Read Time 19 Minutes
Guitarist and Composer
I was first introduced to Marco Oppedisano through his stunning Mechanical Uprising recording. What really knocked me out about it was the way that Marco was able to unite multiple compositional and playing influences into a fully realized voice. If you were to imagine someone who learned Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force inside and out and who then used the chops gained from that experience in service to helping create probing dense compositions you can start to get an idea of the release. It’s an impressive artistic statement that serves as both a compositional and a playing tour de force and it’s a record that I’d recommend to any guitarist out there with a ear bent for the sonically bold and experimental.
Marco was kind enough to recently sit down with me (via e-mail) and talk about his experiences, influences and development as a composer and a guitarist.
I guess I should start the the beginning. How did you get into guitar playing?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY to Italian immigrant parents. My father played guitar and sang throughout my childhood, so there was always a guitar around. As a child of 6 or 7, I would strap on his big acoustic guitar and randomly strum the open strings loudly. At the age of 12, I became very serious about playing to the point where it became the only thing I was interested in doing.
I loved playing organized baseball, but that ended once the guitar entered the picture. I have strong memories in the early years of falling asleep with the guitar in my lap after hours of playing.
What are your guitar playing/compositional influences?
There are many. My first guitar influences were primarily rock and metal guitarists. Players like Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai Joe Satriani, Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and others dominated my teenage years. Jimi Hendrix had a special place for me as a teenager and still does. His influence has remained a constant throughout my life. The famous version of Machine Gun from the Live at The Filmore Band of Gypsys album is one of my all-time favorite guitar tracks. And I would realize later how Hendrix’s 1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be) is really a perfect balance of experimentation, studio mastery, wonderful guitar playing and great songwriting.
In my later teens, John McLaughlin with Mahavishnu Orchestra was very influential. Hearing Mahavishnu’s Birds of Fire for the first time at 17 years old really blew my mind. That would lead me to listening to guitarists like Frank Zappa, Steve Morse, Allan Holdsworth, Scott Henderson, Al Di Meola, Mike Stern, John Scofield, etc. It wouldn’t be until my late 20’s (after a period of playing considerably less guitar) where I would start listening to experimental guitarists like Hans Reichel, Marc Ribot, Derek Bailey and Fred Frith. Also, discovering Robert Fripp and his Frippertronics was a real eye opener.
I didn’t start having serious compositional influences until reaching college. It was there I started to love classical music. I remember hearing Ives’ “Three Places in New England“ for the first time on a Music Appreciation anthology and not knowing what to think. I was 18 years old and still listening to a lot of guitar music. Nevertheless, I was fascinated enough to want listen some more, acquired a taste for it, and eventually developed a love for his music.
So, I would say some important classical influences were ranging from early music, Bach, Mozart, Brahms to Bartok, Stravinsky, Webern, Mahler, Ligeti, amongst many others. I spent hours with the score for Stravinsky’s “Agon” (an all time favorite of mine). I also was very interested in the music of Morton Feldman and John Cage. Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (for prepared piano) would have some influence on my prepared electric guitar work used in my electroacoustic pieces (Limbo, Karmicom, and Seven Pieces: VII. The Dreamer). As for Morton Feldman, I always loved his use of voices in Rothko Chapel. I’m also a big fan of the player piano music of Conlon Nancarrow. The piano music I composed for my piece “Solitary Pathways” on Mechanical Uprising was definitely influenced by his work.
My first exposure to electronic music was hearing “Poeme Electronique“ by Edgard Varese when I first started college (on the same aforementioned anthology). I was fascinated with the piece and would listen late at night in complete darkness just to scare myself. It is still one of my all time favorite works of classic electronic music. Looking back, I had no idea that years later electronic music would become my compositional focus. Life can be funny like that.
So in regards to electronic music, I’ve been influenced by Stockhausen, Xenakis, Cage, Henry, Dhomont, Subotnick, etc. On a more personal level, Noah Creshevsky, one of my composition teachers at Brooklyn College has had an important influence on my music and aesthetic. I had the honor of having my electric guitar samples included on a composition of his called “Hoodlum Priest“ with Thomas Buckner (Hyperrealism, Mutable Music – 17516-2).
You started off as a classical guitar performance major – why did you study composition?
I composed a little before starting undergraduate studies as music major at Brooklyn College, but entered school as a classical guitar performance major.
I loved those 2 years of classical guitar study with Michael Cedric Smith. They were so important for my musical development, but I knew that I didn’t want to devote my life to playing classical guitar. It was at that time, Charles Dodge had admired my theory assignments for his 20th Century Music Class at Brooklyn College (this was back in 1992) and he suggested I study composition. Musically that worked out just right for me, It was then I started to drift away from guitar for a bit and started to focus on non-guitar music and what other instruments could do.
How did composition studies affect your guitar playing?
Within the first year studying composition, I wrote a classical guitar and piano duo and a solo classical guitar piece. It would take me three years before
I would compose my first student piece with electric guitar and a mixed ensemble of flute, trombone, flute and clarinet. The piece was influenced by Bill Frisell, whom I was listening to a lot of at the time (particularly his album, This Land.) This guitar and mixed ensemble piece was a breakthrough for me because it got me seriously thinking of how I could compose with electric guitar.
For those first three years studying composition I played considerably less electric guitar. Focusing on composition ultimately had a positive affect on me by making me a better guitarist and overall musician. By focusing less on the technical aspects of playing guitar and listening to all kinds of music, I was on my way to making music that was more rewarding and personally satisfying for me.
How did your classical guitar studies affect your electric guitar playing?
Playing classical guitar required a different type of mindset. Besides the obvious different technique required and technical challenges, the idea of interpreting a piece of music was something I was not aware of before studying classical guitar. Ultimately, it allowed for a deeper involvement in the music. Although, I don’t play classical guitar much anymore, I still love the instrument. In my electric playing, I’ll incorporate some fingerstyle technique – kind of like hybrid picking. Nothing quite sounds like flesh and nail striking a string.
In 2005, I had the great pleasure of producing a classical guitar CD for the New York City guitarist, Oren Fader. I also composed a piece for him that was included on the disc: Primo Volo (2003). Oren performed it beautifully quite a few times. Here’s the video/score:
Here is a nylon string guitar piece performed by me called I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon from Tesla at Coney Island (with David Lee Myers).
Here is another composition that incorporates nylon string guitar. This piece demonstrates a good example of my compositional method. The nylon string guitar material was taken from an improvisation back in 2007. After rediscovering it a few years later, I sampled from it and used it a piece called Nocturne.
Do you have a standard compositional process or does it vary?
With each electroacoustic piece, I first make some guidelines on how I plan to use guitar. Will the piece use only guitar related samples or will it include other sounds (processed waveforms, virtual instruments, voice and various samples)? With compositions that use instrument sounds outside of guitar, I will sometimes compose music on Finale and then use the midi for virtual instruments. Then I finally decide if the piece will be a purely musique concrete work or with a playback and live electric guitar part.
My compositional process is relatively consistent. I organize possible samples and record some preconceived guitar ideas and improvisations. Whether I choose to record more guitar as the piece starts to progress, depends on the piece. Once, I have decided on samples, I organize them in a “palette” in my Pro Tools session and pick and choose from it. I may keep some sounds intact, cut them up or use effects processing. I’ve been composing like this for a while now, so the whole process has become second nature.
How has technology affected your compositional methods (and what do you use to record?)
I could never do what I do now without a home studio and the technology available. As an electronic musician, the studio itself is viewed as an instrument. Some of my earlier electroacoustic music with guitars (1999 – 2003) was recorded at the Brooklyn College Center for Computer Music (as an alumnus and guest of one of my composition teachers, George “Skip” Brunner), and I had almost unlimited access to the recording studio and Pro Tools. Even with all that studio access at BCCM, it wasn’t the same as being able to work in one’s own studio.
As important as technology is for my music, I’m not obsessed with the acquisition of gear. I dislike reading manuals and don’t follow online gear forums – maybe to a fault. I just need a few things that I will do what I need. So, my recording setup is fairly basic (and could use a good upgrade) consisting of a Mac laptop and PC desktop, Pro Tools Mbox with a decent amount of plug-ins, a guitar multi effects processor and a variety of guitar-related gadgets. As complex and varied my music is at times, there will always be the part of me that appreciates just plugging the guitar straight into an amp and just playing.
Would you talk a little more about the specific gear you’re using (guitars, strings, etc)?
I have two electric guitars that I use for recording. One is a modified 1979 hardtail American Fender Stratocaster. The stock pickups have been replaced with Dimarzio Virtual Vintage pickups in the middle and neck position and a Seymour Duncan JB Jr (stacked single) in the bridge. My other guitar is an older stock Ibanez AS-120 (semi-hollow). I’ve gone through many brands of strings throughout the years and have stayed with a GHS Boomers standard .10 set for a while now. My nylon string guitar is an average Guild from the late 80’s.
I record into Pro Tools with an Mbox. Most of my recording is done direct with a Boss GT- 6 multi effects processor. I’ve both created sounds and modified some existing patches on the GT-6. I do have a wonderful Fender Vibrolux amp (mid to late 60’s) that I have used sporadically for recording and often for specific live performances. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury to do guitar mic recording in a Queens apartment (especially with a young child at home now), because much of my recording/composing is done late at night. When I do record guitar, I use an SM 57 microphone. Some of my earlier guitar recording done at BCCM was done with a Sennheiser (can’t remember the model). Amplitube has come in very handy for modifying and tweeking some already recorded direct guitar tones.
My Ebow gets a lot of use and is responsible for many guitar sounds. I also have a bag of items that includes paper clips, glass and metal slides, alligator clips, a small chain, a battery operated electric razor and a ruler.
I occasionally will use some old Boss pedals, a Crybaby and a Visual Volume pedal for smaller type gigs.
You record in a digital medium. Do you approach amp sims any differently than live amps?
As stated earlier, I wish I had the luxury to do more mic recording, but I am very impressed with amp sims these days. It’s interesting for me to record a fairly straight electric guitar sound and sit with a plug in and either tweak the sound or change it drastically. I’ve also achieved some good results with the amp sims on the GT-6. I’m not so much a tone chaser, because I find it would be a hindrance to the composing process for me. I have a good idea what I like and let my hands do the rest. There isn’t quite anything like recording with a live amp though – especially loudly. For example, it was necessary for the electric guitar feedback samples in my piece, “Fractured Sky“ to be recorded at a very loud volume. The combination of player, guitar, amp and air in a live recording setting is such a wonderful relationship. It’s a big part of what attracted me to electric guitar in the first place.
Are your releases full composed concepts (i.e. “I’m going to write an 11 track album”) – or do you compose a series of individual pieces and construct an album around the pieces?
My debut release, Electroacoustic Compositions for Electric Guitar (2007) was a compilation of work from 1999-2005, so I chose what I thought were the best pieces during that period. I have some electroacoustic work that was left off that disc and still has not been officially released. With The Ominous Corner (2008) and Mechanical Uprising (2010), I had a general idea of what I wanted the albums to be like. The idea of the album concept applied less to a particular theme throughout, but more to the style of music and even the process involved.
How has your playing and compositional method evolved over your releases?
It has definitely been a winding road with my 4 releases. My debut, Electroacoustic Compositions for Electric Guitar (2007) was a compilation of works from 1999-2005. This release focused on the electric guitar being more a sound source. I’ve called it the “anti-guitar shred” album – a reaction against my many years of technical guitar playing. Some of the music (compositions such as “Frozen Tears“ , “Limbo“ and “Karmicom“) on this release focused alternate tunings, bowing, extended techniques, prepared guitar (various types of paper clips). “Steel Sky” was a mostly electric guitar feedback inspired work. I remember having a lot of fun coaxing different sounds from the electric guitar and sculpting those sounds into compositions.
I went in a different direction with the following release, The Ominous Corner (2008). The focus was more on conventional and technical guitar playing, and unlike my debut release, I also incorporated different samples, virtual instruments voice (courtesy of my wife, Kim), processed waveforms and noise. There is also a live aspect with some of these pieces. Two on the tracks on this album, “Cityscape” and “Renewal I – IV” have been performed live. This album was an intentional effort to compose electroacoustic music with live performance in mind.
I’ve found that my last album, Mechanical Uprising (2010) had a good balance of electric guitar only compositions, and compositions with electric guitars and other sounds. Unlike The Ominous Corner, none of the compositions can be performed live.
I’ve considered myself a composer first for many years now. After many years of study, listening, experience and composing, I’ve found the most satisfying way for me to use electric guitar in my music.
What advice would you give to up and coming players in regards to publishing?
I recommend becoming a member of a PRO (Performing Rights Organization) – either BMI or ASCAP – and register every one of your titles. Then become a publishing member and form your own company. This way you’ll own the rights to your music and receive royalties. My music is all registered with ASCAP and my publishing is also though them (Out Your Ear).
You’ve used prepared guitar and samples as part of your compositional approach. In a larger sense, do you view the guitar compositionally as a kind of sonic controller?
The idea of using the guitar as a “sonic controller” really applied to my earlier electraoacoustic work when I made the break from very polished technical guitar playing. I viewed the guitar mostly as a sound source during this period and it was a time where rediscovered the electric guitar. I looked for a balance between indistinguishable and distinguishable guitar sounds all performed with very little effects processing. Now, I’ve reached a point in my compositions where I can comfortably combine (or move back and forth between) the guitar as “sonic controller” and conventional playing.
Here are two different works from my debut compilation release using only guitar and bass samples:
Frozen Tears (2001)
This composition uses little effects processing. Although a musique concrete work, the sounds were all created “live” in the studio. Alternate tunings, prepared guitar, mallets, bowing and Ebow were implemented.
This composition was created solely with guitar samples. This simply means that I didn’t record anything specifically for this piece. The samples are derived mostly from improvisations and sounds created specifically for my guitar sample library.
This composition was inspired primarily electric guitar feedback and use of Ebow.
What are the biggest challenge of playing your music live (and are you planning on doing that again?)
As I stated earlier, much of my music is not meant to be performed live. I have only written a few electroacoustic pieces that could be performed live and have performed them. From my experience, these compositions work better on CD and this is the main reason I don’t pursue playing these pieces live more often. I’m quite content with them being listened to at one’s leisure.
With that said, I would like to perform live more, but I have not found a completely satisfying way to do so. I must add that I have performed live often in the past and don’t have issues playing in front of an audience. I’d possibly be interested in doing something with live electronics and looping. One day, I might record that solo guitar disc I keep thinking about. Anyway, my focus now is to compose music that gives me the most satisfaction regardless of whether I will perform it live or not.
Here is a live performance of piece for electric guitar and playback called, “Skimming The Surface”. This composition is not on any of my official releases.
Skimming the Surface (2007)
What attracts you to projects and collaboration?
I haven’t done any serious collaborating since my 2008 album with David Lee Myers (aka. Arcane Device), Tesla at Coney Island. That was a great experience and another example of how without modern day technology, this album would have never come to be. Although I did meet David a few times here in New York City, the whole album (almost an hour worth of music) was done through file sharing – basically consisted of sending files back and forth to each other. We never recorded or worked on ideas together. A lot of emails were written though.
An involved collaborative project would be of interest to me if there was something about it that really excited me. Since, I now have even less time for my own music, I haven’t collaborated with anyone seriously since, Tesla at Coney Island.
As an improviser (and/or as a composer) how do you think someone can get out of the element of being self conscious and fully immerse themselves into the experience of the moment?
Getting in the moment and trusting your instincts as an improviser require a lot of experience. Now there are different settings for improvisation – whether it be blues, jazz, free form or contemporary classical – I think there is a successful common approach to all of them. One thing that comes to mind with musicians who are inexperienced improvisers is their tendency to overplay. They are acting out their insecurities by the constant need to make a sound and are not truly thinking about every sound they are making. They are hearing but not listening. It’s the same with having a conversation with someone who is nervous and insecure. They will talk over you. The acknowledgement of silence and listening are very important for a successful improvisational setting.
But how does one listen very carefully, without being too self-conscious of doing so? This is where experience comes in. Anyone who is at good at anything needs to be an excellent listener. And like being good at anything in life, it has to become second nature, yet with the desire to learn and grow.
How do you achieve balance between playing and composing? Between music making and life?
Since most of my playing occurs while composing, a balance between the two is not that important. If I’m playing just to play, I may work out some new ideas to be used in a piece. Sometimes I wish I practiced more. I do make a modest living teaching guitar and band 6 days a week, so I am often with a guitar in my hand.
There is a famous quote by Flaubert that sums up the balance between work and life for me, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
I imagine there are a number of challenges in creating such intensely personal instrumental music. How do you handle setbacks or the dark night of the soul moment musicians face?
Doubting one’s purpose as an artist is common. I’ve learned how to deal with this type of artistic struggle. The ideal way to create art is for one’s self, but I do get satisfaction from having people know and respect my work, so there’s another balancing act involved there. The dilemma with being an artist is that we are required to spend so much time alone working on our thing. I’ve learned that it is important for me to balance it with a healthy perspective on life. Reading John Cage’s Silence years ago had a big influence on me. Allowing sounds to be themselves and the emphasis on listening closely to what is around us was very liberating for me.
I’ve honestly asked myself if I could live a life without creating music. I know that if I stop creating music, life will go on. The idea is reassuring. It’s important for one to be serious about what they do, but not take themselves too seriously. I’ve stopped composing for various periods of time throughout my life, but my mind is always hearing sounds and my imagination is naturally active. Eventually, I get excited enough that I want to organize those sounds and ideas into full-fledged compositions.
Criticism is a natural byproduct of releasing any artistic work into the world. How do you deal with it?
I remember once an experimental music reviewer dismissed my music negatively as prog rock guitar (no offense of prog, I’m a fan of some of the genre.) I have felt that my guitar music is too weird/strange for conventional technical guitar listeners and too conventional for experimental music people. I guess it is admirable being unique, but there is frustration that goes along with it. I’ve realized that, in experimental circles technical electric guitar playing has such a stigma attached to it. Players like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai (Vai’s “Flex-Able” was my first taste of experimental type guitar and I used to listen to that album all the time) were very influential to me growing up, but it is unfair to be negatively clumped in with that group because I play what sounds to be lead guitar in my music.
Anyway, I’m grateful for any positive and insightful reviews. I guess getting criticism is better than being ignored. It is important that people listen and I enjoy hearing different views on my music.
You became a father relatively recently. Has becoming a father changed your outlook on music at all?
Everything changed when my daughter Jillian came into this world in July 2010. I remember when releasing Mechanical Uprising two days after she was born, whatever focus I had with music during that time was spent promoting the album. Bringing a new life into the world is such a big deal and I was prepared to slow things down a bit creatively.
So, I’m learning to prioritize and to use my time more efficiently. This was the biggest adjustment for me, because each of my compositions require so much work. Now I am back to work focusing on getting a new album done. Needless to say, there is nothing quite like being a father. I’m still pretty new at it, and it’s a hard job, but very rewarding each and every day. She is a pretty awesome little girl.
If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself as a budding guitarist or a composer, what advice would you give?
One has to be completely honest with themselves. Is being a professional musician something you are really serious about? I knew from the beginning that I wanted to devote my life to music. When I started college, I never intended on studying anything else but music. It didn’t even cross my mind to study anything else. I realize now, that I didn’t choose music, it chose me.
One has to work hard in order to be successful. There’s no question that music schools churn out many competent musicians, so what can you do to make yourself stand out? What makes you unique? Focus on your strengths and worry less about your weaknesses. Learn as much as you can, respect tradition, be versatile, professional and never be a music genre elitist. All great artists have something distinct about them that make them stand out from the rest. Trust yourself because in the end all you have is yourself. And always remember why you got into music in the first place.
Also on the practical side of things, try to avoid getting into serious debt (hard to do these days – especially living in an expensive place like New York City) and if you have to work, get yourself a job with flexible hours. Don’t turn your nose up to employment outside of music. Consider getting a degree in music education. Focus on becoming a good teacher in any capacity, because chances are that’ll be your best source of income.
What’s in store for you for 2012-2013?
In 2012, I composed an electric guitar feedback inspired piece called Fractured Sky. It was included on an electric guitar compilation released in April 2012 called Axe on Spectropol Records:
Also, I contributed a piece for the fascinating $100 Guitar Project called, Red Cent. A 2CD set is scheduled for release on Bridge Records. Project creators Nick Didkovsky and Charles O’Meara just wrapped up the project after almost 2 years, so the album should be coming out relatively soon. Great players involved and a wonderful variety of music.
As far as new solo releases, I have been composing music for a new album slated for release in late 2013/early 2014. I don’t have to much to say about it, because it is still in the early stages. I can share one track though – a composition from earlier this year called, “Flash Forward“.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me Marco!
Thanks so much for having me!
Links (and more information about Marco and his music)
State of the Axe: Guitar Masters in Photographs and Words by Ralph Gibson
Wonderful interview with Marco, very revealing, honest and informative. I greatly admire the works of Marco Oppedisano, many releases in my library. Thanks for this.