Summers, Ben Verdery Collaborate
by Mic Holwin
"Sonic chiaroscuro" is how composer Ingram Marshall describes much of his music. Dark Florescence (Variations for Two Guitars and Orchestra), Marshall's new work commissioned and to be premiered by American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 2005, takes the interplay of dark and light more literally: an electric guitarist is paired with a classical guitarist, though where the shadows fall must be decided by the listener.
Written for electric and classical guitar virtuosos Andy Summers and Benjamin Verdery, Dark Florescence is, like much of Marshall's music, darkly evocative and expressively dreamlike. Based on five- and six-note hemitonic (half-step) Indonesian gamelan scales (modes Marshall is fluent in from his studies of the gamelan music of-and travels to-Bali and Java), Dark Florescence creates congruity from dissimilarity. Best known for his 1981 work Fog Tropes, which combined brass sextet with sounds of San Francisco Bay foghorns and Balinese flute, Marshall here also juxtaposes two at-odds sounds against an orchestral landscape and somehow, as in Fog Tropes, the effect is harmonious.
Andy Summers is, of course, widely-acclaimed as the guitarist of legendary and influential late '70s/early '80s rock band The Police. Since their disbanding in 1986, though, Summers has led the life of several guitarists, recording 13 solo albums which span and fuse a multitude of genres, from the jazz of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus to collaborations with Robert Fripp, the Kronos Quartet and Brazilian jazz guitarist Victor Biglione.
Guitarist and composer Benjamin Verdery has had pieces written for him by composers such as Daniel Asia, Roberto Sierra and Jack Vees. In recent years, his focus has been on writing and performing extended works for large guitar ensembles. A renown classical guitar instructor, Verdery has chaired the guitar department at the Yale University School of Music since 1985.
Marshall, Summers and Verdery join interviewer Mic Holwin in a round-table discussion of the conception, evolution and performance of Dark Florescence.
Q: How did Dark Florescence come to be?
Ben: I was taking a shower and I had this idea that Ingram should write a concerto for Andy and I. [laughter] I called Andy first and said "what do you think?" Then I called Ingram and he said "well, that sounds interesting." It went from there. Of course, we had to find a source of funding to pay the composer. The music librarian at Yale, Ken Crilly, is a guitar enthusiast and he said that he would help us out. So that meant Ingram could put time aside to actually write the piece.
Then my manager started putting feelers out to different orchestras, and out of nowhere, last June we got this call that ACO wanted to do it in February.
Ingram: I had written a piece for Ben earlier--Soe-pa--for solo guitar with electronic digital delays and effects. Ken Crilly sort of had a hand in that, too. So when Ben convinced him that he should commission me, it follows a logical path. The piece was actually commissioned [by the Irving. S. Gilmore Music Library at Yale University] to help celebrate the library's fifth anniversary.
We then had a commission. Two guitars: one classical, one electric-played by the great Andy Summers--a very person-specific idea.
Q: Because Ben had worked with Andy before?
Andy: Let me jump in. Ben and I met a couple years ago at the New York Guitar Festival and started to have a marriage. [laughter] Ben had a guitar orchestra there and I was doing my trio thing. We met and thought maybe we should try and get together and play. Then Ben happened to be on the West Coast. We played for a bit and had some ideas and thought we should meet again. But in between that time was when Ben came up with the idea that possibly Ingram could compose something for us. In my case, I was quite familiar with Ingram's music because for years I played [a CD] with his piece Fog Tropes in my car. So his name was immediately familiar to me and I thought yeah, with the kind of music he writes, he probably could really do something, which has obviously become the case.
With the commission and the date set, which gave it a reality, Ben and Ingram came to the West Coast and we spent a couple of afternoons improvising together with Ingram sitting there, hearing what we might do with two guitars and taking notes. That's where it really started to move forward with incredible warp speed.
Ben: Andy and I were at a guitar festival in Baltimore last June and that's when the word came through from ACO and we thought, hey, we better hightail it-we gotta get Andy and Ingram together since Ingram had never really met Andy and really wasn't that familiar with what he could do. That was a great meeting. Andy has a great studio and he set it up so we had a super sound system. It was good for us, too, to know that these two guitars [amplified classical and electric] sound great together. The variety of big guitar sounds that Andy makes [together with] the classical [guitar] really made it.
Andy: Those sessions--playing for Ingram like that--led [Ben and I] to a really interesting area musically that we've gone on from and put a record together from. Ben called me a few days after the initial improvising session and said, "hey, I know what we should do. It was so good when we were improvising together, what if just pick up that idea and see if we can record like that." Instead of the conventional route--let's write a tune each, you learn mine, I learn yours--we found a musical space that worked between us and we just starting playing together.
We had our initial session last August for about four days and got quite a lot of music down. We did another four days in early December and I think we have it now--we have a really nice record, which is very non-generic. All guitar. I'm actually mixing the record right now.
Q: Ingram, have you kept each player in a defined role, with Andy as the "rock guitarist" and Ben as the "classical guitarist," or are the roles more blurred?
Ingram: It's interesting, when a classical guitar is amplified well, it can be quite powerful. In Andy's case, the electric guitar doesn't always have to be loud and full of distortion. So I tried to find a middle ground where these two instruments kind of met but still have distinct personalities. And it's not a question of the dum-dada-druum kind of classical guitar versus the waaaang! guitar of rock and roll. It's more really trying to bring them together in the wash of the orchestra sonorities. I tried to write a harmonious piece. There's an improv section where the two of them put together their own conversation using the modes that I've used for the piece.
Ben: We're very excited about that because we figured out we'll last about two and half hours-we're just gonna really stretch out... [laughter]
Andy: There might be a drum solo at the end. [laughter]
Q: How will Carnegie be set up? A couple of Marshall amps, or will you run through the system there?
Andy: The trucks [with my equipment] are leaving now... [laughter] For me, one of the many daunting aspects of this is: How am going to do this exactly? Do I need to set the speaker off in a part of the stage in a Plexiglas booth? Can I keep them on the stage? Because I want to get these nice sustains and loopy effects that Ingram's looking for and do sound so beautiful. I can't overwhelm the orchestra but at the same time I've got to give the guitar a fairly full-blooded sound. I think it's all doable but technically it'll be a challenge.
Ben: When we record, Andy puts his amps in another room and has them quite loud to get the sound he wants and they're mic-ed and it goes through the board. So we could do something like that at Carnegie. We could have Andy have his amps off stage or in another room and then put it through a nice speaker system.
Q: So you won't know specifically how you're going to deal with this until the first rehearsal?
Ben: That's one of the most scary things. We will do some serious investigation before that. Andy's going to come a couple of days before the first orchestra rehearsal and we're going to work with Ingram in a studio here in New York. And with the conductor [Steven Sloane], too, at one point.
Q: This piece was originally conceived as a double guitar concerto. Is there anything still left of the concerto format--Ben solos, Andy solos, orchestra responds--or has it evolved into something completely different?
Ingram: It is concerto-like in the sense that both instruments are playing over the orchestra and the spotlight is on them. But it's not concerto-like in the sense that there's no typical soloist-versus-the-orchestra dialogue back and forth and coming together in the classical idea. The instruments are soloing, but they're more involved in a dialogue with the orchestra and with each other. The piece was going much more towards variations in form. I've actually subtitled the work "Variations for Two Guitars."
Q: Ben, how will your guitar be amplified?
Ben: I'll be using internal as well as external microphones. I have a great system built in the guitar.
Q: Andy, what will you be playing?
Andy: A Steve Klein guitar, which is like a variation of the Steinberger guitar. It has a beautiful clean sound and an incredible tremolo system. It makes a very sweet singing sound that I think it would make it the appropriate guitar for this piece.
Q: Is this a Carnegie hall debut for either of you guys?
Andy: It is, actually--I'm sort of amazed I've never played there...
Mic: Yeah, so am I.
Andy: Yeah I know! I think of all the places I've played that are equally famous and bigger, and then somehow I missed out on Carnegie Hall. So I wouldn't be able to rest in my grave.
Mic: So now you can die peacefully after this.
Andy: This will probably be it! [laughter]
Mic: Ben, for you?
Ben: Yeah! It's the first time I've ever played the Big Hall. It is thrilling.
Q: And Ingram, the ACO commissioned and premiered your orchestra and tape work Kingdom Come at Carnegie Hall in 1997. Any last comments from anyone?
Ben: Dark Florescence is really beautiful. It's such a joy to play. I never heard anything of Ingram's I haven't loved, and the ending is just to die for. And as you know, Andy and I may die after this...
Andy: We might, actually.
Summers's most recent recording is of his own compositions; his two previous releases were of works by Monk and Mingus. Verdery recently completed a solo recording of his own works for classical guitar and is next recording a CD of his transcriptions of Bach, Mozart and Hendrix. Marshall's upcoming project is to record Soe-pa, the piece he wrote for Verdery. A CD of his piano and choir works is slated for release this fall on New Albion.
Holwin, partner of Lost In Brooklyn Studio,