Benjamin Verdery: Playing and Composing Outside the Box

Benjamin Verdery Classical Guitar Magazine Composer
From the Summer 2016 issue of Classical Guitar magazine | BY CHRISTOPHER MALLET

It has been an eventful year for guitarist and composer Benjamin Verdery. He recently celebrated his 60th birthday, as well as his 30th anniversary at Yale University where, in addition to serving as professor and chair of the Guitar Department, he is also artistic director of the Yale Guitar Extravaganza, a biennial guitar festival. This year Verdery will also release his newest recording, On Vineyard Sound, which consists entirely of music written by composers who are on faculty at Yale. Over the years, Verdery has released nearly two dozen albums that display his comfort with a variety genres and that fearlessly blur musical boundaries. He has also recorded with artists such as John Williams, William Coulter, Paco Peña, and Leo Kottke.

As a composer, Verdery has written works for solo guitar and a variety of ensembles, developing a distinct compositional style, which often shows the influence of Indian raga and American blues. His compositions have been performed and recorded by a number of guitar luminaries, including David Russell, John Williams, and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. His background as a rock guitarist often shines through in his arrangements of songs by Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Elvis Presley, and others.

I first met Verdery in 2007, when I participated in a master class he taught at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, during my senior year as a classical guitar performance major. I later went on to receive my master’s degree in 2009 at Yale, where I studied with him and worked as his assistant.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with him at the end of what Richard Savino dubbed “GuitarStock,” an epic hangout that brought Verdery out to the San Francisco Bay Area to meet up with fellow guitarists Sergio Assad, Andy Summers, David Tanenbaum, Marc Teicholz, and John Dearman.

CLASSICAL GUITAR: Let’s begin with your new album of pieces by composers at Yale. How many years in the making was this project?

BENJAMIN VERDERY: The CD took a long time to complete and kept evolving over a few years. Without me knowing it, the journey began about ten-plus years ago, when my son was admitted to the Rhode Island School of Design’s undergraduate department. They had this admissions requirement where the applicants had to do three specific different drawings on a specific type of paper and with a specific pencil at home, and send them in. One of the drawings had to be of anything to do with a bicycle. When I saw all the varieties of drawings of the bicycles at the beginning of the school year, it gave me the idea to assign a Yale audition piece in which a Yale composer was going to write a short piece and the applicants would all have to learn it. The piece would not include dynamics, articulations, or even a tempo marking. They would have one month to learn it. Hearing what the students do with the piece would tell me a lot about them creatively—and believe me it did and has! You, Chris, were admitted largely on how creatively you played the set piece, which was written by Jack Vees, and that was the first year of the audition pieces.

Anyway, after a few years, I realized that I had a collection of wonderful pieces. That’s the real genesis of this recording. In a case like the Ezra Laderman piece, he wrote the first movement as the audition piece—which then, of course, wasn’t the first movement, it was just the audition piece. I said to Ezra: “You’re so great; this is so great! You have to write more.” He did and went on to write the rest of the piece. The same thing happened with [composer] Hannah Lash.

CG: The Hannah Lash piece is for electric guitar, correct?

BV: It was written originally for classical guitar. It was the second movement of the Hannah Lash that was used for the [audition] set piece. I decided that I liked it better on electric.

There were some composers, like David Lang and Aaron Kernis, who did not write audition pieces. So I asked them if there was a piece in their catalog that I could arrange. David Lang gave me the idea to arrange a cello piece he had called “Little Eye.” It’s for cello and piano. The piano part, he said, could be on any other instrument, so I decided to do that with the pedal steel guitar and on Otto Vowinkel’s baritone guitar. Aaron Kernis arranged a piano piece he had written in the ’80s, called “Lullaby,” for flute and guitar. Ingram Marshall had written an audition piece for solo guitar, but went on to write this beautiful alto- and C-flute-and-guitar piece for the CD. Jack Vees’ piece was recorded using seven different guitars and is based on a CD titled High Violet from the indie band The National. It’s quite textural, to say the least. Martin Bresnick and Chris Theofanidis also had audition pieces that are on the CD.

What I like about this album, and what I find interesting is, yes, all of them are or have been teachers at Yale, but their compositional styles are so varied. You would have no idea they are even all American. I think if you are into classical guitar, and guitar in general, there will be some work on this record you will connect with.

CG: Tell me about the release.

BV: It will be released in May, a bit unconventionally in that it will be a digital release. The release will include a short video interview with each of the composers talking about their individual work. In addition, there will be two videos of me, playing through a movement of the Bresnick and a movement of the Laderman. It will be a debut recording for a new label, Elm City Records.

CG: In addition to pieces you commissioned and arranged for this album, you also included your own composition, “En Ti Los Rios Cantan.” What inspired you to write that piece?


BV: I was asked by a wonderful Chilean composer, Javier Farias, to play and record a duo of his with my dear friend Elliot Fisk in a concert that was celebrating the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. A very generous soul gave me a recording of Neruda reading his “Twenty Love Poems.” I was so taken with the passion and musicality of his voice in the poem “Ah vastedad de pinos,” I thought it would be wonderful to somehow interweave musical phrases with Neruda. I chose a couple of lines from the poem, and I listened to the intervals in his reading, which are mostly minor seconds, and I developed a piece around two or three of these lines. I used Digital Performer software to manipulate the words, creating different rhythms and textures. It’s a solo guitar piece that has four moments where the voice enters and then it disappears. It was the first time I have ever done anything like this.

CG: So this is your first piece for guitar and tape?

BV: Yes, first guitar and tape, first guitar and spoken word. It has led me to be more open, and right now I’m writing a piece with a young beatbox artist named Mark Martin, called “From Aristotle.” It’s a collaboration unlike anything I have done. We’re combining spoken-word, beatbox rhythms, imitating sounds of nature, and some singing, with the classical guitar. The text is taken from Aristotle’s Poetics. I don’t think I would have done that, or been as open to it, if I hadn’t written the Neruda piece.

CG: You’ve always been known to think outside the box as a classical guitarist, from your arrangements of Prince and Jimi Hendrix, to collaborations with Celtic guitarist William Coulter and Andy Summers from the Police. Your newest project with rapper Billy Dean seems to take classical guitar to completely new territory. What inspired you to fuse together hip-hop and the music of J.S. Bach?

BV: One of the things I encourage my students to do is just open their heart, do what excites them, and not judge it. Whether it’s Charlie Parker, or the playing of Marcin Dylla—who I think is incredible—whatever it is, if it moves you, then find out why. Go with it, and don’t be afraid; then you will refine it. In the case of this collaboration, I have known Billy Dean since she was eight years old. She’s my daughter’s best friend. I was sitting with my daughter one evening and she said, “Have you heard Billy’s new stuff?” Listening to it, I was struck by the sound of her voice, her beats, and textures. I thought, “What if we did something together? How wonderful!” That was it. It was purely just because I thought we should.

I called her up and said “Hey Billy, we should do something.” Ten minutes later, I thought of the “Allegro” [from Bach’s BWV 998]. So I sent her a recording and said, “See if you can rhyme to this.” She called me up and asked, “When are we going to rehearse? I’ve got the lyrics.” She came over, and I swear to you, after a few bars, I said “This is so cool!” I didn’t even let her finish. I couldn’t play it, I was so into it. I said, “OK, let’s book a studio immediately.” We both felt it was really flowing and didn’t question it. It was totally organic. It had nothing to do with me stretching boundaries, but it is, and has been, in my being, I guess, to do things like this. We also recorded my etude “Start Now.”

The basic reaction was positive, and some people’s YouTube comments on “Black Bach,” and the collaboration in general, are very heartfelt and beautiful. But there were also definitely some negative reactions to “Black Bach.”

CG: Did the criticism you might receive concern you?

BV: No, I didn’t think about it until after. Look, I’m not a total idiot. I knew that it was going to raise eyebrows. But I thought what she wrote was too beautiful and needed to be heard. In addition, I thought high school guitar teachers might play it for their students who have no idea what the classical guitar is, or Bach, but do know what hip-hop is, and by showing them the video, some bridges might be built. In a time of such racial divides, we thought it might help bring some students together, create a dialog about music, cultures. If nothing else, they might flip seeing an old, gray-haired white guy playing with a young, African-American hip-hop artist!

That having been said, I can give you a list of friends of mine who really don’t like it. Why should they? I can also tell you it reminded me racism is an ugly, horrible reality in this country. I got a hate message on YouTube that was so heinous, it would make the hair stand on your head. It was unmentionably hateful.

If you create art, you can’t expect everyone to like it. This isn’t a popularity contest. You don’t create art because you think people are going to like it; you do it because it enriches you, it inspires you, because you have no choice.

‘I try to instill a sense of curiosity in my students. Before you play a note of any new piece, study it first, be curious about the composer, the expression markings, the tempo, the character of the work. Go deeper into it.’

Of course, it’s human nature to want people to like what we do, so I’m not suggesting that when I get a negative review, I don’t feel something. Of course I do, especially after all the blood, sweat, and cash that goes into a recording or a complex video shoot. I’d rather have people like what I do! As a classical guitarist, a teacher, and artistic director of a prominent guitar series, I try to set an example by being a truthful artist, struggling to be a better musician and guitarist each step of the way. I’m not doing this or that to win anybody over, I do it because I have to. By the way, when this article comes out, my EP with Billy, Hooks and Books, produced by Dave Veslocki, will have been released with four accompanying videos.

CG: For eight years now, you have been the artistic director of the 92nd Street Y Guitar Series in Manhattan, and recently you started releasing a set of videos called 92nd Street Guitar Talks. How did that project come about?

BV: I noticed that the piano recitals had a pre-concert talk, so I thought, “Why doesn’t the Guitar Series have a pre-concert talk?” So I began doing pre-concert talks about the given program. As those developed, we built an audience for it, and I then thought, “What if I can interview the artists?” My first feeling was that nobody wants to talk before their concert—I certainly wouldn’t! I was wrong. A lot of people were willing to be interviewed. I think Paul O’Dette was the first one. That led me to just keep asking everybody. They videotaped all the talks and made this series, and with the support of D’Addario, released them. I am overjoyed! Every one, from Sergio Assad, to the group interviews including people such as David Tanenbaum, the LAGQ, David Russell, and Raphaella Smits, to name a few, had such interesting things to share. I do think there is a dynamic there, of it being live, that gives it a certain energy. I hope it will provide a timeless snapshot of these extraordinary guitarists and their views about their lives and art.

CG: What advice do you have for aspiring guitarists and composers?

BV: Well, there’s a sort of cliché you’ve heard a million times, which is to follow your heart. There is a good reason for that. You have to follow your path, which may not always be evident. We don’t want to hear you write or play something that you feel you “should” write or play; we want to hear the piece you are burning to write or play, and have given enough study and commitment to make it worth our while to listen to.

You need to go to the store and buy this thing called patience! It’s cheap, but it takes some time to figure out how it works. Upon graduating from music school, it will take you seven to ten years to get a career going.

You need to be more still and quiet. You need to turn off the computer and your cell phone. There’s way too much distraction.

I’ll say one other thing. One of the most freeing expressions I learned as a teacher was, “I don’t know.” Meaning, “I can tell you a little bit about this phrase, my experience with phrases like it, or the history of the piece, but I’m not always exactly sure.” We can’t all be experts on everything, but we can be curious, we can try to know more. I try to instill a sense of curiosity in my students. Before you play a note of any new piece, study it first, be curious about the composer, the expression markings, the tempo, the character of the work. Go deeper into it. We all need to maintain a beginner’s mind, as they say, and not be stifled by our lack of knowledge. Everybody is learning, everybody needs to grow or is growing.


Ben Verdery’s main guitar these days is by New Jersey luthier Garrett Lee. Among his others are ones by Greg Smallman, Chris Carrington, and a steel-string model “which I use on the EP with Billy, Hooks and Books, by Jeff Traugott. All strings are D’Addario and I use a Barnett Guitar Support.”

Christopher Mallett is a co-owner and teacher at the California Conservatory of Guitar, and performs both solo and as part of DuoSF with Robert Miller.

This story originally appeared the Summer 2016 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.

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