Interview with GFA winner Johannes Möller
I know that you have participated in the GFA several times before, did that experience help you to do so well this time?
Yes, It was the third time that I participated in the GFA and what I learned from doing it before was to really prepare the required and set pieces well. In the pieces that everyone else also performs one really can be compared with the other competitors. My strategy was to work a lot on the set pieces. As I am personally not a really fast learner and I need quite some time to digest the musical content of a piece, my intent was to have as few engagements as possible the months before and locked myself and my guitar into a room.
Could you tell us something about how you prepared the required as well as the set piece?
This years quite unusual choice of the required piece was Darius Milhaud’s Segoviana. This piece was quite a nut to crack for me, it is a kind of collage of short fragments and many aspects of the notation are quite misleading. In addition, a lot of freedom is left for the performer. So unless one is really clear about what is going on and captures the mood of the different fragments it can become hard for the listener to follow. However, Milhaud’s ability to create music in previously unknown territory is evident in this work just as much as in any of his other works. For me the one of the most important keys to the work became to really let every note sound; there is so much information within the two pages the piece fits into that there is really no need to rush anything. I therefore chose a fairly slow tempo and allowed long fermatas in between sections, although, not too long as then one can lose the feeling of continuity.
The set piece was also quite something substantial to bite into. It was written by the Canadian composer Denis Gougeon. A composer who normally expresses himself in larger forms, of which many have been highly praised. He has written for orchestra and chamber ensemble and his expressive and dramatic writing style has lead him to writing operas and music for the theatre. The guitar piece, although not large in form, is very dramatic in nature. Just the title Lamento- Scherzo suggests a great contrast between a very sad, serious mood to a swift and happy part. Throughout the six weeks I really became enamored with the piece and I have decided to put it on the my GFA Naxos recording. During the last weeks I have also been in contact with the composer and it is really a interpreters dream to receive such direct insight into the music.
What methods do you use when learning a new piece?
When it comes to the process of learning new pieces I like to take more time than six weeks but when time is short I guess one’s methods of learning are put to the test. In order to start practicing a piece one needs to have fingerings done and that takes time. The fingerings is a very important aspect on the guitar more than any other instrument as we have so many possibilities. Ideally, the fingerings should express your very innermost feelings and understanding of the music. The fingering therefore makes a very important statement about our musical personality. So for me the first step is to get to know the piece, by playing it, analyzing it, singing it, thinking about it etc.. When time is short I also try to spot the difficult bits as soon as possible and finger those first. Once I am happy with the fingerings of a passage I start practicing that one even if the whole piece is not fingered, that makes the work more varied and then also more fun. I am also always open for change, after all one can not know if a fingering is good until one can play it in tempo and in context. Then when it comes to learning the piece it is always good to start practicing small segments slowly, in order to not learn it with mistakes. The metronome is also of great help at this point; I put it on a quite fast number and play one note per beat, that makes me really play every note. It is also good to play each note more than once, I try to make it into a habit of practicing all sections repeating each note three times at least once, and for the difficult passages more. In case with the slurred notes I either play all three with the left hand or just the first and then pluck the other two. It is also a good idea to to lift off the fingers of the left hand after each of note played. At this point it is also good to practice the hands separately. When playing with the right hand alone it is done as usual and when playing with the left hand one hit each note so that one hears the pitch (open strings can either be slurred or left out). Once I am comfortable in the slow speed I move to faster tempos, it is important to keep it challenging but not so much so that one does not have control. Once I can handle faster tempos, I tend to prefer to leave the metronome, but I also go back using it in slower tempos as much as is necessary. Another aspect, which is a bit more far fetched, is to ,even in very slow tempos, keep the musical idea in mind and bring it out even if only practicing very short sections. This is something that one of my teachers Zoran Dukic always made a point of; to “always keep the musical idea in mind”
When we dedicate so much time and energy into something it can be hard to maintain the inspiration and enthusiasm, how do you deal with that?
In my preparation work I tried to keep myself as inspired and stimulated as possible. I love listening to music, especially live, that is somehow the real thing, but as there is no possibility to hear any piece in concert at any time, recordings provides exactly that instant availability which concerts don’t. However, I make a point of never listening to other peoples recording of pieces I am playing. Instead I listen to other works by the same composer or music in similar style. In the case with Gougeon’s piece there are of course no recordings, but there was plenty of his other works that I bought on itunes. Listening to some of those pieces over and over again was crucial for me to be able to grasp his musical language. I was also keeping myself in tune by watching one of my favorite movies which is a documentary about the romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache called Celibidache’s Garden. In there his view on music as way to access higher states of consciousness and his 100% dedication to his profession is captured brilliantly. One of Celibidache’s methods I also applied to my preparation work. To first work on every detail very consciously, being totally aware of the structure and try to understand it in every aspect. Then one has to forget it all and just play it intuitively. So first one has to learn it, but then one has to “live it”. Due to this approach it all came together in a peak for me during my performance in the final. It was a wonderful experience, I was there merely as another listener watching the music form itself in front of us. Due to this experience I have not really been able to take credit for winning the competition I can not say that I was playing. At least not the “I” that I normally perceive myself to be.
So finally after a lot of hard preparation work what was it like to win first price?
The thing is that I have two sides, one extremely introvert, this side of me comes out the most when I go into composing, and the other very extrovert, that one likes to perform and meet a lot of people. So during a long period of extremely introvert work, my extrovert side was extremely happy to be performing and being in the middle of the attention. Winning the GFA was truly a wonderful sensation, it was one very important step in having my dream coming true, to be able to live a life dedicated to sharing my love for music.