One way to garner the attention of the guitar world would be to play Gershwin’s entire Rhapsody in Blue on one guitar. This has been exactly what Belgian virtuoso, Koen Claeys has done in his debut CD release “Paint Me Blue”. Smoothly navigating the music of Brouwer, jazz arrangements by Dyens, and his own ambitious and impressive transcriptions of music by Keith Jarrett, Koen’s projects and playing are capturing the interest of listeners across the globe. Luckily for us, Koen carved out some time to share some of his philosophies and details on his journey with the guitar so far. Enjoy!
When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?
The music I grew up with, was of course the music my father listened to. So I wanted to play the guitar because of Eric Clapton! I remember listening a lot to his unplugged album. And my mother had an old guitar in the house…
What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?
I don’t have any preferences. I love to play baroque, classical, romantic, jazzy tunes, …
What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?
Now I have 2 guitars: a cedar top Zbigniew Gnatek and a spruce Michel Belair. The guitars by Michel Belair are in the tradition and sound world of Friederich. And very comparable in quality! Gnatek is an Australian lattice build guitar.
I prefer nylon strings because of the timbre. Carbon fibre strings may have a little more sustain, but that is not worth (in my opinion) the loss of sound quality: it sounds a bit nasal or artificial. D’Addario and Augustine are my favorite brands.
Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?
All my teachers! I was very lucky to have Geert Claessens as my first guitar teacher in music academy. To me he is still one of the best musicians on a guitar. Later I studied with Roland Broux at the Conservatory in Belgium. He is a great musical pedagogue. And I was lucky to study with Joaquin Clerch and Rafael Aguirre as well, in Dusseldorf (Germany). But I honestly can’t say who had the biggest influence on me.
What recording/s are you most proud of?
My first CD! “Paint me Blue”
I always wanted to play and record the music that eventually made me become a musician. Of course, I loved music before, but only after hearing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, I knew I wanted to be a musician. As a teenager, I listened to Bernstein’s recording so many times…
When I was 12, I got severely injured after a car accident. And my music teachers gave me a lot of CD’s to listen to. This music really helped me a lot, and I forgot all the rest, mostly when I listened to Gershwin. And when my friend Rafael called me in the summer of 2016, that his mother was injured after a car accident, I took the score again and started reading it with the guitar. I wasn’t seriously thinking of playing the whole Rhapsody at all, I was just trying to play it for fun, but 2 months later I played it in a recital and was quite happy about it.
Then came the plan to make a complete CD with all the music that was important to me, regardless if it was for guitar or not. But in the same musical genre, between classical and jazz.
The first CD my teacher Geert ever lent me, was of Joe Pass, Virtuoso 1. So, I included this version of Cole Porter’s Night & Day. Leo Brouwer is important to me in many ways, and I studied with another Cuban maestro (Joaquin Clerch), so as a Belgian I had to include his variations on Nuages by Belgian jazz legend Django Reinhardt. The version of Ne Me Quitte Pas by (Belgian!) chansonnier Jacques Brel was made by a friend I studied with in Dusseldorf (Marcelo Rosario).
And then there is Keith Jarrett… Always when I was struggling with music and/or the guitar, I listened to him. There is something absolute in his music. When you learn a new language, you translate everything first in your mind before/while speaking. You don’t yet think in that language. I think most musicians still translate in their mind an idea into a musical idea, then play it. But Keith probably already thinks in musical ideas. No translation stage extra. That’s why even his atonal passages sound so direct.
So I made transcriptions/arrangements of my favorite encores: his Köln concert encore (part IIc, known also as Memories of tomorrow) and 2 encores from his 2005 Carnegie Hall concert (My Song and Paint My Heart Red).
Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar?
Spanish Legends by David Russell. For the sound of David Russell and for the recording quality: natural, direct, the right amount of echo, …
I am very happy with my own recording, but all these credits go to Geert Claessens. He recorded his own CD all by himself in his living room, and that was the best recorded CD I had. So I am very happy he recorded and mastered my CD as well. Just in his living room!
Most guitar recordings have the same problem: it is recorded from too far. When I play a good recorded piano CD, or a jazz CD, or orchestra recording… it sounds like the musicians are right in front of you. With most guitar recordings, the guitar sounds from a distance. Or recorded from too far and then used too much compression to level up everything, which makes you lose timbres and dynamics. And causes a rustling noise at higher volume.
What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?
Since one year I have my project called “Rhapsodies”, where I play chamber music programs, with different collaborations. So far, I did one project with a great string quartet, the French Quatuor Hermes, and one with jazz trio (piano, percussion and double bass). But next year there will be even more special concerts.
I can’t share all the details yet, but next year we will celebrate Leo Brouwer’s 80th birthday. I am very happy he accepted our invitation to come to Belgium and even more: he is writing a new chamber music piece for guitar and string quartet dedicated to me. We will play it in December in his presence. Also, Jorge Morel is writing new solo music for me, I can’t wait to read the scores for the first time!
Technique and Performance
How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?
It depends on the day, and the kind of practice. In general, I like to practice 5 hours per day. But of course (I also teach part-time), I am not always able to. When I am practicing a completely new piece, sometimes I play 8 hours in a day: reading the piece, trying fingerings, … But generally speaking: practicing more than 4-5 hours is not useful. One can only practice musically a limited amount of time. If you practice more, you will just be doing mechanical movements without purpose. So better use the rest of the time in a better way, that a musician also needs: go to concerts, listen to music, read a book, … try out a great restaurant.
Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?
I always easily learned music by heart in an unthinking/unaware way. But maybe this helps: I practice also a lot without the guitar. Read the score and write your fingerings without guitar, take a paper and write down the score by heart, … Are you able to play only the right hand and imagine all the rest? If not, you probably don’t know what the right hand is doing. You should always use (and practice) all the memories: visual, auditory, procedural/motoric, … On stage, you can’t rely only on muscle memory.
Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up?
Yes: sight read “easy” music. I like to take a book with low level studies by Sor, Carcassi, Giuliani, … and just sight read pieces. It is fun, sometimes you discover a more unknown Etude that is actually nice music for a student, or yourself. And after 40 minutes you are completely warmed up.
But before concerts I do a short, maximum 30-minute round of technique exercises. It is a summary of coordination – scales.
Advice to Younger Players
Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?
I believe that when you play the guitar already 4-5 hours a day, you should listen to all the other music. I like to listen to the music that I can’t play (symphonies, chamber music for strings, piano, winds, …). It is weird to say, but my teachers won’t be angry if I say it: I learned more from pianist or violinists, then from guitarists. You should listen to Beethoven, not 5 recordings of Giuliani. Giuliani is the music you should practice, not listen to.
So a recording you should know: Caros Kleiber (conductor), Wiener Symphoniker, playing Brahms 4th symphony. A recording from 1980. Deutsche Grammophon. That is my favorite CD. Also: watch him conduct. With this conductor, I can follow the music, even on mute. Fabulous musician.
Or Radu Lupu playing Schubert. Or Trio Zimmermann: Mozart and Beethoven string trio’s. The best chamber music group I heard, live and on recording.
And listen to the old masters. They lived in a time where there was no Facebook, Youtube, … internet. I think that makes you play differently. Their phrasing is always from another world. Because they are from… another world. Well, era. Alfred Cortot, Arthur Schnabel, … Vladimir Horowitz, Richter, …
What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s?
I just read “Straight Man” by Richard Russo (but in dutch, “De Geluksvogel”). A hilarious book of a Monty Python-like character (a professor) that somehow became interim chairman of the English Department.
Favorite author: difficult, but Haruki Murakami. He writes phrases like Keith Jarrett plays phrases.
What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?
I just bought new speakers/studio monitors. Now I just sit in the sofa and listen to a complete CD.
And then put on another.
With a glass of wine.