Modern Music for the Classical Guitar

The guitar, like all instruments, is deeply reflective of and engraved in social transformations. Modern technology has led the classical guitar to new and highly innovative heights of musical expression. The rapid technological changes of recent decades has given birth to more compositional tools for composers. Thomas Flippin, a highly respected and imaginative composer and guitarist says, “When I’m composing music I’m always starting from a vantage point of ‘what do I want to say here and what are the best tools to tell this story in an interesting way that isn’t obvious.” This way of thinking about music has led Flippin to “combine electric guitar pedal FX with baroque lutes, or to combine baroque passacaglia form with a modern jazz guitar solo, or to mix recordings of the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack mob chanting while a mixed string quartet sustains a dying chord. If music creation is world-building, then technology allows us to imagine new worlds and juxtapositions that haven’t existed before, which excites me.”

 Currently, some of the most spirited and colorful music is being composed for the classical guitar. The contemporary composers behind these compositions are constantly pushing the borders of what is considered “classical music.” These compositions for modern classical guitar utilize new technology, techniques, and a multitude of influences to create many intricate musical languages for this youthful instrument, languages that brim with expression and creativity.

Outside of new technology, composers are now more than ever able to utilize new and abstract techniques to convey a message through music. The use of percussion on the guitar in Konstantin Vassiliev’s piece “Hommage a Tom Jobim” and the use of spoons for hitting and scratching guitar strings in Clarice Assad’s piece for guitar duo Hocus Pocous are wonderful examples of inventive techniques that lift the classical guitar.

The boundary pushing nature of contemporary compositions for the guitar has the tendency to surprise and certainly excite audiences. The incorporation of diverse musical traditions and sometimes even new instruments like the electric guitar into compositions that blur the line between musical genres raise questions about the usefulness of these musical dividers.

JIJI Kim is a highly acclaimed concert guitarist and professor at Arizona State University who is no stranger to pushing the conventional boundaries of classical music. Her journey with the guitar began young: “I grew up listening to lots of rock music,blues and pop, I always wanted to play electric guitar, and was always interested in that world.” Jiji began playing the classical guitar and went through a traditional conservatory education. “By the time I was in my undergrad I was really burnt out,” she said, “and kind of lost all joy for music…I had lost a purpose and this fire in me, I was going to quit.”

 After an enlightening experience at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival (a hub for modern classical composers and performers), Jiji began to feel something change. “That was the first time I felt like I didn’t have to compartmentalize my yearning for different types of music, with classical music I always felt like I needed to only listen to classical music and I couldn’t like pop music or it was kind of frowned upon, I always felt like I had to keep things separated. In this [style of music] I could do whatever I want, if I wanted to play electric guitar, great! If I wanted to play some polystylistic music, I could do that. There were no rules. This was the first time I felt really accepted…I’ve been interested in contemporary music because I can just do whatever I want, and I can play electric guitar and so what? And that’s why I’ve always been interested in this world. We live in the 21st century, we should embrace everything around us. I think it’s amazing that we have this internet and social media. Why only look at this one thing, and then reject anything else? I just always felt like we needed to separate, now I just do.”

This freeing nature of contemporary music that Jiji speaks of is part of its appeal and what makes it so wonderful. This new found freedom for composers to draw from different musical traditions as they see fit, is a change that shall bear the richest fruit of human creativity.

The immense amount of creativity that we have seen in contemporary compositions for the classical guitar have paved the way for an equally exciting future for the instrument. Yuri Liberzon, a brilliant classical guitarist and teacher, says of the future of the guitar, “The level of guitar playing is now higher than ever, which makes me very hopeful for the future. I am absolutely sure that great music is being written for guitar these days. It always takes time for good music to get filtered through time from the not so good music… I think classical guitar has a truly beautiful tone and it is what will always make it stand out.”

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