Eclectic Guitarist and EuroStrings Artistic Director Mak Grgic is Always on the Move

RYAN HUNTER PHOTO
BY OLLIE McGHIE | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

I first saw Mak Grgic (pronounced ger-gich), in Nürtingen, Germany, during an unprecedented heatwave. While the thermometer was reading an impressive 104 degrees (40°C), Mak looked unaffected. He had short, dark, slightly tousled hair, wore aviator sunglasses, and sported a clean-cut shirt with the crispest of collars—like someone from Hollywood dropped into medieval Germany.

Appropriately, perhaps, the 31-year-old guitarist resides in Los Angeles. Born to a Bosnian father and Slovenian mother, his homeland is in the Balkans. He studied music at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna under Uruguayan virtuoso Alvaro Pierri. A bit later he made his move to the U.S., ending up in L.A. studying at the University of Southern California with William Kanengiser and Scott Tennant (of LAGQ fame). 

Three months on from our meeting in Germany, we sit in a café in central London. Mak is hungry for life. With several albums due to come out this year, teaching commitments, a career as a solo guitarist, and being artistic director of the Zagreb Guitar Festival, as well as the growing EuroStrings Festival Collaborative, it’s a wonder he finds any time for sleep.

When we meet in London he is just back from touring with Canadian pop and country star k.d. lang. “Most of the halls we played in were the big, old vaudeville ones,” Mak says, “the Paramounts and Majestics of the American South, plus some symphony halls. This showcased a great quality of the classical guitar—even though it’s classical, it can transmit to huge audiences who don’t know anything about the instrument. The most fun thing was that I experienced the audience the way a rock artist might—they swayed during the slower tunes, shouting out during the faster ones; there were even proclamations of love! It’s a nice change from the formality of classical music audiences. In the classical environment, the formal silence is OK, but sometimes it’s unnecessary because the artist wants affirmation beyond respectful silence.”

As a solo artist, Mak plays 80 to 90 concerts a year.  “I’ve been lucky in my career so far,” he says. “I have agents in New York City, Europe, and China, and this is a completely functional touring career that was not built through competitions. I rarely do a ‘recital’—most concerts have thematic programs.” With no fewer than four album projects slated for imminent release, it is easy to see why this is the case. Although he is still excited about his 2018 release on MicroFest records, MAKrotonal (reviewed favorably in Classical Guitar’s Summer 2018 issue), he’s also looking down the road.

Mak’s next solo album, due in spring 2019, is a chanson-type album called Night in the Old Town, full of arrangements of old Zagreb city tunes. Around mid-year, Balkanisms will be coming out on Naxos; that one’s a tribute to his homeland, featuring music by Miroslav Tadic and Vojislav Ivanovic among others. Also for Naxos, Mak and flamenco guitarist Adam del Monte, working as Duo Deloro, are putting out a flamenco crossover album called La Buena Vida. And then there are the five Macedonian pieces that are being reworked into a concerto by Slovenian composer Leon Firšt, to be recorded later in 2019 as part of a residency with the Slovenian Chamber Orchestra. 

Also up the road is “a project I’m doing with Daniel Lippel, guitarist from ICE [International Contemporary Ensemble], which is gamelan-inspired arrangements by composer Anderson Alden of György Ligeti etudes for two guitars. My work with Daniel pushes all sorts of boundaries.” This collaboration is known as the FretX Duo. “I don’t earn from it but there is academic satisfaction,” Mak comments. “I love avant-garde music: I’ve played spectral music, I’ve bowed the guitar, produced multi-phonics. . . .”

Past records have included String Modulations—guitar played in diverse chamber groupings, with music by the young Slovenian composer Nejc Kuhar—and Cinema Verismo, consisting of classical pieces used in popular films, as well as movie themes; that project was born out of a desire to soothe the impediments of Alzheimer patients. 

RYAN HUNTER PHOTO

From a young age, Mak has had his fingers in a lot of pies. He initially showed promise in math and martial arts—the latter enabling him to travel to places such as Japan, Paris, and Switzerland competing in international events, even winning a world championship title. He was a globe-trotter even before the busy touring schedules of his later musical career. The guitar entered his life at the age of 11 when he enrolled in music school—his father chose the instrument.  


Advertisement


Who are his role models now? “I love the work of Argentinian guitarist Pablo Márquez—it’s orientated around new music. But right now my role model would be the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. I want to do that!”

Mak says his foray into festival organization—which has been quite time-consuming the last few years—was sparked by a visit to the biennial music festival in Darmstadt, Germany, many years ago. “I had started very locally in Los Angeles organizing small concert series,” he says, “but I wanted to stage something bigger. At Darmstadt there was a big talk about whether a programmed robot could make music in a way that humans do, and whether or not that’s actually human. That talk really interested me.

“On a separate occasion, I was floating in a sensory deprivation chamber for about four hours in the pitch dark. After a while you start hearing the white noise of your brain—this triggered all sorts of musical associations. I thought this was the most exciting ‘concert’ I’d been to in a long time. The idea that a venue wasn’t limited to architectural construction, but could be something within you, or undefined and virtual. This led to exploring how to create venues in the ‘cloud’ or venues that were virtual. I paired with some tech wizards in L.A. and created worlds through goggles.”

Soon after this, Mak cofounded an interdisciplinary arts festival called Festival M.A.R.S., which combined music, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. While he no longer works at M.A.R.S. (the festival continues), his experience taking on bigger projects had fueled an inner fire, and he eventually took on the role of artistic director at the Zagreb Guitar Festival, bringing to the task a wide range of ideas of how to expand the classical guitar audience and enhance the festival experience.

“There were things which I thought were passé in terms of making money and engaging audiences,” Mak says. “Around the world, I see most festivals are heavily or lightly subsidized by local governments—that’s what we lean on, so whatever is done in terms of programming doesn’t need to engage, or bring in ticket sales. Some people put on shows to invite certain people, who will in turn invite the same hosts and artists to their shows. This doesn’t always translate to quality. There are Swiss-cheese holes in the whole equation. Over the years we have portrayed a poor image for the guitar community, and, shining examples aside, we’re falling off the map. My frustration about this, coupled with the fact that I live in a very progressive artistic center of the world, has propelled that idea of needing to revamp certain things.”

Not only were his ideas embraced by Mak’s bosses in Zagreb, they also helped spur the creation of EuroStrings, the remarkable, still-growing “collaborative” organization of European guitar festivals that currently has 17 participating member-countries.

“The first draft of the EuroStrings program was pretty basic,” Mak says. “Then more and more people got involved. A year on, we’ve shaken the ground quite a bit. Where it differs from the GFA [Guitar Foundation of America] is that it is about the community of listeners and players and helping to educate both, alongside inviting organizers on a massive scale to think in new fashions. GFA facilitates a unity within the USA. They have established a model that is incredibly successful and usually supports the endeavors of one person [winner of its annual ICAC competition], whereas EuroStrings supports many people [winners in each country]. GFA is a great model—whatever they do best we should absorb and develop. This is the same process for developing any sort of product—learning from others; it would be foolish not to do so.”

Mak’s teaching work includes helping to run a nonprofit guitar ensemble within Elemental Music, an organization in Santa Monica, California. “Four years ago they wanted to start a guitar program. They have scholarship funding to recruit children. We give them guitars—many of them provided by GSI Foundation—and write and arrange ensemble pieces for the children to learn from. They learn completely in these group situations—there is no one-on-one. They have to make music together from day one. There are three teachers on staff and we all work together. Whenever I’m in L.A., I enjoy observing the program’s growth and also running classes.

“I feel incredibly lucky that I do what I do, and manage to manage it, and it seems to make a difference. There’s too much ill-will and jealousy in the community of performing guitarists and not enough positive, forward-thinking individuals. Maybe this is the case in any profession. But I’d like to see our world become as artistically involving and as rich and community-
involving as what seems to be going in other music circles.”

WHAT MAK GRGIC PLAYS

Mak plays many different guitars, depending on the repertoire and setting, including ones made by Antonius Müller (Germany), Hanson Yao (Hong Kong), a 1966 José Ramirez (Spain), Slavko Mrdalj (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Samo Sali (Slovenia), “and an array of a mictrotonal zig-zag-fretted guitars and a fretless guitar. For strings I use these three interchangeably, depending on the instrument: Knobloch, D’Addario, and Savarez.”

Mak’s latest album release is from his Duo Deloro with flamenco specialist Adam Del Monte. Here they are playing a tune from the album called Dahab: