Neil Beckmann is a classical guitarist dedicated to giving compelling performances of music both well established and unjustly ignored, and expanding the guitar’s repertoire in both solo and chamber settings through collaborating with composers and other artists to create experiences that reflect today’s world. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, he currently lives and works in New York City as a freelancer: commissioning new works for guitar, teaching, and performing in solo and chamber settings.
Hear Neil perform new and recent works by Tyler Eschendal, Daniel Harrison, Eve Beglarian, Salina Fisher, James Diaz, and Carolyn Chen at the Solo Soundbox concert on November 18 at 7 pm at the 21c Museum Hotel.
CSB: What initially drew you to new music and collaborations with composers, and when did this interest start?
NB: Among becoming mildly obsessed by Benjamin Britten’s only solo guitar piece and some exposure to other new guitar music, what drew me most into new music were my last two years of undergrad. I lived with two composers: Tyler Eschendal, who wrote a work on this program, and Sullivan Boecker, who is now again my roommate in New York. Living with them opened me up to so much music I had never heard and gave me a sounding board to ask them about music I didn’t understand. One piece that left a deep impact on me was Caroline Shaw’s Partita, which showed me that new music didn’t have to be abstract and dissonant and wildly experimental, and could also move me in a visceral way. This quickly opened me up to also being moved by more abstract, dissonant and wildly experimental music. I then started working with composers much more actively once I moved to New York. I was lucky enough to find a community at school of composers and performers who focused exclusively on playing new music. Playing guitar, it’s almost a necessity to work closely with composers, since often they’re mildly terrified of writing guitar. I’m more than happy to try to assuage their fears, since this close interaction with fellow musicians has been my favorite part of playing so much new music these last few years.
CSB: How do you personally approach learning a newly composed piece?
NB: Usually by asking lots and lots of questions. Depending on if the composer lives by me or not, I’ll meet, Skype or message them after I get the score and bombard them with all the preliminary questions I have. (This leaves out meeting with them before the piece gets written. In the case of Salina Fisher’s piece, we met for about 15 hours cumulatively before she wrote a note so she could learn about the possibilities of the electric guitar.) Once I get the score, the process isn’t too dissimilar from learning any other piece of repertoire. I go through and start to get an idea of fingerings, the shape of the piece, whether things need editing to be playable etc., and I’ll send another round of questions. I’ll also make an early recording to send to the composer for their thoughts if I can. Once the piece gets close to performance ready, I start playing it for friends as much as possible. I think more than most people, the first few times I perform any music I will inevitably do a very bad job, so I’ve learned that I need to get some nerves out by playing for friends (which for me can often be more nerve wracking than playing for strangers). After all this, I’ll probably have more questions, so I’m very thankful that all the composers on this program have been so helpful with all my (often late night) questions!
CSB: Who are some living composers and other new music interpreters who inspire and challenge you?
NB: George Crumb is one of my eternal new music loves. George Lewis, Reiko Füting, Paula Matthusen, Scott Wollschleger, Tyshawn Sorey, Du Yun, Wang Lu and Suzanne Farrin are all composers working in New York I’ve been into recently. Josh Modney recently released an incredible album of violin music written for him. Guitarists in various genres: James Moore does incredible work with a lot of experimental music; Mary Halvorson is a phenomenal jazz guitarist and bandleader; Dan Lippel and Oren Fader both do incredible work here in New York. And it sounds cliche, but my friends here also all do such incredible, adventurous, and compelling work that I’m constantly inspired by. More than any famous composers or performers, they’re the ones who keep me inspired and wanting to keep bringing new work to life.
CSB: What projects and concerts are on your horizon for this season and beyond?
NB: I’ll be playing James Diaz’ piece in Philadelphia in December. In January, I’m giving a concert in New York with the ever-inspiring Amber Evans, featuring Australian composers/performers and various guitar and voice rep. I’ll also be back in Cincinnati to play for the Cincinnati Classical Guitar Society on March 30. Looking into the future, I’m really interested in helping develop more new music for the electric guitar, and to keep playing music with friends.