Before penning down my thoughts on the Guitar Festival, I find it relevant to refer to Simon Frith’s article ‘Live Music Matters’ published in the Scottish Music Review Volume 1 No. 1 2007: Indeterminacy and Technology. In the article he observes that the advocates of live music, (and he says this in the context of the rock music scenario in the UK), found that the most effective way of dealing with live music has been the escalation of the audience size alongside the emergence of newer venues by bringing in the ‘tour factor’ and coming up with a new sort of ‘musical event, the festival’.
It is quite something to get goosebumps when I choose to write about a festival that is six years old in my own city, Calcutta. This is perhaps due to the connection that this festival has had with my own research pursuit back in the days when I was groping my way through locating the field for an academically inclined yet fun research topic. I was even involved as a volunteer during the first two years. Indeed! My fondest memory goes back to being the translator for the master classes taken by the Chilean classical guitarist Javier Contreras during the first year. Not only did I pick up technical advices that were being offered by the musician to the participants but it also helped me polish my spoken Spanish. Yes, right from when it started, the festival spread excitement and surprise for the people of Calcutta.
The Calcutta International Classical Guitar Festival and Competition began in Calcutta in the year 2010 after the formation of the Calcutta Classical Guitar Society in 2009. The curator- founder- director- president- Mr. Avik Saha (a lawyer by profession) who started it all- has worn many hats as and when circumstances demanded. The festival saw many music and particularly classical guitar enthusiasts flocking towards it ever since it started.
Guitar teachers, students and audience all over the city and the country benefited largely from it. Ofcourse, many remained loyal to the spirit of festival but it has always been a difficulty to get participants from the native city. The factors as I try to look back now had a lot to do with finances and also the inability to perceive the consequences of being part of such a grand event. The Festival has always brought in renowned classical guitarists from all over like Pavel Steidl, Johannes Moller, Jose Antonio Escobar, Marcin Dylla, Deniz Azabagic, Carle Costa, David Russell, Roland Dyens to mention a few. There have been participants from across the country and the world.
An overview of the Calcutta Classical Guitar Initiatives
Arkopriya Chatterjee, Operations Director of the Calcutta Classical Guitar Society gave an overview of the festival 2012 onwards. She mentioned that the level of competition had been quite high in few specific years, specifically in the years 2012, 2013 and 2014. 2014 by far has been the grandest owing to the presence of Roland Dyens. Apart from organizing the festival, the Calcutta Classical Guitar Society has always promoted endeavours that lead to compositions based on Indian classical works. It has also organized music events all year round which addressed an eclectic audience. There have been jazz, Indian Classical, Fusion, repertoires of contemporary local artistes, etc. This year, the focus has been Asian origin classical guitarists or classical guitarists who are now based out of Asia. This has been conceived particularly to push classical guitar initiatives amongst various Asian counties.
Learning about The Indian Guitar Festival and the opportunities that the Classical Guitar Festival created for many
The Indian Guitar Federation was formed after the 2014 Classical Guitar Festival in an attempt to create a shared knowledge base for all kinds of guitar music across the country. The idea is to rotate the visiting artists around few cities in India and promote the culture of master classes even more vigorously. The visiting artists also feel that most Indian students are nervous about recitals and public performances. Master Classes teach them to get over their fears and also allows them to take their musical pursuits seriously. Arkopriya also told us how this festival has provided opportunities for some students to travel abroad and experience the classical guitar scene in other parts of the world.
Antara’s determination to go to Koblenz and pursue further opportunities was nurtured by the festival. Some of the other participants even managed to get full funding from the guitar society. Nandini was sent to Nordorn, and Rhythm and Theophilus were sent to Bangkok. The Society also has an impressive library now with books, magazines, CDs curated from all over the world. The annual membership is only 500INR. It is located at Kalikapur in Calcutta. They have even opened a guitar centre at Kalikapur to promote Classical guitar for lower and middle income group people. Sohini De, the renowned native classical guitarist and Jeet Goswami teach the kids over there.
Few more vignettes about the festival
Theophilus Benjamin, director of the Asian Guitar Federation and the Director of the Master Class and Festivals for the 2015 Competition and Festival, also a regular to this festival 2010 onwards, had some more interesting vignettes to contribute. He says that “2010 was a complete eye-opener in terms of sound interpretation. Master classes exposed me to this world and I started playing properly.” It sort of convinced him that one could and should play classical guitar seriously. 2011 was on a lesser scale but some of the artists left an indelible impact like the flamenco guitarist Adam Del Monte. 2012 had one of the biggest line-up he recalls. He also got an opportunity to visit Thailand after winning the second prize in the Open Category in the competition. The same year was a personal high point for him as well where he met his future wife, Arkopriya Chatterjee. Also, there were fabulous artists like David Russell and Zoran Dukic to make the festival experience further memorable. 2014 was a big moment when he met his idol Roland Dyens and saw him perform live. He says that “2015 is special due to two reasons. The festival is now a multi-city affair, spread across Bangalore, Delhi and Chennai and this year and I bid good bye to Calcutta as I am moving to Bombay in the year 2016.”
A short interview and a glimpse into a master class
I could spend considerable time at the festival only for a couple of hours on the penultimate day of the festival, 16th December 2015. I had a brief chat with one of the artists Matt Bacon originally from California but currently a teacher at the KM Music Conservatory, Chennai. This upbeat, positive performer sure has a way with words. He recalls that he signed up for the teaching job at the KM Conservatory thinking it to be a music school in California. Now after spending 6 months in Chennai, he likes to think of it as a happy accident. He likes the laid-back feel of India but he is fully in awe of the students. He says that ‘I like teaching in Chennai. I like how attentive the students are. They can shut up and listen and even draw parallels with the music they grew up with’. Although, he likes to describe his daily encounters in Chennai to be short stories to look forward to, he also admits how fond he has grown of the city, its people and food. He had a great time in Delhi both while he played at the concert and also when he took the master classes. He was completely thrown off by the level of the students. He was quite impressed with their skills considering their age and the repertoire that they chose. When I interviewed him, he had just finished his private master class in Kolkata and spoke highly of his students here as well. Matt even braved his way out of the Chennai floods followed by a food poisoning incident to travel to Calcutta. Just before starting his journey to Calcutta he realized that due to humidity his guitar had broken. However, instead of losing his calm, he chose to laugh at the circumstance. He thought that he knew what he had to play and now the only worry would be to find another guitar to demonstrate the guitar techniques to his students and also give a recital. Indeed, he found a guitar and when I asked him what his sentiments are about playing the concert here, he simply said ‘I am excited’. He believes in playing expressively and having fun while doing so. This was clear even from the master class that he gave. For instance while he was dealing with his student Anubhav Dasgupta who played Etude by Villa Lobos, Matt explained to him the importance of getting the technique right. He said that a technical piece should never be played at one go. He also revealed an intelligent way to remember a piece. He believes in choosing similar sections and working them out at one go. This also helps in generating creative solutions rather than just repeating the sections in the same way throughout the piece. He places great emphasis on the right hand and planting of the -i- finger. For that, he feels that one should individually try and find out which sets of fingers they should plant and which sets of fingers they should relax together. He believes in finding musically practical solutions and as a thumb rule he insists that one should indulge into the habit of practicing in details. That way all the notes are easier to get. While he was working with his student Antara who played Cavatina by Stanley Myers, he simply asked her to search the musical tools that she could think of to set the mood of the music right. He told her to stay with the melody pushing it to a great extent and then suddenly pulling it back following the musical cues.
Recitals at a glance
Some of the evening recitals that I attended were the ones by the following artists- Cuerdas Duo comprising Norman Villas from Philippines and Joey Woch from Nagaland, Matt Bacon from USA and the finale concert by the Czech classical guitarist Leon Koudelak. Some of the repertoires that they put forth at the concert were the sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti presented by the Cuerdas Duo, Albeniz’ Asturias and Tarrega’s Capricho Arabe performed by Matt Bacon and Prelude, Sarabande, Gigue from Johann Sebastian Bach’s lute suite no. 997 by Leon Koudelak. The festival ended with a surprise song recital by Mrs. Hall, wife of the US Consul General in Kolkata. She was accompanied by Sohini De on the guitar.
I end the article by what Mr. Avik Saha said about the future of the festival. He mentioned that now that the classical guitar festival has become a multi city enterprise, it will travel to more cities. He mentioned a few like Nagaland, Goa, Pune and Hyderabad. Also, he said that the year will see a flute concert, drum recital and many more gigs thereafter. In the year 2017, it will not just be a guitar festival but instead one music festival which will have many other instrumental ensembles with special focus on classical guitar. Thus, we all have much more to look forward to and feel happy that a festival dedicated to the classical guitar has now become an inevitable feature of India.