Interview with Simon Farintosh
Simon Farintosh is an award-winning concert guitarist from Canada, and a teacher, composer and arranger. His music covers a broad palette, taking in jazz and electronica in addition to classical. As a composer he is relatively new to Bergmann Edition. Readers can see his bio at https://bergmann-edition.com/collections/farintosh-simon and visit his YouTube channel (recommended) at https://www.youtube.com/user/simonf5436/videos
- Tell me a little bit more about the classical education and training – first, what was your reason for embarking on it? Was it primarily with a view to a career as a concert player?
I spent my formative years in Victoria, BC, which is on the Southern tip of Vancouver Island, on Canada's West Coast. Fortunately, I didn’t need to leave my small hometown in order to receive world-class guitar instruction, and I was a student of the prodigious Dr. Alexander Dunn at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and the University of Victoria. I went on to complete a Master’s Degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I was a student of renowned Cuban virtuoso Rene Izquierdo. Both teachers gave me a very strong technical and musical foundation. I am now a student of Dr. Jeffrey McFadden at the University of Toronto, where I’m working on completing a Doctorate of Musical Arts Degree.
Music has always been my primary interest, and I can’t imagine being satisfied doing anything else. My drive has always been to become a concert player, although my focus has shifted to arranging, composing, and teaching since the pandemic took hold. With fewer performance options available, I have had more time to focus on the creative aspect of being a guitarist.
- When did you start composing for yourself (rather than as part of your education)?
I've always been a performance major in university, so I've never really been encouraged to compose. The performer-composer divide seems to be very pronounced in modern universities and conservatories, and the classical system seems to favour that separation. I only began writing my own material during the pandemic, largely thanks to an unprecedented amount of free time.
- You recently acquired an 8 string guitar. Are you intending to compose specifically for extended range guitars?
Yes, and I’ve just published a new piece for this instrumentation with Bergmann Edition. Several of the pieces I’ve written for standard guitar were written with the eight-string in mind, and it’s much easier to see what is possible now that the instrument is in my hands. The opportunities for repertoire expansion are vast, and I hope to build my identity as a performer, arranger, and composer on the eight-string.
- You are clearly still deeply into academic studies, having started on a doctorate. What is your focus with that? Have you decided on your main research area?
My research focus is on the history and application of extended-range guitars, particularly the eight-–string. Guitars with more than six strings have been in circulation for centuries, and there is a swath of high-quality nineteenth-century repertoire intended for guitars with additional bass strings. This music is seldom explored, and there is currently very little modern repertoire being generated for extended-range guitars. Seven and eight-string guitars are increasingly popular in other styles of music, and for good reason. My intention is to project eight-string classical guitar music into the public awareness, arrange repertoire by major composers, commission and compose new works for the instrument, and eventually write a method for eight-string classical guitar.
- I saw on your Instagram feed that you had moved to Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories. A relatively small city, just outside the Arctic Circle, surrounded by pristine wilderness… tell me a little about what takes you there and what your experience has been so far – including the music side of things.
My wife Ella graduated from nursing school right as the pandemic began, and happened upon a job posting looking for nurses to aid with vaccine rollout in the North. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her, and she fell in love with the area immediately. My school and work have been primarily online, so I had the flexibility to move up here a few months ago. The musical community in Yellowknife is small, but very strong. I have had no issues finding private students, as there aren’t many music teachers in this remote part of the country. My hope is to build a substantial private teaching studio and fill substitute teaching roles in the public school system when possible. The climate is harsh up here, but the friendly people and breathtaking scenery make it worthwhile!
- You’ve currently published a couple of things with Bergmann Edition – an arrangement of Scriabin and your own composition Moonlit Cove, from your ‘Seascapes’ sequence. Your YouTube channel has a very eclectic selection of music, including the rest of the ‘Seascapes’. I’d like to know a little more about them.
- You say you plan a digital release of this series. Do you see them as a suite for performance?
Yes, I am hoping to roll out the full digital release this Fall. I view each composition as fragmentary rather than being a part of a larger suite. They are unified by the oceanic theme and instrumentation, but the sequence in which they are presented is not especially important.
- Do you plan to publish the others? Tell me about your process in writing those pieces – what I’d like to know is: Does writing come easily to you, or is it a painstaking thing?
I plan to publish them all eventually. I find the notation and fingering process to be more frustrating and time-consuming than the process of composing, so I just tackle them one at a time. I haven’t had much of an issue coming up with melodies, phrases, or harmonic sequences, but the process of unifying these ideas as a cohesive whole is the biggest challenge for me. Because I have no formal training in composition, I rely solely on my own ear and musical instinct.
- How much external influence is there in your conception of a piece – for example would you start out on a composition thinking ‘I’m going to aim for that spacey Bill Evans feel’?
There is a considerable amount of external influence, but I think it is more subconscious than intentional. I spend about as much time listening as I do playing nowadays, so there are plenty of ideas drifting around in my head. Transcribing more music by ear has definitely sharpened my abilities in this regard. I do listen to a lot of Bill Evans, as well as Ralph Towner, who emulates Evans’ piano playing on the nylon-string guitar remarkably well. Composer-improvisors like Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau, and Nils Frahm are also an enormous influence.
- Were the pieces composed guitar in hand?
It is usually a bit of a mix. I tend to conceptualize ideas away from the guitar to avoid a cliche sound, often using a keyboard instrument or writing by hand. I try everything out on the guitar before making any final decisions, though. Occasionally I’ll discover a sound I like while improvising at the guitar, as was the case in some of these ‘Seascapes.’
- One thing I find very interesting in your writing and playing is the decoration. I can’t work out exactly what it is, but it’s unusual and very personal to you. It seems to come mainly from jazz, but then occasionally I hear something that could come from flamenco, and then something that wouldn’t be out of place in a Chopin nocturne. Is it all notated, or do you improvise these decorations in your performances? Is it something you’ve worked on and developed?
I’ve listened to a lot of romantic-era piano repertoire, as well as jazz, which has definitely informed my sense of decoration. These moments are usually improvised, and conceived upon actually trying out ideas on the guitar. For notational purposes, I write down all of the ornaments I use in the recorded version.
- I also read the interview you sent me about your Aphex Twin transcriptions [interviewer’s note – Aphex Twin was the nom de guerre of Richard D James, a pioneering artist in electronic and ambient music: Simon has produced a series of transcriptions/arrangements for classical guitar]. Has that project influenced the way you write your own music (and if so, how)?
Absolutely. Ambient/electronic music is what I listen to the most, and it is difficult to evade the influence of a figure as captivating as Aphex Twin. His repetitive, minimalist approach manifests in a few of my own works, such as the first of the ‘Seascapes.’ Along with Ravel’s Le Gibet, the darker, more atmospheric tracks from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II were a major influence for this piece. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAvdZuVhr98) Aphex Twin's music is not what I would call guitaristic, so it is compelling to see how it fits on the instrument and reimagine classics such as 'Flim' and 'Alberto Balsam' as guitar compositions.
- Finally, what are you working on right now?
My focus is currently on arranging romantic and impressionist piano music for solo eight-string guitar. This includes short preludes and character pieces by composers such as Grieg, Sibelius, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Debussy, and Satie, among others. I am also deeply interested in fusing popular music and Western art music, presenting songs by artists such as Radiohead in a manner suitable to the concert hall.
Video with Simon Farintosh playing Seascape no. 1 and no. 4: