Marco Oppedisano

The Highs and the Lows with Marco Oppedisano

I’ve been a devoted fan of yours for a number of years now. You consistently produce compelling and serious work along a variety of musical fronts. I think a lot of folks could benefit from your personal insights into guitar and music, and, as such, I’ve got a number of questions I thought I run past you:

Q: What would you consider your ʻmusical highʼ so far?

A: Iʼd probably have to say the release of my debut CD in 2007, Electroacoustic Compositions for Electric Guitar (a compilation of electroacoustic works from 1999-2005). After years of being involved in music in some manner, it was satisfying to finally have an official release. So now, Iʼm pleased to announce the release of my 3rd album of electric guitar inspired electroacoustic compositions. It will be available this June through OKS Recordings of North America.

Q: What would you consider the ʻlow pointʼ in your musical career and how did this affect you and how did you bounce back?

A: Around 8 or 9 years ago, I went through a difficult period and was unable to compose for almost a full year. I also played considerably less guitar during that time. So, I did some serious soul searching and made the decision to write as much music possible. I learned to be serious about what I do without taking myself too seriously. That period of crisis was crucial to my development as a musician and person.

Q: I think a lot of people could look at the body of work youʼve done and everything youʼve accomplished and think “Heʼs made it” or “I wish I could accomplish those kinds of things” but Iʼd imagine, in your mind, thereʼs still mountains left to climb. What are your goals for the next 5, 10, and 20 years?

A: Since I produce at a fairly consistent rate, it can be easy to feel unfulfilled or unsatisfied with oneʼs body or quality of work without sitting back and soaking it all in. Basically, I keep a healthy perspective by having interests outside of music too.

Iʼve been thinking about recording a solo guitar album for quite a while now. Since much of my music is large in scope and texturally intricate, it would be a worthwhile challenge for me to bring it down to one instrument – although I must admit, the temptation to add something else might be too hard to resist. Iʼve performed solo guitar music and composed it for other performers, so it is not alien to me. Also, I am interested in music for film. Some of my music has been set to video and I enjoy hearing my music in this context. Also, non-musicians who hear my work tend to see visuals when they hear it. For many, itʼs the best way to listen to my music.

Since, Iʼm predominately a studio composer, I often think of performing live more – either as a solo artist or with an ensemble. I think in the future I would like more of a combination between my studio compositions and live performances.

Presently, I make a modest living as a teacher and freelance musician, but of course would be very happy to do more financially with my music in the next 5, 10, and 20 years.

Q: Given the choice between the two following scenarios, which would you chose for yourself: (a) temporary popular success from a superficial pop song that results in life-long financial security, or, (b) to amass of body of work that, only after your dead, is hailed by the artistic community and critics as pure genius?

A: Itʼs no secret that life can be expensive in a big city like NYC. I was born in Brooklyn and I still complain about how expensive it can be here! I used to wonder a lot about the path Iʼve taken as composer and musician, but since Iʼve been doing it for a while now, I donʼt wonder about it anymore. I compose music I strongly believe in and am very aware that the audience is relatively small for the kind of music I write.

The truth is I donʼt know how interested I am in writing a “superficial pop song.” If I wanted to, I probably could have. I know as a guitar and music teacher and transcriber, Iʼve learned and played a bunch of popular music. So, itʼs not like I donʼt have one foot into that scene already.

What happens with my music or my reputation after I am dead will personally not affect me, so I canʼt concern myself too much with that. I do care if it is beneficial for loved ones Iʼve left behind. I am very interested in amassing a substantial body of work and feeling satisfied about that while I am alive. 

Q: I was reading another interview where you stated “As valuable as a serious music education was for me, I’ve written my best and most honest music outside of the direct influence of academia.”  For you, what was the more important aspect of education, the actual knowledge and/or credentials acquired or the social connections that it created for you?

A: A formal music education was an eye-opener for many reasons and I am very grateful for having gone through it. Education exposed me to music I would have never heard on my own. I grew up a rock musician and listened to all forms of popular music, but gradually became more interested in different genres of music. The combination of thinking more intellectually about music and becoming technically proficient at guitar lead me to get a formal music education. So, I started off undergraduate studies as a classical guitar performance major and did that for two years before becoming a composition major.

Looking back, school was a fun time, but itʼs nothing like the real world. Itʼs fitting that as soon as I completed my MA in Music Composition, I started composing electroacoustic music with electric guitars – something I had not done as a student. That was almost 12 years ago.  When I was a student, I lost touch with some of my rock roots, but now feel at home with them again, having learned tons of stuff along the way. One can definitely hear a variety of influences in my music. And most importantly, I have now found a satisfying balance between thinking intellectually and emotionally about music making.

The idea of teaching composition raises many questions. So, Iʼve found that the best teachers are the ones who encourage a composer to find their own voice all the while focusing on their strengths.  One of my favorite musical memories that has nothing to do with a formal music education involves turning up my electric guitar really loud, swirling it around in the air and letting the feedback howl and scream. Thatʼs one thing they definitely donʼt teach you in traditional music theory class.

Q: What is your approach to composing? How do you get a piece of music ʻgoingʼ and what do you find most difficult about the process?

A: I compose regularly, so the approach in general is very simple – just write lots of music. Working hard is usually the best remedy for a creative funk. If I am not working on a composition, Iʼm always doing something with music, however minimal. If I am having difficulty focusing on a new composition, Iʼll sketch. Before I know it, Iʼm full fledged into a new work. I always try something new in each composition. It usually sounds like me in the end, but I feel better knowing that I am trying new things.

One difficulty about the composing process is developing momentum. This is why sketching is fun because there is no stress involved. Then there comes a point where it becomes work. How does this work become satisfying? It might take a while. Often with every piece – letʼs say half way through the work – there will come a pivotal moment when I become excited and it becomes less like work. Some composing sessions are productive, some are not and some pieces come easier than others.

So, all is going well, until it becomes time to complete it. There can be psychological issues involved with finishing something. When do we know when is done? Overcoming this can only be learned through experience. Itʼs easy to finish early and itʼs also a hindrance to keep tinkering around with a work, never letting it go. So much of being prolific has to do with attitude and not only talent.

At the outset of a piece – I lay out some simple guidelines to help me get started. The limitless possibilities of the “blank page” can be quite daunting and this is why it is important for me to place some guidelines at the outset of a work.

I am also not afraid to discard anything. I have abandoned many pieces that just werenʼt working out. I save everything though and sometimes, Iʼll sort through the trash heap and find something that can be useful again. I like when that happens.

Q: How do you approach improvisation and what do you find most difficult and rewarding about improv?

A: The most difficult aspect of improv is focusing on not thinking too much. It also depends on what type of improvisational setting you are in. When in a free improvisation group situation, it is so important to listen. I often remind myself NOT to play. Silence is as important as activity. When someone is uncomfortable or insecure in a situation there is the tendency to try and overdo it, not saying anything really meaningful in the process.

Master improvisers are not self conscious – they are totally comfortable, confident, focused and most importantly, in the moment.  The most rewarding aspect of improv is when things are really clicking well and spontaneous and exciting connections are made with the other performers. Improvisation is a healthy and enjoyable contrast to my strictly composed music and at times, therapeutic and cathartic.

Improvisation is also rewarding because much of my material in my electroacoustic compositions comes from improvisations that have been cut up and altered. A small idea from an improv can be the genesis of a new work for example. On my upcoming CD, there is a piece called ʻNocturneʼ that primarily uses a classical guitar improvisation I recorded 3 years ago that had been almost totally forgotten about. Also, since I had not used nylon string guitar in any electroacoustic compositions to date, it became a good time to get started on one.

Q: Are you one of those guys that can coax just about everything they want out of a single instrument or do you prefer to work with a variety of instruments, letting them take you in directions that you might not go on another instrument?

A: I would have to say both. Before starting a new work, I will decide whether it will be a purely guitar driven work or if it will be a work for guitar and other sounds (processed waveforms, voice, virtual instruments, real instruments, etc.). These are two distinctions that I make.

I think there is a lot I havenʼt yet coaxed out of the guitar. The main idea behind Electroacoustic Compositions for Electric Guitar was to create compositions solely with electric guitar and electric bass samples. Most of the sounds were created live and it wasnʼt until a bit later that I became interested in real time and “destructive” plug-ins. “The Short Electronic Piecesʼ (2003) and “Time Lapseʼ (2004) are my first two compositions where I started using the computer to alter electric guitar sounds. Originally, my electroacoustic music treated the electric guitar as a sound source and focused on the combination of sounds that did not quite sound like guitar and obvious guitar sounds (ʻFrozen Tearsʼ, ʻLimbo,ʼ etc.). So, I explored extended techniques like prepared guitar (paper clips), bowing, alternate tunings, playing with mallets, etc. For example, a piece like ʻSteel Skyʼ (2003) consists of sounds predominately from electric guitar feedback and e-bow. I like to think of “Steel Skyʼ as artfully sculpted electric guitar angst with a good dose of nostalgia – a good example of my advanced musical education coming to terms with the less refined aspects of my electric guitar youth.

Now that I explore instruments and sounds that are not guitar-related, it has affected the role of the guitar in these compositions. The guitar playing has become more melodic and more obvious. Itʼs important to note that I still very much enjoy playing guitar conventionally. Experimenting with sounds outside of guitar was a natural progression for me as I couldnʼt see myself as a composer who used guitar as the only sound source in his music. My album, The Ominous Corner (2008) is a good example of the combination of electric guitar with other sounds.

Q: Do you think thereʼs any point in making distinctions between ʻmusicʼ and ʻguitar musicʼ? As guitarists we tend to fetishize our instruments but, ultimately, do you think of yourself as a ʻguitarist/musicianʼ or only as a ʻmusicianʼ?

A: I started playing guitar at the age of 12, but by the time I hit my early 20ʼs, I realized that I wanted to be a composer first and foremost. My teen years were consumed with everything electric guitar, but there was always an underlying frustration with the instrument for me. As a young student in the conservatory, I discovered there was a big world of music out there without guitar and I wanted to learn more about it. So, most of 20ʼs was spent composing music without guitar. For example, Iʼm a big admirer of a cappella music and have two compositions in the style. I spent some serious time when I was younger listening to early music and contemporary choral inspired works.

Even though I write music with guitar, I prefer it not be viewed simply as guitar music. Anyway, Iʼm not sure how important it is to distinguish between ʻmusicʼ and ʻguitar music.ʼ

As far as guitars go, Iʼve always kept it pretty simple. I have two electric guitars and a nylon string. I am not into keeping up with the latest regarding guitar gear and my interest in talking about it is limited to maybe a simple conversation with a fellow guitarist. My attention span in reading guitar gear websites is practically non-existent – maybe to a fault, but I accept it. I dislike manuals too and prefer an intuitive approach with gear and software. I like to keep things simple and get the most out of what I have.
Q: Which do you prefer most, composing or improvisation?

A: They both are valuable, but at the end of the day, composing will always be
where it is at for me.

Q: Who do you most enjoy playing with? A: Iʼve performed with many excellent musicians, but I enjoy working most with my wife, Kim. She supplies the voice samples for all of my electroacoustic music.

Q: Describe the feeling of finding out you were going to be featured in the book ʻState of the Axeʼ by Ralph Gibson and what it was like to turn the page and find yourself there.

A: It is a tremendous honor to be included in ʻState of the Axe.ʼ At first I couldnʼt believe it! I am very grateful to Ralph for selecting me for the book and taking a wonderful photo of me too. A good amount of the guitarists in there are people I grew up listening to! Iʼm just really proud to be a part of it.

Q: What were some of the wise musical decisions that youʼve made that really helped your career and that youʼd advise others to copy?

A: Iʼm not sure Iʼve made many wise musical decisions because most of them have been dictated by the art I wanted to create and that isnʼt always so practical. I do think Iʼve become wiser as Iʼve gotten older.  So, if I had to pick a wise decision, it would be that I stuck with it and focused on being consistently productive. Thatʼs the key and when I talk to students I always tell them to write lots of music – finish compositions, let them go and donʼt look back. Donʼt be afraid to make mistakes. Also, donʼt be afraid to get your music out there for everyone to hear. Learning how to handle criticism, being under-appreciated or being flat out ignored is crucial to a serious artistʼs overall development.

Q: Any advice for youngsters just starting out in the world of music?

A: Focus less on the competition out there and work hard. Something as simple and cliché as someone telling you to find your own voice can be crucial for artistic growth. Avoid being a music genre elitist and donʼt look down on others who play different music than you. We all have weaknesses, but focus on your strengths. Be patient, yet remain focused and determined. And when you get too much into your head, remind yourself why you decided to become a serious musician in the first place.

Q: Tell us how you got some of those creepy sounds at the beginning of ʻCityscape.ʼ

A: The opening of ʻCityscapeʼ consists of various noise waveforms with effects processing, various distorted electric guitars and electric guitar with a whammy pedal.

Q: Listening to ʻKickstartʼ I hear all kinds of influences that are familiar to me such as Vai. Who do you think youʼre ʻchannelingʼ when youʼre playing and composing?

A: Being a child of 80ʼs guitar shred, it would be impossible for me not to acknowledge the influence of some one like Steve Vai. Flex-able was a big favorite of mine growing up. My friends at the time couldnʼt get into it as they would too easily dismiss it as weird. Iʼm sure that much of my technical ability on guitar can be attributed to regular exposure to Vai in my formative years.

I think Iʼm channeling everything Iʼve ever heard when writing a piece. Iʼm also trying to tap into everyday sensations, visuals, and emotions. When it comes to influences, I have so many. It is only after Iʼm done with a piece that I might casually think, “Hmmm, this part or sound might have been something Xenakis or Stockhausen would have done.”

Also, I think it is important to note that ʻKickstartʼ is my first electroacoustic composition that really explores real drum beats. Itʼs interesting to me that I waited so long to use drum beats considering I grew playing in rock bands. Anyway, ʻKickstartʼ was a fun piece to write and the drums really drive the piece. I plan on doing more with drums in the future.

Q: I was listening to ʻImaginary Portalʼ again and I found myself just holding my head with my eyes closed. Itʼs a bewildering piece, at least to me. It got me thinking about the relationship between music, the mind, and our physiological reactions to music. Obviously, youʼre not writing a piece like that to get a ʻgrooveʼ going or to get people up and dancing about. How does something like ʻImaginary Portalʼ effect you, physically and mentally, and, with a piece like that, how would you like to affects others?

A: With ʻImaginary Portal,ʼ I focused more on allowing the piece to take a life of its own. This piece was composed in real time as I didnʼt think too much about what was going to come next until I got there. The piece centers with radio samples as they inspired the work - this was intentional.

Also, it was important that the radio samples for the most part be unintelligible, with the exception of some carefully placed moments when some words can be made out. I love voice, but many times I enjoy it more for its sound than meaning. This sort of ambiguity may be frustrating for some listeners, but it interests me.

If one listens closely, there are recurring themes that have an overall unifying role in ʻImaginary Portal.ʼ I am intrigued with the idea of placing a similar sample (of various lengths) in different musical environments. This is a style I use in much of my work. Imagine looking at a scrapbook of different places and superimposing the same image of yourself on to each of these different places or situations. I enjoy the cut and paste method as it plays with meaning and significance of a sample on different levels. This form of musical deconstruction is of great interest to me.

Of course, I would want this piece affect people positively. Iʼm interested in writing challenging music, but I feel there is something for everyone to enjoy in my music. Maybe that is unrealistic, but I like to see things that way. I would want listeners to listen closely and to come up with their own interpretations. In general, Iʼve always found the abstract nature of music appealing to me. I prefer things to be open for interpretation.

Q: NASA asks you to select one piece of music that you think best reflects the human condition -- the plan is to send a spacecraft out into the galaxy transmitting this one song. Which piece would you select?

A: Iʼm not sure Iʼve written that piece yet. I know it would reflect MY human condition. OK, how about a brand new piece from my upcoming CD called ʻSolitary Pathways.ʼ

Thanks for having me!


Electroacoustic Compositions for Electric Guitar (2007) The Ominous Corner (2008) Tesla at Coney Island (with David lee Myers - 2008)

Marcoʼs CDs are available for purchase through the OKS Recordings of North America and can be listened to in their entirety on Bandcamp.

(C) 2010, Psychopompos