Rhinegold Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou
Miloš Karadaglić performs Talbot’s Ink Dark Moon at this year’s BBC Proms
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Lucy Thraves

Deputy Editor

Joby Talbot: Intimate Notes

3:06, 3rd October 2018

British composer Joby Talbot shares his experience of writing a new concerto for classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić

I’m not a guitarist, though I’ve written a few guitar pieces in the past. It’s a magical instrument, but it’s not as simple as writing something that sounds great – you have to create music that works magically for the guitar.

Miloš Karadaglić approached me to write a new and substantial piece that plays to his strengths and would appeal to his loyal, enthusiastic fan base. I was expecting to collaborate closely with Miloš, but fate decreed that we were never on the same continent at the same time. Fortunately, however, I’m used to making demos to share with producers and choreographers for my work in film and ballet, so I decided to look for a guitar sampler that would help me to understand how the instrument works. I found a piece of software called Ample Sound that shows the neck of the guitar onscreen, so when you write a note you can see where it might be played on the instrument. This allowed me to check whether each chord would be physically possible to play. I was also helped by a guitarist in Oregon called James Bishop-Edwards. It was remarkable that over 90 per cent of what I’d originally written survived this process – I didn’t change anything near as much as I was expecting to.

I write incredibly slowly for the guitar because it’s so different from any other instrument. Composers normally have an issue with writing for harp, but the harp is a walk in the park compared with the guitar! For a non-guitarist, it can be very counter-intuitive. As a woodwind player I was used to playing only one note at a time. The guitar’s multiple strings mean that every note appears in several different guises, and because of the way the instrument is tuned, the same harmonics crop up again and again.

Usually, when I hit upon a good idea, I write it down and move onto the next good idea. But in this case, I kept hitting on good ideas that it wouldn’t be practical on the guitar. Miloš airily said, ‘Write in a key with lots of open strings and we’ll take it from there’, but I didn’t want to write a half-hour piece that stays in D major. When Miloš first saw the music, he said, ‘You seem to have modulated to G-flat’; I replied, ‘Yes, but I think it still works’.

There are lots of guitar concertos that don’t get played. They are very valid pieces of music, but not the kind of thing mainstream audiences want to hear. For example, Villa-Lobos wrote a great guitar concerto, yet somehow it doesn’t tick the same boxes as Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Miloš wanted a crowd-pleasing piece.

I tried very hard to make my music as un-Iberian as possible, but the guitar has a habit of sounding Spanish due to its tuning and the way the player’s fingers fit on the frets. Once I realised that, I decided not to worry too much.

The guitar is very quiet so always has to be amplified. It’s not possible to put such a tiny, chamber music instrument in front of an orchestra and expect it to be able to hold its own. I tried to make the ensemble textures as transparent as possible, but this was challenging because Miloš wanted a piece for full orchestra. The final orchestration is for double winds and 10-8-6-6-4 in the strings, plus a concertante group of eight strings with harp and percussion. (Rodrigo’s Concierto is written for a little chamber orchestra.)

The guitar is amazing because it sits there in the middle of the texture and acts as ‘glue’ between other instruments, taking on any tonal characteristics required. The downside is that its profile is not very obvious: it’s such an unassuming instrument that it can easily get lost for a bar or two.

The slow movement of the Rodrigo is one of classical music’s great melodies and a real favourite with audiences. That very intimate, fragile mood is where it really shines: you feel extremely close to the player, much more so than with any violinist or pianist. Even listening to a recording, it seems like you are right there in a small room with the performer. That’s why people love it.

Miloš and I spent ages searching for a title for the new concerto. I knew it was going to have a narrative quality as well as being very atmospheric and romantic: it takes you on a journey. I had nearly given up  when I came across a collection of mediaeval Japanese love poetry by two women living in the 9th and 11th centuries, translated by a woman American poet called Jane Hirschfield. The anthology is called The Ink Dark Moon. I thought, ‘That’s perfect’ – it was exactly right. The concerto is also like an extended, night-time love letter, redolent with possibilities. I’m incredibly grateful to Jane Hirschfield for letting us use this title, which was inspired by her poetry translations.

I wanted to write something that would stand out as a piece of art of which I’m proud, as well as being the right vehicle for Miloš and his audience. It was a tricky balancing act to serve the project in all respects, so I’m delighted it has been given such a positive reception.

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