Interview 13: Daniel Oman

Interview 13: Daniel Oman

By Andrew Williams

My latest guitar interview is with a new recruit to the Bergmann Edition catalogue, Daniel Oman from Linz in Austria.  I sent Daniel a list of questions and topics and then we had a fascinating online conversation in which (like the answer to one of the questions below – read on) hours went by without me having the least sensation of time passing.  I hope you enjoy the result.

Daniel Oman

Andrew:  Hi Daniel.  I’ve looked at your Bergmann Edition page, your YouTube and your own website . You have a really interesting musical biography. 

As I understand it, you started out at the less classical end of the spectrum as a performer – although you studied classical and jazz guitar, I gather you were a performer/composer of acoustic fingerstyle?

You then went deeply into ancient and baroque music and historic stringed instruments, and have had a fantastic performing and recording career in that field.  Then there was contemporary music; and most recently jazz projects.

What do you think the balance of all these influences is in your own composing?

The influences come out in different ways.  I’ve always been curious as far as music is concerned, and I always loved to look at all the different styles that were going on, particularly in guitar playing – guitar is such a various instrument.

I started out playing and studying electric guitar and rock music. I had a great teacher who was widely known in Austria and an active gig player.  I left this style behind me long ago, but he was a great inspiration as someone who was able to make a living through music, with teaching and performing.

Next I turned to classical guitar and out of that I developed an interest in fingerstyle, with all the new techniques that were emerging at the time - tapping etc.

Then I became interested in early music.  It was great for me because I loved the tone of early instruments, and I began to play a little like a lute player – it had a great influence on my playing aesthetic. 

I have always wanted my musical life to be collaborative – working with people.  The attraction of early music initially was that I was able to play with a lot of good people in this field and learn from them.  I didn’t get into it through any process of formal study.  I learned by participating.  After four years in the conservatory I wanted to get away from studying in isolation, and go out and play – to break free from academia. Early music and jazz both provided plentiful opportunities to play in live settings. 

Where is your main focus now?  

I play a lot of gigs in Austria.  Much of it is in duo settings, either with my wife on piano, or with other players on saxophone or violin.  Then I’m involved in a bigger project with the Austrian Art Gang, a quintet playing the music of Bach and improvising. I also perform regularly with two early music ensembles, Austrian Baroque Company and Ars Antiqua Austria.

I am thinking of bringing my own solo music into ensemble settings in the near future and playing them live.

To play live regularly, and make a living from music, I have to be versatile enough to play in all these different contexts.

Although you perform in these different genres, do you also compose and/or arrange in the various styles involved?

I’ve never tried – when I write, I only write my own music, in my own style.  I don’t get commissions.  Perhaps I could write in a certain style if I was asked to - maybe in a jazz style, for instance.  Some things I write are quite jazzy. 

I don’t approach this like a commercial composer or arranger.  For me, guitar is so special and unique, you can spend a lifetime writing only for it. 

I play guitar every day, teaching, composing, and practising.  In fact, I don’t do a great deal of practice except for my own pieces and anything I will be playing in a concert.  I don’t sit and practise technique: I have to regulate my time, and composing takes such a lot of it.

You were obviously composing as a young man and a student, because directly after university you were performing your own works in concert and recording an album.  Tell us about that.

I was very young, and this was naïve of me. At the end of the 90s I had a programme of pieces I played regularly.  Although I performed them, they were not written down.  They started off in improvisations and then became fixed pieces. 

I made a CD in a recording studio and distributed it to friends.  In those days it wasn’t possible, like it is now, to produce high-quality recordings at home.  The studio was a magical place then. I’m finding now that everyone wants to go back to that analogue warmth of recording on tape.  People crave for artefacts of the past.  I still hope for a big CD revival and dream that all the CD stores will open again – I miss the stores where you can browse and buy them.

Your first composition published by Bergmann Edition is your Rainbow Suite, but I understand there are many more to come.  The Rainbow Suite could I think be broadly described as contemporary melodic fingerstyle guitar. Tell us first about the suite – the style or genre, any particulars about your approach.

That was first thing I did which turned out to be suitable for Bergmann Edition.  All the pieces were written in a month. 

Broadly, they are all about experiencing things in nature, and are inspired by the countryside. 

I wanted to put together something really immediate – good times inspired me to new ideas, and probably there were also some old phrases waiting for their time.  I wanted to capture it all in music very quickly.  It was not such a deep thing, more something celebratory. 

At that time didn’t know I was going to publish them.  I knew about Bergmann Edition, and contact came about through Marianne and Wolfgang Vedral and Angela Mair, who are fellow Austrians.  Putting my music ‘out there’ on social media is all relatively new to me; for the last two and a half years I’ve been uploading my compositions to YouTube and my own websites. 

I’d had one previous book published, which was done as a lockdown project.  The publisher advised me to use social media, which is how my YouTube channel came about. It is the modern good way to open up – we can now create an audience and community for our music in a way that was not possible 20 years ago.  You have to learn to not care to much about viewing figures, and just take the positive from having reached some others.

I had never engaged with social media, and I only started in order to put my compositions out into the world. I am not entirely comfortable with social media, but it serves a purpose for a composer – it can be the only practical way to get music heard.  I also hope in the long term that it might provide some new possibilities for appreciation/distribution of music, outside the old traditional music industry structure.

Do you have a particular favourite among your compositions?

I don’t think I am prouder of one piece than another – most of them are reflections of a certain time in my life.  Take for example my piece “Child on the Beach”: it’s an impressionistic piece with lots of tricky harmonics. When I hear it, I see and feel my experience from the time it was written.  My pieces are like snapshots or postcards.  

For me, my compositions are all like little treasures of mine, and I don’t want to judge their value against each other. 

I’m usually most focused on my new pieces, and don’t tend to play my old ones so much.  New stuff is so exciting all the time.  If there is older stuff I have to revive - to make a video, for example – I don’t enjoy the process as much as doing new things.

Will you be composing pieces in future specifically for publication in the Bergmann Edition catalogue?  What projects are you working on or planning at the moment?

I’ve just published a collection called Tales of the Guitar Garden.  The first four pieces have a quieter, reflective style.  For me, composition goes so much with life and my own experiences.  Like all my compositions, the pieces in this collection are snapshots of certain experiences and moments.  They carry very strong associations with the time of their composition. Essentially, they are like synthesising those experiences into another form..

This is the first book from a series which will be following soon.  There will also be some duets for two guitars in this series.

Guitar Garden is the name of my YouTube channel and website, and I’ve always loved the idea of the peace of the garden and ‘growing’ music. 

How much of your composing is aimed at your guitar students?

I arrange a lot for them; but my original compositions are also for me.  I let students and colleagues see them and they can play them if they wish but I don’t write specifically for them. 

I don’t have instinct for writing music specifically for pedagogical purposes.  I am not able to make it fit for a lot of people – I just write it to sound good to me. And some of my own pieces that I really like are not at all easy to play. 

What do you listen to yourself?  First, for guitar – what are your personal listening tastes?

I am a big fan of the ECM label – there are several guitarists such as Ralph Towner, Bill Frisell, Steve Tibbetts.  Lately also Jakob Bro.  These are musicians who create their own sound world, rather than being ‘traditional’ guitar players.

From the classical guitar repertoire, just to give you an idea, I like Sor, Tárrega (not just the really well-known things), and Brouwer (particularly the Estudios Sencillos). I’ve always loved Barrios.  I’ve listened a lot recently to Koshkin and Castelnuovo-Tedesco.  I have enjoyed a lot of Roland Dyens: he wrote some marvellous music for guitar, not just the few things everyone seems to play.  For example his beautiful series of ‘Lettres’.  I tend to be drawn to music by lesser-known composers and in a wide variety of genres.  I hear and enjoy a lot of new guitar music online through YouTube and social media.

And in other music, not specifically guitar.  What was the last thing you downloaded, for example?

I download and listen to a lot of music – as I said, not so much guitar music.  Most recently, an album by Steve Tibbetts; a young gypsy jazz guitar duo; Cole Porter’s ‘Silk Stockings’; Henry Mancini’s film score for “Hatari”; some jazz guitar music by Martin Taylor; and Oud music by Anouar Brahem (also on the ECM label).

I am also a big fan of Ravel, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. 

In composing for guitar, how do you feel these musical tastes influence your own style?

My own style is all a kind of melting pot of my own inner voice, and all the music I’ve played and listened to.  There are no conscious influences on my style, it is all just whatever emerges.  Currently, my wife’s jazz piano music must have an influence – we play it so much and I love it.

I see that like many of us you have embraced technology.   What sort of set-up do you have for recording and video?

I love the possibilities that technology offers now, that I didn’t have when I was younger.  For example, recording in great quality at home – we can now do our recording in a different, more creative way because we’re free of the pressure of money and studio time. 

I’m very into technology for music; I’m not a purist in any sense. I love to have it at my disposal, I enjoy learning it and using it.

I also use music notation programmes.  I’d even be interested in the technical development of such programmes.

Do you compose on guitar, or using a keyboard, or in your head?

I compose on guitar – I know the guitar well, and I can’t write without it.  Although I could write a duo completely in the notation programme and have done so.   I don’t use keyboards.  I have the guitar in hand, and I write notation on paper as I go along.  Sometimes if I have come up with a phrase or idea, I will record it on my iPhone. 

Do you know in advance exactly what you will write?

I don’t see the whole piece from beginning to end.  I hear a sound or style in my head, but not a whole work: I am aiming for a certain feel and trying to capture that.  So I never know in advance what I will write.  And I don’t write in typical forms such as waltz, minuet etc.  I wouldn’t start by saying ‘now I will write a Passacaglia in F major’.   It might come out sounding like a Passacaglia, but that rationalisation comes afterwards; it doesn’t lead the process.  

I consider myself a guitarist who writes guitar music, rather than a ‘composer’ in the sense of someone who writes music as a profession and can write a whole symphony on paper without hearing it out loud. 

Guitar is like a kind of ‘playground’ for me.  I will be playing – improvisation, free playing, experiment - and a pattern or a phrase will arrive through trial and error; and that may or may not be the start of a more extended composition.

But it’s all from the starting point of a style I love to play in – guitaristic patterns and licks, arpeggios.  I never experiment to produce anything that is uncharacteristic for guitar as an instrument. 

I’ve never lost my excitement and pleasure at picking up a guitar.

Do you ever give up on anything you’ve started writing?

99% of the time, if I start something I will finish it.  I really get into it, and I wouldn’t play something in the first place if I didn’t feel it was right for me.

I read that you’ve written a film score.  That must be a very different experience from a composing point of view.  Tell us how it came about, how you approached the task, and your thoughts on the end result.

I wouldn’t really describe it as a film score.  I had the opportunity to make music for a silent movie.  The University of Santiago de Compostela has a department dedicated to restoring old silent film.  I was given the chance to improvise some music for one of these films – not as a written score but as a musical accompaniment. I did the improvisation with an organist.  It was interesting as an experience, but it was just a very special one-off thing. 

In fact, I think I’d be a lousy film composer! Even with my guitar pieces, it isn’t till after a piece is finished that I know quite what I’ve captured.  That is why I never give my pieces titles until afterwards.  So, I don’t think I could create something so specific for the mood and tempo and exact duration of a scene in a movie.  Composing for me is outside ‘normal life’ – it isn’t something organised and deliberate but arises from a free creative source.

Have you, or do you intend to, write for instruments other than plucked strings?

It would be interesting, but always including the guitar. 

What does composing feel like, for you?

Music, and particularly composing, is meditative.  Having a way to find Inner peace is very necessary for me, because I tend to be too active. 

Twenty years ago, I could not have envisaged spending a whole evening on a single activity:  I was much more socially active them, but your priorities change as you mature.

Writing puts me into a different state of consciousness.  A state where hours can go by without any sensation of time passing.  A day can pass without me realising.

While I am writing I am focused uniquely on the music.  Ordinary everyday considerations and practicalities simply disappear.  I am thinking of what comes next in the music, and I have no thought of whether people will like it, or what benefit there might be for me or anyone else. It is an activity without any motivation outside itself.

I think it must be like the state some people can achieve through Zen or transcendental meditation – these things are not in our Western traditions and maybe I’d never achieve it through those means, but through music I can.  So, in a sense, success or otherwise in music – whether or not my music reaches other listeners - takes a step back, because music fulfils such an important function in providing inner peace.

You’re married to a musician.  Do you try your ideas out on her before they are finished – does she listen to or critique your work in progress? 

(Here I’m introduced to Daniel’s wife Mojca, who confirms that she hears him working out ideas on guitar, will encourage and support.)

Daniel: Yes, I will play her my things, and she can hear me working on them and will sometimes comment.  In my view, without love we can’t do anything.  Her encouragement, love and trust are vital for my creative processes.

I can’t think of a better note to end on.




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