Interview conducted by William Yeoman and published by Classical Guitar Magazine:

Tell us a little about your upbringing and what prompted you to start learning the guitar. Did you come from a musical family?

Music has always featured strongly in my family and upbringing. My parents and sister have always encouraged my musical interests.
I started to play the guitar while living for a year in the south of Ireland. Luckily there was an excellent teacher down the road who was a natural communicator and instructor, and after working with her, playing would always feel instinctive and comfortable.

While living in Scotland, I learned the violin and piano in addition to the guitar at the City of Edinburgh Music School. The violin featured strongly in my musical upbringing and during my first year at the Royal College of Music, I pursued the violin as a double major. Playing the violin has given valuable insight into orchestral and ensemble performance and has greatly inspired my interests in chamber music.

You’ve had some wonderful teachers: perhaps you could talk about their individual approaches to the guitar and what you learned from them.

While living in Scotland I had the opportunity to work with Phillip Thorne, who teaches at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Phillip is an outstanding guitarist as well as being an intelligent and nurturing teacher. Phillip instinctively finds repertoire that works to refine technique, while he always defines clear musical goals.

One summer I went to study at the Aspen Music Festival with Sharon Isbin. I was very nervous playing for Sharon, a player with a reputation for determined perfectionism! In the event, any worries were quickly allayed. After our second masterclass, Sharon invited me to study with her at the Juilliard in New York City and arranged a full scholarship.

Sharon’s intense intellect and curiosity have contributed to her richly deserved success as a musician. She immediately searches to the core of the composer’s intent and works tirelessly to ensure that the musical expression of each phrase and nuance is effectively communicated. Her boundless energy in conceiving and forming unique musical projects is remarkable, as is her tenacious approach to commissioning works from many of the most important composers of our time. Sharon compliments her expressive talents with a mastery of fingering and an unyielding search for technical solutions, no matter how unprecedented.

Working with William Kanengiser at the University of Southern California was equally motivating and inspiring. Bill has a mastery of tonal production and he provided a most helpful analysis of the mechanics of my playing. His broad musical interests have led him, and other artists who make up the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, to arrange and commission important works with a strong cross-cultural element, a feature that mirrors positively the multi-cultural nature of their home city. Studying at the University of Southern California also enabled me to work with such respected guitarists as Scott Tennant, Brian Head, James Smith and Pepe Romero.

Apart from your teachers, which performers (not just guitarists!) have inspired you over the years?

Many performers inspire me. I feel it’s very important to find new inspiration whenever possible and from many sources, not only music. My family is very artistic and has been interested in the integration of different performance media, including theatre and the visual arts.

Who are some of your favourite composers and what are some of your favourite works (again, not just guitar-related)? Why?

Like most people, I find that I am inspired by many different composers and pieces. Works that are meaningful often relate to my current mood or are associated with specific experiences. As I practise guitar pieces for many hours each day I often enjoy immersing myself in a completely different sonic world. I particularly enjoy minimalist works with archaic musical references, such as Arvo Part’s ‘Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten’ and John Tavener’s ‘Song for Athene’, or the electronic works of John Hopkins.

My favourite guitar works are the Passacaglia from Rodrigo’s ‘Tres Piezas Espanolas’ and Britten’s ‘Nocturnal after John Dowland’. Rodrigo truly understands the guitar’s potential and cleverly manipulates the instrument’s technical limitations to create a beautifully layered work that manages to maintain the musical illusion of voice lines that are technically impossible to produce. In my opinion Britten’s ‘Nocturnal after John Dowland’ is the most important and interesting work in our repertoire. No other composer has managed to create such an idiosyncratic piece, in which each note is beautifully married to the instrument and completely integral to the compositional structure of Britten’s, and most astonishingly also of Dowland’s, musical worlds.

How would you describe your overall musical philosophy?

My overriding approach to music is to learn and discover as many musical styles and composers as possible. My musical aspirations are to record and promote under-performed works and to collaborate with performers from many different musical and cultural backgrounds.

What is your general approach to developing and maintaining technique and learning repertoire?

I aim to learn repertoire that inspires practise. If I enjoy playing the repertoire, as in the works for my upcoming album, then the time devoted to practising is intensely rewarding. I also always attempt to include a combination of solo and ensemble playing in my current repertoire. Long periods of solo practise can become isolating without inspiring and frequent musical collaborations.

When learning a new piece, I start by studying the score, to get a sense of the structure of the work and the composer’s overarching musical intent. I then very slowly construct a fingering, for both the right and left hands, which enables ease of playing. Initial time spent learning a piece includes lots of very slow practice with special attention paid to the most technically challenging sections.

What kind of instrument do you play and what are its qualities? What strings do you favour?

I’m lucky to play a Thomas Humphrey Millennium guitar. The guitar produces a beautiful and vibrant sound that projects extremely well, even in large concert venues. Humphrey was a brilliant designer who constantly worked to perfect the tone and projection of his instruments. I’m very lucky to have met with him a number of times before his untimely passing. I use D’Addario hard tension strings, the strings Humphrey used while conceiving the guitar’s tonal design.

Tell us about your new album and how it differs from your previous one. Any thoughts about the next one?

My new album, Gladios, features works by prominent twentieth-century composers from Latin America. The album is named after a journal which promotes pan-American composers founded by the under-represented Mexican composer Carlos Chavez. While studying the autograph score of the Three Pieces for Guitar by Chavez, I was introduced to the journal and found the cultural and musical aims of the contributors remarkably forward thinking. With that in mind Gladios seems a very appropriate title for an album that shares a broad survey of musical styles of Latin American music from the last century.

My overriding aim for the album was to introduce people to a world of music they might never have experienced. By including experimental works by Piazzolla, Brouwer and Chavez alongside works by Barrios and Lauro, the album has provoked some interesting audience reactions. I’ve found, with some surprise, that the most musically challenging pieces have elicited the most passionately positive responses.

My previous album, The Rebels Within, highlights four large-scale masterpieces from the twentieth-century, including Benjamin Britten’s ‘Nocturnal after John Dowland’, Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Theme and Variations, op.77’, Nuccio D’Angelo’s ‘Due Canzoni Lidie’ and Frank Martin’s ‘Quatre Pieces Breves’. The album’s title derives from the poem set in Dowland’s ‘Come Heavy Sleep’, which was used by Britten to such great effect. Each of the four works presents an interesting combination of modern compositional techniques with aspects of archaic musical structures, language and even scordatura (in the case of the D’Angelo).

What do you enjoy most about being a musician? What has been your greatest musical experience? What has been your worst one?

I most enjoy the opportunities that music has given me to travel and meet interesting people from many different countries and cultures. I enjoy being part of a process that lets an audience experience some of the incredible repertoire composed for our instrument. To be able to communicate with an audience through music, and to be able to hold the attention of every person in the room, if only for a few moments, is an incredibly thrilling experience.

My greatest musical experience was performing a set of Dowland songs with the tenor Michael Slattery in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. The concert was on a Friday night with Manhattan’s famously hectic streets buzzing with traffic and pedestrians. Just before the performance started the skies opened in a warm April downpour. We went on stage, sat silently feeling the energy of hundreds of people, before starting a haunting performance of Dowland’s ‘Flow my Tears’. Something about the juxtaposition of modern urban stresses with the timeless beauty of the Dowland songs was magical.

My worst performance experience happened on a cruise ship travelling between Australia and New Zealand on the Tasman Sea. I had a sneaking suspicion that conditions for playing might not be great when travel sick bags started appearing all over the ship! As you might imagine trying to feel the strings and determine where my fingers should go, with the stage rocking back and forth, was a challenge.

What are your interests outside music?

Architecture and urban design fascinate me. I’m very interested in how design affects the character of cities and the people who live there. I’ve been lucky to live in Edinburgh, New York, Los Angeles and London. Each city offers unique approaches to design and planning. Living in London provides constant interest with so many aspects of the environment changing for the better. I live near the Olympics site at Stratford and feel a thrill each time I pass by and see how much the area has changed in a short space of time.
I see many similarities between architecture and music. I enjoy looking for architectural connections in pieces, most often relating to structure and form. My approach to technique is also architecturally influenced with each hand position and movement planned for efficiency and strength.

How do you see the classical guitar in the context of classical music in general?

Firstly, we’ve succeeded in establishing the classical guitar as a solo concert instrument. Young musicians are immediately drawn to the guitar when imagining music performed in any style (as a quick look at the thousands of guitar-based YouTube posts can confirm). We now need to work to preserve live music for other classical instrumentalists who in previous decades might have ignored our contribution.
The music world is moving away from strict genre definitions. We need to work to promote the best in live music from a variety of styles, not simply classical. Great composers have always been grounded in popular music; the Bach suites form an immediate example. Our instrument is uniquely positioned to represent increasingly eclectic audience tastes; no other instrument is able to cross genres with such ease and assurance.

Plans for the future?

This year I have two recording projects, one solo and the other with a piano jazz trio. The solo album will include works that I have been invited to perform around the UK as part of the International Guitar Foundation festivals, including pieces by Howard Skempton, Joby Talbot and Joe Cutler in addition to a set of jazz works arranged by William Lovelady and works by Andrew York. The album with the piano jazz trio will feature Claude Bolling’s ‘Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Piano Trio’ in addition to two new pieces composed for the ensemble by the pianist John Cervantes.

I have many exciting upcoming projects including a lecture/recital tour featuring Britten’s ‘Nocturnal after John Dowland’ in 2013 to mark the composer’s centenary, a recording collaboration with violin featuring a new commission, and an inter-arts proposal that highlights the interesting and often overlooked connections between our instrument and the visual arts.