BY MARK SMALL | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
The summer of 2019 was a busy one for American guitarist Alec Holcomb. He competed in the Parkening International Guitar Competition in Malibu, California, and then in the Guitar Foundation of America competition in Miami, Florida, taking second and third honors respectively. He also spent time preparing the rollout of his debut album, Albéniz: España, Op. 165, Suite Española No. 1, Op. 47. At the time of our conversation, the guitarist was looking for housing in the Bay Area prior to continuing his graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music this fall with Judicaël Perroy.
At just 24, Holcomb has built an impressive résumé and envisions a performing career after earning his master’s degree. Through the years he has competed in numerous contests, and at 17 won a first prize in the Parkening Young Guitarist Competition in 2012. Later, he placed first in the East Carolina Guitar Competition (2014) and the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Competition (2015). In 2016, he won the BorGuitar Festival Competition in Italy and was a finalist in both the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition and the Columbus State University Guitar Competition. He also took third place in the GFA contests of 2017 and 2019.
Onstage, Holcomb radiates the confidence of a virtuoso firmly in control of his instrument and the music. While it’s a great accomplishment to finish among the top three in major competitions, Holcomb is feeling the pull to turn his formidable abilities toward the music that’s closest to his heart.
“Three is my lucky number at GFA,” Holcomb says with a smile in his voice. “I’m deciding now if I should continue to do competitions. They’re always more work than I plan on.” The focus needed to prepare complex set pieces and to program music that will meet the specific requirements for various competitions can be all-consuming.
“Sometimes this keeps me from other music that I really want to play,” he says. “Competitions are hugely valuable to the guitar community. Playing them has absolutely improved my chops and ability to learn pieces quickly and polish difficult ones. I’ve also met so many great players and friends that I would not have met otherwise. You have to approach competitions in a mentally healthy way, though. If you don’t win, it doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough to share your music. I feel that there are many young players that deserve to be heard but don’t get a chance because they didn’t win first prize.”
Music City Roots
Holcomb was born into a musical family in Nashville, Tennessee. “My grandfather had played bluegrass and Appalachian music with his family back in West Virginia,” he says. “They sang and played together as a social thing. My dad picked up on that and played a bit of country and then moved on to rock and funk. He played in semiprofessional rock bands in the 1980s for fun. When he was about 30, he discovered classical guitar and became fascinated listening to Barrueco, Parkening, Segovia, and other big names from his era.”
Holcomb’s parents bought him a half-size classical guitar when he was six and his father taught him the basics. “My dad wanted me to do things right. He bought a lot of books on pedagogy and spent time making sure he wasn’t teaching me bad habits. We worked a lot on technical exercises. I couldn’t get enough of those. They made me feel like I was developing in the correct way. I am very grateful for my father’s time and effort.”
By age 12, Holcomb was studying with John Johns at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University and later met Andrew Zohn, a faculty member at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. “That was pivotal,” Holcomb recalls. “I studied with [Zohn] throughout my high school years. Once a month I’d go to Columbus and spend four hours with him over a weekend. We decided he would teach me like I was a college student and we worked really hard. He’s a very gifted teacher, incredibly funny, who helped me move away from technical studies and into musicianship and the history of the pieces.”
After high school, Holcomb enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with Jason Vieaux and David Starobin. “I feel that every teacher I’ve had in my progression has been the right person at that time,” he says. “That was really the case with Jason and David. From Jason I learned a lot about performing—how to shape ideas distinctly and in a way that people can understand. David worked with me extensively on rhythm, and I cannot thank him enough for that. Both have shown me so many musical options and freed my mind from my usual way of thinking about music. Judicaël Perroy has been just who I needed for the last two years, as well. He’s a genuinely cool dude whose brain seems to be a couple of steps ahead of the rest of us. He brings the studio together in a fun and productive way so we can learn from each other.” Holcomb also credits David Tanenbaum, who also teaches at SFCM, for going above and beyond as a mentor. “Between the two of them I’ve had so many opportunities to grow as a musician.”
On the Record
“When I was 17, I felt I wanted to have an album on the table at a future time,” Holcomb says. “I really enjoy the music of Albéniz. It’s versatile and you can’t go wrong with it. Each piece has its own character and is very listenable.” The album’s 15 tracks feature two complete suites, as well as L’Automne-Valse, Op. 170, by the Spanish composer/pianist.
Initially, Holcomb planned to record well-known arrangements of Albéniz’s pieces, but at his father’s suggestion, he created his own versions. “I knew I needed to start making my own transcriptions. I highly value originality, so I decided to take this on,” he says. He didn’t refer to recordings or editions by other guitarists, he just started working with the piano scores. “After spending the first day on two measures of music I knew this was going to be really hard,” he confides. “A year and a half later, I had finished the transcriptions. By performing them and fixing little details over the course of five years, they’ve finally become something I’m proud of and enjoy playing.”
Holcomb’s version of Asturias stays close to the piano original by continuing the 16th-note rhythm of the first section of the piece as opposed to breaking it into sextuplets as the widely played Segovia edition does. He discovered serendipities while exploring keys for movements needing transposition. “I would always see whether the original would work. But if something sounded better on the guitar in another key, I transposed it.”
For selections such as Cuba, it was natural to transpose the original from Eb to E for a better fit on the guitar. In Castilla, Holcomb retained Albeniz’s original key of F#. “Choosing the keys was a decision I made at 18,” he shares. “I don’t know that I would do things the same way now, but the keys I chose work pretty well. Keeping Aragon in F was a great choice, as there were times when I needed a low E and it was there. If I had decided to transpose the arrangement to E, I don’t know what I would have done in those places. The main ideas for me were maintaining the flow on the guitar and keeping the melody as the primary subject.”
To a point, Holcomb agrees with Segovia’s sentiment that a successful transcription should sound at least as good or better on the guitar. “But conversely, I don’t think everything needs to sound like a guitar piece. That’s made me question whether we are sticking with a sound that is traditional or using the instrument and its variety of sounds to create our own music. As I was learning this material, I kept asking myself if I was playing it as a guitarist would. That kept me away from doing things that have been done before.” Holcomb plans to publish all of the transcriptions in 2020.
Talkin’ About My Generation
Holcomb notes that his peers appreciate the major players of earlier generations without feeling compelled to follow exactly in their footsteps. “There’s a lot less consideration for tradition,” he says. “It’s interesting to see what music people are drawn to. Many are reexamining the Segovia repertoire and playing pieces that might not have gotten attention at the time. Some are interested in pop, electronic, jazz, or folk music, and are looking for accessible repertoire. Others are writing their own pieces or transcribing and arranging things they enjoy listening to.
“I love to be creative about what I do and I’m not sure if a very traditional performing career would give me the creative room I’d like. I want to work with composers and try to make something new. People are really trying to get out of the classical guitar bubble—not that there is anything wrong with the bubble. But as performers, we want to play for as wide an audience as possible.
“As music lovers, we want to dip our toes elsewhere and experience it all. With so many young guitarists taking musical chances and pushing to be heard, some will undoubtedly find an audience. I’m excited to see what that will look like.”
What He Plays
Alec Holcomb plays a 2013 Gernot Wagner double-top guitar with spruce on the outside and cedar on the inside. The back and sides are African blackwood. The neck scale is 650mm. He uses high-tension Savarez Corum basses and Alliance trebles.