ANDREAS KAPSALIS AND GORAN Ivanovic had crossed paths and shared stages in the Chicago area for several years before teaming up as the Andreas Kapsalis & Goran Ivanovic Guitar Duo in 2009. Steel-string virtuoso Kapsalis had established himself as an innovator on the “eight-fingered” tapping scene, performing, recording, and scoring feature films with the Andreas Kapsalis Trio. Nylon-string maestro Ivanovic is a native of Croatia who studied with Eliot Fisk and other hallowed classical guitarists, but whose aesthetic also encompasses jazz and a host of world music traditions, including Brazilian and Macedonian. He has performed and recorded with Eastern Blok, the Goran Ivanovic Group, and Fareed Haque, as well as teaching at Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, Cornell, and other major universities as a guest artist.
“We each have completely different perspectives on the instrument, and soon we realized that there was a very interesting musical connection and an ability to finish each other’s musical sentences, if you will,” says Kapsalis regarding the impetus behind forming the Duo. “During the past year we finally got together and tried to identify what was missing out there as far as guitar music goes, and what it would make sense for us to record,” adds Ivanovic. “We sat down for a couple weeks and came up with a bunch of tunes for the record, and we were really pleased with the way it came out.”
Andreas, there are a lot of eight-finger players these days that sound a lot alike. How did you come up with fresh approaches using that technique?
Kapsalis: I couldn’t use my left hand for a couple of months due to an injury, so I started playing with my right hand and discovered that that approach had many advantages. One thing it allowed me to do was to sound more like other instruments— piano, harp, cymbalom—which is something I’ve always been interested in doing. I would arrange orchestral pieces for guitar in order to try to understand the harmonies, and play as many of the individual parts at once as possible, which led to a lot of my two-handed techniques. To take the tapping approach to the next level, I think it is important not to just rely on open tunings or bouncing off harmonics, but also to be able to, say, play scales with the right hand as effectively as with the left, and to use each hand independently of the other. Tapping is sometimes thought of as a novelty and I want to make it more legitimate and to apply serious compositional approaches to the technique. It’s an extended technique like legitimate extended techniques on any other instrument.
Both of you obviously have very different right-hand techniques. Describe the differences.
Ivanovic: I studied classical guitar for many years, and that is the foundation of both my right- and my left-hand technique. But the classical world is a little too conservative for me, so I always try to take things from other styles, such as flamenco. I like to bring out a lot of color and detail using my right hand, and there are a lot of options just in the way that I pluck the strings with my nail. One side of the string will produce warmer sounds than the other, playing closer to the bridge will change the timbre and the attack, playing with just one finger or my thumb will let me shape the melody differently, etc.
Kapsalis: I have a very untraditional right-hand approach. Some of the techniques are reminiscent of other tapping guitar players, and some I came up with to get sounds I can’t get any other way. I primarily use my thumb and index finger, and my other fingers move like little acrobats bouncing in and out to make things happen. One common right-hand technique I use involves tapping a note and then moving it around the fretboard while I tremolo it, at the same time plucking chords with my thumb, so that I’m playing the melody, sustaining the bass, and adding harmony simultaneously.
Briefly describe your primary instruments and why you favor those guitars.
Ivanovic: I have a single-cutaway classical guitar made by Robert Boyd Desmond. It has maple back and sides with a German spruce top, and was designed for flamenco. I also have another classical guitar that was hand built for me by Richard Brune. It has Brazilian rosewood back and sides, a cedar top, and two sound holes—one normal and one on the side. I also play a Godin Multiac ASC and a Danche archtop. I string the classical guitars with hard tension D’Addario strings.
Kapsalis: I play a John Goodall Grand Concert guitar. I also have a Taylor Grand Auditorium that I play when the Goodall is in the shop, and an M.E. Brune classical. I string my main guitars with custom sets of GHS Bright Bronze strings, gauged .013, .016, .025, .032, .048, and .060.
How about amplification?
Ivanovic: I use a Fishman piezo pickup, though I’m not sure of the model. For amps I have a Roland AC-60 and a JBL powered speaker off to the side.
Kapsalis: I have an old Fishman Blender that I use with an internal microphone and a standard piezo pickup. The signal from the Blender goes into an AER Domino amplifier, and I also have a Roland Bass Cube for additional lows. The acoustic guitar obviously wasn’t designed for tapping, so when you play that way there are lots of anomalies that the Blender helps me compensate for.
Other than the Blender, do you use any special equalization or compression to bring out the more subtle aspects of the tapping?
Kapsalis: I generally try to stay away from compression because I feel it can suffocate the instrument. The engineer did add a little compression when we recorded the album, but I was adamant about only using a little. It was the same with EQ and reverb. We wanted to get a very natural sound
So you relied entirely on your fingers for all of the dynamics on the recording?
Kapsalis: Yes. We just made sure that we had very good headphone mixes so that we could hear each other in a detailed manner that allowed us to achieve that level of subtlety.
Ivanovic: We really try to listen to each other carefully and to follow each other’s phrasing and dynamics, whether we are recording or performing or just practicing. We both play with extreme dynamics. Constantly changing things up makes the music much more exciting.
It sounds like there are few if any overdubs on Guitar Duo.
Ivanovic: That’s right. Other than a few “percussion” overdubs played by Andreas on his guitar, what you are hearing is just the two of us live in the studio.
Kapsalis: The recording process was quite simple. We were facing each other, with a couple of Neumann microphones between us. It was important for us to play together at the same time because we wanted to capture the same energy that we have onstage.
Were you also using your amps and combining their sound with the microphone sound?
What percentage of the music on the album is improvised?
Ivanovic: “Improvisation for Satie” was the only fully improvised song, though there is slow section in “Samba in 10” that was kind of loose.
Kapsalis: All of the music was written in a very short period before we recorded it, so there wasn’t much time to over-think things, and that allowed for a lot of spontaneity in terms of dynamics. There’s a certain magic that happens in our performances sometimes where we accelerate simultaneously, which adds a lot of fire and additional excitement.
Do you take more liberties when performing the songs in concert?
Ivanovic: We play the songs on the album pretty much the same way live, but we do sometimes ask the audience to give us suggestions for improvisations. They’ll shout out things like, “Play a baroque song” or “play a polka,” and we’ll just start with that simple idea and go from there.
Walk us through your compositional process using “Shadow Thief” as an example.
Ivanovic: One of us came up with a simple melody, and we thought it would be cool to play it against a part in 7/8 with a kind of tango feel, so we came up with that introduction. But then we changed the accents to give it more of a Serbian or Greek quality, because we just can’t help ourselves. We have to put some spice in there and change it a little bit. One of the things we enjoy most about Balkan and Greek music is the use of odd meters—5, 7, 9, and 11—which has become a signature, if you will, of what we do. Another characteristic of Balkan music is that the tempo can change from very slow and sad to very lively and fast, and in that piece we go from a slow 7/8 to a very fast 7/8.
Kapsalis: Then we decided to go into a Klezmer section. And after that it just felt logical to go back to the head.
It also sounds as if you are tuned way down on the bass end?
Kapsalis: The most common altered tuning on the album is dropped-D, but “Shadow Thief” is in standard tuning except that the low E and A strings are tuned down to C and G. The .060-gauge sixth string still sounds good when tuned down to C. In fact, I’ll often tune the sixth and fifth strings down to B and F#, but I didn’t use that tuning on the album. I also like D, A, D, G, C, Eb and D, B, B, F#, B, E.
Do you both use alternate tunings?
Ivanovic: No. I mostly play in standard tuning, but once in a while I’ll switch to dropped-D or open-D tuning.
Kapsalis: Alternate tunings help me to forget theory and compose more organically. They throw my mind off so I don’t know what a particular chord shape is going to sound like or even what note I’m on—and that makes me feel as if the instrument is new again!