Interview with Tom Kerstens

Tom Kerstens talks about the need for new commissions for guitar and the reason why he founded the G Plus project.

What is the problem with the guitar in contemporary western classical music?

For over one hundred and fifty years, the guitar has been languishing on the periphery, overlooked by composers and out of touch with mainstream developments. Solo classical guitar does not have the high quality repertoire available to other instruments. Nor, since ensembles grew louder during the 19th century, has the quiet voice of the guitar had much written for it. It is a highly idiomatic instrument and is difficult to write for if you are not a guitarist and do not know its qualities and limitations.
This situation has led to much new repertoire being written by guitarists, who are often not great composers – apart from exceptional cases, such as the multi-talented Leo Brouwer. The result tends to be what the Germans call ‘Gebrauchsmusik’, music that ‘falls under the fingers’; it is pleasant enough but lacks distinction. This does not help matters. The guitar needs a better solo and ensemble repertoire.

Who then can write for the guitar?

I soon learned that most established composers prefer not to write for the guitar, as rewards are higher if you write for orchestras or other ensembles and because it is not easy to write for the guitar. I was able to commission some leading composers, such as Howard Skempton, Giles Swayne, Terry Riley and Kevin Volans. However, I needed to adopt a fresh approach so I targeted talented young UK composers such as Joby Talbot, Errollyn Wallen, Philip Cashian, John Metcalfe and Graham Fitkin. I have been working with some of them for 10 years now. Like Julian Bream some decades ago, I am trying to help build a high quality repertoire, written by some of the best composers of the day, which will begin to give the guitar a place at the heart of classical and contemporary music. Most of my commissions have been from composers whose work I admire but who I did not know personally at the time and who may well not have written for the guitar before. In fact, I think it is an advantage because there is a bigger chance of coming up with something really original.

Is the landscape changing?

The need to create repertoire for the guitar is one of the great pleasures of contemporary music. It has led me to move beyond compositions for solo guitar and to consider the most suitable kind of ensembles. Happily, the availability of amplification helps the acoustic guitar to stand up for itself in noisier company.

I have commissioned work from composers who operate outside as well as within the classical world. This openness is also part of my campaign to get compositions for the guitar listened to by a much wider range of people than those who you would normally expect to attend a chamber recital in a concert hall.

The guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. However, informed interpretation, the essential characteristic of western classical music, is only possible if you have a repertoire of the highest quality to interpret. The gap between popular and classical guitar culture is huge and I have been eager to begin to bridge it, as well as to add to the range of contemporary music repertoire.


What draws you to these two composers?

It is no accident that the two composers featured on this first G Plus recording both come from a background that combines art rock and classical training. John Metcalfe, from New Zealand, was, in an earlier incarnation, the viola player for Manchester-based sonic adventurers Durutti Column and Joby Talbot was a key member of passionate ironists The Divine Comedy – both of them cult bands. Tom’s relationship with them over the years reflects his concern for creating music that is high quality, that can be listened to repeatedly and that may attract a wider than usual range of listeners.

Joby Talbot studied composition and has enjoyed a lively and increasingly successful career composing for television, movies and the concert hall. John Metcalfe came later in his career to composition; he plays viola with the Duke Quartet and has an insider’s understanding of the dynamics of chamber music composition. 

The exciting thing about composing for G Plus is that, as John Metcalfe says, it is purely about the music. In a culture where so much has already happened, how refreshing it is to see that composing for the guitar is still a new departure.

Interview by Tony Davis.