Michael Nicolella Interprets Bach's Cello Suites

Check in with the world-class classical guitarist.
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Michael Nicolella isn’t just a world-class classical guitarist who is constantly pushing the boundaries of what the instrument is capable of as a performer. He is also a composer, who has had his works performed by symphonies, with him accompanying on classical as well as electric guitar. He is an instructor at Cornish College of Arts, shepherding the next generation of classical players. Not only that, he was in the Mike Varney Spotlight in the February 1987 issue of GP, and is a rock dude who saw Queen on the News of the World tour and can talk Van Halen with the same authority as he can Segovia. He is that guy.

Nicolella’s latest undertaking, Complete Bach Cello Suites [Gale], is a two-plus hour opus of his arrangements and interpretations of the work of a guy named Johann from the Baroque period. It is an astounding collection of beautiful melodies and counterpoint, all expertly rendered by Nicolella. The deep love and respect for Bach’s genius is apparent throughout, never overshadowed by Nicolella’s incredible technique, which combines a deft touch, gorgeous tone, and such amazing independence of parts that it has tricked some writers [Ed. Note: me] into believing that at times there were two guitarists playing. Although Nicolella’s chops and fearlessness have led some to call him the future of classical guitar, he spoke to GP about the past and present of the instrument from his home in Seattle.

In a nutshell, why did you want to do this?

First and foremost because I just love playing Bach. I’ve always viewed the cello suites as one really large, epic, two-hour piece. The fifth cello suite exists as a version for lute, and I played that as a teenager in the key that most everybody plays it in, which is A minor. The piece was originally written in C minor for cello and then Bach arranged it in G minor for the lute. Guitarists usually play everything either in A, E, or D. I went back and tried playing it in G minor and that sparked this idea to do all the cello suites with a “What would Bach do?” kind of mentality.

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So, what would Bach do?

Changing the keys in the same way is what Bach would do, so I raised everything up a fifth as he did with Suite No. 5, with the exception of the sixth suite. When it came to the question of how much to add to the pieces, I used what he did with the fifth suite as a template: what bass notes to add, how to complement the harmonies, and how to realize the implied counterpoint that’s there and turn it into a piece that was more fitting for the guitar. That even extended to the idea of ornamenting—doing these little improvisational ornaments on the repeats, which is very fitting to Bach’s time.

Talk about the reasoning behind the key choices and your tunings.

Some people actually do them in the same exact key as the cello, and you can, but then you have the problem of if you play it as the same pitch as the cello, you’re unable to add bass lines below that because you’re close to the bottom pitches of the guitar. If you bring them up an octave, then everything’s up in the stratosphere and it sounds kind of plinky. So by bringing it up a fifth you get it into a register where the melody can sit for the most part on the top three strings of the guitar and you have the bottom three strings to work with bass lines. I started with No. 5 in G minor. Most guitarists do it in A minor because of the open A and E strings. I circumvented that by dropping the two low strings down a whole-step to G and D. The third suite is in G major and has the same tuning as the fifth. The sixth and the first are both in dropped-D. The second one is in A minor, so that works in standard tuning. The third and the fifth have the two bottom strings dropped down a whole-step. The fourth one is in Bb, so the A is tuned up to Bb and the E is tuned up to F.

Did you chart everything out for this?

Yes, I did. Other guitarists have done this in the past, so in some cases I cheated a bit and found a version that was in the key that I wanted to play it in, and then basically just whited out the stuff that wasn’t the original cello and started from scratch from there. For the other ones I actually painstakingly typed them into Finale from the get-go.

That seems like an amazing undertaking. Do you have any idea how many pages of music this was?

No, I don’t, but it’s a lot. It’s two hours and ten minutes of music.

Were you reading charts for the recording?

For the most part no. I memorized and played them in concert from memory. This was a long project. Some of these I recorded in the same sessions for my last album. My general process was I would make an arrangement of a suite, I’d learn it, and then I’d play it for about six months in concert while I was starting on the next one. I didn’t memorize the second suite, because that one was an experiment in trying to actually improvise the ornaments live in concert. For most of these, while there’s some improvisation involved, I would kind of improvise in the practice room and then I would decide that I liked an ornament. I might tweak it a little bit in concert here or there, but basically I was working within a framework. For the second suite, I experimented with playing it in concert actually trying to completely improvise the ornaments. For that, it’s really helpful to have the music in front of you and not try to improvise while you’re playing from memory.

The other one that I played from a chart was the fourth suite, and I’ve never actually played that in concert, although I’ve played it for friends and colleagues. The reason for that was the tuning really kind of threw me off. That’s the one in Bb, so the A and the E strings were tuned up a half-step. I find that really difficult because it’s not a tuning I ever use and it messes with my head in terms of memory because the pitches aren’t where you think they are. Dropped-D I’m used to. Even dropped-G-and-D—I’ve done enough stuff in those tunings that I’m kind of used to them. But having everything up a half-step on the bottom two strings was kind of tough. So I read the piece, and even then it’s difficult because you have to remember as you’re reading it that those pitches are up a half-step. But I still found I was more successful doing that than trying to do it from memory. So those are the only two that in the studio—actually it’s a church that I record in—I read sheet music for.

How did the recordings go? How many takes would you do on these?

My general process for recording is I do three takes. That doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes do more, but I keep three. I try not to keep more than three because when I go to edit, it just becomes a nightmare of having to listen through everything. Then I’ll edit when necessary.

By editing, are you comping tracks? I’m assuming there are no punches on this.

No, there are no punches at all. I record complete performances and then I edit in Pro Tools. For a while I had some guilt issues about editing, but I think pretty much any classical musician edits quite a bit, so now I don’t worry about it. I look at like this: When I’m playing in a concert it’s like a play, and when I’m in the studio it’s like a movie. And just like with a movie, you don’t care how many takes it requires to get it right or how many cuts and edits you have to do. Sometimes I’ll listen back, though, and decide that none of the takes are really good enough, and then I’ll go back in and record it again.

Is there a reason you decided to play the same guitar on all of these suites?

The main reason was that when I started this recording, I had one concert guitar: a cedar top Robert Ruck. And because I was thinking of this as one big piece, I wanted as similar a sound as possible, so I didn’t change the mic placement, the room, or the guitar. I also really like the way that particular guitar records. Since then I have been performing in concert with guitars made by a talented young builder named Tim Harris. I string all these guitars with RC Titanium Carbon strings. RC is a Spanish company that specializes in classical and flamenco guitar strings.

How did you mic it?

With two large condenser mics—Audio Technica 4033s—in an equilateral triangle. They were about six feet apart and six feet away from the guitar.

You get so many different timbres from the same guitar, same mic placement, and same room. I’m struck by how noticeably the tonality changes when you go from the first to the second suite. You’re going from a bright major key to a darker minor key, but there’s a lot more contributing to that mood shift. How do you go from a bright and lively vibe to a dark and melancholy vibe, in terms of where you pick on the string and how you attack it?

That’s one of the great things of classical guitar. As an electric guitarist, everyone knows the equipment is only so much. The tone is in your hands. With classical guitar, I think that’s even more exaggerated. Obviously where you pluck the string matters. Just like with the pickups on a Strat, the closer you get to the bridge, the brighter the sound; the closer you get to the fingerboard, the warmer the sound. But I find more and more that I’m relying on the angle of the attack of the nail against the string to change the tone. It’s amazing how much coming straight across the string will get a brighter sound and then going more obliquely—kind of slicing the string at an angle—will give a warmer sound. Then on top of that you have how much you’re pushing the string towards the face of the guitar or how much you’re pulling it away from the top of the guitar. I always say to my students that a good sound has to do with activating the string towards the face of the guitar. But sometimes you almost go for a “bad” sound by plucking up on the strings to get a brighter tone. Coupling that with the angle of the attack and placement of where along the string you are, you have a limitless supply of tones that you can get. In classes I do this fun thing where I can make it almost sound like a flanger by the way that I’m changing the angle of the attack of my nails.

When you’re working these up, how do you practice? Do you slow them down? Do you play along with recordings?

I never play along with a recording. In fact, I try not to listen to recordings at all when I’m practicing because I don’t want it to influence what I’m doing from an interpretive or arrangement standpoint. I try to use as many different strategies as possible. Slow playing is one of them. I also break them up into little phrases and practice backwards. I practice the last phrase and then the second to last phrase into the last phrase, third to last phrase, and so on—all from memory. It’s a good way to secure the memory. I go through the pieces in my head, trying to visualize what they look like on the fingerboard and how I’ll play them. Another thing I’ll do is go through a piece and play everything with the left hand, but with my right hand I’ll just play the bass line or just the top line. I’m trying to develop this incredible independence between the two voices, like it’s a conversation between two people, or the old cliché of “It sounds like two guitarists at once.” It’s one thing to just play the bass line by itself, but when your left hand is having to play another line at the time, you tend to kind of fudge things in the bass. This way, I can listen and hear if that bass line really has the clarity and the shape that I want. Is each note speaking the way I want it to from one to another?

Is it nerve-wracking to tackle a project of this size and to interpret a composer of Bach’s stature?

Sure. In some ways you feel this kind of responsibility to Bach in a way. It’s amazing how much time I’ve spent playing Bach’s music. Sometimes I have to laugh to myself when I think that he probably knocked out one of these suites in an afternoon and I’ve worked on some of these things off and on for over 30 years. There’s so much depth emotionally and you feel this sense of responsibility. But what tempers it for me is this feeling of thankfulness and luck that we have this incredible music. That offsets the responsibility in some ways, that sense of gratitude. I just feel so fortunate to be able to play his music on guitar.