With reviews praising his superb interpretations, his flawless technique, and his virtuosic mastery of the instrument, Spanish-based Australian guitarist Jacob Cordover‘s performances speak for themselves. He recently sat down for an interview with Six String Journal where he enthusiastically and generously shares details about his journey with guitar, the way he prepares for concerts, how he warms up, advice for younger guitarists, and even why he gave up on pre-concert rituals.
SSJ: When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?
JC: My mother has told me that I first started asking to play the guitar when I was only three or four years old. As there was no guitar in the household, but there was a piano, it was suggested I start by playing piano. When I was about 10 years old however, my parents bought me a guitar and signed me up for Suzuki guitar lessons.
It was around this time that my father took me on a trip to the Philippines. One calm, balmy evening in Manila we went to a classical guitar concert. There, sitting in the open-air-theatre – or rather an old Spanish-style interior courtyard, two classical guitarists took the stage. It was whilst listening to this concert that I first had the realisation that I would be a musician, that the classical guitar would become my “voice”. I don’t know what it was specifically, but the sound of the classical guitar entered my ears and truly captivated me. As a child I also learned clarinet, saxophone, piano and sang in choirs, but for reasons beyond my knowledge, the guitar never felt like work, I always found great satisfaction playing the guitar.
What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?
JC: I don’t think there is any one – in fact, what excites me most about the classical guitar repertoire is the variety offered. I go through a lot of repertoire and change programs several times a year. Besides my solo work, I also play a lot of chamber music; with string quartet, as duo with guitar, oboe, violin, cello, voice and even once with cornett. I am equally happy playing music from the Spanish Renaissance as I am working with composers on new works, I love the music of Spain and South America, Bach and Giuliani equally. Life is full of differences and the music I play reflects that. There is so much variety in life and I like that there is always a piece of music to reflect, or emote, or console any possible mood or feeling. There is a time and a place for beauty, for pain, for virtuosity, for ugliness, for chords, for counterpoint, for the avant-garde and everything in between.
What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?
JC: I have been playing Smallman guitars since 2002. All 5 of my CDs (three solo and two duo) have been recorded on either a 2002 or my 2006 Smallman guitars. However, in recent years I’ve been lucky enough to have multiple beautiful instruments at my disposal. I have been performing more and more on a fabulous guitar by the young Spanish luthier Elias Bonet. I bought one of his spruce topped instruments in 2015 and fell in love with the sound. It has much more of a traditional sound than the Smallman and is full of colours, fabulous clarity and a bell like projection in the trebles. I also play on a romantic guitar built by the Famiglia Vinaccia in 1915. The family continued building their guitars in the 19th Century style right through the middle of the 20th century, so this guitar has all the wonderful characterises of an original period instrument, but is only 102 years old.
I enjoy playing on a variety of guitars as the instruments are so unique. I like to try each piece on the different instruments to see what qualities the different guitars bring out in the music. My Smallman has a resonance and richness that makes melodies sing whereas the clarity and colours of the Bonet brings out the intricate textures and rhythms. The Vinaccia obviously suits the 19th century music with its rich vibrato and velvety sound, but also lends an intimacy to many more contemporary works.
I play exclusively on Knobloch Strings and use them on all my guitars. Depending on the concert, the stage, and the repertoire, I change between Knobloch Actives Q.Z. (nylon) Double Silver and the Q.Z. Sterling Silver strings, and always Hard Tension.
Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?
JC: There have been so many over the years, but my biggest musical influence was my undergraduate teacher in Australia, Timothy Kain. I also had a couple of lessons with the bassist Edgar Meyer and the violinist Lorand Fenyves which left a lasting impact on my playing. They both said things that I still think about to this day, even if it was only a simple impactful sentence. In addition, listening to some of the great players of today – like oboist Nicholas Daniel, cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, or the Assad Brothers – has influenced me by pushing me to always express the music beyond the limits of one’s chosen instrument, in my case, the guitar. For me, the Assad Brothers do this extraordinarily well; their articulation, sense of line and rhythm and their fluidity have always captivated me. I love the way they always make music, that happens to come from a guitar, that is to say, I never get the impression that the musical decisions were made because of the guitar, but often in spite of the guitar. As a duo, the Assad Brothers have found a way to go beyond the difficulties and technical limitations of the guitar and always play with singing lyrical melodies, a strong rhythmic pulse and a seamless rubato.
What recording/s are you most proud of?
JC: That’s a tough question as I’m equally proud of all my CDs. Each of them for me represents a time in my life and playing, and each CD is the culmination of the long process of getting to know the pieces intimately, internalizing them and then recording a version of each work in my voice. Now, when I listen back to these discs they carry with them the memory of the process and artistic decisions from the point in my career when they were recorded and I am proud of having created an honest and true interpretation of each piece across my 5 CDs.
I’ll give you my highlights from each CD. From my first CD, Stélé, the title track carries with it the many conversations with the composer of the work, Philip Houghton who just passed away. I am still proud of this recording of his beautiful work.
My duo CD Songs from the Forest by the Australian Guitar Duo (with Rupert Boyd) includes many more Australian works, in which I think we capture the essence and colours of the Australian musical language.
An example from my second solo CD, Blackwattle Caprices is J.S. Bach’s Suite BWV 997, which was the culmination of years of studying this piece, listening to many interpretations, delving into performance practice and being especially influenced by the interpretation of Robert Hill.
In my Zoco Duo CD Historias (with Laura Karney, oboe/cor anglais), I am proud of the arrangements we made. Although the oboe / cor anglais and guitar is an unusual combination, we were able to highlight the colours, timbres and variety of the instruments and give a wonderful representation of the sultry power of this combination.
In many ways, my most recent CD, Expresivo, was the most difficult to record. Expresivo is an album full of the classical guitar favourites and the music that first captivated me when I started to learn the guitar – works by Tárrega, Albéniz, Granados, Barrios, Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla and others. I tried very much to play this music honestly, and the way I hear it, rather than trying to capture or imitate older recordings of this repertoire from the ‘greats’.
The result is something I’m immensely proud. I think my own arrangements and interpretations are different enough to be captivating, but familiar enough to do justice to the legacy of the greats. In fact, Ken Keaton wrote in the American Record Guide “Even if you already have these pieces in other performances, Cordover’s have such a distinct and attractive personality that it will be worth finding.” (ARG Nov/Dec 2016)
Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar?
JC: Whilst I always have chosen to record with John Taylor because I love the sound he captures in his recordings, I would be hard pressed to mention any one as ‘the finest’. Again, I like the variety. For me it’s interesting to hear how different engineers and different performers want to capture the sound of different guitars and I believe these differences in the recorded sound are just an extension of the great variety of interpretation that makes each performer unique. I have always felt I can learn so much listening to a recording and trying to answer why someone played a phrase the way they did, or why they use that guitar, or those strings, or that recording engineer with that sound. What were they striving for and why?
What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?
JC: My next project will be returning to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s breathtaking setting of Platero and I for guitar and narrator. Back in 2015 I toured Platero with my brother Gideon. Early next year we will record a CD of Platero and I am excited to be developing this project further; not just as a CD, but a live staged production and other multi-media collaborations as well. These stories are just spectacular and Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s musical setting, in my mind, borders on the divine. Here’s a link to a video I recently made of one movement (without the narrator) and here’s a link to a movement, Ronsard, with narrator.
I am also excited to be heading into the studio to record some of the contemporary works for guitar and oboe / cor anglais that my ensemble Zoco Duo have premiered over the last decade. We will be recording works by composers from Australia, Norway, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.A.
As for live performances, I’m very much looking forward to performing an arrangement of Enrique Granados’ Valses Poéticos for guitar and orchestra in the closing concert of the Art Llobet Festival here in Barcelona on November 5th. The waltzes are little gems and the orchestration gives adds so many new colours to this wonderful work.
Technique and Performance
How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?
JC: I practice each and every day and aim for between 4 – 5 hours. I have the luxury of being exclusively a concert artist so can focus all my energy on honing my performance. I start each day with at least 40 minutes of warm-ups which include scales, slurs, RH cross-string exercises and tremolo study. On concert days, I like to be well warmed up and will usually aim for at least two hours of practice before a concert. Travel days are more difficult but I generally manage to get my warm-ups done as well as playing through some pieces or working on tricky passages, even if this has to be done at the airport, bus station, or at my hotel – before breakfast, after dinner, or whenever I can squeeze it in.
In recent years, I have tried to give myself a couple of “rest days” a year where I don’t worry about practicing, but I still enjoy playing guitar so much that even on my days off I often end up playing guitar for its own sake – either reading through new music or playing some old favourites. Always after doing my warm-ups of course!
Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?
JC: I still pretty much work on everything because, well, as Pablo Casals once famously said “because I think I’m making progress”.
Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?
JC: Often memorization just happens organically, but if I’m pressed to memorize a piece quickly, or especially when memorizing Bach (or other complex contrapuntal music) I try to use every possible technique. I will try to make sure I have the muscle memory (which I prove by trying to hold a conversation whilst letting my fingers play on their own), I try to visualize the score in my head, I try to visualize the left and right-hand fingerings, and if I really want to make sure I know a piece, I’ll get a piece of manuscript and write it out from memory – not just notes, but left and right hand fingerings as well. If there is one thing I’ve learned about live performance is that you never know what might distract you at any moment, and it’s nice to have the security that I really, really know a piece inside and out.
Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?
JC: I have made lots of arrangements, not just for solo guitar but also for guitar and oboe for my ensemble Zoco Duo. Publishing is certainly on my list of things to do as I’d love to have these arrangements publicly available, but for now, you can just hear them on my CDs.
Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up?
JC: I have a fairly consistent set of warm-up exercises which I change up (for my own sanity) a couple of times a year. The first thing I always start with is a couple of cross-string RH exercises that were once shown to me, one by Pavel Steidl and the other by the Argentinean guitarist Lautaro Tissera. I then play through that month’s selection of Aaron Shearer LH slurs exercises, a rotating selection of Giuliani RH exercises, scales – starting with three repetitions of each note accenting the first of each grouping (mim imi or ama mam) then duplets (mi, im, am, ma) and if I feel I have time with the little finger as well (ca, cm, ci, ai etc). I also do repetitions of 4 then 2 on each note with ami (amia miam iami etc) – this way you’re always changing which finger you start the grouping on. I’ll then change it up to starting each new note with the same fingering. I do these right-hand variations whilst playing two octave scales from C to Eb, then three octaves from E to C (My Bonet guitar has a 20th fret!).
I then practice tremolo – starting slowly and most often whilst playing Recuerdos or Barrios’ Una limosna por el amor del diós . I always start p and a finger together (i.e. p&a mia, p&m iam, p&i ami, etc), then a 5 tremolo tremolo (piami) then the regular tremolo but either changing up the order, or putting accents of different RH fingers (i.e. pami, pami, pami,pami, etc.).
Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
JC: I learned over 10 years ago to abandon any pre-concert ritual. My teacher had once told me to try and think of a concert day as any other day so that you can get on stage and play as calmly as you would in a practice room, or on any given Tuesday. That really hit home at a series of concerts I did in the mid-Pyrenees back in 2006 or 2007; performing each night in a different ancient church. Often, there were no bathrooms, no places to wash your hands, no regular eating schedule, no guarantee of a chair at the ‘right’ height and so on. I learned that having a ritual could be dangerous, so learned to perform regardless of the situation.
This has been great when having to get off a long flight and go straight to a live TV or radio interview or if there is traffic and you arrive later to a concert than is ideal. The only thing that stays consistent is I always play at least a 10 minute expurgated version of my warms-ups backstage, and I try to carry a bag of cashew nuts in case I need an energy boost. Oh, and a nap. I always squeeze in a nap if it’s possible, even if it’s a short 10 minutes on the couch in the Green Room.
Advice to Younger Players
What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?
JC: To practice actively and not passively. It’s amazing how much more productive a practice session is when you’re actually listening to what you are playing and thinking about what you’re doing. If you’re not paying attention, you’re not practicing you’re just playing. There is a time and a place for this “playing” too, but it’s not practice.
I also think it’s essential to practice performance. If I have a recital coming up, and especially if I’m perfomring a work for the first time, I will try to replicate the performance experience as much as possible. I give myself some time for a warm up, I walk to my chair, bow, and start to perform. Sometimes I do this in my living room to a tape recorder, sometimes to an audience of friends. I will often (more often than not) do this in performance clothes too. In my mind nothing prepares you for a concert more than playing concerts, so even if I don’t have an audience I will practice the performance aspect. I will practice my spoken introductions to the pieces, practice playing the pieces in the program order with no breaks, practice the tuning peculiarities between pieces. This can be as essential as practicing the notes.
What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?
JC: I would say that variety is actually very important. Young students need to learn that there are differences, both stylistically and technically, between playing Bach and Barrios, or Walton and Weiss. Studies are also essential. It can be nothing but beneficial to slowly and carefully work your way through all the Sor, Villa-Lobos, Brouwer or Dodgson studies, to name just a small handful. Studies are a great way to train oneself to play music, and to play musically, in spite of technical difficulties.
Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?
JC: Again, I’d say variety. The differences between Segovia, Bream, Williams, Russell, Diaz, Presti/Lagoya etc. are so vast. I think guitarists should actively listen to the same piece played by as many guitarists as possible, then decide not just which one they prefer, but why!?! There is no right or wrong way to approach a piece, it’s just a matter of taste. Listening to the infinite possibilities can only strengthen one’s own conviction and reasons for playing the way one does.
What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s?
JC: I just re-read Albert Camus’ short story The Artist at Work. A wonderfully satirical yet poignant story of an Artist who battles with the will to work and the distraction of ‘fame’ – a concept that is both curious to the artist and at the same time irrelevant to his work, but nevertheless something that dominates all. I also recently re-read Music of Chance, a fabulous book by one of my all-time favourite authors, Paul Auster.
Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food?
JC: I swim a lot; when I’m not on tour I try to swim 3 – 4 times a week. I also have a series of Yin Yoga postures and stretches that I do regularly, if not daily. With all the traveling and guitar playing I do, I’m finding it more and more important each year to keep the body moving and healthy, and in positions that are as antithetical to guitar playing as possible!
Do you meditate in any way?
JC: I don’t mediate in a traditional sense; however, I do find swimming laps concentrates my mind and allows me to focus only on my breath alone which clears out anything else.
What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?
JC: I like cooking and all things food related. Nothing makes me happier than having a group of friends around, lighting up the grill and spending the day chatting, cooking, eating and drinking. To be honest though, a guitar usually makes its way out of the case at some point!
Any things else you’d like to add?
JC: Thank you for your interest in my music and for listening to my answers! I hope your readers enjoy listening to my music as much as I enjoy making it.
I have to admit that I may be enjoying Fernando Sor’s etudes too much these days. Many of them conjure a nice summer walk in the countryside with the occasional mildly adventurous detour. A set of favorites that I’m editing will be published soon but I thought I’d post a lesson on one of them and how I have been using it to warm up and build technique. His etudes are ideal in many ways to integrate musicality into technique because listening to the subtleties and manipulations of Sor’s familiar but often charming harmonies is so pleasurable.
Once you master his etudes, there are many possibilities for expansion but I’m going to use Etude Op. 35, Nº9 to illustrate how I like to use it to develop right hand technique. Here is a read-through for those of you not familiar with it.
Try to build flexibility into your right hand by playing the etude as written with the following right hand patterns:
piai, pimi, piâi
Once these are reliably developed, you’re ready for some fun. Use the following pattern to help develop the weaker alternation with these patterns:
piaiaiai, piamamam, pimimimi
Or, another option could be to explore moving out of a right hand arpeggio position into a more right hand scalar position with:
piaiamim, piaiaimi, piaiamia, piaiamam
Or, if you are feeling musically creative, explore adding a note to complement the melody within the key:
Change it up a bit to get in your triplets:
Or, if you prefer:
pimamiamiami, piamipamiami, etc…
There are so many places to go with these little gems. Fun!