David: I read an interview with John Williams where in the course of the interview said that classical guitarists are notorious for being bad sight-readers. What do you see as issues guitarists have to address?
Allen: I’m a very good sight-reader only because I made a point of it. I do think that the guitar is a hard instrument to sight read on. It’s harder than most instruments because we’re playing polyphonic music and also because it’s not laid out in the logical way like the piano is laid out. I do encourage my students to spend a little time every day practicing sight-reading.
David: Other obstacles?
Allen: Well, there are a couple fundamental obstacles that are a natural part of the guitar. Number one- the average guitarist spends too much time playing by themselves and playing solo music and they can develop indulgent bad musical habits, if they played more chamber music that would be corrected. They wouldn’t be able to get away with it. That is one tendency I think is changing. I’ve always considered that one function of mine-to write guitar chamber music, which I’ve written quite a bit of. I think it’s healthy for the guitar that we don’t sit in the corner and play by ourselves-as much as I like solo guitar music. We also participate as chamber music players and we have a surprisingly rich heritage of chamber music if we look for it. What goes along with that is most guitarists play to softly. Go play with a violin and see what happens. I think guitar makers who are building louder guitars are addressing some of that. I think the average guitarist plays too much to themselves and they need to over come those two things.
David: Do you have a specific piece that you wrote that is your favorite?
Allen: It’s hard to be objective they’re your children. I think one that I feel best about is a trio that I wrote for guitar, violin and cello. I’m very happy in fact and my desire is to have other people play them. There is an up and coming guitarist named Adam Levin who lives in Boston, he is playing it a number of times this year around the country in different venues. He’s playing it in Chicago and I’m going out there as the guest composer on this chamber music series he is part of. I like that piece a lot, when he heard it he it he got very excited about it. That’s one piece I feel good about. I feel good about my Guitar Concerto that Jason Vieaux has played a number of times. It’s for guitar and chamber orchestra.
David: Does being a classical guitarist give you a different perspective?
Allen: Yes, Bruckner is an example of somebody who was a great orchestral composer and you can really tell he approached the orchestra differently because his instrument was the organ. His orchestral music really has that imprint of his organ background. I’d like to think my guitar background gives me a little different way to think of things.
David: Is the guitar a hard instrument to write for?
Allen: Yes, I know it is. I think the guitar is the hardest instrument to write for. It has so many idiosyncrasies that make it difficult to anticipate unless you play it yourself. So I think the best advice is what Segovia use to do. He’d have composers listen to a few pieces and get a sense of the texture and basically say just write, don’t inhibit yourself and I’ll help you correct the details. I think composers who don’t play the guitar should take an approach like that. To make the guitar sound natural is really tough. I’ve worked a lot with composers, as long as they have basic idea of the right sound and texture and try not to make it sound like a grand piano. Usually you work with them and hold theirs hands a little bit and show them some options of what they want to do. And then there are the composers who write successfully for the guitar in a limited way because they treat it like a violin. So it is really hard to write for the guitar especially solo guitar music without playing it. To me the most impressive example of that is the Britten Nocturnal at least in the standard repertoire. A lot of the best pieces have been written with a guitarist on the scene working with the composer.
David: Was your piece Small Symphony for Saxophone and Electric Guitar written with a specific electric guitar in mind?
Allen: I wanted it to have a bridge between a classical symphony but with the expressivity of a blues guitar. I guess I was thinking of your typical blues guitar can play that like a Stratocaster. Theres a lot of places in that also where you play it with finger style. In a sense the way Jimi Hendrix would play Little Wing, beautiful quasi-acoustic sounding. I wanted to treat the guitar in that way. I’d love to write a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra. That’s in the back of my mind.
David: Do you have an electric guitar?
Allen: It’s actually a Stratocaster copy. It’s a Casio that I bought when I use to do commercial music. It’s a Midi guitar and it actually functions quite nicely as a Strat.
David: What kind of commercial music did you write?
Allen: I went through a stage in the late 1980’s early 1990’s where I was writing TV and radio commercials.
David: Was it a stage or necessity?
Allen: It was a stage. If it were out of necessity I would still be doing it. What happed was I was getting restless and I had an opportunity to write at a fairly high level. My first job was an American Express commercial. That’s what jump-started me as a composer. Getting to write commercials and film scores.
David: What else have I bought as a result of your music?
Allen: Well it was American Express and Molson Ale that were the big radio campaigns. I did it for maybe eight to ten years. It justified composing as a viable profession. The funny thing was that once I stared doing it I realized that how much I wanted to do it but was afraid of it but was now getting paid and it justified it. And it was doing film where I was able to be myself and then I got some opportunities to write chamber music and I realized this is what I really want to be doing. Making a living as a classical composer is pretty difficult. Of course by the time I got there I cared less about the difficulty because it’s what I wanted to do.