A Conversation with Duo Sonidos
Violinist William Knuth and guitarist Adam Levin have performed as Duo Sonidos throughout the United States and Europe and have been the recipients of Fulbright scholarships that allowed them study in Vienna and Madrid. Since they play an unusual combination of instruments, they began with a small repertoire. They have been dealing with that problem by forging relationships with some of the most significant contemporary composers. Their first recording has already won a major prize. When I spoke to them on the phone last April, I asked about their background and how they came to make the recording.
Q: Who were your most important teachers and mentors?
AL: I’ve actually had a few important mentors. Andrés Segovia’s protégés Oscar Ghiglia and Eliot Fisk were quite influential in my musical upbringing. Maestro Ghiglia helped me determine whether or not to go into music professionally. I had originally intended to go into medicine. However, the summer before I was supposed to begin medical school I went to Italy to study guitar at the famed Accademia Musicale Chigiana and he encouraged me to continue down the path of music performance. Fisk has been like a second father to me over the past 10 years and his charisma and energy have always served as a beacon of perseverance in my own career. Both those teachers have brilliant musical minds and carefully identified my strengths. They encouraged my determination to work toward mastery in this Herculean field of performance.
WK: I grew up in the Adirondack mountain region of upstate New York. It’s not an area that is very flush with musical opportunities for young people. My private violin teacher in Syracuse, James Krehbiehl, showed me that it does not matter whether you are from the wilderness or the city. No matter where you come from, you can have a successful career in music, or any profession for that matter. For my undergraduate work I studied with Lynn Blakeslee at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. She was extremely supportive and was a truly great mentor to me. Lastly, I had another fine mentor, Nicholas Kitchen of the Borromeo Quartet. He was my final teacher in my studies at the New England Conservatory. When I was there he pioneered the substitution of laptops for paper scores in his quartet performances and he began using a pedal to turn pages. At that point he was trying to find a way to get the pedal to be silent. He helped me to think outside of the norm and create my own vision for the future of my career.
Q: Adam, did you start out playing classical music or did you play some rock?
AL: My father is a psychologist and classical guitarist; however, he began his musical training on the violin. In the late ’60s, Beatlemania convinced him to literally throw away his violin, find the nearest guitar, and attempt to play the music of his idols. He played rock, jazz, bluegrass, and even a bit of classical guitar, anything he could get his hands on. When I was five years old my parents started me on piano. It’s a very visual instrument, which was very conducive to my learning style at the time. The guitar is a great deal more complex with odd chord shapes in the left hand. It has a completely different right-hand technique with an infinite number of alternating finger permutations. My father started me on the guitar at the age of seven. Growing up, he enjoyed listening to the greats such as Segovia and Bream, but he played mostly blues, jazz, and rock. Eventually, my piano teacher demanded that I choose between guitar and piano because the nails I needed on my right hand to play classical guitar made a clicking noise on the piano keys. I decided to go with the cooler instrument, to the chagrin of my piano teacher. My mom is an amateur pianist and options trader. My sister, who is now in medical school, is also an accomplished classical guitarist. We both played piano and guitar for many years. We’re like the Von Trapps. My father, after a long day of analyzing his patient’s fantasies and problems, comes home and plays guitar. I think it is quite cathartic for him.
Q: Are both of you Fulbright scholars?
WK: Yes. I was a Fulbright Scholar studying violin performance in Vienna for two years. I cannot tell you how much I miss the food there. I was in good physical shape before I went there, but I ate so much cake and schnitzel …
AL: My Fulbright scholarship in Madrid gave me the opportunity to research and perform music by the foremost composers of the last four generations. Before going to Spain for a three-year residency, I completed my undergraduate studies at Northwestern University outside of Chicago. There, I did a five-year double degree program in psychology and classical guitar performance. I also fulfilled all the pre-medical requirements, so I essentially spent five years sequestered in a room studying and practicing. After Northwestern, I moved to Boston to complete a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory with Eliot Fisk. It was there, 2006, that I met Will and we began working together.
WK: I did a five -year program in violin and German studies at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester, after which I studied at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna.
Q: Who made your guitar?
AL: Many guitarists perform on modern instruments because of advances that have been made in design and sound production. One of the greatest challenges guitarists face is the instrument’s inferior volume compared to its brothers and sisters, such as the violin and cello. If you are performing on a period instrument from the 1880s, you are essentially playing a different beast. It’s smaller, there is less string tension, and thus it does not project as well in a modern concert hall. My instrument was actually built right here on Cape Cod, outside of Boston. Stephan Connor has in some ways carried the torch from the great builders of the previous generations and produced a revolutionary instrument with a huge palette of colors and a ferocious volume. His unique sound portal, cut out of the upper bout of the guitar, has given guitarists a new perspective on their own playing while providing full sound to the audience. This instrument is a miracle for playing in chamber-music settings. Whenever I use it, Will jokes that he doesn’t have to play
all the time we are playing together. I am also enamored of the guitars of Richard Brunet, a world-class builder outside Chicago. His instruments have a much more traditional design. They create a clarity, precision, and poetry that transport the music, and myself, to a completely different world. Each guitarist chooses an instrument that suits his or her voice. I am fortunate to have different instruments that suit a variety of circumstances.
Q: What different styles of music do you play?
AL: Duo Sonidos has explored the masterworks of the past and present. We chose the music on our debut recording to showcase the capacities of these two instruments when playing together. We wanted to push the envelope with standard works and explore the horizons with contemporary music. When selecting the music of Manuel de Falla from Spain and Astor Piazzolla from Argentina, we wanted to immerse ourselves in very distinct national flavors. Our duo combination has a small repertoire, so together Will and I are pioneering its future. We are expanding the repertoire through transcriptions, and we are commissioning composers to write new works for us.
Q: What can you tell me about the composers on the disc?
WK: Eduardo Morales-Caso is an extremely talented composer of Cuban origin who lives in Spain. Adam met him while living in Madrid, and through him I’ve had the pleasure of making Morales-Caso my friend as well. He writes with a very forward perspective while quoting a great many traditional sounds. He does not write in a traditional harmonic language, but he creates a comfort zone for the listener. The piece on this compact disc is based on an etching by Francisco de Goya titled
that hangs in Madrid’s Museo del Prado. It depicts a female figure floating in the air, being held up by demons or ghouls, however you may want to interpret them. The theme of the painting is a witch in flight. We did not include a reproduction of the painting in the recording booklet because of space constraints, but we tried to fit in as much information as we could. It’s easily available on the Internet. We often include the picture in the programs distributed at our performances.
Q: Tell us about Brotons.
AL: Salvador Brotons is from Catalonia. I became aware of his music through iTunes. When I arrived on the Spanish scene in 2008 I felt rather lost regarding my Fulbright project, so I just sat down and listened to hours of contemporary Spanish music. This miraculously led me to Brotons’s music. After meeting him later that year in Barcelona and pressing him for a piece for three years, he wrote a fantastic and virtuosic work for solo guitar called
Two New Suggestions
. Over a meal of fish and other Catalonian delicacies, he introduced me to
his work for violin and guitar. After experimenting with it we realized that we would have a very special creative reference with this spectacular piece. The first movement is serpentine, moving mysteriously and chromatically. The second is very lyrical and the third is extremely energetic and rhythmic. Brotons recommended that we think of this work less in a contemporary vein and more in line with the expressiveness of a Beethoven sonata. This experience allowed us to pick his brain and really express his intentions for the work. Brotons is also a conductor in Barcelona, Mallorca, and Vancouver. He is quite nationalistic and identifies himself as Catalan as opposed to Spanish. Prior to traveling to Spain I didn’t think of Catalonia as being anything but a part of Spain. From Brotons, I learned that the Catalan people have a very special and unique culture. Their language is actually a predecessor to Castilian Spanish.
WK: The Falla selections on the disc are based on a set of Spanish folk songs originally written for voice and piano. The songs have been recorded by Victoria de los Angeles and by Teresa Berganza. Since the songs really have the flavor of Spain, they are very popular and have been transcribed in various forms. The violin part that I play was transcribed by Paul Kochanski and myself. Historically, Kochanski is probably the most famous Polish violinist next to Henryk Wieniawski. His transcriptions make the songs very different from the originals but they are charming and wonderfully idiomatic for the violin and guitar.
Histoire du Tango
(History of the Tango) was originally written for flute and guitar.
WK: I’ve adapted it for the violin, as many people do. Piazzolla did for the tango what Segovia did for the guitar. Each took a very popular folk-music form and brought it to the concert stage. Piazzolla was criticized for sterilizing the genre and taking it out of its original setting, but doing that is what made him a superstar. He translated the tango into a highly evolved classical art form. These pieces walk the listener through the 20th century. The tango starts at the turn of the century. Piazzolla takes us through various atmospheric settings, including a bordello, a café, a nightclub, and finally, his vision for the modern tango. He wanted the tango to transcend its humble beginnings and he achieved his goal with his creative harmonic language.
AL: It’s fascinating to look at the scores and extract all the colors and timbres. Really, he wrote the script, but we musicians have to act out each part in bringing the story to life. After practice and many performances of this work, we have found a personal voice through this Argentinean tango tradition.
WK: There are parts in the score in which we have to improvise slightly to make the right sounds because we have to mimic percussion instruments. At times we are tapping or knocking on our instruments. I occasionally play on the windings of the strings behind the bridge to simulate a scraping noise. It’s fun to have the opportunity to add your own colors to the music. We both grew up playing very traditional repertoire in traditional settings. I have played in a string quartet. Adam has played the standard solo classical guitar repertoire. There is something very different about the music that we now play, and it isn’t performed all the time. It offers different sounds and adds variety without ever leaving the classical realm. It’s good to be able to offer something fresh and a little bit different.
Q: What other composers currently interest you?
WK: Jan Freidlin is an Israeli composer who wrote a sonata for clarinet and guitar that he adapted for Duo Sonidos. Riccardo Llorca is a Spanish contemporary composer in residence at the Juilliard School.
AL: I recently received a solo work that I commissioned from Ricardo Llorca called
and we’ve had a conversation about a new work for violin and guitar as well. We have a number of new works that we will be premiering this year, including Jorge Variego’s
David del Puerto’s
Jardín Bajo La Luna,
and Jorge Muñiz’s
We are very busy commissioning contemporary Spanish and Latin American composers. We like being connected to the Spanish traditions of the past and hope that our commissions will enlighten the public and provide us with fine repertoire.
Q: Do you find that people are crossing over from other genres?
WK: Yes, and we find that people are excited by the fact that there is a guitar playing with the violin. People who would not ordinarily come to a classical concert will come because there is a guitar playing. It’s sort of our “cool” factor.
Q: Do you teach?
WK: Yes, we do some teaching, but not a great deal because we travel so much. We expect to teach more as time goes by. Classical-music education in the United States is not what it could be. Many schools have no classical-music programs at all, not even music appreciation. Students do see the guitar everywhere and they become interested in it. They see it on television and with all the rock groups.
AL: We try to harness that “cool” factor.
WK: In some ways the violin, too, is cool these days.
AL: As a result, the guitar becomes the gateway instrument to classical music. Our collaboration of violin and guitar is a bit unexpected and it turns a few things upside-down. It’s been quite effective.
WK: Some bands are now using violins. Janet Jackson has had Vanessa-Mae perform with her on her
album and the Dave Matthews Band has a violinist that his fans are crazy about. Of course, country music has always had fiddles.
Q: Have you had any experience with El Sistema?
AL: We attended the New England Conservatory and they’ve had a strong relationship with El Sistema of Venezuela. They have created “neucleos” in Boston and they dream of expanding them across the United States. Will and I have embodied the mission of El Sistema by reaching out to groups of young people and adults who have not experienced classical music. We are featuring outreach work as a prominent part of our careers. Will with his chamber ensemble, and I as a solo guitarist go to underserved areas on a regular basis. For example, as an Albert Schweitzer Fellow, I led an after-school program at Boston’s poorest performing high school, English High School. There, I discovered an overwhelming eagerness to learn the guitar coupled with a strong desire to have fun and master something. I had a really dedicated group that showed up for class every week. Just plucking a new note or a chord was inspirational to them. The time investment was extremely fruitful. I only wish I could have used the Spanish I learned subsequently in Spain to teach some of those youngsters.
WK: Music encourages mastery, even at the introductory level. It demonstrates to kids that learning a piece from the very beginning and eventually being able to play and understand it is very fulfilling. We have both seen that on a number of levels.
Q: Where are the most interesting places that you have played?
AL: We’ve played extensively in towns around Spain. In particular, Elda, a small rural city outside of Valencia, had a fantastic chamber-music auditorium.
WK: Through the Fulbright program we were able to record in a lovely church in Moratinos, Spain. It’s in northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage trail running from Lourdes to Santiago de Compostela. The Camino has amazing churches and cathedrals littered along its path, even though many of the villages are small. The tiny farming village of Moratinos has a beautiful 17th-century church. People who were hiking on the Camino, which passed by the front door of the church where we were recording, would wander in to hear our music, making us feel like pied pipers. Some of these people had been walking for hundreds of miles and they sat outside on the steps and listened to us as we recorded.
AL: We expected little extraneous noise in a small village with 18 inhabitants, but we were surprised by the sound of tractors in the fields as they came in for lunch and left again after siesta.
Q: Do you ever play with larger ensemble?
WK: I play in a fantastic chamber orchestra in Boston called the Discovery Ensemble. It fits in with the whole idea of El Sistema. We’ve actually worked with the program at one of the charter schools here in Boston. We take the full chamber orchestra into schools. One of our ideas for the future of Duo Sonidos is to commission a work for violin, guitar, and a small orchestra. It would have to be played with a reduced orchestra to make the sound levels balance correctly. We definitely have that in mind for the future.
Q: Are you ever concerned with repetitive stress injury?
WK: Every string player is concerned with that. I had a problem with my right shoulder in 2001. It concerned the tendons in the shoulder and the rotator cuff, so I had to stop playing for about two months. Eastman was very kind and provided me with physical therapy. The therapist even came to my lessons. She incorporated aspects of Alexander and Feldenkrais techniques so that I could always position my body correctly. Those techniques encourage you to align your body and energy appropriately to avoid injuries. From that experience, I learned that I needed to train my body as if I were an athlete. I then started exercising and lifting weights. That is now a very important part of my violin training. It may seem backwards, but the more attention you pay to the larger muscles, the better your small muscles will work for you. Additionally, the more you develop your larger muscles, the better they protect your smaller muscle groups, which are more prone to injury.
AL: Those exercises help increase mental fitness as well. Working out and running increases overall energy. Will and I have our Duo Sonidos fitness plan, which helps us to stay in shape, increase stamina, and improve mental focus for those intense and sometimes long rehearsals.
WK: Maybe we will include it on our next recording!
William Knuth (vn); Adam Levin (gtr)
DUO SONIDOS (no number) (53: 16) Available from DuoSonidos.com
Histoire du tango.
7 Popular Spanish Songs