The Australian guitarist speaks about her collaboration with Tama Matheson, based on Byron’s epic poem.

Who were your guitar heroes growing up?

My original heroes were definitely Julian Bream and John Williams, probably for slightly different reasons. My great hero growing up was definitely Julian Bream. I loved his recordings. My other hero and someone who was really influential to me was my mother. She was my teacher. I heard her and her students play – she was the reason I wanted to become a guitarist. I’d heard so much guitar music in our house and from a very early age started begging to be allowed to play the guitar and for her to teach me. There are so many wonderful guitarists in the world today, but I think listening to a broad range of music is what I find most inspiring. The guitar has lots of strengths but also a lot of limitations, so listening to other instruments and trying to play beyond the instrument is my goal.

Listening to other instruments and trying to play beyond the instrument is my goal

Who do you think have been the most important composers for guitar?

Historically, guitarist-composers are the ones that have written the bulk of our repertoire. So we play a lot of transcriptions. It’s really only in the last hundred years that mainstream composers have taken an interest the guitar. Segovia was hugely instrumental in bringing the guitar to the concert stage. The guitar is extremely idiomatic, and I think a lot of composers are quite daunted. But we need music to be written by people who don’t play, because that’s how we get music that’s original and challenges the boundaries.

Do you find it frustrating that while there is other guitar music around, it’s the Roderigo concerto that seems to be almost the only one that symphony orchestras programme?

I feel really lucky, I have actually played a number of other concertos. Of course the Roderigo is the bulk of what you play with an orchestra as a guitarist, but I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating. I think trying to get new pieces played, trying to expand the repertoire, and showing people that there is a repertoire outside the typical Spanish thing that people associate with the guitar is really important. That’s something I’m really dedicated to.

On the other hand, I really love Spanish music and I think it does suit the guitar particularly well. I still really enjoy playing the Roderigo concerto, so I wouldn’t say that I’m frustrated – and I try to get other pieces played as much as possible – but if someone wants me to play the Roderigo, I’ll really enjoy it. I always find something new in it. I’m really excited because in Adelaide we’ll be playing Roderigo’s Concerto Andaluz for four guitars. I’m playing it up here in Brisbane as well in July and so that’s really exciting. It’s Roderigo, but it’s a really fun, effective piece. It’s quite a different piece to the solo concerto, much more effective and celebratory. It’s perfect to have that as a part of the guitar festival where I’ll get to play it with some wonderful colleagues. 

Are there any concertos that you would like to see programmed more often?

There are some really wonderful Australian concertos. I released a CD called Mosaic, with concertos by Ross Edwards, Peter Sculthorpe, and Richard Charlton. There are several others by Nigel Westlake and other wonderful Australian composers. I think as an Australian musician it’s very important to play Australian music, and some of those concertos really are masterpieces. I think there is starting to be an interest in those pieces from guitarists overseas and they are starting to get played overseas, so that’s really exciting to see. I love playing those pieces.

Where did the idea for a performance based on Byron’s Don Juan come from?

Tama Matheson did a show called Johann Sebastian about the life of Bach and I thought it was ingenious – the way he had written it and the way it interwove with music. I approached him afterwards and said “I want to work with you!” We had several meetings and threw around all kinds of crazy ideas, and then we settled on this. Don Juan is an incredible piece of work and Byron’s own life story is fascinating and colourful. The poem is, to a large extent, autobiographical. So Tama wrote the script, which interwove extracts from the poem with Byron’s own life story. He plays Byron and I have several cameo roles and play various characters in the poem. The whole thing is underpinned and interwoven with lots of beautiful music.

How did you choose the music?

It was a fairly organic process. The music plays different roles – it often accompanies the poems, but it also underpins some very poignant and quite dramatic moments in Byron’s life. Sometimes the music underpins the speech but often it stands alone. It’s telling us things about Byron that he doesn’t want to say in words. I think music is very good at doing that. There’s a couple of musical jokes – little bits of humour in the music – but it also serves as moments of reflection and interlude throughout the play. Because it’s so deeply integrated into the work I can’t imagine it without the music now. It’s funny, now playing the pieces separately, outside of the work, pulls me into the story. They’ve become so powerfully linked for me.

Is working with an actor a challenge?

That’s been a really interesting and unexpected process. Actually, I expected it to be a bigger challenge than it was. I’ve acted myself but I haven’t actually worked with other actors before. Tama is really musical – he comes from a musical family – so when I’m accompanying the poems it’s almost identical to working with a singer. I suppose all poetry has a sense of being musical, but Byron’s poetry is particularly musical. I feel like I’m playing chamber music even though I’m working with the spoken word. It’s unique, unexpected, and really magical.

You mentioned transcriptions earlier and at the Guitar Festival you will be playing a Haydn ‘Guitar’ Quartet. Can you tell me a little bit about this work?

That one has a bit of debate around it, because it’s a Haydn string quartet with the first violin transcribed for guitar. But the transcription was actually done during Haydn’s time, so there’s a bit of debate as to whether it was done with Haydn’s approval or not. What I can say is that it works beautifully well. It really suits the guitar and I think it adds another colour to the string grouping. It’s one of my favourite pieces in the chamber music repertoire. I’m playing it with the Australian String Quartet. I’m going to be very busy at the guitar festival, doing Don Juan and the Roderigo and the Haydn ­– August will be a busy month!

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?

I did a few concerts in June with Umberto Clerici who’s a wonderful cellist, quite new to Australia. That was really exciting and we plan to do a lot more with each other next year. I also have a new project with Katie Noonan – we’re doing a Brazilian project – which is really exciting actually. We have an ongoing music collaboration, which will be our third album. We’ll be making that before the year is out. I also have an ongoing collaboration with percussionist Claire Edwards, we’ve been focusing on commissioning new Australian music. I have a real passion for combining theatre and music, so that’s something that will definitely continue.

I spent so many years of my life focusing on playing solo recitals that at the moment I’m really excited about collaborations and particularly duo collaborations. I’ve collaborated a lot with Genevieve Lacey, and we plan to do more work together. It’s something I’m finding really inspiring at the moment and it’s so wonderful to play with so many different instruments. As a guitarist you learn a huge amount from playing with singers, cellists, percussionists and recorder players. It’s exciting. I need a whole second life to do all the things I want to do – I can’t ever imagine getting bored.

Karin Schaupp will be performing at the Adelaide Guitar Festival August 11-14