Michael Nicolella

If you want to push the envelope, challenge convention, and strike down stereotypes, the world of classical guitar isn’t the most likely place to start. The tradition is rather strictly adhered to and the rules that have been laid out aren’t meant to be bent or broken. Michael Nicolella seems intent on doing exactly that, however, and his latest release, Shard [Gale], is an exciting textbook on how to honor classical tradition and kick it in the ass at the same time.

The honoring comes in the form of flawless technique and incredible chops that bespeak the years of study he’s put in. The ass-kicking component lies partly in Nicolella’s edgy compositions that make up about half the album and combine time-honored structure with modernistic harmonic movement. Then there are the truly outside electric guitar pieces that put a decidedly avant-garde spin on the type of playing and tone that one can get away with in the classical realm. It all adds up to a vibrant, cutting-edge vision that could make Nicolella—who cut his teeth on rock and studied jazz at Berklee—just the thing that the classical genre needs to stay relevant, vital, and thought provoking.

Can you describe the technique that you use to play the fast passages in the opener, “Toccata and Fugue”?

A lot of the stuff that I write is played with what you call cross strings. They’re things that on the page look very scalar but are actually played with, say, an open E, the D on the second string, and the C on the third string. I’ll play that with a fast m-i-p with the right hand. A lot of the fast stuff is a combination of slurs and that cross-string technique. It makes for a fuller sound for solo guitar because the notes can ring together. It’s a technique that dates back to the Renaissance lute and Baroque guitar, referred to as “campanella,” which means bell or bell like. Some of the fast passages in that piece are played that way but some are straight scales.

What influenced the harmonic movement of the parts that have sort of a dissonant Lydian tonality?

I’m not quite sure. Harmony is really important to me when I’m composing but I try not to think about it too much and label it at the time. I sort of hear a harmony going from one place to another in colors. Later, I’ll think, “That’s a maj7#11 chord” because I come from a jazz background. I think more horizontally than vertically—especially in that piece. If you listen to where the lines are going, there are three or four voices going at once and the harmonies just happen from the lines. So I’m hearing the bass line go from an F to a G and that obviously changes the harmony but I’m not thinking about going from a Dm 1st inversion to a G or anything like that.

Talk about being a composer and a performer in the classical world. How common is that?

I think it’s getting a little more common, particularly in the guitar world. That makes sense, because you don’t have the repertoire with the guitar that you do with piano or violin. I’ve noticed that composing really keeps my abilities sharp as an interpreter, and then being a better interpreter helps me as a composer. It’s a really good relationship. That’s why I recommend it even if you’re not going to perform your own works. It makes you much more sensitive as an interpreter if you really understand what goes into creating a piece. It’s the same for composers—they need to perform. Composers who never perform—I think that’s ridiculous.

When you compose for guitar and orchestra, how does it change your playing approach?

In some ways I find it almost easier. When I’m writing a solo guitar piece, I feel I have to do something kind of unique and push the instrument. It frees me up when I write for other instruments. I don’t feel the need to make the guitar quite as radical.

I remember the first piece I wrote for orchestra. I was really nervous in the first rehearsal. I didn’t think it was going to sound the way I imagined. I felt I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when it came to writing for an orchestra. And oddly enough, it was the guitar part that I ended up making all these changes to. The orchestra part was fine.

What’s your main guitar for recording and performing?

It’s a Robert Ruck. I bought it new in 1997 and it’s been my main guitar ever since. It’s kind of odd because I’m an electric guitar junky, but with classical guitars I tend to play the same one over and over. With electric it’s just the opposite. Switching from a Les Paul to a Strat is totally different—you’re going for a different sound. With a classical guitar, it’s much more like my voice so I just have that one. I don’t even have a backup.

I string it with D’Addario Pro Arte hard tension but I replace the third string with a Savarez Alliance third and I replace the first string with a D’Addario extra hard tension. I’ve been doing that for about six months.

How do you record?

It’s really important for me to record in a great sounding space. Not only for the sound going to tape or disc, but also because it inspires me to play with a wider dynamic, timbral, and emotional range. I record in this chapel I found, but it’s hard to find old churches in cities. They’re all built on the larger thoroughfares and there can be problems with traffic noise. The one I record in is on relatively

isolated grounds near Lake Washington, but there can be noise problems with sea planes, birds, custodians, heating systems, and so on. All things considered, it’s still worth the trouble. It really has the sound I’m looking for: a warm reverberant sound, but it isn’t so large as to sound “washy” or overwhelm the guitar. A great sounding space actually makes the guitar sound louder, so you can play with a wider dynamic range and pull the mics back a bit without getting too high a noise level. I find when a classical guitar is too closely miked it seems to actually compress the dynamic range and strangely enough the timbral—dolce to ponticello—range. There is also something odd to my ears about a too closely miked nylon string. You are only getting a specific characteristic of the instrument, not the entire sound. I record with two large diaphragm condensers—Audio Technica 4033s—pulled back about six feet and about six feet apart. I run them through a tube mic pre which changes from time to time. For the Shard record I used a rackmount ART. Those things sound really warm. I rented some really expensive mic preamps and they sounded nice but they were too crystalline. So, I went back to my old ART. The new ARTs have this built-in output level protection, which I don’t like. I’d rather have control over that, so I use the old basic model with the same tubes that were in it when I got it. It’s like an old friend. It’s funny—when I went to master this record, the engineer said, “Wow you get such a great sound. How did you record it?” He was surprised and really kind of snooty about the whole thing when I told him.

How does your electric work go over with classical purists?

It’s really a mix. The CD before this one, Push, had this “Eruption”-style piece, five-minutes of blazing thirty-second notes played through a Marshall. John Duarte reviewed it for Gramophone and he loved it. I’ve had people ask me before performances not to play any electric at all. On the other hand, some people specifically hire me to play electric. I went a long time without even picking up an electric when I got heavily into the classical, but I realized that it’s part of me. I kind of look at it, oddly enough, like Julian Bream where he played both guitar and lute.

You cover Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint.” How many tracks are going on in the “Slow” movement?

It’s a bunch of tracks of both electric and acoustic. I used a Martin steel-string, the Ruck, hollowbody electrics, and some solidbodies. I sort of treat those different guitars as members of an orchestra.

What advice can you give to players who like the sound of classical guitar but are too intimidated to dive into it? Is it possible to just dabble in classical guitar?

I hate to say it, but I don’t think so. At least it wasn’t that way for me. When I was a kid I was a big Steve Howe fan and I wanted to play a little bit of rock, a little jazz, and a little classical. But when I started to get into the classical I realized that I couldn’t do that. To play anything at the level I wanted, I was going to have to really focus on it. So I went like six years where I didn’t pick up an electric. At the same time, there are tons of useful goodies that players of other styles can glean from classical guitarists.

How would you describe the state of classical guitar today?

I’m hoping it’s at a turning point. It seemed like in the ’70s and early ’80s that classical guitar was a little hipper. The general guitar world was checking out what the classical guitar world was doing and now it seems like that has completely stopped. There’s a big schism between the two. I think the problem is in some ways the classical world doesn’t appreciate innovation. That’s not high up on their ideals. Hopefully that will start to change. There may be a changing of the guard now because there are no young players. Manuel Barrueco, Ben Verdery, Sharon Isbin are the “young” classical players and they’re all in their 50s! Dominic Frasca is a friend of mine and he’s trying to take it in a different direction, kind of like I am. There are people who are doing really interesting things so maybe we’re on the crux of something. I hope so.