Artist Spotlight and Interview: Michael Kolk

Hailing from Canada, guitarist Michael Kolk has been praised by Liona Boyd as, “…one of the most brilliant and expressive guitarists I have heard in my time.” Known for his musicianship, his technique, and his interpretive abilities, Kolk is one of Canada’s top guitarists. Despite the quiet performance scene at this time, he has just launched a wonderful CD of 20th Century Guitar Sonatas. Fortunately, he had a bit of time to share some of his insights with Six String Journal. Hope this inspires you all.

Personal

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? strings? I perform mostly on a Martin Blackwell spruce/cedar double top from 2015. It’s a very rich, full, warm sounding guitar, but with ample tonal variety as well. I have a really nice Roberto de Miranda traditional cedar as well that was my main guitar since 2007, and I still play it, though not much in concert anymore – the Blackwell projects better. I used Savarez New Cristal/Cantiga for years, but I’ve recently switched to Alliance trebles. I had tried them and couldn’t ever get used to them, but recently I warmed up to them and figured out how to make them work for the sounds I want.

Which guitarists have had the most influence on you? Julian Bream was the first big influence – he was the guitarist that really excited me when I was a teenager (aside from Jimi Hendrix, but that’s a different story…) There are so many great guitarists these days, but I guess in terms of influence I’d say Fabio Zanon, Roland Dyens, and then two guitarists whom I’m very close with, my former teacher Jeffrey McFadden, and my long time duo partner Drew Henderson. I’ve learned a lot by playing with both of them and just sharing ideas about guitar,

Michael Kolk and Drew Henderson (HK Guitar Duo) playing Ravel

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about? Things are pretty quiet right now – as I’m writing we’re in the middle of the Covid pandemic, so concerts are not happening, and I haven’t pursued online performances. Last year, however, I was really busy with projects. I was playing concerts with the HK Guitar Duo, as well as a couple with a violinist named Laurence Kayaleh, and working on a solo recording of 20th Century Guitar Sonatas which I chose to edit and release myself. Laurence and I also recorded an album of violin/viola and guitar Sonatas by Ferdinand Rebay which was recently released on Naxos. So I’ve been taking a bit of a break from playing classical music and have been exploring creating music by recording rock songs and studying composition. Whether this work ends up seeing the light of day or not, I felt it was important to try writing my own music to develop my creativity, and gain a deeper understanding of music, from a composer’s perspective. I remember Roland Dyens saying in a masterclass that we should all be both performers and composers, and it makes a lot of sense to me. 

Michael playing ‘Round Midnight (Monk/Dyens)

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?
These days I practice strategically, mostly. I don’t have as much time as when I was younger, to just sit down and play without a real structure. I usually practice in 30 minute segments. I put on a timer and make sure to get up and walk around a bit when the time is up. If I’m on a roll I’ll sit down right away and do another session, or I might take a break and do something else and come back to the guitar when I’m fresh again. The total amount of time depends on what’s going on in my life. If there are other projects that need attention I may not play much for a couple weeks. When I have performances or recordings coming up I aim for 3 solid hours of practice in a day. If I’m focussed during that whole time, I can’t really handle much more practice. I may play guitar beyond that, but it would be more messing around or playing for fun. 

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?
Tremolo has always been a struggle for me. It takes a lot of work to get it flowing and it never feels totally secure. I think some players have a very natural tremolo, and others don’t even though they may be good players. I have to train right hand speed in general much more than left hand, but I guess that’s fairly common.

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?
I’ve recently self published an arrangement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, the 2nd movement Allegretto, for guitar duo. Earlier, Drew Henderson and I had our arrangement of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin (selections) published by D’Oz.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
If possible it’s great to have a walk during the day, and a nap. If I can fit those things in I feel pretty good come concert time. Then 15 minutes before the concert I have a banana, and at intermission I have an apple. To keep the blood sugar up.

HK Guitar Duo playing Michael’s Beethoven arrangement


Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?
Well, I think everyone has to find what works best for themselves when it comes to improving at guitar. And it’s not always about drilling technique and being as efficient as possible. Make time to play for enjoyment to keep your enthusiasm. But when you’re feeling sharp and motivated, practice with deep focus and attention to detail. And try not to build up tension – form good habits of posture and relaxation and they will translate to performances. I guess that’s more than one piece of advice…

Michael playing the 1st movement of Cyril Scott’s Sonatina


What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate?
I think there’s a standard repertoire that classical guitarists should at least be familiar with, even if they don’t learn all of it to a performance level. Bach, of course, the 19th century guitar composers like Sor, Giuliani, Aguado etc…, the Spanish repertoire like Tarrega, Albeniz, Granados, Rodrigo, and the Segovia repertoire like Ponce, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Torroba, Turina, etc…, then music from the Americas like Villa-Lobos, Brouwer, Barrios, Lauro. There’s a lot, and it takes time to get through. At the same time, I think students should also play lesser known music and try to expand their repertoire beyond the classics.

Artist Interview: Carlo Marchione

The great Italian guitarist Carlo Marchione likely needs no introduction to a classical guitar blog. A consummate virtuoso, teacher, and arranger, Carlo has had a life full of music and has graced many, many stages across the world. Carlo recently took some time from his busy schedule to share some of his insights and philosophies with Six String Journal readers. Enjoy!


Personal

When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?

I started at the age of 10 to regularly study guitar. In my family, everybody played at least one instrument so it was quite natural for me to come close to music. But it wasn’t until I made a trip to Spain to visit my brother (who was living there by then) that I chose to play guitar.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

Uff, that’s like asking which food you prefer…I have not really preferences, my programs follow my mood of the moment, my emotional needs, so to speak.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play by now a guitar constructed by Daniele Chiesa, with Savarez string on it.

Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?

Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Mozart.

What recording/s are you most proud of? 

I don’t really want to look snooty, but I love all my recordings. Each of them has its strong and weak points and has been done with profound enthusiasm and conviction.

Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar?

The Tilman Hoppstock ones.

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?

I am excited about any concert or project, if I wasn’t I would not go into it. In the next weeks I will be performing in Berlin and Moscow. As regards to my projects, besides my teaching activity in 4 different Academies in Europe (Lille, Maastricht, Palma de Mallorca and Rome), I am very much into my online activities such as teaching, lecturing and publishing my transcriptions at my Online Shop (www.carlo-marchione.com/shop). It is a great thing which is going fantastically well.


Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?

Due to my super narrow schedule I try to optimize the few time I have at disposal for practicing. I can stay 2 days without touching the guitar and 2 days practicing 8h, it is difficult to make a monthly average from it. To me, it works very well to memorize a piece and understand its structure and then to work on the problematic passages.

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?

Well, all of them, one doesn’t really finish to learn things! Due to the particular shape of my pinkie finger of the left hand, I have always to be very creative in finding alternative fingerings, so, as you see, that’s something I will work lifelong on…

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?

As a kid I was always encouraged to read prima vista and learn fast the new pieces. On the top of this, I had a fantastic harmony and composition teacher. This makes possible that I can learn by heart a piece very quickly. For some kind of musical styles (like baroque or classic) I already know it by heart after reading the piece from beginning to end. Natural predisposition, solid knowledge of the music and prima vista reading, that’s the best combination for memorizing a piece fast and good.

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?

Some of my transcriptions had been already published in the past (Scarlatti’s Sonatas K.208 & 380, for instance) but, as I mentioned before, in the last years I have been working very much with my online activities and among them there is my own online shop where I publish my guitar solo/ensembles transcriptions. This was possible only thanks to my fiancée, Merce Font, who constantly develops and runs my website. Among many other things, one can find transcriptions, from Schumann to Telemann’s solo flute Fantasias, from Wagner to Haydn or Mozart, Albéniz or Paradisi. We are enormously happy and proud of it!

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up? 

To me it helps very much a short program with pieces containing tremolo on one or different strings.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Actually, I don’t, but I could never go to play without getting the last “break a leg!” from my sweetheart… : )

Do you do anything to your nails or shape them in a particular way?

Well, I think everybody does it according to the type of nail she/he has. I know just by looking at my nails which must be the length and the basic shape, after this, I polish them until I get a clean finish to have a smooth sound.


Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

My advice would be: get to know as much music as you can, but not only in terms of “I heard the 6th Symphony by Mahler”. Always keep deepening your own knowledge of the harmony and musical form, google and find the score and listen the music with the score, try to make your own analysis, ‘feel’ the emotional-philosophical message of the composer (maybe starting with something easier : ) ). Piano Sonatas by Mozart are true gold for this. It is needless to say that for this generation it is a piece of cake to find scores and recordings on the web. Just catch the chance.

As a second advice, I would like to give to them this: if you want to participate in competitions it is really fine, they are a great spotlight for your carrier, but don’t let them limit you as a musician. I see too often young terrific players traveling with the same 3-4 pieces already years and years. Enlarge your repertoire as much as you can.

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate?

Among really wonderful things, I still consider the whole studies by Sor like the real “must” of a guitar player.

Why?

Because they teach the student from the very simple ones to deal with articulation, polyphony, phrasing and structure. In particular, they are the best exercises one can do for the left hand. Besides that, they contain true jewels of our repertoire (hence, they are good also as concert pieces).

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?

Complete Cantatas by Bach with Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Bach. I think it is needless to say why. : )


Tangent

What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s?

Gardiner’s Music in the Castle of Heaven and Clara Janes’ La vida callada de Federico Mompou.

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food?

I do really try, but my schedule of life makes it very challenging to keep a structure on that. As a pre-concert food I love pasta or potatoes, they give to the body lots of energy and are not heavy to digest.

Do you meditate in any way? 

Actually, I don’t…my best friends in Italy are both top yoga teachers and I meditated with them many times, so according to them, I am really good at it even though it’s not a regular practice of mine. I feel I need a different kind of action. Of course, from time to time I take a time out from my crazy schedule, but I guess you refer to another kind of meditation. I can say that making music is my way of meditating.

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?

I love to stay with my fiancée (she is also musician) and travel together. This summer we have been in Salzburg during the Festspiele. It was amazing! But if you refer to the free time during the day, well, in the free time I listen to music, read music, transcribe music…I do really think I am 24-7 for the music there. Ah, I like to watch series on Netflix, when the time allows it to me (really seldom).

Any things else you’d like to add?

Yes, thank you very much for asking to me to participate to your blog! : )