by J. Andrew Dickenson
“If you happen to be both composer and performer in this day and age,” David Leisner is explaining as we have breakfast at a diner on 100th Street, “it becomes an almost superhuman task.”
“Fortunately, we can do it,” Fred interjects, “because we are superhumans!” The two of them laugh heartily.
Fred Hand and David Leisner are two unique individuals in today’s musical world. Bursting with life and energy for the music they adore, they have made a presence for themselves with their enchanting music and charming personalities. In a city that is known for its fast-paced way of life, Fred and David have found tranquility within the madness.
“New York is a very stimulating place to live,” David says. “People’s faces are alive here.”
It is in this inspiring and exciting environment that two of today’s premiere guitarist-composers came of age and seasoned their professional careers, each discovering a unique and individual style that has earned them a well-deserved reputation and worldwide renown.
Segovia, Jazz, and Avant-garde Suppression
“My mother took me to hear Segovia when I was six,” Fred recalls, “and I made the decision then to be a guitar player.”
Though at the time his family treated the youngster’s ambition with a pat on the head and a you’ll-grow-out-of-it smile, Fred says that playing guitar was a calling. He began lessons at the age of nine, an age when he was more influenced by folk music than classical. Growing up in Brooklyn in his teens, he became friendly with two legendary musicians: Stuart Scharf, accompanist to Leon Bibb, a popular folk singer of the time, and Jay Berliner, accompanist to the great Harry Belafonte.
“These guys took me under their wing,” Fred says with adulation. “They would take me to all the concerts and I would learn all the charts. I was introduced to an entirely new world.”
During college, Fred pursued his musical passion and entered the Mannes College of Music as a guitar major. He studied the great classical guitar literature as a performer, and although he had been experimenting with composition he wasn’t yet comfortable sharing his work with others.
“The sound of the day was extremely avant-garde,” Fred says, “and music was ferociously difficult to play. A lot of performers were in it simply for the challenge of being able to do it.”
“Complex, cerebral music was really King,” describes David, “to the point that it was a dictatorship in the music world. The stronghold was very complete.”
In his 20s, however, Fred became increasingly dissatisfied with only performing. There was something else burning inside him, an all-consuming desire to write and perform his own compositions that was impossible to ignore. He finally found a kindred soul when he was introduced to Alec Wilder, a composer that managed to straddle both popular and classical worlds by writing for Frank Sinatra as well as classical ensembles. Fred visited him one evening and played a tune he had written.
“The first words out of my mouth were ‘I know it’s been done before,'” Fred remembers, but then came the words that he’ll never forget. “He said ‘No, actually I’ve never heard that piece before — not that piece.’ It was very encouraging, because there was such an emphasis on novelty being the sole criteria.”
From those few simple words of encouragement, a new world was opened up to him, an unconfined terrain that offered a liberal array of musical possibilities.
The Conservative Youth
“For a long time, I have bemoaned the fact that composers and performers have become two separate people,” David says, describing the 20th century’s bias that both he and his colleague experienced. For David, composition and performance always were and always will be intertwined. As a teenager playing folk and popular music on the LA scene, he was writing music of that genre, and when he began studying classical music more seriously, he continued to write music, in a classical style.
“It has always seemed to me that a composer who has experience performing is a better composer,” David says, “partly because there is an understanding of what it takes to communicate. Likewise, a performer who has experience composing understands what goes into the making of a composition — and therefore understand structural issues and interpretive issues far better than a performer who doesn’t have such an experience. It seems to me the two ought to be naturally integrated.”
A teenager across the continent in Los Angeles, David had a plethora of musical pleasures to indulge in. Among his influences, he includes a wide range of inspiration from Laura Nyro to Duke Ellington to Benjamin Britten. It was an unpopular view, however, to compose classical music with lyrical melody, and those who attempted to do so were often shunned and ridiculed.
“When I wrote my first classical piece,” David recalls, “I was taking some lessons from a man named Theodore Norman, who was trained in the Schoenburg/12-tone tradition. With great trepidation, I handed him my composition, and when I saw him a week later, he handed it back like it was a piece of dirty toilet paper. All he said was ‘It’s amazing how conservative young people are these days.’
“I carried that with me for many years,” David reveals. “For a long time afterwards, I had a tremendous inferiority complex about my writing.”
I ask them why the expectations for contemporary music have changed, and there’s barely a hesitation before they answer.
“A pendulum can only swing so far,” says Fred.
“Well, the pendulum swung into a brick wall!” interjects David, and the two laugh. “There was no where else to go.”
“But on a deeper level,” Fred muses, “people want to write what’s in their heart. A lot of people were writing music that wasn’t true to their hearts or wasn’t connected to their heart in some way. That’s one of my biggest criteria for music.”
“That kind of beautiful, open attitude is what is needed in everything,” David continues. “That’s what was missing during those years. A composer is in fact a person who must communicate, and that was an unpopular view in 20th century.”
Fred’s and David’s admiration for each other is obvious. The two of them met at a concert years ago, and although they don’t keep in touch on a regular basis, they bemoan the fact that they don’t spend more time together.
“David is an extremely talented, intelligent and warm person,” Fred compliments when I ask him privately. “His music reflects those qualities.”
“Fred is one of the most musical guitarists I know,” David says, also in private. “He plays with an emotional core that makes him one of the rare guitarists who can truly move his listeners.”
Their comments are genuine, as is everything about them. They are two gentlemen who respect each other immensely, who have a high regard not only for the other’s music, but for who they are and everything they do.
Follow Your Passion
While the winds of public opinion often shift uncontrollably, it is clear that these two have stood strong doing what they love. To commit oneself to this career, they say, one must have dedication, persistence and, above all, love.
“You need to do what makes you happy,” David says. “You don’t want to pursue music if it doesn’t make you happy, and you can’t pursue music for very long unless you’re driven.”
“You can not know what’s going to happen in your life,” continues Fred, “but I believe that if you follow your passion with all you heart, doors will open up to you — but it won’t happen if you just sit back. You have to put yourself out there in a vulnerable position, and that’s a very scary and daunting thing. It’s an act of faith that’s not in the public mindset right now.”
“You have to be driven,” David emphasizes again. “You have to take your hard hits, your falls, and you have keep rising up again. And yet, you must be a human being at the same time.”
I look across the table, and I see two people who have done just that. David Leisner and Fred Hand are both men who passionately love music, have worked hard for their accomplishments, and have found serenity in what they do. Through their compositions, performances, and teaching, they communicate this love to others, enriching the lives of numerous people every year.
“What we do is a calling,” Fred says. “If you go into music, and you truly love it, it’s something that can sustain you your whole life — it’s something very spiritual.”