by J. Andrew Dickenson
Michael Lorimer talks about his love for Bach, the origins of his record label, and how music can help cure brain disorders.
NYlon Review: A lot of guitarists I know cut their teeth playing your arrangements of Bach. Can you tell me why you set out to arrange them?
Michael Lorimer: Thanks, Andrew. The beauty of Bach’s work for solo ‘cello, how it lies so well on the guitar, and the desire to perform this music — the same reasons that attracted you to play this repertoire — are what attracted me, too. In the early ’60s, I studied with Segovia a number of the Bach pieces he played, including his famous arrangement of the Chaconne. At the same time, I made arrangements of and performed the “lute” suites and some of the solo violin sonatas. In early 1965, I recorded the second lute suite and the first violin sonata for Angel records. To my knowledge, those were the first complete recordings of that repertoire by any guitarist. About the same time, I played continuo (chitarrone) on the first recording on original instruments of a baroque opera, Monteverdi’s Poppea. The conductor was the harpsichordist Alan Curtis, who not only put together the orchestra and trained the soloists, but also reconstructed the score. Working with and listening to Alan, his colleague and mentor the harpsichordist and conductor Gustav Leonhardt, Segovia’s friend the harpsichordist Rafael Puyana, and others, led me first away from playing any baroque music on the guitar — I just couldn’t find the right sound, the right “air,” no matter what I did — and then led to my playing the baroque guitar, on which I began performing in the early ’70s. Playing baroque guitar then led me back to the modern guitar by showing me how I could perform baroque music to my satisfaction on the modern guitar. One of the first pieces I chose was Bach’s first Cello Suite. I loved the music and, dissatisfied with the one existing arrangement, I made a version I enjoyed performing. Eventually, I arranged all the suites, of which there were no prior published editions except the first and the third. Today, all of Bach’s ‘Cello Suites are standard guitar repertoire, aren’t they? But back then not so, no one played much of the music, particularly not the second, fourth, and sixth suites. In the mid-’70s, just before I published the suites, I went over them with my friend Davitt Moroney, a British harpsichordist I much admire. I don’t remember Davitt’s suggesting many changes, but I do very much remember his encouragement for which I will always be grateful. Davitt’s support was important to my pulling everything together. Now, thirty years or so since I first made the arrangements, having played them and thought about them for several decades, I have a new revision I hope to publish this year. I like the old arrangements very well. I think they’ve stood the test of time. I like the new version even better.
Guitarists love to play Bach. Among non-guitarists, however, there is often some controversy about transcribing his works. How would you defend us?
I don’t think you need to be defended. Life is short — why not follow your heart, why not play the music you like? Also, “purists” are often unaware that arrangements were very much part of baroque music in general and Bach’s music in particular. As I see it, arrangements are to music what translations are to literature. In the same way that good translations of Shakespeare, for example, are important to the letters of many languages, good arrangements are valid and important to our instrument’s repertoire.
How about other composers?
Over the past four decades, I have arranged hundreds of pieces by a wide variety of composers in diverse genres, starting with, for example, the first guitar arrangement of Dowland’s Fantasies. I have been “midwife” to the composition of a number of new works such as William Bolcom’s Seasons. I’ve played the American and European premieres of other works, for example Toru Takemitsu’s Folios. My published work can be purchased here in New York in stores such as Luthier Music or Patelson’s.
Tell me about your record label, Tiger Tunes.
Thanks so much for your interest! Right now, the CDs listed on the website aren’t available. This summer, we hope to reissue the CDs and make some new ones. The website, the label, and the charity are thanks not to me but to Dr. Anne Young, Chief of Neurology at Harvard and Mass General Hospital. Anne knew me through my involvement with the Hereditary Disease Foundation. In the summer of ’99, Anne said, “Michael, you really should have a website. How about a website for music and cures for hereditary neurological diseases?” I said, “No brainer, Anne! Let’s do it.” I provided the music, Harvard built and uploaded the website, MP3 made the CDS. The charity did fine, the website raised considerable money for a while — in fact, it was nuts. During the height of the dot-com craze people even begged to invest money in our venture! (Reply: “No guys, but thanks. It’s a charity — there’s nothing to invest in.”) When Sony bought MP3, everything changed, the CDS were put out-of-print. Anne and I (who were both called “Tiger” as youngsters — hence the website’s name) are going to find another way to print the CDs and move ahead with the charity.
What inspired a label dedicated to helping cure brain disorders?
Why brain disorders? My childhood friend Nancy Wexler is President of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, an organization dedicated to finding cures for hereditary brain disorders in general, Huntington’s Disease in particular. I played my first benefit concert for Nancy’s organization in the early ’70s. I donate money to a number of charities but I think HDF is a particularly good one. HDF has been at the cutting edge of genetic research — the Human Genome Project is an outgrowth of HDF’s work — and 100% of your HDF donation goes to medical research, 0% goes to administrative costs.
Do you feel you’ve made a difference since starting Tiger Tunes? Have you accomplished your mission?
We’ve made a difference but not a big difference. We certainly haven’t accomplished our goals; there’s a lot more we can do.
Do you think musicians have a responsibility to use their art for a greater good?
I think music itself is for the greater good. People who pursue a career in music, as well as those who pursue it as a hobby, make sacrifices and contribute a lot. If you’re playing music or supporting music and musicians, you’re benefiting the world. Thank you!
Many people may be interested in doing good, but are not sure how or where to start.
Start with your own garden; work locally has been my approach. Most places I’ve lived, I’ve been involved with my community. With charity, my most intense work has been personal.
What projects are you working on currently or do you have lined up for the future?
Projects I’m working on immediately are bringing to light the fifth and sixth volumes of my collection of the works of the superb Mexican guitarist-composer Ernesto Garcia de Leon, a number of works by John Anthony Lennon, and several other editions in the Composers Series, my forum for new guitar music. At my master classes for the Mannes Guitar Seminar, I hope there will be time for me to talk about and perform some of this music. In any case, I invite you to take a look at what is already published. I am active in a number of charitable causes. TigerTunes is the one I think I can contribute to most right now.
Thanks so much for your time, Michael.
Thanks so much for your interest, Andrew, and thank you for all the good work you and your colleagues are doing with the Guitar Society.