JIJI on Playing Classical Guitar—and Going Electric
On Sunday, April 28, award-winning guitarist JIJI will perform at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the Great Performers Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts series. Virtuosic and stylistic on both classical and electric guitar, JIJI will showcase her musical range in a fascinating program featuring both traditional repertoire and new music. In advance of the performance, Rebecca Klein sat down with JIJI to talk about her life as a 21st-century musician.
Rebecca Klein: You're known for featuring both classical and electric guitar repertoire in your concert programs. Can you tell me about your background on these instruments? How did you learn both?
JIJI: My parents were very influential while I was growing up, and they were always buying me CDs of classical music and rock music. I grew up listening to Eric Clapton, AC/DC, and Deep Purple. [Laughing] Ritchie Blackmore was my guitar god! I knew that I always wanted to play music, and when my parents thought it was time that I learn to play an instrument, they took me to a music shop. I really wanted to play electric guitar, but my dad—he’s a very funny man—feared it might be too loud in the house, or at least that’s what he told me. I remember he pointed out at the shop that the classical guitar was on sale, and he said if I learned the classical guitar for one year and did well with it, then he would buy me an electric guitar. I agreed, so I started out as a classical guitarist, and I became really serious about the classical guitar. I fell in love with it. But in the back of my mind, I always knew that I wanted to play electric guitar. That's just always been my dream. I’ve always wanted to play in a band! When I realized that my parents were never going to buy me an electric guitar, I decided to buy my own. I bought a Fender Strat five years ago, and it was just gorgeous.
RK: It seems so unique that you started electric guitar later in life. I met many classical guitarists in conservatory, and almost none of them started out on classical guitar. Most came from playing electric guitar in rock bands!
JIJI: Yes! I know, it's so interesting.
RK: What do you think are some of the benefits of featuring both classical and electric guitar in one concert program?
JIJI: Programs always mean something to me. They kind of speak to who you are as a person and as an artist. For me, I appreciate both worlds. It seems like there's such a huge divide between the worlds of traditional repertoire and new music. As a 21st-century musician, I'm into pop music, I go dancing, and I go to shows. I still appreciate the orchestra, the symphony, and string quartets, but while I was studying music in school, I wondered why we only had to do one thing. It's really important for me to showcase in my programs what I love and what I can do. I try to bring a variety of styles and introduce music that the audience has probably never heard before.
"If we cut all the barriers from what we can't do and ask what we can do, we end up making all these new sounds."
RK: Have audiences been receptive to your programs?
JIJI: Audiences often come to my concerts expecting to listen to a classical guitarist play traditional repertoire, but I give them an opportunity to hear both traditional music and new music. Audiences have been receptive to hearing a variety of styles in my programs, and I think this opens doors to audience members who aren't classical musicians.
RK: So many classical guitarists and classical musicians in general never learn to improvise comfortably on stage. How did you become interested in free improvisation?
JIJI: I was never into improvising when I was younger. It's such a scary concept! Making something on the spot is hard. During my undergrad at Curtis Institute of Music, I took a course with Dr. Noam Sivan, who is the Director of Improvisation. He's an amazing pianist and improviser, and he started the course with motivic improvisation. We began with Baroque music, discussing what we could do with certain ornaments and harmonies. I was hooked immediately. After that course, I got to play in Hong Kong with an erhu player who was a performance artist. [Laughing] I wasn't going to whip out Paganini's 24 Caprices to play with them, so I needed improvisation. I'm now playing with a modern music ensemble called wild Up, and they're based in L.A. They're all so crazy, and they love improvising. Playing with them is very open. For example, I had to bring this new pedal to play with them so that I could make these weird soundscapes to mimic us being abducted by aliens!
RK: Wow! [Laughing] There are so many creative possibilities. And you also compose?
JIJI: Yes! Mainly for electric guitar and soundscape. It's a lot of fun. The possibilities are unlimited if you compose, improvise, and think about sounds in new ways. If we cut all the barriers from what we can't do and ask what we can do, we end up making all these new sounds.
RK: That seems like such a contrast from some of the traditional repertoire you’ll be playing at Lincoln Center. The Baroque music you've programmed looks fantastic. Marin Marais's Les Voix humaines is one of my favorite pieces of all time, and I love listening to it on viola da gamba. I've never heard it live on classical guitar though. Bach's BWV 998 has quite a bit of carry-over since it was written for lute, but it seems like Les Voix humaines would present particular challenges. Can you talk a bit about some of the challenges of performing arrangements of pieces that were written for bowed instruments?
JIJI: I fell in love with Les Voix humaines after listening to Jordi Savall. His interpretation is to die for. I literally die every time I hear him play it! [Laughing] The first time I heard him play Les Voix humaines, I decided I would either quit music or learn that piece. There are challenges given the viola da gamba's use of sustained notes, which the guitar can't do, but I try my best. We always have to face the reality of arrangements and transcriptions from sustained, bowed instruments to plucked instruments. We can't sustain notes, but the guitar can do so much in terms of chords and harmonies. I add lots of ornaments and take liberties in certain spots for improvisation. I try to highlight what the guitar is best at, such as cross-string trills and intricate scales.
RK: Did your classical guitar teachers encourage your varied interests?
JIJI: My main teachers are Jason Vieaux, David Starobin, and Ben Verdery. For my undergrad, I worked with David and Jason, and they were very focused on helping me become a versatile musician. They didn't want me to be just a solo musician. They made me do such weird programs! I worked with percussionists, singers, string quartets, large ensembles, and small ensembles. It was really important to them for me to be multifaceted. For my graduation recital, I played traditional classical repertoire, but I also played an electric guitar mini-concerto. My teachers gave me their blessings, but I had to make my case for the electric guitar and explain why it was important to me. I had nothing but support from them.
RK: You were recently appointed to a faculty position at Arizona State University. How do you hope to incorporate your varied musical passions into your teaching of classical guitar students?
JIJI: This is such an interesting question. I think the music world, especially in music schools, is changing. Students have different personas and passions outside of orchestra and classical music. ASU is very open; they knew I played both classical guitar and electric guitar. I see a lot of students at ASU who want to do different things, and I always tell them that there's no such thing as one path. There are many opportunities to come up with innovative programs and to compose your own music. I always ask students what they want to do. Right now, I have a student who is working on arranging The Planets by Gustav Holst. I also have a student who is into processing, and he's arranging Philip Glass's music and also recording a backing track for Steve Reich's Violin Phase. There are so many different things you can do on classical guitar, and my students are so varied. I love working with all kinds of people, and I want to incorporate my vision into my teaching, but I don't want to make a bunch of mini-JIJIs. I want to work with my students on their own projects and help them develop into who they are as artists.
RK: Do you encourage your students to improvise and compose?
JIJI: Some students already come to ASU knowing how to improvise, and some don't. I don't really teach them improvisation, but I do encourage all my students to write their own music in my pedagogy classes. For their midterm projects, I make them write their own études. They're scared at first, but then they do it and enjoy it. Composing sparks a light in them.
RK: Besides teaching, what are some of the current projects you're working on?
JIJI: There are so many! There's Krists Auznieks's piece, Cor, which I'm premiering at Lincoln Center on April 28. This piece is for guitar, live processing, and electronics. Then there's Hilary Purrington's piece Harp of Nerves, which is a guitar concerto commissioned by American Composers Orchestra. Hilary is a great friend, and this is one of two concertos written for me, so that's very exciting. I'll also be playing a concert at the 92nd Street Y in November, where I'll be premiering music by Molly Joyce, Evan Chapman, and Gulli Björnsson. These are all very different and exciting compositions. There will be two electric guitar pieces and one solo classical guitar piece. In addition to all of those projects, I'll be premiering this fall a piece by Jack Vees for one electric guitar with delays and live processing, going on tour with Latin Grammy winners Cuarteto Latinoamericano, playing with wild Up under conductor Chris Rountree at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., doing a recording project of Julius Eastman's music, and premiering songs by John Villar with Carla Canales (founder of the Canales Project) and Danielle Stewart-Hahn, who is the Program Director at the National Gallery of Art.
RK: Wow, that sounds like a lot! Can you tell me a bit about the rest of the program on April 28? The Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts are short—only one hour—and you've managed to incorporate a lot of music into the program. How did you choose these pieces?
JIJI: I think it's really important that I showcase music I love. Francisco Tárrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra is such an important tremelo piece of the classical guitar repertoire. It's one of those pieces that really highlights what the guitar can do by mimicking sustained sound with repeated notes. The Baroque set I'm playing kind of mirrors the flow of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, which comes right after and is fast, slow, and then fast. I'm also playing two movements from Ginastera's Sonata for Guitar, which is one of the best modern pieces written for guitar. It's not quite tonal, and the colors are very different than everything else on my program. Ginastera explores all the possibilities of the guitar that we don't often use through extended techniques, such as banging on the guitar and plucking the strings by the headstock. And then Electric Counterpoint is such gorgeous, tonal, minimalist music. It was originally written for electric guitar, but I'll be playing it on classical guitar, and I think it works well. I'll also be using a backing track by Dan Lippel for Electric Counterpoint, and it's one of my favorite interpretations in the world. So, the program has a bit of everything: traditional Spanish repertoire, a Baroque set, and then minimalist, post-minimalist, and modern music. It's like a big sampler at a restaurant!
RK: What do you hope the audience takes away from your performance?
JIJI: I’m so grateful for the audiences that come to my concerts. Regardless of whether they like or dislike the performance, they're going to experience something they've never heard before. I want to open a dialogue. I want people to leave my concerts and say, "That was really weird," or, "That was really different." I'm very open to those reactions. I want audiences to be surprised and a little bit uncomfortable because they’re experiencing something new.
Rebecca Klein is a freelance writer and is also the 2018–19 Accessibility Partnerships and Programs Fellow at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
For more information and tickets, visit LCGreatPerformers.org.