Derek Gripper’s Wide World of Guitar: Bach, Africa, and More

BY THÉRÈSE WASSILY SABA | From the Summer 2019 Issue of Classical Guitar

Through his transcriptions and performances of music for the 21-stringed harp-like kora—specifically that of the renowned Malian musician Toumani Diabaté—onto the solo classical guitar, Cape Town, South Africa, native Derek Gripper has built a considerable reputation for himself in the world music scene. 

In recent years, Gripper’s work has led him to collaborate with a broad range of musicians who also derive great inspiration from world music, including classical guitarist John Williams. Williams recorded his own tribute to African music on his 2002 album Magic Box, and he continues to perform pieces from this recording in concert. In 2016, Williams invited Gripper to perform at the annual mini-festival Williams curates at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. 

I caught up with Gripper when he was in London briefly at the end of last year. After hearing him play an intimate recital in a French bookshop located in the East End of London on a narrow, cobble-stoned street that displays its name both in English and Pakistani, we had a chance to chat about a number of topics. That day he performed Bach solo repertoire, using his distinctive scordaturas—particular tunings that he has developed in order to transcribe kora music onto the guitar. This unique view of Bach’s music offers a different musical experience to the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, which he is preparing to record. 

CLASSICAL GUITAR: Let’s talk about the Bach recording of the Partitas for solo violin.

DEREK GRIPPER: Yes, well, I have had a long-term love affair with them. When I was 19, my teacher told me to go to the library and find Segovia’s edition of the Bach Chaconne. I started learning that and I came to England to do a master class at the Classical Guitar Magazine Festival at West Dean in Chichester, sometime around 1997. I played the Chaconne for Carlos Bonell and there was a disagreement from the people watching—Nikita Koshkin was there and a few others. Carlos had taken a completely different approach, and it probably represents where I am now, which is to “use the guitar, but use the guitar in a different way.” That interaction really started me on my path to try to transcend the guitar. The person I met on the next night was Jonathan Leathwood, who played the Chaconne in a different key—I think he was playing in C minor. It was a “tai-chi” incredible performance, and so later, in London, I had a lesson on the Chaconne with him. That was very enlightening and he introduced me to Paul Galbraith’s music. Then I started listening to Paul’s recording of the Violin Sonatas and Partitas by Bach. That was a whole new experience, which led me to play an eight-stringed guitar like Paul.

CG: You are on a quite different guitar now: You seem to have moved from the most experimental Brahms eight-string guitar designed by David Rubio in collaboration with Paul Galbraith to the most traditional Hermann Hauser guitar. What made you change? 

GRIPPER: Through a process of discovering that the eight-stringed instrument was not really the instrument that I needed to be playing, I eventually put it aside and wondered what to do. Then, in Segovia’s autobiography, I was reading about his Hauser guitar—there is an idea in South Africa that the traditional guitar was an unsuccessful instrument, and that we needed to reinvent it and create something new, as Greg Smallman did. I remember my guitar-maker saying that the traditional guitar sounds like it is being played behind a door. 

I had never heard a Hauser guitar. So I wrote to Hermann Hauser, the grandson, and I explained a little bit of my problem. Within about three weeks, I was in Munich and I had one of his guitars, which is amazing because it is usually a long, seven-year wait. So I have been playing that guitar ever since. It’s a 2003 guitar. He had a friend who collects his guitars, and as he had just got a new one, he was willing to part with one. 

The wonderful thing about this guitar is that it is made out of the same piece of wood as Segovia’s guitar. Once a year, he uses the same store of wood that Hauser senior made the Segovia guitar with. It’s called the Segovia Special Edition and he brings together elements from a lot of different guitars from over the years. The headstock is not the classic Hauser headstock and the back is also in four parts, so you see the little features on different guitars. It is exactly the dimensions of the Segovia guitar, which had a 65cm string length, but I think Hauser III does very much his own thing.

My Hauser is a very traditional guitar, but there’s a magic in the way that it projects. A Smallman guitar may be very loud, but once you are a few meters away, alongside the Hauser, they are actually balanced. We found that out when John Williams and I played at the Globe together; we played unamplified, and when I practiced with him, I couldn’t hear myself, because his guitar is so loud. But together, I think they were very well balanced from the audience’s perspective. 


CG: I noticed that you play with amplification, even in a small bookshop.

Gripper: Despite having these wonderful qualities for playing unamplified, what I have discovered throughout my career, playing at world music festivals and sometimes on outdoor stages, is that the Hauser has an incredible ability to be amplified because the sound is so focused—Hauser takes all the overtones and all that’s happening over the guitar, and he focuses that into the sound. You get a very clear sound that comes with the fundamental, and there’s not a lot of stuff on top. That is amazing once you put a microphone in front of it.

CG: You also travel with your own microphone. Did you have to experiment a lot with microphones?

GRIPPER: Yes, a lot. I always laugh at classical guitarists because they sit backstage and they file their nails with very, very fine sandpaper to make sure that they’re absolutely perfect, and they change their strings 15 seconds before they go onstage, so they can get absolutely the right sound, and then they walk onstage and they sit in front of any old microphone that the sound engineer chose, which is going to completely alter absolutely everything, more so than their guitar even. The microphone is very important and I have experimented a lot. 

I went through a period when I had discovered ribbon mics in the studio and that is what Segovia was recording on. Then I discovered a mic called the Beyerdynamic, from the 1950s or 1960s, and it has that ribbon sound. But what I’m using now is a phantom-powered ribbon mic by a company called Royer, which has this old ribbon sound; being phantom powered means you’re getting a lot more information and a lot more volume. It gives a very low signal, and what it does to a guitar is it picks up the very fine vibrations of the strings, so that you hear that sort of very fine rhythmical purring, which you don’t hear on a condenser mic. Condensers give precision, so you hear every little sound, whereas this is more like a valve amp, so you’re getting something much more warm and growling.

Playing unamplified means that you limit where you can play. We all listen to guitar amplified because we listen to recordings. And actually, you can get a much more intimate experience of a guitar concert if it’s well-amplified than without amplification, where, if you’re in the back, all you can hear is the fundamental. So I use a lot of amplification. I don’t like this idea of having just a little bit to reinforce the sound. If you’re going to amplify, do it properly and give people a nice experience—put them inside the guitar and make it an immersive experience. 

CG: I did enjoy the timbre of the guitar with the amplification, both when you played the Bach and the music of Toumani Diabaté. Can you explain the composer-music relationship in Toumani Diabaté’s pieces?

GRIPPER: When I play Toumani’s music, I insist on the fact that I am playing a composer’s music. It’s not entirely true, because Toumani didn’t compose the pieces that he plays—well, he did and he didn’t; it depends on your ideas of composition. They are traditional, but his versions are unique. When I play my arrangements to Toumani, he says, “That’s your composition.” If I were a griot [itinerant West African musician, poet, and storyteller who carries on oral traditions], I wouldn’t be attributing my versions to Toumani. But as a non-griot, in the climate that we have now, I believe it is very important to see Toumani as a composer for many reasons, because I think it changes our idea of who composers are, and it changes our idea of who African musicians are, as well—to see Toumani as a traditional musician who is improvising over a bass lines separates it. Once you see Toumani as a great African composer, then suddenly you are watching an example, in our time, of someone like Bach—someone who speaks a finite language of music fluently and is able to compose in real time. Bach went into the study and wrote the piece down, and Toumani goes into the studio and records it. 

If someone comes to you and asks: “What is a classical musician? What is classical music?” For me, the only reason that I consider myself still to be a classical guitarist is because I think classical music is the art of interpretation, it’s the interpretation of texts, hopefully in a creative way. I have enlarged what is a text because I use recordings as texts now, as well—obviously, they are also texts. 

The key thing is interpretation, so the locus of authority needs to move from the score and the composer and the teacher and go back to the body and the instrument. When you have that shift, then suddenly interpretation becomes this really interesting, creative art form. One of the things William Kentridge, an artist from South Africa, has done is a series of ink drawings of coffee pots. Artists can look at something and make an interpretation of it, and that is what we call representative art. That is essentially what a guitarist is doing, as well: we are looking at a score, and then we are going to make something of it. It’s like a still life—or a moving life. What it isn’t is a direct representation of the score on the page. That’s really very boring. That is where I talk about photorealism: that idea that I somehow have to bring to life what’s on the page. For me, what’s on the page is an impetus. It’s something that gets you playing.  

CG: Although classical guitar has been a constant in your life, your collaborations seem to take you down very interesting musical paths.

GRIPPER: Yes, I’ve just done an album with the cellist Mike Block, who has played with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. I was in Boston, and Mike asked me to come and record a song called Wayfaring Stranger. When I got there, I realized that he had a whole day booked at the studio just for one song, so I said let’s make an album. We made a ten-track record together that day; it was the first day that we had met. I had just made a new solo album of arrangements of West African songs, that I haven’t released yet either, so we basically did a second version of that record with cello. Now, I am making a third version with string quartet. The cello and the guitar complement each other very well. The solo recordings are very intimate, and then when you add the cello, it’s more open and there’s improvisation. Mike’s playing is just magnificent.