By: Brady Lavin
Brad Richter is a rare bird. He is a classical guitarist, but you will never hear him playing a Bach piece or any Tarrega. Instead he performs solely his own compositions, utilizing techniques few other guitarists use, mostly because he made them up.
From an early age, Richter taught himself how to play guitar, having no formal training until he was awarded the Presidential Scholarship to Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music. For his Master’s degree, he went to the Royal College of Music in London, where he won both the Royal College of Music Guitar Competition and the Thomas Morherr Prize.
Since then he has spent his time touring all over the world, playing his solo guitar compositions and in duos with cellists Viktor Uzur and Grammy winner David Finckel. Guitar International had a chance to talk to him while he was taking a break from his busy schedule with his family in Germany, delving into his new album American Landscapes, composition methods, and the challenges of writing for cello.
Brady Lavin: Let’s start with your “Open Letter to Paul Bowman” which was just published on Guitar International. I really liked that, as an open-minded guitarist in a music program myself, I have experienced a good deal of music narrow-mindedness as well. Why do you think this musical snobbery comes about so much in an academic setting?
Brad Richter: That’s a good question. I think some of it is insecurity. We all do it, including me. It’s easier to build yourself up if you’re knocking someone down. If a composer’s music doesn’t have a big audience or wide acceptance, I think sometimes they console themselves by believing that they and their colleagues understand it and no one else does. But I don’t think its necessary. I think there are enough people that appreciate that music.
There’s a lot of intellectual prowess that goes into even the most obscure of 20th century compositions, but its just not always that easy to listen to. I enjoy that music quite a bit, but most audiences don’t, and I think that audience rejection also tends to make those of us who focus just on atonal or avant-garde music lash out a little against those who do other things.
Brady: Have you read Practicing by Glen Kurtz?
Brad Richter: No, I haven’t.
Brady: In the first third of that book, he talks about his academic career studying to be a concert guitarist, and he encountered a lot of dismissiveness towards the guitar as a classical instrument. Have you experienced any of that in your career?
Brad Richter: Oh, absolutely. In a way, that was as much a source of writing that letter, being a part of both of those worlds. Guitar, which is probably the most often dismissed instrument in the classical world, and then being a composer who writes tonal music that is relatively accessible. I feel like I get that from both ends, and I get so tired of it.
I’m very subjective about this, but guitarists by and large tend to be pretty cool [Laughs] and open-minded. We tend to, more than most classical musicians, to cross over into other genres and experiment and be a little more into other types of music than, I mean this is a gross over-generalization, but than maybe a group of violinists might be. Of course that’s not always the case, but I do see that. We cross over and find interest in other types of music because guitar works so well in all those worlds I think it’s frowned upon by some very serious classical musicians of other instruments.
Brady: A lot of guitarists start out playing guitar on popular music….
Brad Richter: Yeah I think a lot of us go through that transition where we start as rock or pop musicians, and as we get better at it we look for something deeper and move to jazz or classical. And I think that we come from that background sometimes is off-putting to other classical musicians.
Brady: Let’s talk about your new album American Landscapes, which I really enjoy, by the way. Judging by the song titles, liner notes, and photography in the booklet, I think it’s safe to assume you’re somewhat of an outdoorsman, right?
Brad Richter: Yeah, I love being outside.
Brady: How does nature inspire you musically?
Brad Richter: One of the ways is that I practice outdoors quite a bit, in fact maybe a majority of the time when I can. I feel more relaxed, I focus better. I don’t bring a cell phone with me so there are no distractions. In fact I’m sitting outside now while we’re talking and I can hear the sound of birds singing and its a beautiful blue sky. I just feel much better sitting outside than inside.
Brady: When you compose something like “Lava Falls” or “Leaving Marble Canyon” do you consciously write music to fit that landscape, or do you write music and then think, “Oh, this reminds me of this place or that place”?
Brad Richter: Goes both ways. With some, in particular, “Snow Melt,” which is the first one, I knew how I wanted to begin that set, and it began with the beginning of the river. I had thought about that from the very beginning, and then tried to find a way to capture that with music.
And then “Lava Falls” was the same thing. Also the last movement, “Ebb and Flow”. Those three I thought of the program first and then wrote the music, and then the other two I wrote the music and then attached a program to it.
Brady: How do you translate a program that you have in mind into a musical piece?
Brad Richter: I think the first thing I do, and it’s probably less clear on this CD than on the previous one, it that I make up a lot of sounds on the guitar. I try to at least. I usually start by trying to develop a sound or a texture or a technique that represents the theme in some way.
So with “Snow Melt,” I wanted to represent that idea of water dripping, first slowly and then faster and faster and in multiple ways, and then turning into flowing water. That was actually easier than most programs to develop, having the program first and then writing the music, because the harmonics on the guitar seemed like such an obvious route to go for dripping water. That was kind of easy.
Usually I find its harder to do it that direction, if I have the program first, but the piece comes out better. The piece tends to be a much more accurate representation of the program and having that program as a framework before I start to compose will tend to push me in a new direction, whereas if I’m just writing for the sake of writing, it’s hard not to follow the cliché, even if its my own cliché, something I’ve done before many times.
It’s easy to kind of fall into the patterns or the musical forms that you always do. So having that program first kind of gives me a framework that sends me in a new direction.
Brady: We recently published an interview with New York guitarist Trey Gunn, who did an album where he was forced into the framework of a fifty minute drum solo. He said that the rigidity pushed him to new territory. When you’re hemmed in to something you have to follow, does that help you come up with new and exciting ideas?
Brad Richter: It absolutely does, and I kind of like being hemmed in. I wouldn’t if it were the only way I got to compose, but there’s a sense of security when you start a piece and you already have a specific set of parameters that you have to follow. You have a nice starting point already.
I think the most difficult thing is to start a piece.. and to finish it, you know the beginning and the end. [Laughs] Sorry I’m getting excited. My favorite moment in composing is when you write maybe ten seconds, but you know it’s a good ten secs. The first ten seconds of the piece. It may the beginning, it may be the middle, but you know it’s an interesting ten secs of music. That feels so good to me and so promising, and also the hardest thing to get to.
Brady: American Landscapes is sort of a compilation of sorts, it seems, including different parts of a variety of works that work together thematically and musically. How did you choose the pieces and fit them together so that the flow so well?
Brad Richter: Well, I write pretty slowly in most cases, although its been going faster lately. That they all fit together nicely on one CD was luck, really, because honestly all that is pretty much everything I’ve written for solo guitar over the last 5 years, and it just worked [Laughing].
Unfortunately it wasn’t like I had thirty-five to choose from and put those twenty-one on because they fit so well. That was pretty much everything I had. There were several pieces that I threw out because I didn’t like them, but everything that I thought was worth putting on the CD I put on.
Brady: The duets with cello, that’s not a texture that I’ve heard a lot, that pairing of instruments. How did that come about?
Brad Richter: [World-renowned cellist] David Finkel was in Tucson to play a concert with the Emerson String Quartet, and I had a concert the night after his concert but he was stuck in town for some reason. My concert was near his hotel, and he happened to wander in. He heard me play and liked it and introduced himself after the concert. He asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece for him.
I don’t know if it would have occurred to me to write a duo for cello and guitar although cello is another favorite instrument of mine; I wish I could play it. I’d written little things for cello – a concerto, a string quartet and a few other things – but they weren’t that good, and I didn’t write that well for strings. But his invitation really inspired me to put my nose to the grindstone and learn how to write for the cello.
So I did a lot of listening, and then I learned cello, just a little bit, just so I could see what it felt like and what was physically possible. Then I did a lot of writing with the four bottom strings of my guitar tuned like a cello, CGDA, and that made a big difference too, cause then I knew what would work for the left hand.Of course for the right hand its possible to do double-stops, but you can’t really play three notes at a time other than in some exceptional circumstances.
And then after that piece was finished, I just really fell in love with the cello more and met Viktor. I play a lot with Vickor Uzur, who is a fantastic cellist, and we tour quite a bit together. Now, probably more than half the music I write has to do with the duo, which is another reason why I had relatively few pieces to pick from for the solo guitar album. A lot of my energy goes into co-writing with Viktor, the duo stuff now.
Brady: Was it a conscious thought to put the duo stuff in the middle of the CD to break up the solo guitar? I think it works really well in maintaining the listener’s interest because of the changing textures.
Brad Richter: That is exactly what I was thinking about, that wasn’t coincidence. I also thought a lot about the progression of keys from one movement to the other. There’s kind of a flow of modulation from piece to piece that plays around the Circle of 5ths.
Brady: That’s cool, I didn’t notice that, actually.
Brad Richter: Yeah, I don’t think it’s something you need to notice or that someone even should notice, but I wanted it to feel like it went smoothly from one piece to another.
Brady: I know you invent techniques to get sounds on the guitar, but did you work with David or Viktor to try to come up with different techniques to get a sound that you wanted or did you just use existing “academic” cello techniques?
Brad Richter: When Viktor and I co-write, he really writes his cello part and I write my guitar part and we fit them together, but when I wrote the piece for David, I did work a lot on trying to invent some new techniques for cello. So there’s some left hand only techniques that are new in that piece. I hesitate to say “new” because I don’t know the cello repertoire well enough, and I’m sure somebody else has done it before, too, but it was new to me.
It felt like creating new sounds and new textures when I wrote those pieces, especially “Circles,” the second movement that’s a little faster, which is quite different,. There are things where I’ve got the cello doing left hand hammer-ons without bowing and then plucking strings with a free left hand finger while stopping other notes and bowing those. So there are actually moments in the piece where there are three notes happening at the same time, but they’re not all bowed.
Brady: Seems like a guitarist technique…
Brad Richter: Yeah, and in a way, that’s all I really did. I applied some things that we all do on guitar to cello.
Brady: That’ll come up with something completely new because that probably hasn’t been done before.
Brad Richter: Yeah, it wasn’t that far of a reach, and it might be something that any of us might do who play guitar once we’re writing for the cello.
Brady: In your letter to Paul Bowman you mention a story where an old teacher of yours said, “It’s not music until it’s written down.” As a composer, do you ever come at a piece from the other direction, writing it down before you ever touch your guitar, and how different is the result?
Brad Richter: I try to because I think it’s a healthy exercise, and those pieces tend to be…I’m trying to think if there’s an example on my new CD. Everything that’s coming to mind I wrote essentially on the guitar.
On my previous CD, A Whisper In The Desert, there are several pieces that I wrote on paper first, and I think that’s just another thing that helps push you in new directions. You end up using voicings that you wouldn’t use if your hands were on the guitar, and maybe putting a melody in a range that you wouldn’t have done if your hands were on the guitar.
The pieces I write in that way tend to have a little more scholastic substance, but don’t necessarily have the same audience appeal. But that’s just me. I’m sure it’s different for everybody, but I just find that I tend to write edgier music when I write it down first and play it later.
Brady: It makes sense that it would be a wider appeal for more guitaristic stuff because it tends to be flashier, with fast pull-offs and open strings.
Brad Richter: Exactly.
Brady: You’ve been a teacher for many years in addition to composing and performing. What in your mind makes a really quality music teacher, ’cause we all know your thoughts on bad music teachers.
Brad Richter: [Laughs] I think the best music teachers can take someone who’s not that talented and turn them into a good musician. Somebody who’s open minded enough to take the skills the player has and work with them to find the repertoire that fits their hands, say the things that will inspire them to put in the hours to make them better, and to have enough experience to, when they see a certain physical problem happening to know how to describe the issue and how to remedy it, what exercises you can use to fix that particular thing. Then if it doesn’t work, how to build a repertoire around that student so that those flaws don’t come through.
I think patience is a big thing with teaching. It’s really easy to get frustrated with having to say the samet thing over and over to the same student, but I think a good teacher finds a new way to say the same thing each time so that it eventually sinks in. We all learn in different ways, and sometimes it just takes twenty times before you formulate something in the right way so that a student has that “Aha!” moment. I think not giving up on a student is a sign of a good teacher too.
Brady: Can you tell us a bit about your program “Lead Guitar”?
Brad Richter: Sure, that started in 2000. I was playing a concert for the Lake Powell Concert Association in Page, Arizona, essentially on the Navajo reservation, and after the concert they asked me if I would visit the high school to work with some of the guitarists there.
I did, and I was shocked at how good they were; and a lot of them were self-taught. They didn’t have much in the way of technique and theory or other fundamentals, so I began do develop a curriculum so that I could help them learn from a distance. Then I began to go there for two weeks every year, just to give everybody private lessons and do some workshops. It grew and grew until there were about 160 guitar students enrolled at the high school there.
Eventually, PBS came out to the program to make a documentary about what the students were doing there. I would do the two-week program during the school year, and then at the end of the year I would take the dozen or so most at-risk kids on a hiking and camping trip, speaking of loving the outdoors [Laughs].
So we would all take our guitars and we would have kayaks and tents, and I would give the kids lessons for a week out on the river. And there were a couple of purposes behind that. One was, even though they were essentially living there, a lot of those kids didn’t have a chance to make it out into the environment because they didn’t have cars or a way to get there. They also didn’t always have a lot of good adult influences, so I would go on these trips with a school counselor, myself, and a professional outdoors guide. I just though having those kids around some adults who wanted to have fun with them and just spend time with them would be good as well.
So a friend of mind, Marc Sandroff, saw the pilot for the documentary that PBS was making and asked if I would be interested in making it into a not-for-profit in order to establish similar programs at schools all over the place. I jumped at the chance, and Marc really did the bulk of the work to establish a board of directors and make the larger organization work, while I worked on developing a curriculum that we could pass on to all the schools that we’re gonna work with, and it kind of grew and grew from there.
Brady: Does your self-taught past helps you in developing a curriculum for students without much music theory and technique training?
Brad Richter: I think it makes a big difference in the curriculum development for sure, but also in my teaching style with those kids. As you probably already have, you have to imagine that these kids, if we are speaking about the kids from the Navajo reservation, are some of the most at-risk kids in the country. They don’t make the charts very often because the native population is so small now compared to the rest of the nation.
A lot of these kids bus literally an hour and a half each way to school and live in a remote place with no running water or electricity. The lone outlet for a lot of them is playing heavy metal on electric guitar, and so when I show up the first day and tell them I’m gonna spend the year teaching them to play classical guitar, a lot of them are like “Dear God, forget that.”
So my experience with teaching myself and going from rock to classical really helps me find the right words to bring them along with me. I make a big effort to show them that I respect what they’re doing and that I respect the music that they’re drawn to. One way that I do that is that I’m a big pusher of ensemble playing in guitar orchestras. So they play guitar orchestra pieces, but what I’ve done is I’ve made arrangements of “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath and “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin and a couple of Metallica songs, but they have to learn it by reading the music.
I try to meet them halfway in that sense, so that I’m teaching them the fundamentals of classical guitar, like music reading, following a conductor, and ensemble playing, but with music they know and appreciate so that they don’t feel like its just “Hey, listen to what I’m telling you do and do it.” They have to buy into what we’re trying to do together.