Q&A: Classical Guitarist Jamie Monck

Jamie Monck is a Louisville-based classical guitarist who performs newly commissioned pieces, pieces that are off the beaten path for his instrument, and collaborative works. Over the last two years, he’s undertaken a large-scale commissioning project for electric guitar called dark is a way, which features seven new works by seven different composers: Elizabeth A. Baker, Gulli Bjornsson, Isaac Roth Blumfield, Yaz Lancaster, James May, Andrew M Rodriguez, and Cassie Wieland. Each piece explores different textures of the electric guitar, from shimmering, icy landscapes to rich nostalgia to crashing melancholy. Jamie and I caught up about dark is a way as well as his overarching guitar practice over Zoom this past April.


Vanessa Ague: Hi!

Jamie Monck: Hello!

VA: How’s it going?

JM: It’s good. I’ve got some horrible allergy problems right now, but my spirits are high so that’s what counts, right?

VA: That is what counts. This time of year is so bad because the weather’s getting better but then you get really hit with the allergies and it feels horrible.

JM: Yeah, and I thought that this would not happen because it rained a bunch this week and it did in fact happen. But that’s okay.

VA: I’m in the same boat. And, the last two years especially it’s always really rough when you have allergies because you’re like, “are these symptoms COVID?” And then you have to remind yourself no, no, this happens every year. It’s okay.

JM: Yes, yes. It’s in my sinuses, not my lungs.

VA: Yeah, the logic has to take over.

JM: Right. Like, “am I dying? No. Okay, can I still breathe? Yes. All right.”

VA: Right! Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me this afternoon. I’m really excited to hear more about your work.

JM: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

VA: I wanted to start off by asking you what projects are you working on right now besides dark is a way

JM: I do that, of course. I also play in a guitar duo. It’s called Duo Charango and it’s also, for the most part, electric guitar. And then, really, most of what I do is the very, very normal classical guitar thing. And for the most part, that’s tilted towards various types of contemporary music. I’m finding that it’s mostly, these days, focused on different types of South American music. I’ve got some good relationships with a couple different Chilean composers and I play some Brazilian music.

VA: How did you start getting involved with playing classical guitar?

JM: I took a class in high school. We did a lot of classical music, but looking back on it at the time, I was like, “oh, this is so cool, I love classical guitar.” And as I reflect on it now, what was perhaps even more valuable was that [the teacher there] still plays in this rock country cover band, so he would make us learn Green Day songs and things of this nature on some spare electric guitars we had. So, it was mostly classical music, but we did other things, too, that proved to be valuable. I just happen to really love classical music, so I ran with that more than the other stuff. But here I am coming back to the other stuff.

VA: Yeah. It’s so funny how oftentimes in classes the random things you learn stick the most.

JM: Yeah, for sure. And I remember him emphasizing that it’s really important to be able to do a number of different things. And I was like, “haha, no, I just want to be a classical musician.” And then I got to graduate school and I was like, “no, it’s probably for the best to know how to do a number of different things.” So, it is funny how the stuff that might not seem to be important is in fact the most important.

VA: Yeah, every time. What draws you to classical music?

JM: My mom plays a bit of classical piano and she loves classical music and cares about it a lot and listens to it a lot. And so while it was not omnipresent growing up, it was there every now and then. And so I think part of it is, in some ways, trying to honor the love that my mother in particular gave to me. I also love jazz a lot, and while not truly working in those mediums, we touch them enough that I feel like I get to put on a lot of my different interests through classical guitar music.

VA: In terms of dark is a way, what got you wanting to start that project?

JM: Well, there are a number of things. The big one was what does it mean to be a classical guitarist? At this time, I was watching Chef’s Table and they talk about, like, “what does it mean to be a chef?” and like, “what is a meal?” So, as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do musically, I was thinking, “what does this mean for me?” With guitar, I had this realization that every single one of these big classical guitarists of the last 100 years or so has commissioned people. So, a big thing for me was I wanted to work with people.

I also realized that when you play an instrument, you develop this intuition of like, “this composer is good at this thing, this composer’s good that thing, and maybe the things that particular composers are good at would or would not be successful on a classical guitar or would be more successful on an electric guitar.” Like Arvo Pärt, for example. I don’t think he would ever write for electric guitar, but I think that his music would be more successful there because you can open up these possibilities for sustain and harmony. And so, I realized that some of the people that I wanted to work with, like Cassie [Wieland] for instance, I felt like from having observed her practice that it would play to all of her strengths to work in that medium. I think in anything we can do in life, it’s better to play to our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. So, those were the big initial things: I wanted to work with people and the people that I want to work with will be best suited for this electric guitar thing.

VA: When you were putting it all together, was it a virtual collaboration or were you able to meet people in person?

JM: I had met James May from school, but otherwise, no, I had not met any of these people. And some of them, in fact, most of them, I have not seen in person still to this date. The beginning of January of 2020 is when I asked a few people, and I was hoping that those few people—it was Cassie, Yaz [Lancaster], and Gulli [Bjornsson]—would have their stuff done and in the fall we could put on an event together. Of course, that didn’t happen. So, here we are, mostly doing it virtually.

VA: How has that been?

JM: That’s a good question, because I don’t necessarily have anything to compare it to. I hadn’t really done a lot of this before the pandemic. I also wonder, because most of us live in different parts of the country, and in some cases, the world, in terms of the collaborative side of things, would it have been that different? I don’t know. But with Andrew [Rodriguez], for example, because he’s been helping with the recording, it has been nice to see him a few times and he can tell me things in this way where having a person physically next to you is way more immediate than waiting on someone to answer an email. So, I think had this little pandemic thing not happened, we probably would have had more physical interaction, or at least I hope we would have, but I guess, again, I don’t have much else to compare it to. It is what we have, and we’ve made the best of it.

VA: How did you connect with Andrew to get the recording going?

JM: I wanted to work with him because I like his music and he is a guitar player, so I knew that it would work really well. And the other thing is that because I have done acoustic music, I don’t know anything about recording. And so, again, to play to people’s strengths and to try to get the most out of everyone, I was like, “okay, well, he would be a good person because he’s a wonderful composer, and also a professional producer and engineer and all of that.” So if the stars align and everything works out, he can be incredibly beneficial.

And so, through talking to Cassie, she recommended someone in New York and she also recommended Andrew. When I wrote to Andrew about working on the piece together, I had no idea that they were as close of friends as they are, which was a really funny coincidence. But the first thing was the piece, and he agreed to do that, and we had an introductory call where I also asked him about the recording stuff.

To your question about working remotely with people, I thought that he would be really great because he’s only a few hours away and it would surely work out that at some point we could be in the same room and do it, and that would be way better than me putting some microphones on some amps in my house. So, when I can, I always try to have Andrew up because he’s been a wonderful asset and wonderful collaborator, and he’s been so, so, so helpful. I would recommend everyone in their lives find an Andrew Rodriguez to make things better. The other great thing about Andrew is we’re both very opinionated people and sometimes we have disagreements, but the thing I always respect about him is if I’m like, “no, you’re wrong,” he’ll be like, “oh, okay.” And vice versa. We butt heads, but it’s always very cordial. Having someone to keep me in check is always a big thing.

VA: Seriously, and it’s all about having the opinions but then being able to work it out. So, it’s nice that you can do that together.

JM: Yeah. More and more I see people like myself, who come from playing acoustic music and step into this world of electroacoustic or straight electronic stuff. Having someone who toured in bands for years and years and knows how to do live sound stuff has been incredibly beneficial because I didn’t go to school for that. I don’t have that sort of knowledge. So much of what may or may not be successful here I would attribute to him. I’m just playing the guitar.

VA: What has been the greatest challenge of this whole process?

JM: I think everyone is aware of the financial situation of grant funding and things like that. I am pretty upfront with most people that I am blessed to have a good paying job and I don’t really care to buy things. So, while I wish that there was grant money, I pretty much have just been paying for this on my own. 

And, when you enter into collaborations, there’s obviously this relational aspect to working with people. We all enter these things from different parts of our lives. It’s a job, and much like it’s a job to play Handel’s Messiah for the thousandth time over the Christmas season, it is a job to write music. And so I think, just in general, one thing that I think people might not be aware of is that sometimes for the composers it’s just a job and it’s not something more than that. We have no bigger better relationship than “here’s the piece, talk to you later.” That can be hard because you want to make the most of things and try to do your best to honor what they’ve written. So, that’s the biggest challenge, is there are some things where we’re just flying blind because I don’t know whoever that well and haven’t been able to work very deeply with them.

VA: Yeah, and with the whole idea of music as a job, recently that’s been part of the conversation, but only recently. I feel like people forget about that. Now, it’s really come back. Especially around streaming, the financial parts of music are actually part of the conversation.

JM: Definitely. The financial part is a huge deal, but there’s also the workload of “do I want to wake up in the morning and do this, do I not want to wake up in the morning and do this?” I mean, I think we all do this because on some level, we love it, but sometimes you don’t love it that much and you need to take a step back from it. It is just a job, kids.

VA: It’s just a job. Well, and it’s interesting because you can be passionate about something but passion fluctuates. All things in life fluctuate.

JM: Right. The thing that I have to remind myself sometimes is, I’ll wake up and I’m like, “I don’t really want to practice today. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to play that concert.” And you have to remember like, “well, you took on this because you do want to do it, you really do, and you do love the music that you’re going to play. So, maybe let’s take 30 seconds to regroup and refind ourselves.” I find when I sit down and I think about it, I actually do quite like this and I will enjoy the fact that I have done that.

VA: It’s a very inner journey with yourself.

JM: Yeah, especially with this project. It’s been almost two and a half years of just working on this. Of course, there was some thinking that went into it beforehand. And at this point, I’m a little tired of doing this. I feel a little bit burnt out of it. And we’re only just now releasing the things. And I have to remember that because it’s been a long time, it’s okay to feel tired, but you’re still very excited about the fact that you’re getting to this point. You’ve made this happen. Let’s feel good about it.

VA: What’s one thing you love about this project?

JM: I am most proud of and love most the fact that there’s seven very different pieces by seven very different people and when they come together it feels somehow like a curated single event. It’s like if Schubert and some buddies got together and wrote a song cycle or someone curated an artist room in MoMA or something like that. I did not realize how well it would work out. The proudest thing, the thing I love the most, is the fact that it worked out to feel like there are connections between the pieces and that it doesn’t feel like random pieces that have no connection. They feel very cohesive and very whole.

VA: That’s amazing, because you never know, you commissioned a piece, who knows what it’ll sound like, right?

JM: Absolutely.

VA: What do you think is your favorite part of getting to learn music that’s never been played before?

JM: I enjoy performing but I often feel like performing is more like a means to an end. I more enjoy practicing to be honest with you. I really enjoy just spending Saturday practicing. And so, when someone sends the email and the scores are attached, what I really enjoy is just scrolling through it the first few times and getting the sense of what this will one day be. With the electric guitar stuff, there’s a little bit less revising of what is physically written on the page. Sometimes there will be a section that doesn’t work, so we cut it, or we move this section to the back, or something along those lines. For example, with Andrew’s piece, when we recorded it, he actually took a big section that’s towards the beginning and moved it to the end. To this day, I’ve never performed it like that, but that’s what is on the recording and it sounds really cool. Whereas with the classical guitar stuff, there’s a lot of revising that goes on and I really enjoy the copyediting aspect of it.

VA: Sometimes it’s the little things and just working on it and tinkering with it that’s really fun.

JM: Yeah, absolutely. I like tinkering, I think.

VA: Writing can be similar in that way. The more you write, you realize putting something out there and then figuring out what actually sounds best and works best is really fun.

JM: Yeah, and I guess if you publish a novel, you can technically go back and edit it again. But one of the things about music is you can play something in a piece and then you can completely change it the next performance. And you’ve not spent thousands of dollars on the printing. In this day and age of being able to record live performances, you can capture that, but it’s not like someone else has a copy of the book that you hate. But I’ve always thought, despite the fact that I don’t write, I’ve always seen a lot of parallels in music performance to writing and I like the aspect of, “alright, well, this performance is going to be a draft and I’m so proud of that draft, but I know that in six months, it will be what we all want it to be.” It’s really fun.

VA: Yeah, and also maybe a little risky? Performance is always a risk, I think.

JM: Right, I don’t really worry about the risk part of it because I hope we wouldn’t get to the performance if we weren’t proud of it. And even if you know you’ll be prouder of that later, there’s still this undercurrent of “we have done our best to get to this point and our best is all we can give and it’s good enough.” So, there’s no element of shame. Being risky is fun, so I don’t necessarily worry about that that much.

VA: That’s so great. Could you tell me about a time where you were really proud of a performance that you had?

JM: I did the whole cycle of [dark is a way] at the Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago right before Thanksgiving of last year. That complete performance of those pieces is one of the things I’m most proud of, because at that time, for nearly two years, we’d all been working on this, and we’d gotten to do some of the pieces in groups but for the first time it was all laid out. And, here, for the first time, you can fully see all of these little connections between everything and present it straight through as a whole. So, that was one of the things I’m proudest of.

VA: That’s amazing. You also mentioned earlier that you really like practicing. What’s your routine when you practice your instrument?

JM: Most of it is very dependent on when the next due date is. But often, maybe the first quarter or so, is just warming up, getting familiar with it, and seeing how you’re doing for the day. Some days you go outside and you can run very fast, some days you go outside and you’re like, “okay, I’m gonna I’m gonna do some walking today.” 

I saw Hilary Hahn at the beginning of this year’s 100 days of practice thing and she said something along the lines of like, “I’ve played this piece for years and years and years, but I’m asking myself what does it mean to me today?” And so, for most of the last few months, where I’ve been operating from is like, “okay, well, maybe I’ve never played this piece before, but I have heard it a number of times. I know how it’s gonna go. But what does it mean today and what does playing the instrument mean to me today?” So, once I’ve gotten through that, then it’s on to whatever music is coming up for the next deadline and that is always changing.

I also try to give myself some time for fun. Working on music is a job and getting ready for the performances is a job and sometimes when you’re in the trenches of working you forget to have fun. I try to build in a little bit of time as much as I can to just do something that makes me happy. 

VA: What is your fun break when you’re practicing?

JM: This is a whole different can of worms, but we as classical guitar players, a lot of people feel that it’s a Spanish instrument. Knowing that and having listened to Spanish music for a decade, I’ve always struggled with what I want to do with Spanish music because, as another tangential point, much of the Spanish music that we play on guitar is actually piano music. And so, while we can make those arrangements, they don’t really sound good, because the piano has many more fingers to do the keying of the piano. It’s beautiful, but it’s never really won me over. So, I’ve always felt a little weird about that.

Last year, at some point, I was listening to this flamenco guitarist and I was like, “ah, let me do some deep diving into this.” And for the last six months I’ve been very obsessed with flamenco music. The thing that I’ve come to learn about that is that the flamenco tradition, like jazz, is one of those things that you learn by ear and it gets passed down like that instead of in notation. So, for fun, what I’ve been trying to do is just slowly pick away at it, listen to recordings, and hunt and gather my way through those sorts of pieces, because so much of my last 10 years has been just reading from a score and my ear training is garbage. So, I’ve been trying to get better at that.

VA: It’s a completely different skill set to read the score versus hear the music and be able to emulate it.

JM: Absolutely. And it’s wonderful that at this point in time we can slow down YouTube videos. The thing about playing some of the Spanish music that’s originally piano music is you end up with music that doesn’t sound so hard, but it’s murderously difficult to play because it wasn’t written for anything like what we’re doing on guitar. And the thing about flamenco is because it’s written by and improvised by and created by people who play guitar, there’s this baseline of knowledge that not only is this possible, but it’s gonna sound really cool once you figure it out, because the person really knows what they’re doing. So, it’s cool to learn from these masters of the instrument who you’ll never meet but who you have available to you through the internet.

VA: Yeah, and rewarding too, I can imagine. This was all I wanted to ask you, but is there anything else that you want to talk about?

JM: Andrew’s coming tonight, so tomorrow we are recording Isaac Roth Blumfield’s piece, which is the seventh and final piece and it is a 42-ish minute piece. So, tomorrow is gonna be quite fun. It’s gonna be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to doing that a lot. For Isaac, one of the things I really respect is that you can tell how much effort he put into it. And he’s told me a number of times that this is the proudest thing he’s ever done. So, a sub-answer to your question earlier is: I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve given the opportunity to someone to do something that they’re incredibly proud of. I feel incredibly proud of that fact.


To listen to dark is a way, visit jamiemonck.bandcamp.com.

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