An interview with classical guitarist and composer David Braid with his musical influences and some strong views on musicology, the emancipation of dissonance and state funding of art…

What was your route to becoming a composer?

Circuitous but always inevitable – from early piano/violin lessons to guitar strumming from a singing nun when I was 10 (my big turning point) – through rock/indie bands, Welsh folk music, jazz, classical guitar – arranging for this instrument during my time at the Royal College of Music to focusing more and more on composition before doing this as post-grad at Oxford and Krakow.

Scores and ears are the most important thing; to work out how and why such notes are written as they are – analysis in the traditional sense can never show this. Performing helps this enormously – to know a piece from the inside out. No one should be allowed to call themselves a musicologist unless they are very (I mean really) highly skilled on an instrument; preferably two. Without that kind of physical connection to a work – one can never get anywhere near truly understanding it.

You say you fell in love with the guitar and never really enjoyed playing the piano and violin. Do you prefer composing for the guitar too or do you consider composing and performing to be completely separate? 

I haven’t written a huge amount for guitar – perhaps about 13 or so pieces only, plus some songs, also half of these are for electric archtop guitar (though can be played on classical of course). My actual catalog now stands at some 27 pieces (I have withdrawn about 40 pieces over the last 15 years).

I treat writing music for each instrument in the same sense – I work with its strengths. The guitar and the Renaissance lute are only different in the sense that I can zip around these instruments and play things at full pelt to see how they sound plus I can find special things idiomatic to the instrument that only a player can know. I cannot do this with the violin or piano – but I do try (my poor family)!

Composing, playing, they’re all aspects of the same thing, though I prefer composing in a sense: “the most interesting book in the world is the one full of blank pages!” On the other hand I can sit and improvise for hours with my guitar or read through Campion/Dowland on the lute – and it’s just a magical time, though totally self-indulgent!

Which composers and works influenced you most? How do you feel your music has responded to them?  

I’ve worked my way through most things and learned mostly from the greats – but also from the ‘very goods’ and the ‘odds’ (such as Nancarrow). To specify actual influences, they come from different musical areas;/periods, primarily composers, but not exclusively. So, composers and what they taught me:

Bach (J.S.) - the most efficient use of a minimum amount of notes, with each note having three functions – harmonic, linear (or melodic) and rhythmical. Of all composers that I am aware of (so far at this point in time at least), Bach has achieved this to a greater degree than anyone. Although the Renaissance polyphonic schools are what led to this of course.

Sibelius - again, efficiency of course, but above all with him - form, so concise and clear, appeals directly to the human psychology of how time unfolds. Also how entire symphonies are built from one short theme (the 7th for example – just 20 minutes long!). This guy wastes nothing and never pads things out for the sake of it – one word to describe him is a “polyphonist”. The surface may sound romantic, but don’t be decieved – you are listening to contrapuntal, precise, linear music of the highest quality – the hard-core modernists dismissed Sibelius in the 50s – fools!

Lutoslawski - an excellent of example of how to keep disparate material unified to one goal. His orchestration is incredible – he is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

“Non-composers” - (these people also composed though are mainly known for their playing)

Glenn Gould - his phrasing, and the way that you can hear each individual part so perfectly clearly. If you hear someone else playing this repertoire first and then hear him after – one feels that you didn’t really know it at all before. Also his ideas on music and the future: genius.

Django Reinhardt - Gypsy jazz guitarist – unbelievable improvisation which can only really be called composition in real time. Again, the phrasing, but also how he makes the instrument sing (better than a singer perhaps?). He taught me the most important thing in music: timing – without that all is lost. By the way this man had only two functioning fingers on his left hand.

Julian Bream - classical guitarist – one of my big heroes in my late teens, he has a light inside every note (as did Andres Segovia), even as a guitarist I can’t really describe what he’s doing exactly or how; you have to hear him. He showed me that music is bigger than the guitar (or any instrument), he is a musician first and then a guitarist.

You mentioned in your sleeve notes: “At the time George [Benjamin] seemed to be the only ‘younger’ composer capable of immense beauty in his work, which opened my ears to the possibility that the uglinesss that seemed to pervade so much contemporary music at the time could be avoided.” 

Do you still feel this way about contemporary music? What would you define as ‘ugly’ music?

Beauty/ugliness is really a tricky concept to be clear about – especially without alerting the ‘aesthetic police’ to my presence (both police forces – the ‘tweedy’ tonalists and the institutionalised modernists) though both so evidently have it entirely wrong.

In the last 100 years since serialism, serious music (which I can perhaps describe best as something more involved than a pop song) has moved from genuine, fervent public appreciation to where it is now – a minuscule, self-focused, state-funded ghetto, gasping its last breath in academies and universities, entirely ignored and not even known about by the vast majority of the general public.

This is a shame – humans love music and are fully capable appreciating long, involving works. Dissonance partly has a role, but music without dissonance is the most ugly thing possible (most European telephone hold music for instance).

It’s about balance between dissonance and consonance – not style – I think that is where beauty lies, this is possible in an atonal context – Ligeti’s late works demonstrate this perfectly, take the Piano Studies for example. However, they are an exception, they are great works despite atonality not because of it. When all intervals are assumed equally powerful music can die. This is why Webern has still not clicked with the non-specialist after 100 years! Music has to speak to humanity to some degree. The emancipation of the dissonance never happened people just switched channels on their radio and jazz and popular music rightly flourished.

If music needs a crutch from the state then it must be allowed to die naturally (obviously I don’t feel the same about treating humans that way!). I publicly advocate cutting all funding to new music for the next 20 years. This would cause composers to have to consider their audiences seriously – like most playwriters and film makers have to – and find the balance between holding their attention and stretching their imagination – a bit like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, et al had to do.

Finally – in reference to dissonance/atonality etc – I’m also not arguing for a return to previous styles which is an even worse crime than ignoring one’s audience. It is far too easy and a lie to the public.

In the forthcoming concert at the Forge, you’ll be premiering a large-scale Prelude and Fugue at the Forge. How have you approached this traditional form/technique?  

A Fugue is not a form – look at the 48 (Bach’s) each one has a different forml. Fugue is a process - (and sorry) – is not traditional in any way. Fugue, being a process, is like a mathematical equation – it is culturally neutral. Buxtehude, Bach, Shostakovich, Ligeti, Busoni, Sweelinck, Britten: all from entirely different cultures and periods, all use fugue brilliantly.

When I did a post grad at Krakow I felt I hadn’t covered fugue in any depth during my previous time at the RCM so I did an advanced year course of it privately with Zbigniew Bujarski – we did it all; ‘chromatic’: ‘doubles’: ‘crabs’. This changed how I hear and write music forever because it proved to me that all music (all styles including popular, primitive, etc.) is only a product of the vertical (harmony) and the horizontal (line, melody, theme, also harmony, form). Fugue is nothing less than the distillation of this principle. Fugue is the quantum mechanics of composition.

I approached writing this new fugue as I would any piece – by hearing and imagining and ‘nosing forward’ slowly until I have something strong then working quickly to make an overall working structure; then – working out parts fully, plus ‘playability’. I have the added bonus with this piece that it’s a trio (piano, e.guitar, clarinet) so I could use the instrumental colours to bring out the lines clearly and double up. It was not an easy one but I really enjoyed writing it – also playing it – I had a great rehearsal the other day with Sergei Podobedov (my duo partner: and the brilliant clarinettist Peter Cigleris


Links to David Braid’s music: Invocation Morning Waltz Fugue Valse Triste Alma Redemptoris Mater

David Braid will be performing his works at The Forge Camden on 22 January 2014, 7.30pm