Between Cultures: A Rare Interview with Visionary Composer and Guitarist Carlo Domeniconi


“The time of the self-deprecating ‘classical’ guitar is over. It is time to see the guitar as it really is: a strong, sonorous instrument with a richness of color that knows no equal.”

This bold manifesto is to be found on composer and guitarist Carlo Domeniconi’s homepage. The lines efficiently summarize his music, which is full of colors: sometimes silently whispering, sometimes valiantly loud-spoken, always on its way through shifting environments, where beautiful, restful passages are rapidly transformed into exciting cascades of notes inspired by Turkish maqaam or the raga of Indian classical music; plus a diversity of weird sounds picked from the toolbox of guitar modernism.

For most of us, Domeniconi’s name immediately brings to mind Koyunbaba, a work from 1985 that has become one of the most performed pieces in the contemporary guitar repertoire. According to Domeniconi, the title has two meanings: It is the name of a wild and remote region in southwestern Turkey that is believed to have certain magical properties, and it is also the name of a medieval Turkish saint. The literal translation is “father of sheep,” or shepherd. Koyunbaba is a modal composition inspired by Turkish folk music, and after hearing it, many tend to connect Domeniconi only to this fusion of Western and Turkish music—even though this is just one aspect of his great body of work.

Indeed, his credit list includes more than 150 pieces—a great deal of it music for solo guitar, but also guitar duets and some works written for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. In several other ensemble compositions, the guitar holds a prominent position among other instruments, but in his wide-ranging oeuvre, there are also string quartets, works for large orchestra, and music for saz (a long-scale lute, often used in Turkish and Kurdish music).

And although the Turkish influence is apparent in various compositions, Domeniconi has also mined many other diverse musical traditions, including Indian and Arabic music, as well as Latin American, Spanish, and English—so he certainly does not only turn East to find inspiration. In Toccata in Blue, there are several phrases that breathe of jazz and blues, and the title’s similarity to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is hardly a coincidence.

Sometimes Domeniconi examines the musical thinking and imagination of another composer and then allows that artist’s spirit to come through and flourish in his own creations. In this way, pieces like Gesualdo (inspired by the troubled but talented Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo), Studies for the Spirit (greatly influenced by the French composer Olivier Messiaen), and Hommage a Jimi Hendrix (the late 1960s electric guitar titan) have come to life. One could even say that there are similarities to Mexican composer Manuel Ponce, who wrote guitar music inspired by the stylistic features of different eras, such as Sonata Classica and Sonata Romantica, not to mention his A-minor Sonata, where he directly tried to recreate the tonal language of Baroque composer and lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss (and managed so well that some were actually convinced this really was a suite from the 18th century).

Domeniconi was born in 1947 in the city of Cesena in northeast Italy. His first teacher was Carmen Lenzi Mozzani, granddaughter of the noted luthier Luigi Mozzani, who in 1938 made the instrument that Domeniconi mostly performs on to this day. He studied classical guitar at the Conservatorio Rossini in Pesaro and then moved to Berlin, where he also studied composing. At that time, what was then known as West Germany welcomed many guest workers from Turkey and it was through contact with this community that Domeniconi’s interest in Turkish music was awakened. In 1977, he moved to Istanbul and founded the first guitar course at the city’s conservatory. He left in 1980 but has often returned as a guest teacher. He moved back to Germany and since then has been active as a pedagogue, in addition to his very productive life as a composer and a truly skillful guitarist.

He has released several albums featuring his own music, and among the many guitarists who have recorded his works you’ll find celebrated names such as John Williams, Xuefei Yang, Aniello Desiderio, David Russell, Dale Kavanagh, and Celil Refik Kaya.

There are surprisingly few interviews and articles available on Carlo Domeniconi and his music. [He was interviewed by Colin Cooper for the April 1989 issue of Classical Guitar.] I made several attempts to reach him via Skype and e-mail and I was beginning to lose hope of connecting with him when he finally responded to my queries.

ANGE TURELL: Your playing and composing sometimes exceeds the limits of what may be considered as possible with a guitar. What are your thoughts about this and how do you look at the guitar in general—what can be achieved with it and what are the challenges for a soft-spoken instrument like the nylon-string guitar?

CARLO DOMENICONI: What do you mean by “exceeding the limits”? Do I really do this? I am not sure about that! But I think this “soft-spoken” guitar has the possibility to touch the soul in a very particular way. This is actually what I am trying to do.

TURELL: You have stated that you are aiming at a “music of the Earth,” by melding together influences from different traditions. Do you regard music as a universal language, and could it contribute in the forming of a deeper experience and understanding of existence and humanity?

DOMENICONI: Music is one very important aspect of our lives! People around the world speak different languages and make different-sounding music. However, we have something common: the physics, or better, the overtones. They are a common point. The usual way today to mix everything—East meets West, for example—produces empty music. To meet another cultural area is very sensitive work which requires a lot of respect and deep knowledge. Only like that can we develop. Only like that we can really come together.

We are living between cultures, and the desire to combine musical traditions is quite natural today. To do this successfully, we have to go back to the roots of the traditions. For example: It is easy to combine Oriental music with Western early music, in both of which harmonic progression is not the central focus.

I try to absorb the music of different traditions by thoroughly studying their structure and distinctiveness, through reading, traveling, and attempting to understand the playing techniques and philosophy connected with instruments like, for example, the saz or oud.

TURELL: How do you use alternative tunings? What demands are there on the playing technique to be able to play your music?

DOMENICONI: The “normal” tuning is good for all music which needs the old harmonic system I-IV-V-I. The strings are tuned according to this reason. So: G is the tonic, D is the dominant of G, A the dominant of D, and E the dominant of A.


This tuning doesn’t make any sense for other tonal systems (modal, free-tonal, atonal, etc). So we change the tuning in order to achieve a better playability and sound. In Koyunbaba the recommended tuning is C#-G#-C#-G#-C#-E.

I use a lot of techniques taken from every kind of guitar-playing—many of which are not taught in conservatory training (flamenco, South American, blues, rock, etc.)—and many special techniques freely developed from my own improvisation. In some cases it would be advisable for a performer to consult me personally, as some guitar players already do.

TURELL: Would the construction of the guitar need to change in any way to meet the challenges of new musical creations?

DOMENICONI: Regarding the construction, the guitar can remain
unaltered…. It is the player who has to change!

TURELL: What does the process of composing look like for you? Do you work with the guitar on your lap? By the computer? Is it a logical process or more of an intuitive one? Where do you find your inspiration?

DOMENICONI: What a question! Of course I compose with my beloved guitar on my lap! It is not a question of insecurity. . . . I just need the sound to get the right energy. From where do I get my inspiration? Sometimes I think I know that . . . sometimes not!

TURELL: One of your works that I find really wonderful and touching is the Chaconne [based on Bach’s famous Chaconne, BWV 1004]. It is like a contemporary commentary on Bach’s work and it deepens the understanding and experience of it, yet it’s an outstanding, excellent piece of its own. How did you come up with this idea: using Bach’s Chaconne as a kind of a starting point or matrix for your composition?

DOMENICONI: Every transcription of the Chaconne presents serious problems. My idea was to see what would happen if I didn’t have to worry about style, the rules of counterpoint, etc. What happens is this: reveling in pure anarchy.

Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement for four-hands piano purposely doesn’t respect the rules of Bach’s time. My Chaconne takes this a huge step further in disregarding even the notes. The only thing left of the original is the recognizable structure.

TURELL: You regularly perform your own music on stage.

DOMENICONI: Yes. I think it is the most natural thing to do, playing your own music.

TURELL: I understand improvisation is a most important concept to you. Why is that so? How much time do you spend improvising on the guitar?

DOMENICONI: Yes, improvisation is a very important part in my music. Why? Because I think improvising produces a better balance between the composer and the instrument. I improvise mainly in concerts.

TURELL: Do you have any advice for serious guitarists?

DOMENICONI: Many. But let me say that in one sentence: Choose your music with a lot of respect for the guitar. Only if the music suits 100 percent to your instrument and your abilities do you have a chance to transmit something spiritual.

Ange Turell is a Swedish guitarist and composer. This interview originally appeared in the Swedish magazine Gitarr och Luta.

2 Guitarists/Admirers on Domeniconi

Dale Kavanagh

Canadian guitarist Dale Kavanagh is professor of guitar at the Musikhochschule in Detmold, Germany. She is a prominent guitarist performing world-wide, both as soloist and as one half of the Amadeus Guitar Duo.

I first heard of Carlo Domeniconi while studying in Switzerland in the early 1980s. One of my fellow students had been a previous student of Carlo’s in Berlin and mentioned to me that my style of music-making would fit very well to playing Carlo’s music and that he might be a good teacher for me.

I thought nothing of it at the time and life went on. Some years later, after moving to Germany, I came across the Variations on an Anatolian Folksong, which I loved immediately and put into my program. [Written in 1982, it was Domeniconi’s first piece to utilize Turkish themes.] During one of my visits performing in Berlin, this piece was in the program. I was somewhat excited to hear that Carlo might come to the concert. There was a music exhibit at the guitar festival and before the performance, I was browsing through the music store. A man was next to me and we began to talk. He was very friendly and after a while, I asked him if he knew what Carlo Domeniconi looked like. He said that he did not know him personally and could not help me. I found out afterwards that this man was Carlo himself and he was just having fun with me! He thought it very funny—and afterwards, so did I. So began our relationship and friendship.

Carlo’s music has a strong energy around it. It does touch the soul, and it is magical, strong, passionate, and sometimes complicated. Carlo uses a lot of interesting flageolet techniques, which can be quite difficult. He sometimes uses various open tunings to find the sound world which he is looking for. He finds intimate sounds on the guitar that are rare and new, to create his musical language. It is both technically and musically challenging.

He music is never dry. It is filled with passion and love, aggression, and maybe a slap in the face. And humor. Yes, his special humor. Look at Circus Music!

I love so many pieces by Carlo and have performed: Trilogy, Toccata in Blue (written for me), Chaconne (dedicated to me), Studies for the Spirit, Schnee in Istanbul, A Day in Paradise, Variations on an Anatolian Folksong, Oyun (quartet and concerto). And with my Amadeus Guitar Duo: Concerto Meditereaneo and Oyun (concerto), Orient y Occident, and Duo in Tres Movimenti. I love each and every one of these pieces and would like to—and will—play more works. Sindbad is a powerful cycle that I like a lot. I never did learn Koyunbaba, which is possibly his most famous piece. I think that is performed enough, and other beautiful pieces needed to be heard.

Celil Refik-Kaya

Turkish guitarist and composer Celil Refik Kaya has won prizes at many prestigious guitar competitions and firmly established himself as one of the foremost players and composers of the younger generation. His 2018 Naxos album, Carlo Domeniconi: Guitar Music, includes a nearly definitive Koyunbaba, as well as the Spanish-influenced 2005 work Don-Quijote-Suite.

Maestro Domeniconi is a multi-cultural composer who has a great variety of musical influences. From the Turkish perspective, I always thought Domeniconi captured the magical atmosphere of Turkish folk music so successfully—especially in Koyunbaba, in which he created an archaic and mystic sound that captures Turkish folk music motifs in a great compositional unity. His Variations on an Anatolian Folksong, based on Asık Veysel’s Uzun Ince bir Yoldayım, is another favorite work of mine.

Since I grew up listening to and playing Turkish music, Domeniconi’s Turkish-influenced pieces are very close to my heart. In my first volume of Domeniconi’s works for Naxos, I mainly chose the Mediterranean- and Oriental-influenced works to unify the album as a concept.

I haven’t had a chance to meet Maestro personally, but we have had email conversations about the project. Although I have many compositional influences, Maestro Domeniconi’s place in my heart is special as a performer.