Unearthing Lost Gems has Bradley Colten Looking Back and Looking Ahead

The Road Less Traveled by Lawrence Del Casale

I  originally came to know about the superb guitarist Bradley Colten through word of mouth, but then heard about a huge project he undertook in which he unearthed some wonderful, and in some cases previously unheard, music for the guitar by American composer/songwriter Ernst Bacon. I watched a few YouTube videos of Colten performing Bacon’s music, with “Nuka” becoming a favorite of mine. There’s something magical about the music of Bacon—maybe it’s the constant pull of the harmony against an expanding melody that always seems to find its way back home. The CD is titled Ernst Bacon: The Complete Works for Solo Guitar, on Azica Records.

Before Colten did this solo project, he was well-known for being one-half of the critically acclaimed guitar-flute pairing known as Arc Duo, with Heather Holden. Colten is a recipient of the Andrés Segovia Award from the Manhattan School of Music and served as a chamber music coach at the school, among other accomplishments.

When did you decide that the guitar was your calling?

As far back as I can remember, the guitar has been a big part of my life. While my folks weren’t musically inclined, classical music was always present and a guitar was always nearby. Before my classical focus and training, I was really invested in folk music—singing and songwriting—and I was extremely attached to the guitar in this vein.

I recall vividly that my mother had an old classical guitar from her childhood at home and I was, early on, able to get a really sweet tone from that instrument. It was the tone and color of that guitar that captured my interest and imagination. That was an important moment and element, for sure.

However, good instruction and a determined focus came late for me—really quite late compared to most. When I was in my early teens, my family moved, and I found myself getting lessons from the professor of guitar at Connecticut College. Connecticut College was a considerable drive from our home, so my mother must have carefully arranged these lessons. At any rate, it was there, with a man named Jim McNeish, that I became serious about the instrument and first received serious instruction.


Is there an event you consider a turning point in your early development?

One that I think was particularly important in my development as a guitarist and musician was an experience I had as an undergraduate student. I was asked, rather last minute, to perform the Boston premiere of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 10, in the exquisite Jordan Hall. This was back in 1995, I think. I was rather inexperienced and it was a huge undertaking for me. But, because of this challenge, I grew tremendously. It also instilled in me a love of new music.

Did you attend a music college or university for music?

My formal education has been a little unusual, I suppose. As an undergraduate, I attended two institutions concurrently. I attended both the New England Conservatory of Music and Tufts University, both in Boston, Massachusetts. This dual-degree program was quite rigorous and allowed me to pursue music in a conservatory setting while obtaining a broader, liberal arts undergraduate degree at the same time. Afterward, I attended Manhattan School of Music in New York City for my master’s and doctorate degrees.


Whom would you consider your mentor along the way?

My most important mentor has been guitarist and composer David Leisner, a phenomenal teacher. I first met David as an undergraduate at the New England Conservatory of Music, in 1990. Since then, David and I have developed a cherished friendship and he has repeatedly inspired me as a mentor all along the way.

Do you have a specialty or niche that sets you apart?

I hope I do, but I suppose I’m hardly objective. Instead of speaking about niches, let me just say what I think is unique about my career and what I’m proud of: I have cultivated a career that has allowed me to engage in long-term artistic projects. With support from my teaching and concerts, I am able to focus on composers, particular repertoire, or other projects for an extended period of time. I’ve just spent four years researching, unearthing, editing, recording, and performing the works of Ernst Bacon [1898–1990]. This has been a huge and hugely rewarding undertaking for me. To be able to focus on one thing over a long period engenders intimacy with the topic and a depth of understanding that I absolutely love.

In all, I unearthed almost 60 minutes of “lost” Bacon works by crisscrossing the country—going to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, [and meeting] with his widow in Syracuse, New York, and with his eldest son in San Francisco. It’s really a treasure-trove of new music for the guitar, all privately written from the 1960s through the 1980s, and offered as gifts to his son. The works are quintessentially American in sound and Copland-esque in their melodic beauty and folk-like pathos. The 19 pieces on this [Azica Records] disc articulate an American sound that Bacon helped to forge, along with [Aaron] Copland, [Virgil] Thomson, [Roy] Harris, and others, during the first half of the 20th century. My expectation is that, with time, these works will become mainstays in the guitar world. Very exciting stuff!

Colten performs “Nuka” at the NYC Classical Guitar Society
Do you have other commercial recordings?

I do, also on the Azica Records label. My ensemble, Arc Duo, has two recordings—the first is a concert program of 20th-century music, including pieces by Robert Beaser, Ástor Piazzolla, Joan Tower, and Ned Rorem. Arc’s second disc highlights a few of our favorite commissioned projects, including works by Roland Dyens, David Leisner, Judah Adashi, and Shafer Mahoney.

Do you teach and/or perform regularly? 

I do. I have a rather full studio of wonderful students. I teach at the Diller-Quaile School of Music and at the Special Music School, both in New York City. I also maintain a private studio of students. As for performing, I give approximately 20 concerts each season. My expectation is that, with the new project of Ernst Bacon repertoire, there may be an uptick in concerts. Regardless, between these concerts, my teaching, and my kids, I keep rather busy.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to your students?

Be useful and do something different. There are so many talented guitarists and so much competition for teaching jobs and recitals. The field is hopelessly overcrowded, frankly. And so, engaging in the standard repertoire and playing fast and clean is not enough for success. It’s also, ultimately, probably unrewarding artistically and emotionally.

On the other hand, if one chooses to strike out in less traversed territory, two things happen: First, one can make an impact and achieve a higher profile, which is always nice. Secondly, and more importantly, one can gain perspective on what is truly important and live an artistically fulfilling life.

For me, this has meant trying to be useful to others and serve my broader community. I’m trying to do more work as an advocate for composers and newer music. This has been enriching and fulfilling so far. I think if even more guitarists begin to think about their careers and their art in this way it would be quite exciting for the guitar.

What’s next for you?

Now that the Ernst Bacon music is  fully fledged, I am developing plans for my next long-term project. Right now, I have designs on developing a cooperative with a few composers and instrumentalists to spend an extended period  of time writing, rehearsing, and performing music. This deep and sustained collaboration should be different and  rewarding . . . and fun!


This article was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.

The issue also features Roland Dyens, Manuel Molina, a special focus on guitar education, news, reviews (CDs, sheet music, and live concerts), and much more.