For better and worse.
I envy people who can go to work and can then say ‘it’s finished’ and then leave the building and go home and forget all about it. For me that is always a bit, you know….
But on the other hand the beauty of it for me is that I really like what I do.”
What top tips would you have for beginners on the classical guitar?
“The most important thing, the number one, is to practice every day. I think even it’s just 10 minutes it’s better than doing one hour just once a week. Because that creates a routine, you create space for it.
It’s also because it becomes discouraging sometimes, but if you do a little bit every day things develop along very well I think. Even if it’s just 10 minutes. Regularity!
And what top tips would you have for those progressing a bit further, or slightly more advanced students, on the classical guitar?
“It’s important to practice the very basic technical aspects, the very simple things, like doing the perfect stroke, doing the perfect slur even if it’s just one. The very most basic things. Because whatever you can’t do on its own, really slowly, you’re not going to be able to do it fast. So that’s kind of the secret. If you can’t play it slowly, you’re not going to play it any better fast! We all know that!
Guitar is a very difficult instrument, and so you do need to practice the technique separately to just playing the pieces. You can destroy pieces by playing them in so technical a way. If your technique already is strong you’ll much quicker master a piece.”
Thanks again to Johannes for his time!
You can check out his tour dates and purchase tickets here: http://johannesmoller.com/tour/